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Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Page: 3400

Mrs MARKUS (12:36 PM) —I rise today to speak on the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Income Support Measures) Bill 2010. Can I say at the outset that this bill has the coalition’s support and it is not my intention to delay the Main Committee for too long today. The bill contains five minor amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. Before I address the bill I would like to make a few comments, particularly in relation to my discussions with leaders of the ex-service community, about the workings of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act.

I would like to place on record my appreciation for the leaders of our ex-service community. These leaders work very hard on behalf of their members to achieve a better deal for veterans. I look forward to continuing to work with them over the coming months, particularly as we move into congress season. The Tasmanian RSL will hold their state congress this Friday in George Town and I look forward to speaking there about the issues that are important to the veteran community. I also want to say that I will be speaking further to ex-service community leaders today and tomorrow about the federal budget and I will have more to say on this topic, particularly in relation to specific measures that were announced, during the budget debate in coming weeks.

Over the parliamentary recess I have been able to meet with many ex-service community leaders. I especially want to speak about a visit I had to Adelaide a few weeks ago where I met a very determined advocate for the veteran community. I will not name this person; he knows who he is. Needless to say, this person is literally available at the other end of a telephone to provide whatever support and assistance is necessary to veterans, particularly those returning from recent conflicts in Timor-Leste, Afghanistan and Iraq. A valuable insight into the emerging needs of the veteran community meant that this meeting certainly was an important one. I also had an opportunity to meet with tomorrow’s veterans—those men and women currently serving in the Australian Defence Force—as a participant in the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program. I urge and encourage any of my parliamentary colleagues who have not participated in this program to do so.

The Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Income Support Measures) Bill 2010 has five provisions. Firstly, the amendment removes provisions of the VEA which relate to benevolent homes. Under the VEA, veterans in receipt of a pension through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs would have part of the pension automatically paid to the benevolent home. This provision is now redundant, with the last benevolent home closing in 1994. This change, which ensures the VEA remains a working act meeting the needs of the veteran community, brings the VEA into line with other acts of parliament which no longer refer to benevolent homes.

Labour market programs are operated by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and provide a pathway back to employment for people who need to gain new skills in order to re-enter the workforce. Under arrangements that exist for labour market programs, participants are paid to train and gain work experience. However, under arrangements in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, payments made to veterans who participate in labour market programs are treated differently. For example, under the VEA, money paid to a participant for expenses associated with training are exempt from the VEA income test. However, payments for expenses for part-time work experience are not exempt. On this basis, there is a disincentive for veterans participating in a labour market program to undertake work experience in case any reimbursement for expenses adversely affects a pension they are in receipt of. This proposed change is important in allowing more veterans to re-engage with the workforce where they choose to do so and where they require new skills, and it is welcomed by the veterans community. It provides veterans with greater flexibility in their dealings with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and makes the VEA a fairer act.

One of the more significant changes in this bill is a move to force veterans’ partners, where they are eligible, to receive a foreign pension where they are required to do so under law. I will explain this change in greater detail. Currently, a veteran’s partner who is entitled to a foreign pension is under no legal obligation to accept that pension. In many cases, the pensions are very small amounts of money. Under the changes made by this amendment, the veteran’s partner is required to access that foreign pension and report it as income under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. It is anticipated that, in the vast majority of cases, those affected by this change will be better off. Because of the cut-in point of the income test and the expected small amount of those pensions, the small number of veterans affected by this change ought to be better off. However, the coalition would like to hear from any veteran or veteran’s partner who considers they will be, or have been, directly impacted in a negative way as a result of these changes.

This is best explained by way of an example. I point out that this is illustrative and does not indicate the personal circumstances of any individuals affected by this change. For example, Mr and Mrs Jones are entitled to a service pension under the VEA. Mr Jones has qualifying service from the Vietnam War and Mrs Jones is entitled to access a British pension of approximately $20 a fortnight but, until now, has not done so. Under this proposed change, Mr and Mrs Jones are required to apply for the British pension that Mrs Jones is entitled to. When granted, Mrs Jones must notify the Department of Veterans’ Affairs that she is now in receipt of the pension. Given its small amount, Mr and Mrs Jones’s pension is unlikely to be affected, resulting in their being $20 a fortnight better off.

This amendment will also allow the partner of a veteran to receive, where eligible, a lump sum in arrears payment for the period in which they have been eligible but have not been receiving their foreign pension. Importantly, the VEA will be amended to allow greater flexibility in the calculation of that income and its effect on the receipt of future pensions from DVA. For example, in the case of Mr and Mrs Jones, Mrs Jones was entitled to access her British pension five years ago and the British government has calculated her entitlement and paid a lump sum of $2,250, taking into account inflation and exchange rates. Under the VEA income test, this one-off lump sum payment may impact on Mr and Mrs Jones’s overall service pension payments. Currently, this one-off payment which has accrued over five years will be treated as one year’s income, which may result in a reduction in Mr and Mrs Jones’s pension. However, under this amendment, Mrs Jones’s lump sum will be calculated as if it had been paid over five years and, in this case, Mr and Mrs Jones’s pension will not be affected by the payment of a lump sum and they will continue to be better off as a result of accessing the foreign pension.

It is expected that the proposed changes will better align the VEA with other, similar acts that deal with foreign pensions. We are told that they will ensure that Australia’s veterans continue to receive beneficial treatment under the VEA. I reiterate my interest in hearing from any veteran, their partner or family members about their individual circumstances if they are made worse off by this amendment.

The final amendment relates to superannuation assets that have gone ‘turtle up’, for want of a better phrase, perhaps as a result of the global financial crisis. Under this amendment, where the value of the specified superannuation asset has been frozen and the veteran is no longer able to access the asset at call, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs may in exceptional circumstances declare part of the asset disregarded for the purposes of the assets test under the VEA. However, this determination on the general asset will not apply to the deemed income rules or assets deprivation rules.

This bill is relatively minor and has the coalition’s support. Can I just indicate again my appreciation to the dedicated men and women of Border Protection Command. I was able to spend time with them during the exchange program with the ADF in late April. I hope that the work we do here on behalf of today’s veterans will flow on to provide the maximum level of assistance to our younger and future veterans.