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Thursday, 14 May 2009
Page: 4006


Mr NEUMANN (11:14 AM) —I rise to speak in support of the Defence Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2009. This bill has two parts. The first part deals with unfortunate happenings overseas in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Timor in which our men and women in the military might be involved and other spheres of military activity Australia may engage in in the future. The second aspect deals with defence home ownership and assistance given to men and women who served in the military, in the reserves and in the permanent forces. As someone whose electorate contains the RAAF base at Amberley, I am keenly interested in issues of defence and particularly in how we can help the men and women who serve our country both overseas and domestically and protect our shores—whether in the air, on land or by sea. The RAAF base at Amberley has 9FSB as well, an Army battalion, but also is getting another construction battalion as the base continues to expand. These types of things are very important to my constituents, and that is why I am pleased to speak on them.

The first aspect of the bill deals with the Defence Act 1903 and introduces a discretionary tactical payment scheme, TPS, to provide a new mechanism for making timely or expeditious no-liability payments to persons adversely affected by Australian Defence Force operations outside of Australia. We have, in Australian law systems of no liability, compensation in WorkCover and workers compensation and ex gratia payments in circumstances where people have been victims of crime. So it is common in Australian law for people to receive payments where they suffer injury, illness or damage in circumstances where there is no actual liability admitted or agreed to in the circumstances. The concept of a no-liability payment is not at all foreign to Australian law. As someone who has practised as a litigation lawyer, particularly in areas of personal injuries and crime, I am familiar with these types of compensation. Many times I have stood before medical tribunals on workers compensation matters and argued cases in relation to matters where people were injured at work. I am familiar with that.

I am very pleased the government has done this. Our men and women in Afghanistan and other places are fighting to protect our rights and our liberties. The challenges our forces face against Islamic fascism in places like Afghanistan are incalculable; the challenges are dreadful and they put their lives on the line all the time. We saw 20 million Russians killed in World War II. Many were civilians who were innocent of any involvement in communism, fascism or any kind of activity at all. They were killed in those circumstances. In Vietnam many men and women were injured through no fault of their own; they were entirely innocent of the events. There are things that happen which are totally unintended. They are tragic to the families. They might destroy an individual’s livelihood; they might destroy the capacity of an individual to live the kind of functional life that we accept as normal. Particularly in Third World countries, damage to property or injury where there is not a compensation scheme and not the medical treatment and help that we in a First World country think is appropriate is devastating to the lives of families. In a lot of cultures there is an expectation that there be some form of compensation, and I think that is appropriate in the circumstances.

If you want to build relationships with local communities, you really need to ensure that there is safety and security for our ADF personnel, and we need to make sure that we build those relationships by acting in an honourable, dignified and fair and just way. Making small, timely and expeditious capped payments is a good way in the circumstances to ensure there is trust and amity between our forces overseas and the residents of those countries. Relying on act of grace payments is not the way to go, and in the past there have been criticisms of Australia’s position on this matter. We have not made the kinds of condolence and other ex gratia payments that the Americans have, and I know comments on this matter have been made by very senior members of the military and other interested parties.

We have relied on section 33 of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997, which provides a legislative basis for an act of grace payment where the finance minister considers it appropriate to do so because of special circumstances. In 2007-08, three act of grace payments were made totalling just over $81,000. The amount for the previous year totalled nearly $200,000, when 14 payments were made. It really beggars belief that there were not other circumstances where people should have been compensated. The capacity to determine who should receive payments on the ground and at a lower level would be the way to go, and I am pleased that we are doing this. But we need to have some degree of consistency in the decision making. In the area of compensation, if you injure your arm or your leg or acquire some sort of illness or injury, there is a degree of jurisprudence or commonality in how much is paid, because it is set out in regulations. Every case is different—every case for every individual and every circumstance is different; every culture in every country is different. I would like to think that we could have some degree of consistency so that, if it was a particularly poor country, we would provide the people in that country with a fair and equitable payment in the circumstances.

The Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, the Hon. Warren Snowdon, in his second reading speech on 18 March 2009 said:

In many areas in which the ADF operates, the expectation of financial compensation for collateral damage to property, injury or loss of life is often a common aspect of local cultures.

…            …            …

… experience in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that the administrative requirements involved in making an act of grace claim make that system unsuitable for use in operational environments.

I say amen to that—he is absolutely correct in the circumstances. Anyone who does not receive payment in a timely way can suffer aggravated injury, illness or loss of property. Someone’s livelihood could depend on a certain tractor, implement or shop or whatever. If that was damaged and the person did not receive a payment, their economic loss might be aggravated. This is good legislation and I think it will help our men and women serving overseas. I think it is the right and honourable thing to do as a country, in the circumstances, to provide for our neighbours. If we are to be good Samaritans, if we are to care for our fellow human beings who inhabit this planet, we have to do the right thing by them as well. I think in the circumstances we need to do this, and I am pleased the government have chosen to do so.

The second aspect of this bill deals with the men and women who serve in the military, particularly in the bases across Australia, whether in Townsville, Darwin, Ipswich or wherever. In my electorate, the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme has been warmly welcomed by the men and women who serve at RAAF Base Amberley. I spoke to many of them when I did my parliamentary service last year at Amberley—I spoke to hundreds of them at that time. Many of them shop in places like the Yamanto shopping centre, where I have a mobile office on a regular basis. Many of them live in Flinders View, a suburb of Ipswich, where I live. Providing household assistance is really important.

