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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4607

Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP (5:30 PM) —I rise to speak to the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (International Agreements and Other Measures) Bill 2008 and would observe from the outset that it would appear to be a benign bill. Consequently, we agreed to its coming here into the Main Committee for the debate on the second reading and subsequent stages of the bill’s passage. Indeed, the first parts of the bill are pretty benign. Schedule 1 makes amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlement Act 1986 to give effect to revised arrangements for entering into agreements with the governments of certain other countries in relation to the payment of pensions and the provision of assistance and benefits to eligible persons. The amendments are to authorise the use of funds from the Consolidated Revenue Fund for the payment of pensions and the provision of assistance and benefits to eligible persons authorised under the agreements entered into under the VEA—a sensible arrangement.

The strict provision that was required before—that the amount of money that can be paid to persons covered by the agreement can only be exactly the same as they would be entitled to in their country of origin or the country from which they came—was very cumbersome to administer because of the difference between the way benefits are paid in other countries and the way we pay them here. Schedule 1 of the bill authorises that the payments to be made do not any longer have to be strictly equal to what they would receive in that other country.

Schedule 1 also provides that, instead of the Governor-General making the arrangements and entering into agreements with other countries, it will now be the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, which is more in line with the way other agreements are struck. The maximum reimbursement for the costs associated with providing benefits will continue to be provided for in the agreements negotiated, and the country with whom the agreement is negotiated will of course reimburse the Australian government for the money that they have expended.

Schedule 2 of the bill deals with another important area—that is, dealing with Commonwealth and Federal Police who served at Maralinga. The question of nuclear testing has been a vexed one for a long time here in Australia—not only at Maralinga but also at Montebello. These issues have been looked at, debated and inquired about for a long period of time.

Under this bill it is proposed that the period for which a person can be determined to be a nuclear test participant, who is then eligible for treatment for cancer and the accompanying travel expenses, be extended from 30 April 1965 to 30 June 1988. That means that someone with cancer who was a participant at Maralinga at that time will be eligible to have the cost of their treatment covered and their incidental travelling costs as well. There is a further provision that says that those persons who have had treatment but were not until now deemed eligible persons will be able to claim costs for treatment and travelling expenses retrospectively to 19 June 2006. There is only a six-month window of opportunity for persons affected by this provision to actually apply for that reimbursement.

The question of Montebello is still unresolved. It has been addressed by many an inquiry. I think the government ought to put its mind to Montebello. It has been said that many people at Montebello were not sufficiently close. There is more evidence starting to emerge that they were. I think it is a matter that should be looked at.

Back to the bill itself: schedule 3 amends the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act to correct minor errors and anomalies in the act. That looks pretty benign. That looks okay. Well, that is what I thought. The explanatory memorandum says:

Item 2 amends the definition of the number of days in section 196 of the MRCA, to recognise that some persons may have worked for more or less than 5 days a week, when working out the numbers of days of entitlement to compensation. Currently, the calculation of the number of days of compensation entitlement may provide for an incorrect result in cases where persons worked for more than or less than 5 days a week.

That sounds pretty benign. It sounds like we are just making a minor adjustment and that nobody would be particularly disadvantaged.

A funny thing happened. Somebody slipped me a bit of paper. That bit of paper has the heading on it ‘Caucus-in-confidence’. Whereas the minister did not enlighten the parliament, the people or veterans as to what these amendments meant, the caucus was duly informed. The caucus was informed in the following terms:

A part week payment is calculated on the basis of the proportion of a week that the person is deemed to have been working prior to their incapacity. As set out in subsection 196(3) of the MRCA. Where section 196(3)(c) applies, the requirement to use 5 days is not always reflective of a person’s actual work patterns. The following is an example that illustrates this.

What actually happens now? The existing act says that you work on a five-day basis. That is what the act says. That is what people debated. That is what has been the law, and that is how people have applied the law. Now this amendment actually amounts to a savings measure. Did we hear about that in the debate? Certainly not.

