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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 5647

Senator RONALDSON (Victoria) (10:01): I rise to speak on the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill 2011 and flag that I will be moving an amendment during the Committee of the Whole to omit schedule 2 from the bill. This bill seeks to do three things. Firstly, the bill establishes a prisoner of war recognition supplement—a POWR—of $500 per fortnight, which will be paid to around 900 eligible former prisoners of war. Secondly, the bill seeks to clarify arrangements concerning offsetting provi­sions under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. I will speak in further detail about this schedule shortly. Finally, the third schedule of this bill rationalises the way temporary incapacity payments are made under the bill.

The coalition supports schedules 1 and 3 of the bill. Of course, schedule 1 of the bill builds on a similar initiative of the previous coalition government. The previous coalition government made one-off ex gratia payments of $25,000 to Australian ex-POWs. In 2001 these payments were made to former Japanese POWs, in 2003 to prisoners of the North Koreans and in 2007 to former captives of the Germans and Italians. Honourable senators will know of my close personal connection to the ex-POW com­munity in Australia through my involvement as co-chair of the Australian ex-prisoner of war memorial project in my home city of Ballarat. The coalition supports the supple­ment, which will be available to approxi­mately 900 POWs who are known to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The first payment will be made on 6 October and the measure will be in place from 20 September this year.

Schedule 3 of this bill rationalises temporary incapacity payments under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986—the VEA. The changes abolish the payment of temporary incapacity allowance under the act, with those previously eligible for this payment being transferred to the loss of earnings allowance presently available under the VEA. The rationalisation of these pay­ments reflects the changing nature of Australian society. A stay in hospital and periods of convalescence can be much shorter now than in the past. The temporary incapacity allowance currently paid under the VEA requires an eligible veteran to be hospitalised or unable to work for a mini­mum period of 28 days. After 28 days the veteran is eligible to apply to receive an allowance, which is backdated to the first day of hospitalisation. The changes proposed by the amendment remove the 28-day qualification period and replace it with a pro rata loss of earnings allowance which compensates for an actual loss of earnings. The Parliamentary Library explains that the amount of loss of earnings allowance payable is the lesser of the difference between the T&PI rate of disability pension and the veteran's present rate of disability pension and the amount of salary, wages or earnings actually lost, including loadings or other allowances that would have been payable. This is a sensible amendment which the coalition and the ex-service community support.

Schedule 2 of the bill has been the subject of a Senate inquiry and the coalition is opposed to it. Schedule 2 of the bill seeks to amend provisions in the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 to clarify the opera­tion of compensation offsetting provisions. Offsetting occurs when a person is eligible to receive compensation from two or more sep­arate Commonwealth compen­sation schemes for the same incapacity resulting from injury. Offsetting dates back to 1973 when the Whitlam Labor government determined to broaden the application of the former Repatriation Act to cover certain non-warlike service. As a consequence of this action, some eligible ex-defence personnel were able to access compensation under two acts—the Repatriation Act and the Compen­sation (Government Employees) Act 1971. The offsetting changes introduced in 1973 and backdated to 1972 were intended to apply to dual eligibility for compensation paid from Commonwealth compensation schemes. A vital premise of Australia's repatriation system is that the Common­wealth will compensate for incapacity, not for the injury itself. As a result, two people with the same injury may receive different rates of compensation based solely on the degree to which each person is incapacitated. The coalition supports this principle, as does the veteran and ex-service community.

I now turn to the Smith case. The amendments proposed by this schedule arise from a decision of the full Federal Court. In the matter of Commonwealth of Australia v Smith (2009), the court found that compen­sation offsetting should not apply to Mr Smith because of the unique circum­stances of his case. Mr Smith was receiving compen­sation under the VEA and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 for two separate incapacities relating to separate periods of service in the Australian Defence Force. In the first instance, Mr Smith received compensation under the VEA for a duodenal ulcer and PTSD as a result of his service in Vietnam. Secondly, Mr Smith received compensation for anxiety arising from his service aboard HMAS Melbourne at the time it collided with the Voyager. The court held that these two conditions were not related and, on the basis of this fact, determined that offsetting should not apply under the act. I note the Commonwealth did not pursue this matter beyond the Federal Court. The Commonwealth argued that Mr Smith was being twice compensated for the same incapacity—a position the court disputed, holding that the injuries and resultant incapacities were different and separate. The court awarded a confidential settlement to Mr Smith and found in his favour. Consequently, the government is now seeking to clarify the legislation to make clear the Repatriation Commission's understanding of the intention of the legislation—and I use the word 'clarify' advisedly.

