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Wednesday, 13 November 1985
Page: 2103


Senator GIETZELT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)(5.54) —I move:

That the Bills be now read a second time.

In view of the fact that the second reading speeches have already been read in the other place, I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows-

VETERANS' ENTITLEMENTS BILL 1985

The purpose of the Veterans' Entitlements Bill (the VEB) is to consolidate, rationalise and simplify the entitlements available to members of the Veteran community. It represents the most important and comprehensive overhal of the Repatriation system since its establishment over 60 years ago.

The need for an overhaul of Repatriation legislation has been evident for decades. The Repatriation Act has been amended on 90 occasions since 1920. Supplementary legislation has been introduced to cover warlike conflicts in which Australia has been involved since World War II. This legislation too has been subject to considerable amendment. As a result of this legislative activity over the years, many difficulties have arisen. Outmoded and inconsistent language and concepts remain in the statutes; eligibility provisions vary between the wars and conflicts; entitlements for medical treatment and ancillary allowances and benefits are scattered haphazardly through the various Repatriation Acts and associated Regulations. As well, some well-established services have operated without a clear legislative basis. The VEB tackles these problems in a comprehensive and coherent way.

Background

Mr President, let me say at the outset that this Government fully acknowledges its continuing responsibility to the Veteran community.

The challenges of providing a continuing high standard of service to the Veteran community throughout the remainder of the twentieth century and beyond are immense. While it is 40 years since the end of the Second World War, there remain over 600,000 Australians actually or potentially entitled to Repatriation benefits. As far as is known we have two Veterans of the Boer War, approximately 6,000 Veterans of World War I, and about 480,000 Veterans of World War II, together with survivors of later conflicts and members of the peacetime forces. Most Veterans are now over the age of 65. On current projections, there will be more than 180,000 beneficiaries aged 75 years and over by the year 2000.

As the Veteran community ages, so the Australian community's responsibilities grow. People in this older age group need more treatment and greater care. The demand for improved services will come on all fronts-for pensions, treatment, pharmaceuticals and, most importantly, in our hospitals and through home and extended care.

The Government is meeting these challenges not just with words but with action.

Changes made to the Repatriation determining system in January 1985 are now leading to reductions in the previously unacceptable times taken to process claims. Backlogs are reducing. Further improvement will occur.

In the past three years we have increased spending on Veterans' Affairs by 40 per cent, or about 20 per cent in real terms. Substantial extra spending has been allocated to service pensions, as large numbers of Veterans have reached retirement age, and to meet the increase in the numbers and success rate of claims for disability and war widows' pensions.

There are also vital projects to update our hospitals by replacement of obsolete accommodation and equipment and to set up Aged and Extended Care Units. The Brand Report on the Review of the Repatriation Hospital System has recommended further improvements and these are now under consideration.

There have also been increases in pensions and benefits, including significant non-indexation increases, and the introduction of computer technology to aid efficiency and improve service delivery.

The VEB Consultative Process

Mr President, the introduction of the VEB in the Parliament marks the culmination of one of the most extensive processes of consultation that this or any other Government has ever undertaken.

The Bill has been drafted around the recommendations made by the Advisory Committee on Repatriation Legislation Review which was constituted by representatives of the Returned Services League, Legacy, the War Widows' Guild and the Australian Veterans' and Defence Services Council. Over 95 per cent of the Committee's 292 recommendations have been incorporated in the Bill.

Since the VEB was tabled in the Parliament on 30 May 1985, material on the Bill has been circulated widely. Over 90 seminars have been held across the country. I have received submissions from many ex-service organisations and individual Veterans.

The changes made by legislation which came into effect on 6 June 1985 and which are carried through in the VEB have received some adverse reaction. In particular, there has been criticism of the standard of proof amendment which, as honourable senators will recall, was amended in the Parliament to make it subject to a six-month sunset clause expiring on 5 December 1985. It is intended that the VEB should include a new standard of proof provision and this should be in place by 5 December 1985.

