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Thursday, 21 March 2002
Page: 1215


Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (10:28 AM) —I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Gold Card Extension) Bill 2002

This bill implements a key commitment made by this Government to the Australian veteran community during the Federal election.

Since taking office, this Government has given a high priority to providing appropriate recognition for the service and sacrifice of Australians in times of war and conflict.

The health and well-being of our veterans and war widows has been of prime concern. Our veteran population is ageing and their health care needs are changing as they grow older.

On 1 January 1999, this Government extended eligibility for the Repatriation Gold Card to include Australian veterans and merchant mariners who have qualifying service from World War II and are over the age of 70.

As a result, some 38, 000 World War II veterans and mariners became eligible for the top level of health care under the repatriation system.

There are now almost 282,000 members of the veteran community with a Gold Card.

However, we recognise that it is not only our World War II veterans who are growing older.

Many Australians who served in post-World War II conflicts are approaching or over the age of 70.

These veterans already are facing an increased need for health care, and others will in years to come.

This bill will further extend eligibility for the Gold Card to include all Australian Defence Force veterans who are over the age of 70 and have qualifying service.

This will make the Gold Card available to older veterans of conflicts including the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Indonesian Confrontation and the Vietnam War.

This initiative is proposed to take effect from 1 July 2002.

Many eligible veterans will not need to submit an application for a Gold Card.

My Department will be able to identify from its records many veterans who will qualify by virtue of their age and qualifying service. These veterans will automatically be sent a Gold Card so that they can access their entitlements from 1 July.

Veterans not readily identifiable to the Department will be able to complete a new application form for the Gold Card.

If the Repatriation Commission has not already made a determination about whether or not the veteran has qualifying service, then a determination will be made as a result of this application.

Eligible veterans who apply before 1 July will be able to access their entitlements from 1 July.

Veterans who apply after 1 July will be eligible from the date their written application is received by the Department.

Veterans with qualifying service who turn 70 after 1 July can apply in advance for the Gold Card— their eligibility will commence on the date they turn 70.

This bill continues the Coalition Government's commitment to advancing the welfare and interests of the veteran community.

It carries out Australia's duty to care for those who serve our country in wartime.

Importantly, this initiative also takes the longer view, providing for access to the Gold Card in years to come by veterans with qualifying service from later conflicts such as the Gulf War, East Timor and Australia's current deployment in the coalition against terror.

This will ensure that, regardless of which conflict they served in, our older veterans receive the care they need—the care they deserve.

—————

VETERANS' AFFAIRS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (FURTHER BUDGET 2000 AND OTHER MEASURES) BILL 2002

This bill is a package of amendments to implement several measures designed to further improve the delivery of income support benefits through the repatriation system. A number of these measures reflect changes in the social security system, to ensure that both systems operate consistently and fairly.

These amendments to the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 will provide for more generous treatment for income support recipients whose partners receive periodic compensation payments, such as those paid by insurance companies.

Currently, if a person receives a compensation-affected payment, then the couple's combined pensions are reduced by one dollar for every dollar of the periodic compensation. Under the new measure, the dollar-for-dollar reduction will apply only to the pension of the person who receives the compensation. If the amount of compensation exceeds the amount of that person's pension, then the excess will be treated as the ordinary income of their partner. With the income free area and taper that applies to ordinary income, this measure will result in an increase in the amount of income support payments to couples who have low levels of income from compensation payments.

Other amendments again mirror changes in social security system, to simplify provisions relating to the recovery of compensation. These amendments will provide for direct recovery of compensation debts from compensation payers and insurers, in circumstances where there has been an overpayment of pension because of the treatment of periodic compensation as ordinary income.

This bill also amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 in relation to the treatment of financial assets which are regarded as unrealisable for the purposes of hardship provisions under the assets test. In hardship cases, such unrealisable assets will also not be regarded as a financial asset when applying deeming provisions under the income test.

This means that in future the actual return on an unrealisable asset will be counted as ordinary income, rather than the deemed rate of return.

The treatment of income streams will be amended to ensure that the conditions applied to income streams under the means test will be clear and unambiguous. These amendments will also correct a number of anomalies and unintended consequences.

