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Wednesday, 16 December 1992
Page: 5227

Senator NEWMAN (6.38 p.m.) —I intend to address the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1992 and the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill 1992, which have been lumped together with the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1992, the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 1992 and the Data-Matching Program (Assistance and Tax) Amendment Bill 1992 for cognate debate.

  Veterans rightly feel very angry that the Government has tried to rush these important pieces of legislation through both Houses of this Parliament. In the House of Representatives, the Government gagged debate on these Bills. As can be seen, we have had to agree to a time limit on this debate. The House of Representatives completed its consideration of these Bills shortly after midnight on 10 November this year. Is it any wonder that veterans have a total lack of trust in this Labor Government when such important legislation is dealt with in the dead of night and when debate is truncated?

  The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) is a portfolio Bill implementing a number of Budget decisions and some minor non-Budget policy changes. The coalition is not opposing this Bill. We support the extension of Defence Service home loan provisions to allow use of a loan for repairs or modifications, as well as for the purpose of discharging an existing mortgage.

  We also support the changes in relation to former prisoners of war. Spouses of ex-POWs will automatically qualify for the war widow's pension. While it should be noted that four in five widows of ex-POWs already qualify for the war widow's pension, surviving ex-POWs who are not TPI or EDA disability pensioners and their wives can draw comfort from the fact that there will not be a need to contest a war widow's claim.

  This Bill also increases the level of pension payable to veterans and war widows. Pensions are to be increased on 4 February. The increase comprises two components; a one-off $2 a fortnight for standard rate pensions and the bringing forward of the anticipated March 1993 indexation increase. While the coalition does not oppose these increases, it is obvious to everybody, including veterans, exactly what this exercise is all about—something to do with an election measure. The so-called increase amounts to a grand total of $1 a week and will only further exacerbate the cynical light in which veterans and war widows now regard this Government.

  I draw the attention of the Senate to the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill 1992. As is well known, the Government is proposing to significantly amend this Bill in the Committee of the Whole. The Opposition has its own second reading amendment which has been circulated to honourable senators. At the outset of my remarks on the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill, I move:

Leave out all words after "That", substitute "in view of the Government's inadequate consultation, and the need for more time to assess its proposed amendments, consideration of the bill be postponed until the first sitting day in February 1993".

I would also add that if, by the first sitting day in February next year, there still has not been adequate consultation, the coalition will again take action to have consideration of the Bill deferred. If there has been consultation, but legal advice suggests that the Bill should be subject to even greater scrutiny, the coalition would then move to have the Bill again referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

  The need for this action is a damning indictment of this Government and its efforts to force through this Bill. It has attempted to change fundamental provisions of the Veterans' Entitlements Act without talking with the ex-service community. My colleague Senator Durack, a distinguished QC, has serious concerns which he will also try to address in the brief time available to him in this debate this evening.

  This Bill was hurriedly put together in response to a High Court decision in Bushell v. Repatriation Commission handed down on 7 October 1992. The Government argued that the decision liberalised the basis on which an injury or disease could be said to be war or defence caused and this would lead to a blow-out in pension costs to veterans. The extent of this potential blow-out was put in alarming terms by the Government—between $1.2 billion and $2.2 billion over the next 10 years. Any responsible government would rightly be concerned at such implications.

  When introducing the Bill the Minister stated that the intent of the Bill was only to restore pre-Bushell conditions. It was to address the High Court decision and no more. Yet, as more time was devoted to studying the Bill and the decision of the High Court, it emerged that the Government may have overreacted to the decision and that it may in fact have misinterpreted the High Court decision.

  As it was, the Bill concerned the coalition for a number of reasons. Firstly, we were alarmed at the speed with which fundamental provisions of the Veterans' Entitlements Act were being altered. Secondly, the Government failed to engage in any consultation with the ex-service community or the coalition and the Bill was presented as a fait accompli. Thirdly, we were concerned at whether or not this Bill would only achieve what the Government said it would achieve and that it would not unreasonably tighten the standard of proof provisions of the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

  We took the decision that the Bill should be referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs for further scrutiny. I stress that it was the coalition which initiated the referral of this Bill to the Senate Standing Committee. The Committee met on 23 November. Every one of the major ex-service organisations presented evidence. Senator Tate was at the Committee hearing and he will recall that witness after witness, flourishing legal opinions from QCs, senior counsel and practitioners before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, argued that the Government had misinterpreted the Bushell decision. They also argued that the effects of the proposed Bill went far beyond the Minister's assurances in his second reading speech.

