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Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Page: 1047

Mr ROBERT (11:40 AM) —I rise to lend comment to the Veterans’ Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2010 after the bill was lost following the proroguing of parliament. This bill implements Labor’s 2007 election commitment to reconsider the unimplemented recommendations of the Clarke review of veterans’ entitlements. The review of veterans’ entitlements of course was conducted by the Hon. John Clarke QC and was completed in 2003. In 2004 the previous coalition government responded with a package of $236 million over five years. Building upon this in 2007 the Labor Party promised:

A Rudd Labor Government will give further consideration to recommendations of the Clarke Review of Veterans’ Entitlements that were not acted upon by the Howard Government. This process will also give early priority to recommendations relating to those Australian participants in the British Commonwealth Occupational Force in Japan and Defence participants in the atomic tests in Australia.

That was on page 22 of Labor’s Plan for Veterans’ Affairs.

Subsequently, on 9 September 2008 the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs issued a press release titled Government kicks off Clarke review nuclear veterans and BCOF a priority. Submissions from veterans about unimplemented recommendations were due by 1 December 2009. The recommendations of the re-review of the Clarke review—lots of reviews there—were delivered to Minister Griffin in February 2009. It is disappointing that it took more than 30 months from the election of the government and 15 months from the time the report was delivered to the minister for any action on those recommendations. However I am pleased that the government has sought to bring the bill back unamended after it was prorogued with the parliament.

In terms of specific measures, in the 2010-2011 budget the Rudd Labor government announced $36 million over four years to implement the re-reviewed recommendations of the Clarke review. As part of this, the government announced three recommendations were accepted and acted upon, four had been accepted, four deferred for further consideration, 22 referred to review of military compensation acts, and 12 rejected for a second time. It is disappointing that the government had not sought with the re-introduction of the bill to relook at some of those provisions that they had either deferred for further consideration or outright rejected. Recommendations relating to the British Commonwealth Occupational Force veterans have been further delayed, the government stating that it proposes to defer its response to these recommendations to allow further examination and discussion within the government and with the Defence Nature of Service review team. May I suggest, Madam Deputy Speaker Bird, that since parliament was prorogued in August there has been plenty of time to review those recommendations and to allow for further examination.

Disappointingly, there is also no time line for the completion of this further review. The Rudd Labor government made a big noise about correcting the service of BCOF veterans under the review of the Clarke review, yet here we are waiting 30 months, plus now another five or six since the election commenced, and we are still seeing three recommendations going off to another review—or a re-review of the re-review of the Clarke review—with no firm timetable for delivery. I think I can speak for everyone in the parliament that perhaps we do not need any more re-reviews of the re-review of the Clarke review; we just need someone to do something.

There are 2,700 aged veterans and their families, not to mention the rest of the nation, the parliament and, I suspect, most of Labor’s side of parliament, who are none the wiser about the commitment that Labor made to them at the 2007 election and that was still in force at the 2010 election. Notwithstanding that, there are five schedules. Schedule 1, relates to the British nuclear test recommendation 45 of the Clarke review. It states that the Australian government will reclassify the service of British nuclear test defence service veterans to an equivalent hazardous non-war like status. This reclassification has an appropriation cost of $23.4 million over four years. Eligible ex-defence personnel will be able to access disability pensions, war widow(er) pensions and, where applicable, the gold card. In 2006 the previous coalition government extended coverage of the white card to all ex-defence and civilian personnel who were involved in the tests. White card coverage will remain for civilian personnel who were not ex-defence personnel. Under changes to the VEA, the Veterans Entitlements’ Act 1986, a new classification of service will be inserted into the act to reflect this spirit of the Clarke review recommendation.

Schedule 2 looks at recommendation 31a of the Clarke review. The Australian government will seek to reclassify the service of submarine special operations undertaken between 1 January 1978 and 31 December 1992 as ‘qualifying’ and ‘operational’ service. This change will entitle them to access to assets- and means-tested service pension at age 60, disability pension, war widow(er) pension and the gold card at age 70. The Rudd Labor government’s response states:

… based on advice from the Department of Defence, for certain submarine special operations between 1978 and 1992 where submariners and others are eligible for the award of the Australian Service Medal with the Submarine Special Operations Clasp, the Government will seek to amend the VEA to extend operational and qualifying service. This goes further than the Clarke Review—

to their credit—

and grants Service Pension at age 60, the Gold Card at age 70 and disability pension with the reasonable hypothesis test.

The Naval Association of Australia strongly supports the extended classification and, frankly, so do I. For anyone who has not spent time in the now decommissioned Oberon submarines, which is what we are talking about, imagine dressing yourself in one big greasy oily rag and staying that way for months at a time, while conducting significant operations in our region. They are the conditions that these men served under. So I congratulate the government for its foresight in this area.

