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Speech at the 88th Tasmanian State RSL Congress.

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The Hon. Danna Vale MP Minister for Veterans' Affairs Speech Friday 14 May 2004

The Hon Danna Vale MP Minister for Veterans’ Affairs at the 88th Tasmanian State RSL Congress

I’m honoured to once again address the RSL’s Tasmanian Congress.

While I have regular occasion to meet with your National President, Major General Bill Crews, it is always a pleasure for me to be able to meet with members and office bearers of the RSL across Australia. Particularly Tasmania, and I have fond memories of my last visit, especially the memorable opening of the VC Memorial in Hobart.

This has been a busy and very successful year in terms of Veterans’ Affairs.

I’d like to touch on a few of the highlights in a moment.

But first, as the RSL in Tasmania celebrates 88 years of service to the veteran community, I would like to acknowledge the strong and effective working partnership between Government and ex-service organisations.

In 2004, we have seen the strengths of that partnership deliver significant advances for the veteran community - particularly in terms of the Clarke Report and the new Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme.

Since coming into office in 1996, this Government has listened to the concerns of the veteran community and has acted on issues raised by ex-service organisations.

As a result of a number of years of hard work from veterans, their representatives and the Government, I am sure you would agree that we have reached a new point of maturity in our Repatriation system.

I would describe our Repatriation system today as one which meets the needs of our existing veterans through responsible and effective income support, compensation and health care services.

It is also one which has drawn on its history to find the best way forward - to meet the needs of our veterans of the future and their families - as evidenced in our legislation for the new Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme, which will come into effect on 1 July 2004.

It certainly feels like a turning point indeed and it has been my privilege and honour to be Minister during such an interesting and challenging period.

Budget 2004 I’m sure you’ve all noticed that the media this week has been focussed on a small matter called the Federal Budget.

This is actually the first time since I became Minister that this Congress is taking place after the Budget, so I would like to take the opportunity to touch on some of the key issues in the Veterans’ Affairs Budget.

This week’s Budget reaffirmed our Government’s commitment to the veteran community.

The Government has allocated $604 million over four years, including $328.9 million for new initiatives, $289 million for the Government’s response to the Clarke Report and $44.8 million for the new Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme.

This commitment brings the Veterans’ Affairs Budget for 2004-2005 to a massive $10.6 billion up from $6.5 billion in 1996-97.

This is the ninth consecutive increase and an average annual increase of 6.1 per cent since our Government came into office in 1996.

There are a number of initiatives which, when implemented, will positively affect members of the veteran community.

These include:

• increased fees for specialist medical services; • significant commitments to aged care; • support for veterans returning home from hospital; • continued support for Vietnam veterans’ children; • improved management of veterans’ health services; • renewed funding for commemorative activities; and • a few measures to ensure consistency between income support arrangements at

Centrelink and DVA.

I would like to touch on some of these key measures.

Health Veterans’ access to free, comprehensive medical care will be assured with an additional $158 million over four years to increase fees for medical specialists.

The fees will be increased by between 15 and 20 per cent to ensure eligible Gold and White Card-holders can access quality specialist care across Australia. This follows on the success of last year’s Budget initiative which has seen an additional 1700 General Practitioners sign up to work as Local Medical Officers across Australia.

Currently, veterans and war widows make up 15 per cent of the residential aged care population (23,000 across Australia)

Older members of the veteran community will benefit from the Government’s response to the Hogan Report - announced by my colleague the Minister for Ageing.

Veterans and war widows already enjoy special status in aged care planning. Over four years, more than $190 million of the new funding for aged care services will directly benefit veterans and war widows.

In addition, I’m proud to announce the Government has introduced an initiative that ensures no former prisoner of war will pay a daily care fee in an aged care facility from the 1st of January 2005.

We have allocated $1.8 million over four years to ensure all former PoWs, whether they are in high-level or low-level care, do not have to pay daily care fees. Those former PoWs who are already in low-level care will see a return, on average, of $250 a fortnight.

In the Budget, the Government has also continued its commitment to Vietnam veterans and their families, with around one million dollars to maintain the Vietnam Veterans’ Children Support program.

This program will be transferred from the Department of Health and Ageing to Veterans’

Affairs, as part of the Government’s commitment to provide ease of access to services for Vietnam veterans and their families.

