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Monday, 20 August 2001
Page: 26156

Senator SCHACHT (8:16 PM) —The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2001 is supported by the opposition. It deals with a number of announcements that the government made in the budget recently. We do not have any opposition to these measures because they are an extension of benefits. We support the government on them and we will not be moving any amendments to this bill in the committee stage.

The bill deals specifically with a number of areas which are not insignificant in cost to the revenue and are, therefore, a cost to the Australian taxpayer. But I think the Australian taxpayer, by and large, would agree that these improvements and these new measures are beneficial to our veterans community. The first major area that the bill deals with is the extension of the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The scheme will be extended to include all Allied veterans and mariners with qualifying service from World War I and World War II. I think there are 20 Australian veterans left from World War I. There may be some others who have been living here—Allied mariners, et cetera—but, at the most, there would not be more than 10, I would imagine, if any at all. Certainly for Allied veterans and mariners with qualifying service from World War II, this is a significant initiative of the government. It is significant alone in that the estimated cost of over $30 million a year indicates that a sizeable benefit will be available to a considerable number of Allied veterans living in Australia. The estimated cost in 2001-02 is $19.5 million; it rises to $33 million in 2002-03, $31 million in 2003-04 and $30 million in 2004-05.

While it is a matter of interest for the community, the interest that we have in this matter is that it is a bit difficult to make this estimate—to know the number of Allied veterans and mariners who have qualifying service and who are now living in Australia. Currently, it is estimated that there are about 350,000 veterans with access to the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, using on average 34 to 35 concessional prescriptions a year at an annual cost of about $325 million. So the scheme is not a cheap scheme by any means but it is a very worthwhile and necessary scheme to provide benefits to our Australian veterans. Therefore, I say to the minister that one of the questions in the committee stage is: can they be more specific in how they arrived at the estimation of around $30 million in a full year to extend this to Allied veterans and mariners? The figure on these estimations has to be only marginally out and you have a blow-out in the budget, running to $5 million, $10 million, $15 million, $20 million, et cetera. Again, I do not blame the department for not automatically being sure how many Allied veterans are now living in Australia.

Another issue is the extension of the gold card to Allied veterans, which has been promoted by groups in the veterans community. I have seen figures that up to 90,000 Allied veterans with qualifying service are now living in Australia—obviously, British veterans being the largest number. There are veterans from the Second World War, not only from Great Britain but from all the Allied countries—France, Holland, Italy, Greece, and Scandinavian countries such as Norway and Denmark. There are also Russians; several thousand Russian veterans emigrated to Australia in the 1980s. I have met some of them and they fought at those famous battles at Stalingrad and Leningrad, right through to the capture of Berlin. Their war experiences are quite outstanding and astounding to those of us who have not served in such a military conflict. The extension of this benefit is very important to those Allies, and this will be a significant benefit to them.

The department is using the average of 34 or 35 concessional prescriptions a year for existing Australian veterans. We are interested to know whether the department believes that Allied veterans will be using the same number of concessional prescriptions a year and, if not, what is its judgment on that? Also, does it have any concern that there will be an increase in the number of concessional prescriptions available for this benefit?

Turning to qualifying service, for those people not involved in the veteran community, an Allied veteran must be aged 70 or more and have qualifying service. `Qualifying service' means they must have been in areas designated as seeing action or they must have been in harm's way, or some such phrase, and of course have been an Australian resident for 10 years or more. This is not an insignificant increase in the budget, but the opposition supports the government on this particular proposal.

The other major area of this bill refers to the extension of the war widows pension to all war widows who have remarried. They will all now get the pension. Previously, if you were a war widow who had remarried before 1984 you did not get the pension. In 1984 the Labor Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Senator Arthur Gietzelt, was able to convince the government of the day, the Hawke government, that this restriction should be lifted. In the argument over cost it was lifted only for those widows who remarried after 1984. Those who had already remarried before 1984 still were not able to get the war widows pension. The government has now taken the decision to remove that restriction so that all war widows, no matter when they remarried—of course, being a war widow means you have qualifying service—will get the pension.

I have to say that there has been an ongoing campaign with many governments by the War Widows Guild and the veteran community to remove this restriction. Though there were a number of inquiries, it was very difficult to argue why there should be a cut-off date of 1984. In those days I suspect that my former colleague Senator Gietzelt found it difficult enough to convince Treasury and Finance to make the concession post 1984 and that he had to put up with a compromise that said, `You can do it for the future ones, Arthur, but you can't do it for the ones up until 1984.' I think the bean counters in Treasury and Finance had some success in what they would have seen as restricting the availability of the war widows pension, but it did leave a very awkward anomaly in that a lot of war widows who had remarried who thought they were eligible felt that they were being harshly dealt with because they had remarried before 1984 compared with those who had remarried after 1984.

