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Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Page: 8310

Mr HALE (12:13 PM) —It is with a great deal of pleasure that I rise today to voice my support for the Veterans’ Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Pension Reform) Bill 2009. This bill is yet another example of this government’s commitment to both senior Australians and those who have served their country. The key elements of this bill will ensure our government delivers a sustainable and secure pension reform package for veterans and their dependants. The pension reform package addresses three key areas: it addresses the adequacy of income support pensions, it makes their operation simpler and more responsive to pensioners’ needs and it secures long-term sustainability. It prepares Australia to meet future challenges, including the ageing population, through changes to social security, family assistance, veterans affairs and aged-care legislation. The reforms will provide significant increases in pensions and result in a simpler, fairer and more flexible pension system. I know that that is something those I have spoken to in my electorate of Solomon look forward to.

We have a very vibrant veterans community in Darwin and Palmerston. In fact it would be remiss of me at this stage not to mention the very special day that we commemorated this week. Yesterday, on 18 August, Vietnam veterans and their families paid tribute to those who have served, suffered and died in and as a result of the Vietnam War at the annual Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day service at the Darwin cenotaph. Vietnam was Australia’s longest involvement in war, with around 60,000 personnel serving over 10 years from 1962 to 1972. Some 2,400 Australian service men and women were wounded in the conflict and 521 made the ultimate sacrifice.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank the Vietnam Veterans Association Northern Territory branch for all their hard work in the community. Like so many community groups helping out those who need it most in the community, the great work the Vietnam Veterans Association does often goes unnoticed—but I know the difference they make is significant. It was something that the very hardworking Minister for Veterans’ Affairs talked to me about earlier this year when he was up in Darwin for the bombing of Darwin commemoration.

More than 320,000 veteran pensioners will benefit from these reforms, boosting their income by $1.1 billion over the next four years. The bill will see a number of changes. Single service pensioners and war widows and widowers with income support supplement will receive up to $65 extra a fortnight. All service pensioners and couples will receive a guaranteed increase of just over $20 a fortnight. These increases are in addition to the regular indexation due in September.

The pension system will be simplified by combining the value of the fortnightly and quarterly allowance payments into a single pensioner supplement to be paid fortnightly from September this year. The pensioner supplement will be made up from the quarterly payments of the utilities allowance and telephone allowance and the fortnightly GST supplement and pharmaceutical allowance. The telephone allowance component of this payment will now be paid to all those eligible at the higher internet rate, regardless of whether or not recipients have the phone or internet connected.

To ensure the reforms are more responsive to recipients’ needs, from July next year pensioners will be able to elect to have some of their pension supplement paid quarterly instead of fortnightly. The pension reform package introduces a new pensioner and beneficiary living costs index. The new living costs index recognises that the cost of living for pensioners and beneficiaries may increase faster than the cost of living for the general community, as measured by the consumer price index.

From September this year the maximum base rate of income support pensions will be adjusted in line with either the consumer price index or the new pensioner and beneficiary living costs index, whichever is higher. Pension rates will also continue to be benchmarked to male average total weekly earnings. Lump sum advance payments are a popular mechanism to allow pensioners to budget for those unexpected one-off expenditures. The maximum advance will be increased to 1½ times the fortnightly pension rate and the minimum advance will be set at half the fortnightly rate. A new work bonus will be introduced to provide an incentive to encourage those over the pension age who are able to continue in the workforce to do so. In fact only 50 per cent of the first $500 a fortnight of income will be counted in the income test.

This pension reform bill will improve the pension system and make it simpler and more sustainable into the future as the population ages. These changes have been a long time coming as part of the reforms. This bill delivers a stronger and fairer pension system that will serve both the recipients and Australia well into the future. These are people who have seen us through our darkest hours as a nation and we need to support them. Australia has a proud wartime history, and that has been part of the lives of so many Australians. The government remains committed to honouring those who have served and continue to serve, ensuring their legacy is remembered for generations to come.

I was very pleased when the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs announced funding for the Northern Territory branch of the Royal Australian Regiment Association for a reunion and a dinner to be held in Darwin commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Binh Ba. Commemorative activities in local communities play a major role in encouraging Australians, especially younger Australians, to learn about our wartime experiences and provide an opportunity for veterans to share their stories.

Through a whole-of-government approach the pension reform package prepares Australia to meet its future challenges, including the ageing population, through changes to various pieces of legislation, including veterans affairs, social security and aged-care legislation. This government is delivering on its core values to support those most in need in our society and to give all Australians the opportunity to lead a decent and fulfilling life. As the very hardworking Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs said last month at the centenary of the age pension commemoration:

Today’s celebrations coincide with the Australian Government’s recent landmark reforms of the pension system, delivering a simpler, fairer, and flexible safety net for millions of age and disability pensioners, carers and veterans.

