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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1720

Mr NEHL(8.18) —I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill with a great deal of feeling because--

Mr Cleeland —Don't you be hypocritical.

Mr NEHL —I would like to assure you, Madam Speaker, and anybody else listening to this debate, that my father is an 83-year-old totally and permanently incapacitated pensioner who served throughout the siege of Tobruk. I take exception to the smart comment from my colleague on my left-and that is the right place for him. As I started to say, I speak with a degree of emotion on this Bill because I believe very strongly and very deeply that we are not talking about a pension when we are talking about veterans affairs; we are talking about an obligation. We are talking about a national commitment. We are talking about compensation. I would like to direct my comments, only briefly, to the situation obtaining to veterans' pensioners with the assets test. As honourable members are aware, since being elected on 1 December 1984 I have frequently been heard on the assets test and the ill effect it has had not only on veterans' pensioners but on social security pension and benefit recipients as well.

At the time of the assets tests being implemented for veteran recipients in 1985, 386,113 people were receiving benefits Australia-wide. Some 12,228, or 3.167 per cent, of them were affected by the assets test. Of these, 6,711 had their pensions reduced and 5,517 had their pensions cancelled. In the division of Cowper, 4,747 people were receiving service pensions. In total, 188 people were affected and, of those, 84 had their pensions reduced and 94 had their pensions cancelled. I know that it is popular in some Government circles to proclaim that a handful of millionaires were caught receiving the pension. To many on the Government side this seems to have more significance than the fact that individuals, who were not millionaires but who were Australians in very limited circumstances, were caught. They were caught, not because they owned a house on the shores of Sydney harbour valued at up to $1m, which would have been acceptable, but because they had, for example, small farms. This applies particularly to the north coast of New South Wales in which my electorate of Cowper is situated. Very often, because of the inflated value of land arising from the tremendous growth in tourism and the small amount of curtilage, even though their land was not productive people were caught and lost their pensions.

Many people might say that in my electorate only 84 people had their pensions reduced and only 94 had their pensions cancelled. But for the individual pensioner it would have been disastrous. I can assure the House of this, because I know through my personal contact with so many of these people up and down my electorate that the assets test has created enormous hardship. There is a basic injustice and inequity in the assets test. As I said, if one is in the circumstances I described-if one happens to have a small farm-one can be caught.

In many cases the farm may have been owned by a husband and wife who spent their lives together there raising their children. They are caught in the evening of their lives. If they were dairy farmers they would not have amassed a great deal of money throughout their lives. It is only in recent times, perhaps the last 10 or 15 years, that dairying has started to become profitable. I can recall back in 1968 when the average income of dairy farmers on the north coast of New South Wales was only $2,000 a year. It is certainly a great deal better now. Nonetheless, the average dairy farmer was not able to amass a great deal of capital or to earn a great deal of income. Subsequently, all these small farmers have is their old car, their tractor and few cows. These are the real pensioners I am talking about. They have their farms. Because of the curtilage provisions, as I say, in my electorate, 84 had their pensions reduced and 94 had them cancelled.

As at December 1986 there were 271,389 recipients of veteran benefits out of a total of 540,000 surviving ex-service men and women. A little later I will show how that total of 540,000 is made up. That figure is a significant reduction in the number of veteran benefits recipients in 1985. Honourable members will recall that in 1985 386,113 veterans were receiving benefits Australia-wide. It is interesting to look to the reasons why the total has been significantly reduced. The reduction is due in part to the, at times, not too subtle prodding of veteran benefits recipients into the social security system rather than have them remain in the veteran welfare system. To what extent the reduction can be attributed to the assets test is difficult to say.

