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Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Page: 26


Mr MURPHY (10:55 AM) —Today I rise to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2009. The purpose of the bill is to give effect to budget measures announced in May. The three measures include the extension of the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme, the payment of pensions and allowances into overseas bank accounts and the cessation of dependants’ pensions.

We are very lucky to live in a democratic society and are afforded the right to freedom of speech, expression and association. It must not be forgotten that these rights, which we are so fortunate to enjoy today, were afforded at the expense of many Australian lives. These lives were not lost in vain, however, and the current defence service men and women continue, in their honour, to preserve our rights. The work of our former and current service personnel is critical and I take this opportunity today to thank them, on behalf of our nation, for their important, courageous and dangerous work. They serve our nation with great honour and distinction. Their selfless courage and bravery must be recognised and commended.

Measures outlined in this bill seek to offer that recognition in extending the benefits afforded to them and their families. In 2008, the Department of Defence established a new home loan subsidy scheme under the Defence Force Home Ownership Assistance Scheme Act 2008, which effectively established a home loan subsidy for current and former Australian Defence Force personnel. The measure was established to improve the recruitment and retention of personnel in the Australian Defence Force. The amendment proposed in this bill will also provide discounted insurance products. Currently, several benefits are provided to eligible service men and women, widows and widowers for home loans and home insurance. This measure is a positive, complementary addition to those existing incentives.

The initiative has also been proposed in light of evidence that its long-term viability will be enhanced with the increase in the number of policyholders. At present, there are approximately 80,000 building and contents insurance policyholders registered with the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme. However, as you are aware, records indicate that membership is declining at about four per cent per annum. To improve the dwindling policy registration numbers, the proposed initiatives will expand the scheme’s eligibility and product range. More importantly, the initiative will offer an estimated 7,500 Australian Defence Force and Reserve members cost-effective home insurance. The scheme itself is self-funded through the premiums.

Any measure that can provide benefits to our Defence personnel and at the same time cost virtually nil to the Australian public is a worthwhile initiative indeed. Further, this bill seeks to improve financial benefits to those Veterans’ Affairs’ beneficiaries living overseas by transferring DVA payments directly to overseas accounts. Unlike other Centrelink payments, the current legislation stipulates that DVA payments must first be deposited into an Australian bank account. Naturally, this increases expenses for the recipients through extra account holding fees and international funds transfers. Under the proposed measures outlined in this bill DVA payments will be updated to align with other Centrelink payment arrangements. Funds will now be paid directly to overseas bank accounts for eligible beneficiaries. These payments, however, will only be made directly to overseas accounts where a suitable, reliable banking system exists. The transfer of funds will be made through the Reserve Bank of Australia.

This development is the result of extensive consultation with ex-service groups like Legacy, Centrelink, the Reserve Bank of Australia, financial institutions, and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. This measure delivers on a promise made by the Prime Minister last year to review existing arrangements for Australian veterans, war widows and widowers living overseas. It will improve the finances of approximately 2,000 recipients in over 70 countries, including service pensioners, disability pensioners, and war widows and widowers. The government seeks to implement these new arrangements by March next year.

The cessation of the dependants pension also proposed in this bill will affect approximately 26,000 people and is scheduled to take effect in September this year. The cessation of the dependants pension, as outlined in the bill, is made in light of the continuous erosion of the financial benefit it seeks to provide. Unfortunately, the erosion of the benefit is the result of the pension not being indexed for over 45 years. The dependants pension was first introduced in 1914 to provide financial support to the wives and children of veterans. However, the rate of pension has not increased since 1952 for children and 1964 for wives, and there have not been any new grants of pension since 1985. Further, in 1986, with the introduction of the Veterans Entitlements Act, many recipients chose to voluntarily cease the ongoing payment of their pension in return for a lump sum to the value of three years payment. Hence the proposal under this bill to cease the payment also includes a three-year lump-sum payment. I dare say that the lump-sum payment of up to a little more than $656 is expected to provide more benefit to recipients than a small fortnightly payment of between 29c and $8.42.

It is also prudent to note that there have been improved income support measures introduced through the Veterans Entitlements Act 1986 and the Social Security Act 1991. One very important improvement is the significant pension increase which was announced in the last budget. Under the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Pension Reform and Other 2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009, from 20 September 2009 pension payments will increase by $32.49 for singles and $10.14 combined for couples. This equates to more than $1,500 for singles. Just a moment ago I was listening to the criticisms of our government by the member for Paterson in relation to its support for the veteran community. That flies in the face of the former Howard government’s efforts to help struggling pensioners—the ones who have fought for this country—and the support given by their dependants. The member for Paterson did not note that in his contribution this morning.

The proposed changes to the qualifying age to receive an age pension will remain unchanged for veterans under the Veterans Entitlements Act 1986. These are the benefits afforded to service men and service women who have offered great service to our nation, and I am extremely pleased that the Rudd government has taken the initiative to improve their benefits too. As a proud patron of the Burwood and District Sub-Branch of the National Servicemen’s Association, I would particularly like to thank those men and women who have offered their lives to serve our nation, and I take this opportunity to thank the dedicated members and executives of the nashos sub-branch for their efforts. The group supports members in very many areas, including welfare and securing recognition of their service through medals and financial benefits. I know of their fine efforts and I thank them for their invaluable contribution to our community. They work very hard, and their base is in the suburb of Burwood in my electorate of Lowe.

On the subject of Burwood, last Sunday week it was a pleasure to welcome the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support, the Hon. Dr Mike Kelly, the member for Eden Monaro, to the Sandakan Memorial service in Burwood Park, which was organised by the Sandakan Memorial Committee. As guest speaker, Dr Kelly delivered a very moving address about the horror that was Sandakan. The memorial service is an annual event held in Burwood Park on the first Sunday in August. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating dedicated and opened the memorial in 1993. I share with colleagues in this House the knowledge that the memorial is very close to Mr Keating’s heart because his uncle died in the infamous Sandakan death marches. Mr Keating marked the 10th anniversary of the Sandakan Memorial by returning to the annual service at Burwood as guest speaker. Mr Keating describes Sandakan as ‘the saddest story in Australia’s war history’.

Dr Kelly in his speech this year noted that 23 of the soldiers who died at Sandakan were from Burwood. Dr Kelly said:

The sacrifices these true Anzacs made have contributed to the security we enjoy as Australians. They will be forever remembered for the ultimate sacrifice they made. These soldiers endured some of the most inhospitable conditions that any soldier would have been through, with only six Australian soldiers who were at Sandakan surviving the war. The courage and commitment that these soldiers displayed is an inspiration to us all and they will not be forgotten.

That is part of what Dr Kelly said last Sunday week in Burwood Park. Dr Kelly, himself a very distinguished former member of the Defence Force, understood clearly the contribution that those ex-servicemen who were victims at Sandakan gave to our country.

In concluding, there can be no doubt that our national servicemen distinguished themselves also fighting for our country abroad and supporting and defending our country on home soil. National servicemen fought for an independent nationhood that greatly contributed to the freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of religion that we cherish. As a great act of selflessness, many paid the ultimate price so that we may enjoy peace. It is prudent to pay tribute to our current brave service men and women who are continuing the pledge of others who have gone before them to serve in the defence of our freedom and security. Our profound thanks should go to every man and woman who serves our nation, and we pray for those still serving for their safe return to our shores. I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Laurie Ferguson) adjourned.