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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
Farrell, Sen Don
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ACTING CHAIR (Senator Stephens)
Edwards, Sen Sean
Ronaldson, Sen Michael
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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
(Senate-Tuesday, 3 June 2014)
Defence Materiel Organisation
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Stephens)
Lt Gen. Morrison
Rear Adm. Dalton
Senator IAN MACDONALD
Air Vice Marshal Deeble
Vice Adm. Jones
Air Marshal Brown
Major Gen. McLachlan
Air Vice Marshal Gordon
Department of Veterans' Affairs
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Stephens)
Major Gen. Chalmers
Australian War Memorial
- Defence Materiel Organisation
- DEFENCE PORTFOLIO
Content WindowForeign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee - 03/06/2014 - Estimates - DEFENCE PORTFOLIO - Department of Veterans' Affairs
Department of Veterans' Affairs
CHAIR: We will now move onto the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I welcome the minister and senior officers of the department. Senator Farrell is leading the questions.
Senator Ronaldson: I have prepared an opening statement.
CHAIR: Very well, Minister, if you would like to—
Senator FARRELL: I would be happy if the minister gave his opening statement before I asked my questions.
CHAIR: That is very kind of you. We will now proceed for the minister to do that.
Senator Ronaldson: I hope that has been circulated. Chair, tackling mental health challenges facing veterans and their families is a key pillar of the government's plan for veterans' affairs. These are not just words. As minister, I take this commitment very seriously and over the last year nine months I have set about to ensure that this government delivers improvements for mental health services to veterans and their families. This government is determined not to repeat the mistakes made in the past.
This means that we need to keep up our efforts to reduce stigma around mental health and mental illness, and we also need a collaborative effort. This issue is attracting attention in the media and across the community. As a society, we have an obligation to care for those who served this nation at their nation's request. The commentary is sometimes misleading, and this may mean young men and women with mental health concerns are discouraged from taking action when they need to. The discussion our nation has should be conducted respectfully.
My priority is to ensure that we have in place the mental health services and supports that are needed. I wholeheartedly believe that early intervention is the key. The quicker a veteran can access their health care and entitlements, the better the chance of leading a productive and fulfilling life. We have a comprehensive service system that stands ready to provide effective treatment, but we need to continue reaching out to the contemporary cohort and to vulnerable groups, continue to refresh our service delivery platforms to provide effective, evidence based treatment and ensure greater access to mental health services for those in need.
Defence and DVA are working together to improve transition and aim for as seamless a process as possible. More work is required, but it is happening. Our emphasis as a government department in society should always be in encouraging our veterans to have rewarding, post-service lives. In this context, rehabilitation should be the key focus of all we do with the payment of any pension being only one part of the overall support we provide to help facilitate veterans return to the workforce. The government will always be there to provide support, financial and otherwise, when a veteran needs it.
The government's budget delivers additional funding for veterans' advocacy, welfare and pension support under the Building Excellence in Support and Training, BEST, program. This funding, supporting a program which I consider to be the glue that holds the veteran community together, is essential to provide independent support, advice and information to veterans and their families when making claims for compensation to the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
I can now turn to the engagement with contemporary veterans, Chair. We know that young men and women are technology savvy, sourcing information online, often using mobile devices. They are digitally connected and share their experiences via social media networks. Contemporary veterans share the strong bonds of military experience with veterans of the past, but contemporary veterans have also joined and served the military in different social and economic circumstances. That is why my department is ramping up its online and social media presence.
Recently, a Facebook advertising campaign was launched to help promote the mental health support that is available to contemporary veterans. The first three Facebook ads were launched in May and have received more than 1.9 million views since the campaign commenced. They have generated over 300 comments, have been shared almost 1,300 times and increased followers on the DVA Aus. Facebook page by more than 300 per cent from 2,500 to 8,300 in less than one month.
On 27 May, I announced a new mobile version of the At Ease web portal to give smartphone users easier access to mental health information and support. More apps and online products are on the way, including an app with the information about suicide prevention and an e-companion to the mental health advice book for doctors. I am also continuously looking at ways to modernise the online presence of the department, increasing pathways for younger veterans to access mental health support when they need it.
