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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 294


Senator BARTLETT (10:09 PM) —I am afraid that I do not have a speech to incorporate, so I will have to use the old-fashioned, verbal communication technique. The Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Disability, War Widow and War Widower Pensions) Bill 2007 has appeared extremely rapidly, even by this government’s standards. I think it appeared only today in the House of Representatives and it is already here and will pass tonight. It is a true one-day wonder. Fortunately, it is a positive piece of legislation rather than a negative one like some of the others that have been rushed through this place in recent times. It makes the point that when the government wants to move on something they can do it pretty quickly. That is a very relevant issue which I will raise in my amendment in the committee stage. It also goes to the issue that we have been debating a number of times today, including on the last bill, where the government has said that they need to further examine the issue of removing discrimination in a whole range of acts. As senators would know, it was in 1995 that the Democrats first put forward proposals to address that in a comprehensive way. Twelve years later the government is still considering it.

This piece of legislation reflects a government commitment to increase payments to disability pensioners, war widows and war widower pensioners—the disability veterans pensioners—as well as changing the methodology used to index their pensions. This is in response to quite a recent announcement by the federal government and again shows that when the political will is there movement can be quite quick. It is not an inexpensive measure, with the total cost over four and a bit years being $470 million. It is not going to break the bank, particularly at the moment, but it is not loose change either. Again, it shows that when the political will is there, or when the political need is perceived to be there on the eve of an election, then the government can move very quickly, including introducing legislation in what is a relatively complex area. Dealing with indexation formulas for veterans’ disability pensions and war widows and war widower pensions is actually quite a messy area. I know that from having tried to move amendments dealing specifically with indexation of various veterans payments in the past. It is good to see that things can move fast but hard not to be a little cynical about the selective application of that promptness.

However, I do not think it really matters what the motivation is. This is a positive result for many in the veterans’ community and therefore it should be welcomed—and it is welcomed by the Democrats. This legislation provides a one-off increase of $15 per fortnight to the extreme disablement adjustment rate, a five per cent increase to the general rate and a change to the methodology used to index the general rate pension for veterans, with effect from the March 2008 adjustment. It also allows a one-off increase of $10 per fortnight to the former domestic allowance component of war widows and war widowers’ pensions, which as I understand it has not been increased for quite some time, so it goes a fair way to restoring the original value of that allowance. The one-off increase to the extreme disablement adjustment rate brings it into line with increases to the special and intermediate rate disability pensions and also provides a five per cent increase to the general rate disability pension, which will mean a fortnightly increase of $20 for all pensioners over and above the general rate.

There has been a bit of competition in this area between the government and the opposition in recent times. That is something that the Democrats welcome and I would say that it is also something that most in the veteran community would welcome as well. There has been a lot of agitation by a lot of groups for a long period of time. The opposition put forward their proposals and pledges and the government matched them and upped the ante. The opposition immediately matched them back again. Either way it produces better results for the veteran community and, at least in this case, it has produced a good policy outcome. It has not been like what occasionally happens in a pre-election environment where the bidding war breaks out and you get a quite poor public policy outcome, when it is just grabbing a vote-buying opportunity. These initiatives that are being put forward are based on specific issues that have been agitated for a long period of time. They are quite valid concerns that have been expressed by many in the veteran community. So it is simply matching the valid claims and concerns that have been put forward over a long period of time.

More than congratulating the government and before that the opposition for their actions in this regard, first and foremost congratulations are due to the ex-service organisations in all of their forms, sizes and styles for their work in pushing these issues so hard for so long in the face of such resistance. The immense contribution of so many organisations, many of them predominantly voluntary and community based organisations advocating on behalf of many different segments of the veteran community, is something that is quite impressive. Their level of commitment and their passion for the issues on behalf of their own groups and their own constituents, if you like, is very admirable. Bills like this should be ones that they chalk up as clear achievements to indicate that they really are making a difference.

