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Thursday, 28 November 1985
Page: 2460

Senator GIETZELT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)(12.37) —Senator Macklin's suggestion that the Australian repatriation system be widened to include any group of citizens who come to our country without verification, and without our having regard to our responsibilities to our own citizens, almost leaves me speechless. The repatriation system was designed primarily for Australian veterans. It has been extended, as a result of a Whitlam Government decision, to include certain classifications of veterans of the armed forces. At the conclusion of World War II it was widened to include veterans in Commonwealth forces, and it was extended again in the early post-war years to include those veterans who served under a formal command structure. It is that latter category that Senator Macklin seeks to include under this legislation. One of the tasks that I had as Minister during my trip overseas early this year was to discuss with the Greek, Italian and Yugoslav governments the verification of eligibility of persons who have been in our country for some 20 or 30 years in the post-war period and have reached the age of 60 years or are unemployable and therefore come within the service pension provisions, as we require verification of their eligibility as a result of their service in World War II before we can grant them a service pension.

What Senator Macklin's amendment seeks to do is to bring a whole range of new persons into the service pension area. He ignores the fact that our legislation takes account of our social security obligations. If people are unemployed, they become eligible for unemployment benefit. When a man reaches the age of 65 and a woman reaches the age of 60 they become eligible for social security benefits. The Government approach is not racist, but we believe that we must draw the line in relation to Australia's involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Having regard to the changed political situation in Vietnam, we believe it would be impossible for the Vietnamese Government to verify the alleged service records of those who have come to Australia, largely as boat people. Senator Macklin seems to think that somehow or other they had in their hip pockets documents which said they served in the war in Vietnam.

There is the very important principle that one must serve in an operational zone in a war-like situation. For example, there are people who served in the Armoured Division in Australia, people who served in Darwin at different times from those stipulated in the regulations, Australian citizens who served for four or five years, who are not given access to the service pension. Yet the amendment suggests that someone who produces a document saying that he served in the Vietnamese Army, although he may never have moved out of a base area, should receive a service pension on the mere presentation of that document. We have no way of verifying that person's application. If the mere presentation of a document stating that the person was in the Vietnamese armed forces entitled him to a service pension he would be placed in a superior position to the 90,000 Australians who do not qualify for the service pension because they were not in an allotted war zone during the Second World War. Could anyone seriously justify as valid an obligation on the part of the Commonwealth Government to provide such persons with access to the service pension and all that that means? It also means access to all the fringe benefits-local government subsidies for rates, telephone rental subsidies, electricity bill subsidies and help with bills from water boards and other statutory authorities. Most service pensioners get all those benefits together with free travel. There are Australians who enlisted in World War II and who are not eligible for that pension because they were not sent to a war zone.

Senator Lewis raised legitimately during the second reading debate the question of my Department's estimate that 4,000 allied veterans and their wives who served after 1 September 1957 might qualify for receipt of the service pension by 1990. He asked for some confirmation of those figures that were given to the shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs by one of my officers. As Senator Lewis will appreciate, any estimate of pensions granted in the future will need to be read as indicative only. The number of pensions granted is dependent on the lodgment of claims by eligible veterans and claims lodged at any time can be influenced by many factors, including the economic climate of the time. My Department's expenditure of $21m in 1990 is based on the best available estimates of numbers of potential claimants, in terms of the size and age of the population at that time. These estimates are subject also to many external factors.

Progress reported.