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Monday, 20 June 2011
Page: 6478

Mr SNOWDON (LingiariMinister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel and Minister for Indigenous Health) (18:30): I thank the member for Werriwa for his contribution to the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill. He is just leaving the chamber, but I will come to his contribution in a moment. In summing up, I acknowledge the contributions of the members for Fadden, Ryan, Maranoa, Herbert, Solomon, McPherson, Cowan and Riverina for the opposition and the members for McEwen, Shortland, Richmond, Lyons and Werriwa for the government.

As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, this bill will give effect to three 2011 budget measures. Firstly, the bill will create a new prisoner of war recognition supplement for Australians who were prisoners of war. The new supplement of $500 per fortnight will be paid in recognition of the hardships that these men and women endured during their captivity. It is expected that approximately 900 former prisoners of war will benefit from the new, fortnightly supplement, which will be payable from 20 September 2011, the first payment being made on 6 October 2011.

I thank the member for Werriwa for his insights into the sacrifices made by prisoners of war. In particular, I reflect upon the 8,000 who died, out of a total of 22,300 prisoners, as a result of their treatment while in captivity with the Japanese. That should give us some insight about the nature of their treatment. I think his understanding, and that of other members of the parliament, of the issue says a lot about our appreciation of not only the contribution made by service men and women but in particular the sacrifices which were made by these very brave men and women. Those who are still with us have proved how resilient and tough they were. Clearly, their lives would have been in danger constantly. I am sure the suffering they endured would have left some of them, as the member for Werriwa pointed out, in a state where they would have had real issues over the remainder of their lives. I know that when this payment was announced by the Prime Minister—and I thank her for making it—at Kirribilli with a group of war veterans who were former prisoners of war it was a salutary experience for me especially, as Minister for Veterans' Affairs, to see how stoic these men were and remain, how resilient they are and, indeed, what a positive attitude they have to life. That says heaps about them as individuals and about us as a community and a country.

Further amendments in the bill will clarify and affirm the compensation offsetting legislation under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. Offsetting is intended to prevent double payments of compensation for the same incapacity, as I think is now understood. A decision of the full Federal Court highlighted the need to clarify this aspect of the legislation. The bill clarifies and affirms the compensation offsetting legislation that has been in place in the repatriation system since 1973. Finally, the bill will rationalise and better target payments for veterans and members who are undergoing treatment for war or defence caused injuries or diseases.

The bill will remove the current overlap in the allowances paid to veterans and members who are unable to work due to episodes of medical treatment and recuperation for war or defence caused injuries or diseases. Payments of temporary incapacity allowance will cease from 20 September 2011, with future payments being better targeted through the loss-of-earnings allowance. This measure has no impact on a veteran's or member's existing disability pension payment. From 20 September 2011, all eligible veterans and members in this situation will be assessed consistently against the criteria for loss-of-earnings allowance. These measures continue the government's commitment to streamlining and enhancing services and support to our veterans and members and their families.

A number of matters were raised by opposition members during the debate and, indeed, have been raised outside of this place by the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Senator Ronaldson. Despite what has been asserted, the budget measures included in this bill were the subject of wide consultation with the ex-service community. Post-budget briefings of heads of ex-service organisations, or ESOs, were held; an ex-services roundtable, including a separate briefing on the measures in this legislation, was held; PMAC, the Prime Ministerial Advisory Council, was briefed, and the ESO deputy commissioners in each state and territory discussed the issues with their ESO community. There was widespread discussion and consultation with the veteran community about the budget measures raised in the bill. We know, as I am sure you would be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the ex-service community has some very skilled practitioners who know how this legislation works and are free to raise concerns about these measures—which has not happened to date.

The compensation offsetting provisions, despite the comments which have been made, are not about changing the current arrangements; they are about ensuring that the principles of offsetting, which have been in place since 1973, are clear and unambiguous. These measures, quite simply, maintain the status quo. These measures ensure that veterans cannot get compensated twice for the same incapacity. That is widely accepted by the ex-service community. These amendments do not deny or change any existing veterans' entitlements. Let us be very clear about it: these amendments simply clarify and affirm existing arrangements that have been operating under all governments since 1973.

The member for Fadden specifically raised communication with regard to the proposed rationalisation of the temporary incapacity allowance and the loss of earnings allowance in the veteran community. I am pleased to inform the member that there is a communication plan in place. As with any changes to any measure, communication with the veteran community occurs as a matter of course. In addition to the briefing sessions already being provided and having been provided to ex-service organisations nationwide, key strategies will include provision of information to organisations, articles for the Veterans' Affairs Newsletter and updated information on the DVA website. The department will also be writing to veterans who may be affected in order to manage transition to the new arrangements.