It is worth noting that, where the wife of an ex-serviceman receiving a service pension is pre-deceased by her ex-service husband, the wife will automatically be entitled to a special temporary allowance which is the equivalent of six pay-periods immediately following the death of her husband. During this period she will receive the combined rate of pension which they were entitled to during the lifetime of her husband. However, at the conclusion of this 12-week special temporary allowance period, the wife's assets will be subject to the assets test and will be assessed at the single rate which is significantly below the combined rate she and her husband enjoyed prior to his death. So what will happen-I forecast this prior to being elected and also after being elected-is that an increasing number of people in the veterans area as well as in the broader social security area will not receive the full pension. Where the husband and wife have had assets to the extent of being able to receive the full pension, as soon as one spouse dies the cut-out point is reduced. The same assets may be held, but immediately the widow or the widower dies he or she is placed in the invidious position, after the sixth pay-period during which the combined pension is paid, of the pension being reduced because the assets combined, while within the limit for a married couple, exceed the limit for a single person. This puts the survivor into a most distressing situation. The responsible Ministers-the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) is also involved in the broader field-should look very carefully at what can be done to assist in this situation. The death of a husband or wife is traumatic enough without one having to suffer a reduction in pension-not just from the married combined rate of pension to the single rate of pension but for the single rate of pension to be further reduced because of a slight amount of assets over and above the cut-off point.

A surviving ex-service man or woman receiving a service pension can, upon the death of his or her spouse, go on to the single rate of service pension. In that case the single rate of assets test is applied. It should be noted that, as half the married rate of service pension is less than the single rate of service pension, a surviving ex-serviceman is demonstrably better off than a surviving war widow.

Mr McGauran —Inequitable.

Mr NEHL —It is inequitable, as my colleague says. Where the surviving spouse-for example, a widow-would be entitled to more benefits from the Department of Social Security than the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the Department tends to push survivors in the direction of the Department of Social Security by suggesting that they should seek to meet the qualifications for social security benefits. I believe that is totally wrong. This nation has an unswerving commitment and obligation to our citizens who were prepared to risk their lives to defend this country to preserve the democracy we enjoy today. These benefits are not a pension. They are compensation. These people were prepared to risk the ultimate and to make the absolute sacrifice for their fellow Australians. I cannot, and never will be able to, go along with anyone who suggests that we should not keep the bargain and maintain the commitment which was made by politicians and parliamentarians of all political parties.

Mr Tim Fischer —Ben Chifley and Arthur Fadden.

Mr NEHL —Ben Chifley, Arthur Fadden and Menzies-the greats, the giants, among the politicians of prior decades. We made an unbreakable commitment which must never be backed away from. Before I finish I want to raise just one other point. I did say earlier that I would refer to the total of 540,000 surviving ex-service personnel. As at December 1986, there were 5,700 survivors from World War I, 448,900 from World War II, 31,900 from Korea and Malaya during the period 1950 to 1973, and 53,500 from Vietnam-a total of 540,000 Australian men and women still surviving after risking their lives in serving this country. Not only must we be absolutely certain that we do nothing to diminish their benefits, but also we should have a bipartisan commitment that the assets test should go and these people should not be penalised by it.

Mr McGauran —Absolutely.

Mr NEHL —That is absolutely correct. Further, there is a great deal of fear, disquiet and concern in the veterans' community about the frequently rumoured proposal to amalgamate the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Department of Social Security.

Mr Lee —What is your view?

Mr NEHL —The lad opposite should not get excited. Senator Gietzelt has advised me and other members that that is not his intention. I know, though, that the Minister for Social Security has been challenged to say what he thinks about it, and I know that the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has been challenged also. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs has been promoting the kite that the coalition when back in government would be prepared to amalgamate both those departments. I do not believe that that will happen. I do not speak for the coalition or for the Liberal or National parties but for myself and, I believe, a great many other members on this side of the House. I am prepared to stand up here tonight and say in a figurative fashion that over my dead body will these two departments be amalgamated.

Opposition members-Hear, hear!

Mr NEHL —As you can see, Madam Speaker, I have a great deal of support from my National Party colleagues sitting here with me.

Mr N.A. Brown —Not only the National Party.

Mr NEHL —Not only my National Party colleagues; the Deputy Leader of the Opposition also supports me. If any government seeks to amalgamate these departments the whole veterans' community, which comprises 540,000 survivors at present, will put up a great fight. I made some reference earlier to my father. My mother is also alive. I am an only child so ours is not a big family, but my parents, me, my wife, my two sons and one son's wife add up to seven voters. If we multiply the 596,000 survivors by seven we come up with a huge number of voters who are directly affected by this legislation. Any government that seeks to do away with the Department of Veterans' Affairs does so at its peril.