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Wednesday, 14 May 2008
Page: 2825

Mr MARLES (12:31 PM) —I rise to support the Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (2007 Election Commitments) Bill 2008. This bill is about extending three entitlements which currently exist for the veterans community. First and foremost, this is a bill which is about honouring the commitments that Rudd Labor made in the lead-up to the 2007 election. This represents the mantra of this government: what we took to the election, the promises we made in that election, will be what we ultimately do when we are in government—and what we are doing in government. There is no distinction on this side of the House between a promise which is described as a core promise, and a non-core promise. If it is a promise that has been taken to the election, if it is a promise upon which people voted at that election, then that forms part of the mandate of the government and that mandate will be fulfilled.

This stands in stark contrast to the manner in which the previous government operated in the implementation of the Work Choices legislation. It was the single biggest piece of legislation in the last term of that government and yet not a word about it was breathed in the 2004 election, which gave rise to that term of government. What we now see with the Rudd government is a very different way of operating. It will act upon the promises it takes to an election and make sure that they form the heart of the program the government then implements.

In this bill we have two entitlements that it is estimated will apply to only about 23 families each. Despite that, it was a promise that we took to the election and it is a promise that we now fulfil. One of the extensions to the entitlements contained in this bill is estimated to cost only about $100,000. But it was a promise we took to the last election and it is a promise that we will fulfil in government.

Turning to the bill, there are three extensions to the entitlements which currently exist in the veterans community. The most significant of those in terms of the number of people that will be affected is contained in schedule 2 of the bill. This represents an extension of the income support supplement which is paid to war widows and war widowers. Right now, war widows and war widowers receive the income support supplement if they have attained the qualifying age of 60 for men or 58½ for women and if they have a dependent child, if they are permanently incapacitated as defined under section 45AA of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 or if they are the partner of a person in receipt of certain pensions.

This list of criteria, which is the basis for receiving the income support supplement at the moment, is both outdated and unfair. It is creating a level of injustice within the veterans community. This bill and this particular extension to the existing entitlement will extend the income support supplement to those widows and widowers who are under the current entitlement age and who have no dependants. Effectively what that does is remove these outdated and unfair criteria which exist at present. This will therefore have the effect of making all war widows and all war widowers eligible for the income support supplement. This will particularly help younger war widows and widowers, and it will obviously help them deal with their bereavement as a result of the death of their loved one and adjust to what will then become a very different life. It is estimated that this extension to the entitlement will apply to 1,400 new families in the veterans community—1,400 families who are currently not receiving that income support supplement. It is a fairer way of applying that entitlement and it is a far more modern way of applying that entitlement.

There are two other extensions to existing entitlements which are smaller in the number of people that will be affected but which are just as significant in terms of the impact that they will have upon those people. The first is contained in schedule 3 of the bill and it involves extending the current bereavement payment. At present there is currently a bereavement payment paid to widows and widowers of veterans which is equivalent to 12 weeks of the disability pension. This is obviously paid with a view to helping defray the costs of funeral expenses and, indeed, with the immediate adjustment to life after the death of their partner. What this extension will do is provide the bereavement payment to the estates of veterans who die in indigent circumstances—that is, veterans who die in circumstances where their estate is unable to cover their costs. In such circumstances at the moment, often the funeral expenses for such veterans are being covered by extended family. By extending this entitlement to veterans who die in indigent circumstances, it will provide significant relief to the extended families of those veterans. It is important to note that that will be a tax-free payment.

The final extension of an entitlement which currently exists is the extension of the automatic grant of the war widow and war widower pension. At present, war widows and war widowers whose partner was in receipt of certain pensions immediately prior to their death are automatically granted the war widow or war widower pension. What this extension will do is add to that list of pensions—which is the basis of that criteria—two additional pensions, which therefore extends the criteria. We will then have a situation under this bill where war widows or war widowers will automatically be granted that pension if their partner was a veteran who, immediately prior to their death, was in receipt of the temporary special rate disability pension and the intermediate rate disability pension—again, an important extension for those families. Each of these entitlements will become available from 1 July 2008—that is, this year. Taken as a whole, this represents a package which will significantly improve the amount that is paid to the veteran community. It represents the high esteem in which the veteran community is held by the Rudd Labor government.

There is no place where that esteem is held higher than in my electorate in the city of Geelong. There is a resurgent interest in Geelong, as indeed there is I think around Australia, in Australia’s military history, in those who have served in Australia’s military and in honouring our veteran community. Geelong’s military history is perhaps best exemplified in the person of Albert Jacka. Albert Jacka, of course, is famous for being Australia’s first Victoria Cross winner in the First World War. Albert Jacka was born in Winchelsea in the Geelong region and was raised there. He was born in 1893. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, the AIF, on 8 September 1914 and was then assigned to the 14th Battalion 4th Brigade of the 1st Division of the AIF.

