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Thursday, 21 March 2002
Page: 1252

Senator BARTLETT (1:24 PM) —The Democrats support the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Budget 2000 and Other Measures) Bill 2002, which will bring about minor positive changes that are largely already reflected in the social security system. It enacts a more generous treatment of pension payments received by partners of compensation recipients, amends treatment of financial assets which are unrealisable for the purposes of hardship cases under the assets test and streamlines income streams under social security law. Having responsibility on behalf of the Democrats for the social security portfolio as well as the veterans' affairs portfolio, I recall our support for those measures when they were passed in a complementary fashion with the social security law.

We support this legislation, as I said. Because others spoke after I had moved my amendment during the debate on the previous bill, I will briefly, with the indulgence of the Senate, note the comments that were made in relation to it. Obviously, cost is always an issue. I do not think in this case that timing should have been an issue, because the amendment was circulated a couple of days ago, but I hope that, given there is a review being conducted by the government on gold card entitlements, these aspects will be taken into account.

When we are looking at veterans' entitlements, whether relating to health or to the other issues that we are dealing with under this legislation, there are often anomalies, and veterans often suffer hardships because of gaps in other aspects of public policy. One of the reasons why we have such a big demand for increased access to the gold card, in the Democrats' view, is because of inadequacies in our public health system. If we had a properly funded public health system, and if older people generally had faith that the public health system could look after them, there would be a less desperate struggle to obtain the gold card. It goes back to the issue of the cost of extending the gold card. If the appropriate level of funding were put into health services rather than wasted on things like the private health rebate, there would be less demand for the gold card and more funds available to provide it for those who should be entitled to it. So I think it is an appropriate matter to consider further.

The Democrats support the amendment that has been moved by Senator Bishop on behalf of the Labor Party. Indeed, in June 2000, on behalf of the Democrats, I moved an amendment which had the same intent as the one that Senator Bishop has put forward. We were pleased that the ALP supported that amendment at the time and we are pleased that they have moved a similar amendment which at least expresses the principle that the government should remove that anomaly. The spokesperson for the ALP then was Senator Schacht. In this area, he has provided a good legacy for Senator Bishop to try to fill and build upon.

I recall that our amendment on this issue was an amendment to social security legislation, because the negative side of the anomaly is the treatment of income and compensation by the social security department and not the treatment of it by the veterans' affairs department. So the legislation that needs to be amended is the Social Security Act rather than the veterans' affairs act, and I presume that is why the amendment we are considering is a second reading amendment that expresses that view relating to veterans.

As I recall, it was passed by the Senate as a substantive amendment to the legislation, but the government did not accept it. It bounced backwards and forwards a couple of times, and eventually the Senate did not insist upon it. At the time the government said they would consider the issue in the budget context. We know that a submission was put forward to the government by the department to remove that anomaly, and it was knocked out by the Expenditure Review Committee— the razor gang—in the finance department. At the time, Senator Schacht gave a commitment that if Labor got into government they would move to amend this. That did not happen, of course, but I trust that, if we have an opportunity to press it in a substantive sense regarding social security legislation, that support from the ALP will still be there, because the passage of this amendment will not make that happen. It is a good amendment and we support it as it increases the pressure on the government for action in that regard.

At that time, nearly two years ago, the government rejected the amendment that the Democrats put forward. They claimed that it was not correctly drafted to achieve what we wanted to achieve. The government did not offer to provide any assistance to draft what they thought would be a suitable amendment, which they obviously had the resources to do. So that aspect still needs to be resolved as well. The present situation, where the disability pension is included in the social security income test, is in contradiction to the government's position that this pension is paid to veterans as compensation.

As has been said by Senator Bishop, the coalition promised to review this matter before they won government in 1996. The review that was undertaken was unfortunately an internal one. For reasons that I still do not understand, the government refused to provide copies of that review or to publicly release it. We have established from answers in this place in the budget estimates that the measure would cost about $20 million, as Senator Bishop said, which is not a great deal of money to correct an anomaly which is very significant to those affected. It seems strange that the government cannot bring itself to correct this admitted anomaly which takes money away from a significant number of veterans. It makes one wonder what the point is of promising to review anomalies if not only no action is taken—even though the anomaly is still acknowledged—but also no-one is even allowed to see the contents of that review.

It is notable that all the speakers on the bills say they support veterans. Quite rightly, many speakers pointed to their relatives who are veterans or to people in their community or their electorate. They pointed to the admiration they have for them. Senator Bishop pointed to the quality of their efforts not only during their service but also to their continued efforts as members of the community. It is a group that, in a political sense, often gets more praise than just about any other group in the community, but when it comes to making decisions that affect their lives directly we cannot seem to advance the issue. I really hope this is one area where we can get some advances during the term of this government.

I recognise there are always financial and anomalies issues and some others, which we have referred to in the context of the gold card debate. But the issue we are debating is always pretty close to the top of the list for veterans. It is one they would like to see addressed; it is not particularly expensive. It has been a source of frustration for many years and I really hope we can get movement on it. There are other issues that would benefit veterans but that also seem to have stalled. One I would point to, and of which others would be aware, is the rate of the totally and permanently incapacitated pension, the TPI, which has also been a matter of concern for some time.

I would like to take the opportunity while I am speaking on this legislation to express formally the condolences of the Australian Democrats to the family and colleagues of Brigadier Alf Garland, who passed away recently. He served as President of the RSL for five years from 1988, following a long and honourable military career. He served overseas on many occasions, starting with the Korean War, and he commanded the first Australian SAS squadron in Borneo, a particularly poignant point as the SAS is serving at the moment in Afghanistan.

With regard to the SAS, I should also mention the support of the Democrats for changes to the treatment of SAS personnel who are injured during training. Their training is more hazardous than most qualifying service in most circumstances, and they would certainly benefit from the amendment that we are considering. Again, it really comes back to the issue of anomalies when you are looking at what determines qualifying service. The rate of injury amongst SAS personnel is amongst the highest in the defence forces—regardless of whether or not they are going into combat situations—because of the special nature of their activities. They are far more likely to get significant injuries and, as I said, their training is often more hazardous than some of the situations that relate to qualifying service.

In conclusion, the Democrats support the bill and the amendment that calls for an exemption of the disability pension from the social security income test. The Department of Veterans' Affairs rightly recognises the veterans disability income as compensation, but for some reason the Social Security Act and the department continue to count it as income. That allows them to substantially reduce the amount paid for Veterans' Affairs pensions. The disability pension for veterans is compensation for disabilities and disease incurred during service and, in the view of the Democrats, it is part of the special obligation owed to veterans. In some instances, we are talking about people with extremely severe injuries related to their service and they are losing a large chunk of their pension when they receive that disability payment, which is meant to be compensation. So it is long overdue for that anomaly to be addressed and removed. For that reason we support this amendment and also signal that we will continue to pursue it, as I am sure the ALP will, as other opportunities arise in this chamber.