Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015 Bills

The Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budgetary Measures) Bill gives effect to a number of veterans’ affairs measures that the government promised in the 2015 budget. It builds on the support that the coalition has had for veterans’ affairs, both during the Howard government and the period in opposition, and as we have come in to government. As I said in my maiden speech coming into this place, having spent over two decades in the ADF, I believe that it is important that loyalty flows both ways. We expect loyalty from our servicemen to the government of the day. The government of the day, whichever side, owes a loyalty back to those people who have served this nation and to their families. It is good to see a largely bipartisan approach to this bill to make sure that measures are at least incrementally, if not in one fell swoop, improved for veterans.

I want to acknowledge the many people from the various ESOs who are consistent in their advocacy for veterans and their families, from the TPI Federation, Defence Force Welfare Association, RSL, Vietnam Veterans Association right through to Men’s’ Sheds organisations. Barry Heffernan in South Australia advocates on behalf of people who have been abused in defence. There are many people who invest a lot of their time and effort, and I just want to acknowledge at the start of my contribution on this bill that many of the measures that are brought forward by the Parliament of Australia are as a result of the hard work and passion of people who care deeply for our service and ex-service communities. The budget for this year made an investment of more than $12 billion in services for veterans and their families that will have a significant focus on bringing intervention earlier. Early intervention has been proven time and again to have good outcomes, and I will be talking about a number of the measures relating to that.

The other thing it has done is it has expanded case coordination or case management, particularly for complex cases. I sat through a couple of days of hearings last week with the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee looking at mental health concerns for serving men and women, and naturally that also looked at those in transition as well as many veterans. What became very apparent is that it is a complex system—that alone is something we need to continue to try to improve—and because of the complexity of the system, some individuals have had dreadful experiences with both defence and veterans’ affairs. I would say these experiences happened largely in the past, although clearly that is not uniquely true.

One of the things that became very clear was that those who have had good experiences with DVA, particularly in recent times, are the ones who have had a case manager appointed. There has been someone who has taken a greater deal of responsibility within the system to make sure that each element of that veteran’s care is coordinated and followed up so that that person actually receives timely and considered responses rather than having to deal with countless different people within the veterans’ affairs system, rather than having to deal with countless different groups and having to repeat their story, or finding that their case files are lost or delayed or sent interstate. Obviously the appointment of case coordinators makes a significant difference, and I am pleased that the budget measures from 2015 have increased investment in that. I would like to see us get to the point where the appointment of a case manager is best practice and applied for all people who are dealing with DVA. Obviously the simpler cases mean it will be a low workload for the case manager, but for those who need it—certainly for those people who come to DVA, they and their families often are at a crisis point when anxiety or depression or PTSD or some other issue has brought them to the point where they realise that they need help. The last thing they need is for an administrative system that does not gather all the bits together and support them through the process.

One of the most significant things to help people in that area is advocacy, and so before I go on to the remainder of the actual bill, I just want to highlight the context of some of these other budget measures and the difference that has made. Again, during the committee’s hearings we heard that many people would not have made progress through the DVA system at all, or effectively—we heard of a number of people who had claims rejected or the process slowed down because they had not filled in forms properly, and so clearly well-trained and well-resourced advocates are an essential part of this system to support veterans and their families. It was good to see in this budget the restoration of $1 million per annum in the BEST program, the Building Excellence in Support and Training program, which supports advocacy in welfare work. The budget has prioritised early intervention, which is important, as well as expanding the services provided by Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service. We heard countless testimony from serving members, and particularly veterans and their families, about VVCS and the great work that they do. One of the consistent messages, though, was that many people were unaware that they were eligible for the service and were unaware about what the service can provide. There was a deal of discussion on both of the days of last week’s hearings around how we could make sure that veterans and, more to the point, veterans’ families, or the families of serving members, could be made aware of the services that are available to them.

I am pleased to see, again, as part of this year’s budget measures, that there is a dedicated website and a Facebook page for the VVCS, and an expansion of the e-health services for veterans and service providers. There is also a broadening of DVA’s reach on social media through dedicated YouTube channels and Facebook pages, including short videos focusing on the services provided by DVA to families. There have been a number of measures—even down to as basic as writing to people when they discharge to advise them of the services and support available from DVA. This communication is critical. There is no point having all the services in the world if the people who need them are not aware that they are there, so these measures are very welcome. There has also been work with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners to improve materials that support GPs to identify service-related issues so that through that initial point of contact with the primary health care system, which is often the GP, wherever possible, we identify the fact that an individual has served their nation, and therefore they can either be referred to DVA or VVCS, and we can help link them in with those systems through having GPs act as that first point of referral.

Another significant investment is improving access for those with mental health conditions such as PTSD and anxiety and depression so that without having to lodge a claim and demonstrate an award of compensation, somebody can access the treatment they need immediately. We heard some dreadful stories of people in the past who had their conditions exacerbated by the fact that they had to fight a battle just to even access treatment, let along compensation. The investment that has occurred to streamline that process so that anyone on presentation with those issues can get treatment is welcome. What we need to be seeing is an increase in capacity, because clearly as we have more people serving—impacting on greater numbers of families, and reservists and reservists’ families—the demand on that system will grow. So it is important to make sure that the capacity is there within VVCS or others to be able to support people. The pilot of the veterans’ employment rehabilitation program is important as a pathway to helping people get back into work, and that relates a little bit to the topic of this bill, which we will get onto, and cutting red tape and making it easier for veterans to prove their identity when making a claim with DVA. These are all measures coming out of the budget which are welcome for our veterans and service members, particularly those in transition.

