SPEECH - Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2021

30 November 2021

It gives me great pleasure to be able to rise to speak to the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021 this evening, although I do seek indulgence just to reflect on some of the contributions made by previous speakers and, particularly, my friends the member for Monash, the member for Lingiari and the member for Solomon. I want to particularly, this being perhaps the last time I'll get to speak on a bill with my dear friend and colleague the member for Lingiari, acknowledge his exceptional service and work for the veteran community. I really appreciated the speeches beforehand. I have often worked with the member for Lingiari on a lot of First Nations issues, learning from him. When I have travelled with him throughout Australia when we have been doing committee work, his knowledge of defence and the area of veterans affairs in particular has been second to none. People everywhere have acknowledged that. He is so exceptionally well known. I think that those three years from 2010 to 2013 when he was Minister for Veterans' Affairs really cemented his legacy in this area. It is a legacy that is immense, and I for one really appreciate that—and I know many other colleagues in this parliament do too. I have been in denial for some time that he is in fact retiring. I find it hard to believe. But I did not want this evening to pass without acknowledging his extraordinary work, to thank him for that and to acknowledge that legacy. It's one that he should be immensely proud of.

Labor is very much on the side of Australian veterans and their families, and that's why we will be supporting this legislation this evening. This simplifies and streamlines assistance to veterans and will improve their wellbeing, and nobody in this place would be opposed to that. The bill addresses recommendations made by Mr David Tune AO PSM in his 2019 review of the totally and permanently incapacitated payment, the TPI payment. The government's had the Tune review's recommendations and the Productivity Commission's 2019 report on a better way to support veterans. I am a little disappointed that it is 2021. Both those reviews are a couple of years old now. Sometimes the wheels in government move slowly, and this is very much one of those examples.

The government first announced these measures that we are seeing in the bill tonight back in the 2020-21 budget, and its intention to bring forward these important changes from 20 September to 1 January 2022 was flagged in last year's budget. That was following immense pressure from TPI veterans, with the support of the Australian Labor Party.

These reforms will simplify the administration of some payments for veterans and their dependants. This will be done by exempting disability payments from income testing under the Social Security Act 1991. It will simplify arrangements for some 14,000 veterans and their dependants. That's a good thing. The government will also increase access to rent assistance for our most disabled veterans. This will benefit some 6,900 veterans and their dependants. Specifically, the first schedule will implement the government's commitment to exempt the adjusted disability pension, defined in the Veterans' Entitlements Act, from the income test under the Social Security Act. These are important changes. This will remove the need for the Defence Force Income Support Allowance, or DFISA. Introduced in 2004, that allowance was paid as a top-up to ensure that veterans who received an age pension under the Social Security Act were not financially disadvantaged. Changes in this schedule will ensure veterans will receive the same payment as before but administrative processes will be much simpler. While it's an administrative change, this will make the allowance redundant, and this bill will remove all relevant references to that from the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

The second schedule will remove the disability income rent test from under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. That will mean disabled veterans will now have access to the same rent assistance as those who receive it via Centrelink. It'll increase rent assistance payable to veterans or enable some disabled veterans to receive rent assistance for the first time, and that is important. The disability income rent test results in severely disabled veterans receiving less rent assistance than those with a lower-level disability. In particular, this measure will benefit totally and permanently incapacitated veterans, who presently do not receive any rent assistance due to the amount of compensation they receive. That's been a gross inequity for some time. Schedule 4 will remove references to the term 'disability pension' in the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

Labor supports this legislation. As I said, it'll improve and streamline the assistance that we can deliver to veterans and ultimately improve their wellbeing. However, we know it's not what most TPI veterans wanted. The reality is that most actually want an increase in the actual TPI payment. The Australian Federation of Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex Servicemen and Women, the TPI Federation, has been raising this issue about the inadequacies of the TPI payment for many years now. But the government has continued to ignore those concerns. Labor referred the issue of the adequacy of the TPI payment to a Senate inquiry earlier this year so that TPI veterans could have their say, have a direct line to lawmakers of this country, to tell them of their lived experience of this payment.

