Parliamentary Debate on Kevin Rudd's indexation motion - 14 Aug 2007

To all,

Please find attached the Hansard of the debate that occurred in the House of Representatives yesterday following Kevin Rudd's motion relating to Labor's policy on the indexation of above general rate pensions.

I apologise if you have already received this from other sources. I would encourage all of the ex-service community to read through all of the speeches so they can see how the different parties and politicians treat this very important issue.

For your information there were three Labor speakers and three Government speakers. Their speeches are represented below in full and in order.

The speakers were;

1. Kevin Rudd (ALP)
2. David Fawcett (Liberal)
3. Graham Edwards (ALP)
4. Michael Johnson (Liberal)
5. Justine Elliot (ALP)
6. Paul Neville (The Nationals)

If anybody has any questions in regards to the substance of the motion or Labor's policy in this area please feel free to email me.

Kind regards,

Contact:
Rodney Hilton
Adviser for Alan Griffin MP
Tel: 02 6277 4374
Fax: 02 6277 4065


PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BUSINESS
Disabled Veterans and Pensions

Speech
Mr RUDD (Griffith—Leader of the Opposition) (3.57 p.m.)—I move:
That the House:
(1)

affirms its recognition of the sacrifices made by Australia’s veterans;

(2)

accepts its obligation to ensure that veterans’ sacrifices are acknowledged and that benefits earned by veterans are paid to them on a just and fair basis;

(3)

acknowledges in particular the plight of our most severely disabled veterans;

(4)

acknowledges that the value of the Special Rate Disability Pension (TPI and TTI), Intermediate Rate and Extreme Disablement Adjustment Pensions have eroded under the Howard government; and

(5)

supports Labor’s policy to index the remaining portions of the above general rate disability pensions to movements in male total average weekly earnings, in recognition of the more severe work and lifestyle effects suffered by the recipients of these entitlements.

There is perhaps no greater duty that we as a nation and as a parliament have than to honour, remember and express our gratitude to those Australians who have served in the defence of our nation in times of war, because our security and liberty has not come without a price. It is why all of us are immensely proud of all our men and women in uniform—those who have served and returned and the 100,000 Australians who have died in the service of their country. For those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the defence of our nation and in pursuit of peace, their courage and service should never be forgotten. For those veterans who have returned, and especially those with disabilities, we owe an equally great duty. It is why this motion that I have put before this House is so important. All of us share an obligation to ensure that the support we give to our veterans and their families, through pensions, benefits and other services, are given on an ongoing, just and fair basis. In so doing, we need to recognise the circumstances of our most severely disabled veterans and to do all we can to support them and their families to live happy, fulfilling and rewarding lives with as little discomfort and anxiety as possible.

It is particularly disheartening and, I believe, dishonourable that, over the past decade or so, the value of the special rate disability pension—the TPI and TTI—the intermediate rate and extreme disablement adjustment pensions has been eroded. It is why recently I announced that a Labor government would increase benefits for our nation’s most severely disabled war veterans. Labor would index all above general rate pensions to movements in the cost and standard of living. This will mean that TPI, TTI, intermediate and EDA pensioners will be substantially better off if these measures are introduced under a future Labor government. At present, it is only the above general rate component of these pensions that is indexed to movements in the consumer price index and male total average weekly earnings. The general rate component is indexed to CPI. Under Labor’s plans, both components will be indexed to whichever measure delivers more to veterans—CPI or male total average weekly earnings. According to current projections, after the first four years of these increased benefits being paid to our veterans, recipients will be $30 better off each fortnight, giving them an extra $1,700 in their pockets over that time.

In addition, Labor have supported the catch-up payments announced in the recent federal budget for special and intermediate rate pensioners. Our commitment is on top of these payments. This means that, under Labor’s plan, all special rate TPI veterans will get the $50 catch-up payment plus the future security of knowing that payments will be fairly indexed so that they can continue to get the support they need.

Labor’s commitment to veterans’ pensions will benefit more than 43,000 Australians with disabilities who have fought abroad for our nation in the Second World War, Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, the Gulf War, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq. Regrettably, the government have indicated that they will not make any changes to the current indexation arrangements for veterans’ pensions. Labor is committed to increasing the benefits for the most severely disabled veterans in recognition of the more difficult work and lifestyle limitations that they share. I am pleased that the leading veterans groups, including the TPI Federation, the Vietnam Veterans Association, the Vietnam Veterans Federation and the RSL have welcomed Labor’s approach in this area.

