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Tuesday, 7 August 2001
Page: 29318

Mr GEORGIOU (4:55 PM) —I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2001. It is a prime responsibility of government to ensure that those who fought and served in Australia's defence forces and their dependants are properly provided for. The risks that these men and women took and the sacrifice that they made should be remembered not only in our rhetoric on commemorative occasions but also in the provision of material support. The people who provided our nation with a secure future themselves deserve security. As time passes and the Australian community evolves, it is important that those who guaranteed this nation's survival are not forgotten and that government meets their changing needs and expectations. The provisions of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2001 do this and implement three measures foreshadowed in the recent budget.

The first is the restoration of the war widows pension to those war widows who were denied it as a result of remarrying before 28 May 1984. The second is the extension of the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to Allied veterans who have been Australian residents for 10 years or more. The third is the exemption from the income test for early withdrawal of lump sums from superannuation funds for people who are aged 55 and over.

These measures continue the government's strong commitment to acknowledging the sacrifice and contribution made by those who have served this country—a commitment embodied in the provision of a fair and generous repatriation system.

The care and support currently provided to veterans and war widows originate in the benefits devised during the First World War, as the new Australian nation responded to the implications of sending its youth abroad to fight. Some who returned injured or suffered from illnesses and injury caused by wartime experiences were unable to support themselves. In other cases, those who had died on the battlefields left women not only suffering the heartache of losing a beloved husband but also in a financially precarious situation.

The war widow's pension was introduced in 1914 to compensate Australian women whose husbands died on active duty or from war caused injuries or illness. The widow's pension is now paid to widows of members of the defence forces and members of peacekeeping forces where their partner's death is war related. The pension is also payable in some other circumstances, such as where the veteran received a TPI pension. The entitlement has been extended over time to include de facto partners and widowers and, because it has always been viewed as compensation for the loss of a loved one and not as a welfare payment, it is not income or asset tested.

The history of the war widow's pension is unfortunately not a logically consistent progression of entitlement. When the pension was first introduced in 1914, it was cancelled on remarriage. In 1916, this was changed and the pension was continued for two years after remarriage. In 1931, under the exigencies of financial emergency, it was discontinued. In 1950, remarried widows received a gratuity equal to 12 months of a war widows pension. In 1984, the Labor government announced changes to this policy which came into effect with the enactment of the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. Remarried war widows became entitled to the continuation of their pension, but only if they remarried after 28 May 1984. This effectively created two classes of war widows. There was no discernible policy—at least in my eyes—for this arbitrary discrimination, and it distressed many in the community and concerned a number of members of parliament. I, like many of my colleagues, received correspondence from women widowed as a result of the sacrifices made by their late husbands, who felt that widows should receive the same benefits and that it was unfair to make a distinction based on the fact that some women had remarried prior to May 1984. This sentiment was movingly expressed to me by one constituent who wrote:

... our husbands unconditionally and willingly volunteered for active service. They had the belief that if they were called to make the ultimate sacrifice their wives would be cared for by the Government. There was no suggestion that only the dependants of some would receive this care and others who remarried early would not do so.

It is a great tribute to the government that it has responded to these concerns, and measures announced in the recent budget will entitle partners who remarried prior to May 1984 to the restoration of their pensions from 1 January 2002. These partners will also be granted associated benefits, including the provision of a veterans' gold card, access to counselling services, funeral benefits, special assistance and additional means tested income supplements where appropriate. These measures will ensure that those whose partners died for their country are treated equally, as their loss warrants. This bill also extends eligibility to the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to Allied veterans where they are aged 70 years or more, have qualifying service and have been an Australian resident for 10 years or more.

The requirement of qualifying service for a veteran of World War II is defined generally under the Veterans' Entitlements Act as being service in operations against the enemy at a time when they incurred danger from hostile forces. This includes the veterans and merchant mariners of Australia's Commonwealth allies—Canada, Britain and New Zealand—as well as those from Belgium, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the United States and the former Yugoslavia.

