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Thursday, 16 June 2011
Page: 6352


Mrs ANDREWS (McPherson) (12:59): I welcome the opportunity to speak today on the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill 2011. This bill seeks to implement three measures which affect veterans' entitlements: the provision of fortnightly payments of $500 to former prisoners of war, the clarification of arrangements for compensation offsetting with respect to the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 and, finally, the modernisation and rationalisation of the arrangements for the payment of loss-of-earnings allowances to eligible veterans.

Firstly, I will speak about payments to prisoners of war. The relevant schedule to the bill is entitled 'Prisoner of war recognition supplement'. I believe the word 'recognition' is particularly relevant to the veteran community and is significant to all Australians. I take this opportunity today to recognise the sacrifices made by veterans and to thank them for the sacrifices that they have made. There are approximately 900 former POWs in Australia, including 20 who reside on the Gold Coast. In 1975, repatriation regulations to provide health benefits for POWs were established. While serving our country these veterans were confined in camps, buildings, prisons or other restricted areas as a prisoner of the enemy. POWs have a unique place in our history and within the veterans' community.

The coalition has a strong record on providing assistance for Australia's ex-prisoners of war. I note, for example, the $25,000 tax-free, ex gratia payment from the Howard government which was made available in 2001 to all former POWs of the Japanese. The coalition extended these payments to other former POWs, with former Korean War POWs and former POWs of the Germans and Italians receiving similar payments in 2003 and 2007 respectively.

The coalition supports the continuing acknowledgement and appreciation of our former POWs. Under this bill, ex-POWs will receive a $500 payment each fortnight from the Australian government from 20 September 2011. Specifically, this payment will be made to former military personnel and civilians who were taken as POWs during World War II and the Korean War. The payment will be considered to be a non-taxable supplement. The proposed payment will not affect former POWs' present access to income support under either the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 or the Social Security Act, or to compensation payments under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. As I indicated before, there are approximately 900 eligible former POWs, and they will automatically receive the payment, with the first payments to take effect from 6 October 2011.

Schedule 2 of the bill relates to compensation offsetting. This schedule seeks to clarify the operation of compensation provisions under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. Currently, under Australia's repatriation system, compensation is paid for incapacity, not for a specific injury. These amendments have come about in response to the ruling of the full Federal Court in the case of the Commonwealth of Australia v Smith in 2009. In essence, the court found that the facts of Mr Smith's case meant that the Repatriation Commission's determination to offset his compensation under each scheme, in line with the principle of compensation offsetting, was inappropriate. Therefore, the full Federal Court determined that Mr Smith's separate incapacities should be separately compensated because they were different injuries with different incapacities.

In response to this issue, schedule 2 substitutes the words 'the incapacity from that injury or disease or the death', contained in the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986, with the more precise phrase 'the same incapacity of the veteran from that or any other injury or disease or in respect of that death'. The amendments proposed by schedule 2 should be investigated by a Senate committee. I believe that referring the bill for investigation by a Senate committee will allow the ex-service community, the community affected, an opportunity to provide their input and to have a say into these proposed changes. It is hoped that through consultation with the ex-service community, additional interpretations and explanations of the decisions in Smith can be made.

Thirdly, I would like to speak briefly about schedule 3 of the bill. The changes proposed in schedule 3 will remove the temporary incapacity allowance. As an alternative, veterans will be entitled to seek access to the loss of earnings allowance. I will not speak in detail on this amendment, but I note that, although these two allowances both provide similar comp­ensation, the loss of earnings allowance provides compensation to a broader group but is restricted to veterans who experience an actual loss.

This bill is of particular importance to the McPherson electorate, taking into consid­eration the large veteran community that we have on the Gold Coast, particularly on the southern Gold Coast, which is my electorate. In McPherson we have a local support group that is directly involved in assisting the veterans community and therefore has a vested interest in this bill. The Veterans Support Centre at Currumbin RSL has been providing high-quality advice and support to veterans in the McPherson electorate for some time now. The support service has been providing services to both members and ex-members of the defence forces and their dependants, assisting them in obtaining entitlements under the Veterans' Entitlements Act, the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

The Veterans Support Centre staff work in accordance with the mission, role and objectives of the national RSL. Services include providing an initial point for welfare matters; assessment and advice in the preparation of primary claims; and applications for increased benefits under the various relevant acts. The organisation also assists with the preparation and presentation of cases for review to the Repatriation Commission under section 31 of the act. The Veterans Support Centre does not discriminate against those not affiliated with RSLs. Support services are made available to all entitled veterans, members and ex-members of the defence forces and their dependants, regardless of whether they hold an RSL membership. The Currumbin RSL's Veterans Support Centre, well located within the McPherson electorate, is the largest of its kind on the Gold Coast. During the first quarter of this year, the centre's staff processed 154 claims. This resulted in an increase in pension and allowances to over $198,000, translating to a projected increase of close to $365,000 for DVA allowances.

The sacrifices that veterans have made for our community are recognised and are reciprocated by the tireless efforts of staff and volunteers at the Veterans Support Centre at Currumbin. The people directly involved in assisting our veterans and Defence Force members and families deserve recognition of their contribution to the local veteran community. I take the opportunity today to acknowledge and thank the chair of the Veterans Support Centre, Joseph Gates, for his continued support and dedication to the veterans community. Joe was recently commended for his contribution to the support centre as a recipient of the McPherson community services award.

There are a number of welfare officers at the support centre, and they have responded to 105 general inquiries. The report for the first quarter has indicated a further 122 welfare referrals in hospitals, 116 in home visits and 119 consultations at aged-care facilities. In total, 357 field visits have been made to McPherson veterans in three months. I believe that the mobile service, in addition to the in-house support, is essential to our ageing community. On any day the support centre handles between 15 and 20 calls for welfare assistance, and it is presently supporting around 200 active clients. I should note that these calls are not quick calls; the support staff at the Veterans Support Centre spend a considerable amount of time talking to and working with each of the veterans to make sure that they fully understand the issues and are providing the highest level of support to them.

Demand at the Currumbin RSL veterans support services outnumbers that at many other support services on the Gold Coast. The inquiries are handled by 18 volunteer officers who donate their time to help. Over 3,400 veterans require assistance in the McPherson electorate alone. The centre has been set up to deal with a large capacity of inquiry. If the centre ceased to operate there would be a long waiting list of veterans requiring assistance with entitlement services.

Considerable expenses are involved in running the Veterans Support Centre. The Currumbin RSL Sub-Branch has donated $100,000 towards payroll and office expenses. In addition, a total of $37,531 has been obtained through grants from the Building Excellence in Support and Training program of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. These grants are provided through veterans' advocacy funding and are currently at risk of being cut by $8 million overall by the Gillard Labor government. If this happens the government will be putting a number of volunteer community services such as the Veterans Support Centre in crisis. The ex-services community was not prewarned about the decision to cut this funding and as a result has not been able to prepare for any alternatives. With a smaller pool of funding to rely on, members of the ex-service community will have to compete with each other to survive. A review of advocacy funding released only 12 months ago did not recommend a cut in funding. A cut in funding will result in a cut in services for our growing and ageing veteran community.

In conclusion, I remind the House that the coalition supports the continuing acknow­ledgement and appreciation of the sacrifices made by our veterans, and I also do so very personally. As I have discussed today, the proposed bill is of particular importance to the McPherson electorate. We have a vast and extensive veterans community within the electorate. Therefore, while the coalition does not oppose this legislation, it should be referred to a Senate committee for further investigation so that our veterans get the recognition they deserve.