Some have suggested, in the course of the recently completed consultation process, that particular entitlements under the VEB should be more generously framed. I remind honourable senators that when my predecessor, Senator Messner, set up the Advisory Committee on Repatriation Legislation Review, its terms of reference were drawn so as not to encompass amendments normally taken into account in the annual budgetary context.

While some significant further concessions have been made since the draft VEB was tabled last May, I make no secret of the fact that the Government has had to make some hard decisions about how generous particular entitlements available to Veterans and their dependants should be, having regard to the expenditure implications. The Government must take into account not just the special interest of Veterans but also the broader interests of the community in ensuring responsible economic management.

Nevertheless, in the course of the VEB consultative process, the Government has endeavoured to accommodate the concerns expressed by the ex-service community.

In particular, a new standard of proof provision which should have broad ex-service community support has been devised. The proposal to apply the less generous civil standard of proof in determining certain claims for war widow's pension when a husband died more than 40 years after service will not proceed.

Arising from the consultative process, the Government has also reviewed its decision to remove Repatriation coverage for all future Defence Force enlistees. Future Defence Force enlistees will now be eligible for Repatriation coverage in respect of hazardous service.

Future changes are also proposed to treatment entitlements and to disability pension eligibility.

I wish to pay tribute to the valuable assistance, during the consultative process, of former Judge Paul Toose, who reviewed the Repatriation system in the early 1970s.

As a further indication of the Government's good faith in the consultative process, it has been decided to reverse decisions made by earlier Governments so that Repatriation coverage under the VEB is extended to some of the previously excluded groups of service personnel who served in the Vietnam war. This will be done by the Minister for Defence treating these personnel under the VEB as having been allotted for such service. This meets the longstanding concerns of some Defence Force personnel, such as those who made trips to Vietnam on HMAS Sydney, that they were being denied legitimate entitlements under the Repatriation system.

The Veterans' Entitlements Bill

Before turning to the particular provisions of the VEB there are two points I wish to make.

The first is that the VEB and the Veterans' Entitlements (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill contain a number of improvements on existing Repatriation entitlements. They include provisions to enable war widow pensioners who remarried or remarry after 29 May 1984 to retain their war widows' pension and other entitlements. There is provision to extend the $12-a-week domestic allowance to all war widows. The definition of `child' has been widened to include a child who is dependent on the Veteran but is not a natural or adopted child.

The VEB also standardises the liability provisions for payment of pension on the more generous criteria applicable to World War II Veterans. It formalises an extension in the range of medical treatment available to Veterans to encompass social and domestic assistance. There are also minor extensions made to service pension eligibility.

The second point is that under the VEB no person will lose a pension or benefit he or she now has.

Mr President, I shall not outline the main provisions made by the Bill.

Compensation Pensions

Part II of the VEB sets out the eligibility conditions for the grant of a disability pension to a Veteran, a war widow's pension to the spouse of a Veteran and an orphan's pension to a dependent child. Eligibility will arise in respect of a Veteran's incapacity from injury or disease, or his death or her death, where that injury, disease or death is determined to be war-caused. In effect the VEB maintains the eligibility criteria applying under existing legislation.

The automatic entitlement to a war widow's pension on the death of a T&I pensioner is continued by the VEB.

Disability pensions are payable on three scales-the General Rate, the Intermediate Rate and the Special (T&I) Rate. This pension structure is maintained by the VEB.

The extent of incapacity and the rate of pension payable are to be determined in accordance with a Guide to Assessment of Rates of Veterans' Pensions. The Guide is to apply to assessment of rates of pension after 1 July 1986 although it may be applied administratively before that date. The Guide will be tabled in the Parliament. A draft of the Guide has been prepared by the Repatriation Commission and copies are available from my office to anyone interested.

Part II of the VEB will also continue the effect of the recent legislative amendments to clarify eligibility for payment of pension at the Intermediate or Special (T&I) Rate.

