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Wednesday, 5 October 1983
Page: 1333

Mr HOLDING (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs)(11.5) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill provides for amendment of the Repatriation Act and associated Acts to give legislative authority for the Government's Budget decisions and to make certain amendments to repatriation and defence service homes legislation. Income limits for fringe benefit eligibility are to be indexed; eligibility for service pension is to be extended to a man providing constant care and attention to a severely handicapped female service pensioner; a remote area allowance is to be introduced for service pensioners and guardian's allowance is to be extended to a veteran separated from his wife because of ill-health, where he has care of the children. In addition, pensions payable for amputations or loss of vision are to be increased as are attendant allowance and pensions payable to orphaned children. This Bill also includes amendments to the Defence Services Homes Act 1918. They deal with some administrative matters for the conduct of the defence service homes insurance scheme.

The indexation of fringe benefit levels will provide a major benefit to service pensioners. This step will mean that many pensioners will not lose eligibility for these benefits when they receive a small increase in income. Fringe benefits provide significant additional benefits to pensioners in the form of free medical treatment, telephone rental concessions and many other concessions, provided by Commonwealth, State and local government authorities as well as private organisations. Indexation of these levels will provide assistance for those most in need. The indexation provisions will apply from 1 November this year. Service pensions for veterans who served in a theatre of war are similar to age and invalid pensions paid by the Department of Social Security but are available five years earlier than the social security pensions. They have not been available normally to the husbands of female veterans. This Bill proposes that eligibility for service pension be extended to a husband of a severely handicapped female service pensioner where the husband provides constant care and attention for his wife in their home. This measure will assist those men who would not normally qualify for benefits because, but for caring for their wives, they would be part of the work force. This provision will come into effect on 8 December 1983. The Bill also proposes that guardian's allowance, which at the moment is payable only to single service pensioners who have the custody, care and control of a child, be extended from 8 December this year to veterans who are unable to live with their spouses because of illness or infirmity and who have the custody, care and control of a child or children. In effect, the Government has recognised that these veterans are in the same position as single supporting parents.

The Government has also recognised that additional costs are incurred by people living in areas remote from Australia's major centres. Taxpayers in these areas receive concessions but pensioners have received no assistance in coping with the higher costs of goods and services. This Bill proposes to pay a remote area allowance, from 10 May 1984, to those service pensioners who live in those areas recognised under the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 as remote areas in zone A. The proposal is that eligible pensioners living in these areas will receive an additional $7 a week if single and $6 a week to each of a married couple with $3 .50 a week for each child.

The Bill proposes that income from friendly societies and trade unions will no longer be exempt income under the income test for service pensions. This relates to periodical payments since annuities from these organisations are not exempt. Payments from other sources are, however, to be exempted along the same lines as exemptions are proposed for social security pensioners. These include the value of emergency relief, such as that provided following bushfires or floods and insurance or compensation payments following loss of, or damage to buildings, plant or personal effects. Moneys from the investment of these payments will be exempt for a reasonable period to allow the lost or damaged goods to be replaced . Other exemptions covered are assistance by way of accommodation or meals provided to homeless persons, an open employment incentive bonus, domiciliary nursing care benefits and Commonwealth housing assistance.

Provision is made in the Bill for increases in pensions paid to veterans suffering amputations and loss of vision, in attendant allowance and in pensions paid to orphans. The increases are to have effect from 10 November 1983. The increases are in line with movements in the consumer price index since the previous increases. The increases for amputation and loss of vision mean that the total amount payable for loss of vision in one eye will be $38.77 a week, ranging up to $96.60 a week for the loss of both legs, one above and one below the knee. Higher amounts for more serious amputations are automatically adjusted twice each year in line with movements in the consumer price index. The rate of attendant allowance is to be increased from $23.30 to $25.90 a week in the case of a veteran who is blind or suffering a cerebro spinal injury. In the case of a veteran who has had both arms amputated or who is blind and has lost hearing or speech, the allowance is to be increased from $46.60 to $51.80 a week. A single orphan's pension will be increased from $16.60 to $18.45 a week while the increase for a double orphan will be from $33.20 to $36.90 a week.

The Bill also proposes that the position of Deputy Chairman of the Repatriation Commission be appointed by the Governor-General. At present the person is appointed by the Governor-General as a Commissioner and then elected by the Commission to the position of Deputy Chairman. The proposal will overcome some administrative difficulties in the operation of the Commission and it will also enable the office of Deputy Chairman to be a public office for the purpose of the Remuneration and Allowances Act 1973.

The Defence Service Homes Corporation has been offering insurance cover in accordance with the statement of conditions tabled in Parliament in November 1980. The amendments to the Defence Service Homes Act are designed to remove any doubt that the cover specified in the statement may extend to domestic improvements of a structural nature and to property owner's liability. Because it would not be feasible for the Corporation to refuse to meet claims legitimately made under its statement of conditions or to attempt to recover moneys paid out in settlement of past claims, the Bill proposes the validation of any such payments. Other Budget decisions affecting veterans will be provided for by amendment to the regulations. These include increases in recreation transport allowance and clothing allowance and the indexation of pensions payable to Papua New Guinea veterans.

Mr Speaker, the provisions of this Bill will cost the Government $0.92m in 1983 -84; $2.225m in 1984-85 and $3.34m in 1985-86. Additional costs will be incurred by the increased benefits to be effected by amendments to the regulations. Some savings will be generated by the removal of the exemption from income of payments by trade unions and friendly societies, but they cannot be estimated as it is not known how many service pensioners receive such payments. Removal of the exemption is justifiable on the ground of equity. The biggest single cost is the indexation of fringe benefits levels: $0.565m in 1983-84, $1.488m in 1984-85 and $2.578m in 1985-86. This provision, as I have already stated, is designed to help those most in need of assistance. The fact that the Government has been able to make increases at all in what is a large Veterans' Affairs budget, at a time when it is attempting to keep costs down, is evidence of its commitment to those veterans who are seriously incapacitated and to those totally or substantially dependent on government assistance. I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Ruddock) adjourned.