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Wednesday, 20 March 2002
Page: 1649

Mr JOHN COBB (11:45 AM) —It is with great pleasure that I support the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Gold Card Extension) Bill 2002. I might not be able to speak on the range of subjects that the previous speaker, the member for Lowe, did, but I will do my best. When I was elected to the federal government last November, I think one of the issues which I struck most around my electorate—and we are talking a third of New South Wales—was the organisation that represents veterans and war widows and their desire to see the gold card eligibility extended. Since then I have travelled the electorate a heck of a lot more, and the number of people who are ageing and looking towards a less certain future in life are unanimous in their appreciation of the benefits of the scheme but they would like to see others included.

While the gold card already includes all the veterans from World War I and World War II, it does not include those in subsequent campaigns such as Korea, Vietnam or Malaysia. Those veterans are now reaching the age of 70, and they were prepared to sacrifice their youth and, in many cases, to put at risk their very lives, and I think they deserve to be looked after in a way that others perhaps are not. I do not think any of us would deny those veterans of later wars the privileges of the gold card.

I have first-hand knowledge of people in this position. Members of my own family served in a lot of wars. I had a great great-uncle in the Boer War, who served in the New South Wales regiment. I had uncles in the First World War. Both my parents were volunteers in the Second World War and they gave up five years of their lives to do that. Both are veterans. In those days, none of those people did that with any thought that they would benefit from doing so in later life. It is typical of them, and many people like them, that they thought that way, but throughout the last 100 years very many Australians have given up a lot of their time, a lot of their youth and risked their lives so that Australia, and our allies, can enjoy the quality of life that we do.

More recent wars, such as those in Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam, were very different wars. They were not so obvious and they were fought against unknown enemies with very different warfare. I think that up to now, many of these veterans have not been given the recognition that, without doubt, they deserve. They served their country in exactly the same way as everybody else did, genuinely believing that at that time they were serving the best interests of their country and their families and defending the freedom and democracy that all of us enjoy—and they were doing exactly that. Many of them are now reaching the age of 70 and, in the same way that people who served in World War II qualify to receive the gold card, it is only right and proper that they also enjoy that benefit.

This bill goes beyond that and it looks to the future, to the increased need for health care that others will need in years to come. Importantly, the initiative does take a very long-term view. What I mean by that is that people in the more recent conflicts—such as those in Gulf War and East Timor, and currently people employed in the coalition war against terrorism—in time to come will also need, and very deservedly need, the benefits of a gold card. I think the fact that we are also extending eligibility to people involved in those conflicts indicates a long-term vision. I think I am right in saying that over the next four years about 5,000 people will be most grateful for the benefits that will come from this. I think that is a very real pledge by the coalition government to all those who have served this country in the past and who are serving it right now and to whom we owe a great deal.

The gold card will enable those veterans and the war widow community to access the full range of health care benefits, which are equal, by and large, to top private health cover. I personally know about this. I did not realise that my mother, who recently died, did not have private health care, because she was able to get that type of care simply because she had a gold card. One of the wider benefits of this initiative without doubt, intended or not, will be the easing of pressure on our choked public health system—our public hospitals. That is particularly important in my electorate of Parkes, where I think the Dubbo Base Hospital has something like 170 people who have been waiting for over a year for access to elective surgery. Taking 5,000 people more or less out of the public health system over the next four years is a wonderful benefit for all of us, as well as for the people who actually have the card.

The other enormous benefit for a lot of veterans, certainly those in my electorate who live in remote places and who will now be eligible for the gold card, is that they will receive travel assistance to their nearest care facility. Obviously that has an enormous benefit for those in remote communities. An enormous benefit for them is the veterans' home care scheme, which provides help with domestic tasks, personal care, home and garden maintenance, meals, transport and respite care. When you live in one of the many communities around the seat of Parkes, where there are fewer people to provide help, it is enormously important that those benefits will be provided through the gold card.

There are over 20 active RSL subbranches in my electorate. Vietnam veteran organisations will all be incredibly appreciative of what this will now offer. There are many veterans in the city of Dubbo, where `ageing' is becoming something of a growth industry because it is such a central area, and Broken Hill, which is an aged community, has very many veterans. As somebody who has the privilege of being granted honorary membership of the Dubbo RSL subbranch I have come to realise, especially in recent times, that there is reawakened recognition of what Anzac Day means to the community and to everyone else. Thankfully, I think our whole community is once again awakening to what we owe our veterans and, I hope, especially the veterans of later wars.

I believe this legislation in particular points out to our younger people just what the legacy from more recent wars has been. I think it stresses that the veterans who fought in less popular wars—which were not fought with such obvious battles—have been given the same respect as that given to everybody who fought in earlier wars, which were seen to be perhaps fought for a more popular cause.

I have met many veterans in my short time in office and know that all of them will be very pleased with the initiative. However, there are still some who believe that this does not go as far as they would like it to, especially members of the armed forces from World War II who do not qualify for the gold card. However, like most others, I am very pleased that the current review of veterans' entitlements will examine the history and current interpretation of eligibility criteria for qualifying service, and I certainly encourage those people to make submissions to the review by the cut-off date of 18 April. This review, which is to be carried out by the independent committee, will also consider the level of benefits and support available for veterans receiving the totally and permanently incapacitated rate—T and PI rate—and other rates of disability pension.

I know that we hear from Allied veterans—from Commonwealth and other countries in World War II and post World War II conflicts—that they would like the gold card. However, Australia has proven to be very generous or more generous than most of our Allied counterparts when it comes to looking after our veteran and war widow communities. We are not a big nation, and I do not think we can be expected to provide the pensions and support for people who defended the other countries and their families around the world, as they saw it at that particular time. But Allied veterans who have made Australia their home do receive very generous benefits, if not the gold card. Where they have qualifying service, they are eligible for the service pension. Some also receive treatment for disabilities accepted as being war caused under agreements between our government and the government of the countries in whose forces they served.

From January this year, Australia extended access to the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to British, Commonwealth and Allied veterans and mariners with qualifying service in World War I or II. Meanwhile this current Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Gold Card Extension) Bill 2002 continues the coalition's commitment to advancing the welfare and interests of the veteran community. It carries out our duty of care to those who faced the enemy on behalf of our country in wartime.

There does not exist an Australian of higher stature than one who served his or her country in a theatre of war, be they a conscript or a volunteer. They conquered their natural fear and they did their job in a way that raised them to a different level from other people. They deserve every accolade and every benefit that we can give them. I commend this bill to the House.