Having said all that, it is appropriate to indicate that there are still further areas that do need to be addressed. There are other issues with regard to appropriate indexation of superannuation for veterans. There are also issues to do with the treatment of taxation of military superannuation. There is, of course, the issue of the ongoing discrimination with regard to people with same-sex partners, which I will address in the committee stage of the debate.

The other point that I do want to take the opportunity to make once again is that, while these changes address some entitlements to war widows, war widowers and veterans on the extreme disablement adjustment rate, there is a need to still further improve the support we provide to other ex-service personnel who have disabilities or health problems as a direct consequence of their service in the armed forces—it may not be from warlike service but from other activities within the Defence Force. There is quite a clear distinction between the type of support provided to people depending on whether the disability or health issue has arisen as a consequence of warlike service or other activities. I think that is a real ongoing problem, not just for the individuals concerned and their families but for the Australian community. I have absolutely no doubt it directly affects the ability of the Defence Force to recruit people and even more so to retain people.

Just yesterday I met a 30-year-old woman who, as a 20-year-old in the Navy, suffered a severe neck and back injury. Her initial treatment was nothing short of absolutely appalling and disgraceful. Her injuries were not properly assessed at that early stage. The long delay in properly assessing that injury seriously compromised her long-term health and her ongoing quality of life. Most people are fit, active and vital when they are 20 or so years old and join the Navy or any of the defence forces. To suddenly go from that to being severely incapacitated as the result of injury directly caused by your service and then to find that you are not getting support both initially and longer term and that you are having to scratch, fight and battle to get assistance with medical treatment is not only an absolute travesty of justice for the individual but it sends a very strong message to many people that it is a pretty bad idea to join the ADF because if you get injured you are not always guaranteed to get well looked after.

There have been improvements in recent times, and I fully accept that. But I see it as part of my task and the Democrats’ task to keep that pressure on to improve things up to a consistently high standard for all injured and wounded ex-service personnel, regardless of where their injury occurred or how their health conditions were generated. If it is related at all to their being part of our Defence Force, if it is related at all to their decision to join the Defence Force and serve their country, then they should get that support on an ongoing basis and in a reliable way. The extra stress people endure from having to battle purely to get support can often be just as debilitating. There is that feeling of abandonment and the mental stress of having to fight for their entitlements. There is also the stress that pushes across onto the family as a whole. That is a consistent picture that I see as well, because the burden falls back on the families, as it does on carers in all sorts of areas in the community. You see that stress and trauma and the compromising of the quality of life spreading out from the individual to the wider family.

I know that goes wider than what is in the bill before us now but I want to take the opportunity to repeat that message. It is still something that we are falling short on and we do need to lift our game much higher. I hope, in this pre-election environment, that there is genuine acknowledgement given to that issue by both major parties. There needs to be a specific focus on the needs of the injured service personnel across the board. We need to lift our game.

The specifics within the legislation are welcome as far as they go. There are still wider issues with regard to indexation of superannuation, in particular, and taxation treatment. They need to continue to be pushed for. There are wider parts, as I understand it, of the policy commitments of both the government and the opposition that still need to be implemented in legislation. The fact that this part of it has been able to be brought forward and put in place so quickly is welcome, but it again begs the question of why it could not have been done sooner and also begs the question about why it can take so long to do something sometimes, even when the government says they fully support it in principle. It can be years in the making and yet, when there is a sudden need to gain, regain or try to regain support on an issue, then the movement can be rapid in the extreme.

Having said that, it is a positive piece of legislation. I would only make the single cautionary remark, as I said at the start: the formulas and different components of allowances, pensions and entitlements in the veterans area are quite messy and complicated. I am not, in any way, disputing the drafting skills of the government, but there is the issue of whether or not you get it right when you rush through legislation this quickly in this area. I am sure that, if they do not get it right—the legislation does not come into force until, as I understand it, March next year—there will be an opportunity to fix it down the track. It does need to be said that, whilst the legislation is positive and assuming it does what the government say it does, there is still the issue of the risk of implementing legislative changes like this in such a rapid form. We need to make sure that we have actually got it right and that it does do what we think it does. I think it does what the government think it does and, assuming it does what they think it does, that is a good thing, so we support it.