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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 1931


Senator RONALDSON (Victoria) (17:30): In the last 10 days I was in an airport—and I will not say where it was because I do not want to place anyone in a difficult position. When I asked one of the longest-serving Labor Party members in the other place how he was travelling, he said, 'It is all a bit surreal.' It is all a bit surreal. When he was talking about it being surreal I am sure he was talking about the quite surreal situation where in the space of five years his party has removed a Prime Minister in a blood coup and then, as a further example of the surrealness of the situation, there is talk about replacing that Prime Minister with the person that she removed. I can sort of understand why this member would describe the situation as surreal.

But it is this inward-looking government that has completely and utterly lost the right to govern that I want to talk about today. When you have a government of whatever political persuasion that becomes more interested in their own jobs than the jobs of the Australian people—and I have seen it before—then you know full well that it is a government in terminal decline. That is the surreal situation that the Australian Labor Party finds itself in at the moment. That is the surreal position that the Australian people find themselves in at the moment.

I want to talk about what I find really surreal. I want to talk about the surreal situation that we now find ourselves in. In October 2007 the current Australian Labor Party government was left with no debt, was left with a strong Future Fund, an education fund and $40 billion in the bank, from recollection, and now in a bizarrely surreal turnaround there is no money in the bank, gross debt is $250-plus billion and net debt is approaching $170 billion. People in this chamber and the other place talk about billions and it just rolls off their tongue. Well, $170 billion is $170,000 million. The cost of servicing that debt, which is still increasing, is approximately $7,000 million.

I have the great honour of being the shadow minister representing the people who have fought for this country. It is an extraordinary honour to be dealing with these men and women. I can tell you what $7,000 million a year could do to assist these men and women who have served this country, these men and women who, regrettably, in far greater numbers are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. We saw that frightening article in the papers over the weekend about the number of people returning from Afghanistan with PTSD.

If this nation abrogates its responsibilities to those who have served this nation at the request of the nation then we stand utterly condemned. When we are unable to meet our responsibilities because of government policies that have wasted hundreds of billions of dollars then what are we doing to ourselves as a nation? I am old enough to remember post Vietnam, old enough to remember that I was probably 12 months off my marble potentially coming up and old enough to remember the way those men were treated when they returned from Vietnam. They did no more and no less than serve the nation at the nation's request.

When you spend the time that I do with these men and their families, you see what was done to them and the ramifications of that. It is not just the men who were there; it is their families and their children—the sometimes forgotten people in that post-Vietnam era. They are the ones who have suffered as a result of what this nation did. These are people who were refused entry to some RSL sub-branches and who were completely ostracised and had only themselves for comfort and support and, indeed, to try to look after themselves in both an emotional and a financial sense.

As honourable senators will know, the coalition is trying to address one particular part of the legitimate demands of the ex-service community for support, and that is in relation to fair indexation. This chamber knows full well, and many in the ex-service community know full well, that we will be addressing the DFRDB and the DFRB indexation issue. As I have said before in forums all over the country, we should have done it earlier. I have done the mea culpa in relation to this. Yes, we should have, but we did not, but we are trying to address it. We took that policy to the last election, and history, of course, shows what happened there and why we are sitting on this side of the chamber and not the other side. We tried again with the fair indexation bill that I moved in this place, and in a day of shame it was rejected by this chamber. We tried in the other place before Christmas to amend a bill, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill, and to refuse to deal with that bill further until the government introduced a fair indexation bill. This was not a matter of going out and having six-month or 12-month consultations. This was not about the parliamentary draftsmen being under enormous pressure and taking six months to come up with the bill, because the bill was there. All that had to be done was for the bill to be reprinted in the government's name, and fair indexation would have been achieved.