I wish to briefly raise three other issues. One of them is funding for the Australian War Memorial. This matter has been raised in this place by a number of opposition speakers, as well as by the shadow minister outside this place and, indeed, in the Senate itself. It needs to be made very clear that this government is now providing funding of an additional $8 million a year, on top of the current $38 million, to the Australian War Memorial budget. That is a 21 per cent increase in its budget. That was done as a result of an examination of its finances, which was undertaken by me and the Minister for Finance and Deregulation at the request of the Prime Minister. We have responded to a very important need to provide additional resources to the Australian War Memorial, yet there has not been one jot of recognition from the opposition of the fact that the government has actually done something well beyond what the Australian War Memorial was initially asking for.

Mr Randall interjecting

Mr SNOWDON: We were not dragged kicking and screaming anywhere, my friend. Let us be very clear about this. This process started at the end of October last year and it is an initiative of this government. We have had the shadow minister walking around the country bleating that, somehow or other, the opposition has forced the government into this position. That is an absolutely ludicrous proposition and anyone who has dealt with or had any knowledge of the Australian War Memorial, the Council of the Australian War Memorial, the staff of the Australian War Memorial and the staff of the Department of the Veterans' Affairs would be able to tell you that that is not the case. But these clowns opposite prefer not to listen. So what we now have is an argument that, somehow or other, we have not provided sufficient resources to the Australian War Memorial for the development of its World War I galleries.

Let me make it very clear: this budget provides $1.7 million for the memorial to scope the full scale of the refurbishment. It may surprise the opposition that, despite the bleatings that we are not providing resources to the War Memorial for this particular purpose, this $1.7 million was precisely the amount of money the Australian War Memorial asked for. We were requested by the Australian War Memorial to provide them with $1.7 million for a scoping study so they could update their First World War galleries. The money has been provided. So let us not have any more cant from the opposition, particularly from the shadow spokesman, on this issue, because it is very clear we are meeting our responsibilities and, most importantly, we are doing it in conjunction with the Australian War Memorial.

The third issue I want to refer to is the opposition's criticism of the government about not providing funding for the centenary of Anzac for the 2011-12 budget. Again, I am at a bit of a loss to understand where the opposition is coming from here. The National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary report, How Australia may commemorate the Anzac Centenary, was presented to the Prime Minister on 28 March 2011. The Prime Minister indicated that the government would respond later in 2011. In the lead-up to the Anzac Centenary, the government has undertaken preparatory work, including the establishment of the Anzac Centenary Advisory Board. I will, hopefully, be making an announcement as to the chair of the board very shortly.

The opposition's commentary on this issue, like so many others in the veterans' community, is another example of creating unnecessary and unwarranted concern. It is a beat-up. The shadow veterans' affairs minister mentioned that the Australia Remembers 1945-1995 program set the standard. He referred to the Australia Remembers program. But he may be interested to know that no funding was provided in 1993-94 budget for that program, which, in the context of time, is comparable to the 2012-13 budget for the centenary of Anzac. There was no money provided in an equivalent year.

Initial funding of $350,000 was provided in the 1994-95 budget, which, in contemporary terms, is comparable to the 2013-14 budget. So let us be clear: we are well ahead of the game. The government will have funding in place well before then for the centenary of Anzac arrangements, and the Prime Minister has requested that we take matters back to the cabinet later this year.

The last matter I wish to raise is military superannuation. The shadow minister is on about this all the time, despite what we tell him. He appears to have a tin ear. This matter was raised by, among others, the member for Fadden, the member for Riverina and the member for Solomon. In 11 years of government, when the now opposition were in control of the treasury bench, in a period of economic sunshine, they did nothing about superannuation indexation—not a jot! They come in here, crying crocodile tears about the need for reform in the superannuation system but, when they had the levers of government, when they were in control of the treasury bench, they did absolutely nothing about it. What they are saying is clearly hypocritical. You had your opportunity, you were in government for 11 years and you did nothing. By the way, the proposal the opposition have put forward—and we saw it debated in the Senate—has not even been properly funded. The real fiscal cost of their proposal was $1.7 billion over four years, with an underlying cash cost of $175 million. It would have increased the government's unfunded liabilities by $6.2 billion.

Furthermore, their proposal was discriminatory. It did not even include the over 90 per cent of current ADF members in the Military Superannuation and Benefits Scheme. It deigned to do something about some but not all. Superannuation is a means by which Australians can manage their living standards in retirement. It is not designed to provide a replacement for income earned over a working life. The opposition has been hypocritical in every sense on this issue and on so many others in the area of veterans' affairs.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Administrator recommending appropriation announced.