These people live in what I would describe as middle-class suburbs in Ipswich. We have provided better housing for them. It is tragic that in decades past they were provided with what I would describe as appalling kinds of residences. They were not treated with the respect I think they deserved. Some of the women to whom I have spoken who followed their husbands and partners around Australia had to live in appalling accommodation. Governments of both sides have tried to show a degree of concern for the families of defence personnel, and I think that is good. I think it is the right thing to do in all the circumstances. In my electorate, we are providing tremendous housing for our military families. For example, as part of the defence housing initiative in the recent Nation Building and Jobs Plan, 133 new houses have been built in Ipswich at a cost of $36.3 million. That is tremendous for the local people. Many of these houses are not far from where I live.

I was talking to the men and women of RAAF Base Amberley, and they commended the government for the home loan subsidy scheme for eligible ADF members. It is a major initiative of the Rudd government to recruit new people and retain our men and women in the military. I had the privilege, on the first day I was doing the parliamentary program last year, to meet a fellow who told me, as we were in the back of a C17 plane, that in fact that was the reason he was staying in the military—to get the assistance, because it helped him with the house he owned in Ipswich. I thought it was fantastic that, on the first day I was there, I spoke to someone who said that to me.

The assistance is quite considerable. The subsidy at tier 1 is up to $203 a month, going up to a maximum subsidy of $406 a month at tier 3. That is a lot of money in anyone’s language. Certainly that goes a long way to helping the men and women of our military to provide suitable accommodation for themselves and their families, particularly their children. We know that, if our children do not grow up in an environment where they feel that they can honour the property in which they live, they tend to not respect it. We see that commonly in our society. So this is a good way to treat our military families with respect and dignity.

But there have been some unintended consequences. The legislation here seeks to remove a windfall gain and assist in the promotion of retention and recruitment. The Minister for Defence Science and Personnel said in his speech on 18 March 2009 that the take-up in relation to the defence housing initiative of the Rudd government has been quite extraordinary. As at 28 February 2009, the scheme administrator, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, had issued 11,255 subsidy certificates to eligible ADF members. Of these ADF members, 5,197 had commenced receipt of the subsidy assistance in taking up a mortgage provided by a member of the home loan provider panel. The ADF member feedback indicates the scheme is having a positive influence on retention. Certainly anecdotally in Ipswich that has been my experience as well.

Some changes were needed to improve the eligibility and entitlement of members who rejoined the ADF after a break in service prior to 1 July 2008. The measure will ensure that members who rejoined the ADF prior to 1 July 2008 are provided with the same eligibility and entitlement as those who rejoin after that date. The member for Paterson went through these changes in detail and, in the circumstances, I do not wish to go through them again. He has already adequately outlined them. I do say this: it is important to get this thing right so that only those who are eligible are entitled and so that this measure really acts as a stimulus, a catalyst, for recruitment and retention. I commend the minister for fixing this anomaly.

This help for our military people in Blair is a consequence of our commitment to their families as well. Financial assistance is important. The kind of environment they have at home should be replicated in the kind of environment they work in every day. So I am pleased that the government has taken positive steps to respond to the white paper. We are receiving assistance in terms of new planes at RAAF Base Amberley. The Hornets are coming. We announced that last year. The F111s are retiring, after 40 years of service. They are nicknamed the ‘flying pigs’ and are much loved by the people in my electorate. It is sad they are going, but they have served our country well, and the personnel there have been part of our community for decades. We look forward to the Super Hornets coming to Amberley, of course.

Defence was a big winner, and the people in Blair will likely receive considerable assistance. The RAAF base at Amberley, which I have mentioned before, is the workplace for the people who use the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme, and we are seeing a major upgrade as a result of the budget announcements. We saw announced in Queensland $536.7 million in defence infrastructure. We announced $60 million in my electorate for work on the $331.5 million RAAF Base Amberley Redevelopment Stage 3 project, and I am very pleased about that. It will provide trainee facilities, live-in accommodation, medical and working accommodation, maintenance facilities, a fuel farm and upgraded base security. Key facilities will be completed progressively from 2010 to 2011. That is where the people who enjoy the benefits of this scheme will work.

I see the member for Herbert is here. The RAAF base at Amberley will be the biggest base in the country as a result of the redevelopment, but Townsville will also receive money. I am pleased to say the Rudd government has provided assistance to Townsville. I will outline that to him in case he wants to know. There will be $18 million in 2009-10 for the RAAF base at Amberley and RAAF Base Townsville for the $268.2 million Heavy Airlift Capability Permanent Facilities project. We are providing assistance across the whole country, regardless of the electorate in which the military base is located, because we think this is necessary to provide infrastructure to places like Townsville, Edinburgh, Darwin, Pearce and others. In the circumstances, the government is strongly committed to the military. We have guaranteed defence spending in the future. We believe strongly that our defence challenges are significant. We live in an area where there is substantial instability.

The defence white paper delivered recently gave us a great challenge and a great reminder of the need to fund the military adequately and appropriately and also the need to look at savings across the decade. It is important that we deliver about $20 billion in savings across that time, and we need to reinvest our thinking and our funding into defence programs and capability acquisitions that will enhance our capacity as an island continent. Certainly the Navy will be the big winner as a result of the white paper and our government’s response, but the aircraft that we are going to deliver to our RAAF bases and personnel will also make a big difference to our defence capability.

We spend enormous amounts of money on the military, and so we should in the circumstances. We are a middle power. Our men and women should have the kind of equipment that will enable them to do their tasks well and efficiently wherever they are assigned by the government of the day, and their families at home should be looked after in terms of defence housing, ownership, financial support and medical support. In all those circumstances, I commend these initiatives to the House, and I thank the government for their commitment to the defence of Australia, both nationally and locally in my electorate of Blair in South-East Queensland.