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Tuesday, 27 August 2002
Page: 5783

Mr HUNT (5:19 PM) —It gives me great pleasure to rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002 and cognate bill, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2002 Budget Measures) Bill 2002. I start from a position of great respect, firstly, for the work of the veterans and of those who have supported them within the electorate of Flinders—their spouses, be they those with living partners or be they war widows—and, secondly, for all of those veterans who have served within Australia more generally and for all of those who have supported them, be they fortunate enough to have their partner alive or be they now of the status of war widows. In particular, I want to pay great respect to the work of the RSL and also to the War Widows Guild, both of which are organisations which support those men and women who have served Australia both in times of conflict and in times of peace.

Ten days ago, I was fortunate enough to have attended the Vietnam Veterans Day memorial ceremony at HMAS Cerberus within my electorate. After this moving and beautiful ceremony, the party retired to the Hastings RSL. At the Hastings RSL, under the very warm and friendly leadership of its president, Trevor Laurence, and its secretary, Leo Leeder, there was an ongoing discussion. In the course of that discussion, I was fortunate enough to speak with four widows. All of these widows appreciated the support they were given and respected the position of the government, but sought two things: clarity and fairness in their entitlements. These bills today go to the heart of those two issues of adding greater clarity and even greater fairness to the entitlements available to the widows of those who have served our country. In particular, these bills would affect a large number of widows and widowers. The core budget measures ensure that veterans and their families' entitlements will not be diminished over time and that there is protection of the fundamental economic base for their entitlements.

It is expected that 81,000 war widows—that is 97 per cent of all widows currently receiving some level of income support supplement or service pension— will benefit. So 81,000 beneficiaries—97 per cent of all widows—are currently receiving some support under the income support supplement or service pension. As part of this package, the government is proposing to expend $84.7 million over four years. When that is averaged out, over $1,000 will be spent over a four-year period for each of the pensioners who will be beneficiaries. These are significant, meaningful and respectful increases and benefits for the war widows and other beneficiaries under these schemes.

In looking at this legislation I want to examine three elements in more detail: firstly, the government's record in assisting veterans and war widows; secondly, the provisions of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002; and, thirdly, the provisions of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2002 Budget Measures) Bill 2002.

If we look at the government's record since 1996, we see that it has sought to improve the conditions available for veterans and for their families and spouses. In particular, there have been three categories of critical initiatives. The first category is what may be called compensation initiatives—initiatives which have been put in place since 1996. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, pension rights have been restored to those who lost their benefits on remarriage. What this is saying is that there is an entitlement based on service and that it is a sign of respect for the contribution that was made in supporting their partners whilst they were overseas. Secondly, a program was established to eliminate anomalies within the repatriation system for Australia's South-East Asia veterans from the period 1955-75—those who served in Indonesia, Malaysia and in Vietnam. As a result, full repatriation benefits have been extended to over 2,600 veterans.

The second set of initiatives which have been taken since 1996 to assist veterans and their spouses are care initiatives. Firstly, there was the introduction of the Veterans' Home Care Program. The essence of this is that it provided services designed to allow veterans to remain in their own homes when they have experienced medical difficulty. It gives them the dignity of remaining in their own homes and the opportunity to live a full life at home with the support of a genuine care program, which is a counterpart to the government's home and community care program for elderly citizens more generally. In addition, there was a further $32.3 million support program for counselling for Vietnam veterans, which came about as a result of the Vietnam Veterans' Health Study. Furthermore, recently the government made the decision to provide the gold card to over 38,000 Australian veterans aged 70 or over with World War II experience. Beyond that, as at 1 July we extended the benefits of the gold card to all veterans over the age of 70 with qualifying overseas service. So irrespective of whether someone served overseas in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam or more recently in Iraq, Afghanistan or East Timor, at the time that they reach 70 they will all receive a gold card in recognition of the service that they have given to Australia.

The third set of initiatives are those which may be roughly termed as commemoration initiatives. Firstly, there was $5 million for the documentary series Australians at War. This was aimed at increasing an understanding of and appreciation for the level of service and, ultimately, the level of sacrifice made by Australian veterans. There was the Their Service Our Heritage program. The 2000 budget provided $17.2 million for this program over four years, and as a result of that there were a series of education publications including Valuing our Veterans, which provides practical suggestions for schools and community groups on how they can best record and make use of the memories of their veterans. In addition, the North Beach Gallipoli 1915 publication provides a guide for visitors to this important site. As we can see over the last few years, all the empirical evidence is that there has been an increase not only in the practical appreciation of the service of our veterans and their families but also in the number of people who pay formal homage, whether it be at the Anzac Day ceremonies, the Vietnam Veterans Day ceremonies within Australia, at Gallipoli or at any of the places where our war dead and those who served are remembered. As a consequence of that we are able to see that there has been a critical increase in the status and the conditions of our veterans and their families within our community.

This brings me to the provisions of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002. This bill is aimed at clarity. The bill, which was first introduced in autumn 2002, makes minor technical and consequential changes to several acts. The essence of the bill is that it allows a seamless shift for veterans from Centrelink to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The goal is for all veterans to receive all of their veterans benefits from Veterans' Affairs rather than to have a mixed system. So it clears up an older, unwieldy system. It is about simplifying life for veterans and providing them with an easy way to deal with those issues which are of importance to them. So whilst the bill has minimal financial impacts, it has an important role in providing a simpler system for veterans, and in particular for their spouses.

I want to turn now to the second bill, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2002 Budget Measures) Bill 2002. This bill is primarily about fairness. The bill allows for an end to the freeze on the ceiling rate of the income support supplement—the ISS—and the service pension to Australian war widows and widowers. The bill provides for the ceiling rate to be indexed twice yearly to reflect changes in the cost of living and wages. In this year's budget $84.7 mil-lion was allocated for the coming four years. As I mentioned earlier, 81,000 beneficiaries—97 per cent of all widows currently in receipt of relevant pens-ions—will benefit. On average, each of these 81,000 bene-ficiaries will receive up to $1,000 over the course of four years—real results, large numbers of people, practical benefits.

In addition to this core change to the ceiling rates, the bill contains less significant amendments which are designed to tackle anomalies—in particular, the payment of the ISS to new widows, who previously would have received social security benefits. It will protect them from falling into a gap when they move from social security benefits to the ISS, and that is a critical step which will ensure that there is no shortfall in their payment and that they do not suffer economic hardship as a result of that.

Ultimately, when I return to the Hastings RSL and to the war widows and veterans there, this bill is about paying respect for the service they have given, and it is about ensuring that there is greater clarity in the benefits they receive and that there is fairness in the way in which they receive those benefits. In the end, it is about recognition of the service that veterans have given, and it is a simple, practical step which, above all else, ensures that there will be 81,000 beneficiaries receiving $84.7 million over four years—and that is a due and fair recognition of the service of the veterans and of the support they have been given by their families. I am delighted to commend these bills to the House.