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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 2204

Mr GRIFFIN (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs) (9:33 AM) ——I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to present legislation that further improves the operation of Australia’s repatriation system.

This is in line with the government’s election commitment to deliver better services to the ex-service community in Australia.

The bill will provide greater flexibility in our international agreements with other countries to help provide appropriate care to the veterans of those nations now resident in Australia.

It will also enact measures to further align the income and assets tests under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 with the social security income and assets tests and to make a number of minor technical amendments.

The bill will extend the availability of treatment for cancer for Commonwealth or Australian Federal Police officers involved in the British nuclear test program.

In addition, the bill will address potential anomalies in the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 to ensure that wholly dependent partners receive the correct amount of war widow or widower pension and that incapacitated members of the Australian Defence Force receive the correct amount of compensation.

Finally, this bill will make a number of technical amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

The changes to international agreement arrangements will enhance the department’s ability to provide assistance and benefits to veterans of Britain, New Zealand, Canada and other Commonwealth nations who are resident in Australia and receive entitlements under the repatriation system of their home country.

The Repatriation Commission has a number of agreements to act as the agent for other countries in providing pensions and health services for accepted disabilities.

This legislation will authorise the use of the Consolidated Revenue Fund for the initial payment of benefits and assistance to eligible overseas veterans and their dependants who are resident in Australia.

These amounts will then be reimbursed by the respective foreign governments, to the maximum extent possible.

A second measure will transfer the power to make such agreements from the Governor-General to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

The current arrangements for making agreements with other governments date back to the years after the First World War.

They do not take account of the significant changes in administration and policy since.

This amendment will enable the minister to make agreements that reflect best business practices.

The third measure will remove the current restriction that limits the Repatriation Commission to providing the same benefits to a veteran that they would be entitled to receive in their own country. Veterans’ health services are provided by different countries in different ways. These also are generally different to the way that Australia provides repatriation health services.

Meeting the strict requirements of the current limitation is cumbersome and expensive. These amendments will provide much greater flexibility to offer eligible overseas veterans the care and assistance they need, in a way that is consistent with the repatriation health care arrangements.

This bill will enhance the support provided to some 6,300 overseas veterans and dependants resident in Australia.

Changes to the income support provisions will exclude certain scholarships awarded on or after 1 September 1990 and disability expenses maintenance from the definition of income under the VEA income test.

A second measure will exclude from the assets test the value of any person’s native title rights and interests and any amount that a person has retained from a payment made by the Mark Fitzpatrick Trust.

The bill will also exclude from the deprivation provisions under the income test any amounts of rental income less than the market value which pensioners choose not to receive from family members.

The first two measures are expected to have little impact on the veteran community but will ensure the VEA means test is consistent with the social security means test.

The third measure will make sure that Veterans’ Affairs income support recipients are not penalised if they assist their families with accommodation.

Changes to coverage for nuclear test participants will extend the period for which Commonwealth or Australian Federal Police officers may be considered to be a nuclear test participant for the purposes of the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act 2006.

This act provides treatment, including testing, for cancers suffered by eligible participants in the British nuclear testing program conducted at locations including Maralinga.

The act already covers Commonwealth or Australian Federal Police officers who patrolled the Maralinga exclusion zone up until 30 April 1965.

Scientific evidence indicates that the nature of police duties meant that these officers continued to be exposed to possible contamination at this site until 1988, when a radiation safety monitoring program began.

This bill will extend assistance for nuclear test participants to include Commonwealth police or AFP officers who took part in patrols at Maralinga up until 30 June 1988.

It is estimated that up to 100 police personnel may become eligible for assistance as a result of this extension.

These eligible participants will be able to claim reimbursement for treatment and travel costs dating back to 19 June 2006, when assistance for nuclear test participants originally became available.

However, they will have only six months from the commencement of the amendments to claim any back-dated costs, so it will be important that they check their eligibility with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

The department will be writing to any known Commonwealth or Australian Federal Police participants.

DVA also will contact the Australian Federal Police Association to alert other current or former members who may be eligible for this assistance.

Finally, changes to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act will correct potential anomalies in the provisions applying to wholly dependent partners of deceased members and to incapacitated members eligible for compensation.

In the course of applying the act, the department has identified anomalies that might affect the amount of compensation paid in certain circumstances.

These amendments will ensure that widowed partners and incapacitated members receive the correct compensation payments to which they are entitled under the MRCA.

We came to government with a commitment to provide robust services and support to Australia’s ex-service community.

That commitment includes continuing to review the operation of Australia’s repatriation and military compensation and rehabilitation systems.

This legislation will strengthen support in a number of areas, to ensure that the assistance available through the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio is efficient, effective, equitable and fair.

Debate (on motion by Mrs Bronwyn Bishop) adjourned.