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Thursday, 3 June 2010
Page: 5166


Mr BALDWIN (10:37 AM) —I rise today to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010. In essence, this bill will address a number of election commitments made by Labor during the 2007 election campaign. It is no surprise that these changes are only now being introduced, three years later, in the run-up to the 2010 election. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs regularly stands up in this House and says, ‘You had 12 years to do something,’ and I accept that, but this government has been in place for nearly three years and only now are we finally seeing action. So let there be no doubt that the only thing that spurs this government into action is bad press or bad polls.

The first measure contained within this bill concerns ex-defence personnel who have service relating to the British nuclear tests and is in line with the recommendation of the Clarke review. This measure seeks to insert a new classification within the Veterans’ Entitlement Act titled ‘British nuclear test defence service’ and will provide ex-defence personnel with additional entitlements. These entitlements will be equivalent to the existing entitlements contained within the Veterans’ Entitlements Act for hazardous or non-warlike service. Those persons who qualify under this definition will be eligible to access disability pensions, war widow/widower pensions and, in some cases, the gold card. Importantly, the reverse criminal standard of proof will be used to asses a person’s eligibility to claim benefits under this measure.

The next measure contained within this bill relates to service undertaken while on submarine special operations. This measure will reclassify service as operational and qualifying under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. This change applies only to service undertaken on submarine special operations between 1 January 1978 and 31 December 1992, whereby some Royal Australian Navy submarines were engaged in special operations and intelligence operations to the north and west of Australia. The benefits available to qualifying and eligible persons are the service pension, the disability pension, the war widow/widower pension and a gold card from age 70. Eligibility for this entitlement will again be determined by applying the reverse criminal standard of proof and will be determined on service during the periods I previously specified, as well as on the basis that a member is entitled to be awarded with the Australian Service Medal with a ‘Special Ops’ clasp.

The next measure contained within this bill concerns service rendered by ADF personnel in Thailand—specifically service rendered at Ubon between 21 May 1962 and 27 July 1962. Currently, service at Ubon during this time is classified as operational; however, this amendment seeks to reclassify that service as qualifying service in light of the fact that those deployed at Ubon during the aforementioned period were exposed to potential risks arising from the activities of hostile forces and dissident elements. However, it is important to note that this amendment does not affect the classification of service rendered throughout the rest of the north-east of Thailand during this period and, as such, this service will remain classified as operational service. This amendment will grant eligible persons access to the service pension, the disability pension, the war widow/widower pension and the gold card from age 70.

The fourth amendment put forward under this legislation relates to the legal concept of a domicile of choice. By way of a short historical explanation, in the absence of the legal concept of Australian citizenship until 1949, the domicile of choice concept was used to determine whether a British, Commonwealth or allied veteran could be regarded as an Australian at the time of enlistment. That is, if a person was deemed, under common-law rules that applied at the time, as living in a residence located in Australia, they were regarded as a resident at the time of enlistment. However, a problem arose with this construct as a person aged under 21 years at the time of their enlistment could not establish a domicile of choice due to the common-law rules as they applied at the time. To correct this situation, the Domicile Act 1982 lowered the age at which a person could be legally regarded as establishing a domicile of choice from 21 to 18 years. However, the legislation did not apply to those cases arising before the commencement of that act. This amendment seeks to enable those British, Commonwealth or allied veterans aged between 18 and 21 at the time of enlistment to access Australian pensions and other benefits, provided that other common-law tests used in determining the domicile of choice are met.

The final amendment contained within this bill seeks to remove a so-called loophole which allows a widow/widower to claim a war widow/widower pension even if they enter into a de facto relationship prior to claiming the war widow/widower pension. By way of contrast, a widow/widower who marries or remarries before claiming the war widow/widower pension is not eligible for that pension. This legislation effectively means that the provisions for claiming a war widow/widower pension will now apply equally to those who are married or in a de facto relationship. Importantly, this amendment is prospective and will not affect any claim for a pension made before 30 September 2010.

While the measures contained within this bill meet with the recommendations contained within the Clarke review, and I note they also have the broad support of the veterans community, it is important to note the timing of the introduction of this legislation. It is quite obvious that the Rudd Labor government has chosen to introduce this legislation during the time immediately preceding the election campaign proper. This point has not been lost on the veterans community. While they may be supportive of the changes I have just outlined, I am confident that they will also be cognisant of the fact that the timing of this bill is, to put it nicely, suspect. Take, for instance, the recommendations of the review of the Clarke report. These recommendations were delivered to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Mr Griffin, in February 2009. It has taken Minister Griffin 15 months from the time he received the report for any action—at all—to occur on the recommendations of the review of the Clarke review. Yet only today in this House, Mr Griffin had the audacity to criticise the former coalition government for a three-month turnaround time on the Podger review.

I put it to you, Minister Griffin: what are you going to do with the Podger review? You have had it for 2½ years and you have done nothing with it. Committing to release it says nothing about what you intend to do with its recommendations. It is just more talk, no action. The veterans community simply does not buy the line that because you said you would release it, and did, that you have discharged your responsibility on this matter. And I am here to remind you that you have a long way to go before anyone would consider that you have even come close to doing so.

This is just more spin from a government trying to deflect attention away from its own failings—and there are lots of them. For the minister to stand in this House and claim that three months was far too long a time for the release of the Podger review, only to take over 15 months to act on the Clarke review illustrates the utter hypocrisy of this minister. And let us not forget that for all the fanfare made by the Rudd Labor government about ‘correcting’ the service of BCOF veterans, some 30 months later it has decided to have the three recommendations reviewed again. So they are re-reviewing the re-reviewed recommendations! But that is the modus operandi of the Rudd Labor government: if it is too hard they will delay it, bury it or re-review it. Therefore, 2,700 aged veterans and their families are still waiting on the Rudd Labor government to fulfil their 2007 election commitments.

I note that the measures contained within this bill will be widely welcomed by the veterans community. But I also note that the Rudd Labor government, through the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Mr Griffin, has waited until the last possible moment to introduce this legislation, all so he can maximise the political impact of these new measures. This is the action of a desperate government, a government trying to regain momentum. This is an act of a government that puts its self-interest before the interests of those in the veterans community.

To conclude, veterans deserve a government that is upfront and honest with regard to its policies and promises, something that the current government has failed on both accounts. Veterans deserve a minister that will take action based on the interests of veterans, not the political interests of the Rudd Labor government. And finally, our service personnel, past and present, deserve to live out their lives in dignity and peace after giving so much to their nation. They deserve a government that will make the tough decisions and give veterans a sense of what is to come, instead of leaving them in limbo, waiting for answers on the important matter of their future financial and social security.