These long overdue reforms will provide greater certainty for pensioners, and meet the new challenges of an ageing population in the 21st century.

In conclusion, the veterans in my community of Darwin—and I have many, and we will have more veterans in the future because of our involvement in the coalition forces in the last eight or so years—are very happy. Pensioner entitlements was one of the things that veterans often bought up with me when I was doorknocking in my electorate during the election campaign. To be able to bring on an increase at a time of a fairly tough global financial environment is very important so that we can look after these people who have looked after us in the past.

There could be a certain element of criticism regarding spending, but the budget demonstrates the government’s strong commitment to the veteran community—and these increases show that. They provide certainty to the veteran community during these uncertain economic times. This spend, as I said, will be $1.9 billion over the period to 2012-13—this having been injected into the veterans’ affairs portfolio since the election of the Rudd government. It includes $1.1 billion, in response to the Harmer review, to some 320,000 veteran pensioners. So a large number of people will be directly assisted by the Rudd government’s reforms in this area.

It is a tough area. I know that it would be easy to be critical of the former government; however, when it comes to our veterans and support for our people who are fighting overseas, defending our democracy and the rights that we hold dear, I think it is really important that this place is united in its support for those people. There is very strong support on the government benches. The member for O’Connor mentioned the past with regard to Vietnam. We do not look to change our past, but we certainly look to the future as a Labor government. I know that, on many issues to do with defence, we have the support of the opposition. There is very rarely a point of difference between our position and the position of the opposition when it comes to our Defence Force personnel, their safety and their deployment. As a member of this House I certainly take very seriously our role whenever any sort of legislation that affects our service men and women is before the House, whether it be increases to pension benefits for veterans or deploying our troops into a dangerous area. These are things that all members take very seriously.

I have 1st Brigade in my electorate, and I am very proud of the role that 1st Brigade play. On 8 August this year we had a welcome home parade in Darwin for some 1,200 personnel coming back from Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor. I really enjoyed the feeling in the crowd. It was a day for our veterans and the people who have served. The crowds really turned out in Darwin to welcome back 1st Brigade. They are an institution in my electorate. They contribute fantastically well in fundraising for charity events—for example, when they push the gun through the city each year and collect money. They help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. They contribute in the sporting area very strongly. The Army, Navy and Air Force are involved in local sporting activities. They are a massive part of the fabric of the Northern Territory.

I think Darwin has probably more of an affinity with the Defence Force than other places—and I will probably have to take a bit of flak from colleagues on both sides of the House for saying that—through the bombing of Darwin and our close ties to the violence of war, experienced when it came to the shores of Darwin in 1942. Some 250 people lost their lives in those bombings. We have a very proud history of engagement in war on the shores of Darwin during the Japanese bombing raids at that time.

The community of Solomon fully support all endeavours to make things easier for those people who have come back. And it is probably about that, as much as anything. There are often financial constraints put on people who may be injured in war. Their ability to earn better incomes in the future is always jeopardised when they have been to war. There is obviously the physical damage that can occur but there is also the emotional trauma that many of our veterans have been through. The people of Darwin understand that and they turn out in great numbers whenever there is an opportunity to support the veterans, the returned service men and women and the people who have been in the services but who, in times of peace, have not been deployed. The fact that they were on standby, ready to go to defend Australia, means that we need to give them our utmost gratitude and respect. In Darwin we have a special relationship with our ADF. We have a booming ADF community. I am very proud to represent ADF personnel in this place. I am particularly proud to have 1st Brigade in our city. As I said, they do a wonderful job.

In speaking to veterans, I found that this pension increase and reform package has been very well received, including the fact that we have been able to put some of the bonuses into the fortnightly payments, that they are getting the utilities allowance to assist with power bills and the like, and that they are getting the internet. For some veterans who have disabilities the internet is their contact with the outside world. They can do all their shopping online. They can do all their banking online. They can talk online to friends through Facebook and those other mechanisms. So the internet is very important to them. I am proud, as a member of this government, that we have been able to assist in giving them a quality of life after they have served us.

I do not think you would not get too much dispute from anyone about this bill. I am glad to see that the opposition are supporting it. I did not doubt that they would support it, but it is good to see that they are supporting it. As I said halfway through my contribution today, I really believe our Defence Force goes above politics. Sure, we debate things in this place but, when it comes to an issue affecting the men and women of the services, that is an issue that is above politics. It is about supporting those people who look after our interests and let us enjoy the democracy that we live in. These reforms will deliver a stronger and fairer pension system to veterans and their dependants. I commend the bill to the House.