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Thursday, 6 April 2000
Page: 15512

Ms BURKE (11:40 AM) —I rise to speak on the Social Security and Veterans' Entitlements Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Matters) Bill 2000, which gives effect to a range of 1990 budget saving measures. Sadly, again most of this relates to savings as opposed to looking after these people. The specific changes relate to international payment rules, including portability and qualifying residence; changes to the use of tax file numbers, which strengthen compliance during data matching; changes ensuring the four per cent pension increase is extended to those participating in the pension bonus scheme; and technical changes to associated social security legislation. As most people speaking on this bill have pointed out, it is actually a fairly complicated area. I suppose that is the nature of the area of social security and also the area that the government has impacted upon by the introduction of a radical new tax, which makes everything a bit more complicated yet again.

In speaking on this bill I feel I must point out that, once again, the government has been deficient in its handling of its legislative agenda. It has shown its usual contempt of the parliamentary process by not allowing the opposition sufficient time to consider the bill and its implication for the people it will affect. This allowed for no discussion with the group that will be affected and for no appropriate consideration by the opposition of all the issues. Whilst the ALP will be supporting the bill before the House today, we point out there are several concerns in respect of the portability arrangements for DFACS recipients, and these arrangements perhaps could have been better worked through if we had had time to actually consider the bill before us.

One of the issues the ALP is in support of is the use of tax file numbers as a primary source of data matching. Whilst it is welcomed, it does presuppose that the tax file number is sound and is an integral source of information on personal identity. This is at complete odds with a recent Audit Office report which has uncovered that there are currently 3.2 million more tax file numbers than there are Australians. While some of this can be explained away by the existence of company trust TFNs, we cannot account for 3.2 million extra tax file numbers. So whilst there are benefits in data matching, we need to ensure that what we are data matching against actually has some integrity.

The ANAO report No. 37 for 1998-99 on the management of tax file numbers—which is currently being reviewed by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration—has discovered that there are actually some serious deficiencies with the tax file number. I am hoping that this bill and others and the audit report will impress upon both the Australian Taxation Office and Treasury—who, I hasten to say, showed the recent public hearing a fair degree of contempt when it came before us and had not even read the audit report—that the ATO should take urgent action to ensure the integrity of the TFN system and its implication for the ABN system and how this will impact upon the operation of the GST. So while data matching is supported and should be encouraged to ensure that there is compliance, we actually must be matching against something that has integrity, and currently the system does not.

Whilst this act also relaxes certain qualifications for reserve forces to attend training courses outside Australia—and this is probably welcome—it does nothing to rectify the damage done to the reserve forces by the second wave IR legislation, which removes reserve force training from awards and has made it impossible for people to undertake reserve activities and to serve their country. I think that is something that needs to be looked at.

I, like other people, also welcome the independent review of the service entitlements for South-East Asian service from 1955 to 1975. It is my understanding that the opposition, through the Senate's estimates and question time, has sought to highlight the discrimination against service personnel. The opposition has argued that veterans who served in the Naval Far Eastern Strategic Reserve during the Malayan Emergency, at Ubon in Thailand and as ground crew in Vietnam all have strong cases to be eligible for full service benefits. I have no doubt that there are veterans and their families living in my electorate of Chisholm who will greatly benefit from the implications of the recommendations straight away.

Speaking of veterans, Chisholm is blessed with a vigorous and active veteran community. We have the Box Hill RSL, the Clayton RSL and the Oakleigh RSL. They are integral parts of the local community and I make it my business as the local member to give my full support to their activities. Late last year they helped me organise a signature book to be sent to Australian troops serving in East Timor. I had a book at my office and circulated three amongst the RSLs, enabling hundreds of signatures to be obtained across the electorate and sent as a message of support to our troops in East Timor. This was a wonderful thing, and we had a lovely letter back from the armed forces in Timor welcoming that book. It was a great thing to circulate amongst my electorate.