The truth is that neither side of politics has got the treatment of our veterans and their families completely right. It is why Labor—and me personally—are deeply committed to ensuring that we recognise, respect and support those who have given our nation the peace, security and prosperity that we all enjoy.

I conclude where I began. There is no more fundamental obligation that we have as a community than to ensure that those who have fought for our country and those who have suffered injury as a consequence of engaging the enemy for our country should be looked after properly by our country. This is a basic axiom of national decency, and that forms the basis for the principles which we have enunciated today. We would encourage the government to reflect again on the position we have put forward in the hope and expectation that they might also support it to ensure that our veterans can have that secure commitment into the future.

Interjection
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—Is the motion seconded?
Interjection
Mr Edwards—I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BUSINESS
Disabled Veterans and Pensions
Speech
Mr FAWCETT (Wakefield) (4.03 p.m.)—I rise to address this motion on veterans’ pensions. I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that we have an obligation to honour and remember those people who served our country and put their lives on the line. As somebody who spent over 22 years in the Defence Force as an army officer, I recognise the huge sacrifice that not only servicemen and servicewomen make but also families make who pay quite a price to release them to that service and often to look after them when they have returned. However, I do have a problem with the words of the opposition leader. He talks about the fact that there is no greater duty than to honour and remember. He says that he is personally deeply committed to supporting our veterans, yet his track record does not show that. I believe this is one of the first speeches he has made about veterans’ issues since 1998. He has talked about the Kokoda Track and some of the publicity things—although he has not mentioned the false dawn at Long Tan. One has to ask why only now, of all times, he has decided to start talking about this when he says that it is an issue of such deep personal conviction.

I think it is appropriate that they have on their front bench the member for Kingsford Smith, who wrote a song about a short memory. I think they are hoping that the veterans community will have a short memory when they look at the track record of what the ALP have actually done. If you look back to 1996, you will find they made a commitment of only $6.2 billion. Compare that to the government’s commitment now of over $11 billion. At the last election, in terms of new money, the ALP only promised some $17.8 million over four years versus the government’s commitment of over $82.4 million in the area of supporting veterans.

It is instructive to look more broadly into the ALP to see what their thinking is about issues, even specific issues like the TPI pension. In September 2004, at a TPI conference, Senator Mark Bishop said that he thought the special rate should cease at 65 so that veterans were brought into line with community norms. In June this year, he made comments in the Senate that indicated this was still his line of thought. At the Labor national conference this year there was no policy forthcoming. So when the Leader of the Opposition talks about the 11 years that this government has been in charge of that portfolio, it should be noted that, in that time, the Labor Party have not managed to actually develop any policy. The speech at the Labor national conference was just a poor, watered-down version of the ‘I’m listening’ speech.

It is constructive also to look at who did or, more pointedly, who did not, amongst the ALP members currently in the House, actually make a submission to the Clarke review. When it comes to this issue of TPI and indexation—and the Prime Minister talked earlier this month about ‘echonomics’—we are seeing ‘echo policy’ and we are also seeing the shallowness of what the ALP are actually planning. Earlier this year, three days before the budget, they announced their plan for indexing this pension. But what they did not say was that, because the rate of indexation actually cut in later, people on a TPI would only be some $1,700 better off by 2012. But the government’s plan—which is a real increase and one which came into effect in July this year—means that TPI pensioners will be better off by some $7,500 by 2012. Members opposite have complaints in what they are saying today, but you need to look at their track record. If they have been so deeply concerned, why did they not seek to address their concerns and address the catch-up rather than waiting until the government took the initiative to provide that support?

Certainly as you go through the government’s track record you can see that, whilst words come cheap from the other side, the government has actually put in place many meaningful policies—things like upgrading the value of the gold card to make sure that that health service, which is not just for specific war related injuries but for any injuries or illnesses suffered by veterans, is a world-class service. The government has actually brought that back into line, along with many local initiatives. In my own electorate of Wakefield, many of the local Vietnam veterans’ sub-branches and RSLs have received capital works funding, as well as other funding, to in practice support our veterans and their families. The government places a high value on that. I welcome the commitment of the government to our veterans. (Time expired)

PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BUSINESS
Disabled Veterans and Pensions
Speech
Mr EDWARDS (Cowan) (4.08 p.m.)—I certainly support this motion. I must say that I appreciate Kevin Rudd coming into this House and moving this motion. It is the first time in nine years that I have seen a leader come into this House and move such a motion, let alone speak on it in the way that he has. I have had the opportunity to speak to Kevin on a number of occasions about veterans’ issues. He has a deep commitment to veterans and a genuine interest, and I suspect that is in part because his brother is a Vietnam veteran.