Let me tell you how it will disadvantage people. Client X is a reservist who is incapacitated for four days per week. He usually works six days per week and earns $720 gross for his six days of work, or $120 per day worked. Using the current formula applicable under section 196(3)(c) his entitlement for the above period would be four-fifths of $720. That equals $576 gross per week for four days at the rate of $144 per week.

What will happen if this amendment goes through? Client X is a reservist who is incapacitated for four days a week. He usually works six days a week and earns $720 gross for his six days work, or $120 per day—exactly the same situation. As such, the compensation payable would reflect client X’s actual loss. This would be worked out by the following formula: four-sixths times 720 equals $480 gross per week for four days at $120 per day, X’s actual daily rate. The difference in this case is the difference between $576 and $480; in other words, $96 a week. A nice little savings earner hidden away in the explanatory memorandum. It hides it nicely—the words are benign: ‘This is a non-controversial bill.’ But when I happened to get this little bit of paper slipped to me, we start to see that it is going to further disadvantage veterans.

This is a government which said lots of things about veterans. It said: ‘We will stand up for veterans. We will always have a Department of Veterans’ Affairs.’ Yet, the language in the bill talks about this legislation ‘further aligning the VEA with social security law’. One thing that the opposition stands for very firmly and very strongly is that veterans entitlements should never be turned into social security, that veterans entitlements come from a contract between the nation and the people who serve the Australian nation in uniform, and that those people are entitled to believe that we the people of Australia will look after them for the service that they have given. That has been the way since the first repatriation act; it has continued to be the way, but now we slip in language like, ‘This will bring it further into alignment with social security law.’

Then we start to look at the savings measures in the budget on the pension for spouses of those entitled to a veteran’s pension. At the present time spouses can receive a pension at 50 years of age but that is suddenly going to leap to 58.5 years. A nice little savings earner here, too. In other words, people coming back from service in Iraq, Afghanistan, Timor-Leste or the Solomons might think that they can retire and their spouse could be entitled to that service pension as well. Oh, no. They are going to have to wait another 8½ years. What if you had been budgeting for that in your retirement plans? Let us take the analogy of the way in which we planned the movement in the age pension from 60 years for women to 65 years to be the same as for men. We have taken over a decade to see any movement at all. It has been slow and gradual, so it was not seen to be mean and picky. But in one hit service people are to be disadvantaged. Instead of being entitled at 50 years of age, those women will now be entitled at 58.5 years. That makes a hell of a difference to people’s budgets.

Then we come to the other nice little earner in savings. On this side of the chamber we are very much in favour of marriage; we like to promote it. Presently, if a man and a woman who are married to each other have for whatever reason separated—there can be myriad reasons as to why serving personnel and their spouse may choose to separate; there may be all sorts of injuries, mental injuries, that may have perpetuated from their service—the spouse can receive the spouse’s pension. So they have agreed to this arrangement. Now, this mean and tricky little government comes along and says, ‘When you have been separated for 12 months, we are going to chop out the spouse’s pension.’ Charming! And guess what—they say that will save $77.8 million over four years. Isn’t that wonderful!

But then if you read Budget Paper No. 2, it tells you a bit more. Budget Paper No. 2 tells you that actually the saving to the budget will only really amount to $33.9 million because the remainder, $39.4 million, will go into the social security department—by whatever name we call it these days—because they will go on ordinary social welfare. And another $4.4 million over four years will be spent because some of them will be sent back onto Newstart. We are taking away veterans entitlements and putting them into social security—welfare.

This government has said—in its speech, when it does not have to be answerable—that this government is kind and generous to veterans. Really? I say that the government is mean and picky: taking away from individuals who have been planning, thinking that these were their entitlements, and turning them into welfare recipients—everything that the opposition is utterly opposed to. We have said, and given a commitment—and always will—that veterans are entitled to their entitlements, not as welfare recipients but because of the contract that we as a nation strike with our serving personnel.