At the coalition's request, a Senate inquiry into the bill sought submissions from the veteran and ex-service community. In particular, I thank the RSL, Legacy and the Vietnam Veterans Federation of Australia for their participation and the RSL for attending the public hearing in Canberra on 11 August. Three weeks ago, the report of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee's inquiry into the bill was tabled in the Senate. My colleagues Senator Alan Eggleston and Senator David Fawcett tabled a dissenting report which calls for schedule 2 of the bill to be omitted. I thank both of my colleagues for their significant input into this inquiry.

During the inquiry, the RSL forcefully put the view that the proposed amendments went above and beyond the intention of the 1973 legislation which the government allegedly seeks to clarify. Further, the RSL put the view that appropriate provisions already exist in the legislation and in accompanying regulations to ensure that offsetting cases similar to Mr Smith's would be treated fairly under the act. The department did not dispute the detail of the RSL's analysis. It was also made clear during the public hearing and in other representations to me on other matters that parliament must maintain the ability to set the policies by which the department, the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Com­mission operate. In particular, I note Rear Admiral Doolan's statement:

… the RSL view is that it is much better to have the legislation being the basis for all these matters than to have it by regulation.

The coalition agrees with this and is concerned that these proposed amendments to, as the government claims, clarify the operation of the act will still require guidelines to ensure they are applied properly. Parliament's intention, rather than the department's, must be paramount in this respect. Parliament's original intention was sufficiently clear in this case. I will shortly move an amendment to omit schedule 2 from this bill. I ask honourable senators to consider the best interests of our veteran and ex-service community and support the coalition's amendment.

I understand that there may be some alterations to the explanatory memorandum to the bill. I do not know whether these are clarifications or what they are, but we are advised that there will be some alterations. I certainly have not seen the altered explan­atory memorandum and I do not know whether the minister on duty is able to nod her head to indicate whether or not this will be tabled. Obviously it would be an extraordinary situation were I to be starting my second reading speech in relation to this matter and it was being proposed to alter the explanatory memorandum. In fact it beggars belief that that would actually occur at this eleventh hour. So I am assuming that this will not be the case. I have not been advised by the minister's office or anyone else about it. We will wait and see. The amendments proposed in schedule 2 have not been justified and more work needs to be done before the parliament considers the measures presently opposed. The coalition will support schedules 1 and 3 of this bill but oppose schedule 2.

I will briefly address some other matters. I notice that my colleague Senator Fawcett has now entered the chamber and I will repeat the thanks I gave to him earlier for his significant involvement in the Senate inquiry and his very considerable input into it. The so-called winter recess has been an extraordinarily busy period. I want to thank the hundreds of veterans and ex-service­people, and their families, who I have met during my travels—everywhere from Albany to Geraldton in Western Australia, to Mackay, Townsville and Cairns in North Queensland, and from Sydney to Warrnam­bool, amongst other places. I look forward to spending more time on the road shortly and encourage people with an interest in veterans affairs to participate in the coalition's veterans forums which are being held right across the country.

The biggest issue I am hearing is the ongoing unfair, unjust and inequitable situation facing DFRDB superannuants as a result of the shameful decision by this place to oppose the coalition's fair indexation bill. Honourable senators will be only too aware of the anger in the community at the decision of Labor, the Greens and Senator Xenophon to block the coalition's fair indexation bill from passing on 16 June. Those opposite should hang their heads in shame for this shameful decision to oppose the bill.

I want to turn now to the Centenary of Anzac. There remains significant concern about the Gillard-Brown Labor government's failure to establish a budget for the Anzac Centenary commemorations, which are getting closer by the day. The coalition welcomes the appointment of Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston as chair of the new Anzac Centenary Advisory Board, but it is fair to say that Air Chief Marshall Houston is flying solo at the moment, with other members of the board yet to be announced or appointed. The elephant in the room, however, is the lack of funding certainty which is jeopardising the planning for commemoration in small towns and big cities right across Australia. The coalition welcomed the $250,000 announced for a scoping study for works in Albany's part of the centenary. Coincidentally, the minister chose to visit Albany the day before I was scheduled to speak at a business breakfast there about the Anzac Centenary itself—imitation is the best form of flattery. I welcome his belated and minor financial commitment to this project and look forward to seeing a real commitment of funds for the Anzac Interpretive Centre very soon Finally, I turn to advocacy funding. I draw the Senate's attention to the anger in the veteran and ex-service community about cuts to veterans' advocacy in the budget. The minister signed, just prior to travelling to France for the 95th anniversary com­memorations of the Battle of Frommelles, letters which dramatically slashed funding under the Building Excellence in Support and Training program, known as the BEST program, as well as the Veteran and Community Grants program. The BEST grant program was established by the previous government. The grants enable ex-service organisations to provide assistance to veterans, veterans' families, members of the Defence Force and their families. The grants assist volunteer veterans working in our community to assist those who have served our nation and are in need of assistance. These volunteers help veterans file claims for compensation. These volunteers touch base with our ageing veterans and war widows to ensure they do not become socially isolated. They provide help and support to those in our community who want to discuss their experiences with someone who understands what they have been through. Cutting this funding could not have come at a worse time. Frankly, this government has no mandate to cut funding to this program but, just as with the carbon tax, it is going to do it anyway. Page 5 of the Review of DVA-fundedESO advocacy and welfare services, which was tabled in February, says:

