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Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Page: 3402

Mr NEUMANN (12:45 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Income Support Measures) Bill 2010. We have just had Anzac Day. As many members of this place would know, we come across wonderful people who have served our country in times of crisis, conflict and war. We see them on Anzac Day and acknowledge their wonderful service to our community, their deeds of valour and the sacrifices made by them and their families. In our various communities within Australia and as a country we need to recognise their deeds, their heroism and their commitment to our country. Therefore, I am very sympathetic towards providing the maximum amount of assistance to veterans, and their families, to ensure that they can retire from their working lives with dignity, respect and financial security and that their widows or widowers are also treated in a decent and humane way in the future.

Veterans’ entitlements must be modern, must be equitable and must have a degree of consistency, but also there must be a benign approach with respect to their social security requirements and entitlements. Generally we will see some benefit to veterans and their families as a result of these amendments. The amendments in this legislation remove inequities between other pieces of legislation governing social security law and the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, which governs entitlements given to veterans for their service. We need to make sure that any income test which is applied does not have loopholes, is consistent and has integrity, and we want to make sure that administration of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act by the government and the department shows degrees of humanity, and also consistency and stability, so that veterans have certainty about their entitlements. We need to ensure that the legislation is modern, does not lack consistency and is not redundant.

The amendments improve the law governing veterans’ entitlements in five stages. Some of them are minor and some of them are technical, but they are important nonetheless. We need to make sure that there is consistency between the Social Security Act, acts and regulations and veterans’ entitlements law. The changes improve how we govern veterans’ entitlements and they correct anomalies. As the previous speaker said, they result in a more favourable pension outcome for people and they are evidence of the government’s commitment to ensuring that veterans receive the maximum number of entitlements.

Last night the budget came down, with amendments and improvements to the law governing veterans. There are significant improvements to military funding for our defence forces as well. Currently we have military personnel overseas in the Middle East, in Iraq and, particularly, fighting on our behalf against Islamic fascism in Afghanistan. We need to make sure that the legislation governing those people is just and humane as it deals with them when they come back from those areas of conflict.

The amendments deal particularly with five aspects. The first aspect I deal with is the labour market programs. The first group of amendments deal with that. Labour market programs are administered by Centrelink on behalf of DEEWR. We are going to make sure that the legislation is up to date in its semantics, terminology and nomenclature. We want to make sure that it is consistent with the outcomes under the social security law. Under the legislation, certain payments made under labour market programs are exempt under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. The amendments before the House replace redundant terms such as ‘labour force programs’ with the current term ‘labour market programs’. The amendments make sure that payments received by those people who participate cover their expenses associated with undertaking work experience under a labour market program and that those payments are exempt as income. That is a good thing from the point of view of the veterans. Such payments are exempt under social security law but not currently under the VEA, so this is an important change that will make a difference in people’s lives.

The second aspect deals with ‘benevolent homes’. I have always found this a curious term. I have heard it on numerous occasions in the past, but there is reference to it in the VEA and it refers to institutions in which a person may be placed for a prolonged period of time, according to the digest. It could apply to an adult being placed due to mental illness or a young child or person being placed for the care of that child or person. What we are doing with these changes is removing the last reference to benevolent homes. In the mid-1990s, the last remaining benevolent home ceased operation, and that was a good thing. Inmates of benevolent homes—those that are still with us—can now be found in aged-care facilities across the country. These provisions dealing with benevolent homes are therefore redundant and have been for years. They have been superseded by the legislation governing aged care, which is the Aged Care Act 1997, so the changes here simply remove redundant provisions.

