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Wednesday, 14 May 2008
Page: 2829

Mr RAGUSE (12:47 PM) —Today I would like to talk about the Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (2007 Election Commitments) Bill 2008 but more about those within our community who do a lot of work and support veterans and others. Just as a little bit of a run-through of the bill itself, this is an election promise that has been delivered, providing more money for veterans and their families. In addition to the $6.34 billion this government will spend on compensation and income support pensions, this record veterans affairs budget provides $4 million for veteran mental health, focusing on the vital area of suicide prevention; $14.9 million over four years to ex-service organisations to boost their capacity to support the veteran community; and $20 million to secure the future of the historic Graythwaite estate in North Sydney and the provision of aged services provided by the RSL. This is in contrast to the previous government, who never funded their promises. Veterans did not have to wait for this budget to benefit from the change of government. Effective from 20 March, the veteran community received increased pensions for war widows, widowers and disability pensioners via fairer indexation—indexation of up to $1,045 each per year—increased carers payments of between $600 and $1,600 per carer and increased telephone and utilities allowance. The federal budget overall is a financially responsible budget. The bulk of veterans and war widows live on fixed incomes and therefore have a greater appreciation of the need to manage Australia’s inflationary pressures.

Mr Hunt —I have a question for the member, if that would be acceptable.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Will the member allow a question?

Mr RAGUSE —I am happy to take a question.

Mr Hunt —In light of the member’s concerns about price rises and impacts on veterans’ families, does the member for Forde support the increase in the age for the receipt of pensions for veterans’ partners from 50 years to 58½, an 8½-year increase overnight in the complying age?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member’s question must be brief. Thank you.

Mr RAGUSE —Madam Deputy Speaker, I would prefer to take that on notice and maybe provide more information. I am happy to have a discussion outside this session, and I will certainly take that on notice. I am happy to respond. I would certainly talk about some of your colleagues in opposition who were not in attendance at particular important events. I am going to talk about that a little bit and then we can talk about some of the financial concerns that you may have.

This is a Rudd government initiative and we have delivered on our election commitment as we promised, and detail has been provided by the other speakers. I really want to pay tribute today to those who have supported the veterans—not only their spouses, who finally have received some benefit for their sacrifices, but many of the community groups like the RSL and other veterans associations who have worked in the background. Without their support and representation, we would not have been able to direct the best benefits to those veterans and their families.

In the electorate of Forde—and that is probably my major concern—we have a large number of returned service men and women. Of course, the measures in our record budget—currently the measures benefit only 400 people—will provide a benefit to 1,400 veterans of campaigns and their families. The electorate of Forde, as I have said, has a large number of people and a large number of community organisations that support those veterans. I was privileged to represent the Prime Minister at a function on the Gold Coast on the weekend to commemorate the Battle of the Coral Sea. It was well attended. The American consul general was there representing the American President and he spoke on behalf of the President. I delivered the Prime Minister’s address and we also had a response from the captain of the USS Cleveland, which is currently in Brisbane. Interestingly enough, while I am not the member for that area, the members of the three Gold Coast seats were invited but none of them saw fit to actually attend the ceremony. Yes, they may have had other pressing engagements, but it was a little bit obvious and concerning to those who had organised the event and who have had a very good relationship with both sides of government that, as a representative of the government, I was the only one there, when the function was not in my electorate.

Putting that aside, I would like to comment on those in the community of Forde who have supported veterans for a long time. A lot of these changes have been made not simply because we understood overnight that there was concern but because of those within the community organisations—the RSL and veterans groups. I particularly mention a number of people: from the Beenleigh RSL, Tom Childs and Richard Hetherington; Joe Mulders from the Tambourine RSL; and from another community organisation, RSL veterans’ affairs, Bill Meiers and Gaven Thurlow, who work with the Vietnam vets. These are people who have shown a lot of concern and have been frustrated for many years that government was not listening to them. During the election campaign we found, as our election commitments have proved, that there was a huge need. As I said earlier, as early as March this year we provided changes that led into this budget round.

I would also like to reflect on my own personal experiences. My grandfather, who died in the early seventies, was a Gallipoli veteran. Of course, the government of the day did not see fit to provide the sorts of benefits that we are providing now. I know that it was very, very difficult for my family. My grandfather was highly decorated, but that came at a huge personal sacrifice to his family and he was never given any recognition. Likewise, my other grandfather, who was a veteran of the Somme, was tragically killed in the 1960s in a motor car accident that left my grandmother quite devastated financially and otherwise.

It is clear that we can send people off to war—and the other side of government seems to have more of a penchant for that than we do—but on their return it is about looking after our veterans and their families. As the Prime Minister said in parliament yesterday, it is the families that make a lot of the sacrifices. Not only do they lose a family member to a campaign but also on their return they confront other issues. As I said, I have been involved with members of our local RSLs for some time and it is quite terrible to see people who have served their countries not getting the sort of support that we are now providing in our budget.

To hark back to the commemoration of the Battle of the Coral Sea that I attended on the weekend, that battle has a particular interest for me. I grew up in a family in which, while I had no military service myself, both my mother and my father had served in the Second World War. My mother in fact was in the Women’s Air Force and was stationed in Townsville. She was actually landside when the Battle of the Coral Sea was occurring. She was a spotter and a plotter of enemy aircraft.

Up until about five years ago, the government would not recognise her service or the service of other females who served landside in those battles. They had to declare, finally, that Townsville was a battle zone. She is now 87 and doing very well, but in her early 80s she was told that she could not have benefits that other veterans may have had. It was the RSL that came on board and supported the changes that we have made in this legislation, which will certainly go a long way to resolving those issues.

In terms of the advocacy that the RSL and other organisations provide, I would certainly like to pay special tribute to Noel Payne, who works in my electorate. Noel Payne served in the Royal Navy from 1965 to 1975. With all that previous service, Noel has been an advocate for people who have issues with government pensions and entitlements. I suspect that, after our legislative changes, Noel may not have as much work to do in that advocacy process because a lot of the issues he was fighting for are now looked at and considered in our bill. Noel was awarded an OAM for his services because, as I said, he has given a lot of time and commitment to this. Being a returned service person himself, and with legal training, he understands the issues and is able to advocate for people who have not been considered within previous legislation and payments.

As I said, my family were involved in the military for a number of generations. So it is good for me to be part of this government and the consideration of this bill and its changes in the House. I would like to close by saying that it is an issue that we have considered long and hard. Community organisations within the seat of Forde will be applauding this particular change. For those reasons, I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Dr Kelly) adjourned.

Sitting suspended from 12.58 pm to 3.59 pm