There is also a strong belief that the current practice within Australia, whereby ex-serving members voluntarily take on a role to assist in claims preparation ... has worked very well—

I repeat, 'has worked very well'—

and should continue to be supported through funding mechanisms such as the BEST program. The very nature of this voluntary work should be valued, not understated.

It went on to say that the government must be mindful that BEST grants funding should be:

... sufficient to meet the needs of the veteran community.

How the government can justify cutting $8 million from veterans' advocacy funding but then spend $12 million advertising their carbon tax broken promise is beyond the comprehension of most in the veteran and wider Australian community. The decision to cut this funding, made without warning and without any consultation, will potentially and dramatically spell the end for ex-service organisations, which simply will not be able to survive.

My office has been inundated with angry veterans pension and welfare officers asking how they are meant to survive on a grant which has, in some cases, been cut more than 50 per cent on last year's funding. This is even more concerning given applications for this funding round were received in March, when no mention of funding cuts had been made by the government.

One of those organisations is the Geelong Veterans Welfare Centre. Recently I spoke in the Senate about commemorations at the Vietnam War memorial in Geelong. The Vietnam veterans centre in Geelong is located at Osborne House, a historic property with long links to the defence of the nation. After the memorial service, members of the local veteran community came up to me deeply concerned about the impact of the BEST cuts on the veterans of Geelong. They have made available to me a letter they sent to Minister Snowdon with their concerns:

The Geelong Veterans' Welfare Centre has the largest client base in Victoria and is the busiest office.

We ... cover areas as far a-field as the south-west coast to Warrnambool/Port Fairy/Portland and up to Hamilton/Horsham and back through Rokewood and Colac.

The letter goes on to say:

The loss of funding, particularly to the salary, will severely limit our capacity to fill the Administration Support Officer position and will most likely force our employee to seek other employment opportunities.

What a disgrace, an utter disgrace! Mr Deputy President, I seek leave to table this letter from the Geelong Veterans Welfare Centre to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs outlining the impact of the cuts on the centre and the services it provides to veterans and their families in the wider Geelong region.

Leave granted.

Senator RONALDSON: I am sorry to say that this situation is repeated right across the country. Over the last three months, I have had the honour to speak at RSL state branch congresses across Australia. In his remarks to at least three of these congresses, the minister has said that the number of veterans of the Afghanistan conflict will shortly equal the number of veterans who served in Vietnam. But the justification for these cuts is a 25 per cent decline in the veteran population—that is, a decline in the VEA veteran population, not in veterans making claims under the SRCA or the MRCA.

Younger veterans will still need advocates. These cuts in funding will flow on to reduce access to assistance for them and their families when they return home. The government has absolutely got this one wrong and the coalition and the veteran community demand answers, not more spin from this Gillard-Brown Labor government.

The coalition supports schedules 1 and 3 of this bill. We will move to remove schedule 2 during the Committee of the Whole because doing so is in the best interests of veterans and their families. If the government really sees value in this amendment, it will consult further and then bring this measure back to the parliament with the support of the veteran community.

I have just been given an addendum to the explanatory memorandum. Clearly, I have not had the opportunity to look at this. Can someone tell me why on this matter, which has been on the books for two or three months, I am now getting an addendum to the explanatory memorandum 10 minutes after I have started speaking? What is going on with this government? What a disgrace! These amendments were circulated weeks ago. Everyone knows the urgency of getting these POW payments through. Yet here at the eleventh hour I am getting an addendum to the explanatory memorandum. How can this chamber possibly operate properly when the responsible shadow minister was not given a copy of this addendum to the explanatory memorandum? It is quite disgraceful. This is another example of a government which is in freefall, a govern­ment which is divided, a government which has lost control of the agenda and thinks it is appropriate to bring an addendum to an explanatory memorandum into this chamber when the debate has started. I will now go and have a look at this. I suspect it will not allay the fears of those who have been involved in this process—the RSL, the Vietnam veterans et cetera. (Time expired)