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Thursday, 14 June 2007
Page: 59

Senator McEWEN (1:24 PM) —I too wish to address a few comments to the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007. As we have heard from previous speakers, the bill amends three acts: the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, the Income Tax Assessment Act and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. In the main, the proposed amendments repair inconsistencies between those acts and other legislation, particularly the Social Security Act. The bill before us also remedies unintentional consequences of previous legislation. Once again, we are here fixing mistakes that the government should never have made in the first place.

It is always disturbing to realise that legislation is flawed and even more so when that legislation is in the area of veterans affairs, because it affects people who have served in our defence forces. Currently, there are some 450,000 veterans and nearly 112,000 war widows. As we know, more than 100,000 Australians have died during the numerous conflicts in which our country has been involved. Many of those who were fortunate enough to return from active service did so suffering from physical and mental injuries. The lives of veterans and their families are, of course, significantly affected by their service. It is also a sad fact that every day the nation loses more of its World War II veterans. This fact was brought home to me recently when my father’s old battalion association advised me that they would be winding up next year. Anzac Day next year will be their last official function because there are not enough diggers left to maintain the activities of the association. I understand that it is not the only World War II battalion association going through that difficult process at the moment. So anything that we can do to make life better for our veterans—veterans of all wars—should be supported. The government should at least make an effort to ensure that future legislation avoids the neglect and mistakes that we are remedying today.

As senators on this side of the chamber have said previously, Labor supports the legislation. However, I would like to highlight a few matters in the bill. Currently, the Repatriation Commission is required to provide written notification of its decisions in relation to a number of claims and other matters, but the specific matters to be notified have not been prescribed in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. Any senator or member who has assisted veterans in pursuing claims through the Repatriation Commission, or in appealing the decisions of the commission, can attest to how such matters often involve significant distress for veterans and their families, particularly when veterans feel that the nation they served has failed them in the process of applying for compensation. The amendments before us will require the commission to include in its notification its findings on questions of fact, evidence and reasons for its determination. Importantly, the person who made the claim will be provided with a copy of this information. While that will not always make good the disappointment of an aggrieved complainant, hopefully it will go some way to providing some more confidence in the system in place.

In addition, the bill amends the bereavement payment provisions to ensure that, where a deceased person’s payments include the Defence Force income support allowance, the surviving partner or carer also receives that allowance within their bereavement payment. This is an important step that needs to be taken to ensure that the partners and carers of veterans receive the financial support they require.

The Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 sees a number of amendments in schedule 2 of this bill. One such change that I find encouraging is the broadening of the definition of ‘service injury or disease’. The proposed amendment will allow for the inclusion of injuries or diseases contracted or aggravated as a consequence of medical treatment for an earlier service injury or disease. With such injuries and diseases now included in the MRCA’s definition of service injury or disease, veterans who do develop these problems will, hopefully, be better protected and supported.

There are worthwhile things in this bill, and the previous senators have outlined some of those. I also acknowledge the recent increase in funeral benefits for eligible veterans under the VEA to $2,000. That is a good move. There has been some progress made on the important issue of compensation for our veterans, but there are still issues that the government needs to address. One of the government’s biggest failings in providing for Australia’s veterans is its refusal to introduce complete indexation of veterans’ pensions. By refusing to index their pensions, the government has made life very difficult for our veterans. The erosion of the standard of living suffered by veterans for more than 10 years is significant. For example, a veteran on the special rate disability pension has lost somewhere between $70 and $92 a fortnight over the last decade. If Labor’s indexation policy were adopted, our veterans would receive the compensation for their service that they so clearly deserve. Labor is committed to properly indexing these pensions in the same way that the age pension is indexed.

I am pleased to say that the government has finally paid some attention to the veterans community, which has lobbied hard on this issue, because—surprise, surprise—in the pre-election budget recently delivered, the government issued veterans in receipt of the special rate disability pension a one-off catch-up payment. That once-only payment will assist disadvantaged veterans temporarily, but it does not equate to all the income that veterans in receipt of the pension have missed out on. While Labor support the one-off payments, we want veterans’ pensions to be properly indexed. Veterans not only deserve this increase in their pension but need it to maintain an acceptable standard of living. Hopefully the government will see this as the long-term problem that it really is and recognise that veterans and their families deserve to have the value of their payments maintained. They should not have to wait until an election budget is coming up for them to receive appropriate compensation.

Another example of the too little, too late method that the government prefers when it comes to compensating our veterans is the recently announced payment of $25,000 to former prisoners of war interned in Europe. You would think that no-one could argue that POWs deserve special consideration. I would suggest that most of our POWs endured conditions that are beyond the comprehension of anybody in this parliament. In 2001, former Australian POWs imprisoned in Japan were given a much overdue payment of $25,000. It was not until 2004, in the lead-up to a federal election, surprisingly, that the government finally made a payment to former Australian POWs imprisoned in Korea. Only this year has the budget allocated compensation to our POWs who were imprisoned in Europe. Previously the government argued that the conditions endured by those POWs did not warrant a compensation payment. It is a pretty mean and thankless government that could presume to apply a hierarchy of suffering to former Australian prisoners of war. The Howard government has had more than a decade to compensate these Australians for their suffering but, as I have said, it took an election year to see a change of heart from the government.

While we are supporting this bill, Labor will continue to monitor what the government is and is not doing for our veteran community. Another area of particular concern for Labor senators is the delays in processing claims handled by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The department’s 2005-06 annual report showed some startling figures in relation to the speed at which veterans’ claims are processed. Under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, the time taken to process new impairment claims had increased from 26 days to 130 days since 2004-05. Under the same act, the mean time taken to process primary injury claims had gone from 90 days to 146 days since 2004-05. These figures are disgraceful. It is outrageous that, at a time when our veterans need our support, they are left waiting months for a reply.

Labor senators pursued the matter of claims-processing times at last month’s budget estimates, and we will continue to pursue that matter, particularly in the light of the reduction in staffing numbers at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs which has been made to accommodate the budget restraints imposed on the department by the government—a government that continues to fail our veterans.

While I have the opportunity, I would like to commend the numerous veterans groups and organisations that are amongst the most tenacious advocates for their constituents and whose hard work has seen incremental advances for veterans such as those we see in this bill. But you have to ask, as more of our older veterans are dying or succumbing to the impact of their service related injuries and illnesses: who will continue to keep the government accountable for the responsibility we all have to our veterans community? You certainly would not want to rely on the government to do it—a government which increasingly governs according to the Prime Minister’s standing in the polls. You would not want to rely on the government to do the right thing of its own volition when it comes to protecting and caring for our veterans.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.