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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 11975

Mr BALDWIN (9:06 PM) —I rise to speak tonight on the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Defence Subcommittee Review of the Defence annual report 2006-2007. The committee has conducted two hearings in Canberra, made a number of visits to defence installations and secured private briefings to make sure that we, as a committee, are able to understand the intrinsic peculiarities of the Department of Defence, and the Australian Defence Force and its outstanding ADF personnel, who serve our nation so well. In reviewing the annual report, the committee had to confine its inquiries to a relatively small area of investigation by Defence standards. The committee, of which I have the privilege to be deputy chair, has made five recommendations in the report to the government, which have been canvassed by the chair, Arch Bevis, tonight.

In the limited time available to me tonight I would like to elaborate on recommendation 3. The committee visited Robertson Barracks on 7 May where we engaged with Defence families at the base family centre. It was clear from the discussions with the families that there was a lack of understanding of the system of utilising the remote locality leave travel entitlements available to them on a remote posting and of the effects of the reportable fringe benefit on their individual circumstances. We were advised by several spouses of a Robertson Barracks spouse group that they ‘could not afford’ to take the remote locality leave travel entitlement because it reduced the amount of the family payment they received, which they could not do without.

It is unfortunate that I was unable to attend last week’s Defence Subcommittee meeting; otherwise, I would have put forward a recommendation to the committee that the government develop a user-friendly web based calculator that would allow Defence personnel and their family to better understand the impacts of the reportable fringe benefit arising from using travel entitlements on their total family income, in particular family tax benefit part A or B and Child Support Agency payments. FBT reporting can result in a reduction to their financial circumstances because of the increased assessable income.

I can understand Defence’s response during the hearings that they try to provide ADF personnel with ‘simple to understand information so people can make informed choices’, but I believe that their caution in providing financial information in personal tax matters for individuals is just a little too cautious. However, my recommendation to provide a financial calculator should carry a rider that it is a guide only and that users should seek financial clarification prior to entering into any arrangement. It is not too hard to do, but it would be of great benefit to the families that serve our nation in remote locations.

I fully understand that, should the government accept the committee’s recommendation 3 that ‘Treasury exempts the remote leave travel entitlement from fringe benefits reporting’, there are a string of other entitlements that also affect the bottom line; therefore, the financial calculator would still be very beneficial. Between 1999 and 2007, Defence went to Treasury four times seeking exemptions for a range of benefits, one of which was remote locality leave travel. However, Treasury refused Defence the exemptions. If this is repeated, I strongly urge the government to consider greater information access via a web interface for our Defence families.

Finally, I would like to congratulate the secretariat of the Defence Subcommittee for an outstanding job this year. I particularly thank Lieutenant Colonel Paul Nothard, the Defence Adviser to the Joint Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. His term with the committee has come to an end, and he moves on to Land Headquarters in Sydney, where he will be promoted to colonel. We wish him well in his future endeavours. I commend the report to the House.