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Monday, 20 August 2001
Page: 26159

Senator BARTLETT (8:36 PM) —I speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2001 on behalf of the Australian Democrats. The bill gives effect to key initiatives in the budget in the area of veterans' affairs. Those initiatives are positive ones, and hence the Democrats support this bill. It will amend the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 to fix recognised anomalies in the repatriation system, specifically initiatives to benefit war widows who lost their pensions upon remarriage and Commonwealth and Allied veterans who served alongside Australians during the two world wars and also to apply a change in recognition of superannuation to veterans' pensions that has already been applied to social security pensions as part of broader changes in the budget restoring the previous treatment that was in place until a few years ago.

The bill restores entitlements to war widows who remarried before 1984 and had their pensions cancelled. I understand that about 3,000 widows are expected to be affected positively by this measure. The Democrats have received many letters from widows on this issue, as have, I am sure, many others in this chamber. The bill also recognises the service of Allied veterans who served during World War I and World War II by granting them eligibility for the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Eligibility will be extended to Commonwealth and Allied veterans who are over the age of 70 who fought alongside Australians in either of the world wars and who have been resident in Australia for 10 years or more.

Finally, the bill will amend the treatment of superannuation assets for those over 55 years of age but under the pension age. As a result of these changes, the government will not include in the income test for social security pensions any money withdrawn from superannuation assets by this age group. The bill makes similar changes to the income testing of payments under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. While the Democrats welcome these initiatives, we believe it is appropriate to point out those areas in our repatriation system that still need reform and change and those areas that are being highlighted regularly by the various veterans' advocacy organisations around the country. When speaking to this bill, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Mr Bruce Scott, said:

This government has always worked closely with the ex-service community to identify issues of concern and to address those issues.

Whilst this bill does address some of those issues, quite clearly there are other issues of concern, some of them quite significant, that have not been addressed. The Democrats believe it is appropriate to highlight those on this occasion whilst acknowledging the positive measures contained in the bill. For example, we recently received correspondence from the National President of the RSL identifying the issues that they would like to see addressed in the lead-up to the federal election and these are consistent with the issues highlighted by many other veterans' organisations.

The seven issues of longstanding concern are: that eligibility for free medical and hospital treatment— the gold card—be extended to all qualified Australian veterans over the age of 70; that all non-qualified veterans who seek a social security pension from Centrelink should not have their DVA pension counted as income when the size of their Centrelink pension is calculated; that the new Military Compensation and Rehabilitation Scheme recommended in the Tanzer report be enacted; that existing funeral benefits for veterans be lifted to $2,000; that the war widows income support supplement be unfrozen, or thawed, and indexed; that the Australian National Audit Office recommendation on funding assistance to ex-service organisations to allow them to hire more pension advocates be implemented; and that the Australian War Memorial be funded for extensions to the Vietnam and Korean galleries.

It is appropriate to highlight these areas of ongoing concern to try to generate support from all parties and current and future governments to address these matters. The first issue—that eligibility for the gold card be extended to all qualified Australian veterans over the age of 70—is one which the Democrats have highlighted and supported in the past. I welcome initial signs of a possible turnaround by the Prime Minister on this issue on 26 July on ABC radio—I think in Perth—when he commented specifically on providing the gold card to Korean War veterans. The Prime Minister, Mr Howard, admitted today that there was clearly `an overwhelming case that people who are veterans of later conflicts than World War II should receive the gold card at broadly the same time after the conflict in which they were involved took place, as was the case with people from World War I'.

The Democrats have long supported widening access to the gold card to all Korean War veterans once they reach the age of 70 years and believe the same policy should apply to Vietnam and other veterans. We also support extending access to those World War II service personnel who enlisted but were not sent into war zones, including BCOF members who served in Japan after 1945. Many veterans have written to me and to other Democrat senators, and I am sure to other members of parliament, about the gold card campaign. I have assured them that the Democrats recognise the special obligation the nation owes to veterans. They were healthy when they enlisted and they went where they were sent. If they need medical care now, I believe we have an obligation to provide it.

