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Wednesday, 27 November 1985
Page: 2412

Senator BROWNHILL(9.58) —I support the views of Senator Lewis, who opened the debate this evening so very well.

Senator Haines —Eloquently.

Senator BROWNHILL —And so very eloquently, for the Opposition. I also support the views of Senator MacGibbon, who spoke with great feeling and contributed a great deal, as did Senator Boswell.

Senator Haines —What about Senator Macklin?

Senator BROWNHILL —This legislation is certainly overdue, if only to tidy up the enormous amount of regulation and other bits and pieces that deal with repatriation. It has been said to me that Senator Macklin also made a contribution to the debate-but maybe it was not as good as those of others in this place. However, I can give no credit to this Government for the haphazard and frightening way in which it introduced part of the legislation in the mini-Budget package last May. After promising the veteran community that legislation would be introduced in such a way as to allow consultation, the Government tried to slam it through. Only the action which the National Party of Australia and the Liberal Party of Australia took in this place prevented the Government from getting its way. Yet this Government, which has caused chaos, is claiming the credit for it. Even now this legislation contains drafting errors that are yet to be amended. The way in which this legislation has been managed has caused heartbreak and worry to thousands of old and not so old people. But then, a government that remembers Armistice Day as the day a discredited former government was sacked rather than as a remembrance for the end of World War One obviously has scant regard for those people who risked their lives to defend out country.

Some of the changes have been prompted by the O'Brien case, together with an increase over the past three years of nearly 55 per cent in disability pensions and an increase of 70 per cent in war widow's pensions. Considering the age of the people involved, this must obviously occur as more women become widows and more people become disabled. I consider that our commitment to these veterans should never be judged in purely monetary terms. The Opposition's veterans' affairs policy states:

. . . one of generosity within the constraints of responsibility to the Australian taxpayer.

As we look after the unemployed, so too we should not hesitate to look after our veterans. But there is an important difference here. Help for veterans and war widows is not social welfare; it is compensation for loss and disablement during wartime in the defence of our country.

Even though this Bill is an improvement on the original Bill there are still a number of areas that worry me. The onus of proof clauses, while improved, are still yet to be tested in litigation. The shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the honourable member for Farrer (Mr Tim Fischer), who is also a veteran of the Vietnam war, has already said that the Opposition will monitor that area very closely to ensure that no one is unfairly treated. The Bill reasserts the assets test for veterans' pensions and it has already resulted in 13,000-odd veterans having their pensions reduced or cancelled. A letter I received from a constituent is typical of those who have been affected by the assets test. The letter was written to the Department of Veterans' Affairs and it states:

This is an appeal against the recent decision of the Department to deprive me and my wife of the small service Pension which for a few years we enjoyed.

. . . .

There are times when I wonder whether this is indeed the country for which we fought. Did the flower of the Country's youth swelter in the desert, rot in the jungles, . . . burn in agony in crashed aircraft or drown in the ocean for this? They risked their lives daily on land and sea and in the air and it doesn't seem fair that in the sunset of their lives and at a time when comfort and security are needed they should be abandoned because they have little political influence.

The letter goes on in reference to his land:

I am now too incapacitated to work it effectively.

In recent years we have relied on our pensions to subsidise the operations of the property although we have been able to provide little more than enough for essential maintenance. With the loss of the pension I do not know how we will carry on and it is obvious that the place will deteriorate.

What a worry it is for those older people in the community who have fought for their country now to have the problem of the assets test. Why is this Government continuing its attack on the elderly? The second area that concerns me is the qualification of totally and permanently incapacitated and disability pensioner. There are still anomalies in the legislation. It is a fact, for example, that the pension previously paid to the wife of a disability pension recipient is now no longer paid. This seems to me to be a penny-pinching sort of action, even taking into account the current parlous state of the economy.

The third area that worries me is the interpretation and treatment of allied veterans. I understand that the Government's first commitment must be to Australian veterans but I hope that appropriate consideration will be given to veterans from our allies who now live in this country. Allies who helped to defend our country beside our own veterans deserve better than this. The last area of concern is that current serving members of our defence forces have now been excluded from repatriation protection and coverage. We have been told that a defence compensation scheme is to be introduced eventually, but what happens to those Defence Force personnel in the meantime? What, for example, will happen to those men from the Royal Australian Navy injured recently in the explosion on board the HMAS Stalwart? Are they to be covered or must they somehow be fitted into the Public Service workers compensation arrangements?

I am concerned that there are still a number of veterans' groups that are less than happy with the new legislation, and that includes the Returned Services League, the War Widows Guild, the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Federation, regular Defence Force welfare associations and others. There are a number of areas that concern them, some of which I have already mentioned. I have mentioned the coverage for current full time members of the defence forces and the interpretation of the onus of proof rule. The Opposition welcomes this legislation because it is necessary and will improve the operation of repatriation services. Certainly there needs to be a streamlining of services. I have numerous cases coming into my office of veterans experiencing delays of up to three years in trying to get disability pensions. In some cases they are fearful that they will die before their cases are assessed and their dependants will miss out. I hope that this new legislation will make the determination of these cases more efficient.