Veterans' Affairs Legislation
I rise today to record my support for the measures contained within the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2009. This bill proposes a number of common-sense measures that will improve entitlements for veterans. This bill provides for the payment of entitlements, under the Veterans’ Entitlement Act 1986, to a person resident overseas into an overseas bank account. That is a common-sense measure which will bring those arrangements into line with other major Commonwealth agencies, and indeed all of the families of veterans who are overseas report to me that that measure is more than welcome.
However, I do want to particularly commend the extension of access to the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme. This bill will extend access to those persons who are eligible under the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme and around 7,500 extra people will now be eligible for that insurance scheme. Coming from an electorate which is close to the Richmond RAAF base, where I have a number of people who are eligible for defence housing, plenty of suburbs in my electorate have defence housing, including Beaumont Hills and Kellyville, particularly for RAAF personnel. This extension is important and it is something that I want to particularly record my support for.
If personnel qualify and are eligible under the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme then it is only logical that they ought to qualify for insurance as well. Defence personnel are often away from their homes. They are often in circumstances which prevent them from spending a lot of time concentrating on their dwellings or their household arrangements because we ask them to serve in faraway places, to go on exercises for prolonged periods, and to engage in activities that add extra stress and burden upon their families and their family homes. Therefore, this measure will be particularly welcome, and I think it is accurate to say that it will help with retention, recruitment and other benefits.
It is the case that many serving personnel and people who are considering service careers do consider the incentives and the attractions that are available to them to enhance their service and their career prospects. I recently had the opportunity to spend time on the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program speaking with all ranks of the military and all services from troops on the ground to service chiefs and vice chiefs. There is a very real sense that the entitlements and the incentives that the government provides to service personnel are deemed to be very important. This extension of the Defence Service Home Insurance Scheme to an extra 7,500 people is a good measure. I want to note in this place that, when you examine the cost, it is completely negligible compared with the amounts of money that we have been discussing in this place recently. For example, in 2009-10 the estimated financial impact to the Commonwealth is $0.2 million. In 2010-11 it is $0.2 million. In 2011-12 it is $0.3 million and in 2012-13 it is only $0.3 million as well.
Speaking to that point for a moment, the entire impact of this legislation that we are considering today is indeed quite negligible and I want to encourage governments of all persuasions to understand that the measures they take in relation to veterans are very important. Defence is a primary function of government. It is a proper function of government; therefore, veterans’ entitlements are a proper function of government as well. I think it is incumbent upon us in this place to ensure that we allow for the proper provision for people who serve us overseas.
When I visit various aged-care facilities in my electorate I find the most amazing veterans who served in World War II. I recently met an original Rat of Tobruk. It is a very profound experience to hear about their service and what they did. More typically today you will find personnel of the Vietnam veteran era moving through the entitlements system. We now have some challenges as a Commonwealth government with an entirely new generation of soldier who has served in new theatres with new methods of war including in the Middle East, including counterterrorism operations and including insurgency. This will create new challenges for those veteran categories.
I am pleased to say that within my electorate I have a very large veteran community, and the Castle Hill RSL does a fantastic job in organising that veteran community. Of course, with the proximity to the Richmond RAAF base we do see a lot of defence issues and defence housing issues. So that is all the more reason I think the extra access to the Defence Service Home Insurance Scheme is a good measure and something which I am pleased to be rising to support.
I do want to note while we have the opportunity that I think the third measure proposed by this bill, which is to wind up and pay out the dependants pensions paid to dependants of veterans, is a cost-saving measure and that is acceptable in some regards. It is an outdated scheme. I accept the arguments that have been put forward by members in this place, and when you examine the amounts and the lack of change over many, many decades there is a strong argument for this. I also do feel very strongly that in areas of defence and veterans’ affairs we ought not to be looking for cost savings in general and we should seek to ensure that those entitlements are properly accounted for in other ways.
Indeed, I was very impressed that when the Howard government first came to office in 1996 with an enormous budget deficit it quarantined Defence from any particular cuts. I thought that was a very impressive measure and something which all governments of all persuasions should seek to do. Defence and veterans’ affairs are areas where cuts and cost savings are perhaps not the best way to proceed in terms of governance, although we should look for efficiencies. It is certainly the case that the dependants pension system—which is referred to in this legislation and which is to be wound up—is out of date. You can see that when you consider that the maximum payments per fortnight for a partner and widows can be as low as $8.42 per fortnight or $2.86 per fortnight for children. Indeed, with minimum payments as low as 84c or 29c, clearly there is a need to restructure. I simply encourage the government to ensure that there is no loss of entitlement over time to dependants or to people who are dependants of veterans. Indeed, some of the information on how many people are affected or what kinds of people are being affected could be better explained in this legislation.
However, the scheme is obviously in need of a revamp. Everyone in this place will have no trouble supporting it. I simply note that it is very important that we continue to have a strong focus on the area of veterans’ affairs with whole new cohorts of young service men and now women moving through who have served in critical areas all around the world. We will have to have an intensified look at how we best deliver medical and practical outcomes to them with a whole new range of challenges. It is interesting to note that there are currently several critical reviews of veterans’ affairs, including a review into military superannuation.
When you speak with long-serving warrant officers in the Army, Air Force or Navy, they will recall to you that military superannuation is an issue of grave concern to service men and women. I would encourage the Rudd government to get on with ensuring these reviews are conducted speedily and that outcomes for serving personnel and veterans are looked at as soon as possible. People do see the defence forces as a difficult career. They see it as a big sacrifice and a big commitment. It is important that we structure the incentives and arrangements to allow them to do their job and to make a career of it. Much of the feedback that we received from the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program was that those incentives that had been removed, or those that over time had eroded in value, were becoming an impediment to careers within Defence. That is something that I want to record in this place.
Looking at the specific provisions in this legislation, on behalf of the veteran community in Mitchell I have received only positive feedback about these measures because they are simply common sense. They are allowing for existing Commonwealth arrangements in relation to bank accounts to be applied to veterans. They are extending the Defence Homes Insurance Scheme, which is a logical and welcome measure, and of course we are winding up a scheme which is no longer current. I simply record in this place my support for the legislation.