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Tuesday, 14 June 2011
Page: 5990

Mr ROBERT (Fadden) (18:49): I thank the minister for his contribution and his comments on Crete. They are well received. Minister, in 2007 Labor promised to increase funding for the Building Excellence in Support and Training, or BEST, program by $8 million. We have 10 minutes left to discuss veterans and I want to take us back a bit. At the time, Labor said:

Labor believes that these programs are invaluable to the ex-service community.

Well trained and supported ESOs and individuals contribute greatly to improving the operation of DVA—and they also provide a saving to government through their work.

In recognition of this fact, Labor will commit an additional $8 million to support ex service organisations to provide essential services for their members.

Unfortunately, Minister, in 2011-12 the government will slash $4 million from the BEST program and $4 million from Veterans and Community Grants, which assist with providing social and interactive events to veterans and prevents their isolations. Minister, I think you will understand when I say this is outrageous.

At the last election Labor made no mention of cutting funding—no mention at all. It was all quiet on that western front. The coalition, on the other hand, actually promised to increase BEST and TIP funding by $2.5 million per year for the next three years—$7.5 million in new money. At that time the coalition indicated this additional funding would assist with implementation of the recommendations of the advocacy funding review, which were at that time still secret. I note the recommendations have been made public after the election and in February this year the government announced it had accepted all 45 recommendations. I note that none of the recommendations called for a cut in funding. The review said that BEST funds were limited but, rather than cut funding, suggested that more needed to be done to work within current funding envelopes. It even suggested a means testing of ex-service organisations to see whether individual organisations could contribute more of their financial resources to assist the local veteran community.

The review did, however, recommend the establishment of veteran support centres across Australia with working models to be established in Queensland and regional New South Wales. Again, when asked, the government said it would not force organisations together. But the cut in funding may suggest otherwise. Perhaps this is means testing and forced amalgamation by stealth, Minister. How can the government build these new centres while at the same time cutting $4 million in BEST funding over the forward estimates? Won't this severely jeopardise the work of the largely volunteer ex-service organisations across Australia? Minister, why has the government slashed this funding just months after accepting the recommendations of an internal advocacy funding review which did not identify a need to cut funding but rather suggested there may not be enough funding presently? How do you justify yet another breach of trust with the veteran and ex-service community? (Extension of time granted)

I also note your department's explanation for the major adjustment in the cost of your flawed pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme. This scheme, I suggest, is making up for Labor's broken 2007 election promise to relieve the burden on veterans of the cost of medications to treat their war caused disabilities. Labor's 2007 plan for veterans affairs went on to say, 'This will be a key objective to be addressed in our first term of government.' Of course, the veteran and ex-service community and the coalition knew that the solution was not delivered at the last election. Instead Labor promised a deal with the issue if re-elected in 2010. Their second-rate scheme leaves out more than 1,500 of our most disabled war veterans as well as war widows and orphans. Labor's scheme relies on a complex reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses which will not help those veterans on limited or fixed incomes deal with the rising price of other items. In contrast, the coalition scheme which covered 87,000 disabled veterans, including all 27,000 TPI pensioners, delivered immediate relief to the disabled veteran once they had paid for 30 scripts. The department is still unclear about how the scheme will work and the parliament is yet to see legislation to enact this second-rate scheme.

I have significant concerns about the costs, Minister. During a recent Senate estimates hearing your departmental secretary told the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee of the rise in the cost of the scheme from $18.2 million to $30.1 million. They said, 'It is not a blowout; it is a combination of two things: the costing in the government's election was over a shorter period than the budget costing and it was done on a cash basis whereas the budget is done on a fiscal basis.' So during the election Labor chose to deliberately misrepresent the cost of the scheme, did it, Minister? Why did it not cost the scheme during the election in the same way it claims the coalition should have costed our military superannuation reforms? Why is there one rule for one, Minister, and another for others?