Mr RAMSEY (Grey–Government Whip) (12:26): To cut to the chase, no, I don’t support the amendment. But I do support the bill that is before the House, which is on variations to veterans’ entitlements, the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment Bill 2018. It is a relatively simple bill, correcting a drafting oversight that occurred back in 2005-that is an awfully long time ago in parliamentary terms. It does no more than authenticate what is current practice.
Death is a difficult time for all of us. It’s no different for veterans and their partners. At that time, as it does across a wide range of issues, the government tries to be supportive of veterans and their families. As a result of the oversight back in 2005, the technicality of the legislation is that, should someone, after they’ve passed away, be paid an extra payment on their service pension before the department is informed, that is classed as an overpayment. What happens is the surviving spouse receives a bereavement payment which is equivalent to 98 days of the service pension. Technically, what should happen is the overpayment should be recouped and the bereavement payment should go ahead. That’s pretty dopey, really. Essentially it’s just not smart, and we don’t need to place that kind of stress on families. What has been happening is that the overpayment, if you like, is debited against the bereavement payment, and the payment is adjusted by that amount. That is the right and proper way to do things. This legislation just tidies up that loose end from over 20 years ago. What we’ve been doing will continue to happen and it will apply retrospectively as well, because we don’t want anyone raising any silly issues on the side and talking about recouping money from the past. That is a good outcome and it should be supported by both sides of the House. I’m pleased to hear that the Labor Party is going to support that position.
It does give me the opportunity, though, to talk about a number of other issues surrounding veterans and veterans’ entitlements. In my electorate, like all of us in our electorates, I come across veterans’ organisations on a regular basis. More often than not, they are the RSL clubs or the RSL sub-branches across South Australia, but we also have the Vietnam Veterans’ Association down at Moonta and there are a number of others all doing great work. In fact, it’s really quite encouraging to see the resurgence in RSL clubs. RSL sub-branches in South Australia are quite different to what other members in this place might experience through New South Wales where, of course, RSL clubs are large community facilities that have accumulated wealth through poker machines in the past and that provide great service to the much wider community. In South Australia, it’s a much more low-key affair because that income stream was non-existent in the past. Consequently, some of the sub-branches have drifted into fairly low numbers and low support within community.
I have noticed that in the last six to eight years there has been quite a resurgence of these clubs reaching out to the wider community and encouraging new members to join. The governments have helped facilitate this through the veterans’ grants and refurbishing some of these old RSL halls-putting new roofs on them, putting new kitchens in, providing toilet blocks. A recent grant that I was very pleased to see go to the Port Lincoln RSL actually provided UV screening for their windows so their quite substantial and really important and meaningful collection of artefacts can be properly preserved from the sunlight. The very enthusiastic RSL clubs are applying for all kinds of assistance across a wide range of facilities.
The fact that they survive in this more modern world, where of course the number of veterans is not the same as what postwar or post Second World War Australia experienced is a really good thing. It is a good thing that they survive. It is a good thing that they are still there protecting and commemorating the Anzac tradition and that we always remember those who have gone before and, in some cases, given their life for this country. They are the custodians of the legend, and we should support them at every available opportunity, and we do.
There are other things that the government is doing to support veterans, though. There is of course the extended family support package which has been in place since May this year. It is helping veterans and their families with expanded childcare funding, counselling support for immediate family members of veterans experiencing crisis, home help and counselling support for spouses and partners. Service in war is about much more than the physical injuries; it is also about the mental scars that people carry. Those of us who are of the generation remember well, for instance, the appalling reception that our Vietnam veterans got when they returned to Australia in the late sixties and early seventies-and no wonder some of them are mentally scarred. I’m very pleased that all sides of politics have moved past that vindictive era. It was terrible politics at the time and certainly the wrong way to address what some may have seen as an unpopular war. By all means vent your rage on the government of the day, but leave the soldiers out of it; they are the ones who put their lives on the line for the service of the nation. Of course, that has led to higher levels of mental illness with that generation and that particular conflict than we’ve probably ever seen before and hopefully will never see again. But that’s not meaning to say that those that give service today don’t deal with issue when they return home.
Like many members, I have taken part in the Defence placements that this place facilitates, the interaction between the defence forces and the parliamentarians. Unfortunately, due to time issues, I’ve only had the opportunity to go on one of those placements, and I chose to go to Afghanistan. I met there with many of our special forces groups, some of whom were on their fifth tour of duty. They are fine individuals and they really do fill you with a great degree of confidence that Australia is being very well served. But there must come to everyone a real adjustment pattern when they return to civilian life in Australia. We need to be acutely aware of the challenges that face those who have served in that area. Of course, that’s what we’re doing with the extended family support package and the counselling service. It’s a good outcome.
We’re also contributing across a wide range of areas with helping veterans manage their families. The Long Tan Bursary is one that’s become increasingly popular. It was only in this year’s budget that we extended the eligibility for Vietnam veterans’ children through to Vietnam veterans’ childrens’ children, bearing in mind that there are some intergenerational issues that arise with people who have been through these really tough times.
Right across the board, I’m quite enthused by the amount of effort government is putting into making sure that we complete our obligation to complete the circle, if you like. We need to make sure that those people who have given so much to the nation are embraced properly by our modern society, which moves so quickly and sometimes can leave people behind. For my part, and I guess for every member in this parliament, we are always open to approaches from the veterans community who come to us with various issues-people who have slipped off the table or disappeared under the carpet and those who are sometimes in quite unfortunate circumstances. It’s a great privilege in this place to be able to intervene personally and help those people by finding services for them to get the treatment they need. I encourage all members to keep doing that, and I don’t think there would be one member in this place or the other place who would not do exactly that. It is a bipartisan approach to making sure we’re looking after that generation and those who have served us before. I commend the bill.