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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 5667

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (11:31): I am pleased to speak to the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill 2011. At the outset I must declare an interest as a member, however peripherally, of the defence family. Our youngest son was an active service officer with the Royal Australian Armoured Corps, in both Iraq as a lieutenant and in Afghanistan as a captain. So, I have both a personal and a professional interest in this issue. I join my colleagues in supporting these POW supplementary support measures. My only regret is that this was not put into place earlier by either side of the parliament. I fully support it and I am sure the wider Australian community do. I also support schedule 3, relating to the loss of earnings allowance. This is logical and it is what we expect the veteran community would want to see, and I have no doubt it is what the wider Australian community would want us to pass.

In contrast, I join in the opposition to schedule 2 of the bill. It proposes that the power of the parliament to determine the manner in which compensation payments are offset against each other should be removed. In other words, as it has been explained to me, in the event that an ex-serviceman has been wounded and is being treated for some matter relating to their defence service and is then the subject, regrettably, of a further injury—for example a motor vehicle accident which occurred well after their defence experience—then there would be an offsetting of the compensation to that person one against the other, the non-defence related activity against the defence related activity. I find this to be unacceptable; I find it to be parsimonious. I cannot understand why we are even debating it. We are merely the representatives of the wider Australia community. We are elected by the com­munity to be here to represent the people. The first question I would put to my colleagues on the other side is simply this: do the people want the parliament's power to deal with this issue of offset to be gagged; do they expect this to be devolved to some group of people other than the parliament, duly elected? My second question is: do the people of Australia want there to be a further limiting of veterans entitlements in this type of incident? If a person has been wounded in their service to the nation then my expec­tation is that the wider community would say let the community meet the costs associated with rehabilitating that person so that they can come back to a normal life and contri­bute to their family, to the community and to their own wellbeing without there being, hanging over their heads, some concern that if subsequently they are injured in some other unrelated circumstance there is going to be some form of offsetting to limit their entitlements. I find this to be unacceptable and I would bet a pound to a penny that if we were to poll the wider Australian community they would too.

In the legislation proposed by my colleague Senator Ronaldson only in recent weeks we anticipated the indexation of veterans entitlements. Again, if we were to poll the wider Australia community, people would not only have wanted that to happen but also would have shaken their heads and asked why it was ever the case that there was this disparity. It is not to the credit of this chamber that the ALP, the Greens and Senator Xenophon failed to support Senator Ronaldson in that instance. For those who do not understand the implications of that indexation, it is my understanding that the matter went back to 1997 when the age pension and the defence pension were similar, except that from that moment going forward the indexation for the age pension was a combination or a factor of both the CPI and the movement in wages. I see that as being entirely reasonable. Regrettably, defence pensions have not undergone the same level of indexation, having only been linked—and they remain only linked—to CPI. Wage movements over time in this country—certainly since 1997, given the economic growth we have enjoyed in that time—have caused the age pension to move upwards at a greater rate than the defence pension, so there is now a disparity between the two. Senator Ronaldson's bill aimed to redress that imbalance so that our defence veterans would enjoy the same level of benefit—nothing better; no improvement; nothing beyond—as our age pensioners. Surely that is reasonable given the service and sacrifice that they offered.

Veterans and ex-servicepeople have asked me—and rhetorically I ask it here on their behalf—the question, 'What have our service personnel done to incur the wrath of those on the other side and their failure to support that legislation?' They say to me: 'Where did we go wrong? Were we not diligent enough in the service we gave? Were we not competent enough in the service we delivered? Why are we being so harshly dealt with?' I cannot answer those questions.

Senator Xenophon interjecting

Senator BACK: Senator Xenophon is correct—why did we not address it when we were in government? Our failure to do so, however, is not an excuse to have failed to address that question in 2011. When we speak to everybody in the Australian community—younger people, older people, people across the board—what do they tell us they expect? When we tell them that our veterans are second-class citizens when it comes to the financial support they get from this nation, most people say to me, 'Go and fix it up.' And we have failed to do so.

My third question, before I move on to the issue of younger veterans, relates to why the coalition did not receive the addendum to the explanatory memorandum until Senator Ronaldson was well into his speech. I think it should be explained why and how the Greens did have that access—and I compliment Senator Wright on her contribution. It is disappointing, if we are going to maturely debate an issue of such importance to the veteran community and of such interest to the wider community, that everybody has not had equal access to the documentation. I will return to this—I have had the opportunity presented to me by chamber staff to actually briefly review the addendum and I wish to return to it.

I was interested to hear the comments of Senator Macdonald with regard to the activities yesterday in Townsville. On Tuesday of last week, I was in the small town of Bruce Rock in the wheat belt of WA. It was absolutely amazing. There are, I think, a thousand people in the shire, with probably 200 to 300 living in the town. Right there in the main street was the most wonderful memorial to the fuzzy wuzzies. That memorial was dedicated last year—one of the original fuzzy wuzzies actually came down, with his son, to Australia and to Bruce Rock for the purpose.

