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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1701

Mr SHARP(4.48) —The Opposition does not oppose the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill that is before the House today. It does not oppose this legislation because it believes that there is some merit in it although, certainly there is need for change in the four broad thrusts of the legislation. I am particularly pleased that there is a review of the Seamen's War Pensions and Allowances Act in the amending legislation that is before the House. I know that many of my colleagues have continually brought to this House the words of Prime Ministers Ben Chifley and Sir Arthur Fadden, but for my own purposes I would like to reiterate those words because I think they are the constant guideline that any government of any political flavour has to work with in order to ensure that it is providing the proper service to its ex-service community-a service that those people were led to believe would be given to them when they provided their great sacrifice to this nation. Prime Minister Ben Chifley said in this Parliament after the Second World War:

The careers of hundreds of thousands of young men have been interrupted and, in some instances, partially ruined. There is a break of education, training and opportunity which cannot be repaired. It is perfectly true that experience is gained, but that is not material to an ordinary civil vocation. On this Parliament rests the responsibility of seeing that the right thing shall be done.

The crucial words are: `On this Parliament rests the responsibility that the right thing shall be done'. Unfortunately, over the last few years we have seen that the right thing has not been done. We have seen that this Federal Labor Government has not been providing to the ex-service community the content and the intent of the words proposed by Prime Minister Ben Chifley. Former Prime Minister Arthur Fadden also added to the commitment that the nation had towards its ex-service personnel when he said-

Mr Slipper —National Party member.

Mr SHARP —A good Country Party member, as the honourable member for Fisher points out. He stated:

A grateful nation must see that those who are privileged to return from battle areas shall be properly cared for, and that their reinstatement in civil life shall be wisely and expeditiously carried out.

That is a clear commitment that this Parliament, the people of Australia and not only the generations that fought during those wars but also the generations ahead have a commitment to maintaining a proper level of service to the people who have given a great sacrifice to our nation. We on the National Party side of the House are very committed towards ensuring that that service is maintained.

Mr Slipper —Hear, hear!

Mr SHARP —I personally-I know the honourable member for Fisher shares this commitment with me-am committed to ensuring that the most generous of all services that are economically responsible will be provided by a coalition government.

Successive governments have tried to maintain the spirit and the intent of the words of our former Prime Ministers. Unfortunately, a couple of years ago, in May 1985, this Labor Government introduced into this House a veterans' entitlements Bill that was nothing less than daylight robbery of our ex-service community. This Government was trying to rip from the ex-service community the rights and privileges which they had earned as a result of their service to this nation. Because of that vicious attack on our ex-service community, they rose up as one and violently opposed the legislation. Since I have been a member of the Federal Parliament I have not seen a more vigorous attack on the Government, by anybody, than that which was led by the ex-service community. The ex-service community in my electorate of Gilmore was at the forefront of this attack. I have a large number of veterans living in my electorate, particularly in the coastal region--

Mr Slipper —You represent them well.

Mr SHARP —I thank the honourable member. They had petitions and wrote hundreds of letters to me personally. I had thousands. I think I had 4,000 or 5,000 names on petitions coming from the coastal portion in my electorate opposing the Government's attempts to change the Veterans' Entitlements Act. I am pleased to see that because of their efforts, because of the efforts of members of the Liberal and National parties and because of the efforts of the shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the honourable member for Farrer (Mr Tim Fischer)--

Mr Slipper —An excellent member.

Mr SHARP —Yes, he is an excellent shadow Minister because he is an ex-serviceman. He went to Vietnam and was wounded. He has the whole spirit of our ex-service community at heart. He is doing a tremendous job travelling around all the electorates of Australia telling the people who are interested in the Veterans' Entitlements Bill just what a coalition government will do for them. We will do a lot more than this Labor Government is doing. Since the most vigorous lobbying was carried out by the ex-service community, the Opposition and the Returned Services League of Australia, we have seen the Government pick up the thread of most of the amendments that we proposed, all bar one amendment. I believe it is a great credit to the work that we have done. Over the last year or two 13,000 veterans have had their pension either reduced or completely cancelled due to the assets test.

Mr Slipper —A national disgrace.

