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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4613

Ms JACKSON (5:59 PM) —I rise to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (International Agreements and Other Measures) Bill 2008. This bill aims to improve the process of Australia’s repatriation system. The bill sets out a number of amendments to veterans affairs legislation to improve administrative arrangements, correct some minor errors and, where appropriate, further align the Veterans’ Entitlement Act with social security law. The measures in this bill, along with the Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (2007 Election Commitments) Bill 2008, demonstrate this government’s determination to honour its commitment to look after the veteran community and their families and to deliver improved services to them in Australia.

The Rudd Labor government recognises and acknowledges the great contribution our veteran community have made to the nation and the important role they play in our communities. Another couple of government initiatives deserve mention in this regard. The first of these initiatives is the veteran and community grants announced by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Hon. Alan Griffin, on 21 May 2008. I would like to commend the government on the $829,000 commitment to funding 77 local projects across the country to improve community support for Australia’s veterans. The funding will assist veterans to access skills programs aimed at keeping them independent and active. Since last year’s federal election the Rudd Labor government has funded more than $1.5 million in grants to local community organisations who offer programs to support veterans and their dependants.

The other initiative that I want to commend the minister for is the $11½ million Vietnam Veterans’ Family Study, a significant research program into the health problems that have occurred as a result of service in Vietnam, along with protective factors and characteristics that help build resilience in the families of veterans. This research needs to involve large numbers of participants. Invitations have been or are being sent to two key groups: the service personnel who were deployed to Vietnam and those who stayed at home. The success of this world first research lies in recruiting sufficient numbers of Vietnam veterans’ families and the families of those who were not deployed to participate, and I urge them to do so. The study is expected to be finalised in 2016 and will pave the way for future research for younger veterans and their families from more recent deployments such as East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Let me return to the substance of the bill before the House, the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (International Agreements and Other Measures) Bill 2008. The bill will provide greater flexibility with the international agreements already in existence with other countries, meaning that overseas veterans who are legal residents of Australia and who have the requisite qualifying service will be extended the appropriate level of care and income support payments. While it will continue to remain the responsibility of the veterans’ respective foreign governments to pay the veterans entitlements, this amendment will allow the cost of their benefits and assistance to be covered by the Consolidated Revenue Fund during the cost recovery process.

Income and assets tests under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 and the Social Security Act 1991 will be more closely aligned in two principal ways: the first will exclude certain scholarships awarded on or after 1 September 1990 from the definition of income, and the second will exclude the disability expenses maintenance that is paid to parents with a disabled child. The bill will also amend the Veterans’ Entitlements Act by excluding foregone rental income from the deprivation provisions of the income test. In other words, an income support pensioner opting not to receive rental income or choosing to receive a lesser amount of rental income from a family member will no longer be penalised as a consequence. In addition to that, a further amendment will exclude any value rights or interests held by any person or group or community where that person is a member in respect of native title rights, and amounts that any person has received from the Mark Fitzpatrick Trust.

Importantly, this bill will also amend the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act 2006. These amendments give effect to the findings of the 2006 Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry that were not acted on by the previous government. It will extend the period for which Commonwealth and Australian Federal Police can be considered as nuclear test participants at Maralinga from 30 April 1965 to 30 June 1988. There is scientific evidence that officers who patrolled the Maralinga exclusion zone were exposed to possible contamination until 1988. They will be entitled to be reimbursed for treatment and travel costs backdated to 19 June 2006, when eligibility for cancer treatment, testing and associated travel expenses commenced under the act for nuclear test participants. It is estimated that up to 100 officers may be eligible to receive assistance under this extension, and justice is served by ensuring that these officers, who patrolled the nuclear test sites, are eligible to receive assistance.

I referred earlier to the election commitments made by Labor. I am pleased that an earlier bill has seen some of these reforms put before the House: the Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (2007 Election Commitments) Bill 2008. There were three significant measures proposed in that legislation. Firstly, there was the automatic grant of war widows or war widowers pensions to widows and widowers of veterans or members in receipt of temporary special rate or immediate rate disability pension immediately before their death. Secondly, it extended the income support supplement to all war widows and war widowers under qualifying age without dependants. Thirdly, it extended disability pension bereavement payments in respect of single veterans or members in receipt of special rate or extreme disablement adjustment disability pension who die without sufficient assets to pay for a funeral. As I said, these measures, along with this bill before the House, demonstrate the government’s determination to honour its commitments to look after the veteran community and their families and to deliver improved services to them.

I could speak longer on the bill but, in conclusion, I would like to record my thanks to and appreciation of my local RSL clubs for their fine services commemorating Anzac Day this year. I was fortunate to join with them for these ceremonies. The services conducted by the Darling Range RSL, the Gosnells RSL and the Bellevue RSL were better attended than those in past years. This is in no small measure the result of work these organisations do in the community as well as the direct result of the enormous pride and respect the Australian community has for our Defence Force personnel, past and present. I especially wish to acknowledge and thank our combat troops who are coming home from Iraq for their service. I commend the bill to the House.