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Wednesday, 27 November 1985
Page: 2405

Senator MacGIBBON(9.15) —The Opposition supports the Veterans' Entitlements Bill 1985 and will support amendments to be moved by Senator Lewis in the Committee stage. The object of the Veterans' Entitlements Bill is to reconstruct the original legislation that goes back to the 1920s. Since the 1920s the legislation has been amended about 90 times. The legislation deals with benefits payable to veterans in the form of repatriation benefits. The Bill seeks to streamline and consolidate a very large body of interlocking legislation. Much of that legislation is cumbersome, some of it is obscure, and some of it is outdated. The existing legislation has attracted a considerable amount of criticism on the record, both from judges and by the Repatriation Commission. They have drawn attention both to the very high legal costs associated with the legislation and to its high administrative costs. They have referred to the delays that are inherent in the application of the legislation in the way it has been drafted.

It is incumbent upon all of us in this Parliament to honour the repatriation benefits that the Australian people, through this Parliament, in earlier times undertook to provide as recompense and support for those who served overseas and for their dependants. Those repatriation benefits are in return for the sacrifices made. In too many cases those sacrifices were of the supreme kind and no adequate compensation can be made for them. I well remember a time in the late 1950s, nearly 30 years ago, when I was driving through France. I had driven past a whole line of signs in the Somme Valley which said `Imperial War Graves Commission', such-and-such cemetery. I stopped at a small, beautifully neat cemetery, the Adelaide Cemetery. I walked into the cemetery and found all the headstones neatly ordered in their serried ranks. They all had their backs to the road. When I reached the rear of the cemetery, by the stone of remembrance, I turned and looked back. I think there were only about 600 graves in that cemetery, but over 90 per cent of them had the rising sun on them of the First Australian Imperial Force. I still remember the great emotion I felt when I recognised that these were Australians on the other side of the world who had never come home. If one goes through the Somme one comes to the great Australian memorial at Fouilloy on the ridge north of Villers Bretonneux. On the scrolls at either side of the main tower-there is a painting of it just off King's Hall-are inscribed the names of 10,000 Australians of the First AIF who have no known graves.

It is for these people and for those who survived and to make some compensation for the injuries they sustained, for the sacrifices they made, for the careers that were interrupted or destroyed, that the repatriation benefits were instituted by the Australian Parliament. We made a promise we have to honour. That promise is not measurable solely in terms of money. We have to honour the spirit in which that promise was given.

It is very demeaning for the veterans of Australia to have to ask for their entitlements. They should never be placed in that position. None of those veterans enlisted for repatriation benefits. They enlisted to serve their country. The benefits were very secondary to them. We made that undertaking. It is an undertaking that has had bipartisan support from the Liberal Party of Australia, the National Party of Australia and the Australian Labor Party through the history of this Parliament.

The need for vigilance is now greater than it ever has been. We now have the lowest number of veterans in this Parliament that we have had since 1918. Senator Gietzelt has indicated that we have five in this chamber. I do not know the number in the whole Parliament but it would be very low. We have fewer than we have ever had and we will have fewer in the future. So the responsibility is on us here to honour those agreements. I can do no more than to echo the statement by Dr Evatt who, speaking of the Labor Goverment which was in power some 30 or 40 years ago, said:

The Government regards the honouring of the promise made to fighting forces and dependants . . . as an integral part of its war efforts.

It is, regrettably, true that the present Labor Government has allowed the priority for veterans' affairs to be set at a lower level than its predecessors in the Labor Party have permitted. The low water mark was the legislation which was introduced in May of this year, namely, the Repatriation Legislation Amendment Bill, the Bill that this Bill seeks to supplant. The biggest mistake that the Labor Party made in that case was in not consulting with the veterans and their organisations about the contents of that Bill. Those of us on this side of the chamber in the Liberal Party and the National Party were left with the sole recourse of inserting a sunset clause so that that Bill would expire in six months, and it expires on 5 December. We did that with the purpose of allowing the Government to consult the organisations that represent the veterans of Australia.

