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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 31


Senator MARK BISHOP (11:45 AM) —I am pleased to speak on the address-in-reply today, and I will do so with particular reference to the welfare and recognition of Australia's veterans. This is a responsibility I carry on behalf of the Australian Labor Party in this chamber. It might be observed from the outset that veterans affairs retains a very symbolic place in our democracy. Indeed, the opening of the 41st Parliament by His Excellency the Governor-General is indicative.

Firstly, His Excellency is a retired a major general, having served Australia with distinction. He is by definition a veteran. Secondly, as a symbol of the importance of veterans in our democracy, this parliament is directly linked. When one observed across the head of the ceremonial guard assembled in front of the building on Tuesday, the parliament looked directly across the central land access to our capital, Canberra, to the sombre presence of the Australian War Memorial. The two buildings, flanked by the High Court and the National Library, form two key reference points. This is appropriate and illustrates the importance of not just national defence but the service of Australians throughout our history.

When considering veterans affairs we should and must remember that symbolism. It is not there by accident; it is part of our national ethos. It is there because, when all else fails, our independence as a nation, our national welfare and our personal safety rest in the hands of the military. This is not simply a platitude or a cliche. Overall, Australians young and old hold this ethos, this direction, and it is gaining strength. It is gaining strength not because of the decisions of governments that see our young men and women sent overseas but because of the human commitment on their part to do their duty.

We on this side respect that and, whatever the merits of the need for war, we will always support absolutely and without question the commitment and risks taken in honouring those decisions. Commensurate with that commitment, we as Australians have always respected the obligation to care for our veterans. This began with World War I, which saw so much horror and in which Australia suffered catastrophic losses. We have just observed Remembrance Day. This, along with Anzac Day, is now embedded in our national psyche. They are days on which we remember both the horror and the waste of war. They are also times to mourn the loss of so many young men and women.

Labor make the point that it is now appropriate that we also recognise the defence of Australia in World War II, which commenced in 1942. We believe that we should also commemorate the Battle for Australia; hence our suggestion that the first Wednesday in September each year be so dedicated. These days of commemoration, albeit from World War I, are stark reminders that of the 332,000 who went to fight in that European war in 1914-18, 61,000 were killed and of those 23,300 were never found. They remain interred beneath the soil of other nations. That marks the origins of our repatriation system. It is something that we should always remember, as veterans often remind us. They rightly remind us of that when we seek to glorify their deeds.

All Prime Ministers, whether cynically seeking their own limelight or not, always promise to look after those who sail from our shores to do their duty. We do not resile from that commitment. Indeed, we honour it without question. But we do deplore the cynical exploitation and glorification of that commitment for political outcomes. Veterans do too. It is therefore little wonder that emotions run high on veterans matters as pressure is brought to improve the benefits of veterans.

The assertion that our system is overly generous is frequently challenged. Nowhere is that question asked more frequently than by our World War II veterans and widows as they compare the rewards for their service with those available to the modern ADF. They recall accepting only what the nation could afford. They observed vocally during the recent election campaign the largesse extended by the Howard government in what was such a blatant vote buying exercise. Put bluntly, the plea was simply: `If there is so much revenue pouring into the Treasury coffers, why is it so hard to survive on the pension? Why have programs of support to those in need been cut back?' There is simply no answer to that question.

There is a huge gulf between the rhetoric of commemoration and the realities of budget outlays. However, it must be said that in budget terms veterans have collectively done better in recent years. As critical as we may be of individual policies and their administration, the budget for veterans affairs has grown enormously. It is only natural that the government seek credit for this, though it must be said again that a significant proportion of this growth has resulted from cost increases and indexation.

To this it must be added that the veteran population is now declining dramatically. The figures show that almost 9,000 World War II veterans are dying each year. There are now only four survivors from World War I. Almost 73 per cent of veteran pensioners are now over 75 year of age. The cost of income support might decline but, as we know, with age comes increasing frailty. Aged care and health care are now the top priority, which is showing in budget outlays. The task therefore is not diminished.

For our part, on this side of politics, we accept those priorities and we support them. However, having said all of that, the system of support and care for our veterans is not without its blemishes. May I make it plain that, despite those faults, we in the Labor Party have never failed to support government initiatives where additional benefits are given. The difference is simply in the means, the processes and the policies by which they are provided. The Howard government has regrettably scored a D on the latter. During the last three years, under the previous minister, we saw serial incompetence. For veterans, much of this is obscure. The pity is that, instead of providing simplicity to an overly complex system, the Howard government introduced inconsistency and contradiction. All of this could have been avoided with good policy.

Let me cite some examples. The process of the Clarke report was a classic. This was an inquiry designed to provide answers to a minister and a government who either had no clue or simply wanted to stall the veterans debate. As we know, the latter tactic succeeded but eventually backfired. The recommendations of Clarke were largely ignored, despite a backbench revolt, and the report has now been consigned to history—just like the reports of Justice Toose, Professor Baume and Justice Mohr. Then we had the continuing stalling of, and cuts to, the Veterans Home Care program. This is an excellent program which is, like HACC, designed to keep ageing veterans and widows in their own home and out of institutional care. This program saves money; it does not cost. Yet for three years services were cut, waiting lists grew and the purpose of the program was defeated. But—lo and behold!—on election eve, the promise to restore funding was made, just in the nick of time.