The third aspect deals with foreign pensions. They deal with the requirement to claim a comparable foreign pension. The amendments require someone who is a partner of someone getting a VEA income support pension to claim a comparable foreign pension. I think that is a prudent measure. If they are entitled to do so, they should have done so by now. It adds integrity to our system and I think what we are doing here makes sense. If they claim this, it is likely their income will be greater than it currently is, notwithstanding that their claim may have other negative impacts on any VEA or other entitlements coming to that household. Partners of existing income support recipients who are entitled will be required to claim that comparable foreign pension within six months of being notified by the department that they are required to do so. I think that is sensible. I think it is quite a nationalistic approach, but I think it makes sense for the integrity of the VEA system in this country.

The fourth aspect deals with the treatment of arrears—this is quite a complicated matter—and how lump sum payments of arrears are dealt with when comparable pensions are assessed. Generally we know that pensioners are better off under social security provisions, as the amount of any arrears payment results in a debt under that legislation. That debt is generally less than any cumulative rate of reduction in income support for the following year under the VEA, so they are better off. The legislation contains loopholes under which a person receiving a service pension who receives a lump sum arrears payment of a comparable foreign pension can transfer it to a social security pension to avoid the application of the income test to the arrears payment. This loophole should be closed and it will provide a better outcome for veterans and their dependants. That is a sensible provision. It makes sure that there is a greater alignment between the social security legislation and the VEA.

The final aspect covered by this legislation deals with certain superannuation investments. The previous speaker talked about superannuation funds going belly up or turtle up—I am not quite sure how she eloquently put it, but she meant that they are no good anymore. Under section 52AA of this legislation, the minister can make a determination under the VEA that certain superannuation investments are exempt under the assets test. Such a determination could result in an investment being unintentionally exempt from provisions regarding deemed income and the deprivation of assets. That was recognised and changed back in 2006 with the social security legislation. The amendments here clarify that the provisions regarding deemed income and deprivation of assets will continue to apply to superannuation investments covered by the determination the minister might make under section 52AA.

While I am here, I will take the opportunity to commend the government on an issue of veterans’ entitlements. It deals with the Clarke review. There have been people who have been tragically exposed to nuclear testing, and their service was long unrecognised. We have in this budget provided $36 million to implement key recommendations of the Clarke review of veterans’ entitlements, which were sadly ignored by the previous government. I want to commend the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs for his advocacy in this regard. I have had many discussions with him about it. He is passionate about seeking justice for those veterans who have been exposed.

The benefits provided here will make a difference in the lives of people, including constituents of mine who have spoken to me about it. It is long-overdue recognition for those military personnel who have suffered. As part of the package that we have announced, $24.2 million over five years will go towards providing disability pensions, war widow or widower pensions and healthcare benefits to people who have suffered from conditions relating to their nuclear test service. Potentially 2,700 surviving veterans will benefit. Subject to any legislative changes, those benefits will apply from 2010.

I think this is a long-overdue change. It is something that I have advocated for a long time. It is something that people have talked to me about in my role as a federal member of parliament. I think, in the measures we have undertaken, they will receive a degree of justice for the work they did on behalf of us. By accepting Justice Clarke’s recommendations, we are looking after our veterans who have campaigned long and hard for many years in relation to this. They were put into situations where they were exposed to nuclear tests at Maralinga and other places such as Emu Field. Many of them suffered and many of them died.

We have taken a fair and balanced approach. We are recognising the work that they have done. We are opening up their eligibility. We are providing compensation and recognising their service. That is something that the country should have done a very long time ago. I think the government has finally done what it should have done and what previous governments should have done—that is, recognise the nature of the service and the fact that these personnel had no choice. They were put into a situation on behalf of all of us and served our country. They did what was right for our country and they were exposed. They did not know any better and finally the government has taken steps to give them a degree of justice.

I commend the minister for what he has done. I think he has shown a degree of humanity and a commitment to justice that are exemplary. I want to thank those people who have campaigned so long and hard. Veterans across the country finally will see their service recognised as non-warlike hazardous. I think, in the circumstances, their service and their campaigning should be acknowledged and applauded. I commend the legislation to the House.

Sitting suspended from 1.00 pm to 4.00 pm