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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4622


Mr GRIFFIN (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs) (6:40 PM) —in reply—I will pick up on some comments of a couple of the earlier speakers, including my friend the member for Hinkler, a little bit later on. I will not hold up the House for too long, because I know that there is more legislation to be dealt with.

I will start off by making some general comments about the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (International Agreements and Other Measures) Bill 2008. This bill makes a number of amendments to Veterans’ Affairs portfolio legislation which will improve the operation of Australia’s repatriation system. The bill contains amendments that will further align the veterans entitlements means tests with the social security means test, provide greater flexibility in our arrangements with other countries, correct a number of minor errors in the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and extend the eligibility period for Commonwealth and Australian Federal Police under the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act 2006. The bill also makes a number of technical and consequential amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

Greater flexibility in our international agreement arrangements will be achieved by enabling the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs to enter into arrangements with other countries and removing the current restriction that limits the Repatriation Commission to providing the same benefits to a veteran that they would be entitled to receive in their own country. The removal of this restriction will enable eligible overseas veterans to be provided with the care and assistance to which they are entitled and in a way that is consistent with repatriation healthcare arrangements.

The bill also authorises the use of the Consolidated Revenue Fund for the initial payment of benefits and assistance to eligible overseas veterans and their dependants who are resident in Australia. These amounts are later reimbursed, to the maximum extent possible, by the respective foreign governments. The Repatriation Commission has a number of agreements to act as the agent for other countries in providing pensions and health services to over 6,300 eligible persons.

Minor changes to the income and assets tests will further align the VEA with the social security income and assets tests. Changes to coverage for nuclear test participants will extend the period for which Commonwealth or Australian Federal Police officers may be considered to be a nuclear test participant for the purposes of the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act 2006. This act provides treatment, including testing, for malignant neoplasia, more commonly known as cancer, suffered by eligible participants in the British nuclear testing program conducted at three locations in Australia, including Maralinga. The act already covers Commonwealth or Australian Federal Police officers who patrolled the Maralinga nuclear test area up until 30 April 1965. Scientific evidence indicates that the nature of police duties meant that these officers may have been exposed to possible contamination at this site until 1988, when a radiation safety monitoring program began. This bill will extend assistance for nuclear test participants to include Commonwealth Police or AFP officers who entered the Maralinga nuclear test area up until 30 June 1988. Finally, minor changes to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act will ensure that widowed partners and incapacitated members receive the correct compensation payments to which they are entitled under the MRCA.

We came to government with a commitment to provide robust services and support to Australia’s ex-service community. That commitment includes continuing to review the operation of Australia’s repatriation and military compensation and rehabilitation systems. This legislation will strengthen support in a number of areas to ensure that the assistance available through the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio is efficient, effective, equitable and fair.

I commend the bill to the House and I note that, overwhelmingly, speakers on both sides of the House have been positive about what is actually in the bill—although I need to pick up on a couple of issues that were raised by my colleague the member for Mackellar, the shadow minister. I think a couple of points need to be made with respect to aspects that relate to the act. Firstly, the shadow minister had in her possession a document which she used with great interest to suggest that there was a grand conspiracy at work. She quoted from the document with respect to what the impact would be on a reservist in a particular set of circumstances, and suggested that what we were dealing with here was a savings measure of some significance. I need to set the record straight there. If you read the same document, a bit further down the page it says, ‘Minor savings in the vicinity of $25,000 per year may result from this measure.’ That is what we are talking about, and it is minor.

The explanatory memorandum says:

The measures in the Bill are expected to have a negligible financial impact.

Frankly, $25,000, out of a budget of some $11.59 billion, is negligible by any stretch of the imagination. I remind the House that legislation is often passed—and it was very often passed by the previous government—where the explanatory memorandum says ‘the measures in the bill are expected to have a negligible financial impact’. When you go to the detail of those bills, and there have been many of them, you find that there was in fact some financial impact, but it was negligible. The suggestion that this is a misleading basis for continuing with this legislation, and that in fact some secret information on the nature of this bill was provided to the ALP caucus, is stretching it an awfully long way.

Another point made by the shadow minister, and it is a recurring theme, was that there be support for the system of Veterans’ Affairs, for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and for veterans, and that we ensure that veterans do not have to deal with the social security system. By and large, I agree with the shadow minister that that is what the aim should be. But I would like to go to the terms used in the explanatory memorandum. It states:

Schedule 1 also amends the VEA to further align the Veterans’ entitlements means test with the social security means test …

This is apparently the basis for why there are great dramas with the operation of these changes and the impact they have. Again, it is a standard term that is used. It was used in a range of legislation over the last decade by the previous government when dealing with similar matters. Go back over the last 10 years and check any legislation you like with respect to amending legislation in the area of Veterans’ Affairs and you will find those terms used on a regular basis. Putting that to one side, I endorse the comments of the shadow minister on the basis that we too support a system where veterans get a fair deal. It should be their system and they should be treated in a beneficial fashion. That is what we have done and will continue to do with respect to these particular changes.

I could go into a wider discussion about issues around the budget, but we will be doing that at other times. Unlike some speakers, I will stick roughly to what the bill is about. But I will just say again that we are talking about an $11.59 billion budget. It is a record. It builds on the work of the last few years, which builds on the work of the years before that. It recognises yet again that the significance and importance of our veteran community is there for all to see and we should support it. We do support it and we will continue to support it.

I note that the member for Hinkler is still here. I congratulate him on having previously taken a stand on things like the Clarke review. I agree with him that there are other issues that still need to be looked at. This government was committed during the election and is committed during its term to doing exactly that. The previous government did not. The previous government said that, as far as they were concerned, it was over and nothing more was being done. I note the comments of the shadow minister. He made a vague mention of nuclear issues—and there may be other issues to consider there.


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


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. KJ Andrews)—Is the minister willing to give way?


Mr GRIFFIN —Yes.


Mr Neville —Thank you. Would you undertake to look into the cases of those veterans I mentioned—Australians who have served in other spheres, especially people like Mrs Vint?


Mr GRIFFIN —I am happy to do that. The member for Hinkler has raised an interesting point. The thing that is most fascinating about this job is that there are always new issues coming up that need to be looked at, although they often prove to be too difficult to deal with. I am happy to look at this issue. I am amazed that it has not been raised with me before. Although I have been the minister for only a few months, I was the shadow minister for the best part of a term, so I am surprised by that. My understanding is that there were some domiciliary issues related to what Clarke said in his report. We have made a commitment to look at the recommendations from the Clarke report that were not accepted by the previous government, and it may well come up through that. But I certainly undertake to look at this on behalf of the member for Hinkler and I will get back to him as soon as I am able to do so.


Mr Neville —I would be happy to make a submission.


Mr GRIFFIN —If we go ahead on that basis, we would be happy for that to occur. My point beyond that is that essentially I want to assure the House that this legislation is in keeping with legislation over the years that has maintained the integrity of the veterans entitlements system. The government will continue to maintain the integrity of the veterans entitlements system. We are acting on the commitments we made at the election and through this budget, where we have continued down that track to a record level of $11.59 billion. I look forward to implementing more of our commitments over the following 12 months and to ensuring that I do everything I can to make sure that the veterans community in this country are considered special and treated as they should be.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.