The second point, which is one that has been raised many times before in this place, including by the Democrats, is that non-qualified veterans who seek a social security pension from Centrelink should not have their DVA pension counted as income when the size of the Centrelink pension is calculated. When I first entered the Senate close on four years ago, on behalf of the Democrats I committed to raising this issue and trying to get it addressed and voted on in the Senate. It has been raised in Senate speeches and also in estimates committees through questions of the relevant minister. It was not until June last year, with the Social Security and Veterans' Entitlements Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Matters) Bill 2000, that the opportunity arose to put the amendment. It was pleasing to see the support of the Labor Party, through Senator Schacht, for that amendment. Labor are strongly on the record as supporting the initiative. We will try to hold them to this in the future.

The bad news is that the amendment that was passed by the Senate was defeated twice in the House of Representatives by the coalition, so it has been unsuccessful at this time. I note that the then Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Jocelyn Newman, who was handling the legislation in the Senate, indicated that the government would examine the issue in a budget context. Unfortunately, we now know that the government, whilst they may have examined the issue, did not address it in the budget. This is despite the fact that a number of veterans I spoke to before this year's budget who had lobbied the Minister for Veterans' Affairs on the issue said they had received encouraging signs from the minister. It was disappointing for those veterans that there was no movement on this issue in the budget. If leaked memos that appeared prior to the budget are any indication, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs did recommend and did try to get this change made but he was knocked back by the Expenditure Review Committee, which is a great shame, because it is a clear-cut anomaly that has been identified for many years. Indeed, it was identified by the coalition in their own policy documents before they came into government in 1996. Throughout that time, whilst they have examined and acknowledged it, it has still not been addressed. It is still a clear issue of concern for many veterans' organisations and individual veterans.

Another issue which was notably absent from the budget was the rate of the totally and permanently incapacitated, TPI, pension. TPI advocates have for some time been seeking an increase in the TPI rate, highlighting its loss of value against the male total average weekly earnings. The failure to index this pension to the male total average weekly earnings has meant that, unlike some other pensions, its value overall has declined over time. It is currently about 48 per cent of MTAWE and, although CPI indexed, has failed to keep pace with MTAWE. The Democrats support the indexation of veterans' pensions and compensatory payments to male total average weekly earnings or CPI, whichever is greater, as we do with regard to social security pensions. We have long argued that all pensions—including, for that matter, the war widows pension and the service pension—should be indexed more regularly: quarterly rather than six monthly.

Having read with interest the submissions from the Australian Federation of Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex-Servicemen and Women and the Vietnam Veterans Federation on the inadequacy of the TPI rate and their proposals for rectification of this matter, I have written to Minister Scott in the past expressing the Democrats' concern at the erosion in the rate of TPI and requesting that he take the issue to federal cabinet for consideration and addressing. Again, the government did not address this issue in the 2001 federal budget. I certainly hope that it will be an issue that does get some focus in the lead-up to the election.

Finally, I would like to briefly point to the issue of the war widows income support supplement, which has been frozen since 1986 at around $120 per fortnight. The widows who qualify for the income support supplement are often amongst the neediest in our community. The supplement is available only to those women who have no other income except the war widows compensation. Many have not worked outside the home, they have looked after their veteran husbands and they do not have superannuation. If they are renting, they are in particular trouble as rents certainly have risen quite a bit since 1986 when the income support supplement was frozen. Again, this is an issue that disappointingly was not addressed in the federal budget or in this bill.

However, the Democrats do acknowledge the measures that are addressed in this bill. Indeed, another measure in the budget that was also included was the payment to prisoners of war of the Japanese, a measure that we also supported at the time. But we are concerned that longstanding issues of concern for veterans continue to be ignored or not addressed by the government. Certainly the Democrats pledge to continue to try to highlight and be a voice for those issues of concern to the veteran community. Having said that, we do support this bill and the measures contained within it and congratulate the government on those. We do not have any amendments to move and will listen to Senator Harris's argument in relation to the amendments that he will put forward.