Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Page: 3421

Mr GRIFFIN (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel) (5:17 PM) —I have been pleased to present the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Income Support Measures) Bill 2010, which addresses minor but necessary measures that will remove anomalies between veterans’ entitlements law and social security law. As a result of the changes in this bill, payments associated with part-time work experience under a labour market program will be exempt under the veterans’ entitlements income test. This corrects an omission in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act.

The bill makes two changes in relation to comparable foreign pensions. Firstly, the partner of a service pension or income support supplement claim recipient will be required to claim a comparable foreign pension if the partner is entitled to such a pension. The partner will be required to claim the comparable foreign pension within a time frame that will be specified in a notice. In the case of persons who are currently receiving a service pension or income support supplement, their partners, where entitled to a comparable foreign pension, will be given six months to claim the pension. The second change to comparable foreign pensions affects the treatment of arrears payments of such pensions. Instead of treating the arrears payments as income in the 12-month period from the date of grant of the comparable foreign pension, these amendments will mean that the arrears payment is treated as periodical payments for the period of the arrears. This change is expected to provide a better result in the majority of cases and closes a potential loophole in the legislation by removing the opportunity for pensioners to change to a social security pension to avoid the income test in relation to the arrears payment.

Minor amendments in the bill will repeal all references to benevolent homes from the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, as these provisions are no longer applicable. Finally, amendments will clarify the intention of the veterans’ entitlements means test in relation to disregarding the value of certain superannuation investments specified in a determination by the minister. The changes will make it clear that these superannuation investments are not disregarded for the purposes of the deemed income rules and the asset deprivation rules.

These corrections to the legislation will protect the integrity of the means test and the pension system by ensuring that specified superannuation investments are treated as originally intended and are counted as assets when calculating deemed income and will be counted as assets if the asset has been disposed of for less than adequate or no consideration.

I make mention of the fact that these are largely minor amendments. We often find ourselves in this place correcting anomalies, updating legislation to ensure it better meets the needs of those we are responsible for. The amendments that are included as part of this bill form part of that process of updating matters into the future.

I will take the opportunity to address a couple of other points that were raised in the debate. In particular, my good friend the member for Paterson raised a number of issues around broader questions, if you like, that relate to the veterans’ entitlements system and some related issues. He made some points about a press release with respect to the budget. As I understand it, he raised issues from a press release produced by a series of organisations called the Alliance of Service and Ex-service Organisations. It covers the Defence Force Welfare Organisation, the Naval Association of Australia, the RAAF Association and the Royal Australian Regiment Association. I think, though, for the public record it may be a reasonable idea to go a little bit further than the member for Paterson. The first two-thirds of the press release go to the question of congratulating and welcoming what this government has done with respect to last night’s budget. I do not want to be accused of misquoting, so I am going to quote:

… welcome the budget decisions to provide new initiatives for Australian veterans over the next four years. The key features include: access to better health care and compensation for an additional 2,400 F 111 aircraft fuel tank maintenance workers …

I will paraphrase the next dot point: ‘Compensation and benefits for Defence Force personnel who participated in British nuclear testing in the fifties and sixties at Maralinga, Emu Field and on the Montebello Islands. And further:

… reclassification of the service of certain submarine special operations personnel between 1978 and 1992 to acknowledge their contribution, recognising it as qualifying service, opening up eligibility for benefits such as the Gold Card.

Up to 890 former submariners will benefit from this change …

Improved health care for veterans and war widows and reduce unnecessary hospital stays through preventable admissions and improve the community care program.

The needs of carers have been addressed as part of the government’s broader response to the Who cares report and the national disability strategy.

It is true to say—and the member for Paterson was quite clear about this—that additional issues were raised in that press release. That was the last third of the press release, which he spoke of. Three particular issues are raised there. There is a longstanding issue around the indexation of military superannuation and an issue around the reclassification of the service of certain counterterrorism special operations undertaken by SAS personnel. Again, there is no decision to remove the remaining level of erosion to the value of veterans’ disability pensions nor to adjust them in line with the increase in community living standards since 1997.