I also just want to quickly recognise Alan Griffin and say how much I appreciate the job that he has done since he has come in as ALP spokesperson on veterans’ issues. He is without doubt the best spokesperson on veterans’ issues on either side of the House that I have seen in my time here—no disrespect to you, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott. Alan Griffin has come in with a great degree of interest and sympathy. He is very energetic; he has been out there talking to veterans’ groups; he has travelled right around Australia; he has listened to them and he has consulted with them—and that is one of the reasons why, since Kevin Rudd has been leader of the ALP and Alan Griffin has been shadow spokesperson, Labor have announced a number of initiatives. We have others which we will announce leading up to the next election.

The previous speaker started by saying that he agrees with what the leaders had to say and then totally contradicted himself as he spent his whole time rubbishing what the leader of the ALP had to say. The previous speaker also said that veterans’ affairs policy is a world-class service. So, might I say, is the service that veterans have given over generations to freedom and this country. That too is a world-class service, and it is damn time that governments stopped looking for simple photo opportunities with veterans and started to do something deeper and meaningful to address the issues that they confront.

The former speaker who got up and spoke on this motion said he was an officer in the Australian Defence Force. He turned his back on some of the diggers who have served under him—diggers who are battling out there and are in need of support. What the previous speaker did not say is that this government, since it has been in power, has added very little in real terms to the veterans’ affairs budget. Let me say that the figures might sound impressive, but do not listen to what members of the government say; look at the figures. Firstly, more than 80 per cent of the $3.7 billion worth of increases over the past 10 years has overwhelmingly related to natural cost increases and no changes in services or benefits for the veterans community. It is an increase that would have occurred had there been no Minister for Veterans’ Affairs over the past 10 years.

The area of income support and compensation is the topic of the opposition leader’s motion today. Apart from this year’s catch-up payment for T&PI intermediate rate pensions that addresses erosion caused by inappropriate indexation, the totality of government initiatives over the past 10 years has led to practically no increase in the amount of income paid by the department. I would challenge government members to outline exactly how many of their policies have been about new measures rather than focusing on catch-up payments or the restoration of services that the veteran community are entitled to. Unfortunately, just as we have a clever Prime Minister, a tricky Prime Minister, so too we have a clever and tricky Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. The way he presents figures does not stand up to scrutiny. He might be able to trick his backbench but, let me tell you, he cannot trick members of the veteran community and their families who are out there battling to make ends meet.

We have had strong support from the TPI Association. I note that the National President, ‘Blue’ Ryan, is in the gallery today. We have had strong support from the Vietnam Veterans Federation and the RSL over the initiatives that we have taken. Those initiatives are a direct result and reflection of the commitment that the ALP has to veterans’ issues under Kevin Rudd. (Time expired)

PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BUSINESS
Disabled Veterans and Pensions
Speech
Mr JOHNSON (Ryan) (4.13 p.m.)—I welcome the opportunity, as the federal member for Ryan, to speak in the House of Representatives on veterans related issues and, indeed, to highlight the Howard government’s achievements, especially in the area of comprehensive health care and support services that are made available to the veteran community. I want to pay tribute to all Australians who have worn the uniform and served their country, as my father and grandfather did. I pay tribute to the member for Cowan for his service and for wearing the uniform for our country. I pay tribute to my colleague and friend the member for Wakefield, who was a helicopter pilot and spent 22 years of service in uniform, representing our country. I express disappointment that anybody in the national parliament would seek to personally question the motivation or goodwill of any colleague in the parliament simply because they put forward a different policy perspective or have a different appreciation of this area of very important policy. Let us move on.

I am very pleased that, as the local member for Ryan, I have a very good working relationship with all the sub-branches of the RSL. Indeed, I was very honoured earlier this year to receive a plaque from two of the RSL sub-branches, the Kenmore-Moggill RSL sub-branch and the Centenary Suburbs RSL sub-branch—of which my father is a member—for the efforts that I make in my local constituency. I am always honoured to attend Anzac Day and Remembrance Day services as a guest of the RSL as the federal member and to pay tribute to all those Australians who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the interests of freedom and democracy and all the values for which this country stands.

During the recess, I had the pleasure of meeting with members of The Gap RSL at a recent meeting, and of speaking about the $4,000 that they had received from the Howard government as a contribution towards their wonderful initiative of building a special new memorial stone in The Gap.

