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Thursday, 3 June 2010
Page: 5157

Mrs MARKUS (9:57 AM) —I rise to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010. I am particularly pleased to have this opportunity to place on the record the coalition’s views about the measures announced by the Rudd Labor government in this year’s federal budget. Beyond being a budget built on a house of cards, this budget has not met tests for all of Labor’s pre-election promises. Before addressing the key provisions of this bill, which the coalition will not oppose, I would like to talk about some of the areas where the veteran community is still waiting for answers and action.

Labor’s budget does not deliver on commitments made to deal with the cost of pharmaceuticals for war caused disabilities. Page 12 of Labor’s plan for Veterans’ Affairs from the last election reads:

Labor commits to reviewing this matter in the first term of Government and to establishing, in consultation with the ex-service community, a fair solution that relieves the burden on veterans of the cost of medications to treat their war caused disabilities.

So far Labor has released a discussion paper following a $500,000 in-house review, a review which took 30 months to materialise, but there is no detail to the two options in the paper. Both options potentially exclude some ex-service personnel who are severely injured but who do not have qualifying service. More will be said between now and the election on this issue.

I will continue to consult with the ex-service community on this important issue, an area where Labor has dropped the ball and will not meet its full commitment ahead of the election. Also outstanding is Labor’s delayed review of advocacy funding for ex-service organisations due for release in the first quarter of this year. The largely volunteer ex-service community does not know the fate of the key review into funding for their organisations. Many ESOs have been anxious about the findings. This year’s funding round, including a delayed application date, has created considerable angst among the veteran community.

Early analysis shows that Victoria’s veteran and ex-service community value-adds almost $23 million in volunteer hours to the repatriation system throughout the network of veterans’ advocates and welfare and pensions officers. This cannot be overlooked. I call on the minister to immediately release the findings of the ESO funding review to enable the ex-service community and the coalition an opportunity to chart the best course forward in the area of advocacy funding.

The minister cannot criticise the former government for keeping reports hidden when he does the same thing. Yesterday in another debate the minister criticised the former coalition government for not releasing a report into military superannuation when it was received by the then minister. The Podger review arrived on the former minister’s desk in July 2007. The election was held in November of that same year and the government changed. The new government released the Podger review on Christmas Eve, 24 December 2007. For no more than six months was the report held from public view. Yet this minister forgets that until only recently he sat on the re-review of the Clarke review for 15 months and continues to sit on the findings of the review of advocacy funding.

There is a re-review of the re-review of the Clarke review into the BCOF veterans’ service, with no timetable for delivery. The Rudd Labor government took some 11 months to respond to the parliamentary inquiry into the F111 reseal-deseal issue. It is indeed odd that the minister criticises actions that he condones through his own behaviour.

Also ongoing is the review of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004. A couple of weeks ago at the RSL state congress the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel, in a particularly partisan attack, criticised the coalition for not supporting this review. This is not correct. Since becoming shadow minister in September 2008, I have supported this review. It is an important review into a key piece of legislation introduced by the previous coalition government. This review is critical to ensuring the act continues to meet the needs of the people it is designed to assist, veterans and their families. However, our support for the review is reliant on the minister being upfront about the timeline for the review. I was happy to support the review carrying on beyond the 31 March 2010 deadline. Nevertheless, the ex-service community and the coalition hope to have some indication from the minister or the government that this review will be concluded either before or after the election.

Veterans’ affairs legislation has been a largely bipartisan area of policy in this country for nearly 100 years. I hope that the minister and the government will not use this review to partisan politics in the lead-up to the election. The review needs to be on the table for both sides of politics and indeed the ex-service community to scrutinise ahead of an election.

This legislation enacts five measures by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the Minister for Defence Personnel in the budget. The measures relate to the government’s long-awaited re-review of the Clarke review of veterans’ entitlements commissioned by the previous coalition government. The re-review, focusing on 45 unimplemented recommendations of the report, will accept only an additional four recommendations, with three being re-reviewed for a second time.

Schedule 1 of this bill creates a new classification of service in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. The new classification, to be known as British nuclear test defence service, will provide additional benefits to former Defence personnel associated with the British nuclear testing in Western Australia and South Australia during the 1950s and 1960s. The new classification will provide eligible ex-service personnel with access to disability pensions and their spouse access to a war widow or widowers pension and, in some cases, access to the repatriation health card for all conditions—the gold card. Approximately 2,300 ex-service personnel will benefit from this new classification, at a cost of $24 million over the forward estimates.