Last week in this chamber we again attempted to amend a piece of legislation that had attached to it a schedule which repeated in toto the bill that failed to be passed in this chamber several years ago. Literally two minutes before this bill was meant to be debated, it was pulled. The reason given was that the government had last-minute amendments it wanted to make. History again shows that there have been no amendments circulated since then. There have been no amendments circulated this week. This bill is not back on the Notice Paper for today, apparently it will not be tomorrow, and it will not be the day after that or on Thursday. So the first time that this could possibly be debated is in the budget session—again, an opportunity denied to these men and women in receipt of DFRDB and DFRB superannuation to have fair indexation.

The Leader of the Opposition, Mr Tony Abbott, has twice made commitments on this—once in that magnificent regional centre of Bendigo, which is close to that other magnificent regional centre of Ballarat, where I live and my family have lived for some five generations. Ballarat is close to that other magnificent regional centre of Geelong. These are three extraordinarily strong regional centres, all of which have made their mark on this nation's history. In Bendigo Mr Abbott committed the coalition to fair indexation. Last week the coalition again committed itself through Mr Abbott to fair indexation.

There are a number of organisations that have come out and supported the coalition in relation to our announcement again last week that we would be introducing fair indexation in the first budget of an Abbott government. Organisations such as the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations, the Defence Force Welfare Association, the RSL and others have supported this. But what they have said to the government is that the ex-service community will not accept anything less than full and fair indexation for anyone with military superannuation and that any attempt by the government to spin a half-baked solution to make the problem go away will be exposed for what it is. If indeed that is what is being discussed, the ex-service community have made it quite clear that it is no way for halfway, and this government will not get away with bringing in a system and an indexation method that do not match the coalition's.

I want to talk tonight about the impact of that $7,000 million, which is the interest bill on that money—the noose that the Australian Labor Party has put around the necks of Australians alive today and Australians yet to be born, I fear, for generations—because, remarkably, these people have another five months to go before the next election. I fear what the debt might be at that stage.

Those with any knowledge of the veterans' community will understand there are many pressing issues. I know that Senator Back and Senator Nash, who are in the chamber today, have an intimate understanding of what is required to assist these men and women. If you look at the advancing years of a number of our veterans and veterans' partners or wives, you will see there is a sense of urgency on their part in relation to matters that should be addressed. Look at the situation facing war widows. You can have a situation where two sisters marry two brothers who travelled overseas, fought beside each other, came back and lived in the same street. If one of those men died of war caused injuries then his widow would be given a widow's pension and a gold card, but her sister and the man who did not die of war related injuries would not. I have said on the public record in forums across Australia that I think that is grossly unfair. Is this nation in a position at the moment to address that? No, it is not.

Look at the outcome for invalid pensioners following the Harmer review when the Howard government legislated to address an indexation question that had been the bane of the life of many TPIs for a long, long time. That was addressed and it was undone following the government's response to the Harmer review. Is the nation in a position at the moment to address that $700-plus million cost over the forward estimates? No, it is not. Look at the partners of veterans who quite rightly say, 'We need some more support—we need some support with respite; we need other support.' Look at what has been done to the BEST fund for advocacy and welfare services, where men and women who have served or have an intimate understanding of what it is to serve—who understand the uniqueness of military service and everything that brings with it—have been providing advocacy and welfare services to members of the veteran community. The government several years ago slashed that funding. When we are talking about providing support, particularly for those young men and women who are returning from Afghanistan at the moment, the very group of people who could be providing them with that assistance have had their funding reduced. The government stands utterly condemned for doing so.

I have a minute left. I will throw this challenge out to those opposite: if you are to lose the next election then please provide the new government with the ability to address some of these short-, medium- and long-term funding decisions that will need to be made, not just in my portfolio but across the board. If you are going to form government again in September, I throw the challenge out to you to finally, please, in the last six months of your government, not let down the people of this country again with this wilful spending and disregard for the future not only of us but of our children and our children's children. When I see this utter farce that we have seen in this last week in relation to the attack on the freedom of the press I fear I know where the priorities are. (Time expired)