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Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Page: 31

Mr LINDSAY (11:33 AM) —Supporting Australian veterans is vital. It is something I am passionate about. I have many veterans in my community and to me, representing Australia’s only garrison city of Townsville, it is particularly important. Many of the soldiers who pass through Townsville are ultimately Australia’s veterans. With now up to 40,000 soldiers having been deployed over the last several years in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Timor and the Solomons, the numbers of veterans are significantly increasing.

The coalition has given its support to this particular bill, the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2009, and certainly it has my support. The bill makes three changes to current measures relating to veterans pensions payments, access to the Defence Service Home Insurance Scheme and to dependants’ pensions.

The first change enables Veterans’ Affairs pensions and allowances to be paid into overseas bank accounts. Under the current provisions, anyone who lives outside Australia and receives a pension or payment under the Veterans’ Entitlement Act or the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act must have an Australian bank account. These payments were only able to be made into a bank or financial institution account in Australia. This measure in this bill is a sensible measure in that it allows payments to be made to an overseas bank account. It moves with the times. It recognises where we are these days and how we operate in the world. It will reduce the financial burdens for veterans who live overseas and will provide greater support and flexibility for them, so it has my support. It will certainly bring the payment of veterans affairs pensions into line with other Commonwealth payments.

The bill also extends the eligibility for the Defence Service Home Insurance Scheme. This measure will now allow members of the ADF who are entitled to receive assistance under the new Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme to access building and contents insurance. I believe that about 7,500 Australian Defence Force and reserve members will be able to gain access to the insurance scheme. That is a good outcome and it supports our Defence families. This measure will support the ADF. It is very important. It will assist particularly with retention of Defence Force personnel by providing them with even greater support.

The final change in this bill is to cease payment of a majority of dependants’ pensions. Previously, dependants of a veteran who were receiving a disability pension for incapacity were, in some situations, also eligible for a pension. The maximum payment has been $8.42 per fortnight for a partner or widow and $2.86 per fortnight for children. The minimum payments are as low as 84c for partners and 29c for children per fortnight. These pensions have not increased in many years, and there have been no new grants since 1985.

Under the measures in this bill, the dependant pensions will cease and those currently receiving such pensions will be given a lump sum equal to three years of the payments. The dependants pensions will cease on 22 September 2009 and the lump sum payment will be made on 24 September 2009. That payment will be exempt from income tax. Any existing war widow or war widower and orphan pensions are not affected by this change and their payments will continue. As the payment level for dependant pensions has been so low, a lump sum payment in September this year may be more beneficial to many families—I believe it will be.

The coalition supports these measures; however, it is important that the Rudd government clarify several issues relating to the dependants pension. It must be made clear how many people will be affected by the payments ceasing. These people must be told by the government whether those currently receiving a dependants pension will receive another form of compensation after the three-year period of the lump sum ends. That is important to the veterans community, and they will be looking for that explanation from the Rudd government.

We have seen in recent months that the Rudd government has been engaged in reckless spending. This is having a significant impact on veterans. The Labor government had made very few announcements for veterans. They promised reviews, but two very important reviews have been given a lengthy two-year time frame for completion. The two which have been delayed are the review into the cost of pharmaceuticals for war-caused conditions and the review of the operation of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004. The member for Paterson very clearly articulated this in his contribution in relation to this debate. Two other important reviews have been undertaken—the Clarke review and the military super review—but no announcements by the government have been made for either, and we certainly need that information to come forward. The veterans communities are very eagerly looking forward to that, and I think that they are starting to realise that they have been let down by commitments made by the Rudd government in the run-up to the last election.

It is very interesting. I was having a look at the promises broken by the current government yesterday, and it is quite extraordinary to see the number of very important and significant promises and expectations that were given to the community at the time of the last election that have been either ruled out or, in fact, forgotten about.

Mr Laurie Ferguson interjecting

Mr LINDSAY —I am filibustering, yes. It is very disappointing to the electorate, and unfortunately I think that the community will mark the government down for misleading the electorate at the time of the last election. Labor said they would deliver for the veteran community through reviews. With four crucial reviews still outstanding, it is clear that they have not delivered.

The Dunt report examined mental health issues in the Defence Force, and the report has not delivered major outcomes and programs for veterans. In response to issues raised in the study into suicide in the ex-service community, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs announced $9.5 million of funding over four years, but for such a serious issue this is a small amount. The Rudd government needs to show a real commitment to delivering outcomes and programs for veterans and former serving members of the Australian Defence Force.

