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Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Page: 34

Mr TUCKEY (11:49 AM) —There has been some confusion in the list, but I notify the Labor speaker that I will not necessarily take up the full 20 minutes.

This bill gives effect to three Veterans’ Affairs portfolio budget measures: to provide the payments for veterans’ affairs pensioners’ allowances into overseas bank accounts, to extend the eligibility for the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme to persons eligible under the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme Act 2008 and to cease payment of the majority of dependents pensions. The issues there are fairly clear-cut and give me the opportunity, nevertheless, to discuss some of the issues relevant to veterans affairs and its importance in this parliament.

I had the privilege of being a shadow minister for veterans’ affairs and writing the policy that the Howard government implemented over time. There are many issues that were outstanding at that time which we consequently addressed. Some of these related even to the provision of medals, where there were some very peculiar views. I do not blame the previous government—they had an inquiry into it—but the decision makers were the Defence establishment, who took a very conservative view of the rights of people to be recognised for their service, more particularly overseas. We were still operating under a system where there was no service medal available for soldiers who had been in areas of danger unless they had been there for six months. Some, of course, unfortunately, did not survive six months; they were in a place of danger from the date of their arrival. I give that only as an example of my long interest in these measures.

Furthermore, I note that this morning another measure was introduced which purported to give veterans a $30 increase in their pension. Of course, that is to be criticised simply because it is not $30; it is $30 less $20 because the $30 subsumes the annual amenities allowance arrangements, which were about $1,000, and therefore represented $20 a week. But we will get an opportunity to make these points at a later date.

The minister also drew it to the attention of the House that deposits to bank accounts will be made, and I believe that has some merit for people. He made the point that currently Veterans’ Affairs beneficiaries who live permanently overseas must have their Veterans’ Affairs payments paid into an Australian bank account, often incurring relatively high bank fees when transferring money internationally. In comparison, most other Commonwealth beneficiaries who live in overseas countries with reliable banking systems can receive their pension directly in an overseas bank account. In 2008 the Prime Minister made a commitment to review this. This of course is the result of that review, and the coalition supports that arrangement. It will make some difference.

It also highlights the circumstances of veterans from overseas who live in Australia, who in the case of British veterans do not necessarily get increases to their pension on the same basis as they would if they had remained in the United Kingdom. There is a freezing of those pensions, and I think that is very bad for them. They suffer from the fact that exchange rates can be either beneficial or very negative. These issues have been debated between the United Kingdom and Australia around these sorts of benefits for decades and nobody has yet been able to convince the United Kingdom that pension increases made available to their citizens there should be available to eligible pension holders here in Australia. The changes made by part 1 of schedule 1 will enable the Repatriation Commission to make arrangements for the payment of pensions, allowances or other pecuniary benefits payable under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act or the MRCA into an account with a bank or similar financial institution that is outside Australia. That is to be applauded.

The issue of pensioner benefits, in my mind, also suffers—because it is lumped in with the age pension and other matters in many respects—from a wider issue. That issue is that the consumer price index is still utilised as part of the adjustment program. I specifically wanted to take part in this particular debate to make the point that, across the board, if that process is to be maintained, we virtually need what I might call a ‘retiree CPI’. The CPI as we know it takes account of a multitude of price increases, many of which are not applicable to pensioners. There have been adjustments to the effect of home mortgage interest, but pensioners typically do not have mortgages; they certainly seek to avoid them. But, on the other hand, they have deposits, and, as such, a decline in interest rates is not beneficial to them. They suffer badly from the decline in interest rates or the collapse of the stock exchange as many rely on the escalation of share values to finance their retirement.

I believe that government—and this parliament, more particularly—should look closely at this. Maybe it should be the responsibility of one of our standing committees, appropriately associated, to look at what a retiree’s index is. It varies in many respects and as such should be considered in this place so that those expenditures that mostly affect people who are in retirement can be better accounted for. I do not think that the dual assessment process has been an improvement. I do not think the process of using a percentage of male total weekly earnings, MTWE, has improved circumstances because it has kept beneficiaries of these entitlements somewhere in line with what is happening, but there are still other aspects to it—most notably in terms of the retiree’s own residence. It is often not understood that a family with children will have a largish residence somewhere, and in recent times that has appreciated in value. But as the children have left and they are no longer dependent on the family home, there is a good reason for pensioners to scale down the size of their house and possibly achieve a cash financial gain in the process.

The reality, unfortunately, is that there are, particularly, the state governments’ various stamp duties and other charges involved—and, of course, when you sell the premises, you typically use an agent and there are significant commissions to be paid. At the end of it all the family sits down and they realise have got premises that are far too large. If they have some disabilities, it may be very difficult to look after large gardens and all of those sorts of things. But they are locked into it due to the fact that they can actually incur a negative outcome in scaling down to an apartment or something like that. When I say ‘scaling down’, I mean scaling down in size. They put the property on the market. It is not new. It nevertheless probably has quite a good value. The commission for the sale reduces that value, and then, when they go to buy the alternative property, the state governments rip them off for a very substantial amount of money—and with figures that have never been properly indexed. When they add all of that up, they find that they cannot afford the new premises. They certainly do not want to incur a debt, so they stay with a property that is far too big and which creates all sorts of difficulties for them physically. They typically find it very difficult. I have had representations over time on that very matter.

Those were the issues I wanted to take the opportunity to deal with today. The legislation otherwise makes for sensible measures and it has my support. I thank the House.