Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017 Bills

I too rise to make some comments on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill of 2017. I would just like to start off by acknowledging the work of the ex-service organisations who come out, time and again, to committee processes within the parliament to represent the interests of their members, those being those people who have served and also their families. As Senator Whish-Wilson said, the price that is paid by service men and women is not just the time away from home, the threat they face or the physical injuries but also the mental scars that some bear and particularly the impact on families.

It is a huge task that DVA has, but it is one that no side of politics ever should shirk—or, I believe, ever has shirked—from seeking to get right. The fact that it is not perfect isn’t a reflection of the fact that anyone here doesn’t care; it’s a reflection of the scale of the task and the changing environment. Whilst there are both processes and other things that we can improve, I just want to acknowledge that, from the ESOs to people in this place and even to DVA and in fact, I particularly say, to Mr Simon Lewis, who is the current secretary, there is an awful lot of goodwill from people who want to put in place processes and mechanisms to make sure that people who have served this nation, when they come back, receive the support that they need. However, it is not yet 100 per cent. Perhaps it never will be, but that is no reason for us to ever give up seeking to make it as good as we possibly can.

This bill is just the next step in trying to find those processes. It has been through the committee process. I recognise, Mr Acting Deputy President Gallacher, that you are the deputy chair of the legislation committee that considered this, along with me and Senator Whish-Wilson and others, and we did hear from a range of people who had different views on the bill at hand. So I will just run through some of the key points in the bill and then talk a little bit about some of the concerns that were raised during the committee process and about where the government’s got to on that. Then I will talk a little more broadly on the task that I think is facing DVA and this Australian parliament as we seek to support those who have served, those who are serving, those in transition, and those who have served some time ago.

Schedule 1 of the omnibus bill looks to amend the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, and it’s seeking to modernise and align the Veterans’ Review Board’s operations with those of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. That follows the amendments that were made to the Tribunals Amalgamation Act in 2015. They also support an alternative dispute resolution process, and recent amendments to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004, which provide for a single appeal path for reconsidering decisions.

Schedule 2 would amend the provisions of the Veterans’ Entitlement Act 1986 concerning the Specialist Medical Review Council to improve the operation of the SMRC and streamline some of the SMRC’s administrative arrangements and better reflect the manner in which its functions and processes have evolved over time. The proposed amendments would simplify the nomination appointment process for councillors, enable online lodgement of claims, streamline the notice of investigation requirements and give the SMRC an ability to pay the travel costs of applicants who appear before an oral hearing of the SMRC.

In schedule 3, the proposed amendments would enable international agreements to be made that would cover allied veterans and Defence Force members with the type of service for which benefits and payments, including rehabilitation, can be provided by the Repatriation Commission or the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission under the relevant acts. Currently, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs can only enter into arrangements with the governments of countries that are or have been dominions of the Crown. These amendments would enable the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs to enter into arrangements with a broader range of countries, which reflects the broader range of commitments that Australia has and the places where the men and women of the ADF have served.

In schedule 4, the amendments are intended to clarify that vocational rehabilitation assistance under an employer incentive scheme in the form of wage incentive payments are within the scope of the enabling provisions of the relevant legislation. Proposed amendments in schedule 5 would amend the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 and 151A(1) of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988 to add the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation as ‘a person to whom the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission may provide information for the purposes allowed under the legislation’. And the proposed amendments would implement a recommendation by the 2011 review of military compensation arrangements intended to improve the information-sharing framework for incapacity and superannuation benefits between the DVA and CSC, and thereby reduce the time taken to process claims by DVA and CSC, which would better support injured former ADF members.

In addition, enabling the CSC to use medical information reports held by the MRCC to determine superannuation claims would also avoid the need to send ADF members for further medical assessment where DVA already holds the relevant medical evidence that could be used by the CSC to determine superannuation benefits. This also means that ADF members would be spared from the sometimes traumatic retelling of their stories. This is particularly significant for ADF members who suffer psychological conditions, including those that have arisen as a result of physical or psychological abuse. Through this Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, as well as the work done by the joint standing committee, which I currently chair, we have heard constant stories by ADF members about some of the inefficiencies in the system that do mean they need to engage with multiple agencies and retell their story multiple times. For those who have suffered injuries, such as blast injuries that caused a brain injury or those who are suffering from mental health problems, they can be very difficult experiences, so anything we can do to minimise that would be well and truly welcome.

