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Thursday, 21 June 2001
Page: 28391

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) (11:17 AM) —I want to firstly thank all those who have made a contribution to important areas of government policy in terms of our appropriation bills before the consideration of the committee today. In thanking everyone—obviously there have been some questions raised by the other side of the chamber, and I will attempt to answer some of those questions in my summing-up—I want firstly to go to the last speaker in relation to some of the misinformation that was put forward by him. I really wish sometimes that the other side of the chamber would get their facts right before they go on the public record and talk about the fact that the head of defence reserves has been downgraded to a brigadier. That is totally untrue.

Mr Byrne —That is what they are saying.

Mr BRUCE SCOTT —You should get your facts correct—come to my office and get your facts correct. He is still a major general and has not been downgraded to a brigadier. In relation to the head of cadets—and that is a new appointment—he is also a major general. I think it indicates that on this side of the House we not only take the issue of cadets very seriously, by having a very senior-ranking defence personnel in charge of cadets, but we have not downgraded the position of head of defence reserve forces, which is still in the hands of a major general.

There are a couple of other issues in relation to the reserves that the previous speaker talked about. What this government has done since coming to office is introduce legislation which, for the very first time since Federation, will see the jobs of reservists protected by legislation. That has never been the case before and reservists now know that when they are part of the reserve force—and we do value the contribution that they are making in our Defence Force— we see them as part of the total force. We do not see them as reservists and regulars. They are part of the total force, and we have now protected their jobs by legislation. We have also gone further than that. We recognise that, when reservists are on deployment or away on training for extended periods, we also need to support the employer. There will be support payments given to employers who have reservists in their employment so that they can release them for training or deployment. So since coming to office there is a great deal that this government has done in recognition of the valuable role that our reservists do play. Importantly, what we have to do is to make sure that their jobs are protected.

There have been quite a few questions raised by previous speakers in relation to some of the veterans' entitlements. I want to touch on the issue of the federal government's initiative in this year's budget relating to the one-off ex gratia payment to ex-prisoners of war of the Japanese. It is obviously very difficult for the government, and anyone for that matter, to imagine the treatment of those who were interned as prisoners of war by the Japanese or the Germans or the Italians during the Second World War. What we did was make sure that the payment went to not only those surviving ex-prisoners of war of the Japanese or their surviving widows but also the civilian internees. That is in line with what has happened in other countries around the world that had some of their people interned in Japanese prisoner of war camps during the Second World War. It is exactly the same as what happened with the British, the Canadians and the New Zealanders. We have, in this case, done exactly as those other Commonwealth countries have done.

In relation to the question should this payment have gone to the ex-prisoners of war of the Germans, since the budget we have been talking with the ex-service organisations, and obviously they will be coming to us with any further recommendations as they see fit. What we did initially was go to the Ex-Prisoners of War Association and ask them for a submission from their association which was a reflection of the grassroots membership of their own association. (Extension of time granted) I would also like to point out that those who were interned by the Germans during the Second World War were treated under the Geneva conventions. The Japanese did not accept the Geneva conventions, and there are some differences in terms of, say, the approach that was taken not only by the Australian government but also by the British government, the Canadian government and the New Zealand government. Of the governments involved in those countries, two are Labour—the British government and the New Zealand government—and we have all basically had a consistent policy on this issue.

I want to mention the decision made in relation to the payment going to divorced widows of an ex-prisoner of war in Japan. What we have done is quite consistent with Commonwealth policy in that, when there is a divorce, there is quite a clear line of legal separation of any entitlements or any other benefits that may flow because a person is divorced, and that relates to any legal entitlements. In fact, it is no longer available to those people because of a divorce.

In relation to the $300 payment to our veterans and widows who are of retirement age, there was a mistake made by my department and 1,421 letters were sent out in error. When my department discovered that, they immediately moved to stop that payment. They immediately rang all those people personally and the secretary of my department said that, since the mistake had been within the department, he felt it was his duty to write to all the people who had been wrongly advised by me in relation to this error. I have got to say that errors will occur. I have got a department that works very hard. There was an error made—they admit that. I admit that and I regret it, and they do, too. The right thing was done and that was the important thing. The payment was stopped. They were rung and also written to by my secretary and I believe that was the right thing to happen.

One other issue in relation to the Defence portfolio concerns remuneration of remote locality leave travel. I advise the other side of the House that this is an entitlement, it is not an allowance. It has always been there as an allowance for travel. The entitlement has not changed. It is still the same as it always was—an entitlement to travel. What they have not been able to do is cash it out for the same value they might have years ago.

The important thing is that it is an entitlement to travel which is paid for by Defence. The fact that Defence have got contracts with a major airline carrier means that they can now get a better deal in relation to the costs. It should be the interest of all on the other side of the House to make sure that Defence can spend taxpayers' money wisely and well. The very fact that they can still travel is important. That entitlement remains, and I wish that the member for the Northern Territory sometimes would get his facts a little straighter.

I would also like to indicate at this point that under this government's initiation to review the whole package of remuneration and benefits to defence personnel under the Nunn review, that review will be completed in the very near future and will be reporting to government in August. We certainly look forward to what the Nunn review finds and brings forward to government in relation to the whole package of remuneration for defence personnel of regulatory service including other entitlements and superannuation benefits for serving defence personnel.

In conclusion, I want to thank those on the other side of the House for their contributions. I reiterate my commitment to members on the other side of the House that should they ever have a question about veterans or defence personnel issues my door is always open. I am always there to provide them with information and the facts and to assist in every way to ensure that we do deliver the right benefits and make sure that, in relation to veterans' entitlements, we err on the side of generosity. In relation to defence personnel let me make sure that we look after these people who are always ready and willing to serve our country.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.