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Tuesday, 27 August 2002
Page: 5785

Mr MOSSFIELD (5:31 PM) —The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002 proposes minor amendments to the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 and related acts. The amendments were necessary to ensure consistency of treatment between acts and to ensure that the Veterans' Entitlements Act is kept up to date with amendments made to related acts.

The second bill we are discussing is the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2002 Budget Measures) Bill 2002. Its purpose is to provide legislative support for the unfreezing of the rate of the income support supplement which is paid to recipients of the war widows pension. It is proposed to increase the rate of ISS twice yearly, in March and September, which would bring it into line with other indexed pensions. Neither bill is controversial and both will be supported by this side of the House.

These bills are essentially a grab bag. Because there are a lot of different elements to them, this debate allows discussion of general issues affecting veterans, as other members have already mentioned. What is not addressed in these bills is almost as important as what is contained within their provisions. These bills do a lot, but they could have done a whole lot more. One issue that needs addressing but has not been addressed by this government is the totally and permanently incapacitated pension—the TPI. The TPI rate is well below male total average weekly earnings and has fallen dramatically since the Second World War. In June 1941, the TPI rate was 76.9 per cent of average weekly earnings. In June 2000, it was only 43.7 per cent. This is a massive drop in the TPI value. Many families living on the TPI pension are finding it difficult to make ends meet. Many younger TPI veterans no longer have the capacity to create a solid financial base for their families. They have not had the opportunity to work in industry, many still have children at school and mortgages to pay, and many do not have the access to superannuation that older workers have. These veterans are now suffering poor health due to their war service, and they see TPI payments and the other entitlements as little compensation for risking their lives for their country.

TPI lost its benchmark in 1975-76 and has had only CPI increases since then. This erosion of income has hurt those who are on this compensation to the point where, in 1982, a service pension was added to those TPIs who had entitlements in the form of an income support supplement—which, of course, is the subject of the second bill being debated today.

The original intention of the service pension was purely as an alternative to the age pension. Vietnam veterans have complained that there is no appeals tribunal to take complaints to, apart from going to the ministerial level, and appeals to this level have fallen on deaf ears to date. Another issue affecting payment of the TPI pension is in some cases where an application has been lodged and all of the medical documentation has been provided, and the claim has been rejected by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. It is of concern to veterans that their medical certificates are being overruled by non-medical DVA officers. Veterans are also of the view that gold card entitlement should be extended to partners of veterans. Partners are also affected by the ill health of veterans, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders and other illnesses which partners also have to live with.

While on the subject of the gold card, can I also say that, now that the government have extended the benefits of the card, they are now obliged to ensure that the card is of some actual use. It is no use extending the benefits of the card if doctors refuse to accept it from patients. There has been an increased incidence of doctors refusing to accept the gold card—and the shadow minister, Senator Mark Bishop, has done a fine job of informing members and the veterans community about this. There is a range of issues surrounding the reasons why gold cards are beginning to be refused, but the bottom line is that the government promised veterans free medical care and now they must ensure that their promise is kept. These are a few of the issues that arise in these two bills, and they have also arisen at a meeting of Vietnam veterans and partners which is held on a regular basis at the Blacktown RSL and which veterans and partners from many electorates attend.

I would now like to broaden my remarks a little and refer to some general issues that are of concern to our veterans community across Australia. One issue is the inclusion of the veterans disability pension in the Centrelink means test. Veterans disability pensions are compensation for veterans for illness and injury caused by war service for their country. The government has indicated that it is considering this issue, but no decision has yet been made.

Centrelink exempts the pain and suffering portion of settlements arising out of workers compensation claims, so why not exempt the payments made for pain and suffering arising out of war service? The Current issues publication, produced on behalf of veterans, said:

It has [the government] abandoned the principle that soldiers wounded in war get free medical treatment, it has reduced many veterans pensions income through its Centrelink policies and it continues to slug veterans compensation by having it counted as income at Centrelink. It is also continuing its attempts to have our independent appeals body, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, brought under the control of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, (putting the fox in charge of the chickens).

Another issue raised by veterans organisations is the increase in cost of medical prescriptions. Initially veterans were not charged for prescriptions but, in January 1997, veterans were forced to pay 50c for each of their first 52 medical prescriptions each year. In January this year, the government raised that payment to 70c, putting veterans out of pocket by $36.40 a year. This may not seem much but, when you are living on a pension, every little increase hurts. In the budget brought down this year, this surcharge was increased a further $1, to $1.70, for the first 52 scripts, which makes the yearly cost $88.40. You will agree, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, that this is a significant amount out of any war pension.

Another issue warranting comment in this debate is the request by the AMA for the government to agree to maintain access by veterans to private medical services under the Repatriation Private Patients Scheme. The RPPS is administered by the Department of Veterans' Affairs and is promoted to the veteran community as entitling veterans with gold card access to specialist medical services as private patients in doctors' rooms and at private hospitals. The AMA argues, and I quote from their letter to federal members of parliament:

The commercial realities of contemporary medical practice have made continued support for the RPPS by the profession extremely difficult. The government has allowed the CMBS to lag behind the escalation in the cost of medical practice, while progressively increasing the number of veterans with gold cards and shifting veterans into the private health care sector.

It is important that veterans continue to utilise specialist treatment. The government needs to negotiate agreement with the AMA to allow this to happen. It all goes back to what was promised with the gold card. A solution needs to be found for our veterans, who deserve to be looked after.

