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Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Page: 1052

Mrs MARKUS (12:02 PM) —I rise today to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2010. I state from the outset that the coalition supports this bill, which makes a number of minor amendments to legislation affecting the veteran community. Despite this bill having been presented in November of last year, the legislation has been continually pushed aside and delayed. This is disappointing; however, I am pleased to have this opportunity in the House to speak about issues that are important to the veteran community.

The Veterans’ Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2010 contains eight parts. I will focus briefly on each part of the bill. Part 1 of the bill makes amendments to the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests Treatment Act 2006. This legislation was passed in the parliament in 2006 under the previous coalition government. The act provided a white card to veterans of British nuclear testing in Western Australia and South Australia. It covered not only defence personnel but also guards and other employees who worked on the sites until the 1990s. The legislation passed in 2006 was intended to benefit up to 5,500 veterans and former public servants. This amendment extends the coverage to Australian Protective Service officers who served on the site between 1984 and 1988. They were inadvertently left out as a result of other acts and the situation of the Australian Federal Police. I am pleased that this amendment is being made now.

The government has created a new classification for veterans’ service—British nuclear test defence service—equivalent to hazardous non-warlike service under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. This will enable eligible participants to access disability pensions and war widower pensions where applicable. This new classification is in response to the Rudd Labor government’s re-review of the Clarke review, which sat on the minister’s desk for 15 months after being released publicly.

Part 2 of this bill amends the Defence Service Homes Act to allow the Commonwealth to make payment to the state or a state authority where, under a law of the state, a person carrying on in that state the business of insuring against the risk of loss of or damage to property is liable to make payments to the state or a state authority to assist in meeting the costs of the state emergency services of that state. The New South Wales state Labor government has decided to place a levy on insurance policies held in that state to meet the costs of operating the State Emergency Service. This is a tax grab from a cash-strapped state Labor government, penalising insurance policyholders with a tax.

Whilst the coalition has opposed this new tax in New South Wales, the constitution largely requires the federal parliament to allow this legislative change to pass. It is not pleasing, nor does it seem fair, that veterans and defence personnel who have insurance policies in the state of New South Wales are unfairly charged a levy, expected to be around $10 per annum, to meet what should be a cost met through other revenue sources. There has been some suggestion that the cost for insurance companies to charge this levy will be around $20 million, with these costs also being passed on to holders of insurance policies.

This is an open-ended amendment which allows any state to charge an SES levy and for the Defence Homes Insurance Service to transfer revenue raised for this purpose to the relevant state government. This change in effect means that federal parliamentary approval will not be required should Victoria or Queensland also decide to levy the charge. This amendment gives that approval in advance. I am disappointed that this new levy is being put in place. This is additional evidence of the need for a new coalition government in New South Wales headed by Barry O’Farrell.

Part 3 of the legislation extends the period in which claims for travel expenses may be lodged with the department. Specifically, the amendment extends the time limit for the lodgement of a claim for non-treatment related travel expenses from three months to 12 months. That will align the time limit with that already available for travel expenses for obtaining treatment. The amendment also introduces to each of the non-treatment travel categories a further extension to the 12-month time limit for exceptional circumstances, as currently exists for travel expenses for obtaining treatment. The veteran community largely has been calling for this for some time now.

Part 4 makes a technical change in the way documents are served under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004. The Federal Court recently highlighted the absence of provisions within the VEA and MRCA that set out the requirements for the service of written notices or other documents under the acts. The amendment will enable a number of entities under each act, such as the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, to specify in writing the manner in which a notice or other document may be given to a person.

Part 5 fixes a drafting anomaly in the VEA concerning injuries and diseases and their coverage by MRCA. It makes clear that compensation remains payable under the VEA for the original war-caused and defence-caused component of an injury or disease that is subsequently aggravated or materially contributed to by defence service on or after 1 July 2004, when MRCA began. The member has the option of electing to make a claim under VEA or MRCA for the component of the injury or disease that has been aggravated or materially contributed to by service on or after 1 July 2004. This was the original intention of the legislation and ensures that legally this process is undertaken and carried out.

Part 6 makes a prospective amendment to the MRCA regarding widows of prisoners of war. This amendment will enable them to claim a pension under MRCA—a provision which is available in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act but not under MRCA.

Part 7 is a technical amendment which will enable the Specialist Medical Review Council, or SMRC, to review decisions of the RMA. The RMA is responsible for preparing statements of principles which are utilised by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in assessing the eligibility of a veteran for particular entitlements for injuries or part of their service. There are two statements of principles used in determining whether an injury or disease is related to war or defence service. One sets out the types of conditions which need to exist as a minimum before it can be said that a reasonable hypothesis has been raised connecting the injury or disease with service. The other statement sets out factors that must exist and which of those factors must be related to service before it can be said that, on the balance of probabilities, an injury or disease is connected with service.

Statements of principles are prepared by the Repatriation Medical Authority. They can be reviewed by the Specialist Medical Review Council, and under the current legislation there is no requirement for the SMRC to review both statements of principles. This can lead to the potential for the two statements to differ slightly. So under this amendment the SMRC will review both statements to ensure that they remain aligned.

The final amendments in part 8 clarify some technical arrangements under the MRCA as they relate to the payment of money into bank accounts. The amendments also enable recipients of the Victoria Cross to receive an annuity from a foreign government in addition to the Australian government’s Victoria Cross allowance. Currently annuities cannot be received by Australian recipients in conjunction with an Australian annuity. The VEA will be amended to exclude any foreign allowance or annuity from counting as income under the act’s income test. Any payment will be included in the hardship test of the act. The Social Security Act will also be amended to exclude any foreign allowance or annuity from the act’s income test in line with existing practice.

Madam Deputy Speaker, these are minor but not inconsequential amendments. We support the changes to the legislation which make it easier for our veterans and their families to access assistance and benefits that they may be entitled to. Whilst we have some reservations about the SES levy, more broadly this legislation does carry the bipartisan support of the opposition.