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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1711

Mr JENKINS(5.47) —It is perhaps appropriate to remind the House what the legislation before us aims to achieve. The first purpose of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill is to introduce into veterans' affairs legislation poverty trap reduction reforms. I do not intend to dwell too long on that point because I believe that it has been adequately covered by my colleagues the honourable members for Dobell (Mr Lee) and Makin (Mr Duncan). In addition, the legislation puts into the veterans' affairs legislation measures to combat health fraud, similar to those contained in the Health Insurance Act. Also, the opportunity is being taken to make other minor changes to correct minor drafting errors which have come to light since the Veterans' Entitlements Act commenced operation last year.

Since the creation of the Repatriation Commission in 1920, successive governments have displayed their commitment to the provision of the best possible care for eligible veterans and their dependants. Despite the colourful contentions of the honourable member for Denison (Mr Hodgman), no government has displayed its concern more than the present Government. Despite the cant and humbug profferred by honourable members opposite and the continued accusations that in some way this Government is anti-veterans, the Government's record demonstrates that that is absolute rot. For instance, in last year's Budget there was an 8.14 per cent increase in the veterans' affairs budget. At that time, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Senator Arthur Gietzelt, said:

Spending in Veterans' Affairs has now risen by over $1.5 billion or 65 per cent since we came to office, or by over 37 per cent in real terms after allowing for inflation.

What we have seen since the Government came to office is a realistic reappraisal of appropriate treatment and care based on the resources available. The Government's critics have not helped the welfare of veterans by their continual scare campaigns conducted over issues such as the assets test, improvements to the repatriation entitlements determining system, and the consolidation and simplification of repatriation legislation.

This leads us to a discussion on where the Opposition stands on veterans' affairs, the Department of Veterans' Affairs and some aspects of veterans' affairs legislation. An interesting document, which was released this month by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and the Australian Institute for Public Policy-one of the many think-tanks that are behind the coalition parties-entitled `Mandate to Govern-A handbook for the next Australian Government', contains a very interesting paragraph. Only one paragraph in that document deals with veterans affairs, but its conclusion is to `abolish the Department of Veterans' Affairs, transferring its functions to the Departments of Health, Social Security, and Defence'. Even worse, it has this to say about the administration of veterans' affairs:

Administration of veterans' pensions should be integrated with ordinary social security pensions, although entitlements should remain as they are, except for new applicants for war widows' pensions. It makes no sense to describe a woman as a war widow if her husband lived a normal life-span and died thirty or forty years after his military service; the legislation should be amended to put the onus of proof firmly on the applicant in such cases.

Despite the Minister asking the coalition parties to repudiate such statements by think-tanks and other bodies that give the Opposition policy advice, we have heard nothing from the Opposition. Australians deserve to be told where the coalition parties stand on such proposals.

As has been mentioned before in this debate, in last Monday's Australian Financial Review we saw the document that gave certain spending cut suggestions that were being investigated by the Liberal Party. Indicated in this document is the proposal to have a junior Ministry of Social Security and Veterans' Affairs-the amalgamation of the departments. Whilst I am reassured when people such as the honourable member for Fisher (Mr Slipper), the honourable member for Gilmore (Mr Sharp) and, by a nod and a wink here and there, the honourable member for Farrer indicate that they do not personally support this proposal, that they would like to see the Department of Veterans' Affairs continue, I would like to know when the Leader of the Opposition will say that it is not the Opposition's policy. There was some suggestion by the honourable member for Fisher that this was something that had been set running by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke). As has been indicated earlier in the debate, both the Prime Minister and the Minister have indicated that there is no such suggestion. I will read part of an answer by the Minister to a question without notice in the other place last Thursday. It reads:

The Prime Minister has given a firm assurance not only to me personally but also to the Parliamentary Labor Party that the Department of Veterans' Affairs will be retained.

It is of interest that in the same answer Senator Gietzelt made the following comment which related to various suggestions of, I think, late last year by the New Right and others that there should be the abolition of the Department of Veterans' Affairs:

As a consequence a deputation from the Returned Services League met with Mr Howard shortly before Christmas. According to the national newsletter of the RSL, Mr Howard refused to give a commitment that the Department of Veterans' Affairs would be retained.

I again ask, as did the honourable member for Dobell: When will the Leader of the Opposition set the veterans' community at rest by indicating that he is in support of the continuation of a separate department, the Department of Veterans' Affairs?

Those who sit opposite, in the main, failed to acknowledge the need to come to grips with the changing needs of the veteran population, whilst in government. Now in opposition, as these challenges are revealed to them, they are mute on policy alternatives. This side of the House has recognised that the veteran population is an aging population. It is acknowledged that the needs of the veteran community will peak during the 1990s when over half of the veterans and their dependants eligible for treatment and care will be over 75 years of age. In the past, the treatment services of the Department of Veterans' Affairs has been geared to acute care. There is now an ever growing need to cater for the long term needs of individuals who because of age are more prone to chronic illnesses.

