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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 125

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (6:03 PM) —As the name of the Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2004 Election Commitments) Bill 2004 suggests, this legislation puts into place a series of election promises made by the Howard government. It is always welcome when a government keeps its promises, although when those promises fulfil a commitment that is somewhat inconsistent and unfairly applied, as my colleague Senator Greig has always outlined, it is perhaps unfortunate that the government has not seen a little more wisdom along the way and refined those promises to achieve a fairer and more effective result.

Not surprisingly, as my colleague Senator Greig has also outlined, the payment of the seniors concession allowance to self-funded retirees as provided by this bill is simply a cover-up of the failure to implement a promise made long ago. The government promised to provide concessions to self-funded retirees and they failed. Instead, they offer a payment which is of no relevance to concessions.

As part of my comments I want to address the government's continuing failure to implement other promises. The Clarke report into the review of veterans' entitlements was released in January of last year. It was a disgrace that it took the government more than a year to respond to its recommendations, as it finally did earlier this year. As I have said many times, we have a minister who is quite happy to exploit service men and women for his political gain. He is quick to send young Australians to war but is slow to properly recognise the debt this incurs on behalf of the nation and even slower to address some of the legitimate concerns of veterans. The Democrats do not support the Prime Minister in sending troops to Iraq without the endorsement of the Australian parliament, but we do support the right of those veterans when they do return from that or any other conflict to be properly compensated and treated fairly when they can no longer serve.

Whatever our views are on the Iraq war, all of us would like all wars to cease so that we no longer need to have veterans, and people do not have to pay the price and make the sacrifice that they do. But whilst ever we have troops who will put their lives on the line to fight for our country we do have a special obligation to ensure that we do not just pat them on the back when they come back, give them a nice medal and provide a photo opportunity for the Prime Minister, the minister or perhaps a local member. We have a responsibility to continue to support veterans in the many years ahead where often they have direct consequences to deal with as a result of their service.

For many years now the Democrats have been calling for a reversal in the erosion in the value of veterans compensation and for the TPI to be fully and properly benchmarked to try to turn around the decline in its value. While the Clarke review bill earlier this year addressed the erosion, regrettably it only did so by half. The TPI payment has long been known as a special rate, and this is what TPI recipients believed they were receiving. Not surprisingly, the majority did not know of it as, or ever refer to it as, `general rate plus above general rate'. But the perception of `general rate plus above general rate' is what the government decided to rely on earlier this year when it indexed only the above general rate to both the consumer price index and the 25 per cent of male total average weekly earnings benchmark. In my view that constituted a broken promise to veterans.

The Democrats believe that the `special rate' is aptly named. It is paid to a veteran whose employability is affected by their war- or defence-caused disabilities where the veteran is further assessed as being unable to undertake remunerative work for more than eight hours a week as a result of their service related incapacity. TPI veterans paid a very high price in many respects—a direct, personal price to their health and their ability to work due to their service to our country.

The government failed to link the whole of the special TPI rate to MTAWE and the CPI as veterans had been led to believe they would. As a consequence, only the rate paid above the general rate TPI is linked to those benchmarks. The general base rate remains indexed only to CPI and, as we have seen over many years now, that will mean it will continue to erode in its real value.

In short, this group of veterans were short-changed because the government decided that only what amounts to 62 per cent of that payment will be linked to the MTAWE benchmark. The overall TPI is currently around 45 per cent of the average weekly wage, and this proportion has been reducing for many years. It was, in my view, a slap in the face to TPI veterans and their families that this decline in value was only half addressed and that therefore the problem will be ongoing. In the words of one TPI organisation, war veteran TPIs have been thrown a bone; however, it was a bone pretty much devoid of meat. I suppose, as a vegetarian, in one sense I should find a more appropriate analogy, but the message is pretty clear. The Democrat policy, which is reflected in our second reading amendment, is that the whole TPI payment should be indexed to the male total average weekly earnings and CPI, whichever is the greater.

The Democrats welcome the remainder of this bill, which provides assistance to older veterans to meet significantly increased energy bills. We are at a loss to understand why the government would believe that younger veterans do not face the same financial struggle, and some of our amendments will address that. We are also at a loss as to why the government creates an anomaly between veteran couples and self-funded retiree couples, and our amendments will also address that.

I close by noting that almost two years after the release of the Clarke report there are still recommendations that have not been accepted by this government. It is unfortunately not uncommon to see this government cherry pick from reports, picking some of the recommendations and ignoring others. Reviews relating to veterans unfortunately have that as a common occurrence, despite them being commissioned by the government.

In moving our second reading amendment today the Democrats give notice that the unfinished business from the Clarke report is not a closed issue. We will continue to agitate the government for further action in these and other areas that still need to be addressed for the veteran community in Australia, including the greater health care measures, gold card entitlement and definition of `service'. As Senator Bishop has said, this issue has been raised before in this chamber. There will be an ongoing effort by the Democrats. As Senator Bishop correctly said when this amendment was moved on a previous occasion, the Labor Party did support it. That was something I made a mistaken statement on during the campaign, although I did put out a further statement correcting that. I am quite happy to correct the record here and say that it was supported by Labor at that time, and we are pleased that they are also supporting it now.

We have seen in other areas in relation to the needs of the veteran community that it can take many years of persistent, repeated efforts in advocating, both in this chamber and in the community, for concerns to be addressed. I can think of one example in relation to the treatment of compensation payments as income by the Department of Social Security. There were about seven or eight years between when this government came to office with a promise to address that anomaly and when it finally acted on it. There were far too many more years than there should have been, but nonetheless it was acted upon and the Democrats praised the government when that happened. We are always willing to praise positive actions, and there are some positive components of this bill. But history shows that oftentimes you have to keep raising issues over and over again to get them addressed. You have to continue not just to pressure the government but to encourage the opposition, and indeed ourselves and other organisations, to keep pushing those issues. This is one issue that we will keep pushing, and I am pleased that the opposition will be doing the same.

I emphasise the valuable role that service organisations broadly play. These are people who have already done their bit by being service men and women for our country and who then continue to work, almost always in an unpaid capacity, not for themselves in many cases but for fellow veterans who are in need of help. Those groups often have differences in opinion, but they do a lot of work continually pressuring all of us from all parties to recognise our responsibility to ensure that veterans are properly recognised. It is one group in the community that I think all of us would acknowledge we have a special obligation to, and it is one that unfortunately can often get left to one side in amongst all the competing demands, priorities and lobbying that takes place in the parliamentary arena and in the political world more broadly. It is because of the tireless work of a whole range of ex-service organisations that the veterans' voices are not forgotten and that their issues continue to be raised and pursued by people across the political spectrum. I pay tribute to their work and encourage them to keep doing so. I can indicate, certainly from my point of view, that we are quite willing to continue to support the large proportion of the issues that they raise, which we believe are worthy of implementation or consideration. I move the Democrat amendment as previously circulated:

At the end of the motion add:

“but the Senate

(a) is of the view that the harsh and unsatisfactory indexation arrangements for totally and permanently incapacitated veterans require immediate adjustment so that these veterans obtain the full benefits of indexation to all components of their pension; and

(b) condemns the Government for missing this opportunity of settling fair index arrangements for those veterans who are totally and permanently incapacitated”.