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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4616

Mr NEUMANN (6:13 PM) —I speak in support of the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (International Agreements and Other Measures) Bill 2008. I know that the veterans in my electorate of Blair, particularly in Ipswich, welcome the legislation that has passed recently. They also welcome the commitment made by the Labor Party during the campaign that has been honoured in terms of the deseal-reseal inquiry of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which is being headed up by Arch Bevis. And I know the veterans in my community will welcome this legislation before the House.

This bill amends the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 to provide for the use of consolidated revenue to cover the health treatment costs of Allied veterans while these costs are being reimbursed by the country for which the Allied veterans served. There are a lot of Allied veterans in my community—I saw them when I visited nine Anzac Day services on Anzac Day this year. They spoke to me then about the challenges of being veterans. We honour those Allied veterans who fought with us in all wars, and we should treat them in the same way we treat our own veterans.

A review of the previous arrangement reveals that the use of the Consolidated Revenue Fund under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act was not lawful as those funds were appropriated for the provision of services to Australian veterans only. This oversight is being corrected in the bill. This bill will enable the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, instead of the Governor-General, to enter into arrangements and remove the restriction limiting assistance and benefits to overseas veterans. The amendment will remove from the Veterans’ Entitlements Act restrictions limiting assistance and benefits so that overseas veterans can be treated here in Australia as they would be elsewhere.

Australia has international agreements with Allied countries for the provision of income support payments to veterans who serve in the armed forces of Allied countries but who now reside in Australia—the most common form of this income support being the service pension. This means that Allied veterans with qualifying war service who are legal residents of Australia can be paid a service pension in Australia under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. However, under the current legislation, responsibility for service related health and compensation needs of Allied veterans or any other non-Australian veteran rests with the country whose armed services they served in. Currently, medical treatment for Allied veterans is provided under agreements between Australia and each Allied country for accepted war service caused medical conditions or disability.

We have a gold card system here in Australia, and it is a wonderful system—which I know those veterans in my community appreciate very much. But the health coverage provided by other Allied countries may not be the same as that provided for Australian veterans. The proposed amendment will allow coverage for the cost of Allied veterans to be provided out of consolidated revenue. This reimbursement will be sought from the country for whom the Allied veteran served. The amendment does not really change the source of the funds; it just changes the process of recovery. It means that the funds will be used from our consolidated revenue and then sought from the veteran’s service country. There will be no financial impact as a result, but the amendment is critical because it reflects the various ways veterans health services are delivered in different countries. Strict compliance with the requirement for the same assistance is problematic, as inevitably countries have different systems for delivering services to veterans. As I say, we want to treat veterans from our Allied partners in Australia same way we treat our own veterans.

I support this amending legislation because the existing legislation is very much based on the Repatriation Act 1920. This is quite extraordinary. The current law does not acknowledge the significant advances in administration, policy and practices over the last 60 years. The bill will enable the minister to enter into arrangements for best business practices for the business and eligible overseas veterans. I see that the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is here in the chamber. I congratulate him for the grants that we saw and I am sure that the veteran community in south-east Queensland will very much appreciate the assistance.

The bill also excludes from the definition of ‘income’ for the purposes of the income test certain scholarships awarded on or after 1 September 1990 and disability expenses maintenance paid to parents with disabled children. As I say, the bill seeks to amend the income test provisions of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act to make it correlate to the Social Security Act. The longstanding practice has been that the provision should be consistent and equitable. So the bill seeks to amend the Veterans’ Entitlements Act to exempt as income under the income test payments of an approved scholarship applied to means-tested income support payments under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act.

I think one of the most interesting things is the amendment with respect to the rental income provision. The bill seeks to amend the Veterans’ Entitlements Act to align it with the deprivation provisions in the Social Security Act. The exclusion of forgone rent from family members from the deprivation provisions of the income test will mean that those income support pensioners who assist their families with accommodation will no longer be penalised for this action. We see a lot of people who really want to help their children but for whom income forgone by way of abatement in rent means that they themselves suffer. This legislation will have a big impact. It will assist struggling families in terms of accommodation and it will also help the veteran community.

As the previous speaker, the member for Hasluck, said, there is an initiative in terms of Australian participation in British nuclear testing and a fairer treatment for Commonwealth Police who were involved in nuclear test participation from 1 May 1965 to 30 June 1988 for the purpose of eligibility for cancer screening and cancer treatment under the relevant legislation—that is, the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act 2006. We are pleased about this amendment because a 2006 Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry recommended these changes but, regrettably, the Howard government failed to act.

Another important reform, the last one upon which I wish to touch, is the changes to the existing legislation concerning war widow and war widower pensions. The bill seeks to amend references to the rate of war widow pension used to calculate a payment rate of compensation where a partner of a deceased member chooses to receive weekly payments of compensation. The current references to the rate of war widow pension paid under the current legislation, the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, do include the rate of war widow pension but not the whole of the amount paid to the war widow pension recipient. Included as a part of the war widow pension rate is a separate pension supplement amount, agreed by the then government, the Howard government—with the Democrats support, by the way, with respect to the goods and service tax agreement that commenced on 1 July 2000. Thereafter, the extra pension supplement amount has been separately indexed twice a year according to the CPI and is paid in addition to the base rate of the war widow pension. The base rate of the war widow pension is indexed to both movements in the CPI and movements in the male total average weekly earnings—whichever provides the greater increase. This amendment will mean that, where a calculation of the weekly payment rate of compensation is made based on the war widow pension rate, the calculation will include references to both the base war widow pension rate and also the pension supplement amount.

My constituents will benefit from that—there are many war widows and war widowers in the federal seat of Blair. There is a very big veterans community in Ipswich. It is a place where veterans have chosen to live after being based at Amberley and fighting long and hard for our country. I honour the contribution they make in all of the things I have talked about, the reseal-deseal issue and the practical support they give through their RSLs. This amending legislation will help them with their income and their entitlements, and it is a credit to the minister that this omnibus legislation is going through, because it will make a practical difference to assist members of my community in the federal seat of Blair. I commend the minister for the bill.