Earlier this year, I met with some individuals who were involved in the nuclear testing here in Australia. Their stories were truly shocking. Moreover, the impact of this testing on their lives and that of their families is something that many would find hard to believe. I heard stories of personnel entering the fallout zone within hours of the detonation taking place. I heard of Navy divers scouring the floor of the ocean off Western Australia in similar circumstances. Quite often, personnel working in the dry and dusty Outback had little protective equipment or clothing to protect them from the effects of the radiation on their bodies.

The previous coalition government undertook in the wake of the recommendations of the Clarke review to conduct a cancer and mortality study. In spite of the recommendations of this study, which continue to be disputed by veterans, their families and some experts in this area, the previous government introduced the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Testing Treatment Bill 2006. The bill provided a repatriation health card for specific conditions and the white card for all cancer treatments for all former military personnel and civilians involved in the testing. The card was provided without the need for a person involved in the testing to prove that their cancer was caused by their service. More than 9,000 people benefited from this scheme.

This new schedule extends further entitlements to former Defence personnel in line with a recommendation of the Clarke review. Although I am disappointed that it has taken until the 11th hour of the life of this parliament for the government to deliver on its commitment, I know that it will be welcome by the ex-service personnel involved in nuclear testing and their families. Importantly, the legislation enacted by the previous coalition government will still enable civilians involved in the testing to access cancer treatment at no cost to them.

Schedule 2 of the bill will alter the classification of submarine special operations at operational and qualifying service under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. Between 1978 and 1992, Australian submariners participated in special operations. Little is known of the specifics of these missions. Their covert nature means that the specifics cannot be discussed. Nevertheless, these submariners were potentially placed in dangerous conditions. As a result, the government has decided to reclassify their service and provide additional entitlements to the veterans involved and their families.

Under the change, up to 890 personnel will benefit from access to the service pension, disability pensions, war widower pensions and the gold card once they reach 70 years of age. With ‘qualifying’ and ‘operational’ service, these individuals will be entitled to veteran status under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. I recently spoke to the President of the Naval Association of Australia, Les Dwyer. Les, I may say, is a great bloke. He warmly welcomes the extension of entitlements to the men who served in these missions. Les has written a very detailed article for the next issue of the White Ensign magazine in which he welcomes the government’s announcement.

At this point I would like to remind the House of a motion moved by my colleague, the honourable member for Fairfax and the Chief Opposition Whip, in February last year, which called on the reclassification of this service. Alex Somlyay’s commitment to the reclassification of special operations service was widely welcomed in the veteran community. Together with a former minister for defence, Dr Brendan Nelson, a former minister for veterans’ affairs, the member for Maranoa, Bruce Scott MP, and a former parliamentary secretary for defence, the member for Herbert, Peter Lindsay MP, the coalition moved and supported the call to reclassify this service. I am pleased with this amendment, and I pay tribute to my colleagues who pursued this issue in the parliament.

The third schedule in this bill deals with service at Ubon in north-east Thailand between 31 May 1962 and 27 July 1962 inclusive. This change is brought about by a ‘nature of service’ review by the Department of Defence, which considers that there is sufficient new evidence to upgrade the status of service at Ubon at the beginning of the RAAF deployment there in 1962.

The history of Australia’s involvement in the stability of South-East Asia during the 1950s and 1960s is perhaps not well understood by many Australians. Following the involvement of Australian defence personnel in the Malayan Emergency, and the Indonesian Confrontation, RAAF personnel were deployed to the Ubon region of north-east Thailand to protect the territorial integrity of Thailand.

Ubon, located close to the Thai-Laotian border, was seen as a strategically important location in the protection of Thailand and other South-East Asian nations from the threat of communism. At the time, the domino theory—of communism sweeping southwards through Asia, one country at a time—prompted the Australian government to be involved in the protection of stable democracies and governments throughout the region. This deployment was sanctioned by the South East Asian Treaty Organisation, SEATO.

In May 1962, the Australian government authorised the deployment of 79 Squadron to the Ubon region. According to a recollection by retired Air Vic Marshall Ray Trebilco, at Ubon:

There was a 5,000 foot strip, a small American radar unit called Lion which was training the Royal Thai Air Force personnel, a non-directional beacon, jet fuel facilities and a control tower of sorts, but that was all.

He goes on:

We understood that the governor of the province and some of the local dignitaries would be flying in from Korat together with the Australian Ambassador and the press to meet our Sabres on arrival. We were also told there would be little crowd control at the air field and that … interested locals and even cattle could all present problems in having a clear runway to land on.