This bill has a number of measures. The first will benefit veterans through the enhancements to the Veterans’ Vocational Rehabilitation Scheme under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. This is a voluntary scheme that is designed to assist veterans to find or continue in suitable employment, and I will talk a little bit more about that. The enhancements to the scheme will expand the range of services, including medical management and psychological services, and they will also have an impact on the thresholds for special and intermediate rate disability pensioners by having a smoother stepdown so that there is more advantage to somebody choosing to work. We have heard people in the last week give testimony that the ability to get back into the workforce without having to worry about what is going to happen to your support pension, particularly if you have to withdraw from the workforce later, is a huge benefit to both individual veterans and their families. Anything that we can do to make that better is welcomed. We will also be looking at streamlining the appeals process under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, and I will talk about that later.

Finally, the bill amends the Defence Act for the repatriation of the remains of service dependants buried in the Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia. If requested by the families of the deceased, we can bring those people and servicemen back to Australia. That is because of the unique situation of that base being a high security base, similar to our bases here, where access by dependants and the public is not easy. The Malaysian government have generously worked with us and agreed to cooperate with Australia to allow that repatriation, should the families so wish.

Schedule 1 of this bill looks particularly at the Veterans’ Vocational Rehabilitation Scheme. Rehabilitation is provided under part 6A of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. What it basically sets up is a situation where people who participate in the voluntary scheme, the VVRS, who withdraw from the workforce for any reason will return to the rate of disability pension they received prior to their participation in the VVRS. One of the concerns that has been raised with me time and again is by people saying, ‘We’d be happy to get into work, but we don’t want to go through the battle again to re-establish our eligibility for that support.’ So you have this awful dilemma where people who would like to work, and perhaps are capable of doing more work, see the nightmare of the battle that they had as such a barrier that they do not want to take the risk of having to repeat that. This scheme provides an opportunity for people to say, ‘Look, I’d like to participate in it, I’d like to work, but I know I’ve got the safety net there that if I do have to withdraw either because I’m not managing or even because I’ve just retired, then I can go back to it.’

One of the things we have had in the past to encourage participation is that recipients of the special rate disability pension can undertake work beyond the threshold of more than eight hours but less 20 hours per week without losing the entitlement to that disability pension’s associated benefits. But the step down in the amount of pension that they do start to lose over time has been tapered so that after a period of time, over a seven-year period, it eventually would back to 100 per cent of the general rate. We are trying to simplify that process and so make it more attractive for people to work so that, as they work, the default position they come back to—those on a special rate, as they exceed the threshold in terms of the number of hours worked and that income is no longer exempt, rather than having to apply for the intermediate rate they automatically go to that rate while they are continuing to work above that threshold. That means there is less red tape, it is a smoother process; they end up with that safety net so that should they then have to come back under the threshold or give up work altogether, they will still come back to the full payment that they were on previously.

The other enhancement to the VVRS that we are looking at is to expand the range of services available to include the provision of medical management and psychosocial services. The medical management involves the monitoring and treatment measures to restore or maximise a person’s physical and psychological function. This is important because, whether it is pain management or disability counselling or even family education, these are all factors that help in the process of rehabilitation. We are actually trying to get people back on their feet, trying to get them back into the workforce. This is not so that they are not a burden on the government—some people see this as a cynical effort to say, ‘We just want you back working’—but because the proven evidence, and the evidence we have received from veterans and their families, is that when people are capable of work and they do work, then it is better for them, for their own self-esteem, for their own psychological wellbeing, and it is also better for their families. This is about trying to make that process easier while still keeping that important safety net in place and wrapping those additional services around them.

The second measure that the opposition has expressed some concern over is the appeal process. I would like to step back to the fact that under the former government there was a review of MRCA, which was conducted in 2012, and one of the recommendations was a streamlining of the appeal process. That recommendation was accepted by the former government, which then triggered the consultation, and I give them full credit for that. It was a comprehensive consultation with ESOs to say, ‘This is the recommendation the review has come up with. What is your view of that?’ All of the major ESOs who were consulted in the 2012-13 period came back and said they supported this approach, in terms of streamlining and having one process rather than the parallel option, before people actually went to the AAT. The government’s position is that there has been an inquiry into MRCA and there has been consultation with ESOs, and the strong support of those organisations would indicate that the recommended path, the path that is now captured in this legislation, is the path that we should be moving forward on. I would certainly encourage senators here to support the recommendation because it has been the subject of an inquiry and it has been the subject of consultation. If issues emerge I see no reason, given the strong bipartisan approach we have around veterans’ affairs, why it could not be revisited, but I see no point in delaying the implementation of something that has been recommended from a review and has been supported through consultation by ESO groups. I think that would make sense. Certainly the delay is a real issue. At the inquiry we had last week, we heard a number of people talk about the debilitating impact that delays in assessments and appeals had. Whilst I know it has been raised, and both sides of politics in the past have pushed back on the idea of having set time frames for assessing a claim before the default position is that it is awarded in favour of a veteran, my understanding is that other comparable nations—such as the UK—have a system where there is a time frame. If there is to be an inquiry of any kind, I would say that would be a good topic to have an inquiry into to see how that could work, what the benefits are and what the downsides are. If we had a time frame that had to be complied with or it would default in the veterans’ favour, my sense is that it would remove a significant cause of frustration, anxiety and additional harm that occurs to veterans. It would allow people to move on and allow the process to move from stage to stage, whether that was to an appeal or whether that was continuing with both rehabilitation treatment and compensation where appropriate.

I do support the measures in this bill. They give effect to a number of long-term commitments of this government, which are not only in the policy that we took to the election but also, importantly, have been through the budget measures that have been brought down. Whether it is the expansion of the programs or the streamlining and the removing of red tape, it is an example of us incrementally moving to that point where the loyalty is flowing both ways, both from the service to the government and the government to the service. (Time expired)