I want to go through some of those issues, given that they were raised by the member for Paterson. On the military superannuation issue there are a number of complexities. The suggestion appears to be that the government has not done what the government said it would do when it was in opposition. At that time—and I was part of that opposition and I had responsibilities in this area of military superannuation prior to the election—two commitments were made. One was a commitment to have a review of indexation methodologies. That was the Matthews report. There is no doubt that many in the ex-service community are very unhappy with the results of that report, but the commitment from the government was to conduct a review and the government accepted the review’s recommendations. I do not expect the exservice community to be happy with that—far from it, but the commitment that was made was honoured.

The second one related to the Podger review into military superannuation. The Podger review was commissioned by the previous government and received by the previous government in July 2007. In the lead-up to the election, post that time, the government of the day refused to release that report publicly. So the Australian community, the veteran community, who were very concerned about this issue, were unable to find out what the report said. In opposition we committed to publicly release that report in order for a debate to ensue about what recommendations were included in that report. We released that report publicly in December 2007 and we committed to a consultation process with the broader ex-service and military community about the recommendations included in that report. My colleague the then Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Warren Snowdon, conducted that review in the first few months of 2008.

The very clear response to that review—and it was reiterated to me again by a number of ex-service organisations just several weeks ago—was that they were deeply unhappy with the recommendations included in the Podger review and they wanted government to go very slowly around the question of this and they did not want it implemented. If what the member for Paterson wants me to do is to implement a report that the ex-service community did not want and does not want, I wish he would come out and say that very clearly. But I want him to understand and I want the ex-service community to understand that, in line with their issues and their views around the Podger review, the government is very carefully considering what should happen with respect to that review.

On the issue of reclassification of the service of the certain counterterrorism and special operations undertaken by the SAS personnel, the member for Paterson needs to check his facts and the background. This came out of the Clarke review, which was a review of veterans’ entitlements undertaken by the previous government some years ago, where there were a significant number of recommendations, many of which were actually ignored by the then Howard government. But you know what? There were some recommendations that were accepted. One of the recommendations that were accepted was one that said that you should not reclassify the service of the certain counterterrorism special operations group SAS personnel. So the member for Paterson has raised a criticism about an issue on which the previous government, of which he was a member—and he is certainly still a member of the same party, last time I looked—actually accepted the recommendation from Clarke, which was not to do what he raised in the chamber today. I find that passing strange.

The third issue relates to the question of veterans’ disability pensions and the erosion of the value of those pensions. This was subject to a great deal of debate and discussion within the ex-service community and in the parliament in the lead-up to the last election. In fact, following on from a decision taken by the then Labor opposition, around the time of the 2007 budget, to put forward a proposal to index disability pensions in the veterans’ entitlements system to the male total average weekly earnings, the Howard government accepted that proposal and extended that proposal in some areas and announced it at the time of the September National RSL Congress. Legislation then went through the parliament before the election with bipartisan support. That system has been in place since, I think, March 2008. Since then, those payments have maintained their value with reference to male total average weekly earnings. There is no question about that.

Since that time we have had the Harmer review, which was a review into income support payments and led, as the chamber knows, to significant increases, particularly to single rate income support payments—many of which are received by members of the veteran community. In fact, the Harmer review resulted in a budget commitment of some $1.1 billion over the forward estimates to income support payments received by members of the wider veteran and ex-service community. But, in the context of the issue of the continuing level of erosion, once again, the key date here is ‘since 1997’. I am afraid that, for most of the time since 1997, the member for Paterson and his party were in government. The erosion occurred under the Howard government—and no-one other than them. We led the charge to address that erosion issue—and that is a fact.

The other point I would make is about the action being taken in the budget and those initiatives on which I have been congratulated by these organisations. What needs to be clearly understood there is this: the changes in relation to F111 deseal-reseal workers, which will mean that some 2,400 are eligible for support if they have become sick with an illness which can be associated with their service—which we estimate will be something in the region of almost $40 million in additional compensation and more than $12 million in healthcare support for these people who have real issues as a result of their service—came as a result of a parliamentary committee report.

The report was produced on the basis of a commitment made by the government when we were in opposition, prior to the last election. I made that commitment. I made it at Amberley. I made it at a meeting of the F111 deseal-reseal support group. The next speaker was the then Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, and he refused to match that commitment. The point here is that the government’s initiative from last night, which I believe is supported by the opposition, was a commitment which resulted from an inquiry which the now opposition and then government refused to support.

