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Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Page: 42


Mr GRIFFIN (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs) (12:43 PM) —in reply—The Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2009 will benefit the ex-service and defence communities and enhance the effectiveness of the repatriation pension system. The first measure provides more convenient payment arrangements for Veterans’ Affairs pension recipients who live permanently overseas. Currently Veterans’ Affairs payments must be paid into a bank account in Australia and the recipients incur bank fees when transferring money internationally. This measure delivers on the Prime Minister’s commitment to review this arrangement and will enable Veterans’ Affairs recipients to have their pensions paid directly into bank accounts in those overseas countries with reliable banking systems.

The second measure will extend eligibility for the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme to persons eligible under the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme Act 2008. The Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme currently provides home insurance to eligible Australian veterans and members, peacekeepers, widows and widowers. Eligibility for Defence Service Homes Insurance will be extended to those serving and former members and reservists eligible under the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme established in 2008. This extension will provide eligible persons with access to cost-effective insurance designed specifically for the service and ex-service community.

The final measure will cease payment of an outdated dependants pension and will pay existing pension recipients a lump-sum payment. This lump-sum payment will be equivalent to three years of pension. Under previous repatriation legislation, certain dependants of veterans or members on disability pensions were eligible for a dependants pension at a rate which reflected the rate of the disability pension paid to the veteran or member. The purpose of the payment when it was introduced was to provide financial support to the dependants of veterans. Other government programs, such as the partner service pension and social security payments, now provide this support more effectively. The maximum fortnightly payments are $8.42 for partners and widows and $2.86 for children. The minimum payments are 84c and 29c respectively. This small pension has been virtually frozen for many decades and new grants of the pension ceased in 1985.

The government will pay a one-off payment equivalent to three years of payments to current recipients. Entitlement to the dependant pension will cease on 22 September 2009. We anticipate the lump-sum payment will be made on 24 September 2009. It should be noted that dependant pensions that were granted on the basis that the person was without adequate means of support are not part of this measure and continue to be paid at existing rates. I also want to make it quite clear that existing war widow and widower and orphan pensions are not affected by this measure.

This bill continues this government’s commitment to an effective and equitable repatriation system that responsibly supports Australia’s ex-service and defence communities. I will take this opportunity to address some of the issues raised in the debate across the House. I thank the House for the broad support for these measures from both the opposition and, of course, the government, but I think it is only fair to pick up on some of the points that have been made with respect to some of these issues. I will start off with a couple of broad points.

What we are seeing from the opposition today is a situation where they are endorsing measures that they had over a decade in government to act upon. We are now seeing a situation where the opposition all of a sudden have had an epiphany on so many issues in the veterans’ affairs area and now they are concerned. I will give you an example. The first measure I mentioned was around the question of convenient payment arrangements for pensioner recipients who live permanently overseas. This was a matter raised by Legacy in their budget wish list every year for quite some time—certainly for all the years that I was the shadow minister and before that. The previous government ignored it. The previous government would not act upon it. It is good to see them today in a position where they did not do it but can approve the fact that we have done it. But when they had the chance they did not do it—they did not for over a decade.

It does not stop there. Let us go through some other issues. Previous speakers have talked about some of the reviews that are underway. It is passing strange that what we have got here is an opposition who, when they were in government and had an opportunity to act on some of these issues, refused to do so. Let us take for example the issue of the Clarke review. The Clarke review made a series of recommendations which the previous government refused to act upon. They refused to act upon them. Now they are complaining that we are taking too long to act on things that they either refused to consider or rejected.

Let us go to another issue: the F111 deseal-reseal, which was mentioned by at least one of the previous speakers. I made a commitment in opposition to ensure that a parliamentary inquiry through one of the committees took place to consider some of the outstanding issues—because there were outstanding issues. On the very day I made that commitment, the then minister, the member for Dunkley, refused to act. No-one on that side of the chamber—or, at that stage, when they were on this side of the chamber in government—was prepared to act. Now they are saying that we are taking too long.

Superannuation is another issue that was mentioned. Let us again be clear on that. The government are taking quite some time—absolutely—to ensure that we get the issue of military superannuation right and the question of reviewing indexation issues through the Matthews report properly considered. But there are two points in relation to the previous government. Firstly, on the issue of indexation, they would not budge. They did not budge for more than a decade. They would not act. They did not act. They refused to even consider it.

Then we go to the question of military superannuation. The report was received by the then government in something like July 2007 and they refused to release it. They would not even allow a situation where people could see what that review proposed. They would not provide a government response and they would not even tell people what was in the report. They would not consult with the ex-service community or other interested parties. They just sat on it. We have gone through a process and we are considering that within government and a response will follow in due course. But it is a bit rich for people who refused to even release the report publicly to come out and say, ‘What are you doing?’—when all they did was hide.