So I go back to this other nice little earner. I will remind you of what the explanatory memorandum says; see if you would have picked up that benefits available to veterans were going to be cut back. This is what the explanatory memorandum says:

Item 2 amends the definition of the number of days in section 196 of the MRCA, to recognise that some persons may have worked for more or less than 5 days a week, when working out the numbers of days of entitlement to compensation. Currently, the calculation of the number of days of compensation entitlement may provide for an incorrect result in cases where persons worked for more than or less than 5 days a week.

You would think that that was pretty benign, wouldn’t you? But if you really got down and got lucky enough to get the piece of paper that came my way, you would think again. And every one of those members of the Labor caucus knew what this bill did—every one of them! How many of you in the Labor Party spoke out against it? How many of you complained? How many of you have gone back to your veterans and told them that that is what you are going to do to them? One? Two? None?

So, when we come to dealing with legislation, I put it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the opposition is hampered by having been stripped of resources by the Labor government—our resources have been cut back by 30 per cent, so that we have fewer and fewer staff with which to do the work of interrogating what goes on in these documents—and by having less and less time, because bills are thrust in at a great rate of knots, all because the government want to appear to be doing something. Yet we are in a situation where every bill requires more scrutiny, for the simple reason that you do not know what is hidden in them, because the ways in which they are presented in the second reading speeches and, indeed, for that matter, in the explanatory memoranda, are not fair dinkum.

Let us look at how serious that is. The Acts Interpretation Act says that when a judge is making a determination he is entitled to look at three documents that come from this place: the act itself, the explanatory memorandum and the second reading speech. They are the sources that are meant to tell our court, if there is a dispute, what it is the legislation was meant to do. But, if you read the act, the explanatory memorandum and the second reading speech, unless you have a miraculous insight you will not pick it up. So here is a mechanism of subterfuge being used.

The government says, out here, that they will not hurt veterans. And yet I have just given you three examples that we have managed to ascertain are definitely aimed against veterans. I ask the question of the government: why does this Prime Minister break his promise to veterans that he will not turn veterans entitlements into social welfare? Because that is precisely and exactly what he is doing—and doing it sneakily and nastily. I was talking to a Vietnam veteran on the phone this afternoon. They are very angry. They are very angry that they have been duped. And they are not even aware of this one yet.

So there are many issues that we have to deal with in opposition. The government cut back the resources for the opposition by 30 per cent, so that we have 30 per cent fewer staff to do the interrogatory work that you the government had in opposition—30 per cent fewer people than you had in order to do the job that we are now asked to do. Is that reasonable for the Australian people? Is it reasonable that you should put this burden on us in a way that we have accepted—we interrogate well—but in the way it is now being portrayed?

I simply say to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there should be a whole caucus of Labor Party members who have veterans in their electorate whom they have not spoken out about and tried to get something done for—because, quite clearly, the way the act was written it was meant to be that way. Yet it is dressed up in the language that, ‘We are just going to make a minor little twitch here,’ which in fact is going to result in somebody, in this example given to the caucus, receiving $96 a week less—that is what it says on this piece of paper—than they would have been entitled to under the old act. So he is actually taking away veterans’ entitlements.

As well as that, there is a cut in staff for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs of 196 people. In reality, if you read the annual report of Veterans’ Affairs then you will see, of course, that veterans are dying and that the number is less. But, if you read the annual report, you will also see that each veteran needs more attention and has more incidents of health care. In other words, the system is not going to be less difficult to administer but, indeed, more difficult to administer.

In addition, if you take a look at the War Memorial, the favourite attraction in this capital city of ours—free for people to go into, with a magnificent display, a wonderful research department and a curating department—it functions as something of which we can all be proud. At this time, we have to give credit to the government. It implemented the plans that the previous, Howard government had put in place to honour the veterans of the battles of Coral and Balmoral. In fact, the government went ahead and gave the reception. We then had the commemorative service at the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial, and it was done very well. But, at exactly that time, when there is more and more interest in what veterans have achieved and in what veterans’ stories are—people want to know what their stories are; they want to know more about each battle—the one place that is going to record all that and give it to the people, the War Memorial, has had a cut of eight staff. These are tricky, mean, nasty little cuts. Eight staff have been cut from the War Memorial. Who is going to go—a researcher, somebody who is able to do the magnificent displays? Who is going to be considered not of any more value to the War Memorial and that magnificent product they put out?

