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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14931

Mr SCIACCA (6:48 PM) —I rise to speak on a matter that, as a former Minister for Veterans' Affairs and as the member for the Queensland seat of Bowman, an electorate with one of the highest veterans' populations in Queensland, is very dear to my heart: that is, of course, the services and assistance provided to our ex-service men and women.

As a nation we owe a tremendous debt to the men and women who have served in many and varied ways to defend our nation and uphold the values of democracy and freedom that are so central to our way of life. There are few countries in the world that look after their veterans as well as we do in Australia, but of late there has been growing concern in the veterans community that this government's commitment to veterans is slipping, particularly in the provision of important support services.

It was welcome news in April 2001 when the Howard government first announced that it would institute a medal to commemorate the 50th anniversary of national service in Australia. It was an honour that the nashos fought many years to secure. Sadly, it seems that everything involved in giving effect to that decision has been less than satisfactory. Since October last year, the delay in getting medals out to former national servicemen has been blamed on the relocation of the relevant office from Melbourne to Canberra. But more than six months on this is an excuse that is beginning to wear very thin. Every week, my office is contacted by former national servicemen and their families who have lodged applications for their medals, some as long ago as Anzac Day 2002, but are yet to receive anything from the medals processing unit—not even a letter to acknowledge that their applications have been received.

Of course, this inefficiency means that many nashos, having received no news for over 12 months and having been greeted by nothing but an answering machine when they call the 1800 number set out on the application form, have been filling out fresh applications and sending second copies off to the medals processing unit. If affairs to date are anything to go by, this will unfortunately lead to further delays, as the few officers assigned to this task sift through the forms received in duplicate and in triplicate. I must say that the National Servicemen's Association of Australia contacted me in Queensland some time ago to tell me that they were very concerned about the processing unit being moved from Melbourne to Canberra. They anticipated that these problems would occur, and in fact they are occurring just as they said they would.

My office has been assured that those nashos whose applications have been received will be sent a letter—but not until July or August this year. That is pretty gloomy news to have to pass on to someone who has already been waiting 12 months and faces the prospect that come September they will discover their application was never received or has been mislaid during the relocation to Canberra and consequently they will have to fill out another application that will be placed at the bottom of the pile for processing. After campaigning for this for so long, it has proven to be a disappointing and drawn out process for many national servicemen. This frustrating process flies in the face of the notion that the medal is being awarded by a grateful nation, when even the common courtesy of a letter acknowledging receipt takes 12 months to filter through the system.

The government knew that there were in excess of 300,000 former national servicemen eligible for this award. They have no excuse for failing to implement appropriate systems and allocate staff numbers sufficient to process applications within a reasonable period of time. Because it is a recent award, the delays in the medal processing unit are felt more sharply by national servicemen, but a similar situation confronts the many ex-service men and women—and the families of veterans who have passed away—who make application for the issue or replacement of the service medals they have earned. I am sure, Mr Deputy Speaker Price, that you have advised veterans or their families to apply for medals. Nowadays Anzac Day is terrific. It has become an enormous day, and people like to have their medals. The families like to have the medals. The kids like to have the medals.

Commemoration and education is an important function of the Veterans' Affairs portfolio. With programs like Their Service Our Heritage under the previous minister and Saluting Their Service under Minister Vale, this government has a strong focus on commemoration, but it is time that the pomp and circumstance were supported by an investment to build an efficient and effective unit to process applications for medals and awards.

The recent budget was very much an exercise of this government giving with one hand and taking away with the other. It is something that my constituent Mr Roger Devey of Wynnum is all too familiar with in his dealings with Veterans' Affairs. Mr Devey is one of many veterans who have contacted me to report a cut to the home care services provided by the Department of Veterans' Affairs to assist with house and garden maintenance and personal care. These cuts are not only disappointing but also the cause of considerable upheaval and distress for veterans who have come to rely on this assistance.

Mr Devey is 82 years old and has a number of health problems. When he was originally contacted and had his needs assessed by the Veterans' Home Care scheme, he was allocated two hours of home assistance a week. This was an enormous help to my constituent, but it still did not completely address his needs. You can imagine his shock and disappointment when he received a phone call from the Department of Veterans' Affairs in March this year to advise that his entitlement had been cut from four hours to just 1½ hours each fortnight.

When our local newspaper, the Wynnum Herald, ran a story highlighting Mr Devey's plight, my constituent was contacted by many other veterans and their families from across Brisbane who were struggling to adapt to similar cuts. One gentleman who contacted Mr Devey made the telling comment that the Department of Veterans' Affairs had, over many years, earned a reputation as a very caring department, but it is a reputation that has become increasingly shaky as a result of these and other cuts.

I do not for one moment blame the Department of Veterans' Affairs. During my tenure as their minister between 1994 and 1996, I must say that I found them to be thoroughly professional. They do what the policy of the government of the day tells them to do. I found them to be fantastic; in fact, I would go as far as saying that they are still fantastic. But they can only do what the government of the day tells them to do with the money that is made available to them. I do not in any shape or form want the department to think that their former minister is getting into them, because I am not, but it is absolutely extraordinary that they would say that someone could manage with 1½ hours a fortnight. That is just extraordinary.

Another constituent, Mrs Lillian Scully of Thornlands, suffers from osteoarthritis that is so debilitating that she is unable to turn the page of a newspaper without assistance. She depends on Veterans' Home Care workers to clean the small unit she lives in, hang up her washing and change the bedsheets—essential tasks that she simply cannot complete alone. And yet she, too, has had her home care cut back from two hours each week to just 1½ hours a fortnight. Mrs Scully is a war widow. Her late husband was one of the Rats of Tobruk. She deserves our respect and our support. She certainly does not deserve to be told that the highest taxing government in our history cannot afford to provide her with the meagre assistance she needs to get her laundry done every week.

The Veterans' Home Care scheme was introduced to assist older or infirm veterans, war widows and widowers to remain in their homes for as long as possible, but having offered the service the government has been overwhelmed by demand. Sadly, this seems to be another instance where the government's best laid plans for Australian veterans have gone astray due to a lack of forward planning and a failure to commit adequate funds to programs such as Veterans' Home Care. There has been no significant move to rectify this situation in this year's budget as far as I can see.

In 2002, the Treasurer's budget speech focused a great deal on the challenges presented to government by Australia's ageing population. Currently it is a trend to which the Veterans' Affairs portfolio is particularly sensitive, especially with respect to ensuring appropriate access to health care and other essential services, like home care.

In my electorate of Bowman, the average age of a gold card holder is 75½ years, while the average age of veterans in receipt of a service pension is 76 years. We know that our veterans from World War II are now in their mid-70s and are getting on to their 80s. Veterans from Korea, the Malayan Emergency, Vietnam and other conflicts that we have been involved in are now in their 60s and 70s as well. Frankly, I think we need to do more than just pay them lip-service and go `Hooray, hooray!' when they return, having done a great job, as they did in Iraq—and there is no question about that at all; they did a magnificent job in Iraq. I think we have to do a little bit more than just be there, welcome them home, tell them how much we feel for them and thank them. We have to make sure that when they get sick and when they get old we look after them. We want to be able to keep our reputation as being one of the only countries in the world that looks after them.

I urge the government to be vigilant in the planning and provision of services to veterans, to make sure that the difficulties our ex-service community has endured due to these recent problems with the medals processing unit and home care are speedily rectified and that our veterans receive the care and the respect that they deserve. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Danna Vale, is a very nice lady and a good person. I think she does the best she possibly can. I have no problems with her; in fact, I respect her a great deal. But I call on the government to give her a little bit of money so she can do her job properly.