The initiatives regarding participants in British nuclear testing and submarine special operations personnel were again recommendations which the previous government received as part of the review by Justice Clarke and recommendations that they refused to implement. I just want to be clear that people understand that some $36 million in initiatives relating to Clarke recommendations, which the previous government refused to accept, and some $55 million in total in terms of support for F111 deseal-reseal workers, are, as far as I know, being supported by the opposition, but when they actually had the opportunity to do something about it they did nothing. That point needs to be remembered.

I will come back to the superannuation issue on that basis. Indexation in relation to superannuation is not a new issue. It has been an issue of concern for quite some time. In fact, it was an issue of concern throughout the time of the previous government. The previous government, at a time of huge surpluses, at a time when they had the capacity, sat on their hands and refused to act. Now, a couple of years into opposition, they seem to have found their voice with respect to that issue. I think the ex-service community should be very careful regarding the wording of any commitments or any suggestions or any intimations that come through from the opposition about what action they may or may not take on this issue. The fact of the matter is that they had 10 years to do something about it, they had a financial situation which would have allowed them to take action and they did not take it. That ought to be remembered.

I will close by addressing the second reading amendment moved by the member for New England. The member for New England and I have on occasions discussed this issue of the particular applications of the current test of qualifying service, how it operates and what it means for people in certain circumstances. I think he knows that I find it a vexed area. However, he also knows that I cannot agree to his amendment for a number of reasons, which I am happy to outline.

It should never be suggested—and I know that he would not suggest it—that we do not value the service of those who joined our armed services at times throughout our nation’s history, particularly when the nation was in peril. It is absolutely true that the question of where someone went, where they were posted and what they therefore faced, was very much a matter of what was required from the particular service in terms of the needs of the country at that time. However, the underlying point around qualifying service goes to the question of facing and incurring danger from hostile forces. It is a cornerstone of qualifying service and it has been, as I understand it, back to at least 1936.

It goes back to the question of, regardless of the willingness to fight, the actual impacts that people face as a result of their service and a recognition within the ex-service community, ex-service organisations and the repatriation system that the actual facing of danger has impacts with respect to your life—and, frankly, those impacts are not good. That is why traditionally there has been a situation where qualifying service provides people with additional benefits and additional assistance under the repatriation system. That has developed over time, depending on the time, to a range of different aspects. The gold card is the one that is normally raised, particularly with the decision taken some years ago for over-70s with qualifying service to be able to access that card. That is a point that has been looked at in things like the Clarke review. Although Clarke recommended some changes to the incurred danger test, the bottom line is that he did support qualifying service as an ongoing concept to be maintained.

The situation for those who served in Australia is that it depends on where they served and when they served. There are inconsistencies, in my view, around aspects of this. If you served in Northern Australia in certain latitudes at certain times, particularly around the bombings of Darwin, the situation is that that was considered to be qualifying service. If you travelled in coastal waters at times when there was a fear of enemy action, of submarine attack et cetera, again there was allowance for qualifying service. Essentially, that underlying test is seen as being a very important part of the overall repatriation system. It is a test that this government maintains is correct. It is a test that the previous government held to. It is a test that all governments have held to over the years we have had this system in place.

That is not in any way to cast any aspersions about the courage, the bravery and the willingness to serve their country of those who are in a situation where they are denied that access. It goes to the question of the circumstances they faced in their service and the nature of that very important principle of qualifying service. It is also a test which is supported overwhelmingly in the ex-service community in terms of ex-service organisations like the RSL because of that recognition of the circumstances people face if they are facing an armed enemy. I would like to leave it on that point. Although the amendments in this bill are minor, they are part of a continuing adjustment of the system to ensure it maintains the support required for those we represent and who deserve so much. I commend the bill to the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr RE Ramsey)—The original question was that this bill now be read a second time. To this the honourable member for New England has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question. Those of that opinion say aye, to the contrary no.

Question unresolved.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —As it is necessary to resolve this question to enable further questions to be considered in relation to this bill, in accordance with standing order 195 the bill will be returned to the House for further consideration.