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Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Page: 9517


Mr BALDWIN (Paterson) (09:32): I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. This bill seeks to make some minor measures and amendments to legislation affecting our veterans and ex-servicepeople. Most importantly, the bill seeks to clarify the arrangements regarding the payment of travel expenses for treatment under the Veterans' Entitlement Act and the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act. It also makes exemptions from income tax for reimbursements under the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, MRCA Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and the new Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimburse­ment Scheme. The bill also exempts bereavement payments in respect of Indigenous veterans or members from social security income tests. However, as welcome as these amendments are, I, in concert with my coalition colleagues, believe that they do not go far enough. As I said back in May 2010 when I spoke on the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Income Support Measures) Bill:

This government seems to believe that tinkering on the edges of policy development and introducing administration bill after administration bill on veterans' affairs issues are wholesale substitutes for policy reform. It is disappointing that I again stand here and debate yet another bill that fails to deal with the No. 1 issue that affects our veteran community, an issue that the then Rudd and now Gillard Labor Party said prior to the 2007 election it would fix.

I speak about the promise to fix the indexation of military superannuation pensions. It is as live an issue today as it was back then—perhaps even more so. However, before I address the indexation issue I want to address the issue of the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme. For those who do not remember, this government went to the 2007 election with much fanfare, promising our ex-service community a Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme. As with so many of their promises which they had failed to deliver during their first term of office, they then took the scheme for a second time to the 2010 election. However, what was eventually delivered—by regulation I might add, not by legislation in this parliament—was a poor imitation of what had been initially promised and it has not been widely welcomed by the veteran and ex-service community.

The wholesale changes that the veteran community were expecting after the promises made by Labor at the 2007 and 2010 elections and since then have simply failed to materialize. Like the Rudd government before it, the Gillard Labor government promised much to the veteran community but have repeatedly failed to deliver, due to their own self-interest and poll-driven policy paralysis.

Like the government, the coalition also promised a veterans' pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme at the 2010 election. However, unlike the government scheme, which only gave those veterans with qualifying service and in receipt of a disability pension help with their out-of-pocket expenses, the coalition promised that all veterans and ex-service people in receipt of disability pension paid above 50 per cent of the general rate would qualify for the scheme. The coalition believes the govern­ment's Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimburse­ment Scheme creates two classes of disabled veterans and is unfair, to say the least. More importantly, it means that 1,500 of our most disabled ex-servicemen who receive a disability pension are not eligible for the scheme. The coalition during Senate estimates asked the government for the advice used to introduce the scheme by regulation, which it has refused to provide. It is for this reason that we on this side of the House have introduced amendments to this bill to correct what we perceive as a flaw in the scheme that was introduced by regulation.

Saturday was the 46th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. As I said at the two Vietnam Veteran Day ceremonies I attended in my electorate in the Medowie and Forster, the day was an opportunity to pause, reflect and remember the sacrifice over 10 years between 1962 and 1972 of nearly 60,000 Australians who served in the Vietnam War. Throughout the campaign 521 were killed in action and more than 3,000 were wounded. For many Vietnam veterans, Australia's involvement in the war is as vivid and fresh today as it was all those years ago, even though the conflict for all intents and purposes ended 39 years ago. General Westmoreland, the commander of US forces in Vietnam, said of the Australian troops at an Anzac Day service, 'I have never seen a finer group of men. I have never fought with a finer group of soldiers.' Yet their return home was not a happy one for the Vietnam War had divided our nation. There were no welcome home matches, no garlands placed around their shoulders, no tributes to their gallantry. Many have told me of the hardships they faced and the feelings of rejection and alienation from a nation that was looking to put the Vietnam War behind it.

Passing this legislation with the coalition's amendments would be a significant win for our veterans. The RSL has already called for the abolition of out-of-pocket pharmaceutical expenses for all veterans, something that has also been supported by Legacy, the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia and Vietnam Veterans Federation of Australia. This would be a strong step in that direction.

Recently the House paid tribute to the service of Sergeant Blaine Diddams, whose parents, Peter and Cath, live in Pacific Palms in my electorate. He was tragically killed on 2 July during an engagement with insurgents on his seventh tour of operation in Afghanistan. As a member of the Special Operations Task Group from the Special Air Service Regiment, he was a true hero who leaves behind a wife and two children. Working so closely together in the services, mateship is like no other. This is something we were reminded of in the family statement on Sergeant Diddams' death, which read, 'His mates really became members of our family and the men he stood side-by-side with in the SASR were his brothers in every sense of the word.' His death again brought home to me the sacrifices our soldiers today are prepared to make for our country and those that our veterans have made from lines that run from Gallipoli through Kokoda to also reach into Long Tan and Tarin Kowt.

As my phone call expressing my deepest condolences over the loss of their son drew to a close, I asked what I could do to help the family. Sergeant Diddams' father Peter, himself a Vietnam veteran who retired in 1998, simply asked that I should do all I could to look after our troops. We should never forget the sacrifice of all 33 of the Australians who have died in Afghanistan and neither should we forget the troops who have died in all conflicts that our nation has been involved in, from the first Australian soldiers killed in South African wars in the last years of the 19th century to recent operations in Afghanistan. However, we can honour their memory by looking after all of those veterans who have returned. Today we recognise that the way the Vietnam veterans came home at the end of that conflict was not our country's finest hour. It is therefore time to heed Sergeant Diddams' father's call to look after our troops and honour all veterans.