It is interesting to note, from a response I had to a question on notice to the minister last year, that we have 2,102 veterans residing in Chisholm who are receiving benefits. I have had the opportunity to meet with many of these veterans who have been involved in almost all of Australia's engagements and conflicts. There are many issues that they often need assistance with in terms of their benefits and entitlements. It is an area that is very confusing, as I am sure most people in this place will know. Whilst I deal with as many as I can, I am blessed in Chisholm with having very capable RSL officials, such as Peter Davison in Box Hill, Ray Scott from the Clayton RSL and the stalwart Arthur Larson in Oakleigh, to whom I can refer most pressing matters. They generally have an answer quicker than most government departments on these issues. They all do a tremendous job in advocating on behalf of their members and they go beyond that: they are fantastic community advocates and they do a lot of work above and beyond their work for veterans.

Until I became an MP I never realised the amount of work done for veterans and their families by the local RSLs and war widows organisations. These organisations will have their work cut out dealing with the effects of the GST on veterans' entitlements. Not only will recipients on fixed incomes find that the GST compensation still leaves them out of pocket; they will be hit by the application of the GST on complementary health care products. Sir William Keys, former RSL president, has raised the salient point that many veterans are older people on modest incomes who suffer from a range of chronic illnesses which can now be treated by complementary medicines. The tax on complementary medicines will affect many Australians who use these medicines, but will have a disproportionate effect on the veteran community. Once again, we ask the government to lift the burden of taxation from these medicines for the benefit of all Australians and, most acutely, for veterans.

There is a further issue I wish to raise in relation to Vietnam veterans. There are still many outstanding issues as to the health care needs of Vietnam veterans and their children. Whilst much scientific evidence is available, there is still no answer on what future directions should be taken to address these issues. I ask all members of parliament to address the physical and psychological problems of Vietnam veterans and their children as a matter of urgency. I would like to draw to the attention of the House a petition that is currently being circulated amongst veterans in the wider community. I will read what the petition is calling for:

The petition of certain citizens of Australia draws the attention of the House to the need for urgent assistance for Vietnam veterans' children due to their fathers' exposure to 31 toxic chemicals and anti-malarial drug Dapsone during the Vietnam war.

Your petitioners ask the House to support decisions in Volume 3 Validation Study on Morbidity of Vietnam veterans and children, revealing:

Increased levels of spina bifida in children of veterans

Veterans' children's death rates above those expected based on Australian community standards

Cancer ...

Cleft lip/palate ...

Suicide rates three times more prevalent in veterans' children

Extra body not assessed due to no corresponding community date ...

There are so many issues of health needs for Vietnam veterans and their children that are going begging and that need to be urgently addressed by this House. I call on people to support the petition that is currently being circulated.

Finally, I would like to touch on the issue of social security entitlements that were amended by this bill. In my electorate I have quite a large population of aged pensioners, totalling over 7,000 in the suburbs of Box Hill, Box Hill North, Burwood and Ashwood. I spoke on the adjournment about my fears that pensioners would lose out under the GST with the pittance being offered as compensation. I also expressed alarm at the government's increasingly negative portrayal of all welfare recipients as a burden on the system we can no longer afford. To examine the government's form on this you only have to look at the massive cuts to social security they have ushered in during their time in office. As described by my colleague the member for Lilley in his submission to the welfare review, the Howard government have cut $5 billion from social service programs such as labour market programs, social security payments, cuts to disability allowancethe list goes on—and this bill is trying to surreptitiously make more cuts. This has created an enormous social deficit. The government are comfortable in talking about budget deficits, but refuse to acknowledge the social black hole they created as if it is somehow less relevant.

Whilst we generally support the measures in this bill pertaining to portability of benefits, the government stands condemned for its handling of the sensitive issues surrounding welfare recipients. Trumpeting cheap, `blame the victim' language is no substitute for good policies that provide both a buffer and hope to the many Australians who rely upon the government for income support.

Finally, I place on the record, as we are coming up to Anzac Day, the importance in my electorate of celebrating Anzac Day, not just for the veterans community but for all Australians. In Chisholm, we are blessed by the presence of Mr Roy Longmore, who is one of the three last surviving Gallipoli war veterans. While Gallipoli was a time of great significance for Australia on the world stage, it resulted in 25,000 Australian casualties, including 8,000 people who were killed or died of wounds and disease. Such is the horror of war, and it is why we need to ensure that those who served our country and lived through these incidents are given the best possible access to benefits, allowances and medical care as they reach their twilight years.