Two Vietnam veterans decided, 11 years ago, that there should be some activity recognising the contribution of the Vietnam vets and the role they played, because we all know that the manner in which they were treated when they returned from Vietnam will, regrettably, forever be a stain on the history of this country. From that humble beginning 11 years ago, there will, when they meet on the first weekend of November this year, be 3,000 to 4,000 Vietnam veterans who will, with their families, descend on Bruce Rock. Last year there were 3,000 and this year they are expecting more. Some 400 are coming from Far North Queensland. It has become an annual event for them all. The shire president explained to me, with a high degree of pride, the activity that goes on, the contribution it makes to that small com­munity and the absolute overwhelming sense of goodwill that exists within those people.

Regrettably, should this legislation go through with the schedule that we are opposing, I am sure one of the questions discussed on that occasion will be the unfairness visited upon that group by the parliament through our inability to deal with this offsetting question. The event is an expression of the enormous interest in, the goodwill towards and the need for that community of military veterans to be able to come together to share values, to share stories and to encourage each other for the future. The last of the Korean War veterans also join them and it is my hope that, over time, should this activity continue in Bruce Rock, it will become a focal point.

There is a group called the Mad Galahs—military veterans, usually non-commissioned officers and lower ranks. They are fairly strident in their views—they express them, as their name suggests, without fear or favour—and they have that long-held healthy Australian disrespect, at least overtly, for senior officers. I can assure you again that they voiced to me very loudly their disappointment about the recent defeat of Senator Ronaldson's bill.

Over the last four to five years I have had the experience of meeting with and becoming friendly with many of our younger returned soldiers who have left military service. I have to say to you that they are, in my view, the best of the best. I have met young Army, Navy and Air Force officers. I speak to them about what they are doing now, what they were doing in military service and I say, 'Did you really want to leave the service?' In so many instances—and I dare say in my own son's—deep down, they did not want to leave the service.

I have said to them, 'Is it because of the numbers of tours of duty you were required to undertake in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere?' They are emphatic when they say, 'No, it's not that.' And so I have said to them, 'Is it because of inferior or inadequate standards of management in your fields of combat?' and the answer has been no. I have said to them, 'Is it because we haven't supplied you with adequate equipment?' and they have said no in the main, even though in some instances they have had to buy their own, which I find to be reprehensible. Nevertheless, on the whole they feel they have been well handled on their tours of duty in the field. So I have said to them, 'Is it because of the attitudes of the wider Australian community towards you?' As I said earlier, if there is one thing that has happened as a result of the history beyond Vietnam, it is that the Australian community now well understands the differential between our military personnel and the role they play and those who send them there—as should have been the case with Vietnam. We should have always thanked and glorified the Vietnam veterans and, if there were blame or criticism to be apportioned, it should have been sheeted home to the political leaders who sent them. The same occurs today.

I am delighted to record and report—and observe, as you all are—the fact that our returned servicepeople are well and truly adulated by the Australian community. So it is not that which has caused so much wastage of the best of our best of the young military personnel. I will tell you what it is. Almost without exception, it is what they perceive to be the indifference within the Defence bureaucracy and the approach of government to their welfare. These are questions I asked the previous Chief of the Defence Force. We engaged on this quite often. I remain far from satisfied as to the management, the treatment, the welfare and the concern of our personnel as they return. I could give you examples relating to many people. These young people are highly employable in the civilian world, at salaries vastly beyond what they were getting in service—and that was not a reason for them to want to leave—but it is the perceived indifference and the perceived attitude of the Defence bureaucracy which simply causes them to say, 'Things have to be better outside.' As I said, my own son was very concerned about the bureaucracy and the inefficiency. As I said to him, 'The only way you are going to find that it is no different outside the military world is to get yourself into the corporate world,' and he has certainly found that to be the case.

I conclude my comments by going back to this addendum, which was received some minutes after this debate commenced. As Senator Ian Macdonald has indicated, it now suggests a move from legislation to regulation and departmental decree, but it goes exactly to the point I was just making about the Defence bureaucracy. The document says:

... will not change current operations of the compensation offsetting provisions. The changes are intended to clarify the operation of the legislation following the Smith decision—

the Smith decision is not explained. It goes on to say that where:

... interaction between the compensation offsetting provisions and Chapter 19 ... and the ... Rates of Veterans’ Pensions, 5th Edition (GARP V), ... will not change under the proposed amendments.

And it says:

Under current practice, if medical opinion is able to determine the relative contribution of an accepted condition and a non-accepted condition to the impairment—

then chapter 19 applies and on it goes. Then it says:

If medical opinion is not able to apportion the relative contribution of an accepted condition and a non-accepted condition—

then the chapter cannot apply. This is exactly the gobbledegook translated down to those in the ranks where they turn around and say, 'This is the bureaucracy we don't need.' I would think that if a person who is likely to be the subject of this legislation were to get hold of this document and say to themselves, 'What does it mean, what does it mean for me and what are the implications for me and ultimately for my family?' they would see that this document stands alone as an illustration of the points I make.

In conclusion, I certainly concur with the support of POW prisoner supplementary payments. I support the schedule 3 loss of earnings allowance and ask the government to reconsider schedule 2 because as it stands it would not receive the support of the Australian community.