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Wednesday, 14 May 2008
Page: 2822

Ms HALL (12:11 PM) —At the outset of my contribution to this debate, I would like to acknowledge the contribution that veterans have made to our community, to our country and to our nation over the years. Without their contribution Australia would not be the country it is today and we would not enjoy the quality of life or the lifestyle that we do in this country. Each and every member on this side of the House acknowledges that contribution and the sacrifices that veterans have made for our nation over the years.

It is because we are so aware of the contribution that veterans have made to Australia over such a very, very long time that this government has provided a record amount of spending on veterans in this year’s budget. In fact that record amount of spending is $11.5 billion. I know it makes all members of the Rudd government proud to stand up in this place and say: ‘We have delivered to the veterans. We have delivered to the veterans community. We haven’t ignored them because they are old and frail. We’ve acknowledged the fact that their contribution is worthy of our recognition by financially supporting them.’

This bill contains three measures that were part of our 2007 election commitments. Once again I would like to emphasise to the House that the Rudd government is about delivering on our election commitments. We do not make a commitment and then turn our back on it. We deliver. We said that we would deliver to veterans and that is exactly what we are doing. This bill extends the income support supplement to war widows and widowers under the qualifying age without dependants. It extends the disability pension bereavement payments with respect to single veterans or members in receipt of the special rate or extreme disablement adjustment pension who die without sufficient assets to pay for a funeral. There is an automatic grant of war widows or widowers pensions to widows or widowers of veterans or members in receipt of the temporary special rate or intermediate rate disability pension immediately before their death. As I have said, these were commitments to the veteran community, and they are commitments we have delivered on.

The extension of the income support supplement to war widows and war widowers under the qualifying age without dependants is very important. It will benefit approximately 1,400 widows or widowers under the VEA and wholly dependent partners under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 who are under that pension age and currently are not entitled to income support. We recognise that this is a vital change, something that will really help those widows and widowers. The measure removes the requirement for war widows or widowers to be over the pension age, have a dependent child, be permanently incapacitated or be the partner of a person receiving an income support pension. Payment of the income support supplement on the grounds of permanent incapacity will be retained in order for incapacitated war widows or widowers and wholly dependent partners who are under the pension age to continue to access their income support supplement as a tax-free payment. This provides additional support for younger war widows or widowers and wholly dependent partners during that postbereavement period. Members of this parliament would be very aware of just how hard it is for a younger widow or widower to come to terms with the loss of their partner, and we are recognising this in this legislation.

Mr Hunt —Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr S Georganas)—Is the honourable member seeking to ask a question?

Mr Hunt —I am indeed.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Will the Government Whip accept the question?

Ms HALL —Most definitely; I welcome it.

Mr Hunt —In the light of the member’s concerns about younger spouses of veterans, does she support the proposal which will extract $35 million in payments to veterans’ spouses by increasing the qualifying age announced last night from 50 to 58.5 years of age?

Ms HALL —The member asks a very good question. In answering this, I would have to point out to the member that this is a responsible budget. This is a budget that is attacking the problems that have been created by the Howard government. It is making some hard decisions. The Howard government did not deliver in any shape or form to veterans, and this is a financially responsible budget. In this budget, as the member identified, there is a reduction in eligibility for the partner service pension, and the change will take effect in July 2008. This change was made in response to broader community expectations that people should be participating in paid employment. That is something that the previous Howard government championed, to the extent that I had coming to my office on a regular basis women with disabled children who had to jump through hoops in order to get a Newstart payment. It was something that the Howard government pursued mercilessly during their time in government. That proposal is only expected to affect around 400 people; the legislation we are debating here today will benefit 1,400 people.

It is interesting that the member jumps up and becomes a champion for these people now, when the Howard government constantly attacked the most vulnerable people in the community on a regular basis. I must say I have not seen the member championing disadvantaged people in this parliament; rather, I saw him and his colleagues standing up in the House when they were in government and introducing and speaking to the most draconian legislation, which had the most enormous impact on vulnerable people in our community.

I would say to the member, in answer to his question, that I find it the height of hypocrisy that he would stand up here today and try to fault a budget that provides record spending on veterans of $11.59 billion. I thought that the member would be celebrating the increase in money to the veterans community rather than picking up on one small area where there has been a reduction, which is in line with the overall community expectation that people participate in the paid workforce wherever possible rather than call on taxpayer funded income support. This is a member who has time and time again voted for legislation that has attacked the most vulnerable people in our community. I think he should hang his head in shame.