These planned releases will add to the wealth of online tools and products now available at the At Ease web portal, such as the PTSD Coach app, which helps manage symptoms of PTSD; the Right Mix app, which lets the user track drinking and spending on alcohol and the impact it is having on wellbeing and fitness; and YouTube videos of real veterans talking about the mental health recovery.
Online tools will never replace face-to-face services but they can be used as a way to improve mental health literacy, assist with self-management and provide contact information referral pathways for those in need. A challenge is to ensure that information which is available is accurate, reliable and reputable as well as easy to access, informative and appealing.
If I can now turn to vulnerable groups. Our effort needs to focus on vulnerable groups who may have high level and complex needs. They might be hard to reach or they might experience barriers to effective treatment. Suicide prevention is a key focus. There has been much media and public comment about suicide in the ex-service community. Regrettably, much of this has been inaccurate. Let me stress, any suicide is tragic. We know that suicide is the leading cause of death in the Australian community for men under 44 years and women under 34 years. Serving and ex-serving personnel are not immune from this.
Rightly, my department's focus is on programs to help prevent suicide, build resilience and provide information on how and where to seek help in a timely manner. Recent suggestions that my department is covering up rates of suicide in the veteran community are simply not true. Any member of the veteran community concerned about mental health should call the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service, the VVCS, to discuss support options on 1800 011 046. Free and confidential, VVCS provided support to over 20,000 members of the veteran community in 2012-13, over half of whom were family members. VVCS offers individual, couple and family counselling, after-hours crisis telephone support and group programs. VVCS can help address concerns such as relationship and family issues, anxiety, depression, anger, sleep difficulties, PTSD and misuse of alcohol or other substances. VVCS also runs Operation Life workshops nationally. These are free suicide prevention workshops for people concerned about family, friends or mates in the veteran community.
Effective treatment for alcohol and substance use disorders is another focus. We are keen to address the risk of clients recycling through programs, effectively drying out while being treated and then relapsing afterwards. My department has recently appointed a drug and alcohol treatment services advisor who will add to the department's capacity and experience in this area.
I now turn to times taken to process. I can report to the Senate that the department has made progress on the times taken to process compensation claims. As members of the committee would be aware, 12 months ago when I was the shadow Minister I identified this issue as one requiring urgent action. It was the first concern I raised with the secretary following my swearing in.
At the Senate estimates in February the secretary gave an update about process changes that the department has put in place to improve these times. I am pleased to say that over the last nine months there has been improvement in claims processing times under all three acts. Whilst improvements are small and claims processing times are still too high, they are an improvement on the past and I want to thank those staff in DVA who have been working so hard to improve these times.
I want acknowledge the link between the swift resolution of a claim or access to treatment and the associated benefits for a veteran and their family. My focus on driving down claims processing times is driven by the need to give veterans and their families certainty about what they are entitled to receive from the Australian government. I want to remind veterans at risk that they can seek treatment for mental health conditions without the need to lodge a compensation claim with DVA.
My department will pay for mental health treatment for eligible veterans and peace time members without the need to establish that the mental health condition is related to service. Currently, these arrangements cover diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and depression. From 1 July this year, we will also pay for treatment for diagnosed alcohol and substance use disorders and an increased number of individuals with peace time service will also become eligible.
Current and former members of the ADF with the following types of service will be eligible for treatment under these arrangements: service in World War II; operational service, including Korea, Vietnam and contemporary conflicts; warlike and non-warlike service; peacekeeping service; hazardous service; British nuclear test defence service; and three years continuous full-time peace time service from December 1972; and those with less than three years continuous full-time service, but who discharged on the grounds of invalidity, physical or mental incapacity to perform duties. In addition to accessing mental health care through this pathway, the VVCS is another specialised service where veterans can seek help which is free and confidential.
