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Thursday, 24 March 2011
Page: 3388

Mr CHRISTENSEN (11:36 AM) —I rise to speak on behalf of all servicemen and women in the electorate of Dawson, people who make a proud commitment to this country, and who deserve careful consideration of their needs and welfare.

The electorate of Dawson has a large number of military and ex-military personnel, taking in suburbs such as Annandale, Wulguru and Townsville quite near to where Lavarack Barracks and the 1RAR are a dominant part of the local community and the local economy. Regional Queensland has always maintained a strong connection with their ex-servicemen and women, and Dawson is no different from that. Regional towns in Dawson are small enough that residents regularly pass by war memorials on a daily basis.

In fact, many of the small communities have planted mango or fig trees to line avenues in honour of the local men who served and made the ultimate sacrifice in the wars that defined our country. The Eimeo or Pleystowe communities have those trees, for instance. They planted a tree for each of those brave men who volunteered their lives. Those tree-lined avenues are still sacred ground for today’s community because the community respects the commitment that those servicemen and women made.

In return for their commitment though, we as a nation must make certain commitments of our own. The federal government supports veterans and war widows in a number of ways, but sometimes that delivery is not perfect. The delivery of allowances to war widows was not perfect, and there were some unintended consequences which needed to be addressed. In clarifying the legislation, the amendment bill that we speak on today is welcomed by the Liberal-National coalition.

The bill may still not be perfect, but at least it moves a step closer. I understand that these amendments will avoid a situation where a war widow is inadvertently receiving benefits that she perhaps is not entitled to. We must also accept that imperfect delivery may work the other way as well, and sometimes the consequences of an imperfect delivery are far more damaging. The human face of failed delivery in the Dawson electorate in this regard is Mr Fred Collett. Mr Collett is an ex-serviceman who fought for his country and endured hardship for his country. He followed orders, risked his life and survived through one of the worst wars this planet has ever seen—World War II.

Mr Collett is 101 years old, and has been bypassed in the delivery of a commitment made to our servicemen and women. Fred Collett has been penalised for doing his job—penalised for following orders. He had the audacity as a prisoner of war in Greece to escape in a wooden boat and make his way over the sea for three weeks to warn fellow soldiers of an enemy advance. Almost 70 years after that escape, the problem for Mr Collett is that he escaped. When the government paid $25,000 in compensation to POWs, Fred did not qualify. He did not qualify because he escaped.

Since the introduction of the compensation, around 2,500 POWs have received the benefit but almost 800 more have failed to qualify. They were given hope when Mr Collett’s case went before the Federal Court. Unfortunately, he was again denied that compensation last year, even though the Federal Court Justice John Logan ruled that Mr Collett had indeed been a POW. Justice Logan said in his finding that Mr Collett was a POW from the moment his unit surrendered but spending two hours in the surrender area did not constitute residence. He said efforts to escape and rejoin the unit proved Mr Collett ‘conspicuously and commendably did his duty’.

Fred Collett may be 101, but he knows when he is copping the rough end of the pineapple. He is no longer up to taking the legal battle any further, but he should not have to. When I spoke with him yesterday he was still dirty on the government for rejecting his entitlement. In fact, he pointed out the stupidity of the situation by saying that he had been penalised for basically soldiering on in Africa, for doing his job. And he is right. He did what he was supposed to do. He fought a brave fight, he escaped and he went on to keep fighting. Now, he no longer has the strength to continue the fight with this government.

Today I call on the Minister for Finance and Deregulation to review his case, to consider the facts, to show some compassion and to make an ex gratia payment to this soldier and other soldiers like him while there is still time to recognise what they have done for their country. Mr Collett is not only soldier being let down by the military and the federal government. Even today soldiers are penalised for doing their duty. We have the absurd situation where special forces soldiers face court martialling for killing people in battle—in the heat of the moment, in the middle of a hostile encounter, where no rational man or woman would expect them to act differently.

I do not believe that the Defence Legal Services is living up to our commitment to our soldiers or at least the commitment we should be giving our soldiers. Our retired military personnel still have to deal with an imperfect system and some of the flaws can be addressed simply by using an up-to-date life expectancy table. As I understand it, the DFRDB Act calculates how much to reduce retired pay due to commutation of part of that income stream using a life expectancy table that was issued in 1963.

Does that make a lot of difference? Quite a lot, in fact. A 44-year-old male has a life expectancy of another 28.25 years according to that table, but, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics life table, he can expect to live for another 37.2 years. That is a difference of nearly nine years. When this is translated into dollar terms, it is a reduction in retired pay of $851.65 per year. The delivery is not right and fixing the delivery is as simple as updating the life expectancy table.

It is an imperfect system and we may never have it perfect, but we can strive to make it the best that we can. The Liberal-National coalition are committed to real reform of military superannuation. We are the only ones in this parliament committed to that reform. There are flaws with the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme and it is the Liberal-National coalition that have brought a bill into this parliament to address those flaws. We want to see the DFRDB and DFRB superannuants over the age of 55 have their pensions indexed in the same manner as the service pension and other Australian government income support pensions.

The ex-service community have recognised the flaw and are fully onboard with the changes outlined in the coalition’s bill in order to fix them. They are changes that make sense in the same way that changes outlined in the amendment bill we are addressing today make sense. We support these changes and we call on the other parties in this parliament and the government to support those changes that make sense where that occasion arises.

By remembering the commitment our service men and women give to us and have given to us and ensuring we honour a commensurate commitment to them, we can continue to monitor benefit schemes for any inequities and flaws to continually provide better outcomes. We can walk down an avenue lined with mango trees, perhaps in Eimeo, and think about what that represents. We can think about who paid the ultimate price. We can think about those who lived through those ordeals, people like Fred Collett, and we can think about how we treat them. If we are fair dinkum, we will see where the system is not right and we will fix the system.

Fred helped build this nation for a century and he deserves better than being penalised for doing a good job. Again I appeal to the finance minister to take a walk down a memorial avenue of mango trees in my electorate, even if it is just a virtual walk, and see why making an ex gratia payment to this man is the right thing to do.