As I alluded to earlier, the number one issue for our veteran community is to achieve a fair indexation for the 57,000 military superannuants and their families, something the coalition is determined to see happen. That is why the coalition will support this legislation while seeking to introduce two significant amendments.

The fair indexation of military superannuation has been an ongoing campaign, most notably by the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations and the Defence Force Welfare Organisation campaign, which calls for a fair go.

In this House we have all received ongoing correspondence on this matter. I have received hundreds of emails and letters from many of my constituents regarding the paltry increases in the DFRDB pensions this year. Dave from Medowie asked:

I notice from the news that the federal MPs will receive a three per cent pay increase, which is the second in three months. This news came to me the same day that I was advised from DFRDB that my pension would increase by 0.1 per cent for the year. How is it that your pay increase is by a factor of 30 compared to mine?

Brian from Raymond Terrace wrote:

I received my DFRDB update that informed me the CPI had risen by 0.1 per cent, thus raising my pension by 66 cents. With the carbon tax and increasing costs on everyday essentials this seems bizarre in the extreme. Can you look into this unfair and possibly discriminatory action, not just for me but for all military pensioners?

Ernie from Salt Ash wrote:

After 20 years service to queen and country I received my six-monthly self-funded update of that pension. It was 0.1 per cent. This equates to 86 cents per fortnight until the next CPI increase. I feel insulted and sad.

Ernie concluded by asking, 'Is there no way that the subject can be raised again?' Well, Ernie, like all DFRDB recipients in my electorate Paterson—indeed, across our nation—you deserve better. I believe, as do my coalition colleagues, that it is not acceptable for parliamentarians to bestow upon themselves pay increases, whether awarded by an independent body or otherwise, without looking after those veterans, such as Dave, Ernie and Brian, who have served our nation in a much greater capacity.

Veterans' organisations have also been making strong representations on this issue. The submission to the Senate committee on the coalition's Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Amendment (Fair Indexation) Bill 2010 by the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations noted:

In no other calling, occupation or profession has the State the power to accept or demand the surrender of these rights [Universal Human Rights]. The Unique Nature of Military Service deserves unique solutions and also places a great burden on the Government as the “employer” to ensure that ADF members are looked after both during and after Service.

The submission by the Returned and Services League of Australia, the RSL, further argues that the differences between the legislation for military superannuation schemes and other Commonwealth superannuation schemes is a policy aberration. It says:

An examination of legislation for the Australian Defence Force shows that in almost all respects, the Parliament has been consistent since Federation in regarding the nation's armed forces as a separate and quite distinctly different part of Australian society.

I have been calling for indexation for some time now. In fact, prior to the last election my colleague Louise Markus, who is now the member for Macquarie, and I developed the policy to increase the DFRDB that was taken to the election. We feel very strongly about this issue. That is why I am delighted the coalition have heard these calls and have responded, as we are doing here today.

The coalition is committed to seeing the DFRB and the DFRDB military superannuation pensions being indexed in the same manner as the aged pensions. Last year, in Melbourne, the Leader of the Opposition recommitted—to our last election campaign commitment—to fairly index the DFRB and the DFRDB. This was during his address to the RSL national conference. In fact, he signed a pledge this March to deliver fair indexation.

The government has not yet responded. On the same day that our side recommitted to providing veterans with fair indexation, the Treasurer rejected it outright. Labor is also still to respond to the Podger review on military superannuation, despite having had four years to do so. Labor should do better than let its wasteful and reckless spending erode veterans' pensions even further by not supporting the coalition's fair indexation amendment.

Military superannuants should not have to wait for a coalition government to be delivered fair indexation, which is why I call upon all parliamentarians—whatever their political affiliation—to show support for our veterans by supporting the coalition's amendments. I know that there are others outside the coalition who share our position on this matter.

On 18 May this year the member for Lyne gave notice of a motion which called for fair indexation of these pensions. Today is the day that he can join in and support the coalition and deliver on his commitment in that notice of motion. The member for Denison, back in October 2011, also spoke in favour of this measure—

Mr Katter: Madam Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Some of us do want to know whether voting for the opposition's amendment—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mrs D'Ath ): Order! What is your point of order? The member for Kennedy will get his time to speak shortly.

Mr Katter: will negate all the benefits that are in here.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The member for Paterson has the call.

Mr BALDWIN: That is an unusual interjection from a preposterous fool. The member for Denison, back in October 2011, also spoke in favour—

Mr Snowdon: Madam Deputy Speaker, I ask the member to withdraw that statement.

Mr BALDWIN: I will withdraw, for the expediency of the House. The member for Denison, back in October 2011, also spoke in favour of this measure.

Mr Katter: Madam Deputy Speaker, as I understand it, that gratuitous insult was directed at me, and I want an apology.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The statement has been withdrawn, as has been requested by the House.

Mr Katter interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member for Kennedy will get his time to speak very shortly.

Mr BALDWIN: As I said before I was interrupted, the member for Denison, back in 2011 also spoke in favour of these measures—again, this will be an opportunity to vote for what he has previously said, instead of just blatantly lining up with the government. I am sure there are others on the crossbenches who must be in favour of a better deal for our superannuants

However, these are amendments that all members of this House should be able to support. By coming together in a bipartisan manner in this House, we can show Australians that we always do the right thing by those who give so much to our nation through their service. Sergeant Diddams father, Peter, whose son made the greatest sacrifice of all, has asked us to look after those who have served our nation and returned home. By supporting these amendments we are able to do that.