I also want to make a comment generally about the war widows pension and the supplementary pension. The government would be aware, as we are in the opposition, that there has been considerable lobbying in the veteran community for an increase in the general rate of the war widows pension. In the restricted financial circumstances that this present government has now placed us in, with the reduction in the surplus from $14 billion that it was supposed to be this year down to $1½ billion, lots of these quite reasonable requests from the veteran community will not be able to be met automatically by the Labor Party if we are in government in a few months time or the coalition government if, unfortunately, it continues in power. But I think one area that can and ought to be looked at as a priority in the war widows area is the supplementary pension. I think an increase in the supplementary pension should have a higher priority than any increase in the war widows pension because the supplementary pension goes more to people with real need. Everyone gets the general pension. Some may ask, `If Kerry Packer were a veteran, would Mrs Packer really need an increase in the war widows pension if she were eligible for it?' You would say no. But, for somebody coming from a low income background with the pension as their sole source of income and livelihood, an increase in the supplementary pension would do more good than any increase in the general pension if you had to prioritise where you spend the money.

I note the estimate of how many war widows disaffected by the 1984 decision are still alive in 2001. In 1998 the government estimated that some 4,500 war widows pension recipients were alive in 1984, with an average age then of 64. The government estimated that there were about 4,100 war widows who had not received the pension prior to 1984 who were still alive as at 1997, with an average age of 77 years. Obviously, because of the normal rate of mortality in the human race, some of those people have passed away, so we are looking at a figure of fewer than 4,500. That is not a large number of recipients, but it is a very important number who will have that anomaly removed.

I re-emphasise, because some people have been very critical of this anomaly, that up until 1984 any war widow who remarried did not get the pension. The change was made in 1984. It did not go all the way, but it meant that all those who remarried after the 1984 decision of the Labor government became eligible for the pension. We congratulate the government on removing this restriction for those who remarried before 1984 and are still alive. I believe that this is a very important and significant measure. In a bipartisan way, the opposition will support the government.

I also want to take this opportunity to speak very briefly on a matter of some heartburn in a small number of cases—that of the payment of the $25,000 to prisoners of war of the Japanese. The government pushed that legislation through this parliament in a matter of a couple of days. At the time the opposition said that, although we supported the measure, it might be useful to take an extra week or so putting it to a committee and having a chance to look at whether there were anomalies in the way in which this matter was being dealt with and whether all the people who got the benefit should get the benefit. I have had a couple of cases raised with me that indicate a difficulty. As I said, there are not a large number of cases. I do not think the government is going to change the legislation, but maybe the government could consider an ex gratia payment.

There is one case I will use as an example that I had not thought of. It involves a former member of this parliament. Tony Lamb, a former member for La Trobe and for Streeton on two different occasions in the federal parliament, pointed out that when he was four years old his father died on the Burma railway. His mother had died previously in the early 1940s, so his father was a widower. His father still joined up, and the kids were put with an aunt and other relatives while he went off to serve Australia. He died on the Burma railway, but because he died after his wife there was no widow. Tony raises the issue: how do you handle the case—not that I think Tony was desperate for the money—where the veteran outlives the widow who died before he gave service? That is one case.

Another case that I heard of that I think is more compelling—and I certainly do not want to use any names here—is where a veteran came back from the war, was married, had two or three children, the marriage lasted several decades and then, through circumstances that I am not sure of, the veteran and the wife separated and got divorced. The veteran subsequently remarried, but he passed away in the last few months before the government's announcement. The $25,000 went to his estate. Because the widow died in the past six months, the money has gone into her estate and will go to the children of the non-veteran. I have had this raised with me: is it very fair that the actual children of the veteran who was the prisoner of war get nothing but the stepchildren inherit the $25,000?

I know that when you draw up legislation you cannot draw up a rule to cover every one of these examples, but maybe under regulation there could have been some discretion given to make some payment. I call on the government to give this consideration. I do not think there are many cases, but I think the cases that are there are very heartfelt. It seems particularly hard to me that the children of the veteran do not get the money and the stepchildren of the non-veteran get the money. It is unavoidable; it is what the law says. Although this is not in this bill, I wanted to take this opportunity to raise it. I have written to the minister himself about Mr Lamb's case. He pointed out what the legislation says.

I have already raised in this place and with the minister the case of Jan Ruff-O'Herne, who is now a citizen, and I got a letter back saying that she was not eligible. I asked if the minister would support an ex gratia payment from the Minister for Finance and Administration of an appropriate amount in view of her suffering and her promotion and publicising of the terrible suffering of the so-called comfort women. She has just received a major award from the Dutch government, although she is now an Australian citizen, for not only the work that she has done in promoting the issue of the comfort women and compensation but also in going to the United Nations. As a result of her work, the issue of rape is now considered as part of the genocide descriptions of the War Crimes Tribunal and the International Criminal Court. That, in itself, is a major achievement for which, for a long time to come, Jan Ruff-O'Herne should be recognised. Again I say to the government that an ex gratia payment to her would be very appropriate.

My time has almost expired. The opposition supports this bill. We have no amendments. I notice that Senator Harris is moving an amendment. I will hear what he has to say and have some further discussion in the committee stage.