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Thursday, 16 June 2005
Page: 189

Senator BARTLETT (10:37 PM) —I would like to speak on the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (2005 Budget Measure) Bill 2005. The essence of the bill is simple. It pays a seniors concession allowance of $200 to gold card holders, the majority of whom have income in excess of $50,000 for a single person or $80,000 for a couple. A cynic might wonder at the appropriateness of the targeting of this measure in terms of assistance and equity. The bill is being rushed through the parliament to provide assistance to a group that can hardly be recognised as cash poor on the whole.

The Democrats are not particularly persuaded by the argument of the government that provision of the allowance to this group recognises their special needs. That gold card veterans have special needs is certainly not in dispute, and indeed I have spoken about that a number of times in the Senate and outside it. Our concern is whether the provision of this allowance to this group is the best recognition of those special needs or perhaps a way of making the government feel better about the fact that more immediate special needs are not being properly addressed in some areas.

I and other Democrat colleagues have often stood up in this place and strongly pressed the government to address the needs of veterans. I am pleased to note that there has been action in some areas in that regard. But it is a message that needs to be repeated continually because, as has been said continually by the Democrats and others, this is a group of people who signed up to serve their country in the Defence Force and were sent overseas to serve their country in military action at the behest of governments. Oftentimes governments are quite willing to wrap themselves in the flag and the political rhetoric of rallying the troops, sending them off, giving them parades and farewells, and welcoming them home. But the key test is, when veterans’ service to the country as well as to the government is done, whether they see that their needs are properly met and they are not cast aside.

The Democrats acknowledge that independent retirees often live on low incomes and yet, because they are not drawing a pension, they are assumed to be well off and are therefore excluded from many of the concessions and discounts which are automatically offered to those on a pension. These include concessions for car registration, drivers licence fees, public transport, rent, and electricity and gas. They can also include a range of privately offered concessions such as entry to sport and entertainment venues where these are not covered by state seniors cards.

Low-income retirees in the past couple of years have been granted Commonwealth seniors health care cards and just last year they were granted the concession allowance. That is not the group who is targeted by this bill. This bill now directs concession allowance to Australians who do not have a Commonwealth seniors health care card because their income exceeds those limits of $50,000 or $80,000. I acknowledge that there is a much smaller group who will benefit from this bill and whose incomes are not at that level, but they are quite few in number. Nonetheless, they certainly should be assisted.

The issue of concession allowance to self-funded retirees is based on the premise of failure—failure of the Howard government to deliver on an election promise it made in 2001. At that election the then Minister for Family and Community Services promised electors that she would deliver a range of concessions to self-funded retirees who were not on veterans or social security income support and that states would partly fund it. That was a noble promise, but the minister forgot or did not care to be bothered by one critical element—that at the time of making the promise she had failed to negotiate any arrangement with the states.

Predictably, the states subsequently rejected the minister’s approach because the proposition did not accord with state government policies to extend concessions to those in greatest need. Most states were simply not in a position to give financial priority to extending concessions to a wider group of Australians. The government was left in a position of being unable to deliver on an election promise. As usual, it blamed the states. It failed to acknowledge its own blame in this and instead set about implementing a system which offered senior self-funded retired Australians an annual allowance. Self-funded retired veterans and older Australians were still left without concessions. A system of seniors concession allowance last year added yet another level of complexity to veterans and social security administration, with huge administrative overheads—all for $200 per person and twice that for a married couple.

The Democrats do not support policies which discriminate against those who have saved and invested wisely for their own retirement. We commend self-funded retirees for their savings to the public purse. But the ability to become self-funded is not one of choice, lifestyle or degree of financial or moral turpitude, as is sometimes suggested. If you are a disadvantaged Australian, perhaps with a disability, unable to access education in your early years or living in an area away from secure and sustained employment, you will not have had the opportunity to contribute to superannuation or savings for your retirement. That is not a matter of choice; it is just a reality of social circumstance. The Democrats will never endorse the tenet or the implication that people obliged to draw on the public purse are lesser citizens. Social and economic disadvantage befalls people and in most circumstances it is not a choice. It is our view that the minister is justifying payment of a concession allowance—to, in this case, Australians who are independently reasonably well off—not out of a special need but out of a need to mask the government’s failure to deliver on an election promise now almost four years old.

