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Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Page: 8314

Mr HAYES (12:29 AM) — I congratulate the member for Solomon on his heartfelt contribution. I know how proud he is of his Defence community in Darwin. He is right: it is a community that we need to support. Particularly with our overseas commitments, we must have a concerted view on how we approach the support of our military personnel. I am proud to support the 1998 Budget Measures Legislation Amendment (Social Security and Veterans' Entitlements) Bill 1998, which primarily boosts the income sup-port paid to our veterans. The govern-ment and the Australian community are justifiably proud of our ex-service men and women. The measures contained in this bill will go some way towards im-proving the wellbeing of Australian vet-erans and the wider ex-service commu-nity. The member for Solomon was a bit charitable in his comments about the former government, but I will not be. Unlike the former government, which, when it came to dealing with our ex-service people, was long on rhetoric but did very little, this government has embraced the issues of the ex-service community so that they can have certainty.

The new measures in this bill will inject $1.9 billion into the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio in the period from 2012-13. We consider the provision of robust services and support to the ex-service community to be an appropriate way to express our gratitude for, and recognition of, the bravery of these Australian men and women and the sacrifices they have made for this country. They are people who deserve the highest respect we can give them, and we should recognise the service they have given to this country. How we approach this following their service is a measure of not only our respect and recognition but also our undying gratitude for their contribution. This should stay front and centre in the minds of legislators whenever they make laws that affect people who have committed themselves, rather heavily at times, to the wellbeing and future of this country.

Yesterday, as we all know, was Vietnam Veterans Day. I would like to take this opportunity to honour the service and sacrifices of the 60,000 Australians who served in Vietnam in the 10-year period between 1962 and 1972. Yesterday 300 people gathered at Mawson Park in south-west Sydney, in my electorate of Werriwa, led by Bob Ellen, the Secretary of the Macarthur Sub-Branch of the Vietnam Veterans Association, to recognise and commemorate the contributions made during the Vietnam War. It is interesting to note the Australian community’s long overdue embrace of our Vietnam veterans. Whilst I was unable to attend that gathering yesterday because parliament was sitting, members of my office were able to attend and they reported to me that many school kids descended on that particular venue in Campbelltown—as they should. This is about understanding that the history of this country is steeped in not just what occurred in Vietnam but also the contribution over time of men and women who have been prepared to fight for this country’s future. That is something we should all take forward with us and, certainly for young people growing up, it is something that should never be taken for granted.

I would also like to briefly mention a few other people who are heavily involved in the ex-service community in my electorate, including Ron Brown OAM, the President of the New South Wales Branch of the National Servicemen’s Association of Australia, and Mr Ken Foster, the Secretary of the Vietnam Veterans Information Service. Ken travels around as an advocate for Vietnam veterans. Unfortunately, Ken is seriously ill at the moment and is recovering in hospital. I wish him all the best. I have never heard this bloke whinge for himself, but I have certainly heard him advocate very strongly on behalf of his fellow Vietnam veterans. He is a person who believes in putting service ahead of the individual. I wish Ken all the best for his recovery.

I would also like to mention Geoff Grimes. As a matter of fact, I rang the office just to check what Geoff’s title is. I always see him at Vietnam veterans functions. He runs the Ingleburn mower shop. Whenever I visit that shop, he is invariably sitting in the corner with another Vietnam veteran talking about various things, helping him to channel his issues and directing him to people who can help him. I never fail to be impressed by the commitment of Geoff and people of his ilk who go out of their way to look after their mates.

We remember also those men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War. There were 521 Australians who lost their lives in that conflict. We should never forget the deplorable way our service men and women were treated during the course of that conflict. It certainly did not do this country well, and it is a blight on our history. We are entitled to have our different political views, but it is absolutely deplorable to take that out on our service men and women. And it is our current generation who are now recognising the contribution, sacrifice and commitment of those men and women.

It is also important to acknowledge the effect war service has on the individual and their family. Many Vietnam veterans suffer long-term health impacts from their services, and the effects still resonate today. I see the work that people such as Ken Foster and Ron Brown do. It is clearly something that will not simply go with the passage of time.

