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Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Page: 3391

Mr SNOWDON (LingiariMinister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Minister for Indigenous Health and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Centenary of ANZAC) (12:02): I thank all of those who have made a contribution to this debate. I know that there is uniform support for this legislation—I will go to the comments on military indexation at a later part—but I want to make an observation about the reference to the Senate committee. There was a very extensive consultation around the review and during the course of the review. DVA met with the ESAs in March of this year to discuss the outcome of the review and this legislation. There has been considerable discussion through the process and whilst we have no difficulty with having a Senate committee, in terms of the requirement for additional consultation, it is not necessary.

Having said that, the measures in this bill, as others have said, will enhance the repatriation system in providing access to compensation and health care for our Australian Defence Force members, former members and their families. The bill will achieve this mainly through amendments to the Military Rehabilitation Compensation Act 2004 otherwise called, in short, the MRCA. The MRCA provides rehabilitation and compensation for injuries, diseases and deaths caused by all types of military service on or from 1 July 2004. These amendments will ensure that the MRCA, as the act covering all contemporary defence service, continues to best meet the needs of our members and former members now and into the future.

These amendments are the result of an extensive Review of Military Compensation Arrangements and involve comprehensive consultation with the defence and veterans communities. The report concluded that the objectives of MRCA are sound. Importantly, it also confirmed that the unique nature of military service justified rehabilitation and compensation arrangements specifically to the needs of the military.

The initiatives in this bill form part of the government's response to the Review of Military Compensation Arrangements. The introduction of a repatriation health card for specific conditions, known as the white card, will benefit former members of the Australian Defence Force with conditions accepted under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, or SRCA, needing long-term treatment. SRCA members issued with a white card will no longer need to claim reimbursement for treatment costs related to their SRCA injury or ask their healthcare provider to invoice the Department of Veterans' Affairs. This measure will streamline arrangements for treatment for SRCA members and will result in a consistent method of access for all former members of the Australian Defence Force with long-term treatment needs.

The bill will give wholly dependent partners of deceased members more flexible options for the compensation payments provided under the MRCA. Instead of a single choice between receiving ongoing compensation payments or a lump sum payment, from 1 July 2013 wholly dependent partners will be able to choose to convert 25 per cent, 50 per cent, 75 per cent or indeed 100 per cent of their periodic compensation amount to an age based lump sum payment. This increased flexibility will enable a wholly dependent partner to better meet their immediate and long-term financial priorities and applies to the future partners and existing partners who are yet to make their choice as to how to receive their compensation.

The amount of compensation paid for financial advice will be increased for those persons who are required to make a choice under the MRCA about the nature of the benefits they receive. The maximum compensation available will increase from $1,592 to $2,400 and legal advice related to that choice can be also covered within the new limit. There will be a one-off increase to the rate of ongoing compensation for eligible young persons under the MRCA to match the rate payable for a dependent child under the SRCA—an anomaly we are pleased to have fixed.

Rehabilitation and transition management services under the MRCA will be enhanced to improve consistency across the three branches of the Defence Force and increase flexibility and rehabilitation management. Improved consistency will be achieved by giving the Chief of the Defence Force overarching responsibility for rehabilitation of serving members, which we think is fundamental. Transition management services will also be made available to part-time reservists.

The bill will allow payment of compensation for permanent impairment for claimants with more than one condition accepted under the MRCA. Additionally, DVA will make greater use of the payment of interim permanent impairment compensation and will be able to include a payment for an imputed lifestyle effect when determining the level of interim compensation payable, which will result in increased compensation payments.

From 1 July 2013 the eligibility criteria for special rate disability pension under the MRCA will be expanded to include certain persons who are not currently eligible because the person converted their incapacity compensation payments to a lump sum or because the incapacity payment is fully offset by Commonwealth superannuation. As a result of this measure, the person will also be entitled to additional benefits that are associated with the eligibility for special rate disability pension including a gold card, education assistance for eligible young persons and a MRCA supplement.

Amendments in the bill will simplify the claims process for conditions accepted under the Veterans Entitlement Act that are aggravated by service covered under the MRCA. Currently, a person must choose whether to claim the aggravation under either the VEA or the MRCA. If this sounds complicated, it is. Currently, they must make a choice.

The existing process is complex, resulting in confusion for clients and is administratively resource intensive. From 1 July 2013 a simplified arrangement will be introduced resulting in all such claims being determined under the VEA. The initiatives in this bill are the result of a comprehensive review of our modern repatriation system and will result in improved outcomes for many in the defence and veteran communities. They clearly demonstrate the Australian government's support and high regard for our Defence Force members. It is a credit to successive governments that the review concluded that our repatriation system required only relatively minor legislative adjustments to meet the ongoing needs of veterans and serving and former members and their families. These changes will continue this country's proud tradition of caring for those who served and the families of those who have fallen.

Briefly, I will refer to the comments which have been consistently made about indexation of military pensions. The first observation is that people are linking a superannuation payment—an entitlement as part of their employment—to income supplements or income support payments as a pension, which they are not. They are in no way equivalent to a pension; they are a superannuation benefit. I think people are either deliberately obfuscating or confusing the two issues.

I am not going to go to the merits of the arguments because I do not agree with them, but I do want to make one observation. I think the member for Riverina gave the impression that this proposal for indexation was about the impact on the lives of people who are currently serving. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. This will not impact at all on at least 150,000 serving men and women who are under the current MSBS superannuation scheme. They will not be impacted at all.

I had a meeting quite recently with a senior, very venerable returned serviceman who was in discussion with a very venerable serving man who has recently come from Afghanistan. The retired veteran said to me, 'What are you doing about our pensions?' I said, 'We're not doing anything about your pensions.' He said, 'Well, you need to.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'It's all about these young blokes.' This young serving veteran said, 'No, it's not. It has no impact upon us at all.' Let us understand what is happening here.

This is about dealing with a retirement benefit which people could take after 20 years of service. Many took it in their early 40s, got a lump sum and an annuity for the rest of their lives, and they are now asking the Commonwealth to index that lump sum to the equivalent of a pension, which it is not. Let there be no confusion here. I am surprised at the dishonest way in which this debate has been repeated around the country by some elements of the returned services community and promoted by the opposition as if in some way it is going to impact upon current serving veterans. It is just really dishonest. I would say to them: I have no problem with you having the argument but let us be clear about the intent, who it is meant to address and who it is going to exclude. We do not agree with you. You have got every right to promote your view, but let us do it in a way which actually demonstrates very clearly who you are talking about rather than confusing the discussion about this indexation as if it is going to impact upon people who are MSBS members because it will not. That is all I have to say, and I am pleased that the opposition has chosen to support the legislation.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.