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Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Page: 23

Mr BALDWIN (10:38 AM) —I rise to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2009. The stated purpose of this bill is threefold. First, the bill seeks to amend the provisions for the payment of veterans affairs pensions and allowances. This amendment will provide for the payment of allowances into overseas bank accounts and will affect eligible veterans residing outside Australia. Second, the bill will extend the eligibility for the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme to persons eligible under the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme Act 2008. Third, the bill seeks to stop the payment of the majority of dependants pensions and provide for a lump sum payment of the pension, the value of which is to be the equivalent to three years of the pension. As each of these issues differs extensively I will speak to each individually.

Part 1 of schedule 1 of the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2009 concerns the deposit of certain payments into foreign bank accounts. Under existing legislation, veterans who currently reside outside of Australia and who are in receipt of pensions or payments covered by the Veterans’ Entitlements Act or the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 are required to have their payments made to a bank account in Australia. The changes contained within this legislation will enable the Repatriation Commission to make arrangements for pensions, allowances or other pecuniary benefits payable under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act or the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act to be paid into bank accounts or similar financial institutions outside Australia.

This is indeed welcome news and has been very well received by the veterans and ex-service community. The current legislation makes it needlessly difficult for the expatriate veteran community to access their pensions and other payments. By widening the scope of how payments are made, veterans living outside of Australia can now expect that their payments will be easier to access. The new measure will align the Department of Veterans’ Affairs policy of payments to overseas bank accounts with the policies of other Commonwealth government agencies, including Centrelink and the Child Support Agency. I welcome this change and I believe that all veterans, whether residing in Australia or overseas, should be able to easily and readily access their entitlements.

I will now refer to part 2 of schedule 1 of the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2009. The defence homeownership scheme, which was superseded by the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme on 1 July 2008, provides eligible ADF members access to a subsidy on interest incurred on their home loan. Simply put, the scheme makes homeownership easier for ADF members by helping to reduce costs associated with purchasing a house. This program is a key recruitment and retention initiative for the ADF, even more so during a housing availability crunch such as the one all prospective homebuyers are currently facing.

It is therefore welcome news that the amendment contained within part 2 of the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2009 proposes to expand eligibility for the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme, a scheme that helps safeguard a Defence Force member’s most valuable asset: their home. This amendment will provide those ADF members entitled to assistance under the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme with access to subsidised building and contents insurance. Importantly, eligibility does not require ADF personnel to have accessed a subsidised loan under the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme Act 2008. An ADF member need only be eligible for the subsidised loan to be eligible for the home insurance benefit.

ADF personnel are often absent from their homes for extended periods of time. Australia’s defence forces are currently experiencing their highest operational tempo for decades and are involved in operations right across the globe. Approximately 2,000 ADF personnel continue to serve in the Middle East as part of Operation Slipper. There are approximately 650 ADF personnel in East Timor as a part of Operation Astute. More recently, there have been up to 850 ADF personnel involved in Operation Vic Fire Assist. When ADF personnel are away from their homes serving the people of Australia, they deserve peace of mind that their own home and belongings are properly insured. For the above reasons I support the extension of the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme, a scheme that will assist an estimated 7½ thousand ADF and Reserve members to insure their most important possessions.

I now come to part 3 of schedule 1 of the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill. The provisions contained within this amendment concern the cessation of payments for the majority of dependants pensions. At the outset, I wish to put on record my firm belief that any issue that concerns a cessation or change to a payment of a person’s pension, allowance or salary must be thoroughly examined before being implemented. Recent history shows us that it is the men and women on the ground that are most affected by poorly thought out changes to pay and/or payment systems. Of course, I am referring to the recent SAS pay debacle that saw special forces soldiers returning from dangerous tours of duty in Afghanistan only to be faced with bureaucratic bungling that left them out of pocket. It is therefore in everybody’s interests, particularly serving ADF personnel, that we avoid another Rudd Labor government pay debacle. I therefore urge the government to give attention to the following points regarding this amendment so as to avoid another poorly thought out and poorly administered pay reform program.

Under the current repatriation legislation, if a veteran or a member is receiving disability pension for incapacitation, certain circumstances allow the veteran’s dependants to claim a dependants pension. Furthermore, upon the death of a veteran certain dependants other than the veteran’s partner or children may be eligible for a dependants pension. Depending on the circumstances a dependant could include the veteran or member’s family members such as parents, siblings or grandparents. The amendments to repatriation legislation made by the Repatriation Legislation Amendment Act 1985 resulted in future grants of dependants pensions applying only to the eligible partner or child of a living veteran or member.

While the amendments provide that no future grants be made other than to an eligible partner or child of a deceased veteran or member, those already in receipt of the entitlement retained the entitlement. Upon the enactment of the Veterans Entitlement Act 1986 the ‘saved’ status of dependants pensions under section 66 of the Repatriation Legislation Amendment Act 1985 was continued under section 4 of the Veterans Entitlement (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Act 1986. Section 4 of the Veterans Entitlement (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Act 1986 was subsequently amended to save the entitlement to dependants pensions for persons whose rate had been reduced to nil.

Under the current system there have not been any new grants since 1985 and nor have there been any rate increases for partners since 1964 or for children since 1952. The amendments to this legislation will see a person’s entitlement to the pension cease and instead will provide for a lump sum payment of a dependants pension. Importantly, this amendment does not affect pensions granted on the grounds of the person being without adequate means of support. Those ‘without adequate means of support’ pensioners will continue to receive their entitlements in accordance with section 4 of the Veterans Entitlement (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Act 1986.