From my various discussions locally with the veterans community throughout my electorate—with people in our local subbranches and with Max Chin from Dredges Cottage in Campbelltown, where a number of our ex-servicemen’s organisations meet—I certainly know, as I said a little earlier, that they are not a pack of whingers. They are very strong, they are very forthright in their views, and they do unashamedly stand up for their mates. They have only ever asked for what they considered was a fair go. They did not want anything more than that. They wanted proper recognition of their service and, as a consequence of their service, of their position in life. They wanted financial security and assistance with their various medications or treatments as they grow into later years.

This bill that is before the House today demonstrates that this government is committed to the Australian veterans community. I would like to discuss in a little bit of detail what this bill delivers and what it makes better in their lives. The bill before the House will introduce a range of measures from the government’s Secure and Sustainable Pension Reform package announced in the 2009 budget and will provide certainty for Australian pensioners in these uncertain economic times. This particular bill is part of a reform package which prepares Australia to meet the challenge of the future. The reforms provide for long-term sustainability and a more responsive but fairer and simpler system for these people.

It was a rather unequivocal finding of the Harmer review that single pensioners were in financial stress as opposed to couples. In response, some 320,000 veterans affairs pensioners across Australia will receive direct benefits. In my electorate in the south-west of Sydney alone, that represents payments to 1,500 people. That total payment under this provision is $1.1 billion. From 20 September this year the full single rate for service pensioners and war widows will receive a boost of up to $32.50 a week. Service pensioners on the couples rate will get an extra $10.15 combined a week. Those single service pensioners on part pensions because of other incomes will still receive an increase no less than $20.20 a fortnight. It should be noted that these increases are on top of the regular indexation payment which is due in September this year.

One of the reform’s major improvements is the indexation and the benchmarking of the income support pension. This government understands that the pension rate should not be tied to the cost of living faced by pensioners. This bill allows the introduction of the new pensioner beneficiary living cost index, which will be developed to measure the increasing costs of goods and services that would typically be used by people in this group. From 20 September 2009 the pension will be increased to the higher of either the consumer price index or the pensioner beneficiary living cost index, and then that will be compared to the male total average weekly earnings rate.

The current system of payment of allowances will also be simplified by combining the value of the fortnightly and quarterly allowance payments into a single pensioner supplement to be paid fortnightly from 20 September. This pension supplement will provide a payment of up to $56.10 a fortnight for singles and up to $84.60 for combined couples.

A new work bonus will be introduced to provide an incentive and to encourage those who are over the pension age and wish to continue in the workforce. Under these rules, only 50 per cent of the first $500 a fortnight of employment income will be counted in the income test. This is great news for many veterans in my electorate who I know are still working and who still wish to work. This money will certainly go a long way to assisting them and their families.

The bill also brings greater flexibility and access to the existing arrangements for advanced payments. I know there are many calls to my office about, and I have certainly received plenty of letters on, this particular subject. Lump sum advance payments are a popular mechanism that allows pensioners to budget for the unexpected one-off expenditures in their lives. The improvements will increase the maximum allowable advance from $500 to $1,000 for singles and $1,500 for couples combined. We will link these amounts to movements in service pension rates. They will also enable pensioners to access more than one advance payment over a 12-month period. These changes modernise the advance payments system to better reflect the needs of pensioners and help them meet the challenges, particularly the one-off expenses that do occur.

Under the Rudd Labor government, the veterans community can expect our unrelenting effort to address a range of issues around veterans entitlements, services, wellbeing and recognition. This government will ensure that veterans and the ex-service community get a fair go. Australians are justifiably proud of our veterans and our ex-service men and women. This government believes that the provision of robust services and support for the ex-service community is a sincere way to show our gratitude and recognition of the bravery and sacrifice of these Australian men and women. As the Prime Minister said in the House on 13 August 2007:

There is perhaps no greater duty that we as a nation and as a parliament have than to honour, remember and express our gratitude to those Australians who have served in the defence of our nation in times of war, because our security and liberty have not come without a price.

The measures in this bill clearly demonstrate that this government is serious about looking after those in the veterans community and their families. I commend the bill to the House.