  The Government was also heavily criticised for the lack of any consultation with the ex-service community on the changes contained in the Bill. The advice from the Solicitor-General, which the Government had relied on for its interpretation of the High Court decision and used as a justification for the Bill, was dismissed as fundamentally wrong by Justice Toose, an expert on the repatriation system and Chairman of the 1975 Independent Inquiry into the Repatriation System.

  We then saw an extraordinary turn of events. After the luncheon adjournment, Senator Tate, the Minister representing the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, revealed that in the face of the morning's evidence the Government would be deleting the sections of the Bill of most concern to the ex-service community. However, Senator Tate indicated that the Government still wanted to proceed with the remainder of the Bill as soon as possible.

  The coalition members on the Committee believed that no convincing case was made for the Bill being urgent. I strongly believe that more time is needed to assess the amended Bill. I know that this is the universal opinion of the ex-service organisations. The amendments and the new clauses to be moved on behalf of the Government were only circulated last Thursday evening. The new supplementary explanatory memorandum states:

The Government's view that the Bushell decision has significantly widened the scope of claims that would be successful was initially based on the opinions of the Solicitor-General, Senior Counsel and the Repatriation Commission.

It is then claimed that this view has recently been endorsed by the editors of veterans' matters in the Australian Administrative Law Bulletin.

  Two important points need to be made here. As I have already said, Justice Toose—widely respected as he is on the repatriation system—said at the Committee hearing that the advice of the Solicitor-General was utterly wrong. Secondly, the comments in the Australian Administrative Law Bulletin were carried in the November edition, that is, before the Committee hearing. The editors therefore could not have been aware of the views that many experts presented to the Committee on the likely impact of the Bushell decision. The supplementary explanatory memorandum also states:

The amendments now proposed will not eliminate all of the anticipated additional program expenditure. The extent to which the Bill meets its original objectives will, therefore, need to be monitored.

This additional expenditure has been bandied about by the Government as justification for the Bill, but what credibility does this assertion have? No satisfactory evidence has been produced for the Government's claims.

  As indicated by Senator Tate at the Committee, and reflected in the amendments the Government circulated last week, the Government accepts that the original Bill was much stricter than the Minister indicated in his second reading speech. This admission was forced from the Government just by the sheer weight of the evidence presented to the Committee.

  If the Government accepts the evidence in this regard, why does it not also accept the equally compelling arguments presented to the Committee that it has misinterpreted the Bushell decision? It has been selective in the views presented in the supplementary explanatory memorandum. The overwhelming evidence presented to the Committee was quite different from the largely discredited views contained in the supplementary explanatory memorandum. I think it says a great deal about the Government's approach to this legislation and it underscores the need for more time to assess the amendments to this Bill.

  The history of today's Bill is a classic case of how not to implement change. It was rushed into the Parliament; there was restricted debate in the House of Representatives in the dead of night; there was no consultation with the ex-service community; the Bill was savaged at a Senate standing committee; and now it is the Government's intention to fundamentally alter it in the Senate.

  I know that the ex-service community feels angry and let down yet again by this Government and by its appalling management of this legislation. The credibility of the Government is on the line and it has been found to be wanting by the sheer weight of the impressive evidence presented to the Committee.

  The amendments proposed by the Government would appear to gut the Bill and, on this basis, one could be tempted to argue that they are unnecessary; yet the explanatory supplementary memorandum seeks to argue that the Bill largely meets the Government's aim, even if different methods are now being employed. The Government's aim to overturn the Bushell decision is a questionable one based on the evidence presented to the Senate Committee. I have already questioned a number of assertions contained in the supplementary explanatory memorandum.

  In the light of the short time that has been given to the coalition and to the ex-service community to assess the amendments and the supplementary explanatory memorandum, the coalition believes that this Bill must be deferred. The Opposition is acting in a proper and responsible manner in having the Bill's passage deferred on the basis of the second reading amendment which I moved earlier. The Government has handled this legislation extremely badly and it deserves the scorn which the ex-service community is heaping on it. I urge the Senate to support my amendment.