Additionally, this amendment does not affect the payment of a pension to eligible orphans, war widows or war widowers of deceased veterans. It is anticipated that the lump sum payment, which will be exempt from tax, will be made on 24 September 2009 and will be equivalent to three years worth of pension. A person’s entitlement to an affected dependants pension will cease on and from 22 September 2009.

I now refer back to my earlier remarks concerning the extra level of diligence which needs to be applied when altering a payment system. This is particularly the case given the Rudd Labor government’s poor track record in this area. While the new system is intended to simplify the payment process and reduce the associated administrative burden, I am now deeply concerned about the lack of detail concerning this program. For instance, no information has been made available concerning how many people this amendment will affect, the age brackets of those affected, how many of those affected based on their age will be penalised with no further payments after the three-year lump sum payment has been made and whether affected persons will be compensated after the three-year lump sum time period expires.

As is the case with the Rudd Labor government’s 2009 Defence white paper and budget statements there is a glaring lack of detail in this amendment bill. Worryingly, the most crucial detail is left out—that is, just who will be affected by the new system. The measures presented in the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2009 should be welcomed by the majority of ex-service veterans and current ADF personnel; however, the measures contained within the aforementioned amendments pale in comparison to what could have been done for veterans if the Rudd Labor government had not recklessly spent $40 million on cash splashes.

Once again the Rudd Labor government continues to wilfully ignore the plight of veterans. It has demonstrated this shameful policy of neglect by not resolving the outstanding issues surrounding ADF superannuation benefits. This is most surprising as superannuation is a key component of the total remuneration package for ADF personnel and is therefore critical to recruitment and retention of service men and women. Again, the Rudd Labor government favours rhetoric over results.

There is considerable frustration within the Defence community due to the lack of initiative shown by the Rudd Labor government in addressing ADF superannuation contributions. The inaction of this government has failed Australian service men and women, whose current superannuation arrangements fall well below modern standards. The Rudd Labor government’s budget shows a clear hole with respect to any reform of super arrangements for ADF personnel.

Labor has deprived thousands of ADF personnel, who remain under lagging superannuation conditions, by failing to act on findings published in the Review into military superannuation arrangements report, failing to respond to lobbying by the coalition, and failing to act on numerous submissions from serving and returned ADF personnel. The wide-ranging review into military superannuation was announced on 27 February 2007 by the then Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Hon. Bruce Billson MP. Findings of that review were released on 24 December 2007.

It is beyond belief that it has now been 20 months since the report of the Review into military superannuation arrangements was tabled by the then Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Warren Snowdon, on 24 December 2007. This report has been sitting on the desks of the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel for over a year and a half and there is still no word on the government’s response from either of those ministers.

The Rudd Labor government has shown again that it is about image not substance, and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Alan Griffin, has certainly subscribed to this policy. Mr Griffin, while in opposition, called on the then Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Hon Bruce Billson MP, to release the report. Now in government Mr Griffin has done nothing with the report. Quite frankly our troops deserve much better. They deserve action.

Over a year and a half is more than enough time to review the report and its recommendations. This report was commissioned by the coalition so that it could help meet the unique and specific needs of our service men and women. Instead Minister Griffin and Minister Snowdon deliberately chose to ignore the needs and the interests of our serving personnel past and present. To my disappointment and to the disappointment of our veterans this is to be expected of the Rudd Labor government, who could not even deliver the white paper on time let alone with the requisite financial detail expected within such an important strategic document.

By ignoring the report the government is failing both our current and past serving members. The new defence minister must insist that the Minster for Veteran’s Affairs and the new Minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science, Greg Combet, deliver the report. If Mr Griffin is not up to the challenge, then he should be retired like Minister Snowden. If Minister Combet refuses to act, it will bring into question the very principles he stood for before he entered parliament.

The Rudd Labor government is neglecting some of our most vulnerable ex-service personnel—those that have been totally and permanently incapacitated. Mr John Ryan OAM, National President of the Australian Federation of Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex-Servicemen and Women, wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister on 1 June 2009:

The view of the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Federation is that we have been badly let down by your government. In a time when extraordinary sums of money are being spent by the government to dull the impact of the recession it seems that the group given the least consideration is that which has given the most in the service of their country. We request that military disability pensions be increased by the same percentage as other government pensions - that is, 11.4%.

The ex-service community is clearly being made to suffer by the Rudd Labor government. They are right to wonder why an increase to the age pension did not extend to totally and permanently incapacitated and other veteran disability pension recipients. The ex-service community has been let down by the Rudd Labor government’s inaction. The Veteran’s Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2009 only tinkers with the edges and is part of a larger smoke and mirrors campaign by this Rudd Labor government. Australia’s veteran community will not be fooled by the Rudd Labor government’s campaign of deception. They deserve a government that respects their past service through the establishment of fair and equitable pensions. They deserve a government that will take action on the Review into military superannuation arrangements report. I call on Ministers Combet and Griffin to act decisively and finally deliver a response to the Review into military superannuation arrangements report.

These ministers need to explain why they refused to provide any funding support to the veteran community while instead splashing around $14 billion in cash handouts. Where is the fairness? Where is the equity? I can only presume that the Rudd Labor government will now say that they can do nothing in the face of the global financial crisis, even though they found $14 billion to hand out in electoral largesse—largesse at the expense of our current and former service men and women. The main point is that our service personnel, past and present, deserve to live out their lives in dignity and peace after giving so much to their nation. Again, I call on the government to take action and finally deliver a response to the Review into military superannuation arrangements report.