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Thursday, 16 June 2011
Page: 6357

Mr EWEN JONES (Herbert) (13:24): With great pride, I rise to speak on the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill 2011. I am very lucky in that I come from the town of Townsville. Townsville is Australia's garrison city, Australia's most significant armoured deployment and home of all three branches of the ADF. We take our veterans very, very seriously, and we have a significant veteran population in Townsville. We like to vary the way we look at things in Townsville. For example, there are the ways that the schools do Anzac Day, from the very formal processes of Townsville Grammar School's presentation on Anzac Day and their school history to those of schools like Heatley Secondary College and Southern Cross Catholic School, which take a more informal but nevertheless reverential look at the sacrifices people have made for us.

This bill in some ways goes to address that with a $500 fortnightly payment to prisoners of war in recognition of the hardship they experienced while serving. We now call it post-traumatic stress disorder; in those days, they used to call it shell shock. I was fortunate enough not to be born at the time of the Second World War, but my parents know and I have family members who know people who were prisoners of war. I was lucky to be born in the town of Quilpie. There were people on cattle properties out there who were Changi prisoners. They came home so emaciated, so skinny, so poor. My mother always told a story about one of those guys who used to lie in bed and his mother would sit there and say: 'Don't you die, Bill! Don't you die!' And he didn't. Nevertheless, there are scars to be carried. That is a very significant thing, and I think it is good that we recognise this, on top of the $25,000 bonus. We should never take for granted what people have given.

All veterans take their work very, very seriously, whether they dress in blue, white or green. We shift them around the country. We shift them around the world. Yes, we do give them trades, we do give them jobs that they will have for the rest of their lives, but every now and then we ask them to go overseas and get shot at or support people who are being shot at. Quite often you find that the people who have suffered the most are not the ones who were actually in the battle but the people who had to go and pick them up from there, the people who had to go and clean up. I was reminded of that with the death of the helicopter pilot in Afghanistan just recently. The American crew who had to go and blow up the helicopter had within days suffered significant losses themselves when they went over an IED. Those are the sorts of things where you have to become very fatalistic. I think the Australian Defence Force professional becomes very fatalistic in those things, and it is up to us as a society to recognise the scars that are incurred by our defence people.

As a nation, we have now embraced our Vietnam veterans, our Somalia veterans and our Rwanda veterans and soon will embrace our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. If you come to Townsville on Anzac Day, your heart just swells with pride. The street and the Strand are just chock-a-block full of people and families who go through there. Every school in Townsville is full of people from the Defence Force. We are very proud of our military history. But it is those smaller ceremonies that make you proud of your veterans' history. It is the smaller ceremonies for the Battle of the Coral Sea and the celebrations for the Vietnam veterans, not just the big ones of Anzac Day and Remembrance Day, that tell you just how important our veterans are.

You see the guys that come in and they still have a bit of a limp. We had an issue this year when two Second World War veterans wanted to march. People were a bit worried that they would not be able to make it, and they wanted them to go on a car. Like true Australian veterans, they just dug in their heels, thumbed their noses at authority and said, 'Bugger you, mate; we're walking.' So they led the march and did a great job. They led the whole town and got a standing ovation all the way through.

The first schedule of this bill provides a $500 fortnightly payment to prisoners of war in recognition of the hardship they experienced while serving, and that is just. These payments will not be taxable, which is also very, very important. They will not affect current income support payments, and they will be automatically received by all former Australian POWs. I think that is fair and just.

The second schedule clarifies the policy outlined in the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 of offsetting compensation provided under multiple acts. The third schedule restructures temporary incapacity allowances offered to veterans in a more efficient manner.

When it comes to dealing with veterans, I think the government and we as an opposition must sit down and talk to our veterans because they know intimately how they will be affected. My office is very lucky in that I do have a very active and vocal veteran population and they do tell me what is going on, from the intractability of some sections of the Department of Veterans' Affairs to the absolutely sublime work that the department does provide.

We have to learn that these men and women who have served in the Australian Defence Force, and are veterans, do have needs that cannot be fixed just with a whitewash brush. Sometimes we have to look at these things on an individual basis. When it comes to big changes like this, the more information we do put in front of our veterans the better off they will be. They do read it, they will tell you what is wrong with it and they will tell you what is right with it. If we as a parliament can listen to these people, we will end up a better place.

I just digress for one moment here to speak on the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefit Scheme. It is an issue that we took very seriously to the last election. It is something that both sides have made promises about and something that I have launched a petition on. I ask leave of the House to table a petition of some 12,620 signatures of people supporting fair indexation of the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): I understand the petition has not yet been presented to the Standing Committee on Petitions. Leave is granted, subject to the approval of the Standing Committee on Petitions.

Mr EWEN JONES: I thank the House. The 12,620 petitioners there were gathered in a very short space of time by a network of people who did it by email, telephone and fax. I received emails and telephone calls of support from all over the world—from Canada, Chile, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and Ireland. I got well-wishes from people who were on the road and were not able to download the document or email or fax it back to me. These people have done this in a very short period of time. They take their work very seriously. I ask that their wishes on this Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefit Scheme are taken very seriously.

Since 1972, when the Whitlam government brought it into consolidated revenue, it has only been indexed to the CPI when the pensions of everyone else have been indexed to the CPI or male average weekly earnings and the cost of living index. Slowly but surely the DFRDB recipients have fallen further and further behind.

Some people have said that this is an additional expense to the government. It is not because all it is doing is catching up where they have been missing out. So it should not be viewed as an expense but be viewed as just bringing them back onto line. They are not asking to be compensated for the nearly 40 years that they have been short-changed. They are just asking that from now on those people left on the DFRDB and associated pensions are brought together and spoken to as real people.

The previous member for Herbert, Mr Peter Lindsay, said his greatest failing and his greatest sorrow was that during his 14 years as the member he was never able to get this up. It is not just this government that has let our veterans down but a lot of parliaments all the way back, including this one. The issue goes back to the governments led by Mr Whitlam, Mr Fraser, Mr Hawke, Mr Keating and Mr Howard as well as the Rudd-Gillard governments.

I ask the parliament that we do take this very seriously when it does come through the House and that we do stand up and support our veterans and support the people who have served a minimum of 20 years in the Defence Force to qualify for this pension. I have said before in this House—and I will say it again—that we in this House, on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day and every other day that we can get in front of our veterans, stand up proudly and let their bravery and service to the nation wash over us and reflect the glory. But when we get behind closed doors we do not back that up and support our DFRDB recipients when it comes to actually paying up the cash. That is what they find most troubling. I get on very well with just about everyone in the Defence Force community and all they ask is to be treated fairly. If they were asking for something more than someone else was getting, they would understand, but they do not ask for more than anyone else is getting. They are not asking to be treated differently or any less seriously than any other person in the community. All they are asking is that they be brought in line.

I do urge the government to send the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill 2011 to a Senate committee and that they get it in front of veterans' organisations such as the Defence Force Welfare Association. I ask that they take their words very seriously. These people have a lot to offer. They know more about the act than we ever will because they are subject to it. I commend the bill to the House.