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Thursday, 12 February 2015
Page: 649


Senator BILYK (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (15:25): I focus today on the very disappointing answers given by Senator Ronaldson in question time. Senator Brown asked a very legitimate question of Senator Ronaldson in regard to the impact on veterans of the government's decision to cut $15 million from legal aid in last year's budget. That is an important question to ask, and it is our job as the opposition to ask such questions. I understand that, because of the chaos, dysfunction and disunity in the government, Senator Ronaldson may well been distracted this week; but the way he handled Senator Brown's question was absolutely abysmal.

First of all, he commented that he did not agree with the premise of the question. Well, that is fair enough. But he then went on to comment that he thought it was 'a very silly question'. I do not think that asking questions about the reduction of any sort of funding to support veterans—and if it is not happening he could have just said, 'No, it's not happening'—is 'silly'. Does the minister think that veterans are not worthy of legal aid? Why else would he call it 'a very silly question'?

We know there is chaos and confusion on the government side of this chamber. We have seen it all week. We know they do not talk to each other, obviously. The minister does not know what is going on in his own portfolio. He does not even appear to know which senators are from his own home state. How atrocious is that? If we talk to high-school students, between them they can usually tell us the names of the senators from their home state. Here is a senator who does not even know which state Senator Brown comes from. Actually, I am not concerned that he did not know which state Senator Brown came from; I am concerned that he did not know that she was not from his state. I find that a bit strange. I know who all the government senators from my state of Tasmania are and I find it passing strange that Senator Ronaldson does not. I am wondering what else Senator Ronaldson might have had on his mind—if there are still things going on over on that side in regard to leadership challenges that Senator Ronaldson might be focused on.

As I said, it is pretty unfortunate that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs could not have given a more satisfactory answer, because it is an issue of utmost concern. Both the New South Wales Bar Association and the Australian Bar Association have condemned the cruel and unnecessary cuts that Minister Ronaldson's government have made to legal aid. We know that these cuts have impacted on the people that Minister Ronaldson is meant to protect—that is, veterans and their families. The New South Wales Bar Association commented recently:

Veterans and their families will no longer be funded to retain private lawyers in cases where they challenge decisions of the Australian Government in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for a pension or Gold Card.

They continued:

It is troubling that war veterans and their families may face the prospect of not having legal representation or legal representation of their own choice when challenging decisions of the Commonwealth in relation to pensions and the Gold Card. In these very same cases the Commonwealth is routinely represented by lawyers of its choice.

I am sure that many senators have helped constituents who have been disadvantaged by an erroneous decision made by a government department or agency—I know I have. However, removing funding for a program that helps veterans and their families—amongst many other groups, I might add—is unfair and completely unnecessary. I can just imagine a poor war widow having to take on the might of the Commonwealth government unrepresented because she cannot gain a lawyer under legal aid to fight against an erroneous decision. She should be able to gain legal representation of her own choosing to fight on her behalf. The fact that she cannot is utterly unfair. It is an extremely disappointing outcome and an entirely unnecessary situation. It was extremely disappointing answer from the minister, who should be on top of his portfolio and should be aware of what is happening. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.