The Government has had effective discussions with those bodies. In fairness, it must be said that they have largely supported the present Bill that the Government has now brought down. But that earlier lack of consultation should never have occurred. The veterans' groups are disciplined. They are visible. They are easy to communicate with and they are easy to observe in the Australian community. There was no reason on earth for the Government not to be able to enter into effective dialogue with them earlier this year.

In a sense, this Bill had its origins when Senator Messner was Minister for Veterans' Affairs and he started a review. He set up a committee with the Returned Services League and other groups and had discussions with them as to what changes needed to be made to update the legislation.

Referring back to the Bill introduced in May of this year, Senator Lewis mentioned the criticism that the Liberal Party and the National Party suffered as our actions were misrepresented by our political opponents. All I did in return was to say to the many people who approached me asking why we took such action on the Bill: `We need to provide a mechanism for you to consult with the Government and we need to give the Government a chance to have a second look at this legislation. All I ask from you is to judge the Liberal Party and the National Party by our record in government since 1918 with respect to supporting the spirit and the intention of repatriation legislation'. I think it is very clear from the legislation that is before us tonight that the position taken by the Liberal Party and the National Party in the Senate enabled the Government to get off the hook it was on as a result of the bad legislation that it introduced in May of this year.

This Bill was debated for a very long time in the House of Representatives, and tonight we have had the benefit of an excellent speech by Senator Lewis. It is not my intention to go through this Bill clause by clause. There are some salient features to which I would like to refer. I will deal first of all with the good points of the Bill. Clause 119, which will replace section 47 of the Repatriation Act and which deals with the standard of proof, is a very considerable improvement on the proposals in the previous Bill. The Returned Services League and other organisations, but not all the organisations representing veterans, have indicated their support. The Opposition's view is that it is a considerable improvement on section 47 of the Repatriation Act, but we make it very clear that there is a need to monitor its operation very closely to see that it operates fairly and objectively.

The second good point in the Bill is the deletion of the 40-year rule, which would have related to war widows. The 40-year requirement was a mealy-mouthed Uriah Heep action of the Government which did it no credit at all and, ultimately, it would have had no signficant savings for the Treasury. The Government was moved in making changes in the May legislation by the Law case and the O'Brien case. In a legal sense, I think that the O'Brien case was correct. There is a real concern with respect to the liability of the Commonwealth relevant to the spirit of the legislation that the O'Brien decision caused. It certainly created significant financial implications for the Commonwealth. We recognise that the Government had a responsibility to correct those anomalies, not that it is our view that the Government should restrict funding for veterans' affairs. We believe that there must be adequate funds and that those funds must be used effectively. I can do no more than echo the words of the Leader of the Liberal Party, Mr John Howard, when he said recently that ex-servicemen should be treated with the greatest generosity that the responsible government can afford. The Government does believe that it has corrected the anomalies created by the O'Brien case and that just claims that arise from war-related disabilities will be covered. The Opposition will be watching to see that this is so in practice.

Let us look briefly at some of the bad points that are in the legislation. First of all, the iniquitous assets test is still applied to service pensioners. In the last financial year 13,272 service pensioners have had their pensions either reduced or cancelled under that test. We make it very clear that when we are returned to government we will restore the entitlement to those 13,272 pensioners who have lost it under the assets test of this Government. The second bad point in this legislation is that it will remove from new enlistees in the Army, the Air Force and the Navy the entitlement for repatriation cover after 30 December this year.

