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Thursday, 19 June 2008
Page: 2854

Senator MARK BISHOP (12:58 PM) —I, too, wish to briefly address the content of the Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (2007 Election Commitments) Bill 2008. This bill honours our election commitments to veterans and their families. It is part of the government’s commitment to ending discrimination in the payment of benefits to veterans’ partners and families who have suffered as a result of their service to our country over many years. We have an obligation to care and provide for those whose partners were lost in action or died as a result of their war caused injuries or illnesses. Moreover, we have a proud tradition of doing so in a largely apolitical fashion. It is important that support for veterans’ families is relevant to contemporary needs, with a strong emphasis on the principles of fairness, equity and transparency.

Having said that, the area of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act that has long needed revision is the anomalies and discrimination that exist in the provision for war widows or war widowers. I have some association with these initiatives, so I am quite pleased to be able to support them today. They were part of Labor’s election platform at the 2004 election and have remained in place as part of our platform since that time. They might seem minor to some; in fact, that was the reaction when the idea was first floated with ex-service organisations. The fact is, however, that outside the mainstream of ex-service organisations there are some small groups that are not well-organised and struggle to be heard. In some cases there may be no organisations in existence at all.

The two amendments in this bill do fit within those descriptions. Neither of them came within the grand review of Mr Justice Clarke and they were not on his agenda or on his set of recommendations. The reason simply was that they either were not understood or were regarded as being of lesser importance. They are neither. It was a case of the noisy wheel getting the grease.

Let me address the first of the amendments. When I was the opposition spokesperson for veterans’ affairs, I was introduced by the member for Shortland, Ms Jill Hall, to a group of ladies in the Hunter region who had formed what has become known as the Partners of Veterans Association; it now has a large number of branches right around Australia. These people—some of whom were partners of TPI veterans—were young and so under the cut-off age for income support. They feared that, on the loss of their husbands, they would become destitute. That was indeed the future that many of them were about to face, simply because of a decision made previously, for different reasons, which would have excluded them from the income support supplement, or the ISS, as it has become known. They had cared for their incapacitated husbands, whose life expectancy may have been reduced. But, on their partner’s death, they would have only received the war widows pension and the gold card. As we know, the gold card is much prized for its health care, but it does not pay the rent and nor does it put food on the table, and that was especially the case where the children had left home. These caring people were in the circumstance of having never had an opportunity to save capital or to provide for their lives as widows in retirement. This, I believe, is a serious anomaly. Indeed, this was an anomaly that was not readily identified with by many of the premier ex-service organisations; yet it was the primary focus of this small group, the Partners of Veterans Association of Australia, or PVA.

It is therefore very satisfying that, after all this time, we have a bill that addresses the problem. The bill extends eligibility for income support supplement to war widows who are not of pension age, do not have dependent children and are not permanently incapacitated for work—that is, it extends a benefit to war widows or widowers who struggle to make ends meet. Approximately 1,400 war widows will benefit from this change—that is, 1,400 families who are not currently entitled to income support supplement.

The second change relates to bereavement payments. This initiative again has a simple origin. I was contacted by an RSL member on the NSW South Coast who had just passed the hat around to pay for the funeral of a single veteran who had died penniless. Because he had no family, his estate, such as it was, had no funds for a funeral. Bereavement payments are simply not available in these circumstances, and this amendment corrects that shortcoming. Again, not many would be aware of this gap, but it has existed for many years. Those who are aware of it are those who care; they have assumed responsibility for looking after comrades who fell into indigent circumstances. This is an aspect of veterans’ organisations that is not often understood or appreciated. Veterans look after their own, and their stories are not often told nor heard. But, sadly, more often than you hear about, there are veterans who fall on hard times and die in tragic circumstances. These veterans have served their country. Their demise may in fact have been due to their incapacity to deal with modern life as a result of their service. We simply do not know. The point is that it does happen and the system has not provided for them in this respect, but it will do so in the future. My view has long been that this is the least we can do for this unfortunate group of individuals. It is merely a one-off payment equivalent to 12 weeks of the special rate of disability pension. Bereavement payments will now be extended to include the estate of single recipients of both the special rate and the extreme disablement adjustment rate of the disability pension who have died in indigent circumstances. I am therefore very pleased today to be able to support this amendment because of its immediate impact on those who pass on early.

Finally, this bill will extend the automatic grant of war widows or widowers pensions to the families of veterans who were in receipt of either the temporary special rate or the intermediate rate of disability pension under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act immediately before their death. This is currently only provided to veterans’ partners where the veteran was either in receipt of a TPI pension or had been a prisoner of war. I think we all recognise that TPI or intermediate rate veterans are all accepted as having a fairly serious disability as a result of their service. Sadly, the odds are that their deaths will be caused by that disability, so the need for a widow to prove that her late partner’s death was war caused is really quite offensive. The need for a separate application is also redundant. So, in effect, this deals with reality and provides better service, not to mention the recognition that it gives them for caring for and supporting our veterans.

As I said at the outset, these are small measures that have long been in the pipeline. The Australian Labor Party is very pleased to be able to remedy these problems, which impact on a relatively small group of people but a group of people who are much in need. Accordingly, we support this bill.