Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (19:43): I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. In doing so, I need to point out that serving and retired members of the Australian Defence Force should not be treated as less than worthy citizens when it comes to superannuation entitlements. This is, unfortunately, exactly how they are faring under this Labor government.

Australian veterans risked their lives for our country, yet this extraordinary level of faith has not been returned in kind by this miserable, miserly government. 

As a condition of employment, fair indexation for veterans must be a non-discretionary obligation in the budget. It is a topic close to my heart and I have already spoken about it in this House on a number of occasions. In fact, I asked in this chamber on 18 June this year: why is fair indexation not affordable for military superannuation pensioners? It is affordable for some 3½ million aged pensioners and other welfare beneficiaries, and for certain parliamentary and judicial superannuation pensioners. A condition of service provides for retirement pay—a superannuation pension which maintains its purchasing power. Its purchasing power is a condition of service upon which veterans plan their retirements. Service people themselves must make compulsory contributions. 

The government is bound to honour all those employment conditions, and the veterans argue that the budget should provide for fair indexation as a non-discretionary item before other discretionary items. 
I have received an email from my constituent Robert Bak of Bethungra, who is the President of the Integrated Service People's Association of Australia, an organisation which does a power of good helping veterans with all manner of things. Mr Bak writes: 

It is not acceptable to the ex-service community, to have both sides procrastinate over this very serious issue. It is even more important than other current issues. 
He concluded by saying: 

… we are not going to let this matter rest. 
And nor should they, and nor should Mr Bak. 

Wagga Wagga is a proud triservice Riverina city, with bases for the Australian Army, Royal Australian Air Force and Royal Australian Navy. Blamey Barracks at Kapooka are the home of the soldier, with every Australian Army recruit passing through prior to other deployments. Those presently posted to Wagga Wagga know how essential fair superannuation is to their futures. And, like Mr Bak, they also know that the coalition is fighting hard to give them what they want, to give them what they need. They also know that those on the other side of the political equation are not. 

I have received much correspondence about this matter from Bert Hoebee, who was the Deputy Commandant at Blamey Barracks Kapooka in 1989 and 1990. Now retired but passionately pursuing this issue on behalf of all veterans, Mr Hoebee had this to say in his latest stinging rebuke: 

I believe that our argument is unassailable as far as its fairness and logic goes. 

Too right! 

The coalition are committed to military superannuation reform, and on 5 March this year the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Senator Michael Ronaldson, signed the coalition's pledge to deliver fair indexation. This pledge states the coalition's clear commitment to our veterans, to those who have served, to those who are serving, and to those who will serve into the future. And we will deliver fair indexation to 57,000 military superannuants and their families. The pledge also ensures that the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme and the Defence Force Retirement Benefits Scheme are indexed in the same manner as age and service pensions. This will benefit all superannuants aged 55 years and over. The coalition want to see fair indexation. We know how important, how needed and how just it is. 

The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 includes a number of minor technical amendments to veterans' legislation. However, the main issue of concern that parliament must immediately deal with is the unfair, unjust and inequitable situation confronting military superannuants. It is unacceptable that this Labor government continues to tarry with semantics while at the same time bluntly ignoring the everyday concerns of veterans, ex-service personnel and their families. Whilst the coalition support this amendment, we believe it can be made better, and we seek to legislate fair indexation as a requirement for this bill to pass. 

Furthermore, once this legislation is passed through the House of Representatives the coalition will seek to make the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme the fair system it deserves to be. The coalition moved an amendment to defer the debate, and this was not done lightly. We believe it is vital this legislation incorporates fair indexation. This is fair, it is just and it is equitable for military superannuants—men and women, as I say, who put their lives in harm's way for our country. 

On Saturday I attended the commemoration service for the Vietnam veterans in the Victory Memorial Gardens in Wagga Wagga. One of the questions I was asked—not once, but several times—was, 'When is this parliament going to fairly index military pensions?' The coalition made a commitment to fair indexation on 27 June 2010 and took this commitment to the 2010 election. Although not able to form government, we introduced legislation to the Senate on 18 November 2010 to bring about indexation for DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants. 

On 24 March 2011 the Greens and Labor called for yet another inquiry into the legislation. The coalition opposed this on the grounds that there have been more than half a dozen inquiries, all of which have supported fair indexation. The Greens and Labor used the inquiry to oppose fair indexation—the first parliament which has ever opposed fair indexation. This is disgraceful, and Labor and Greens members should hang their heads in shame at the way Australian veterans—who lived the ANZAC legacy—are being treated. 

Failure to justly index military superannuation pensions comes at a significant cost to veterans' purchasing power. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs has argued a superannuant on $58,000 per year did not need fair indexation—they were already well off. However, what the minister failed to acknowledge is that the average DFRDB military pension is just $24,386—almost 2½ times less than the figure he quoted in June. Veterans received letters in June this year offering an increase to their pensions. These increases were a measly few cents and, really, were a slap in the face to military superannuants, with many receiving less than a $1 increase per fortnight. Is this what they deserve after their years of service, their dedication and the sacrifice that they made, and the risks that they took? 

Peter Grimmer, a retired warrant officer (aircrew), who served from 1965 until 1985, wrote to me stating he would receive an increase of 96c per fortnight, a pitiful total of $24.96 per annum. He told me the increase made him feel 'not only physically sick over this vile betrayal but very angry and very abused'. I think anyone could understand why Mr Grimmer feels this way, although this government continues to look the other way. It is time Labor faced reality and told veterans such as Mr Grimmer how less than a dollar a fortnight will help meet the ever increasing costs of living, costs which are not helped by the imposition of the carbon tax. Labor claims it will cost too much to fairly index military superannuants. To that I say: how can delivering what is rightly owed to military superannuants, people who put their lives on the line for Australia, cost too much? 

The current Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme is also flawed, and it is unfair. The coalition seeks to amend legislation to deliver equality for disabled veterans with high pharmaceutical costs. Under Labor there is division between disabled veterans—those with qualifying service and those without. Up to 1,500 disabled veterans receive no assistance from the scheme as it currently stands. These are disabled veterans who receive the special rate, or totally and permanently incapacitated, but do not have qualifying service as defined by the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. The coalition proposed a comprehensive veterans' pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme at the 2010 election which delivered financial relief to more than 80,000 disabled veterans. It did not create two classes of veterans and it ensured that all of Australia's most disabled veterans had no out-of-pocket pharmaceutical expenses. 

Furthermore, the coalition's scheme was immediate. There were no cumbersome reimbursements needed, nor any need for technical amendments to ensure the scheme functions properly, as the legislation before us today proposes. 

Under the coalition's scheme, a veteran who qualified would pay for only 30 scripts per year and, once they reached this number, under the veterans' pharmaceutical safety net threshold they would pay no more. This meant financial relief for veterans. 

Labor's scheme leaves veterans waiting for the calendar to tick over to a new year before they receive any financial relief for the cost of pharmaceuticals. It is important the government does the right thing by our retired military personnel. It is time to put a stop to the discrimination against them and to recognise the conditions of their employment, to which they contributed financially during their service.

Cristy Houghton