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Thursday, 28 November 1985
Page: 2483

Senator MESSNER(4.18) —I am rather surprised that, in such a major review of veterans' legislation as this Bill represents, the Government has not seen fit to change substantially its views on the assets test in the light of the huge community outcry over the introduction of that harsh and very difficult test. As my colleague Senator Lewis has pointed out, it is certainly true that veterans seem to have been singled out by this Government to be mistreated and ill treated with the introduction of the assets test on their service pensions. He is also very right when he says that it seems to be country veterans who have been singled out for especially harsh treatment. It is those veterans in country areas who we see in our constituency work who are finding that the hardship provisions in the assets test which the Government has incorporated into its plan mean that the legislation is used against veterans rather than for them. If the Minister were able to disclose the number of cases brought under the hardship provisions and the number of cases that have been allowed, we would find a tremendous disparity. We would find, in fact, that many veterans have been unable to take advantage of the hardship provisions because of the very stringent requirements that the Government has laid down in respect of them. It is virtually impossible for veterans to be able to demonstrate that they are in hardship. That is because they have assets such as farms which are producing, in many cases, very low incomes. That occurs especially in drought years, very low yield years, when income is very small. Consequently, they find themselves in need of a pension but, because of the hardship provisions and because of their ownership of farms and, in some cases, other assets, they find it absolutely impossible to obtain the pension.

The provisions also have a very deleterious effect insofar as many veterans, particularly disabled veterans, as they get older find themselves unable to work a farm because the effects of their war service have been such as to reduce their capacity to work, and they need to hand over the property to their children to continue its development and operation. But even in that situation, the veteran finds that he is unable to effect that because the provisions require that any asset transferred to his family in that fashion is treated as an asset anyway and is consequently taken into account in assessing the veteran's pension.

That is something of serious concern to many veterans as they reach the age of retirement. As they reach the age of 60, having given their best for this country on the battlefields of the world, they find themselves unable to continue to work on the farm and they are precluded by virtue of their situation from divesting themselves of their assets in any way which would ensure that they get the pension. That is something that the Government ought to consider in regard to this legislation. I am amazed that it has not been taken into account in a review of the legislation, because it is a direct attack on veterans, who are in a special category. They are not in the same category as social security beneficiaries in the sense that many of them are disabled and consequently cannot work a property as much as they might have been able to work it in their youth.

The logic of the veteran's service pension is that it is a recognition of the need for early retirement, as against the rest of the community, by virtue of the fact that there are some latent or hidden effects from war service which bring about premature aging. That, surely, is more applicable in the case of a veteran who has to undertake enormous physical work on a farm or similar property, and consequently such veterans ought to be given special consideration in relation to the assets test. The problem is that the Government has failed to recognise that need, and it treats the veteran in precisely the same way as it treats the social security beneficiary. That is a failure to appreciate veterans' very special problems. The Government ought at least to have taken account of that in the review of this major legislation which is before us today.

We have many complaints against the assets test, and they have been made well known over the last several months as we have been debating that issue. The Government has itself recognised the problems of the assets test and has moved on many occasions to water down its original propositions. We have had four or perhaps five amendments to the original scheme which was outlined in the 1983 Budget; yet still we have the deleterious effects which are hurting so many veterans, country veterans in particular. Many of the veterans in that category who are farmers are not generally very wealthy. Many veterans who are being caught by the assets test own and operate very modest properties. The kinds of properties on which these people are frequently found working are soldier settler properties made available by a grateful government for ex-soldiers at the end of the wars. Consequently, by definition, they are very modest properties.

The people who went on to them after the wars did so with very little capital. A grateful government at that time provided special conditions for the purchase and financing of those properties. Yet, coming to the other end of the life of such veterans, this Government is not prepared to take account of the special situations that arise by virtue of veterans prematurely aging, as they do, as a result of war service. It is despicable that this Government has not given due consideration of that circumstance. Indeed, it can be said that there is not just a small number of odd cases that occur in these circumstances, and it is not only physical disabilities that begin to reveal themselves in veterans as they get older. In my constituency experience, I increasingly meet people affected through nervous complaints and mental problems as a result of their war service who find themselves just physically and mentally unable to handle the problems of business and of farming as they reach the age of 60 or more.

As a result, those people are particularly disadvantaged in the way in which the assets test operates. They are trapped in a situation in which they cannot get rid of their properties to their children, even though the urgency of that course piles up upon them increasingly. Because many of them are declining rather more rapidly as they get older, and because of the total debilitating effect of being unable to cope with a situation, being unable to earn income from a property effectively and unable to transfer the property to someone else, these people are driven down further and further. In my experience, I have found a number of people in that situation who just wonder what this Government has been all about and, consequently, really are at their wits' end in trying to manage their lives and those of their families in the situation into which this heartless Government has put them.

We in the Opposition have, as has been demonstrated on previous occasions when we have debated the assets test, consistently opposed any legislative moves in regard to the assets test. As part of our social security policy, we stand committed to repeal the legislation on re-election to government. At the next election, we shall campaign on the basis of the promise to repeal that legislation. That applies not only to social security beneficiaries but also to veteran beneficiaries. As a result of that, it behoves us as an opposition to oppose the clause. We know that the Australian Democrats support the assets test, so no doubt we shall fail in this, but that does not matter because we are standing on a matter of very great principle, because we stand for independence in social security and not dependence. Consequently, we shall be opposing clause 54.