Finally, this bill will change the payment of income support instalments, which currently are rounded to the nearest multiple of ten cents. In future, instalments of income support will be paid to the nearest cent, bringing Veterans' Affairs arrangements into line with the calculation of pension instalments paid through the social security system.

This bill demonstrates the Government's ongoing commitment to improving the repatriation system to benefit those in the veteran community who most need our help.

—————

QUARANTINE AMENDMENT BILL 2002

The purpose of this Bill is to amend the Quarantine Act 1908 to:

· enhance Australia's national emergency powers by allowing the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, upon proclamation by the Governor-General to authorise certain Commonwealth, State and Territory officials to undertake appropriate measures in response to an emergency animal disease outbreak, such as foot and mouth disease;

· deter commercial smuggling of quarantine risk material by introducing a new offence with significant increases in the pecuniary penalty for individuals and corporations when compared with the existing penalties for illegal importations.

The outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom last year demonstrated the enormous impact such a disease can have on a national economy and on the lives of individuals. If an outbreak were to occur in Australia, response measures would need to be rapid and at a national level.

For this reason, the Commonwealth, in cooperation with the States, Territories and industry, has been reviewing and further developing national whole of government frameworks for the prevention, preparedness for and management of a major national animal disease emergency. Part of this process has been the review of Commonwealth, State and Territory legislation in relation to the necessary powers to ensure rapid, effective and nationally consistent response measures.

If there were to be an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Australia, it is the States and Territories who would provide frontline response measures. State and Territory animal health acts, with support from emergency management legislation, are geared towards responding to animal disease outbreaks. However, the State and Territory acts do not, of themselves, provide a national response framework. Therefore, while State and Territory response measures are adequate in a normal disease event, the magnitude of a disease such as foot and mouth would not so easily be dealt with. The Quarantine Act provides some powers which are not currently included in some State and Territory acts.

The amendments proposed in this Bill, in essence, ensure the Commonwealth, States and Territories have adequate legislative powers to enable them to prevent, or to act rapidly to control and eradicate, a major national animal disease outbreak such as foot and mouth disease.

Currently section 2B of the Quarantine Act provides significant powers whereby the Minister can, upon the issue of a proclamation by the Governor-General, direct that certain actions be undertaken in the event of an epidemic affecting a part of the Commonwealth. These powers, while important, are inadequate as it is not the Commonwealth who should, in terms of resources, Constitutional responsibility and expertise, take control of disease response measures—it is the States and Territories.

The amendments provide for the Commonwealth to authorise State and Territory agencies to take necessary actions under the Commonwealth quarantine power. This, in fact, enhances the legislative authority of the States and Territories and can be used where their own legislation has gaps or is inadequate. The authorisation by the Commonwealth, provides the States and Territories with the autonomy to decide when, how and if such measures are necessary.

The amendments provide for the Governor-General to declare by proclamation that an epidemic, or danger of an epidemic, has the potential to so affect a primary industry of national significance that the exercise of powers, known as coordinated response powers, may be required.

The proposed coordinated response powers operate at two levels. The first level would empower the Minister to authorise persons who are the executive heads of national response agencies to give such directions and take such action as the persons think necessary to control, eradicate or remove the danger of the epidemic.

Provision is to be made for response agencies to be notified in the Gazette. In general terms these agencies would encompass those that are usually called on to respond to emergencies or disasters at a national, state or local level.

The second level of authorisation would empower persons performing duties in the authorised agencies, under the authority and direction of the heads of those agencies to take specified response actions. Persons performing duties could include contractors, temporary employees and those performing duties on a voluntary basis. This ensures that emergency services personnel and other specialists brought in specifically to respond to the emergency would be authorised to perform the duties specified by the head of the relevant agency, using the Commonwealth quarantine power.

Section 4 of the Quarantine Act currently provides broad powers of Quarantine which include, but are not limited to, “the examination, exclusion, detention, observation, segregation, isolation, protection, treatment and regulation of vessels, installations, human beings, animals plants or other goods or things, having as their object the prevention or control of the introduction, establishment or spread of disease or pests...” It is this Section which provides the ability by which broad quarantine powers can be exercised under Section 2B.

