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Prime Minister announces increased benefits for war veterans.

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Tuesday 2 March 2004

Prime Minister announces increased benefits for war veterans


MARK COLVIN: Today, Australia's war veterans reaped the benefits of the Government party room revolt of a fortnight ago - the boost to their benefits, $267 million over five years. The Federal Government has more than doubled its war veterans' entitlements package. Backbenchers gave the new deal the green light this morning.  


But the debate got personal, after outspoken Government backbencher Wilson Tuckey questioned whether the only war veteran in Parliament, Labor MP Graeme Edwards, was receiving a war pension and had declared it. 


Alexandra Kirk reports from Canberra. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Two weeks after backbenchers told their leader in no uncertain terms to go back to the drawing board, the Prime Minister's unveiled the Government's package to boost war veteran's entitlements. 


JOHN HOWARD: Every so often the party room is quite capable of greater wisdom than the Cabinet and any Prime Minister, particularly one who's served for eight years, who pretends that all wisdom resides in his head, or in the collective heads of his Cabinet - and it is eight years I think - is fooling himself or herself.  


So yes, the Cabinet was told by the party room that it should have another look, the party room was right and the Cabinet did have another look and this is the result. 


ALEXANDRA KIRK: The veterans' disability pension will be exempted from Centrelink's means test for income support payments, and the Government will index the disability pension by the CPI inflation rate or male average weekly earnings, whichever is the greater. There'll be rent assistance for war widows and the funeral allowance will be almost doubled. 


Surviving POWs from the Korean War or their widows will receive $25,000 dollars for the hardship they suffered. And the disability pension will be extended to veterans of the Berlin Airlift, minesweepers and to RAAF crew who served on the Malay-Thai border. 


JOHN HOWARD: I believe that this is a generous package.  


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Blue Ryan, who heads the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Federation, welcomes the package, saying it's long overdue.  


BLUE RYAN: Any improvement is welcome, I mean, that's for sure. However, this has been a long hard battle, and at the end of the day I'm responsible to my members. Now, we have a meeting in Canberra next week, a congress, and how my members accept that is really up to them.  


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Liberal backbencher Stephen Ciobo's Queensland seat around the Gold Coast contains the nation's fourth largest veteran population. He says his constituents are pretty happy, but he'll push for more.  


STEVE CIOBO: This does meet the majority of their demands. I believe, and certainly from the discussions I have had today with a number of my local veterans that they're pretty happy with this. It still needs to go some way, and we'll recognise that. In an ideal world you'd be able to provide every single one of their demands. But I do believe that this strikes a balance.  


ALEXANDRA KIRK: The RSL says the package is a great advance, but not enough.  


President, Major General Bill Crews, is disappointed there's no $66 a fortnight catch-up payment for injured veterans or grants to World War II POWs.  


BILL CREWS: This is just under half of what Justice Clarke had recommended. However, it does address some of the more significant inadequacies in veteran entitlements, particularly for TPI pensioners, and the RSL certainly welcomes much of this package as a good first move to fix these problems.  


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Labor supports the enhanced benefits.  


But that didn't stop the outspoken Liberal, Wilson Tuckey from taking a swipe at Parliament's only war veteran, Labor MP Graeme Edwards, who lost both his legs in the Vietnam War and has campaigned hard on veterans' entitlements. 


WILSON TUCKEY: Has anyone ever asked Graeme Edwards, is he on a TPI pension?  


REPORTER: Why is that relevant?  


WILSON TUCKEY: Why is it relevant? - well, is he… is there a declaration of interest requirement?  


GRAEME EDWARDS: Firstly, I'm not on a TPI pension, and the benefit that I do receive under Veterans' Affairs is nowhere near the amount of taxes that I pay. What I am concerned about in what Wilson Tuckey has said is his suggestion that perhaps veterans' entitlements should be either taxed or means tested.  


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Graeme Edwards.  


So does the Prime Minister have any problem with Mr Edwards drawing a war pension as well as his parliamentary salary? 


JOHN HOWARD: There is no person in the Parliament who's paid a greater price for his war service than Graeme Edwards and as far as I'm concerned anything he's entitled to as a veteran he should have. 


MARK COLVIN: The Prime Minister, ending Alexandra Kirk's report.