The T&I rate pension was designed for severely disabled Veterans of a relatively young age who could never go back to work and could never hope to support themselves or their families or put away money for their old age. It was never intended that the T&I rate would become payable to a Veteran who, having enjoyed a full working life after war service, then retires from work possibly with whatever superannuation and other retirement benefits are available to the Australian workforce.

Under the T&I criteria in the VEB, a pension is not payable at that rate unless at the time of determination the Veteran is receiving a 100% General Rate pension, is totally and permanently incapacitated and would be continuing in remunerative work but for a war-caused disability and thereby suffers an economic loss. I would not expect many Veterans over the normal retirement age to qualify for payment of pension at this rate as there would usually be reasons other than the effect of a war-caused incapacity which precluded continuing in employment. If a person has had the usual span of working life or has retired voluntarily or has left employment for reasons other than accepted disabilities, a T&I pension is not payable. None the less there is no strict age limit on entitlement to the special rate pension although it must be clear that not many Veterans over the age of 65 years will qualify.

Special provision is made by the Bill to cover Veterans who are under 65 years of age, are unemployed, and are genuinely seeking to engage in remunerative work.

The VEB will not reverse the Government's decision to abolish future grants of dependants' pension. Successive Governments have refused to increase the small amount of this pension. There are greater priorities for expenditure in the Veterans' Affairs portfolio than on this anachronistic benefit. Provision for optional commutation of the existing dependants' pension is made in the Veterans' Entitlements (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill-a sum equivalent to three years' pension will be payable if the dependant chooses this option.

Service Pension

Part III of the VEB makes provision for payment of service pension to eligible beneficiaries. Subject to the income and assets test, a Veteran with qualifying war service would be eligible for payment of a service pension if permanently incapacitated for work, or at 55 years of age in the case of a female Veteran, or at 60 years of age in the case of a male Veteran. Qualifying war service will involve service such as in a theatre of war. An extension of existing service pension eligibility is made by the VEB for those Veterans involved in bomb or mine clearance work after World War II and for some Veterans who served in Malaya after 1957.

Part III also provides for the grant of rent assistance and remote area allowance to eligible beneficiaries.

Defence Force or Peacekeeping Forces

Part IV of the VEB continues Repatriation coverage for existing members of the Defence Force and for members of Peacekeeping Forces.

It had been the Government's intention that VEB coverage should not extend to future Defence Force enlistees. This would not have affected any other compensation entitlements that may be available such as under the Compensation (Commonwealth Government's Employees) Act. While it is considered that in general there is no basis for maintaining Repatriation entitlements for peacetime service, the Government accepts that there is a case for continuing Repatriation entitlements for new enlistees in respect of any hazardous defence service in which they have been engaged. The Government will also be considering further the development of a new defence force compensation package outside the Repatriation system.

Treatment

Part V of the Bill enables the provision of medical and other treatment to entitled Veterans and other beneficiaries. Part V in large part continues existing entitlements. However, one change that has been made is that all service pensioners with a 50 per cent disability pension-not just World War II Veterans, as is the case under existing legislation-will now be entitled to full treatment.

As I have already mentioned, the VEB will formalise the provision to eligible persons of social and domestic assistance in addition to medical treatment.

Part V also provides for preparation by the Repatriation Commission of a Guide to the Provision of Treatment and for it to be tabled in the Parliament.

VEB Allowances

Parts VI and VII of the VEB make provision in relation to allowances and other benefits and for a Veterans' Children's Education Scheme.

Standard of Proof

Part VIII of the VEB makes general provision for decision-making under Repatriation legislation.

As part of the consultative process on the VEB, the Government made a commitment to consult the Veteran community on the future form the standard of proof should take after the expiration of the 6 month sunset clause to which this aspect of the May 1985 amendments is subject. This has proved to be no easy task. Lengthy consultations have occurred on the standard of proof clause.

