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Wednesday, 12 September 1984
Page: 1168

Mr RUDDOCK(8.48) —I want to take the opportunity of talking tonight on the estimates of the Department of Veterans' Affairs which are some of the estimates that we are considering at this time. When I spoke on the education estimates last night I mentioned my concern that some Ministers in the Government were not prepared to defend the decisions taken by the Government in a Budget context. I have been quite surprised at the way in which some Ministers have tried to avoid the responsibility for the decisions that the Government has taken.

I refer honourable members particularly to the address of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) at the annual meeting of the Returned Services League of Australia held on Monday, 3 September, a short period after the Budget was presented. The Minister, when he was addressing the National Congress, offered some views on business interests. I draw honourable members attention to the first part of the Minister's speech which states:

I would ask the Congress to note that, despite the concerted pressure from certain powerful employer groups to impose a drastic and unrealistic cut in the Budget deficit, the Government has increased needs-based welfare payments.

In other words, what he was saying was that the Government had fixed and established its own priorities and, notwithstanding certain pressure, the Government had increased, in accordance with the Government's priorities, needs- based welfare payments. The Minister then referred to a matter where he was not successful. He was not prepared to justify the decisions reached by the Government. He did not go to the Returned Services League and say: 'Look, the Government has a view that needs-based welfare payments should have been increased. We are terribly sorry. We thought that was of greater priority than improving the funding arrangements and conditions for defence service homes loans'. That is not what he said. He had the gall to go along and say:

Unfortunately, we were not successful in this Budget in gaining increased funding and improved conditions for defence service home loans--

not that I am sorry, but they were our priorities-

But it remains for me, as it does for the RSL, an issue of the highest priority , and this the Government has recognised by referring it to the recently established task force on Service housing, which is considering the proposals of a firm of consultants for reform of the scheme. We in the Government remain acutely aware of your overriding concern that the scheme be overhauled. However, I should point out that, while I fought very hard to get support for the new scheme, the cost to Government of liberalising the existing scheme by raising the maximum loan to $40,000 and abolishing the waiting period would exceed $150 million in the first year.

It may therefore be appropriate to consider the calls by many business groups for further Budget deficit reductions, and to realise that it is demands and pressures from these sources that impede my efforts to improve the defence service homes scheme. I would welcome statements from you in opposition to such demands from these business lobbies for further immediate cuts in the Budget deficit.

I have never seen a greater cop-out in my life than that statement by the Minister. Surely he would have had the courage to come in and say, as Ministers in previous governments did, that the Government had ordered its priorities and had determined those areas which it saw had greater needs and admit them accordingly, but that is not what this Minister was about. He wanted to be friends to everybody. He wanted to be friends to the RSL but to make it appear that the businessmen were in some way to blame for the priorities that he had established. That is not good enough. The Budget is about priorities. It is about saying where one would make expenditure cuts and where one would put one's emphasis.

This is an appropriate time to consider some of the areas in which it may be appropriate to give a slightly different emphasis from that which the Government has chosen. The Government has, in its wisdom, decided to impose an assets test. The Opposition is of the view that the assets test will cost a great deal of money to implement, although the argument of the Government is that over time it may save a little. However, the fact is that unless there are further developments and refinements to the assets test to increase the amount of money that the Government might save-it is not prepared to argue that-unless we are to get assets test Mark I, II, III and IV, the assets test will cost money. It would be very easy for the Government to scrap the assets test proposal, put it to one side and use the money to meet other areas of expenditure. If it were prepared to scrap the assets test and save the money that is available immediately, I can suggest to the Government one area where that money could be used. It is one of the areas that has been mentioned in the report of the Advisory Committee on Repatriation Legislation Review as well as in the report of the Independent Enquiry into the Repatriation System. We see in Volume I of the June 1975 report of the Independent Enquiry a reference to the plight of seamen who saw service in Vietnam and who were unable to obtain service pensions . I recount one situation that was mentioned on page 106 of the report of which I think honourable members ought to be aware. In relation to service in Vietnam, the report said:

One such case concerned a soldier and a sailor both of whom were injured in the same accident while assisting with the unloading of 'H.M.A.S. Sydney' in a South Vietnam port. The soldier, having been allotted for 'special service' was covered by Repatriation legislation, whereas the sailor was not. A similar situation often existed with members of the Royal Australian Air Force during transport operations between Australia and Vietnam and between Butterworth and Vietnam. Instances were also cited of individual personnel who actually served with operational units but who were not allotted initially for 'special service' .

That issue of the plight of servicemen, particularly seamen who served in Vietnam, was referred to on page 63 of the report of the Advisory Committee on Repatriation Legislation Review. Under the heading 'Eligibility', in paragraph 10.5, this further example is cited:

. . . eligibility arising out of the Vietnam War is related to whether or not a person was allotted for service and not in fact related to actual service. If a veteran has not been allotted for service in Vietnam then he is eligible for service pension even though he is eligible for compensation if injured as a result of enemy activity.

There has been considerable debate on the eligibility of persons who served in Vietnam. Certain people, particularly who served in the Royal Australian Navy, who were in the Vietnam zone but were not allotted to service are excluded. That is the point of the matter. The report mentions that very few people are affected by the exclusion. Quite clearly we have a very clear inequity which, for a small amount of money, could properly be addressed. I think that if one were giving consideration to genuine priorities, whether one needed to spend all this money in implementing an assets test which is unlikely to save any substantial sums of money, unless it is substantially modified by the Government -I am not encouraging the Government to take that course-and we see the assets test Mark IV, no substantial savings will be involved. The savings that could be made by scrapping the assets test now could be used to extend these benefits.

I mention one other matter which is of concern to me. It relates to the Government's election timetable. It appears from an answer given in another place by Senator Gietzelt to my colleague Senator Scott concerning the foreshadowed veterans entitlement Bill that the implementation of that Bill may be postponed on the altar of the Government's early election timetable. It is important that we see this legislation. The Government promised that we would see the legislation during this session of Parliament. There is a great deal of concern amongst ex-servicemen that this proposed legislation may contain proposals that are unacceptable to the ex-service community and that the Government may seek to hide it away in its pre-election atmosphere. We may not even know that it has in mind proposals to vary the onus of proof in relation to injury. If that is to be the case, if the Government is to try to hide this Bill away so that it will not see the light of day, on the rather spurious basis put by the Minister, Senator Gietzelt, that he is having correspondence with the RSL , I think that will be extraordinarily disappointing to the ex-servicemen and women of Australia.

Quite frankly, we need to see that legislation. The Government could easily put aside its early election timetable to ensure that matters such as this are before the Parliament, are able to be seen and are able to be properly analysed- matters such as the report of the Costigan Royal Commission into the Activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union. There is no need for an early election. It could be held at any time until next year. If it is a choice of either having this information before the people or having an early election, quite frankly, I would be for having the information available to us all.

The CHAIRMAN —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.