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Thursday, 2 June 1994
Page: 1189

Senator MacGIBBON (12.46 p.m.) —The Senate has before it the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 1994. The government is attempting to present this bill as a new bill but in fact it is the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 1993, precisely as amended by this chamber. We have gone through the charade of having this bill presented purely because the government was bloody-minded and would not accept the right of the Senate to amend the bill. It is as simple as that.

  We put the bill through earlier in this year and we made the point repeatedly that there was nothing on earth to prevent the government passing the bill into legislation, as amended. We were opposed by the government on that point. The government went off, under the then minister, and quite simply sulked because it did not get the outcome it wanted—that is, 100 per cent of the bill. The government got all the important points that it wanted in the amended bill. We now find the government has climbed down and presented the bill, as amended. Since it is the bill that was amended, we will have no difficulty in agreeing to it.

  Before I conclude my remarks on the bill, there are a few points I want to make. The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) was presented on 4 November 1993 to the House of Representatives and the second reading debate took place on 7 February 1994. It came into the Senate on 8 February 1994 and the second reading debate was held in this chamber on 10 February 1994. In that debate, we accepted the bill and amended it by deleting the section that dealt with managed investments and retirement incomes, and I will come to that in a moment. It then went back to the House of Representatives on 10 February and was debated on 21 February. On the advice of the minister and the cabinet, the House of Representatives declined to accept the bill as amended in the Senate. It came back to the Senate on 22 February, was debated on 23 February, where the Senate reaffirmed its support for the bill as amended earlier in the month. It was returned to the House of Representatives on 24 February where it died.

  We opposed that bill because it dealt with changes to retirement incomes. The decision of the shadow ministry of the time was that, because of the great confusion and distress it causes the elderly members of the Australian community—not only in the ex-service community but all retired people—we were not prepared to support any more changes to retirement incomes policy until the government had had an inquiry and had come up with some coherent overall plan as to how it was going to handle retirement incomes.

  One of the difficulties with the government is that it is very bureaucratic and it simply does not understand the consequences for and effects on the ordinary citizens of this country of much of its legislation. This is particularly relevant to the aged and the retired sections of the community. As people age and get into their seventies and eighties, they do not like change. Their physical and mental reserves decline with the passing of the years and they have difficulty understanding change, particularly some of the proposals that the government has come up with for retirement incomes—the whole business of making notional assessments of profits from stockholdings.

  People who have put away a little bit of money and have bought some shares have suddenly found that the Department of Social Security is assessing those shares as an asset, in terms of their market capitalisation on the day, irrespective of the purchase price. The purchase might have taken place quite a few years ago. Even though the price of those stocks that they are holding in their retirement portfolios may have risen in recent months, it may still be less than they paid for them in previous years.

  The essential unfairness of this is that those shares or those investments have not been sold, so the profit has not been realised. Until a profit is realised, it is not a profit at all. But these elderly people have had reductions in their pensions, and they are very concerned about that. People in their seventies, eighties and nineties do not have the courage to take on the government and fight it on issues such as this. So a great deal of fear and insecurity has been engendered by the crudity of the government's approach to retirement incomes policies.

  Because of that, the opposition said—and in this we were supported and are still supported by the Australian Democrats—that we are not going to have any more changes until the government comes up with an inquiry and has an overall view of what it wants to do in relation to retirement incomes. It was for that reason that we deleted part 7 of the bill, which made changes to retirement incomes policy. That is all we did. We thought that the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 1993 was a good bill, with the exception of that retirement incomes part, and we supported it without criticism.

  The government baulked at accepting the amended bill from the Senate. I do not know whether it was because of some ideological hang-up the government had, that it wished to denigrate the Senate and deny it any power, even though under the Australian constitution the Senate is in a position of parity with the House of Representatives, a power which we have always exerted in the years since Federation. It may have been because the then Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Senator Faulkner, in a fit of pique because he had not got his way entirely, baled out of it. The sad thing was that the government showed a readiness to use the veterans community as a political football. I hope that under the new Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Mr Sciacca, that policy will not be adopted, because I will be highly critical of it.

  I had the privilege of being the spokesman for veterans' affairs in the period from March last year to last week. One of my abiding principles was that I would not use the veterans community in any way at all as political tools to score political points. I am very concerned about the welfare of veterans. There are times when I think that the government's policy is not the best, but my fight is with the government. I never accepted using the veterans community as pawns in that battle. I am sorry to say that Senator Faulkner did that when he rejected the bill as amended by the Senate. It was all very pointless, too, from a political aspect.

  One of the things people learn when they know anything about the veterans community in Australia is that it is an extremely well-informed and articulate group. Its members do know the procedures and provisions of the Veterans' Entitlements Act very well. They do know the history of the way the veterans community has been treated by successive governments. To try, as Senator Faulkner tried at one stage, to tell the veterans community that somehow or other it was those nasty people in the opposition who were denying them the benefits of a seniors card simply does not wash. The veterans community overwhelmingly knew what the truth of the matter was: it was because of the government's obstinacy that that bill had not gone through. It is interesting that from the moment Mr Sciacca came in he realised the folly of the position and he moved very rapidly to reverse it. He approached the opposition and said, `If we re-present this bill as amended, will you support it?' The answer we gave him was, `Of course, we will do that.' That was a bill that we were prepared to pass earlier in the year.

  So we have the situation that the veterans community has been subjected to quite a degree of unnecessary stress over this. We have had the parliament involved in unnecessary expenditure while the bill was reprepared and rewritten and resubmitted to parliament—taking up time today. All that was quite unnecessary. The opposition will support this bill without amendment and we wish it a speedy passage.