This Bill amends the scope of quarantine to put beyond doubt that the coordinated response powers may extend to the seizure and destruction of animals, plants or other goods or things and the destruction of premises comprising buildings or other structures when treatment of the buildings is not practicable. I must emphasise that these powers are not additional quarantine powers, but are specifically included in the Bill to ensure beyond any doubt that quarantine powers do extend to this level.

The amendments include provisions for a number of limitations and conditions that can be attached to authorisations provided by the Minister and which would be extended to the executive heads of national response agencies. While it is accepted that broad powers are necessary to allow an effective and rapid national response to an emergency disease such as foot and mouth disease, it is important that responses in emergency situations are suited to the type and scale of event and carried out with the appropriate approvals in place.

Additionally, guidelines to be formulated by the States, Territories and Commonwealth will establish processes by which these powers will be utilised to ensure the aims of consistency and company-ordination are met, both nationally and within State and Territory borders, in the event of a major animal disease emergency.

The authorisations that are proposed to be extended to members of national response agencies raise the question of immunity from suit. Section 82 of the Quarantine Act currently provides for protection of authorised or approved persons from any action, suit or other civil proceeding, for or in relation to anything done or omitted to be done in good faith by the authorised or approved person, in the performance of any function or duty.

It is proposed that this immunity from suit be extended to those authorised to take action and give directions under the proposed amendments to the Act. This will ensure that all officers performing duties within agencies that are authorised to act under these provisions, including temporary staff, contractors and volunteers would have protection from civil proceedings resulting from anything done or omitted to be done in good faith in the performance of any function or duty.

Such protection will not extinguish the vicarious liability of the Commonwealth or other employing or directing body from civil liability.

By necessity the amendments include an expansion of Section 69A of the Act in relation to compensation, to include provision for compensation for any premises destroyed in accordance the Act. The provision relates to the amendments to the scope of quarantine.

The Bill also proposes an amendment to Section 11 of the Act which would allow the Commonwealth to assist States and Territories in the implementation and monitoring of arrangements so as to enable certification of exported products and in providing reports to the Commonwealth on such matters. This amendment is not strictly in relation to the control and eradication of emergency animal diseases, however as international requirements in relation to export certification expand, it is considered timely to provide an added level of support and assistance between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories in relation to such activities.

The proposed amendments are an important step in our review and development of national whole of government response measures to major national animal disease emergencies. They will assist in our task of working hand in hand with the States and Territories and will ensure as a nation we will be in a strong position to fight major emergency diseases, such as foot and mouth disease, should an outbreak occur.

The creation of the new offence for commercial smuggling implements the election commitment made in Australia's Rural Industries—Growing Stronger to provide stronger sanctions for quarantine offences. Given the disastrous impact of the foot and mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom, it is important that a strong message be given to potential offenders about the serious consequences of such behaviour.

The new offence will be in addition to the existing illegal importation offence in section 67 of the Act. The existing illegal importation offence in section 67 does not distinguish between commercial smuggling and smuggling for other purposes. As a matter of policy it is sought to highlight the relatively serious nature of smuggling for commercial purposes by creating this new offence and by imposing a higher maximum pecuniary penalty for individuals and corporations than that which applies to an offence under the existing illegal importation offence in section 67.

For the new offence, it is proposed to have a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment and/or 2,000 penalty units for individuals and 10,000 penalty units for corporations. The maximum penalty for the existing illegal importation offence will remain the same. By comparison with the existing illegal importation offence, based on the formula set out in section 4B of the Crimes Act 1914 and the current value of a penalty unit ($110), the maximum pecuniary penalty for the new offence represents an increase in the maximum penalty for corporations from 3,000 penalty units ($330,000) to 10,000 penalty units ($1,100,000) and for individuals from 600 penalty units ($66,000) to 2,000 penalty units ($220,000).

The term “commercial purposes” is intended to cover behaviour that is undertaken to gain a business advantage for the person who is importing the goods or on whose behalf the importation has occurred. The business advantage may take the form of, for instance:

· Avoidance of normal business costs (such as the costs of obtaining an import permit and the costs of meeting quarantine requirements for legal imports); and/or

· Introduction of new plant or animal stock that is not available to competitors in the industry or is only available under an import permit.

Debate (on motion by Senator Buckland) adjourned.

Ordered that the resumption of the debate be made an order of the day for a later hour.

Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.