Mr SHARP —It is a national disgrace, as the honourable member for Fisher points out. The assets test is destroying the incentive the work ethic and the ethic of saving money for retirement. Our veteran community has suffered mightily. Some 13,000 people have been adversely affected by the assets test. We have seen the travel allowance for veterans who receive medical attention cut in half.

Mr Slipper —Chopped.

Mr SHARP —Chopped, cut right in half by this Government to a rate of 11.16c per kilometre.

Mr Hurford —Are you adding to the $15 billion credibility gap?

Mr SHARP —The Minister fails to recognise the point, as he interjects here, that we have a commitment to these people that goes beyond all the political flavours. It goes beyond anything else that we have in this Government. We have to be able to provide these people with a proper--

Mr Hurford —Do you mean to say that people will not see through your credibility gap?

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Mildren) —Order! The Minister will have the opportunity to reply in due course.

Mr SHARP —The Minister really must recognise that a person cannot run a car on 11c per kilometre. We all know that. Veterans are being asked to make do on 11c a kilometre. I am just highlighting a cutback that this Government has imposed on the veteran community. My constituents have a long way to travel for their medical services. They are veterans and they are feeling the pinch as a result of this cutback. The Government has reduced the subsistence allowance for veterans when they are away from home for medical treatment for things like meals and accommodation. It has adversely affected the dental scheme. It has terminated some veterans' eligibility to have pensions with access to the repatriation and pharmaceutical benefits scheme. It has changed the totally and permanently incapacitated pension criteria; it has tightened up on that to the extent that many veterans who thought they were eligible are now no longer eligible. It has played around with the dependants allowance to the disadvantage of many people, particularly of people in my electorate, many of whom have contacted me. They are very disappointed and disenchanted with the way the Government has changed the dependants allowance. Whilst the Government has recognised the service that was given to the nation by those who have served on HMAS Sydney and other support ships, it has refused to give those people proper recognition through a service medal.

Mr Slipper —How low can you get?

Mr SHARP —Yes, how low can the Government get. It really is disappointing that proper recognition is not being given to those people. Last year we had the deferment of the consumer price index related increase to the pension. As is the case in just about every electorate in Australia, that has caused a complete uproar right throughout the community. Many people in my electorate have contacted me-people who are not necessarily dependent upon a veteran's entitlement. These people are just plain upset about the fact that those who were promised something have not been given it. I think that has created a great deal of hardship and disenchantment. It is also worrying the existing service personnel. They are wondering whether their pensions in future will be cut because of the Government's activities and they are wondering whether the service that they are giving to the nation will be properly rewarded in due course.

War widows and their dependants, as well as service pensioners with fringe benefits, will no longer have access to the repatriation and pharmaceutical benefits scheme. War widows who also receive an age pension will have the social security component frozen at a level of $60.5c per week. The Government is now trying to claim from the private health insurance funds for the cost of veterans' hospital and medical treatment; that is for those veterans who have private medical insurance. That is a disgrace. That is not what the intent of the leislation should be about. The community has a responsibility to properly provide hospital and medical treatment to our veterans. We should not be adding a burden to those people who are already paying a very high cost for private health insurance. We should not be adding to that burden by trying to pass off some of the commitments this Federal Government has in relation to its veterans.

The veteran community is now looking at a May mini-Budget which the Government promises will make substantial cutbacks. I will be happy to see substantial cutbacks enacted as long as they do not infringe on the area of veterans' entitlements, because veterans have already borne the brunt of a great number of cutbacks.

It will not be long before the expenditure of the Department of Veterans' Affairs on the ex-service pensions scheme will go into a real decline because, sadly, nature is taking its course. Fewer and fewer people will be dependent upon the veterans' pension scheme because of the fact that they are all getting to a certain age where their numbers will reduce. While that is a sad fact, it is something that the Department must keep in mind. If the Department maintains proper services for the people who are alive today, it will find that it will not have to make cutbacks because nature will take its course. Any further cutbacks to our veterans' budget would weaken our chances of finding committed people to help fight our cause if we ever had to fight off any opponents in the years ahead. If the Government wants to cut back, it should cut back other activities. I could give plenty of examples, but I will not go through them today. In the past few months we have seen many sensible examples of where we could cut back.