The Democrats do wholeheartedly recognise the contribution that gold card veterans have made to our national security, defence and protection of Australia. As I said earlier, and I have said it many times: if there is one group that we do owe a special obligation to, it is our veterans. They have performed a service to the country that no-one else in the community has done. They have made sacrifices and taken risks of a type and nature that other Australians have not. Gold card holders are a select group of veterans and dependants and are worthy of assistance. But, in considering the range of unmet needs of gold card holders, it remains that concession allowance would not be at the top of the list.

Many times in this place over the past few years, I have pressed the government to address the critical issue of gold card holders’ inability to access specialist medical services. Many medical specialists have closed their doors to veterans because government payments to the doctors did not keep pace with the increasing costs of treatment. The problem is worse for veterans in rural and regional areas, where there are fewer specialists. Many orthopaedic and other specialist services in my own state of Queensland have closed services to gold card holders or have advised them that they would be charged like other seniors—$80 for an initial consultation and $40 for a follow-up. Others have faced being transported long distances, even interstate, away from support and family, to access gold card services. I acknowledge that there has been some action in this area, and I certainly welcome that. But the core underlying problem still remains in many areas. If we are going to direct funds towards an area of immediate need for gold card veterans, then I would suggest that would be a better place to direct it.

It was and still is an unsatisfactory answer when you consider the contribution these people have made to the national security of the country; more so when other agencies treat those in their care better. Many gold card veterans do feel let down, and I think they are right to do so. The government could not guarantee veterans access to their choice of doctor, but they could guarantee that they would be treated, even if it meant transporting them from country towns into regional centres or cities.

The budget from last year, which included fee increases for specialists, was a welcome if belated recognition by the government that the Repatriation Private Patients Scheme was seriously underfunded and that specialists could not be expected to continue treating veterans as private patients for such poor returns. However, these increases were on a very low base. The 2004 fees for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs patients still fall well short of those in the Australian Medical Association’s list of medical services and fees. The AMA continues to be concerned that fees will increase only by the movements in the Medicare benefits schedule—which means they will go backwards in real terms. Such is the AMA’s lack of ongoing faith in the government’s ability to deliver specialist health care services to gold card holders, even today they have on their web site an entire section devoted to advising specialist medical practitioners how to exit the PPS.

The gold card was designed to offer eligible veterans and dependants specialist treatment that is as good as private health cover. It fails to do so. Instead of doing anything tangible to further address this problem, the government is spending money paying a small select group of veterans—the majority of whose income is in the range of middle to high—a $200 annual payment. There are many other unmet veterans’ needs. Adequate indexation of TPI, recognition of the full range of recommendations from the Clarke report, disability services, financial health, employment and care, including for veterans’ wider families, are just some of these.

Let me make it clear that the Democrats do not oppose this bill. In the end, it is a beneficial measure to a small group of Australian veterans. But other gold card veterans and their families would, I believe, be better served by the funds going towards other, more critical needs. It is important to make that critique. Whilst supporting the legislation, clearly there could have been a better use for this amount of funds to address more pressing needs of gold card veterans, particularly those who are less well off. The Democrats will not oppose the legislation, but we will continue to urge the government to do more to address the needs of veterans. We acknowledge that no-one can ever do everything—there is always a limit—but it is certainly part of what I see as the Democrats’ role to maintain that pressure on the government to continue to do more and to provide a mechanism for giving a voice to those veterans whose concerns we believe are not being properly addressed by the government. Some of those still apply in the gold card area as well as in wider veterans’ issues. Whilst we support this legislation, we will certainly continue to raise those issues when we believe it appropriate.