Also, recently the Howard government made a grant of some $21,000 to the Veterans Support and Advocacy Service of Australia, which is based in the suburb of Toowong in the electorate of Ryan. This is a very important funding measure from the Howard government and is just part of a reflection of the contribution and the commitment of the Howard government to veterans’ affairs and to all important issues that concern the veterans of our country.

I want to make some comments on the areas of health care and support services that the Howard government has invested in for the veterans of Australia. But before I do that, I want to read into the parliamentary record a letter which I received from Mr Doug Formby. Mr Formby is a constituent of mine and a very distinguished Australian. He is now retired but he held, during his time of service, the rank of brigadier in the Australian Army. I think it is very important for all Australians and, in particular, Ryan residents to be aware of the position of the RSL because veterans’ affairs touch so many people in my electorate. This is what Mr Formby said in his letter to me of 17 April this year:

Dear Mr Johnson.
This letter is in response to your request for a position from the RSL, in regard to the recent events concerning the proposed television coverage of [an] ANZAC Day Dawn Service in South Vietnam.

… … …
I take this opportunity to make plain that the RSL seeks to retain the integrity and focus of ANZAC Day upon its unquestioned and historic place in Australia’s Calendar. ANZAC Day provides an opportunity to all of the people of Australia to pause, reflect and give thanks for the service and sacrifice of the servicemen and women of this country.

ANZAC Day is above politics, religion and any divisions that may [exist] within the community based upon race or ethnic background. The day should never be allowed to be used by any individual or group for any intention other than what it has been traditionally set aside for.

It will be a sad day if the significance of ANZAC Day is in any way diminished by taking away the long accepted ... focus of the day.

Yours Sincerely
Mr Doug Formby
STATE PRESIDENT
I read that into the parliamentary record because I think it is very important to highlight the position of the federal opposition leader in his relationship with veterans and, in particular, his trying to exploit the opportunity of Anzac Day. We all know, of course, the reference there to ‘the proposed television coverage of an Anzac Day dawn service in South Vietnam’ is a reference to attempts to move the time of the dawn service in Vietnam to coincide with Channel 7’s coverage of the service to beam it back into Australia as part of the Sunrise program. Of course, the opposition leader denied all knowledge of that but that proved to be false. (Time expired)

PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BUSINESS
Disabled Veterans and Pensions
Speech
Mrs ELLIOT (Richmond) (4.18 p.m.)—I fully support the motion put forward by the Leader of the Opposition and feel very privileged today to speak on the importance of honouring and recognising the sacrifice of our veterans. I believe that as individuals, as communities and as governments—and, indeed, as a nation—we are indebted to those courageous Australians who have put their lives on the line in the service of our country. We are also indebted to their families, many of whom have suffered so much.

We are all aware that veterans and their families face a unique set of challenges—challenges with which they should be assisted by the full commitment of the federal government. When it comes to veterans, the federal government has a responsibility—and, indeed, a moral obligation—to ensure that veterans’ sacrifices are acknowledged and that benefits are paid to them on a fair and just basis. This is a responsibility that federal Labor understands, and we understand the complexity of veterans’ affairs issues.

The current plight of veterans is particularly felt by our most severely disabled veterans, whose pensions have been steadily eroded under the Howard government. These are the people who have paid a staggering price in the service of our country, and yet they are the ones who have been shamefully neglected by the Howard government.

In contrast, we in the federal Labor Party have outlined our policy to increase benefits for our nation’s most severely disabled war veterans. Essentially, Labor’s proposal will increase the value of the special rate disability pension, TPI and TTI intermediate rate and the extreme disablement adjustment pensions. These pensions, on which thousands of veterans and their families rely as their only source of income, as I said, have steadily eroded under the Howard government. A Rudd Labor government will address this injustice.

The problem is one of indexation. Until 2004, these pensions were indexed only to the CPI. In 2004, after prolonged protest within the veterans’ community, the government finally agreed to index a component, but not the whole, of the pensions to movements in male total average weekly earnings of the CPI. This inadequate indexation regime has been a longstanding concern within the veterans’ community. It is estimated that, because of this unfair and unjust indexation regime, the value of the pension has decreased. In the case of the special rate disability pension, the loss in value has been over $70 per fortnight.

In 1997, the Howard government indexed a range of pensions, but the above rate general pension was not one of them. The undeniable result of this decision by the government is that veterans are now struggling to meet the increases in the cost of living. Federal Labor will index the whole of these pensions to the male total average weekly earnings or the CPI, whichever is the greater. This will have a very significant positive impact on thousands of families. I strongly urge the Howard government and members opposite to see the injustice of the system currently in place and to do the right thing and support this motion, because this issue has been one of the greatest concerns in the veterans policy area over the last 10 years.