Schedule 3 deals with service in Thailand. The Australian government will again reclassify certain service between 31 May 1962 and 27 July 1962 in north-east Thailand at Ubon as ‘qualifying service’. This will entitle eligible veterans access to service pensions at age 60, the gold card at age 70, on top of existing entitlements to disability and war widow(er) pensions. This reclassification is not due to a specific recommendation in the Clarke review—again to the government’s credit. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel at the time said in a press release on 11 May 2010 that this item was not in response to the Clarke review but a decision taken by the government.

It is instructive to look at the history of this service to understand, perhaps, a little of where the government came from in its decision. Throughout the sixties, Australian service personnel were stationed throughout South-East Asia and were involved in conflicts in Malaya and Indonesia. Indeed, in a Malayan emergency 36 Australian service personnel were killed—the first Australian deaths in action since the cessation of World War II. After 1965, personnel were involved in the Vietnam War through the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. In May 1962, the 79th Squadron from the Royal Australian Air Force was dispatched to north-east Thailand to protect the territorial integrity of Thailand. At the time of their dispatch, I think it is fair to say that there were few, if any, facilities at Ubon. By the end of July, more permanent facilities had begun to be constructed, but prior to that they were literally eking a living out of the jungle. Although personnel remained at Ubon until 1968, this particular two months of service has been reclassified due to the ‘potential risk from the activities of hostile forces and dissident elements’, not to mention living in particularly parlous circumstances. I think schedule 3 receives universal acclamation from the parliament in what it is seeking to do.

Schedule 4 of the bill deals with section 60 of the Clarke review. The Australian government is seeking to correct an anomaly in the VE Act to enable certain British Commonwealth and allied veterans who were aged between 18 and 21 at the time of enlistment in the Commonwealth or allied defence force to access the Australian repatriation system. Under the VE Act, British Commonwealth and allied veterans may be eligible for pensions and other benefits if they have eligible service with the Commonwealth or allied defence forces and if they had Australian domicile immediately prior to their enlistment in that defence force. It, indeed, makes sense to support that.

Schedule 5 deals with the effect of war widows and widowers entering into a de facto relationship. Recommendation 54 of the Clarke review looks at the Australian government removing an entitlement from war widows or widowers who claim a war widow or widower pension after entering a marriage-like—de facto—relationship. Consequently the government will require eligible war widows or widowers to claim a war widow or widower pension before they enter a new relationship in order to qualify for their pension. Under current legislation, a war widow or widower who applies for a war widow or widower pension after marrying or remarrying is not entitled to a pension. However, a war widow or widower who enters a marriage-like relationship, including a de facto one, can still apply for that pension. Whilst this change is prospective—so no current war widows or widowers will be affected by this change—it does seek to make some assumptions about the way people live their lives. I note the government is seeking to save $1.4 million over four years, denying approximately 10 new applications per year.

Again, looking at the history of this may be instructive. In 1984, the Hawke government ‘reinstated’ pensions to married or remarried war widows who, until then, lost their pension upon remarriage. This change applied from 1984 and was not retrospective. In 2001, the previous coalition government broadened this 1984 change to any married or remarried war widow who lost their pension as a result of their marriage or remarriage after applying for—and being granted—a war widow pension. Justice Clarke recommended, inter alia, that no change to present arrangements be made, including the broadening of the base of war widow and widower pensions to people who applied after marriage. The war widow and widower pension is a compensation payment and is not means tested. It is paid at the rate of $703.90 per fortnight and some eligible war widows and widowers may also receive an income support supplement. This change has the support of the veterans and ex-service community, including the War Widows’ Guild of Australia and Legacy. My view, for what it is worth, remains that a war widow or widower remains a war widow or widower regardless if they are remarried or move into a de facto relationship. I cite a tremendous lady, Nicole Pearce, whose husband, David ‘Poppy’ Pearce, was tragically killed in Afghanistan very early in the conflict. Regardless of how she moves forward in her life, she remains a war widow. Her husband was killed in combat operations. Her two small daughters were there when her husband was buried and I see them each year and talk to them on the anniversary of her husband’s death, 9 October. Regardless of how she chooses to move forward in her life, she remains a war widow and this nation still has a debt to pay to her. Whilst accepting Justice Clarke’s recommendations and whilst accepting what the government is doing with this schedule, I point out that my comments are simply a reflection of a personal view, that a war widow will always remain a war widow. Otherwise I conclude my comments with respect to this veterans bill before it moves back to the House.