The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee inquiry into the TPI payment reported on 1 July this year and recommended that the government consider an increase in the payment. At the time, Labor called on the government to respond to the committee's unanimous recommendation. So this wasn't just Labor's call here; this was a recommendation backed by government members on the committee. We asked that the government respond to that unanimous recommendation, which would ensure that most disabled veterans would not be left behind. Surely, that is a good thing. Surely, that is something this government would want to support. However, in its response to the inquiry, which the government tabled on 7 October, all that the Morrison-Joyce government could say was that it noted that recommendation and would take it into account when considering future policy options for the support for TPI veterans.

That turned out to be a very huge slap in the face of the 879 TPI veterans in the Newcastle and Hunter Region, and it just goes to show that this is a government that is still all about the announcement but not actually coming through on delivery. This makes Australian veterans very nervous. It was another blow for those long-suffering ex-service men and women who have long advocated for this important change to be made to remedy the existing inadequacy of the TPI payment. Before the 2019 election the Prime Minister totally raised the hopes of everybody at the TPI Federation when he said that he wanted to increase the payment and he was going to do that by commissioning this Tune review. But then he dashes all of their hopes post election with this very flawed response to the review that we now have before us. After sitting on the report for more than a year—again, another pattern very common in this government now—the Prime Minister announced in last year's budget that he would only provide rent assistance to a very small portion of those TPI veterans, perhaps around 25 per cent, leaving most disgusted because they were going to miss out. In response to Labor's questions in Senate estimates last year it was revealed that these benefits would not start to flow until September 2022—September next year—while the government made changes to the legislation and various IT systems that needed changing.

Thankfully, following pressure from Labor and those TPI veterans who turned up again to try and be strong advocates for the people they're representing, the government brought forward those measures in this bill now to January 2022. But they're cutting it very fine to get them passed. We are just knocking on the door of December now and the government wants these in place in January. So Labor is not going to stand in the way of these measures because we want to see at least some assistance being delivered, however modest or indeed tokenistic it might seem to some TPI veterans, and who can blame them for that assessment? We don't want to get in the way of this very modest form of assistance for those most deserving former Defence personnel. But we do condemn the Morrison Liberal government for its failure to accept the recommendation of a Senate inquiry and its appalling treatment of TPI veterans over the past eight years. I would acknowledge that there are some government members who are trying to advocate for this matter, and I say all power to you, but we've not seen any actual response from the government that is going to really cut it for the TPI veterans.

We've got a Department of Veterans' Affairs that's struggling with a huge backlog of TPI pension claims. It's really just not good enough that our veterans and their families are having to, first, be disappointed with inaction, and, second, be confronted with a department that is probably not resourced enough, I don't think, to be able to actually get through some of the claims that it has in its system. I note on that matter that ex-service men and women in my community are still very concerned about the VAN office in Newcastle. I want to thank my local veteran community for their very strong advocacy. The last few months have been very tough on veterans, with the cancellation of local Anzac services; the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was really triggering for many, many Defence ex-service men and women; and of course the release of the Brereton report. I think that's why it is critical that this Morrison government reopens the VAN office in Newcastle, which still remains closed, as a matter of priority. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs should be reassuring local veterans in my community that this government will not be making any moves to close that VAN office permanently because that is what is worrying veterans right now. I won't stop fighting for this issue. It is the very least we can do to honour those who serve us, to ensure that they have a place to come and be treated with dignity and have their concerns addressed.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of our ex-service organisations in Newcastle generally. As I said, it's been another really tough year for veterans. I want to give my personal thanks to the TPI Association at Wallsend; the Newcastle and Hunter Region Vietnam Veterans; the RSL sub-Branches of the City of Newcastle, Merewether-Hamilton-Adamstown, Lambton-New Lambton, Wallsend and District, Shortland, Waratah-Mayfield-Islington and Stockton. I know the work you do each and every day to honour those who you have lost and to care for those who remain, and I do want to put on record my thanks. I also want to acknowledge the Hunter Anzac Memorial Ltd; the RSL Coffee Pot Day Club in Merewether; the WRANS Naval Women's Association, Hunter Region; the Gallipoli Legion Club Preservation Group; the Newcastle War Widows Guild Club; the Wallsend Diggers; the RAAF Association; the City of Newcastle Anzac Day Committee; Newcastle Legacy; the Newcastle branch of the National Service and Combined Forces Association of Australia Inc; the Naval Association of Australia; Newcastle N16; Open Arms Veterans and Families Counselling; and the many other service organisations which do their utmost every day to honour those who have served. It's been an especially challenging year for everyone. I certainly hope that 2022 is much kinder to you all. Take care, and best wishes.