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Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Page: 8296

Mr NEUMANN (11:02 AM) —I speak in support of the Veterans’ Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Pension Reform) Bill 2009. My electorate of Blair in South-East Queensland is home to thousands of veterans, service personnel and service pensioners. Some 320,000 service pensioners, war widows and widowers will benefit from the pension changes. The 2009-10 veterans’ affairs budget funding of $11.8 billion is demonstration that the Rudd Labor government is committed to improving the circumstances of veterans, their partners and their families and also the system which supports them.

I am pleased to speak on this particular bill because I know that the many RSL groups in my electorate of Blair—in Ipswich, the Fassifern Valley and the Lockyer Valley—are very supportive of this legislation and the pension reforms which will improve the financial living circumstances for veterans and their families. I want to pay tribute to those organisations and also to the Goodna RSL in the federal electorate of Oxley, neighbouring mine. They have been active participants in supporting so many people and their families across so many years. Particularly in Gatton, the RSL and the veterans communities are very active in supporting people in circumstances which are adverse and in financial circumstances which are difficult. They have a dedicated house there, and support workers who do a wonderful job in helping veterans and their families.

The extra financial support will be much welcomed because many veterans have chosen to live in Ipswich and in rural communities outside of Ipswich. We have the RAAF base at Amberley there, and 3,500 personnel serve there. Many of them are in the Royal Australian Air Force, but also we have 9 FSB, an Army battalion based in Ipswich. The legislation here will support veterans and their families enormously.

It is important to note that it is Labor governments across many decades which have made the major changes and reforms when it comes to veterans, pensioners and their families. It was the Rudd Labor government which made a commitment in this legislation, but it was the Hawke, Keating and Whitlam governments who helped pensioners so much by lifting the rates of pensions and lifting the linkages, which will give a decent lifestyle and show a degree of humanity towards veterans and pensioners who struggle so much to meet the needs of their living circumstances.

The legislation here is really about securing and sustaining our pension reforms. It is identical in many ways to the legislation that deals with nonveterans and their families as well. I am pleased to speak on this, because I know so many of my constituents will benefit from this legislation. The recipients of the service pension and income support supplement, from 20 September this year, will receive $32.50 per week for singles on the full rate, with a minimum increase of $10.10 per week. With respect to couples, there is a rounding up to $10.15 combined per week. So we are seeing an increase of $30 a week in the base pension, which is an important reform and a fulfilment of our commitment to veterans and their families. For a war widow or widower there is an increase of $30 a week in the war widow’s pension and a further $2.50 increase to the income support supplement ceiling rate. It is not just the higher base rate which will improve the financial circumstances of veterans and their families; the increase on top of the indexation is important, and the linkages are important as well.

The new pension supplement will simplify a number of the supplementary allowances currently available and given to pensioners, with a better arrangement and a more sensible and concise payment. The value of the existing GST supplement, the pharmaceutical allowance, the utilities allowance and the telephone allowance at the higher internet rate will be incorporated in the pension supplement. It will be increased by $2.50 to match the 66.33 single to couple ratio, and for couples there will be an increase of $10.15, as I said. This will be a big difference in people’s financial circumstances. It will help them meet their housing costs. It will help them meet their food and clothing needs as well.

The seniors supplement will also assist. It replaces the seniors concession allowance and the telephone allowance currently available to holders of a Commonwealth seniors healthcare card—and gold card holders over the veteran pension age are not eligible for the seniors concession allowance or the utilities allowance. That is important because many people will benefit accordingly. The seniors supplement will also be available as a quarterly payment.

I will not go through in detail many more of the changes because the previous speaker did that, but I think the income test taper rate will tighten, strengthen and sustain the system. It will increase from 40c to 50c per dollar of income over the income test free area. And I think the work bonus will make a big difference to people’s lives. It will allow pensioners over veterans pension age to get access to greater wage income, which will help them meet their weekly needs.

The adjustment in March and September each year in line with CPI increases and the male total average weekly earnings benchmark is also important, and the linkages there with a new index will help, of course. We are developing a new index—the Australian Bureau of Statistics will do that—to reflect the real cost-of-living changes for pensioners. It has been a complaint from many of my constituents that their real costs are much greater than the CPI. This new index will be known as the pensioner and beneficiary living cost index. The bill before the House provides for pension rates to be adjusted each March and September by whichever is greater, the CPI or what will become known as the PBLCI. On the linkages: as I said before, the bill sets the rate of single pensions at 66.33 per cent of the combined couple rate, which is equivalent to 27.7 per cent of MTAWE, and that is important because that is an increase, again, on the current 25 per cent.

I am pleased that there is no change to the pension age for veterans. I was concerned about that, and I am pleased that it will remain unchanged despite the increase in the nonveteran pension age from 65 to 67 by six months every two years starting from 1 July 2017. I was concerned that our veterans might lose faith with what we are doing in terms of caring for them, but I am pleased that the government has listened to the stakeholders and the voices of veterans communities and has not changed that.

I think the pension bonus scheme will provide an incentive for older people to defer claiming age or partner service pensions or income support supplement and remain in the workforce as well. The tax-free lump sum pension bonus to members is also important in that regard. The Harmer pension review found that the system is enormously complex, and that is what veterans and their families tell me in my electorate, so any reform that simplifies or gets rid of red tape and the bureaucratic nightmare that veterans so often find themselves subject to will be important for constituents across the 150 constituencies represented in this House.

