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Wednesday, 20 March 2002
Page: 1646

Mr MURPHY (11:32 AM) —I rise this morning to support the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Budget 2000 and Other Measures) Bill 2002 and the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Gold Card Extension) Bill 2002. I will be brief as I strongly support these efforts to maximise the benefits received by our veteran community. The first bill contains important technical amendments to help streamline administration in a similar way that has already occurred under the Social Security Act. It will ensure that Centrelink and the Department of Veterans' Affairs will operate consistently. The key measure of the legislation will alter the way that third-party compensation payments are counted within the means test for Centrelink benefits. It will ensure the current dollar for dollar reduction to payments of income will firstly be made to payment of the third party payee, not against a couple. That is a good thing. This will remove any unintentional discrimination against veterans. Other important issues will guarantee that, in cases of hardship, unrealisable assets will not be counted for the purposes of deeming where so treated under the assets test. Only real returns will be counted.

The legislation will also bring the Veterans' Entitlements Act into line with the Social Security Act to allow calculations to be rounded off to the nearest cent, rather than rounding to 10c as is the case now. The second bill amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act to extend full repatriation health care entitlement to a gold card for Australian veterans who are aged 70 or over and who have qualifying service in respect of any period after World War II. This honours the commitment given by the Labor opposition prior to the last election, and matched by the government, to extend the gold card to all veterans with qualifying service over the age of 70, regardless of their deployment.

The gold card gives all entitled veterans and war widows free health cover for all conditions, including private hospital cover, to a varying extent in each state. It gives qualifying veterans access to specialist treatment, optical care, physiotherapy, podiatry, home nursing care and dental services. Having heard a number of concerns from a cross-section of the veteran community in my electorate of Lowe, who are now at the stage in their lives where they are increasingly worried about the cost and access to health care services, I congratulate the government on extending the gold card to those veterans—as covered by this legislation.

We must also make sure that we maintain this strong commitment to all veterans and service personnel. Historically both sides of this House, since the time of the Great War, have had a bipartisan approach to veterans' entitlements for the service that they have given to this country. I have no doubt that this will continue, irrespective of what happens at the next federal election or at any other time, because we do owe a great debt to our veteran community.

The member for Cowan—who was sitting at the table shortly before the member for Rankin arrived, quite ably, to replace him—made a very erudite speech yesterday on these bills. Who would know more about war service and the suffering that the veteran community have experienced than the member for Cowan, who must surely rank as one of Australia's great citizens in terms of defending his country when required.

Mr Ross Cameron —Hear, hear!

Mr MURPHY —I am pleased to see that the member for Parramatta is acknowledging that, although I was disappointed to read in the Financial Review this morning that he was part of the minority rebellion in the party room meeting yesterday in relation to cross-media ownership laws. I understand that he was arguing about what Rupert Murdoch had actually done—and, to his great credit, Rupert Murdoch has done pretty well, both nationally and internationally. I should take this opportunity, Mr Deputy Speaker Lindsay, because you were on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communication, Transport and the Arts last year when I wanted to initiate an inquiry into our cross-media ownership laws because I think it is so vital to our democracy—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—The member for Lowe should return to the substance of the debate.

Mr MURPHY —I realise that, but—

Mr Ross Cameron —I am enjoying his contribution, as always.

Mr MURPHY —I think it is vital for our democracy. The member for Parramatta is a pretty smart lawyer and he has been pretty successful in surviving in Parramatta, but it really troubles me that someone like him, who no doubt makes a lot of contributions to the party room debate, would be arguing on behalf of Rupert Murdoch. I would like to take this opportunity—because I think it is important in our democracy and in what we do in this House—to have a look at my question No. 11 on notice to the Prime Minister, which spells out quite clearly the stranglehold on the print media that Mr Murdoch has. If you have a look, member for Parramatta, you will see that Mr Murdoch has two-thirds of the capital and national newspapers, three-quarters of the Sunday newspapers, 50 per cent of the suburban newspapers, a quarter of the regional—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The member for Lowe will return to the substance of the debate; otherwise, the member for Lowe will sit down.

Mr MURPHY —I understand the point you are making, Mr Deputy Speaker, because you know my interest in that—and I know you have a great interest in it—but it was really at the invitation of the member for Parramatta, who was keen for me to respond. I am very happy if he wants to make a contribution, because I think this is such a serious thing in terms of our democracy. I would ask him, in conclusion—and I will get back to the bill—to have a look at my question No. 11. I draw it to the attention of all members of this House and also to other coalition members in the Senate, because it is terribly important.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Thank you for assisting the chair, member for Lowe.

