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Monday, 20 June 2011
Page: 6474


Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (18:09): The Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment Bill 2011 gives effect to creating a prison-of-war recognition supplement, clarifying and affirming the original intention of the compensation offsetting policy in relation to disability pensions, and rationalising temporary incapacity allowance and loss of earnings allowance. The coalition agrees with all these measures.

Schedule 1 of the bill provides that, from 20 September this year, former Australian prisoners of war will receive a $500 payment each fortnight from the Australian government. This payment will be made to former military personnel and civilians who were taken as prisoners of war during World War II and the Korean War. This payment will not be taxable and will not affect present access by former prisoners of war to income support under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 and the Social Security Act or to compensation payments under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. There are almost 900 Australians known by the Department of Veterans' Affairs to be ex-POWs. All known ex-prisoners of war will automatically receive the payment, which they will be paid from 6 October.

The coalition has a strong record of providing assistance to Australia's ex-prisoners of war. In 2001, all former Japanese prisoners of war received a $25,000 tax-free, ex gratia payment from the Australian government. In 2003, former Korean prisoners of war and, in 2007, former German and Italian prisoners of war received similar payments. This additional payment will be welcomed by the 900 Australian ex-prisoners of war—and their families—who are eligible for the payment.

Schedule 2 of the bill seeks to clarify the operation of compensation provisions under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. CompĀ­ensation offsetting is a longstanding prinĀ­ciple under Australia's repatriation system. The fundamental principle of Australia's system is that compensation is paid for incapacity, not for a specific injury. The coalition believes that the changes proposed by this schedule should be investigated by a Senate committee. We will seek to refer the bill to afford the ex-service community an opportunity to have input into the proposed changes.

Schedule 3 of the bill will rationalise the way incapacity payments are paid under the act. The changes in this bill will remove the temporary incapacity allowance. Instead of receiving this payment, the veteran will be entitled to seek access to the loss of earnings allowance—LOE. The loss of earnings allowance is paid where the veteran accrues an actual loss of earnings as a result of hospitalisation or treatment of accepted disabilities or illnesses. The coalition is not opposed to this rationalisation and calls on the government to ensure the changes are appropriately communicated to the veteran and ex-service community.

The coalition is deeply disappointed that there was no money in the budget for the commemoration of the Anzac centenary. Communities across Australia need certainty about the availability of funding so that they can begin planning for this important, national commemorative event. I regard Anzac Day as our most important national day, and I am sure that most, if not all, members opposite would agree with me. The importance of this occasion was today marked by New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, who defined it as a deeply significant occasion for both countries.

The coalition welcomes the government's belated funding increase to the Australian War Memorial. It is disappointing that the Gillard Labor government acted only after significant pressure from the community and the coalition which forced them kicking and screaming to this outcome. The coalition remains concerned that there is no funding to completely redevelop the World War I galleries. The coalition has committed funds towards this work so that it is completed ahead of the 2015 Anzac centenary commemorations. Labor must now do the same thing.

The Gillard Labor government will cut $8 million from grassroots veterans' advocacy funding over the forward estimates. This decision will have a severe impact on the services provided by volunteers in our local community to veterans, especially to new veterans returning from recent conflicts, and to their families. A review of advocacy funding released 12 months ago did not recommend a cut in funding, which makes this announcement in the budget even more difficult to understand. The ex-service community had no warning that this cut was coming and they will now compete for a smaller funding pool. This cut could also jeopardise the provision of assistance to younger veterans and their families, who may seek advice from volunteer veteran pension and welfare officers about claims for compensation.

In terms of the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme and DFRB fair indexation, the coalition is committed to military superannuation reform. The Labor Party and the Greens stand condemned for their failure to support the coalition's bill to provide fair indexation to DFRDB and DFRB superannuants. The coalition believes the current indexation arrangements are palpably unfair. The opposition of the Labor-Greens alliance means the only way to deliver this reform is with the election of a coalition government.

I might read a letter that I received, as would many other members of parliament. It is from Bert Hoebee, who for a time served with distinction at Blamey Barracks at Kapooka, which is in Wagga Wagga—my hometown—in the electorate of Riverina. Wagga Wagga is the home of the soldier, because every recruit in the Australian Army goes through Wagga Wagga, through Blamey Barracks, prior to other deployments within the Army. Bert Hoebee writes:

Recently I wrote to you about the matter of social justice for veterans.

On 2 June, the House of Representatives agreed, evidently without dissent, to support the Coalition's policy of fair indexation for military superannuation pensions.

On 16 June, the Senate voted down the Bill to provide for implementation of that policy.

This despicable act of bastardry—

as Bert writes—

and political opportunism, directly and with the utmost disdain, ignored the will of the people of Australia as expressed in the House two weeks prior.

This act of what some call 'betrayal' was aided and abetted by the Greens, who abandoned their own policy to support fair indexation, through the complicity of its 'contribution' that had nothing more to offer but pompous statements on issues irrelevant to the case.

Thus are ex-service people condemned to continued unfair and unjust superannuation pension indexation, ever-depreciating purchasing power and reducing standards of living. Where are Labor's core value of fairness and its principle of a fair go for all Australians reflected in all of this?

Any government and its hangers-on that ignores the will of the people and turns its back on Australian service men and women in this reprehensible manner does so at its peril.

I now ask you, again, to examine your conscience, and ask: what are you going to do about this unjust treatment of Australia's ex-service people, in direct contravention of the express will of the House?

In another email, he writes:

It is high time to fairly index the pensions of all of our superannuated veterans (under the now-closed DFRB and DFRDB Scheme and the current MSBS scheme)—

the Military Superannuation Benefits Scheme—

and to put a stop to discrimination against them.

That is the fair deal which was a condition of their employment and to which they contributed financially during their service. Just and fair: nothing more, nothing less. Simple. Easily do-able. Long overdue.

This from a man who served his country with distinction. This is a man who, as I say, represented the Army in the home of the soldier, Blamey Barracks. I think it is high time that we listened more and more to people like Bert Hoebee. They, after all, represent the grassroots of our military—those people who served with distinction, who served with absolute determination and high principle and who should be listened to. It is high time to fairly index the pensions of all our superannuated veterans and to put a stop to discrimination against them. That is the deal which was a condition of their employment, as Bert wrote, and to which they contributed financially during their service. I call on the government to do it.