Next, veterans endured the saga of the gold card, for which another last-minute election promise was made. Without this promise to increase GPs' rates to 115 per cent of the scheduled fee, it must be said that the gold card was rapidly being subsumed by Medicare. We now await the government's action to make it happen. For medical specialists, however, the drama remains. Veterans are increasingly unable to use their gold card for specialists, and there is no sign of this abating. In fact, we know that in Tasmania the problem is so chronic that people are being flown regularly to the mainland for treatment. Yet there is no sign of either remorse or remedial action. Veterans are being let down.

There is more. In the last parliament the Howard government legislated to exempt veterans disability pension from the means test at Centrelink. Instead of simply amending section 8 of the Social Security Act, it chose instead to pay an allowance from the Department of Veterans' Affairs. This is called the Defence Forces Income Support Allowance, DFISA. By this means, the deduction made from Centrelink pensions resulting from the treatment of disability pension as income is now refunded. This is extraordinarily messy and unnecessary. No doubt it results from a stand-off between portfolios which has not been capable of resolution, even by the Prime Minister. The outcome does not change for veterans; it is just more complex. It is also expensive administratively, with some $18 million being wasted on unnecessary process.

We have also made the point about past policy failings where the Howard government seems to have been hell-bent on destroying the traditional distinction in our veterans law in favour of qualifying service. This is a distinction made in terms of both processes and levels of benefits provided to those who embark on warlike service in particular. Departmental officials in fact confess that this was the singular motive in effectively removing all the special rate from the means test at Centrelink. It was also a significant point of contention during the consultations on the new Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. Veterans still see this as the thin end of the wedge and as a diminution of their status.

Over the last three years we have been very critical of the government's performance on veterans affairs. Today I have only cited a few examples. There are others, ranging from potential and threatened cutbacks to aids and appliances, including prostheses, to failure to properly deal with those exposed to hazardous chemicals in particular. This includes RAAF ground staff involved with the de-seal and reseal of F111 fuel tanks over the last 30 years. Our criticism also includes the expenditure of $6 million per year by MCRS on obtaining legal advice for the consideration of both primary claims and reconsiderations. Ex-service people without financial means naturally find they are considerably disadvantaged. Failure to properly investigate and prosecute fraud remains a continuing concern. All we ask for on behalf of veterans is clarity and consistency. Adhocery of the kind we saw in the last parliament should be replaced by careful and considered policy.

To that end it is useful to observe that the government in fact has no serious policy proposals on its fourth term agenda for veterans. Essentially the government's election policy comprised expensive bandaids for the home care program and for the gold card. These attend to self-inflicted shortcomings flowing from previous decisions made over the last three years. Apart from a minor change to bereavement payments for TPI widows, there are no policy initiatives at all. In fact, the entire emphasis of the government's future intent is focused far more on commemorations. That in fact was the only reference in the Governor-General's address.

Let it be said at the outset that on this side we support this focus on commemorative activity. Commemoration of veterans deeds is an intrinsic part of our culture. We are all earnestly and seriously committed to remembering the past deeds of our veterans. We value our country and we are committed to its defence. But this has to be genuine; it cannot be contrived. It is not a public relations stunt. It should be serious, good public policy. To know and understand the consequences of war is to understand our reluctance to engage in it. It should be the last resort, not the first. It comes at a horrible cost in human lives—and invariably they will be the lives of family and friends. That is what we commemorate. We commemorate their service, their duty, their courage and their sacrifice.

It is not enough to stop there, as it seems the government is now about to do. There are many outstanding and remaining problems in the veteran community. Not the least of these is concern for the intergenerational effects of service upon the health of children. I remind the Senate that in the last election Labor proposed to undertake a full health study of veterans' children. The government mimicked this in a token way, promising merely a feasibility study of a study. Similarly, we addressed other needs of children, particularly for those in need of education and the added opportunity that provides, through a new program of bursaries. We also addressed other needs, such as widows denied access to the income support supplement who continue to suffer discrimination. The current policy is neither fair nor adequate.

Labor proposed a range of more minor changes, including more assistance to the estates of those who die without means, by extending bereavement payments. We proposed the full funding of a memorial to peacekeepers, not just a contribution as promised by the government. Labor promised a $150,000 contribution to the Ballarat City Council towards the upkeep of the prisoners of war memorial in that town. It should be noted here though that the Treasurer is on record as doubling that promise. We are happy to have been outbid, however we trust that that was a core promise. Sadly those initiatives are now lost, though we do hope that the government might graciously accept our suggestions.

I conclude where I began. We should always in this parliament remain aware of our obligations to veterans. We should not forget the axis which binds this parliament with the remembrance of our losses in war. We must continue to honour the commitments repeatedly made in this place by leaders of successive governments. At the same time we hope that administratively and in terms of policy we can introduce a more worthwhile outcome following a more professional approach. Veterans are entitled to be treated fairly and consistently and it is regrettable that in recent years this has not been the case.