It is the intention of the Government to introduce some military compensention legislation to cover those new enlistees, and the Opposition supports the introduction of a military compensation scheme. We believe that repatriation benefits should be intended for overseas service and that the type of service that is involved for members of the Australian defence forces in peacetime is of a different nature from that involved in wartime. But we cannot go along with the view of the Government that somehow or other the service personnel who are not covered by repatriation benefits for the 12 months, 18 months or two years that it will take for the military compensation legislation to come in can be covered by workers compensation-that is, if Mr Holding, who represents Senator Gietzelt in the House of Representatives, is to be taken as echoing decided Government policy on this issue. When this point was made in the House of Representatives he interjected and said that servicemen and women would be covered by workers compensation. Just as we recognise that there is a difference between war service and peace service for members of the Australian Defence Force, we recognise also that there is a very big difference between servicemen and civilian personnel. It is an absolute nonsense to equate the risks that servicemen and women run with civilian life.

Tonight, the Navy will have crews at sea on small ships, on patrol boats, in bad weather on wet decks in Bass Strait. We will have DDGs and frigates at sea, training for war operations. Members of Army units will be out on exercises. Patrols and training groups will be in the hills of Canungra on live firing exercises, coping with all the risks that are involved in night operations of that type. Air Force crews could be flying just subsonically in F111s at about 200-feet on a terrain-following exercise, with the errie sensation of the red light from their rotating beacons flashing back from the trees, the rocks, the hills and the valleys of the border country of Queensland and New South Wales as they fly past, knowing that if one bird comes through the windscreen of a plane, both crew members will probably be dead. These are the sorts of risks our servicemen are running every day of the week in following their calling, and it is nonsense to equate them with people in a civilian occupation.

That is why we will be moving the amendment that, until such time as a military compensation scheme is introduced, the service men and women of this country should remain under a repatriation benefit scheme.

It is not as though the service personnel are paid so well that in some way they are covered for the risks they run. We all know that the terms and conditions of service personnel today are at a very poor level. This Government allowed the pay scales for service personnel to remain static in four years and then granted only a 5.9 per cent increase which had no retrospectivity to it.

I have many examples of families of servicemen in the lower ranks-privates and corporals-who are living below the poverty line today. Some months ago I was rung up by a medical practitioner in a suburb near Enoggera in Brisbane who told me of the case of a mother who had brought her baby in to see him. The baby had a bad cold and the mother apologised for the fact that the child had a cold. In the course of conversation she explained that she had to take the child with her because she could not afford to pay for child care facilities and that she worked at night stacking food back on the shelves of a supermarket. She was forced to do that because the pay that her husband earned as a private soldier was so low that he alone could not support the family. It cannot be argued that service personnel today are covered financially for the great risks they run.

The final point I make with respect to service conditions in relation to repatriation benefits is not directly covered by the Bill. I refer to the dental benefits part of the repatriation benefits, and I do so as a former dental specialist. This Government has granted an amount of $300 per year as being the level of payment that it will make for the dental health of a veteran. We are dealing with men and women veterans of the Second World War who are at least in their sixties. Those who have their own dentitions are very probably at a stage where they need quite significant dental treatment. The figure of $300 is inadeqate to restore one tooth if a crown is required, and I say that as a former crown and bridge specialist. To look at it in aggregate and say that the veterans are entitled to $300 a year over 10 years that is $3,000 and that will buy them a lot of treatment, does not go to the point of the issue. The point is that a lot of this treatment needs to be done at one time. Six, eight or more teeth might need to be restored at the one time with patients of this age.

To commit these veterans to an inadequate standard of dental health, when we have made an obligation to support them through their dental health, is quite wrong. To add insult to injury, the Minister has agreed that those veterans who are full denture cases shall have the right to go to prosthetists for their dentures. That really is committing and consigning them to second rate treatment. It is not a professional form of treatment, even though some States recognise the right of dental prosthetists, who are simply dental technicians, to deal directly with the public. This is something which clearly breaches the spirit of the repatriation legislation.

In summary, the Opposition views this legislation as being a considerable improvement on its predecessor of May this year. The Parliament does have an unavoidable responsibility to scrutinise and to keep a careful surveillance on this legislation. The Parliament has to honour the obligations that it accepted many years ago.