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Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Page: 1921


Mr ROBERT (10:34 AM) —I rise to lend support to the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Weekly Payments) Bill 2010. This bill will seek to enable the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to make payments to some veterans on a weekly rather than fortnightly basis. The Repatriation Commission and/or the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission will make recommendations to the department for this purpose. Ostensibly, to be eligible, a veteran must either be homeless or at risk of being homeless. It is a small change but certainly one that provides benefit to that small group of veterans who may find themselves in difficult straits.

It is interesting to note that similar measures to these were contained in legislation passed in the 42nd Parliament, in the Social Security and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Weekly Payments) Bill 2010. That bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in February 2010 and subsequently passed the Senate on 18 March. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs advises that the measures contained in this legislation were intended to be included in the social security legislation; however, time did not allow this to occur. I am a little staggered that the government could not sort its act out to include a very, very simple amendment within the wider bill and now has to take more of the parliament’s time because the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the minister could not get it together to put it there. I could perhaps say to the government: if it would better prioritise its time, that would be useful.

If it could not manage to find the time for a range of simple housekeeping bills, seriously, what hope do we have at all about the government finding time for real reform within the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio? One only has to look at the Podger review, which the Gillard government has now had for three long years. We are still waiting for a response from this government after three years as to what it will do with that review that has come through. The member for Blair may sit there and smile, but his government has had this for three years. For three years the veterans community has been waiting for a response to the Podger review. Over 1,000 days have now transpired whilst various ministers have sat there and cogitated, and the veteran community is none the wiser as to what the government will do. All this sends a disturbing message as to the efficacy of this government and its ability to make serious and sound reform for our veteran community.

Be that as it may, the relevant changes to the MRC Act and the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, with this veterans-specific legislation, mean that veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness will be treated in the same manner as those clients eligible for assistance under the Social Security Act. Simply put, this bill will halve a fortnightly pension and provide half of that payment each week to the eligible recipient. It is almost that simple.

But, importantly, the bill makes a range of relevant changes to the MRC Act 2004 and the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 to ensure that veterans who choose to be paid weekly are not financially disadvantaged as a result of electing to receive weekly payments. It is also worth noting that, where a veteran is subject to deductions, these deductions will also be halved. The bill also mandates the authorities for determining which veterans are able to access weekly payments, the authorities being the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. This bill provides these authorities with the discretion to allow a veteran or ex-serviceperson in receipt of a pension through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to receive that payment weekly where it is in the veteran’s best interests to do so. The bill also establishes the power to create a ‘class of persons’ who can be considered eligible for weekly assistance where such a determination is in the veterans’ best interests.

The bill provides that the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, and separately, although likely identically, the Repatriation Commission, may also specify by legislative instrument a ‘class of persons’ who are eligible to apply to have their usually fortnightly-paid pension paid in weekly instalments. This instrument, once written, will become a disallowable instrument, normally tabled in the Senate. Once the commissions have determined this ‘class of persons’, upon request of an eligible veteran, their income support and/or disability pension can then be paid weekly. It is also worth noting that a veteran can continue to receive their weekly payments indefinitely—that is, the weekly payment option is not subject to review.

Clearly we support the bill, however with a comment on the lapse of the government in not actually combining this with the aforementioned social security bill. We certainly believe that it will ensure that veterans’ entitlements continue to be determined in a beneficial manner, which is the sole purpose. Any change to veterans’ entitlements which will ensure that veterans are better provided for has to be a worthwhile change. However, this legislative change, whilst welcome, will not deal with homelessness and should not be seen as a panacea for dealing with homelessness. The bill simply changes a payment from a fortnightly one to a weekly one.

Thankfully, the number of homeless veterans is small. My considered view is that it should be zero. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has advised that the number of veterans who may be eligible for weekly payments is commensurately small. Furthermore, the RSL in New South Wales advises that they have provided assistance to a small number of homeless veterans—less than 10—in the Sydney area. I think everyone in the House would agree that a worthy goal for the number of homeless veterans has to completely and utterly zero.

This bill is a housekeeping bill. It makes a small change to legislation that affects a relatively minor number of veterans. That is not to say that the change is not welcome; it is. Anything that provides support to veterans will certainly be welcomed by our side of the House. However, the changes remain small. And whilst the Gillard government refuses to respond, after over 1,000 days, to the Podger review, and continues to tinker around the edges of Veterans’ Affairs policies, it continues to avoid the great reforms needed. One of those, of course, has to do with military superannuation. In fact, since the government has not even responded to the review of military compensation arrangements in the Podger review for over 1,000 days, we are none the wiser as to where the government is going. The former Minister for Veterans’ Affairs made a range of noises before the last election about an impending large announcement, which all came to nothing. On the other hand, the coalition remains committed to addressing the needs of DFRDB military superannuants and veterans more widely. While the Gillard Labor government continues to deny a problem in the area of DFRDB superannuation, only the coalition has a plan to address these issues. The coalition released its plan before the last election: that we would index DFRDB pensions to the same level as those for the age pension. We made that firm and absolute commitment prior to the last election.

Furthermore, staggeringly, the Gillard Labor government’s complex pharmaceutical cost reimbursement scheme will not provide any real relief to veterans until 2013. The coalition’s plan, announced before the election, would have benefited almost 20,000 more veterans than Labor’s plan and would have included all of our most disabled veterans, which would have provided real relief from 2012. The Gillard Labor government must do more than simply tinker around the edges of veterans affairs policy. It needs to take the issue of veterans seriously, listen to the concerns being raised by the veterans community and act decisively—words that, unfortunately at present, the Gillard government seems to ignore.