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Victorian RSL, Flemington, Victoria: speech.



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Speech by

Senator Mark Bishop

Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

to

Victorian RSL

Flemington, Victoria

26th June 2002

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President Bruce Ruxton, Minister Vale, distinguished guests, delegates, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you very much for your invitation to be with you today, and for your welcome.

On occasions such as this it is important that we as the key party in Opposition in the Parliament indicate where we are coming from on policy matters.

So today I would like to quickly look at the broad brush of policy issues which face us at present, to give you some understanding of our approach to some of those, and finally, to look ahead in readiness for changes which seem rather inevitable.

Our Approach

It is important in a democracy such as ours that the policy debate be as thorough and as considered as possible, especially in the area of veterans’ affairs.

As we review and formulate our policy framework we need to respect what has gone before over more than 80 years.

As we are so often reminded by events such as the passing of Alec Campbell and other WW 1 veterans in recent weeks, our attitudes as Australians towards our veterans and ex service people command the highest respect from everyone.

We have all commented in the last month on the growing profile of Anzac Day, which is a fantastic indication of the depth and strength of public sentiment.

The history of our nation is inextricably entwined with the commitment, hardship, loss and suffering that was endured by so many. We respect that absolutely.

Moreover we respect the promises made to those who left our shores in full and certain knowledge in many cases that many would not return.

Those promises must be honoured, and we will certainly continue to do so.

Over the years we have enjoyed a reasonably bipartisan approach to many things. A recent example has been the passing of legislation to extend the Gold Card to Australian veterans over 70 .

Similarly we will also agree to the indexation of the Income Support Supplement for widows due to be introduced into the Parliament in the near future.

Both of those proposals fulfil the public promise to care for those who made the commitment.

However, we would be failing in our duty and obligations as an Opposition if we were to be totally uncritical and compliant. There is a very real need in every democracy for a vigorous and intelligent opposition which is prepared to challenge those things of dubious merit.

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Likewise we are bound to demand transparency of administration and full accountability for the use of taxpayers’ money.

The veterans portfolio is no exception, and some of you will know that a number of substantial criticisms have already been made of a number of issues, and I know those views are shared by many in the veteran community.

Current Issues

I don’t want to harp on these today because there are many good things too, and we need to keep things in perspective.

In summary though the ALP, like many of you, is critical of the restriction of the recent $25 000 grant to only the POW’s of Japan. This is another unnecessary anomaly created by an arbitrary budget line.

We are also on the record with criticism of the dilution of the standard attaching to qualifying service, with a commitment to see its meaning as set out in the Act restored as a priority.

While we do not deny that there are many areas of service which entail some degree of hazard, it does not equate with being shot at by a real enemy with some real certainty that life is at risk.

That is long standing traditional policy and must be protected.

The solution for recognising that danger quite frankly is not to extend qualifying service to any form of peacetime service.

If other current or past compensation regimes are considered inadequate then they may need to be fixed - but from where we stand, granting access to the VEA for peacetime service 1972 to 1994 has already caused enough confusion and complexity.

We are aware too that within the veteran community there are still some areas of need- and I mention need specifically because sometimes I fear that it is overlooked too often.

We are particularly concerned at the needs of a small number of widows without children who are not old enough to qualify for the Income Support Supplement - and which is highlighted by the provisions of legislation to index the Income Support Supplement.

This would have been an ideal opportunity to fix it.

The plight of younger veterans whose own life and that of his family is too often disrupted by substance abuse, gambling and violent behaviour, is also something which seems to require more attention than it is getting. I fear here in particular that as a community we are not honouring our promise.

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The application of the means test to include disability pension remains unattended to. The cost of this as I have been recently advised is less than $ 13 million per year - a drop in the bucket in a budget of $9.3 billion.

The removal of this provision by the way would benefit 239 T&PI’s, and about 4500 ex service people on the age pension, most of whom are WW2 enlistments who did not go overseas.

It will also benefit 1020 ex service people with disability at the general rate who are currently in receipt of Centrelink’s Disability Support pension, and who are now threatened by transfer to the dole queue. This will see a reduction of more than $100 per fortnight to their payment.

The ALP will be opposing that in the Senate.

We will also be opposing the extra $ 1.00 to be levied on your pharmaceuticals from the chemist.

Now I did promise I would not harp on these things, and I won’t, but it is important that you all know what the Opposition is up to and the reasons behind our actions.

I hope you could all agree today that all the matters I have mentioned are valid criticisms of shortcomings which need to be addressed - on your behalf.

The matters I have identified are not ones of petty political point scoring, but are intended to make the system work better for veterans. They are intended to make sure that the promises are honoured.

Please also understand that what interests us most is good policy, the needs of those struggling with life, consistency and fairness - and above all, accountability.

The Future

We need to spend a minute on the future too.

As you all know the Clarke review is now in full swing. It is a consultative exercise at least and it is a welcome attempt to look at a number of intransigent issues.

It is not however a process of policy determination as that is only the prerogative of Parliament.

As an Opposition we will be very watchful of the outcomes and you can be assured we will respond intelligently to any proposal for change which is fair and effective.

The process of developing a new, single military compensation scheme for the future is also in full swing, and again, we are prepared to be supportive, subject to seeing the detail.

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Our attitudes to this proposal are on the record so I will not labour them, except to say that the legislation will be approached by the Opposition with a fine tooth comb. As I said, that is our duty and I know there will be some of you keen to point us to issues on which there is dissatisfaction.

Conclusion

Ladies and gentlemen, in closing I hope you will forgive me if I briefly pay tribute to Bruce Ruxton on behalf of the ALP.

At the heart of every society there is a set of core values which effectively guide our community life. These values are passed down from generation to generation, and the custodians of these values are often our parents, our grand parents, society leaders, or key institutions - all of which are very influential on the political process.

This is a fundamental element of the democratic process, and while some may see it as a dynamic in the way of faster change, it does serve to protect those values as measures of the worth of the things we do.

This is where the RSL comes in, as do you Bruce as one of its more outspoken leaders. This is what leadership is all about - provided of course that it is responsive balanced, and fully reflects the public interest.

In the representation of veterans, the RSL has for over 80 years, performed a critical role in protecting a very important community value, namely, the need to care for and respect the service of our servicemen and women - just as most civilisations always have.

Bruce, as a leader of the RSL you have been a forthright and outspoken champion of this value.

We know that at the bottom of it all there is a life long commitment to veterans and their families, and for that we salute you.

I recall my first meeting with Bruce Ruxton after my appointment as Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. We had lunch at a fine establishment in Melbourne and basically it was a get to meet you type of meeting where we had a broad discussion on backgrounds and topical issues of the day and Bruce shared with me some for the policy priorities of the RSL.

As we moved away from the business of the meeting Bruce shared with me the results of a series of negotiations he had been conducting with the Victorian Government concerning the establishment of a number of homes for a not insignificant number of war widows.

As he relayed both the progress and eventual success of those negotiations I couldn’t but be aware of the excitement in his eyes and the more animated he became as he relayed how this particular group of women were going to be properly looked after in modern accommodation in their remaining years.

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That struck me at the time as a pretty good indicator of the man, his life, his work and his achievements.

For that commitment we thank you, congratulate you and wish you all the best in your retirement.

Ladies and gentlemen thank you for the invitation to address your Congress today.