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Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Page: 3408

Ms NEAL (4:15 PM) —I rise today to speak on the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Income Support Measures) Bill 2010. The measures introduced by this bill will improve the delivery of government policy entitlements to our veterans. Members of the nation’s ex-service communities will receive substantial benefits from these measures. The bill is also about clarifying, correcting and amending legislation pertaining to veterans’ entitlements in the interests of returned servicemen and servicewomen. This is a bill that will make life easier for many. It is a continuation of this government’s ongoing commitment to the veteran community. We want to ensure that the policies, provisions and entitlements provided to our veterans and the way that these entitlements are delivered are as good as they possibly can be.

I will give a brief outline of a few of the key components of this legislation. The main provisions of this bill are intended to align the Veterans’ Entitlements Act with like provisions in the Social Security Act. The bill includes amendments that will exempt from veterans’ entitlements income test payments associated with part-time work experience under a labour market program. This measure aligns the veterans’ entitlements law with social security law and ensures the consistent treatment of these types of payments across most acts.

The bill will also amend the Veterans’ Entitlements Act so that the partner of a service pension or income support supplement claimant or recipient will be required to claim a comparable foreign pension if the partner is entitled to such a pension. This provides a consistency between the veterans’ entitlements law and the social security law, and can result in a pensioner couple receiving more income overall. These changes will provide for greater certainty in the administration of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, remove redundant provisions and correct an anomaly whereby pensioners paid under the social security law in some cases received a more favourable pension outcome than service pensioners and income support supplement recipients.

There are many veterans and their families living on the Central Coast of New South Wales who will welcome the measures laid out in the bill. The Central Coast, where my electorate of Robertson is situated, has long been a favoured retirement destination for people from Sydney and other parts. This has especially been the case in the decades since World War II. As a result, the electorate of Robertson today is home to a very large proportion of veterans, their families and dependants. As at the beginning of January 2010 there were 4,212 people living in Robertson receiving a Department of Veterans’ Affairs pension or allowance or holding a DVA treatment or pharmaceutical card. This group includes over 1,360 disability pensioners and more than 1,400 war widows.

Most of these veterans are located in the Gosford City LGA. It has by far the highest veteran population of any local government area in New South Wales. The number is exceeded by only four LGAs in South-East Queensland, making Gosford City the fifth largest concentration of veterans in Australia. They have an average age of just under 80 years. It is clear from these statistics that reforms to the way veterans’ entitlements are assessed and delivered have a direct and important impact on thousands of my constituents and their families.

There are 20 separate veteran associations represented in my electorate. These include a wide range of DVA benefit recipients, including the War Widows Guild, several RSL club branches, the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association, the ex-Prisoners of War Welfare Association and two ex-servicewomen’s associations—just to name a few. I have the great honour of being a patron to the local branch of both the National Servicemen’s Association and the Vietnam Veterans Association. I am also an honorary member of the Central Coast and Gosford branch of the World War II veterans association.

At this point I want to name Geoff Turner, president of the World War II 1939-45 veterans association Central Coast Gosford branch. Jeff approached me recently for assistance in applying for a federal volunteers grant—a small grant to assist in the purchase of computer equipment for that organisation of hardworking volunteers.

The very special thing that the World War II veterans do is engage veterans to help other veterans throughout their extended support networks. This is important to note in the context of the bill presently before the House. Being a returned serviceman or servicewoman presents many challenges to our veterans, their families and their carers, not the least of which is navigating the maze of entitlements and regulations attached to pensions and payments due to these individuals. It is not uncommon for friends and families of veterans to spend hours at a time untangling administrative issues associated with their entitlement claims. Any and all measures that simplify matters and assist veterans to access their entitlements take the burden off them, their families and their carers. That is why an organisation like the World War II veterans is so important. By linking veterans together to help each other through difficult times, advocate on each other’s behalf and provide experienced advice, these organisations are often the bedrock of the veteran community support network. I congratulate them all on their hard work and their ongoing compassion.

Another example of tireless work by veterans on behalf of other veterans is Rick Johnson from the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association. Rick is a Central Coast local and a tireless campaigner for his members. Rick has had many dealings with my office, and we have assisted to the best of our ability and struggled to do better for the lives of Australian nuclear veterans. I have worked quite closely with all these associations to ensure their concerns are brought to the attention of the minister and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

I am also very pleased to announce that in September 2009 more than $7,100 in funding was given to two veterans’ organisations on the Central Coast under the federal government’s Veteran and Community Grants program. The Veteran and Community Grants provide on the ground funding for local projects that promote health and wellbeing in the veterans community. The National Servicemen’s Association of Australia, New South Wales Branch, Gosford City sub-branch received $6,000 in funding from the Australian government to support the health and wellbeing of local ex-servicemen. This grant assisted the local nashos to conduct a bus tour for the local veterans community to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Surprisingly, some of those members had not had that opportunity prior to this occasion. In addition to this grant, the Gosford sub-branch of the RSL received over $1,000 from the program. The sub-branch will use it to purchase equipment and resources for the Broadwater RSL day club.

Projects funded through these grants programs include initiatives that encourage veterans, war widows and widowers to learn new life skills—skills that will help them remain independent as well as provide for social activities and support for their carers. Veteran and Community Grants are available to ex-service and community organisations, veteran representative groups and private organisations that contribute to the health and welfare of the veteran community. I congratulate both of these organisations for their good work and their valuable initiatives to support Central Coast veterans.

I also take particular pride in seeing the increasing attendance at Anzac Day ceremonies across the Central Coast over the past few years. It seems that more and more young people are recognising the contribution that returned ex-servicemen have made and it is something that I think is very much appreciated by those returning.

One of the most invaluable experiences I have had as a member was to attend the Defence Force Parliamentary Program with the East Timor defence force during March of 2009. I spent five days in uniform in East Timor and went on foot patrol at night with ADF members of the International Stabilisation Force East Timor. It was certainly an eye-opener about some of the challenges and the circumstances. I did not have to face the occasion of being shot at, but even the living circumstances and the tasks that they needed to undertake showed that they were a force of high-calibre men and, on some occasions, women in this case.

I can say from my experience that they are doing a terrific job in sometimes difficult circumstances. The servicemen and servicewomen I spent time with will be the veterans of tomorrow. That is why I am pleased indeed to be speaking today in support of this bill, which will substantially improve the government’s delivery of entitlements to the veterans community. I feel confident that the reforms contained in this bill will be beneficial to all members of the defence and veterans communities in the future.

To the many veterans who live in my electorate of Robertson, I say: thank you for your contribution. You have made Australia a better place to live. Your contribution to the community of the Central Coast is equally notable. For that I am especially appreciative. I trust that the reforms of the Rudd Labor government introduced today will go some way to repaying the debt that our society owes you. I commend the bill to the House.