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Monday, 1 September 2014
Page: 9314

Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (17:33): The Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2014 results form a review initiated by Labor, under former Minister of Veteran's Affairs the Hon. Alan Griffin, to ensure that veterans and ex-service personnel were receiving the appropriate level of support from the Australian government. That review was released in March 2011, and it found improvements could be made to permanent impairment compensation. In summary, a new and fairer methodology for assessing compensation was proposed, and it was put into effect by Labor on 1 July 2013. This particular legislation overcomes a technical barrier detected after 1 July 2013 that has the effect of preventing the retrospective recalculation of transitional permanent impairment compensation, in certain circumstances.

This was indeed a Labor initiative, and of course we therefore support this legislation. It deals effectively with a technical amendment to ensure the intent of the legislation can proceed.

I note that several government MPs have spoken to this bill and have referred to it as though it were an Abbott government initiative. I just want to make it clear that it is not. It arises from the work of the previous government. I also recall the number of government MPs who rushed into the chamber earlier this year to speak about the new indexation for DFRB and DFRDB veterans' payments. I spoke on that bill myself, and I supported it. However, none of the government MPs have said a word about the Abbott government's budget, which was handed down in May, that unfairly targeted veterans by firstly taking away from veterans' pensions the very indexation that members opposite argued for with respect to the DFRB and DFRDB recipients earlier this year; secondly, by leaving veterans on the CPI-indexed pensions when they know, and have argued earlier this year in this place, that by using the CPI-indexed figure those veterans will be worse off; thirdly, the government has also axed the three-month backdating of veterans' disability pensions for new recipients, costing new recipients up to $8,405; and in some cases they have also cut the $870 senior supplement for veterans. In an unbelievably and very miserly move, the Abbott government also wants to cut $217 in annual payments for children of war veterans.

It seems quite a contrast to the stance I see from members opposite when you look at the facts. You look at the cuts being made to the entitlements of veterans, then you hear the rhetoric that comes from members opposite and the rhetoric that even comes from the government itself. With respect to the pension index used, I have been contacted, as I expect other members of this parliament have been, by many veterans who are understandably angry at the inconsistency relating to the indexation methodology used for different payments. One of the people who contacted me was Mr Leon Eddy, president of the TPI Association of South Australia. In a letter sent to me earlier this year, Mr Eddy states: 'There should be one common percentage adjustment rate for all pensions. None is less deserving than the next. The type of pension and base rate of that type is determined by different criteria, but once a type of pension has been determined, it must be adjusted by the same percentage as any other, or it will be eroded away.'

Mr Eddy's letter was supported by a letter I subsequently received in respect of this matter from Mr John Wilson, who I recall was a strong advocate of the DFRDB recipients as well. He wrote to me and met with me during the course of that earlier campaign. He also includes in his letter to me a letter from the Defence Force Welfare Association, and within that letter, signed by Colonel David Jamison, the same arguments are placed. That is, that the indexation that should apply to all pensioners, and certainly to war veterans, is the indexation that was used earlier this year for DFRDB and DFRB recipients. More specifically, it should not simply be the CPI figure that was previously used, and which we all agreed was not a fair reflection of the increases in costs of living that are incurred by people once they are relying on a government payment.

I make that point and I make it very strongly, because had we not changed the indexation methodology earlier this year for one group, then I could understand the consistency that is being applied by the government. But when members opposite and the government came into this place only earlier this year and argued as a matter of principle that a specific methodology should be used then, only a few months down the track, changed that methodology, it just makes those who argued for the change in the first place absolute hypocrites.

There is a second matter I want to refer to in respect of military compensation, and that is the matter of getting accurate and comprehensive war service records from the defence department. In my time in this place, I have been approached by several veterans within my electorate. There is a consistent theme in the matters that they come to me with, and that is that they are unable to get accurate records of their service within the department—be it Navy, Air Force, or Army. As a result of not being able to get the accurate records, they are being denied their rightful entitlements. Sometimes all they are looking for is recognition by way of a medal which they would otherwise be entitled to, if they could prove that they carried out the service for which that medal was issued. But they cannot. I can understand that at times some of the defence activities and military activities of the day may well have been secretive. In one case where the person had a problem getting the information he wanted, this was exactly the case. He believed that it was a secretive operation. Therefore there were no records and he could not prove what he needed to in order to get what he believed he was entitled to.

In my view, that becomes a barrier for many of the veterans. One particular veteran, Noel Muller, who I have met with and spoken with on more than one occasion in my office, has been having a debate with the department for years—in fact, prior to my being elected to this place. He has been trying to secure the proof he needs that he performed the duties that he did, which in turn led to the injury that he has and therefore should entitle him to compensation—which he is not receiving. I have not spoken to Noel now for some time, but the last time I did he was still having this argument with the department. I note that the minister is in the chamber and I bring this case to his attention because I have met with Noel, I have seen the documentation that he has and I have no reason to disbelieve what he tells me. It all stacks up in terms of the material that he is able to present to me, but there are some gaps in the documentation that he has.

The third matter that I want to raise is in respect to this very issue. Earlier this year I met with a veterans' advocate. He himself is a former veteran. He understands the system very, very well. He has become an advocate for his colleagues because he understands the difficulty that they have in navigating the processes that are required of them by the department when they are seeking compensation, or even a medal. He made the point very strongly to me that from his experience, quite often, the staff within the department are themselves not fully conversant with all of the entitlements and how veterans are expected to go about making claims and the like. The departmental officers are not always able to provide the veterans with the kind of information that they need in order to progress their claims or in order to get the full assistance that they are entitled to. Again, I do not single out any particular officer or any particular department, but that is an experience brought to me by a person who seems to be dealing with veterans on a regular basis and who simply asks that maybe there ought to be some effort made to ensure that the staff who are providing veterans with advice are themselves fully briefed and fully conversant with all of the options available to them and the veterans.

I bring these matters to the minister's attention because, as I know he would understand, many of the veterans that we all deal with today are veterans that served in the Vietnam war or subsequent to it, including more recently Afghanistan and Iraq. These are veterans who, as we also all know, quite often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and therefore are not necessarily in the best mental state to manage their own affairs. They rely on advice they get from the department or from the local RSL association that they might be associated with, or they might rely on advice from the type of person whom I referred to earlier: a veteran advocate. These people suffer enough. They should not have to be further disadvantaged because either they are not able to access the records they need or they go to a department that is not as supportive as I believe it can be. If we are going to genuinely support our veterans, those are things that we can do. I can accept that saving money might be one issue, but, if we are going to assist veterans, there are things that could be done better than they are currently being done. I stress to the minister, who is in the chamber, that we ought to look at the package of support required for veterans, not just the dollar amounts, because quite often it is the package—that is, the support that they require—that means more to them.

I conclude where I began. This legislation arises from an initiative of the previous Labor government. Members opposite quite often claim that they are the friends of veterans throughout Australia. I state quite clearly that this legislation arises from Labor and, in my time in this place, Labor has consistently listened to and responded in a fair way to the needs of the veteran community. It will be interesting to see how the minister responds to the matters I have raised, because these are matters that will not go away and, I have no doubt, will be brought to my attention when I return to my electorate. More importantly, regarding the letters from the two defence organisations—from Mr Wilson, which I referred to earlier, and from the South Australian TPI Association—those members are waiting anxiously to see what the response of the government is to their submissions and their inquiries to MPs around Australia.