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Thursday, 14 June 2007
Page: 55

Senator LUNDY (1:08 PM) —The Labor Party supports the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007. The bill proposes a range of mostly technical and housekeeping amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act—or the VEA—the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and the Income Tax Assessment Act. Its provisions seek to formalise current practice and policy, to better align the VEA with the Social Security Act, to correct some unintended or unfair consequences of legislative drafting and to improve the Department of Veterans’ Affairs administration.

An efficient administration ensures fair outcomes for veterans. These amendments touch upon the income and assets test, the tax treatment of veterans pensions and assets, bereavement payments, and eligibility criteria for assistance and compensation. Therefore, while these are fairly minor amendments, they will affect a considerable number of veterans and it is important that we consider the full range of their effects. I want to mention a few salient amendments in the bill before discussing Labor’s position on the administration of veterans issues, reiterating some of the points put in the other place by my colleagues.

The bill amends the VEA to require the Repatriation Commission to provide written notification of income support pension decisions and other matters and make a written record of that determination—setting out its findings on questions of fact, evidence and reasons for its determination. The commission will also be required by law to provide a copy of the decision, findings and rights of appeal to the claimant except where that information is of a confidential nature. I am advised that this largely updates the VEA in line with existing practice.

In addition, the bill will ensure that additional one-off payments of family assistance under the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (More Help for Families—One-off Payments) Act 2004 are not counted as income under the act. This will bring the VEA into line with the Social Security Act, which exempts one-off payments to families from this income test. The bill expands the definition of ‘compensation affected payment’ to include supplementary benefits. This means that, in cases of overpayment, supplementary payments will be recoverable where primary payments are recoverable. This is in line with the provisions of the Social Security Act as well.

The bill will amend the bereavement payment provisions to ensure that, where a deceased person’s payments include the Defence Force income support allowance, the bereavement payment provided to the surviving partner or carer also includes that allowance. It will also amend the income and assets test for the service pension and income support supplement to allow for the application of the deprivation provision to be reversed in circumstances where an asset is disposed of for less than its full value but adequate consideration is later received.

Schedule 2 amends the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004, broadening the definition of ‘service injury or disease’ to include those injuries or diseases contracted or aggravated as a consequence of medical treatment for an earlier service injury or disease and amending the onus of proof provisions to cover both persons claiming for the acceptance of liability and persons claiming for compensation. Schedule 5 clarifies the taxable status of Defence Force income support allowance payments in line with the tax treatment of the basic rate component of the ordinary age pension or the disability support pension. It must be remembered that veterans and ex-service personnel are often at their most vulnerable during the claims process, both emotionally and physically. Veterans and ex-service personnel deserve more. Constant improvement is necessary to ensure we have an effective operating system and administration which provide for the veterans community in a transparent and easily understandable way. For this reason, one of Labor’s six pillars for action on veterans affairs is to improve the operation of the department. This will be a key policy focus for a Labor government if elected later this year.

The Labor Party have spoken extensively in recent months about the need for improvement in the administration of the department. For example, we have raised the issue of improving the interface between Defence and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to ensure a smoother transition from service to care, such as around record sharing. We have also expressed concern about the department’s claim-processing times. Departmental figures obtained in February showed that 4,570 claims have exceeded the average time taken to process a claim. While efforts are being made to address these backlogs, these waiting times are clearly unacceptable and should not have occurred in the first place. These long waiting times are occurring against the background of a net national reduction of 12.5 per cent over the last two financial years of staff allocated to process compensation claims under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. The 2007-08 budget shows that the government will reduce the department’s average staffing level for the third financial year in a row.

Labor have been willing to support the work of the government in veterans affairs where positive steps have been made to enhance the wellbeing and care of veterans. In the recent budget, Labor supported the government’s initiatives which include: $25,000 one-off ex gratia payments for Australian former prisoners of war in Europe or their surviving widows, a doubling of the funeral benefit under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act from $1,000 to $2,000, and catch-up payments for special intermediate rate disability pensioners. However these initiatives do not go far enough, and in fact many are catch-up initiatives. The catch-up payments for special intermediate rate disability pensioners addressed the considerable erosion of the value of those pensions over the term of the Howard government but did not insure against future erosion through indexation.

Recent enhancement funding for the gold card addressed its serious decline due to underfunding over the term of the Howard government. Veterans were not receiving the services they needed. Labor have been busy putting forward positive plans for veterans: the indexation of the above general rate pensions to both the CPI and the MTAWE indices; a commitment to provide additional resources to the suicide prevention service ASIST; and an undertaking to do a health study of the children of Vietnam veterans. We want to make sure that, in all things, veterans get a fair go. Labor support the bill and look forward to its implementation. I commend the bill to the Senate.