The modest nature of the facilities during the early deployment could have put personnel deployed there at risk. The explanatory memorandum states:

Service in Ubon … is to be re-classified as ‘qualifying service’ due to the potential risk from the activities of hostile forces and dissident elements.

Activities at Ubon continued until 1970. From 1965, personnel at Ubon had their service classified as ‘warlike’ given the increased activity in the area due to the Vietnam War. However, service between 28 July 1962 and 1965 will continue to be considered ‘operational service’ under the VE Act. Principally, personnel who worked at Ubon during the period specified by this amendment will have access to a service pension and, when they turn 70 years of age, the gold card, over and above what they can already access by way of disability pensions and the war widow/widower pension for their spouse upon death resulting from their war-caused disability.

Schedule 4 of the bill corrects an anomaly in the VE Act regarding domiciled status for 18- to 21-year-old Commonwealth or allied veterans with eligible service under the VE Act. Under the VE Act, British Commonwealth and allied veterans may be eligible for pensions and other benefits if they have eligible service with a Commonwealth or allied defence force and if they had Australian domicile immediately prior to their enlistment in that defence force. This policy was intended to cover those Australians who were travelling or studying overseas at the time World War II broke out and who could not return to Australia to enlist in the Australian Defence Force.

In the absence of the legal concept of Australian citizenship until 1949, the domicile concept was adopted as a means of determining whether a British, Commonwealth or allied veteran could be regarded as an Australian at the time of enlistment. However, persons under 21 at the time of their enlistment in a Commonwealth or allied defence force could not establish a domicile of choice, as the common law rules that applied at that time meant that a person could not assume a domicile of choice before the age of 21.

The Domicile Act 1982 has since lowered the age at which a person can claim independent domicile from 21 to 18 years of age. However this act does not apply to circumstances that occurred before the commencement of the act, and thus the common-law rules continue to apply in those circumstances. This amendment, a recommendation of the Clarke review, which was not implemented in 2004, will enable those veterans who were between 18 and 20 and unable to nominate Australia as their domicile of choice to gain eligibility under the VE Act for their service as Australian veterans providing they meet the other domicile and service eligibility requirements.

The final schedule of the act relates to a loophole affecting war widows and widowers. This provision will close a loophole in the act which enables a war widower or widow living in a de facto relationship to claim a war widows or widowers pension after they enter the relationship. This is not consistent with the law relating to married or re-married war widow or widowers, who cannot claim the pension after marrying or re-marrying.

I have a particular interest in this measure. As the daughter and grand-daughter of war widows, I am determined to ensure future war widows and widowers do not come up against the same challenges that my mother, in particular, did. It took my mother more than 30 years to access a war widows pension, because her first application was refused and it took an advocate, 30 years later, to convince my mother that she was indeed eligible for a war widows pension and to re-apply.

People do not live neat, tidy lives. This measure, which is prospective and will not affect, we are told, any war widow or widowers living in a marriage-like relationship who claim their pension before 30 September 2010, risks disenfranchising future war widows or widowers. At a time of grief and bereavement, the last thing anyone wants to be doing is filling in a form. Some widows may not be aware that they are indeed entitled to such a pension. Equally, people’s circumstances change; they may enter more difficult times or unwittingly enter a relationship, denying themselves access to a pension in future years. I am concerned about this measure. Whilst I understand it closes a loophole in the existing legislation, I am concerned about the impact this will have on future war widows and widowers. I again make the point that people’s lives do not necessarily reflect an ideal, or perfect, image. Community standards have changed.

Of course, in 2001, the previous coalition government widened an earlier change to the legislation regarding war widows and widowers. Under the 2001 changes, war widows or widowers who remarried after claiming their war widow or widower pension and who lost their pension upon remarriage had their pension reinstated. However, this only applied to those widows or widowers who lost their pension after remarrying; it did not extend to people who had not claimed their pension before remarriage.

My office has been contacted by one woman from Queensland who is in this situation. This individual remarried after the death of her veteran husband because of an economic need and the cultural and social norms of the time. She was not aware that the war widow pension existed—let alone that she was entitled to access it. When she discovered, after the death of her second husband, that she might be eligible for a pension, she was denied it because she had not applied for the pension before she remarried. What we need to aim for, ideally, is to ensure that war widows and widowers in the generations ahead are not in any way disadvantaged because they did not fill out a form upon the death of their veteran spouse.

In conclusion, the coalition will not oppose the measures in this bill. While I do have concerns about the provisions of schedule 5, the other four measures of this bill are of benefit to the affected individuals and their families.