The RPBS was introduced more than 80 years ago to provide veterans of World War I with access to pharmaceutical services. It now covers all pharmaceuticals listed on the PBS, as well as a number of additional medicines listed on the repatriation schedule, such as nicotine patches and wound dressings, to cater for the distinct health needs of veterans. In some instances, drugs that are restricted to certain applications under the PBS can be used more broadly under the RPBS. Once medicines are listed on the RPBS, they are provided to eligible war widows and veterans at the concessional rate of $3.50 per script up to the safety net cost per year of $182. I am advised that there are tens of thousands of British, Commonwealth and Allied League veterans who have chosen to make Australia their home and will now have access to the wider range of drugs and medicinal products available on the RPBS.

The measures announced in the recent budget exempted superannuation assets from the pension allowance means test for people aged between 55 and the age pension age. These changes were embodied in the amendments to the Social Security Act that passed through parliament at the end of June. One of these amendments provided an exemption from the income test for early withdrawals from superannuation funds by persons aged between 55 and age pension age. This provided greater flexibility for those wishing to reorganise their finances in preparation for retirement. Under the Veterans' Entitlements Act, lump sum withdrawals from superannuation funds had been deemed to be income and resulted in a reduction in pension entitlements.

Arguably, one consequence of the amendments to the Social Security Act was that people receiving benefits under the Social Security Act became more favourably treated than those receiving a pension under the repatriation system. The amendments contained in schedule 2 of the bill seek to align the two systems because the government has always undertaken to ensure that as changes are made to pension entitlements within the FACS portfolio, veterans are not relatively disadvantaged. There has been a similar reciprocity with other measures announced in the budget for which legislation has already been passed. For example, the one-off payment of $300 to senior Australians of age pension age was also paid to veteran recipients of the service pension who are at or over the service pension age of 60 years for men and 56½ years for women.

Since coming to office, the government has worked to build on one of the most comprehensive repatriation systems in the world and has sought to strengthen veterans' and war widows' security through improved health and financial assistance. In the 1997 budget, an additional six areas of overseas services within specific time frames were accorded the status of operational service under the veterans' affairs legislation, providing those who served with entitlement to compensation for injuries or diseases resulting from their overseas service in the ADF. This included permanent forces with the British Commonwealth occupation force in Japan between 3 January 1949 and 30 June 1951, service in the DMZ between North and South Korea from 19 April 1956 onwards and naval service in Vietnam on HMAS Vampire and Quickmatch in January 1962. In addition, service in Vietnam from 12 January 1973 to 29 April 1975 inclusive was declared to constitute warlike service, qualifying those veterans for eligibility to the service pension. Similarly, a number of United Nations peacekeeping forces were added to the list for qualifying service under the veterans' entitlements legislation.

Another matter of longstanding concern to the veterans' community was addressed in the following year. Legislation to entitle male veterans aged 70 years or more with qualifying service in World War II to the veterans' gold card came into effect on 1 January 1999. This provided an additional 50,000 veterans who had served in operations and incurred danger from the hostile forces of the enemy with access to the full range of repatriation and health care benefits, including treatment as a private patient in a public or private hospital, choice of doctors, pharmaceuticals at the concessional rate, optical care, physiotherapy, dental care, podiatry and chiropractic services. Eligibility for the card was determined by the veteran's service and their age and in no way did it turn on their income and assets or whether they had a war caused incapacity or injury.

More broadly, this government made a legislative guarantee in March 1998 that all pensions would be maintained at 25 per cent of male average weekly earnings, and these measures apply to war widows, age and service pensions. As a consequence, these have been increased on six separate occasions since the legislation came into effect.

The history of our care for our veterans has, as the case of widows illustrates, not been one of unbroken progress. There have been missteps and anomalies. But the basic impetus has been the improvement and extension of benefits so that widening categories of veterans become fuller beneficiaries of the system. I believe that this trend does need to continue and I can do no better than conclude by quoting from some very eloquent arguments made by one of my constituents, who wrote to me a few weeks ago and said:

The automatic granting of the Repatriation Health Card to all veterans on reaching 70 years would receive the overwhelming appreciation from the veteran community and veterans' groups. I believe it would also stimulate popular support from the Australian community as a confirmation of the continuing support for ageing Australians and the recognition of the contribution made by veterans to the building of our nation.

I commend the bill to the House.