During the committee hearings we heard from a range of witnesses who broadly supported the intent of the bill, although when it came to schedules 1 and 5 there were a number of concerns raised by people. The committee did hear evidence from the principal member of the Veterans’ Review Board and from officers of the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation and DVA in response to the concerns. I personally was satisfied, as was the committee in its report, that the concerns that had been raised by members of the ESOs and other submitters to the committee had been adequately addressed by the principal member of the VRB, which was Mr Humphreys. The committee notes—and we agreed with—Mr Humphreys’s evidence that there be no delegation of the proposed dismissal power. We felt that was an important step in providing assurance to people who were concerned about how that ability to dismiss claims that were seen as vexatious or frivolous may be dealt with.

In schedule 5, privacy concerns were raised, but we have been encouraged by the rapid response of the government and DVA to work by commissioning an independent privacy impact assessment from the Australian Government Solicitor. These measures mean that we will be putting in place the kinds of processes to protect the privacy of people to address the concerns on the one hand, while on the other hand providing the framework and the authority to share information that will go some way to reducing the need to retell stories and the delays in processing claims. One of the key things that have been raised over many years across a range of committees is the impact that delays in processing claims have on veterans and their families.

The investment by government into the IT infrastructure is a critical part of this whole exercise and a package with broadly bipartisan support. We are moving to a point where we are reskilling people within DVA to have a more focused approach on the veteran, looking more for that case managed approach, where there are complex needs, to reduce the need to deal with different people on multiple occasions, so there is a point of contact to work with a veteran and their family to carry a case forward. That has been an important step, because we have heard some of the stories about the multiple handling of claims but also, in some cases, about the lack of understanding or empathy on the part of someone in DVA for what a veteran has been through. Even the terminology or words used to describe what has occurred in their service history haven’t been understood, and poor decisions have been made in the past. I’m assured, by speaking with Mr Lewis about the type of training that is being provided to staff within DVA, that we are getting on top of that.

The commitment to the investment in the IT infrastructure, though, is critical to continue, not only to give effect to some of the legislative framework being proposed in this omnibus bill but also in practical terms where, for many years, there have been delays because of the handling of paper files that have physically had to move between locations within DVA, even including interstate, which has led to loss of information in the worst cases and delays in many cases. The concept of moving to a digital platform will enable the processing in a far more timely manner, the lack of replication of input from the veteran, and increasingly the ability for a veteran to interface with DVA and the claims process in a digital form so that, hopefully, you can get to the point where we achieve with DVA what we see in the commercial marketplace, where essentially you can log a claim on your smartphone and within certain parameters have it approved and payments go into accounts almost immediately, as opposed to a long, drawn-out process which often puts people who may already be under financial stress in a situation of waiting long periods of time for reimbursement for costs that they have incurred. It’s particularly important with regard to that cost base to note that, while we have provided no-claim, free and immediate medical treatment, all of the associated costs of accessing that treatment also need to be expedited to support the veteran.

The last part of the broader package of what the government is providing is to work with the ESOs. One of the frequent comments that have been made to me by ESOs is that, whilst there has been the best funding in the past to provide training to support the advocates within the ESOs, it’s an ageing workforce. The people who are doing it have been doing it on a largely voluntary basis for many years. In many cases, ESOs have struggled to recruit new people to replace those who are perhaps getting to the point where they need to pull back from that activity.

In the whole concept of how we provide that support to our veteran community, particularly when the consequences of the success of a claim are quite critical to the financial future of a veteran and their family, providing a mechanism to select and then train and support advocates is important. Personally—and I’ve put this forward in inquiries—I believe there is a real case for these people to in some cases move to a salaried position funded by Veterans’ Affairs. These people, particularly if they come from a service background, should perhaps get training—legal training or training in areas such as financial planning—so that they can provide detailed, informed advice to veterans who have complex cases. There is some work occurring—it started off with an audit last year of the full range of ESOs—to understand who is out there and who is doing what. I think a framework where we equip those people with a level of training and competence to provide agreed levels of service but where we also have people who are available to provide specialist help for more complex cases is what we need to look at as we move into the future.

Whilst we have around 58,000 people currently serving, the reality is that DVA currently supports around 290,000 Australians. So there are a lot of people who rely on the efficacy of the systems and the training of the people within DVA. Of those 290,000, some 82,000 are widows or widowers and around 2,500 are children of veterans. More than 203,000 of DVA’s clients are over 65. They rely on the system functioning well. But the focus of this bill and a lot of the current work is the cohort who are transitioning out of Defence and into the civilian workforce. After 23 years in Defence, I transitioned out of Defence into a different career. I’ve been blessed. I’ve never had to reach back to Veterans’ Affairs. And, for many people, that transition is seamless and they move on to fulfilling careers without ever having to reach back. But that’s not the case for all people. So, for those who need it, the support needs to be there and it needs to be effective. So this omnibus bill is trying to wrap up a number of measures within DVA. It is enabling legislation for the way the review and appeal processes work so that we get quicker claims to the benefit of the veteran. For that reason, I will be supporting the bill.