Mr MURPHY —I appreciate that, and I will take the opportunity to acknowledge the contribution you made on communications when you were on that committee with me in the last parliament. I am not sure whether you are going to be on that committee next time—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Thank you, member for Lowe, but you are testing the chair's patience.

Mr MURPHY —I do not expect to be, but I will follow the committee's deliberations with great interest. Having referred to my pet subject at the moment, I want to get back to the bill, because it is an important—

Dr Emerson —What about Badgery's Creek?

Mr MURPHY —No, I will not talk about Badgery's Creek, because that has been put to rest, unfortunately—which is of great concern to my electorate. I will reserve that for another day, and I am sure that the Deputy Speaker and member for Herbert, and the member for Parramatta, will be happy to interject when I speak on that topic at another time.

As I was saying, the member for Cowan made a great speech in here yesterday on the bills we are now debating. I urge everyone to have a look at what Mr Graham Edwards said in the debate on these bills, because his words were very appropriate and he, too, gave acknowledgment to the government for extending the gold card. That is terribly important. Can I say, in talking about the gold card, that I myself have put a question on notice, No. 72. I am no stranger to the Notice Paper, Mr Deputy Speaker Lindsay. I asked a question of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Mrs Vale—I will give her a commercial, too—who has been doing a great job since she took over. I know she has the interests of the veteran community at heart and I am sure she will continue in the best traditions of ministers for veterans' affairs. On this side, we certainly believe that Con Sciacca was the best Minister for Veterans' Affairs. That is no reflection on either Mrs Vale or Mr Scott, who have done a very competent job. But in relation to Mr Sciacca, just have a look at how proudly he wears that life membership badge of the RSL. He is the only person to wear that badge who has never smelt the gunpowder. That is great because, on both sides of the House, we support the veteran community and the recognition was given to him by the RSL. I note that Rusty Priest will be retiring shortly. We look forward to giving him a good send-off because he has really represented the veteran community very well in his tenure as President of the New South Wales RSL.

Returning to the matter of my question on notice No. 72 to Mrs Vale, in which I asked—and this is something to consider for the future—`when will the government grant a gold card to ex-servicewomen who served in the Australian armed forces within Australia during World War II and who do not have qualifying service?' The reason I put that in, and I am aware of the budgetary implications should that be granted at some future stage, is that a number of members of the veteran community who offered themselves during World War II but who did not get away—and therefore did not have qualifying service—failed to get the gold card. The gold card, as I have outlined, is something that is very precious to the elderly who are in need of health care services at a time when the cost of health care is increasing astronomically.

One of the biggest complaints I get from members of the veteran community, and from the families of the veteran community, is about the stresses, strains and suffering that members of the family and the elderly, who are the patients, experience after they have been in hospital for a period of time and then receive multiple accounts from a range of medical providers. I think the government has to do something about the way we bill patients, because elderly people cannot cope. They get bills from specialists, many of whom they have no recollection of ever seeing, saying `this is what you have to pay'. Of course, they then have to provide a Medicare cheque and a cheque from their health insurance company, and then they have to provide a cheque for the gap cover because most specialists charge more than the schedule fee. That is very stressful, both for the elderly and for the members of the family who usually have to look after it because the elderly cannot cope. I suppose that is why this bill is good for those people: it actually takes that worry away from them.

It really has got to the ridiculous stage in Australia where medical specialists are using the patient to do their administrative work, to pay their bills, by making them the point of contact for the receipt of the Medicare cheque, the cheque from the health insurance company, or for the patient to initiate their own cheque to cover the full cost of the bills from the specialist. I think that is ridiculous. The specialists are doing quite well out of the medical system. Why cannot the specialists issue one account and the cheques from the health insurance company and Medicare go directly to the specialist so that the patient only has to pay that part of the fee which would fall into that so-called gap cover area? My understanding is that the specialists are blaming the health insurance companies and the health insurance companies are blaming the specialists—or blaming the doctors' union, the AMA—because we cannot get commonality of agreement. There is such a duplication in providing three cheques in many cases to specialists. That is just absolutely nonsensical. I think something should be done about that in the interests of trying to help the elderly. I wanted to make those observations because I think it is a very important issue. If people are going to benefit from this legislation today by not having to provide three cheques when they get medical treatment then, if nothing else, that is a very good thing.

So I go back to where I started and I congratulate the government and remind the House that the opposition gave a commitment to extending the gold card to those veterans who qualify today. My question No. 72 to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, which is still outstanding, just highlights the need in the future for the gold card eligibility to be extended—and I can see I am getting the wind-up signal. I will be very happy to respond to Madam Lash. I apologise for that; I should not say that. I have a great deal of warmth and affection for the member for Prospect. I support this bill and look forward to its safe passage through the Senate.