I want to repudiate the comments that have been made by many members of the Government that the coalition in government would amalgamate the Department of Veterans' Affairs with another department. I heard the honourable member for Hunter (Mr Fitzgibbon) make that claim earlier today and I have seen comments from the honourable member for Eden-Monaro (Mr Snow) in the Press that we will cut back the Department of Veterans' Affairs and amalgamate it. That is simply not correct. I was very pleased to hear the honourable member for Farrer, in his excellent contribution to the House this afternoon, add to that repudiation. It simply is not correct. We have a very strong commitment to the ex-service community and we would maintain the highest level of services to them.

I point out to the House that it was the honourable member for Wills, the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), who brought the whole issue forward at a factional meeting of Australian Labor Party leaders when he said that he was considering amalgamating the Department of Veterans' Affairs. It is from that initial statement that the veteran community has been concerned and has been lobbying the Government to ensure that it does not do that. In trying to fend off the bad effects that that might have on the State electorally, the Labor Party has tried to blame us by saying that we will cut back the Department of Veterans' Affairs and amalgamate it. It simply is not correct. The honourable member for Farrer, the shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs-

Mr Slipper —The future Minister.

Mr SHARP —He would be a very adequate Minister, I am quite sure. He has made it quite clear that that will not be the case. I am very committed to keeping the Department of Veterans' Affairs and I have freely told my constituents that that is the case. I believe that we have to do that if we are to provide a proper service.

There is one more thing that I would like to bring to the attention of the House. I happen to have residing in my electorate Mr J. McIlvenie, who is the honorary secretary of the Merchant Navy War Veterans Association. I have had discussions with him just recently and he is very keen to see a review of the Veterans' Entitlements Act as it relates to merchant navy war veterans. He believes that this review is necessary because those veterans are not being properly catered for. It was only during the Fraser Government that they became entitled to receive a pension as was befitting all ex-service personnel. Those veterans believe that they should receive a full pension and all of the benefits for which ex-service personnel are eligible because they made a contribution equal to that of those people who served at the war front.

Some people might say that merchant navy people did not serve at the war front, but that is totally incorrect. Many of those people served in the most difficult of circumstances during the war. We have all heard the tragic stories of how those people were on ships that were sunk and were thrown into the ocean with oil aflame all over the water. Mr McIlvenie was on several ships that were sunk during the war. On one day he was on board one ship which sank, and no sooner had he got off that and on board another ship than the second ship sank. This is the type of stress that those people underwent. The contribution they made and the stress they underwent deserve proper reward.

Mr McIlvenie was also a prisoner of war and there are many ex-merchant navy people who went through the same difficulties that he did. Their cause is just and the Government ought to listen to it and take up some of the points that I am making today, points which Mr McIlvenie has made to me, and try to do something to benefit them because they have made a great contribution. There are not that many ex- merchant navy people left. Substantially fewer than 1,000 of those people are living in Australia today. There were 8,000 after the war. That just goes to show that many of them have died prematurely because of some of the stresses they had to go through during the difficult war years that they served in the merchant navy.

Since this Government has been in office it has had a shocking record in relation to veterans' entitlements. I cannot believe what it has attempted to do. The large population of ex-service people in my electorate are very disenchanted with the Labor Government. Many of them are long term Labor supporters, but they have told me that there is no way in the world that they can support the Labor Party in the future because of what it has done to them in relation to veterans' affairs.

Mr Slipper —They will vote for you next time.

Mr SHARP —Hopefully they will, but I am certainly not promoting this cause for that reason. I believe that these people have a just cause and should be accorded the full respect due to them and the most generous of services that any government can provide. I hope that this Government will stop the drivel that we have heard from Government members in this debate and stop some of the hypocrisy and get on with giving a proper service to our ex-service people. The Liberal and National parties are committed to providing a good service and when we get into government we will provide that service. We will maintain the best of all possible services. The honourable member for Farrer will prove to be an excellent Minister for Veterans' Affairs and we all look forward to the election coming as soon as possible so that the honourable member for Farrer can get on with the job of making good the damage that has been done by this Labor Government.