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Thursday, 12 February 2015
Page: 634

Veterans: Legal Aid

Senator CAROL BROWN (Tasmania) (14:28): My question is to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Senator Ronaldson. I refer to the Abbott government's decision to cut $15 million from legal aid in last year's budget. I also refer to Ms Jane Needham SC, President of the New South Wales Bar Association, who said that, as a result of these cuts:

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.

Is Ms Needham correct?

Senator RONALDSON (VictoriaMinister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC and Special Minister of State) (14:29): I thank the honourable senator for her question. As the honourable senator will appreciate, I am not the responsible minister for handling legal aid, and I have not seen that report—

Senator Wong: I presume the vets have written to you.

The PRESIDENT: Ignore the interjections, Minister.

Senator RONALDSON: Senator Wong, I am trying to answer the question and you, as you always do, just keep constantly interjecting.

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator RONALDSON: You plead concern for the veterans, and then you behave like this. I am trying to answer Senator Brown's question. If you let me do so, I will do so rather than constantly—

Opposition senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: On my left! Order!

Senator RONALDSON: I am not aware of these comments. I will go back and have a look at them and see what exactly was said. I do not accept the premise of your question; you will accept that. But I will go back and check it. But this does give me the opportunity to talk about something that did dramatically impact on veterans about three years, and that was the Building Excellence in Support and Training program. This is a program that provides support to veterans right across Australia, and without any—

The PRESIDENT: Pause the clock. There is a point of order, I assume.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Mr President, a point of order on relevance—and I appreciate the minister saying that he does not know the answer to the question and he does not know whether Ms Needham is correct: but he then continues on and answers his own question. Either he has finished and sits down and lets me ask my next set of questions or he answers the question I asked.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Brown, the minister did indicate that he did not agree with the premise of your question and that he would seek further advice. The minister is entitled to continue, but the minister—

Senator Kim Carr interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Order! How I am I supposed to rule on a point of order if I get constant interjections? The minister has 25 seconds left in which to complete his answer if he wishes to. I will be listening to the minister's response. It is hard for me to judge the content of a minister's answer. I can only listen to what the minister says.

Senator RONALDSON: As I said before, if we are going to talk about support to veterans and removing support to veterans, I ask the Australian Labor Party—and the senator asked this question—how you could possibly justify removing $1 million without any notice from the advocacy and welfare services provided to Australia's veterans, which actually stops them getting to the stage where they might need to access legal aid. So, this is pure hypocrisy, and you should apologise to the veterans. (Time expired)

Senator CAROL BROWN (Tasmania) (14:33): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The Attorney-General has previously claimed that the government's budget cuts would not affect front-line services. Isn't protecting the rights of war veterans to access their lawful entitlements a front-line service?

Senator RONALDSON (VictoriaMinister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC and Special Minister of State) (14:33): I am advised that the government will provide $1.3 billion over the next four years to support front-line legal services to vulnerable Australians, but I cannot add anything further to my earlier comments that I will go back and look at the comments you are referring to. But, Senator, what you need to understand is that these advocacy and welfare services provided under BEST actually go to organisations right throughout the country. And guess what these organisations do? They actually provide assistance to veterans to help them process their claims and applications and work their way through issues they might have. All you did, Senator, in your government—

The PRESIDENT: To the chair.

Senator RONALDSON: was take $1 million out without any explanation at all—no explanation at all—and you remove the opportunities for veterans to get the support that they require from their own. This is crocodile tears, this is a very silly question, and you should, quite frankly, next time refuse to ask questions like this. (Time expired)

Senator CAROL BROWN (Tasmania) (14:34): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Regardless of the minister's crocodile tears, I ask: given the government's decision to cut the real wages of ADF, isn't this another example of a government that puts the interests of men and women who have served their country last?

The PRESIDENT: Senator Brown, that question probably did not directly relate to the primary question. I will allow the question, but questions do need to be phrased and scoped within the context of the primary question.

Senator RONALDSON (VictoriaMinister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC and Special Minister of State) (14:35): Well, of course it did not relate to it, but I will tell you what does relate to it, and that is what was done in your home state of Victoria, Senator Brown—

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator RONALDSON: of Tasmania—where the best—

Opposition senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Order on my left! I have paused the clock. We are all getting a bit tired; it is the last day of the first week. Senator Brown, did you have a point of order?

Senator Carol Brown: No. I was claiming that the minister was reflecting on me, because I am not a Victorian—and I don't want to be!

The PRESIDENT: Minister, had you concluded your answer?

Senator RONALDSON: No.

The PRESIDENT: Well, I will call you again, and I will remind you that Tasmania did found Victoria.

Senator RONALDSON: Thank you, Mr President, and I also humbly apologise to my relatives from Tasmania, who will be equally appalled at my comments. But perhaps I could return to the BEST funding, Senator Brown, from Tasmania. If you go back and ask the veterans in Tasmania what the outcome was of those dramatically reduced BEST funding arrangements, they will tell you that it has completely decimated the advocacy and welfare services in the state of Tasmania. And if you are really serious about assisting veterans, you will go back and make inquiries about what was done and you will find that what I told you is absolutely right. (Time expired)