He arrived in Egypt on 31 January 1915, along with thousands of other Australians who for the first time were seeing a much wider world and who were engaging in what they thought was to be their great life adventure—and, of course, for many, that is what occurred. Albert Jacka went on to fight at Gallipoli and, in an extraordinary confrontation with two of his comrades, he was involved in an engagement with the enemy in open ground where he reclaimed a position which is known as Courtney’s Post. For that he won the Victoria Cross—as I said, the first Victoria Cross that was won by an Australian in the great war. His citation read:

On 19/20 May 1915, at “Courtney’s Post”, Gallipoli, Turkey, Lance Corporal Jacka, while holding a portion of our trench with four other men, was heavily attacked. When all except himself were killed or wounded, and the trench was rushed and occupied by seven Turks, Lance Corporal Jacka most gallantly attacked them single handed, killing the whole party, five by rifle and two with the bayonet.

It is said that when Albert Jacka’s commanding officer came to the trench shortly after that engagement he found Albert Jacka sitting there calmly amongst the dead with a cigarette in his mouth and he simply said, ‘I managed to get the beggars, Sir,’ which, in a sense, is a very laconic statement of the Australian character—an Australian character which has very much been defined by the actions of our servicemen in conflict.

From there, Albert Jacka went on to serve in Europe throughout the First World War. In May 1918 he was injured. He suffered a gassing and an injury to his trachea. It was felt at the time that he would not survive but he did, and he returned to Australia in September 1919. Albert Jacka went on to become the mayor of St Kilda. He died in 1931 because, it is thought, of his war wounds, and he was buried in the St Kilda Cemetery.

I take you through that story partly because it is the description of Geelong’s greatest military hero, but it is also worth remembering that in the person of Albert Jacka, a person who died very prematurely, really, at the age of 38, of war wounds, we had somebody who, even with such a short life, spent most of his life as a veteran. Albert Jacka won his Victoria Cross at the age of 22. He came back to Australia at the age of 26, but he spent most of his adult life as a veteran—a veteran suffering a wound that he had incurred in the service of his nation. It speaks volumes about the life that those who have served our country experience and how important it is that we provide for veterans in our community and honour their legacy and the service they have given. Of course, this bill is very much aimed at doing that.

In Geelong we have a significant veterans community. It was my great privilege earlier this year, on 4 March, to participate in a local flag-raising ceremony. The flag that previously existed at this particular place had become tatty and they wanted a new Australian flag, so it was a great honour for me to participate in a flag-raising ceremony with Rodney Meeke, the President of the Geelong RSL, at the RSL Village Geelong in Bell Park. It was a wonderful occasion. The RSL Village Geelong in Bell Park is a very significant institution for providing support to veterans. There are veterans who live there who have fought in a number of conflicts in Australia’s history dating back to World War II. At the RSL Village Geelong in Bell Park I had the real honour of meeting Ed Patterson, a veteran of the Kokoda campaign. As I stood in his kitchen, I listened enthralled as he told stories of the conflict that occurred on the Kokoda Track and his experiences there, and I felt incredibly honoured that a person of his service—a person who had participated in such an important moment in our country’s history, at such an important moment in defining both the identity and the independence of our country—was living amongst us. I think that the sense of honour that I felt in being in the presence of Ed Patterson is reflected, I believe, in the renewed sense that we see across Australia in commemorating the service that our veterans have given but also celebrating them within our community now.

I think we have seen that in the resurgence in the number of people who have participated in Anzac Day ceremonies, and that of course occurred in Geelong last Anzac Day. Lots of veterans—and not only veterans but people from the whole community in Geelong—participated in the various Anzac Day ceremonies that occurred last month. In the pre-dawn service at Johnson Park, which is the main park in the centre of Geelong, it was estimated that the attendance was up by 25 per cent on the previous year, and indeed that previous year had had a record attendance. At the mid-morning service at 11.30 am in Johnson Park, which is the service that attracts the largest number of people in Geelong, there were 7½ thousand people participating in that event, an incredible number really. I had the honour of being at that event and sitting on the stage and being able to see that whole crowd in front of us. Again it was estimated that that represented a 15 per cent increase on the previous best turnout.

There is a really significant phenomenon that is going on in Geelong, and of course going on across Australia, in terms of the people who are participating in these events. I think what it says is that people are searching for an identity in the events that have occurred in our military history, and that is rightly so because our military history has gone a long way to defining the character of our country. It is therefore very important to understand the role that our veterans have played in contributing to the character and the identity of our nation. Of course, that is a character and an identity which we in the Rudd Labor government, and I am sure those on the other side, are very much keen to celebrate and honour. What this bill represents is an attempt at doing that—at making sure that the package of this suite of entitlements is improved for veterans—and in doing that we honour the legacy of their service and we place the veterans in an appropriate position of respect within our community.