In the time remaining, I want to make comment on something that I experienced in my electorate where many veterans were also present, and that was the ceremony for Victory in the Pacific, which we recognised recently at Manson Park, at Cemetery Road, Raceview. Representatives of the Manson family were there. Manson Park, in Ipswich, was the home of the graves of many American service personnel. You can see the indentations where those graves were. Those bodies went back to the USA, but Mrs Manson looked after the graves of the young men who died and were buried at that place. She communicated with their mothers and their families about what she was doing to care for their lost and loved ones who had died. So representatives of the Manson family were there. There is an eagle on top of the flagpole at Manson Park, Cemetery Road, Raceview, in Ipswich, and we have started to celebrate Victory in the Pacific there.

I commend Ipswich City Council for what they did in putting on that ceremony. Colonel Andrew Britschgi, from the American military, was there. Mayor Paul Pisasale was there. Air Commodore Chris Sawade, also known as ‘Noddy’ Sawade, who is the senior ADF officer at the RAAF base at Amberley, and Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Fidge, the commanding officer of 9th Force Support Battalion, known as 9FSB, were also there. Many representatives from the local RSL were there, and many veterans were there. I talked to the veterans about these types of issues and what we are doing about pension support as well. I am also pleased that John O’Neill, Post Commander, American Legion, was there. I have seen and met John on a number of occasions. He tells me that he is moving to Ipswich, which is great, because he will become one of my constituents.

Also present was Ms Donna Reggett, who was appointed by the Rudd Labor government to give the ex-service community a greater voice at the highest level of government. She is a member of the Prime Ministerial Advisory Council on Ex-Service Matters. Donna is the partner of a long-serving RAAF veteran who served as a peacekeeper in Somalia, and she is the daughter of a RAN veteran who served in Vietnam. She has been involved for a long time in the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans Association and is a member of the National Treatment Monitoring Committee. She has undertaken many courses in counselling and mediation and has helped veterans in my community. She did those courses at the Southern Cross University. She has trained under the department’s program as a level 3 advocate. She is actively involved in my community helping veterans. I know that Donna and other people who are involved in that community have very warmly welcomed the legislation that is here today.

I want to make note of her daughter, Nicole, who spoke at that service last Saturday. Nicole is a wonderful young woman and a great representative of Ipswich. She is Ipswich Young Citizen of the Year and she spoke movingly and brilliantly that day about what victory in the Pacific meant to her generation, and to honour the veterans in the Ipswich community.

Nicole has a motto. She has told everyone that this is what she believes. She says, and I commend her for it, ‘If you see something that needs to be done, you pitch in.’ I think that is fantastic and says everything about Nicole. She is the sort of young woman who would travel to Africa to work in orphanages as part of the RSL Youth Development Program. She is undertaking tertiary studies in psychology at the University of Southern Queensland at the Springfield campus in Ipswich. She has won several youth development awards, all geared towards helping veterans in my local community. She has helped to raise funds and bring awareness of youth and homelessness issues, through her position on the Ipswich City Youth Council.

Nicole was a recent winner of the Pride of Australia award in the Young Aussie category. When at school, she helped set up a student welfare fund for her school and raised funds for her local veterans community. Her dad served in Somalia in 1994 and suffered terribly with post-traumatic stress disorder. She said, ‘So I know what it is like to deal with these issues as a child.’ She is a tribute to her parents and a tribute to the City of Ipswich. I thank the council of the City of Ipswich for their support and thank the veterans community in my area and the RSL for their ongoing support of Nicole. I also want to thank the veterans for their involvement in the 2009 VP Day commemoration service at Manson Park, Cemetery Road, Raceview.

I spoke to the veterans on that day about what is going to happen in terms of the pension changes. They know we are keeping the faith with this legislation. But they raised a couple of other issues with me. One of these—and I have spoken to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs in relation to it—is the F111 deseal-reseal report, which was tabled in parliament on 25 June 2009. This issue was raised with me that day. It certainly affects the military personnel and former military personnel in my community. We had a parliamentary inquiry into the health support needs of RAAF deseal-reseal workers and their families. The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade’s Defence Subcommittee, chaired by the member for Brisbane, Arch Bevis, looked into this. We had made an election commitment before 2007 in Ipswich. Alan Griffin, the shadow minister at that time, the now Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, came to the RSL at North Ipswich and made the commitment that we would undertake a parliamentary inquiry.

The aim of the parliamentary inquiry is to work out whether the response of the Commonwealth government—that is, the previous government—was adequate and consistent with the findings of the 2004 Study of Health Outcomes in Aircraft Maintenance Personnel and if the overall handling and administration of the ex gratia program was sufficient. More than 130 submissions were provided to the community. Six public hearings were held and 18 recommendations were made to the government. As I have said to the minister, and have said publicly, I hope the government will accept the recommendations, lock, stock and barrel, and implement them. The veterans community in my area are strongly supportive of the legislation that is before the House today. I know they are strongly supportive of a fair, just, decent and humane response to the deseal-reseal report which has been tabled in federal parliament. But they are also supportive of wonderful young women, like Nicole Reggett, who have done so much to advance the cause of the veterans and their families in the Ipswich community. I commend the legislation to the House.