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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1719

Mr WHITE(8.10) —I must say at the outset that the sentiments expressed by the honourable member for Lowe (Mr Maher) are very worthy. It is a pity that over the last four years the Government has not put them into effect and given the veterans the recognition they deserve. The second reading speech on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill draws attention to the claims the Government has made about the reducing of time taken in determining entitlement matters and assessment matters. We are very pleased that this time has been reduced but in many cases the waiting time for appeals to be heard has increased. Unfortunately, it seems to have increased in my home State of Queensland more than in other States. This backlog of appeals, particularly to the Veterans Review Board, is a great problem. In Queensland it takes a minimum of 12 months from the time the appeal is listed until it is ready to proceed but from the time the process starts it could well take two years or more. Unfortunately, with the increasing age of these veterans many of them have died while awaiting the hearing of their appeals.

Waiting times for appeals have always been long but it is no excuse for a government, after four years in office, to say: `The waiting time has always been long. We are sorry; we cannot do too much about it'. The Government gives higher priority to other things and can always find the resources and money for them. As the years go on veterans will make more and more claims. Some of them will be approved but some will lead to more and more appeals. It is no use fixing up the bottom strata if the appeal structure will clog up. More resources have to be allocated to the appeal area if we are to give any sort of justice to the veterans who are depending on the Government-whatever government it might be-to look after their interests. Over the years promises have been made by governments that the interests of veterans would be looked after. I find it extraordinary that the Government can say to veterans who are making initial claims `Yes, we will deal with you promptly' but when it comes to appeals against the determination-which are part of the total system-the veterans find that their appeals are being held up for this long time. Twelve months-and in some cases two years-is an extraordinary time for someone who is waiting for his benefit or for his disability to be acknowledged.

What really sticks in the guts of these people is that when the Government wants to do something which it believes is electorally popular it can allocate extraordinary amounts of money and resources to fix other problems. For example, it can allocate money, because it thinks it is electorally appealing-God knows why-to the Gay Mardi Gras committee or to some of these other extraordinary causes it gives money to. There is a whole list of them. It gave $15,000 to a study on Roman women; $41,000 for the history of the Australian Labor Party, which I am sure no one will ever read; $19,000 to an analysis of the Irish Parliament; and $28,000 to a study of work relationships in the household. It is an absolute nonsense if a veteran has a real problem and one says to him `I am sorry, the Government says it has not got the resources to fix up the appeal system in the veterans affairs area' and he asks: `Well, what about this money that it is handing out to every other cause except ours?'.

I believe veterans have a very just cause. These are the people who served their country. As the years go on fewer and fewer people remember the wars and the sacrifices these people made. The Government can find something like 2,000 public servants and a billion dollars to administer an identity card that no one wants; yet it cannot find the money to fix up the appeals system for benefits due to veterans who served this country.

Mr Tim Fischer —They are transferring VRB typing out of Brisbane interstate.

Mr WHITE —I know it is being sent interstate from Queensland to try to get it fixed up. It is not just the transference that is the problem; the problem is that overall the appeals system is gumming up. The Government might be gradually getting the waiting time down but what about the people who have been waiting for two years or for 12 months after the case has been listed to get their appeal heard? Part of the problem is that as veterans get older they simply do not understand the processes that they have to go through and, in many cases, what they have to do to get their appeal heard. In all my dealings with the Department of Veterans' Affairs I have found the staff to be excellent. When one goes to them with a problem they will respond very quickly when they know what the problem is. I say to the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley), who is in charge of the Bill in this House, that as the veterans get older and the appeal system bogs down we must explain to the veterans what is happening, why their appeals are being delayed and what the Department can do to overcome it. More effort is required not only in the appeals system but also in the counselling and advice the Department gives to veterans.

I believe that the veterans in this country have been under assault for something like four years. In the May 1985 mini-Budget travel allowances and other benefits were reduced. In 1986 there was an assault on widows. Then there was the 2 per cent cut in relation to superannuation. The 1987 mini-Budget is viewed with some trepidation by veterans in this country. I conclude by quoting Ben Chifley. Many years ago in this House he said:

The careers of hundreds and thousands of young men-

and women-

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.

I ask the Government to ensure that the right thing is done particularly in the appeals system in the Department of Veterans' Affairs.