What we see from the Howard government is a cynical and tired government. They have consistently ignored the difficulties faced by veterans. That is something of which they should be ashamed. Instead of presenting a positive solution to the erosion of these pensions, the current government and minister have resorted to repeatedly telling the veterans’ community that this is not an important issue and they have never been better off. Quite frankly, I find such comments highly disrespectful. I find many comments made by members opposite today also highly disrespectful to members of the veterans’ community. They certainly deserve much better than what they have heard today from members opposite.

In contrast, federal Labor has put forward a plan to rectify the area of indexation of the pensions provided to our most severely disabled war veterans. Veterans’ affairs is an area I have long been concerned about, and the Labor Party is committed to being a strong advocate for veterans and their families. I feel very privileged to be able to represent the hundreds of veterans living in the Richmond electorate. My electorate of Richmond has one of the highest numbers of veterans in the country. I am often very moved by their stories and saddened to hear of the difficulties they and their families face.

Within my electorate alone, Labor’s indexation commitment will affect nearly 700 veterans and their families. Just recently I was very pleased to hold a morning tea with Labor’s shadow minister for veterans’ affairs in Tweed Heads. I would like to thank the over 100 veterans who attended and raised their concerns about veterans’ affairs policy. I feel that one local veteran really summed up the sentiment when it comes to veterans’ affairs when he said: ‘I did what my country asked me to do and they said I’d be looked after. Now they’ve left me behind. We’re not after special treatment just a fair go.’ It is for this reason that I support this motion to make sure our veterans get a fair go.

PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BUSINESS
Disabled Veterans and Pensions
Speech
Mr NEVILLE (Hinkler) (4.23 p.m.)—The Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Repatriation Commission were born out of the Great War 90 years ago. Since then we have seen the department and commission adapt to the changing needs of the veteran community. The demands of the Second World War were enormous and the department grew to be one of the largest departments of the Commonwealth. In the 1990s, Labor sold out the repatriation general hospitals in the stated belief that community hospitals could provide appropriate support for veterans. Some still hotly contest that. Although this reduced the department from 13,000 to 3,000 people, no-one could argue that there was a subsequent reduction in services to veterans.

This government recognises that the DVA and the Repatriation Commission must remain flexible, dynamic and responsive to the needs of veterans. As those heroes of the Second World War and their spouses age, service delivery will obviously have to be adjusted. But with good government and a committed staff, the DVA will continue to meet the needs of our veterans. Over recent years, the coalition has carefully considered the adequacy of the TPI pension and its means of indexation to ensure it achieves its intended purpose. The Clarke review of 2003 said:

Overall, the current special rate disability package is broadly adequate when considered over the veteran’s lifetime.
Having said that, I was one of those who called for improvements to the government’s response to the Clarke review, and my strong support for veterans is well known. I will not wear the charge that I am disrespectful to veterans, as the veterans in my electorate well know. So it angers me that Labor is looking to use veterans as a quick headline by peddling redundant policies and telling untruths about this government’s record of indexation for veterans’ payments. I might point out there were no MTAWE payments under the Labor government, no MTAWE payments at all.

Since 2004, the above general rate component of the TPI pension has been indexed with reference to both the CPI and MTAWE, as it is considered compensation for loss of income. The general rate component of the TPI pension is paid as compensation for pain and suffering, not as compensation for loss of income. As such, it continues to be indexed in line with increases in the CPI to ensure that it retains its value and is not eroded by inflation. They are two separate things. It is important for members to note that veterans who are eligible for the veterans disability pension are also eligible for the service pension, meaning that a large proportion of veterans receive both payments each fortnight.

No government in the world has taken its responsibilities more seriously in its commitment to the care, compensation and commemoration of its veterans and war widows than the government of this country. I know that to be true because of the contacts I have had and the number of functions I go to to honour veterans. More interestingly, a number of people from other Commonwealth and allied countries who come into my office are trying to get the same benefits now that they live in Australia. If our benefits were not the best, why would people be wanting to transfer from overseas entitlements to ours?

The introduction of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme in 2004 has given us a modern, military specific compensation scheme that will meet the needs of a new generation of service personnel and their families. The coalition is spending $6.1 billion on compensation and income support for veterans—an increase of 36 per cent since 1996 and that is well ahead of inflation.