While we are on the subject of the gold card, I again call for its extension to cover those people who were used as guineapigs by our government and the British government during the nuclear testing at Monte Bello, Emu Field and Maralinga. Their health is deteriorating and they deserve our compassion and our help. The extension of the gold card to these ex-servicemen would take away the angst and hassles when they seek medical treatment for the numerous illnesses that have been caused by their close proximity to a nuclear blast. I refer in particular to two people I am personally aware of: Mr Keith Harrison and Mr Vic Herman.

Keith Harrison has been campaigning for appropriate compensation for servicemen who were exposed to the atomic tests on Australian soil. In 1952, Keith was a sailor on HMAS Hawkesbury and spent six months attached to the British fleet during the atomic tests. HMAS Hawkesbury was anchored 11 miles from where the bombs were detonated, and the crew were told to simply turn their backs during the explosion. In recent times, Keith has suffered major health problems relating to his naval service but, because he is not classified as a veteran, he has not been able to obtain access to a gold card, which would entitle him to full medical benefits. Keith has recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer. The difficulty here is that, while Keith is an ex-serviceman, because he was technically not in a war zone he does not qualify as a veteran. This is a technicality that is quite unnecessary at this time.

I would also like to give some details concerning Victor Herman, who was similarly exposed to the atomic test blast at Monte Bello. Victor was conscripted for compulsory six-month national service training in August 1952. Having previously been a member of the RAN reserve, Vic was posted, along with other national service trainees, to HMAS Murchison. The Murchison patrolled the eastern side of the Monte Bello Islands and the Royal Navy patrolled the western side. For three days, the Murchison sailed in an area ranging from 10 to 20 miles from the blast area. On the day of the nuclear blast, the crew were all assembled on the upper deck and then informed about the impending atomic blast test. This was the first time they had been informed that the test would take place. The crew were told to turn their backs away from the blast, which was about 12 miles away, and not to turn around until after the initial blast. This was a gross act of negligence, considering the information that was available after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

These are just two cases where technicalities are preventing these ex-servicemen from getting appropriate compensation. Victor Herman has written to me a couple of times. In his latest letter, he enclosed a letter from the department, rejecting his claim. He said:

Further to my last letter, I have received another knock-back for Military Compensation from the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Enclosed is a copy of the letter. I have read their letter many times and do not know which way to turn to achieve acceptance of my claim for compensation after being exposed to atomic radiation at the Monte Bello Atomic Blast Test, 3 October 1952. Frank, if there is anyway you can help me sort this out `War of words, terminology and definitions', your help would be most appreciated.

I will refer to a part of that letter, which I think might indicate the frustration that Mr Herman is experiencing. The letter reads:

Although the evidence which is available to me at present does not substantiate ionising radiation exposure which would be relevant to your claim for compensation, you may wish to further investigate the possibility of such exposure by contacting National Archives by telephone, fax or by searching the information available through the Internet. You may also wish to provide evidence from other sources in an effort to establish that ionising radiation exposure relevant to your claim actually occurred.

That statement seems to me to be saying that it does not totally rule out the possibility of ionising radiation exposure as the possible cause of some of Mr Herman's cancers; however, it appears to throw the onus to carry out further research onto the shoulders of the victim, Mr Herman, when I would have thought that this responsibility rests with the government. I suggest that a more humane and less legalistic approach to veterans' claims would result in these people feeling good about their service to their country rather than feeling neglected and forgotten.

As I have said, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002, along with its counterpart, the No. 2 bill, which was previously debated in the Main Committee, are simply housekeeping bills—a grab bag of things to tidy up the legislation. The Bills Digest for the No. 1 bill said that it has `probably been on the “nice to do when able to fit in with the parliamentary legislative program” list for quite some time'. This is probably accurate, but it is also quite dismissive of the veterans community.

As I have said, this bill does a lot, but it could have done so much more. It is a housekeeping bill, not a substantial one, and this government needs to realise that the veterans community and the legislation concerning them need more than just housekeeping; they need substantial changes and support. I have been listening to the veterans community in my area; Senator Mark Bishop, our shadow minister for veterans' affairs, has visited Greenway and addressed a public meeting as part of the Labor policy review. Labor is out there listening, consulting and building a policy framework that will serve the veterans community well. Obviously every wish cannot be granted, but every promise made should be delivered. This government has a lot of work to do to ensure that the promises it has made to veterans are delivered—and it can start with the gold card.

Veterans issues are extremely important and often quite complex. There are distinct groups within the veteran community, and they have different needs. World War II veterans face different life challenges today than do Vietnam veterans, as they faced very different circumstances during their conflicts. If the United States's self-appointed deputy sheriff, the Prime Minister, and the foreign minister, the member for Mayo, continue to think that they are still in a Sylvester Stallone movie, then there will be a lot more veterans joining the community in the not too distant future. Again, these veterans will have a very different experience of war and a vastly different set of repatriation needs. I do not think that the Department of Veterans' Affairs is in the position to cope with the flexibility needed to address the very different problems faced by the different veterans around Australia. One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to the World War II veterans, the Korean veterans, the Vietnam veterans, the Gulf War veterans and the soon-to-be Afghanistan veterans—and possibly the Gulf War II veterans. We need to have a debate about whether we send troops to Iraq—whether to create more veterans for the department to deal with—not a debate about housekeeping needed at the Department of Veterans' Affairs. But, as usual, the government misses the big picture and the big issues.

Finally, we are left simply to discuss this non-controversial bill that tinkers at the edges of administration rather than tackles the big issues that a parliament like ours should be debating. Both Labor and I will be supporting this bill, but I urge the government to openly debate the real and profound issues that surround the veterans community.