When we look at the words of the Prime Minister—that he honours veterans—and he stands up to read his speech to them and tells them how valued they are, why isn’t it mirrored in the budget? I listen to the Prime Minister. I listened to him before the election when he said the buck stops with him. That is what he said. He said that he was going to be a Prime Minister who was going to make laws for working families. Well, we have suddenly learned precisely what that is, haven’t we? The majority of veterans are no longer working families. The majority of veterans are people who have retired; they are no longer in the paid workforce. The majority of veterans are people who fall outside the parameters of that definition of ‘working families’. What is becoming abundantly clear from this government over there is that, if you are not part of a narrow definition of ‘working families’, you are out on the scrap heap.

Take my retired veterans, for instance, who go every week to buy their petrol at the low end of the petrol cycle. They buy their petrol at the lowest price that is available to them, because every cent matters. They are on fixed incomes; they have got fixed budgets. And yet we are going to have Fuelwatch, which is going to get rid of the peaks and the troughs in the cycle and average it out, even out the bumps. If you are somebody like the Prime Minister, you do not care what you pay for your petrol because, after all, the taxpayer is going to pay for that. If you are somebody who is working for a big corporation, you do not care what you are going to pay for your petrol; you will buy it at whatever time is suitable for you.

The irony is that the person who does not care what they pay will actually pay less, because the averaging will get rid of the top price. So they will not have to pay that top price anymore. But if you are someone who is on a fixed income—somebody for whom every cent matters; who takes their shopper docket and gets in the queue every Tuesday night—you are going to be told that this government’s Fuelwatch will put the price up. Those people are being tricked once again—and veterans fall very much into that category. But it will not affect the working family who might have their expenses paid. So the Prime Minister is making laws for working families! It is just that there are so many people who do not fit his narrow little definition any more—and he cares less for them.

As we talk to this Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (International Agreements and Other Measures) Bill 2008, it seems like an innocuous little bill. My goodness me! You would not think there was anything harmful in that, would you? Neither did we, and so we agreed that we could have this debate up here in the Main Committee because the bill was not contentious. But I just got slipped a little bit of paper that told me what was really going into the bill and now I can share that with the rest of the Australian people. I ask the government: how many other sneaky little bits of legislation have we got coming our way? How many other items are there that were not apparent from the official published material, for which we need more staff to assist with interrogation work? The library is pretty overburdened at the moment because the Prime Minister cut back our staffing arrangements by 30 per cent. So we have 30 per cent less assistance than you had when you were able to build a case to say that you were going to bring down interest rates, bring down petrol prices and bring down the cost of grocery prices. You had 30 more staff that you could spread that work around.

So there we are! Veterans are being penalised in this bill. We found out that the formula is to be changed so that a veteran who applies after this amendment is passed will get less than a veteran with the same sort injury and the same sort of condition is receiving now. Is that fair? Would we think that was fair? No way! It is very important that this is disclosed to the veterans community. If the government members on the other side of the chamber had any sense of decency they would be out there letting their own veteran constituents know that they were being duped by a government that said it would never turn veterans entitlements into welfare payments. Yet that is what the budget does. Here we have a reduction of entitlements, all in the name of a minor adjustment to a little section of the act.

I say to you that today is a shameful day and it is important that people are made aware of what is being done so that they may take some action themselves and come to know better what this government is really like. After all, it was the Prime Minister who said that the buck stops with him. I do not think it stops with Jeeves; I think it is with him. He has to wear the falsehoods that he perpetrates on the veterans community. As we said from the time that we agreed to it, we will not be opposing the bill, but it is with a sense of great sadness that we will now have to work to find ways to get things changed so that people can have their entitlements back.