I stress that the Government remains firm in its intention to overrule the O'Brien decision. I refer honourable senators in that regard to the detailed reasons given in the second reading speech on the May 1985 legislation. The Government does not accept that a pension should be payable where there is no evidence to suggest a war service relationship to the claimed disability or death. While the ex-service community generally accepts that the O'Brien decision went too far, its view is that a provision should be developed that overturns the O'Brien decision while maintaining the effect of the earlier High Court decision in the Law case.

It has been possible in preparing the revised draft of clause 119 of the VEB to reach a substantial measure of consensus. New sub-clause 119 (1) will now extend the generous criminal standard of proof to Veterans in respect of any operational service they have had. This involves an extension on the June 1985 legislation as some Veterans who served in the Northern Territory during World War II will now also receive the benefit of the criminal standard.

Sub-clause 119 (1) will require a favourable determination to be made in relation to a pension claim unless the Repatriation Commission is satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that there is no sufficient ground for doing so. However, the Commission will be required to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt where, after consideration of the whole of the material relevant to a pension claim, there is no reasonable hypothesis raised and, if raised, there does not remain a reasonable hypothesis of a service connection to a Veteran's death or incapacity.

Similar provision is made in clause 119 in respect of hazardous service of Regular Defence Force personnel or peacekeeping service by members of a peacekeeping force.

Clause 119 provides that all other decisions made under repatriation legislation are to be made on the civil standard of proof.

To accommodate ex-service community concerns, the new clause 119 makes clear that there is no onus of proof on any person in relation to a claim or application. The process of determining disability and war widows' pension claims is intended to be inquisitorial. Clause 119 also overcomes any suggestion that there is a presumption of entitlement to a pension or other benefit.

Having regard to the many strong representations about the alleged discrimination involved in maintaining a 40 year rule and applying the civil standard of proof to certain war widows' pension claims after that period, the Government has decided not to pursue this proposal.

In the light of the flexible and responsible approach taken by the Government, I would expect there to be broad support in the ex-service community for clause 119. The intended effect of clause 119 is outlined in greater detail in the explanatory memorandum.

Other Provisions

Parts IX and X of the VEB relate to the administrative review machinery established by the Veterans' Review Board and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. No substantive change is made in these provisions.

Part XI of the VEB continues the existence of the Repatriation Commission and sets out its membership, its powers and its functions.

Part XII of the VEB makes provision for trusts, offences, overpayments, delegations and other machinery matters.

Financial Impact

The changes made by the Veterans' Entitlements Bill will cost $1.2 million in 1985-86; $20.601 million in 1986-87 and $4.389 million in 1987-88. The increased cost in 1986-87 relates to the proposal for commutation of dependants' pensions which will provide for one-off lump sum payments from July 1986. These costs do not include those arising from the Repatriation Legislation Amendment Act 1985.

Mr President, the VEB is one aspect, though a critical aspect, of the Government's strategy to build a repatriation system that is geared to the challenge of providing optimum services to the veteran community as we approach the twenty-first century. Within the constraints in which any Government must operate, I believe the VEB will make a substantial contribution to that task. I commend the Bill to the Senate.

VETERANS' ENTITLEMENTS (TRANSITIONAL PROVISIONS AND CONSEQUENTIAL AMENDMENTS) BILL 1985

This Bill sets out the transitional provisions consequent upon the repeal of existing repatriation legislation. It also deals with the consequential matters related to the enactment of the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

Separate legislative provision has been made for these transitional matters so that the Veterans' Entitlements Act will be more straightforward and readable in respect of its future operations.

The purpose of the Bill is to bring current repatriation administration and operations within VEB coverage. This includes pensions and other benefits in payment, claims not yet determined and other outstanding administrative action.

The Bill will also bring all decision-making in respect of repatriation entitlements immediately within the VEB. The only exception to this is the guide to assessment of rates of pension which is to apply from 1 July 1986, although it may be used administratively before that date.

It is intended that under the transitional provisions there will be no loss or reduction in existing benefits except where there are changed circumstances or fraud. The Bill is also intended to ensure that no one is prejudiced because of procedural differences between the VEB and the repealed Act. I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Lewis) adjourned.