The children’s program was one of a number of initiatives announced in 2000 in response to the Vietnam Veterans’ Health Study. All other programs that were announced as part of that package are continuing under ongoing funding.

Commemorations Commemorative activities are once again a small but special component of the Budget.

The popular Saluting Their Service program has been extended for four years at a cost of $15.1 million. This program has been welcomed by schools and local communities around Australia, as it provides funding for both the development of educational resources on Australia’s military heritage and funds for the establishment or refurbishment of local memorials.

An additional $4.5 million will support the commemoration of significant World War II anniversaries in 2005 such as VE Day, VP Day and the 60th anniversary of significant campaigns in Papua New Guinea and Borneo.

$4.5 million over four years will continue the maintenance program by the Office of Australian War Graves in Australia and overseas.

We will also expand the Australian War Memorial, with $11.6 million over four years for a new building that will allow the redevelopment of the post-1945 exhibitions within the main building.

The space will be made available for appropriate commemoration of Vietnam, Korean and Peacekeeping exhibitions and provide space for exhibitions on our more recent operations in the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Clarke Report While the Repatriation system is moving into a new era our Government remains strongly committed to meeting the needs of our existing veteran community.

This has been highlighted with the $289 million allocated by the Government to implement its decisions in response to the recommendations of the Clarke Report.

Let me say that the Clarke Review - a key election commitment by the Government, raised many complex issues.

While I am sure you all are aware of the Government’s response - I believe - it has delivered a responsible and fair outcome, with initiatives targeting areas of particular concern and need of the veteran community.

Legislation is now before Parliament to implement the Government’s key decisions, including:

• new indexation arrangements for the Above General Rate component of TPI pension, benefiting more than 45,000 veterans; • the new Defence Force Income Support Allowance, benefiting some 19,000 veterans and partners who receive their income support from Centrelink; • increased rent assistance from January 2005 for some 11,000 war widows

receiving the income support supplement; • a $25,000 ex gratia payment to former Australian prisoners of war held during the Korean War, or their surviving widows; • an increase in the maximum funeral benefit from $572 to $1000, to take effect

from 1 July 2004; and • an extension of operational service to personnel involved in minesweeping and

bomb clearance operations after World War II who already had been granted qualifying service.

I look forward to speedy passage of the legislation, so that the Government can implement these measures.

The New Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme We have also established the capacity to embark on a new phase in Australian repatriation with the launch of the new Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme, to meet the needs of the next generation of veterans and of serving personnel.

As a result of Parliament’s passage of this landmark legislation, the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Bills, I am pleased to report that the new scheme is on track to commence in just over six weeks, on the 1st of July.

Australia will, for the first time, provide a single scheme to meet the needs of serving members and veterans of the future service and their families in the event of injury or death.

As the scheme only applies to service on or after the 1st of July, no existing veterans will be affected by the new legislation.

However, I would like to record the Government’s gratitude to the ex-service organisations and individual veterans who played an important role in developing this landmark scheme.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I take great pride in our Government’s achievements for our veteran community.

I look forward to continuing to strengthen our partnership with the RSL in Tasmania and across Australia, for the benefit of you and your families and indeed, for the whole of the veteran community.

In closing, I am very pleased to take the opportunity recognise a prime example of the excellent work being done by the Tasmanian RSL.

Most notably, the Women’s Auxiliary of the RSL Sub-Branch here in Burnie has been working for 60 years to support the local veteran community.

Among the activities offered by the Women’s Auxiliary are recreational bus trips for RSL members and their partners, which gives them opportunities to go out on social excursions.

The Government recognises the importance of such activities in reducing social isolation, which can be a major health risk for veterans and members of the wider community as they grow older and perhaps less able to get around themselves.

The Burnie RSL Women’s Auxiliary is to be congratulated for its commitment to the veteran community, and I am delighted to announce that I have approved a Veteran & Community Grant of $3000 to enable the auxiliary to continue its friendly bus trips.

This is a most worthwhile investment in the health and well-being of Burnie’s veterans and I would now invite Mrs Betty Marshall to accept this grant on behalf of the Women’s auxiliary.

I am pleased to agree to the request of your State RSL President Ian Kennet to a further grant from the Government towards the Banner Project, a project which is close to his heart and which the Government has been happy to support.

Once again, I thank you for your time, wish you well with discussions, and I will look

forward to learning of the results of your deliberations. God bless you and your families. God bless Australia.