24.3.11 Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (MRCA Supplement) Bill 2011
Mr HAWKE (11:26 AM) —It is good to be speaking after the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, who made that fine contribution on this matter. He is a sad loss to the defence establishment portfolio. I think his obvious and evident interest and skill in this field are going to be particularly missed by a government light-on for people with experience in and knowledge of defence and veterans’ affairs.
The Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (MRCA Supplement) Bill 2011 is to correct an error in the previous legislation which produced an unintended consequence. On the surface of it, it can be quite common in governance in any jurisdiction that legislation is introduced which has unintended consequences, things that were not foreseen in the design of the legislation. In this one, as we know, it is a very serious matter in relation to widows. The unintended consequence arising from the amendments was that, where a member or a former member of the Defence Force died prior to 20 September 2009, if the decision of a wholly dependent partner to receive a lump sum was made after that date, the calculation of the lump sum payable was based on the law as it was at the date of death, meaning that in certain cases widows would have to repay large amounts from the lump sum. This was a completely unintended and undesirable outcome and I am sure that has the unanimous agreement of this House.
What this matter does show is an approach to government that is becoming the norm from this Labor government. They say on their own website—and I do not go to the Labor Party’s website regularly, but I did so in relation to an article I was researching on defence and veterans’ affairs—that, ‘Defence must be the first and highest priority of our national government.’ That is what it says in the Labor Party’s policy platform. Yet when you look at their defence portfolio and what is happening in veterans’ affairs and defence and the bill before us you do not get the sense that it is the first priority of the national government.
As someone with a military reserve background I want to endorse the notion that the first priority of our national government—the reason we have a national government in the first instance—is to protect this country, its citizens and its interests from foreign invaders and to protect our country’s economic and military interests overseas and our regional interests. That is our first priority as a government in Canberra and it must be our first priority. If something is your first priority, I think it deserves much more attention than it gets from this government. This bill is a good example of why that is so. We are going back and fixing up things that should have been fixed a long time ago because when they are not fixed they produce consequences that are undesirable for widows and for veterans in general.
We have seen a change in this government’s veterans affairs’ ministry and, I think, that is partly why we see legislation such as this. In 2007, the Rudd government’s Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Hon. Alan Griffin, came with a lot of promises for the veteran community. He had spent a lot of time arguing and lobbying on veterans affairs prior to the election, promising a lot and suggesting there would be a big improvement in the quality of veterans affairs outcomes in Australia on the election of the Rudd government. The Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry—who, sadly, is no longer involved in the defence portfolio at all—listed quite a few good things that have been achieved. I thought it was a little bit dry and missing some obvious things. But one of the big things that the veterans community will tell you that they had promised to them by former Minister Griffin, and about which they had an understanding with this Labor government, was the issue of military superannuation.
When considering these sorts of veterans affairs bills that come before us, there is one bill that the veterans community wants to see pass through this House in the near future and that is the coalition’s bill to improve the indexation of the DFRDB and the DFRB superannuation pensions, the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Amendment (Fair Indexation) Bill 2010. I want to get on the record my endorsement of the bill of the member for Fadden, the shadow minister for Defence Science, Technology and Personnel. Today marks a great step forward for veterans in Australia. We owe our veteran community so much. They have given this country so much service. We must not just think about how to improve the quality of outcomes to the veterans community from so many years ago; we have a job and a duty of care to think ahead for all these young diggers we have sent to Iraq, Afghanistan and into operations in our theatres in recent years who will be veterans and will have the same sets of veterans issues, albeit in different circumstances, that have arisen today.
When a veteran comes to my office, as they do regularly, and says to me they have to struggle to get an outcome from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, when they are clearly a veteran, when they clearly have an entitlement to something from the government in relation to their personal matter, I get very frustrated, as do so many members of this House. Why do we burden our veterans community with so much red tape, when we ask them to put so much on the line? It is true that there have been some improvements in the operation of veterans affairs matters. But there need to be more improvements. It is not inspiring that we have to go back and correct legislation because we have not thought about it properly in the first place.
If the Labor Party and the government were serious, the indexation of military superannuation would be their highest priority in relation to the veteran community. It is probably the No. 1 issue that is being spoken about out there at the moment today, other than individuals’ personal matters of concern with DVA.
The government have released the review of military compensation arrangements, which was released on 18 March. Again, when you consider the contention in the policy statement that ‘defence must be our highest priority,’ this review of military compensation arrangements is some 12 months late. Nevertheless, it is a significant review and of course the coalition has committed to extensive consultation on the review’s findings. But considering that this is a year overdue, you get the sense, yet again, that this vital part of our community is not being given the priority or the attention that it deserves.
We will extensively liaise with the ex-service community, the veteran community. I am conducting my consultations, particularly with the Castle Hill RSL, about the review of military compensation. We look forward to progress that does not take another year. Often, we think of a year in governmental terms as another review or another period of time to fix things and that it is acceptable. I think in relation to the circumstances of ordinary people’s lives, particularly veterans who are already suffering from individual problems and matters of concern in relation to compensation, that this is an extensive period of time. These people are getting older. Their compensation is a serious matter to them. There needs to be a greater sense of urgency in relation to our treatment of these vital people and this vital community.
I also endorse the purpose of this bill, which I have spoken about briefly in correcting an error. The member for Fadden made some very good points about our commitment to supporting the government on key initiatives. The Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry spoke about the government’s achievements in resolving issues to do with honours and about correcting some of the things that had been of concern for some time. They had the full support of the coalition. I note that, in opposition, we have not taken a partisan or destructive approach in relation to veterans’ affairs. We are more urging the government to get on with the things they need to get on with.
When you look at the military superannuation reform, the coalition’s bill which is presently before the Senate—I think it was being discussed today by the shadow minister for defence—says to the government, ‘Here is a way out. We are providing you with the bill. You have promised it, we have talked about it and the veterans’ community desperately want it. Here is an opportunity for you to just get on board and deliver this vital reform.’ The parliamentary secretary spoke about a reforming government and that this bill was an example of why they are such a reforming government. When they do reform they say, ‘We have to keep doing these amendments and updating bills because we are so reforming’. If we are so reforming, let us do some real reform that will vastly impact on the lives of all those people out there on the DFRDB schemes. This change has been called for by the ex-service community. It has had their full support for so long.
While this bill is not controversial, and it has the coalition’s support—especially in clarifying the arrangements under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004—we do urge the government to ensure that treatment of Defence personnel, and particularly the treatment of veterans—our ex-service personnel and community, not just of the past but of the future—is done in the best way possible. When we have people of the quality of the member for Fadden in our portfolios we are really saying to the government that we have people of real experience and substance in the Defence and veterans’ fields, people who understand the urgency and the need for reform and better approaches from government to the treatment of this vital community. I urge the government to ensure that they make Defence and veterans’ affairs the first priority of the national government.