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Thursday, 28 November 1985
Page: 2476

Senator GIETZELT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)(3.25) —Thank you very much. Those sorts of people will be very much aggrieved. While it has been and will be argued by the Opposition that the Government has somehow been on the defensive throughout the debates on this legislation and that the Opposition has been able to gain some credence and credit for the controversy over this Bill, I wager that this issue will be one on which the Opposition-will founder. Being the grandson of a migrant, I know something about chauvanism and racism and I do not want to be put in a position-neither do the Government and the Opposition where we extend a range of benefits to certain groups of people yet at the same time, on the basis of budgetary restraints, we say that we will not extend that range of benefits to Australians. I would wager that there would be an outraged reaction from every ex-service organisation in Australia if we went to the extent of extending the range of benefits to a group of people who can apply for benefit immediately on the basis of unemployability because that is a factor in respect of payment of the service pension. That pension was introduced in 1935 in the middle of the Great Depression in order to deal with the intangible effects of war service which could not satisfy the requirements of the determining system that operated at that time. The pension was implemented for a handful of people and was never intended to be available to the broad majority of veterans and certainly it was never inteded to apply to veterans from other countries. I had to make a decision about priorities in my Department. If it comes to a point where I have to spend $1m, $5m, $10m or $20m, depending upon that guesstimate to which Senator Lewis referred, I will have to make cuts in some other section of my budget in order to accommodate this amendment if it is passed.

The Government was criticised yesterday by Senator MacGibbon about a reduction in dental treatment. Perhaps if this amendment is passed I will have to abolish that completely in order to provide the funds for this area. The money does not come from nowhere. I am restricted, as my predecessor, Senator Messner, will appreciate. Cabinet makes the decisions about the funds that are available, Cabinet decides on the allocation. If I want to introduce new policy proposals, I will have to make some savings within my existing budget. That is the yardstick upon which I have to work. In the total scene of all the priority areas that the veteran community places upon this Government, I do not think that this can be considered in any way to be such a high priority area.

At present neither allied veterans nor Commonwealth veterans in receipt of a service pension are entitled to repatriation treatment. They are specifically excluded. Yet this amendment seeks to extend treatment benefits to those allied service pensioners who have taken up Australian citizenship. We are not only dealing with the accessibility of a group of people; we are also seeking to extend a whole range of benefits. We are amending a money Bill and that will be considerably costly from the point of view of the operation of the repatriation system. Under existing legislation neither Commonwealth veterans-and there are 24,000 of them from the United Kingdom-nor 3,500 allied veterans are eligible for treatment. The amendment ignores Commonwealth veterans who are not entitled to treatment but who qualify for the service pension. Of course it is the Government's policy to progressively extend treatment benefits as part of its budgetary initiatives, but I have to make the decision as to whether this occupies a top place on the priority list. If I have to make that decision-and Ministers, whatever their political persuasion, have to make these decisions-the first priority for any extensions must be to Australian veterans and not all Australian veterans qualify for free medical treatment. I hope, rather than move down this track, that the Opposition and the Democrats will examine seriously what they are seeking to achieve and to that extent will recognise that there will be a very big reaction from the veteran community which is overwhelmingly Australian in content, tradition and outlook. That community will see extending this benefit as being at its expense, and that is a strategy and political objective that ought to be avoided.