I think probably the biggest issue, which was mentioned by the member for Paterson, relates to pension reform, particularly the question of the special-rate TPI pension. The member for Paterson quoted from a letter from the national president of the TPI federation. Let us get the context right so that people can understand this. The government’s response to pension reform, based on the issue of income support pensions, came out through the budget after the Harmer report. It produced a series of figures which related to the circumstances around those who are reliant on income support payments from government. It is true that that does not cover disability pensions as provided through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for war-caused disabilities. Those are compensation payments. They are separate from the question of income support—and so they should be. It is a longstanding principle. But the interesting thing here is that we have some on the other side suggesting that they might be interested and potentially willing to support some increases in relation to that area. Again, it is amazing what happens when all of a sudden you cannot make a decision. All of a sudden they are thinking about making them or they are suggesting they might or they are intimating they will.

It needs to be remembered what the position of the now opposition has been around the question of income support reform during this term. Let us give them some credit—they at least had a policy in this area. Members remember that under the previous Leader of the Opposition, Brendan Nelson, the member for Bradfield, the circumstances were that they made an announcement in the lead-up to that reform process about a $30 a week increase in the single age pension. There is a problem with that, isn’t there? It excludes a whole range of other pensioners and income support recipients, including those within the veteran community who are on service pensions. The RSL raised this question and said, ‘We’re sure that the opposition means to include service pensions and we can’t believe that they don’t.’ Guess what—they did not. Their initial proposal did not include service pensioners. It did not even include aged service pensioners.

Then what happened? There was a change of leadership. I am talking about the last one, not the one that is about to happen. In that change of leadership, the circumstances were that there was a change in the position and they added in service pensioners. They still excluded a whole range of others who were on income support payments and they still excluded a whole range of deserving people within the veterans community, but they did at least finally include aged service pensioners in their proposal. They never at any time included disability pensions through veterans affairs. So on one of the few occasions when we actually had a policy from the opposition, it specifically excluded those for whom they are now suggesting they may be interested in providing some support.

They have a track record on this. You have to look at what they did with respect to this area when they were in government. When they were in government, they presided over a massive erosion of the value of the special rate pension in relation to male total average weekly earnings. Until the very throes of the last election, they never ensured that the indexation system in place allowed for maintenance of value for those pensions under male total average weekly earnings. They only did it and announced it in September of 2007 and they only did it after we announced our policy at the time of the May budget in 2007, when we committed as an opposition to act according to that approach in government.

That is what we did. We supported that approach when the government finally agreed to put it forward in the shadows of the election, we endorsed it, and we carried it through in government. But it took them 10 years to take action to address that anomaly, and now they are suggesting that—just maybe—they will do something about it now. That is what we are seeing right across the board here. Less than two years ago, they were in government, they were leaders of power. They had 10-plus years of opportunity to fix all these outstanding issues. Now this government is acting on some of those issues, reviewing what was not done, working out the best way forward and considering issues that they ignored over so many years. Now they are basically encouraging us to act quickly on matters and issues that they refused to act upon, matters and issues that they rejected, and matters and issues on which they acted inconsistently when in government but have now all of a sudden had some sort of conversion on the road to Damascus. Frankly, it is amazing, it is galling and it does them no credit whatsoever.

This bill deserves to be supported, because it addresses some longstanding issues. I will pick up another one. We had the member for Lindsay talking about the fact that under the mental health funding in the budget there is only some $9.5 million to deal with these issues within veterans’ affairs. He said he did not think that was enough. Let us go back through that. That $9.5 million comes as a result of recommendations that came from Professor Dunt’s report into suicide in the ex-service community. It is part of a package which relates to another $83 million over the forward estimates with respect to mental health issues inside Defence and in the transition out. All of this relates to the issues dealing with the ex-service community, both those who are ex-service now and those who will be in the years ahead. But let us remember the genesis for this: the commitment that we made, while in opposition, to an inquiry into suicide in the ex-service community. Guess what—again this was a proposal put forward to the previous government and rejected. This was a proposal to which the previous government said, ‘No, it won’t produce results; it is not necessary.’ What it led to under this government is the series of recommendations we are now dealing with that will address some of the neglect that has occurred in this area. It has led to some $90 million-plus across two portfolios to deal with these sorts of issues.

We have members of the opposition saying that this is not enough—in a situation where their own government rejected having the inquiry that is the basis for this increase. They did not think there was such a problem that it was even worth looking at and now they cry crocodile tears, suggesting that it is not enough money. I ask where the member for Lindsay, the member for Paterson and the member for Greenway were when their government was rejecting taking this action in the first place. Where were they when these matters should have been looked at under the previous government? Anyone who thinks that these matters have cropped up in only the last two years is on I do not know what planet, but I do not think it is Earth. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.