I support this particular piece of legislation. The changes provide—

Mr Baldwin interjecting

Mr LINDSAY —Oh, no! Give me the EM or something.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—I think the honourable member for Lindsay should—

Mr LINDSAY —Herbert.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —For Herbert. He should continue his contribution.

Mr LINDSAY —Yes, we have no speaker to continue. I certainly support this legislation, but the Rudd government cannot stop here. Issues which concern veterans must be considered and acted upon by the government.

Might I say, in relation to representing the veterans community in Townsville, that I want to pay a tribute to Rod McLeod and his group at the Townsville RSL. Rod is the president; he has been president now for a few years. The RSL just goes from strength to strength in supporting our community. The facility that we have on Charters Towers Road in Townsville is a magnificent facility. It is used by many veterans and, indeed, the wider community. It is a focus for our community. It is a place where the community can, in fact, get together and discuss military and veterans’ issues but also address wider issues. That particular organisation needs to be commended for the terrific work that it does.

When the minister made his second reading speech on this particular bill, I note that he noted that this legislation further improves the operation of Australia’s repatriation system. He says it is in line with the government’s election commitment, but I have indicated in this contribution that there are several very significant matters that are outstanding as far as the veterans in this country are concerned. In introducing these two budget measures to assist veterans, the minister claims—and I believe he is right—that veterans, members and their dependants will have their access to and the effectiveness of their repatriation pension system improved.

There is a third measure, of course, that will assist members in relation to veterans and defence communities, and this is in relation to the insurance matters. Veterans will have been unsettled by the move to cease these—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The honourable member for Herbert should continue to proceed manfully. I thank, on behalf of the chamber, the member for Herbert for assisting the House in its proceedings as we await the next speaker on this bill.

Mr LINDSAY —The honourable member for Herbert is considering drawing the chair’s attention to the state of the House if something does not happen shortly! Claressa, you might have to come up and speak if that is okay! We have very good clerks in this place.

In relation to the veterans’ concerns about the small payments being replaced by lump sums, yes, there has been some concern in the veterans’ community about that. That has been expressed but I do not think the veterans community needs to be concerned about that. I think that what we really need to be looking at is what will replace the lump sum payment in due course. That is something we need to hear from the government about and something that we need to be mindful of. Certainly, the veterans community will be looking for that.

The Defence Services Homes Insurance Scheme—this is for people eligible under the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme Act 2008—currently provides home insurance to eligible Australian veterans and members, peacekeepers, widows and widowers. This measure will extend eligibility for home insurance to those serving and former members and reservists eligible under the Home Ownership Assistance Scheme introduced in 2008. The extension will provide eligible persons access to cost-effective insurance designed specifically for the service and ex-service community. I note that included peacekeepers. The Australian Defence Force is not only a force of war fighters. It is a force of peacekeepers, of humanitarians and of people involved in training and regional assistance. They do a wonderful job for our country, in our name, for those less fortunate than us.

Last night I was privileged to be with senior officers of the Australian Defence Force. They told me that in Afghanistan, for example, it was not so long ago when no young female was allowed to go to school. They were kept illiterate. Could you imagine a policy like that in Australia—that females should be kept illiterate? I think that we all understand how out-of-date that kind of policy is. I was recently in Pakistan, where it pains me to have to say that the only thing lower than a dog is a woman. How could that be? But the point that we were discussing last night is that there are now some 5 million young women going to school in Afghanistan. What a great outcome, and part of that is being delivered through the ISAF contribution and also through the will and commitment of our mentoring task force on operations in Afghanistan. We can thank the men and women of the Australian Defence Force for that particular contribution.

I would also like to inform the House that there was a discussion about our Bushmasters that we use in Afghanistan. The Bushmasters are just tremendously capable vehicles, making sure that we can operate safely with our troops. When their V-shaped hull hits an improvised explosive device the blast is shot off to the sides. The front wheels of the vehicle can be blown 100 metres on either side of the vehicle but the people inside are kept relatively safe, and that is a tribute to our Australian designers in providing a mobility vehicle for the ADF that keeps our troops safe. I say thank you to the people of Thales in Bendigo for what they do and thank you, too, to the men and women of the Australian Defence Force. We can guarantee that both sides of the parliament will do what we can to look after the veterans of our country now and in the future.