31 October 2011
Andrew delivers a grievance speech on issues affecting our service personnel including pension indexation, compensation offsetting, restructuring of the DCO, respect for Vietnam Veterans Day, and the summary dismissal of Tasmanian Air Force Officers. He also took the opportunity to speak for the recent lives lost in Afghanistan and the bicentennial celebration of Anglesea Barracks.
Mr WILKIE (Denison) (21:48): I rise tonight to address a number of defence personnel issues which have come to my attention and which warrant genuine consideration by the government. But, before I do, I wish to acknowledge the death of three more Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. The political debate about the war—as much as there is one—and my personal opposition to the conflict are one thing, but the fine performance of our soldiers in Afghanistan and the tragedy when one or more of them is killed or hurt is another thing entirely. My heart goes out to the families and friends of our most recent fatalities. May our nation’s sons rest in peace. And may we in this place be careful to ensure the work of all our service men and women is appropriately recognised and rewarded.
To that end, I urge the government to look afresh at the continuing unfairness in the superannuation arrangements for some serving and retired defence personnel, in particular members of the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme and the Defence Forces Retirement Benefit Scheme. In essence, the problem is that currently the benefits paid by DFRDB and DFRB are indexed to the consumer price index instead of to male total average weekly earnings or the pensioner and beneficiary living cost index as is the case with other government benefits and pensions. As a consequence, the real value of the pension for some defence superannuants is falling further and further behind, to the point where evermore ex-service men and women are struggling to meet even the most basic costs of living—and that is wrong.
Neither the government nor the opposition is in the clear on this matter because the problem has existed for many years and neither has done anything about it. The ALP should be condemned for not doing something about it since its election in 2007. The coalition should be condemned for not doing something about it during the Howard years and, more recently, for tabling a patently unconstitutional private members’ money bill in a theatrical display designed to win over serving and ex-service men and women.
Another perennial issue of concern is defence compensation arrangements—for instance, the way some service personnel have to choose whether to receive compensation by pension or a lump sum if they fit within the Veterans’ Entitlements Act or the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. The way I understand it, in some cases, if they opt for a lump sum payment, their pension is reduced to offset the cost. On the face of it, this seems perfectly fair, except that once the cost of the lump sum payment has been offset, the pension does not increase to the full level. So those veterans who need a helping hand early on are forced to take less money overall than those who opt for the pension alone. The review of military compensation arrangements released in March this year has found that there are several alternatives which may address the perceived inequities in the compensation system, but they have been deemed too complicated to implement. Again, that is wrong.
Such matters do need to be looked at afresh and every effort should be made to ensure our ex-service men and women are treated fairly. While we are at it, we need to be mindful that the defence community is much bigger than the men and women in uniform and it is not just service personnel who need the government’s support. Defence families, in particular, experience unique pressures—for example, regular relocations and lengthy time apart due to postings, operations and training. Helping out is the Defence Community Organisation, which provides counselling, relocation support, crisis care for dependants and bereavement support. But cuts are proposed which would drastically reduce the level of support the DCO provides, including cutting skilled social workers, reducing allowed client visits and a reduction in regional centres.
I understand that the natural instinct of governments is to cut costs by centralising service delivery. However, I firmly believe that our defence families deserve the very best and most personal services we can give them, including being able to directly access services locally without having to go through a national call centre. The Hobart DCO will be one such centre affected if the proposed reforms are realised and it would be increasingly difficult for families, particularly in Tasmania, to access the care they need. Again, that would be wrong.
Another important consideration for our soldiers, past and present, is recognition. I am concerned to have learned there is some division within the Vietnam veterans community about the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan on 18 August being used as Vietnam Veterans Day. The issue is not the importance of the Battle of Long Tan, which is clearly one of the most significant battles in Australian military history and one that warrants special recognition. No, the issue is that some veterans of other battles in South Vietnam are frustrated because they feel Vietnam Veterans Day ceremonies focus too much on Long Tan to the exclusion of the other significant battles. Some veterans even avoid the ceremonies on that day as they do not feel included or appropriately recognised.
Frankly, it upsets me to know that some, perhaps many, of those who made great sacrifices for us in times of war are left feeling excluded on the very day meant for them. Make no mistake: I am ex-6 RAR myself and I agree that the Battle of Long Tan is enormously significant and should be remembered as such. Perhaps it should be granted its own commemorative day, but I do see how it could be inappropriate to recognise the entire sacrifice made by Australian diggers in Vietnam on the day of just one of the many battles that make up that sacrifice. Perhaps it would be more appropriate and respectful to recognise Vietnam Veterans Day on the date the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam first touched down in Saigon or the date our combat troops completed their withdrawal.
Talking of anniversaries, and on a more positive note, I am delighted to recognise that Anglesea Barracks in Hobart is the oldest continually occupied barracks in Australia and on 2 December this year will celebrate its bicentennial—the first bicentenary, in fact, celebrated by the Australian Defence Force. It goes without saying—but I will say anyway—that I was delighted with the Prime Minister’s commitment to me earlier this year to keep Anglesea Barracks regardless of any Defence recommendation to do otherwise.
Finally, I would like to wrap up this omnibus of defence issues with the plight of one particular ex-serviceman, a constituent about whom I do not claim to know all the facts other than that there is a strong prima facie case that he has been treated unfairly and I think it is time for the minister to intervene. My concern is to do with Wing Commander Robert Grey, retired. For over a decade now Mr Grey has been seeking an inquiry into the dismissal of several senior RAAF officers, including himself, under defence inquiry regulations. He has been told continually that the problem is an administrative one, thus denying him access to the military justice system. The Department of Defence has repeatedly directed him to the Scheme for Compensation for Detriment caused by Defective Administration and refused to instigate an inquiry. This is despite the fact that the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force and the Chief of the Defence Force have all recognised that significant errors occurred in the handling of Mr Grey’s dismissal. Mr Grey is currently left without answers, only being given the option to engage in the CDDA review process. But, given that this scheme has been largely discredited by the Commonwealth Ombudsman and in the Street and Fisher report, it is a sad indictment that the department will not allow Mr Grey and his colleagues to access a more appropriate avenue to address their grievances in the form of a merits review. I think it is time for the minister to intervene.
In closing, Australia owes a great deal to our armed forces past and present. We need to recruit them carefully, train and equip them well, put them in harm’s way only when genuinely warranted, and care for their loved ones along the way. Our consideration must extend to when they are hurt or retired. Finally, I should declare again that I have a personal interest in some of these matters on account of being a beneficiary of both DFRDB and DVA pensions myself.