The Repatriation Commission through its planning for the next 15 years is ready to put in place programs that will make the lot of its clients more comfortable in their twilight years. At repatriation general hospitals, aged and extended care departments, which originally started as geriatric assessment units, have been established. Specialists in geriatric medicine are being employed. In line with current thinking for the treatment of aged persons, programs to assist aged veterans to remain at home are being put in place. Particularly worthy of praise is the veterans home services program which was brought in in 1985. It replaced a pilot program called the aged persons home help scheme. It is interesting to note that the aged persons home help scheme was a very successful community employment program administered by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The community employment program, CEP, is another policy program the coalition parties are considering cutting out if they are ever fortunate enough to find themselves back on this side of the House.

The objective of the veterans home services program is to provide suitable non-professional support to disabled beneficiaries living in their own homes with a view to improving their living conditions either to delay or possibly help avoid acute care in hospitals. It is a program that is indicative of the way in which this Government has gone about dealing with the changing needs of the veteran population. At this time I would like to mention a pilot program which started in the latter years of the Fraser Government. It was targeted at a particular group of veterans. I refer to the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service. On 29 January this year the VVCS celebrated its fifth anniversary. It is a good indication of a project which is especially targeted at a special group within the veterans' community.

Mr Tim Fischer —It does good work.

Mr JENKINS —It is a successful project. It was in recognition of this and after listening to the recommendations of the evaluation committee, that the Government decided to continue the service even though it was temporary at the time the Labor Government came into power. Now, the VVCS is a permanent body with a highly skilled staff, independent of the mainstream of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, although it gets its administrative support from and works directly under the Minister's jurisdiction. It is a good example of the way we need to adapt to the special needs of our veteran population. That is perhaps what caused me a little concern with some of the contributions from those opposite. They say at some stage we will have a peak in the number of veterans and that because of age the numbers will diminish. There does not appear to be a recognition of the fact that as members of the veteran population get older they will need more particular and specialised care, whether it be in trying to keep them in their homes, trying to assist them into nursing home accommodation, or trying to assist them into hostel and and hospice care. It will be very much a challenge for any government, whatever its political complexion, to retain the necessary and appropriate treatment for those veterans, their eligible spouses and dependants.

I will run over some of the other achievements of this Government in providing services for veterans. One of its great achievements is the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. I noted the comments of the shadow Minister, the honourable member for Farrer, that he welcomed that there would be a monitoring committee. I agree with him that this will be a very important aspect of the way we go about our assessment of how things are going. Hopefully, that will be an appropriate avenue to take up many of those genuine concerns-if, when we chip away the emotive rhetoric of people such as the honourable member for Denison, there are genuine concerns, because if people are in some way being overburdened by the way that the legislation has been reframed, it is appropriate that we give that consideration and that we make the necessary adjustments. I do not think that it is the intention of this Government or that it should be the intention of any government to subject the veteran population to any further wholesale changes in the legislation.

As the Repatriation Commission indicated in its annual report to this Parliament, there is a need to get the legislation into place and to have it firmly understood by a veteran population which is aging. We have already seen, when scare campaigns are conducted amongst that population, how easy it is to whip up emotions. That is unfortunate.

Another area at which this Government can look with some pride is entitlement determinations. As the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Holding) indicated when introducing this Bill in the House, from June 1985 to December 1986 outstanding entitlement matters have been reduced by some 63 per cent and the assessment backlog by some 70 per cent.

Even more important is the fact that, I guess as a corollary of making reductions in the backlog, the period for processing entitlement cases has been reduced form 391 days to 112 days and for assessment matters from 328 days to 93 days. It is important that the system has been made to work so that there is a better response time between the making of applications and the final decisions. That is of benefit to the veterans and also to the administration of the cases because, when there are great backlogs, people inquire where their particular cases are and that only further slows down the processing time.

Another major initiative of the Government was the Brand Review of the Repatriation Hospital System. I am pleased to see that some 141 of its 230 recommendations have been fully implemented. I note that the Government has adopted a softly softly approach to matters dealing with the rationalisation of hospital services and their integration into the State health systems. In the logical, let alone the emotive, sphere of dealing with veterans' affairs, that is not something that should be developed with great haste.

In conclusion, I am pleased that those on the other side in this place have indicated support for the legislation. As I said at the outset, the poverty trap reduction measures are not only very important to the veteran population but also the Australian community in general. It is important that they are put in place and I hope that other aspects will be considered when the legislation is reviewed in toto by the monitoring committee, because I think that is important. It is a pleasure to have been able to speak in support of this legislation. I congratulate the Minister for Veterans' Affairs for the zeal and compassion he has demonstrated in guiding his portfolio towards its goal, which is to honour Australia's veterans and their dependants through programs of care, commemoration, income support and housing assistance.