Whilst I am talking about this budget, I would like, for the benefit of the member opposite, to go through a little bit of what is in it. I feel he needs to be enlightened. He needs to learn about the enormous respect for and contribution to the veteran community of the Rudd government. At the same time as we are delivering to the veterans community we are dealing with the inflation and the problems that have been created by the previous government, so we have had a pretty hard job to do. We have had to look after those people in the community that look to government for support but at the same time to clean up the mess that was left behind. This $11.5 billion budget for veterans’ affairs includes $6.34 billion in compensation for income support pensions and $4.87 billion in funding for health and health services. That is very important when you have an ageing population, and our veteran population is an ageing population. It is particularly vulnerable and needs to be able to rely on health and health services. Under the previous government there were enormous problems with accessing health services for veterans. At one stage, because of the underfunding by the previous government, many doctors refused to accept the gold card because the government of the day had eroded the value of it. I am sure that the member opposite welcomes that $4.87 billion in funding for health and health services.

The Rudd government is also delivering on its election promise to restore the value of veterans compensation. It is very important for veterans that are relying on that compensation. It is very important for the member opposite and for all of us to remember that the bulk of veterans and war widows live on fixed incomes and therefore have a greater appreciation of the need to manage Australia’s inflation. As members would know, when you are on a fixed income and you have to pay more for food and more for fuel, it gets harder and harder each day. The challenges are enormous. You have to make decisions about whether to put petrol in the car to drive to the doctor or to put food on the table or about whether or not you can afford to pay for medicines, to visit your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren or to buy any luxuries at all. We understand how vitally important it is to our veteran community to get rid of the inflationary pressures that are a legacy of the previous government.

This budget includes $3 million over three years to help ensure all veterans have access to the support available through Operation Life regardless of where they live in Australia. The budget also includes $20.2 million to carry through the government’s commitment to secure the future of the historic Graythwaite estate in North Sydney and for the provision of aged care services through New South Wales RSL. The provision of aged care services and the commitments made in the budget in relation to aged care services are vital for our veterans community. I am sure all members, particularly those on this side of the House, recognise just how important they are to the veterans community. Ex-service organisations across Australia will now have access to additional financial assistance for their work supporting the veterans community. Without that support by those RSL welfare officers, those working in the RSL assisting veterans—and I thank them enormously for the work they do—the veterans community would be a lot poorer and would be gravely disadvantaged. Those organisations will also be able to access additional funds through the BEST and TIP programs.

These are vital programs. Total additional funding of $14.9 million is being made available over four years, and that includes in 2007-08. There is $6.9 million over three years. That is for those programs. The Rudd government has recognised the role that many veterans play in caring for sick and elderly partners. That is why we have allocated the carers payment, the carers budget bonus, for people on carers allowance and people who are carers who receive a service pension. Some of those people will be receiving up to $1,600. That is in recognition of their contribution. There has also been the change to the utility allowance earlier this year. I think what all this really demonstrates is the commitment of the Rudd government to veterans.

This legislation also provides for an extension of the disability pension bereavement payments. The bereavement payment will be extended under the VEA to the estate of a single recipient—that is, a person who is single; who is in receipt of a special rate, an extreme disability adjustment rate of the disability pension; who dies in indigent circumstances. What that really means is that, if you are a veteran in receipt of one of those benefits and the value of your estate is not sufficient to cover all your liabilities, including your funeral expenses, then that will be taken care of. I think that is very important. These measures are intended to support families of veterans towards meeting the cost of funerals where the deceased dies without sufficient assets to pay for the funeral. I do not think there would be a person in this place who would like to see one of our veterans unable to be buried and put to rest in the manner in which they deserve. Those veterans have been out there, have fought for our country and have contributed to our nation. As I said at the commencement of my contribution to this debate, their contribution has been enormous. The least that we can do is give them a good send-off.

The payment will be made to the estate of the deceased veteran. This measure is expected to commence on 1 July 2008. The bereavement payment consists of a one-off payment of 12 weeks worth of the special rate of the EDA rate of disability pension. It is estimated that the measure will benefit around eight special rate and 15 EDA single pension families per year. That, I think, is worth while.

The legislation also extends the automatic grant of war widow or war widower pensions. The VEA provides for the automatic granting of war widow or widower pensions to the widows or widowers of certain classes of disability pensioners, such as those receiving the TPI or the EDA. The measure extends the automatic grant to partners of deceased veterans or members who were receiving the temporary special rate or the disability pension under the VEA. The aim of this measure is to provide some peace of mind to these veterans and their families. The measure will commence on 1 July. These measures provide war widows and widowers access to the support supplement and the gold card for treatment. It is expected to benefit approximately 23 war widows or widowers per year. Once again, it is something that is going to improve circumstances for our veterans.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest to the member opposite that he should really think carefully before he raises issues about the Rudd government’s treatment of our veterans. The Rudd government has increased the commitment to our veterans enormously. He should hang his head in shame when he thinks about the way the government he was part of attacked the most vulnerable people in our community. (Time expired)