If I can now turn to evidence based treatment and research. The evidence shows that we can effectively treat mental health conditions, especially when intervention occurs early, with many able to make a full recovery from their condition and live fulfilling and meaningful lives. We need to keep working with mental health providers to make sure that veterans can access evidence based treatment which will help them towards recovery. Last month I launched a free, innovative online training program for health practitioners who provide treatment to veterans with mental health disorders. The online case formulation training program will help practitioners to make better sense of the often complex needs of veterans and develop a road map for effective treatment. This resource has been developed through partnership with the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health and it is available through the At Ease web portal. A range of other resources are available, including assessment and outcome measurement tools, treatment options, patient resources and the latest research in military mental health. I am determined that we keep up the effort on effective research on veteran mental health which will help continue our improved understanding of mental health and to effectively treat mental health disorders. Later this month I expect to make an announcement about a significant new investment in veteran mental health research.
I turn now to greater access to services. We have a range of new measures starting in July, subject to the passage of legislation which will mean greater access to mental health services. This process was started by the previous government and on this I am happy to show collaborative and bipartisan support. This includes greater access to arrangements under which DVA will pay for mental health treatment without the need to establish that a mental health condition is related to service. Greater access to the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service with new personnel and family groups eligible and a new physical and mental health post-discharge assessment to be conducted by GPs will be funded under Medicare. I note this legislation passed the House of Representatives last Thursday and I trust Senate colleagues will give the bill a similarly speedy passage later this month.
If I could turn now to existing system of care. The initiatives I have outlined are on top of a comprehensive service system that stands ready to meet the mental health needs of the veteran and ex-service community. In the 2014 budget my department will spend more than $5.4 billion on health care treatment for veterans and dependents as well as $6.7 billion on compensation and income support assistance. A $12.3 billion appropriation is the same as forecast last year.
Our repatriation system is world leading and this government is determined to continue strengthening it to ensure it stays that way. The government spends about $166 million a year on meeting these mental health needs. This includes funding for GP services, psychologists and social work services, specialist psychiatric services, pharmaceuticals, post-traumatic stress disorder programs, and in-patient and out-patient hospital treatment. This also includes services provided through the VVCS. The government's funding for this treatment is demand driven and is not capped. If treatment is needed, it is funded.
I would like to make it clear that the government's funding commitment to the ANZAC Centenary Program is not at the expense of expenditure on mental health services. Any allegations that state the contrary are misguided and completely incorrect. Over the next four years, DVA will spend more than four times the amount on mental health than it will on commemorating the ANZAC Centenary. That is $145 million on the centenary program for 2014-18, compared with more than an estimated $664 million to be spent on mental health services over this same period. Again, I note this amount is uncapped.
As many of you would know, earlier this year I announced the establishment of a new Prime Ministerial Advisory Council with a focus on mental health. The PMAC exemplifies this government's commitment to this important issue and a valuable consultation. I note in passing the upcoming 70th anniversary of D-Day where over 3,000 Australians were involved, including 2,500 Air Force personnel who provided air support for the allied landings, and 18 who were killed in action. I note that seven of the D-Day veterans are returning to Normandy for the commemoration and these seven veterans who are attending are guests of my department and will be joined by the Prime Minister. I know it is not in the statement, but I do acknowledge the attendance of the shadow minister at a dinner on Saturday night farewelling those fine gentlemen who will represent our nation with such grace and dignity for the D-Day commemorations.
I just make a closing comment; as I said in my opening, this government is determined not to repeat the mistakes made in the past. Attacking the mental health challenges facing veterans and their families is a key pillar of this government's plan for veterans' affairs. I do thank the committee for its indulgence and I hope that my comments in relation to the requirement for appropriate mental health services for veterans is shared by the committee, which I am sure that it is. Thank you, Chair.
CHAIR: Thank you minister. Senator Fawcett.
Senator FAWCETT: Could I just start by clarifying a couple of things from your opening statement? You made the comment there that the government is spending around $166 million a year on mental health needs. The paragraph concludes saying that this also includes services provided through the VVCS and the funding for this treatment is demand driven, not capped. Could I just confirm that that demand driven and no cap also applies to the GP services, psychologists, social workers and all the others in that list? That is not just the VVCS?
Senator Ronaldson: That is correct.
Senator FAWCETT: Okay.
Mr Lewis : That is correct.
Senator FAWCETT: Thank you. Are there any new initiatives in the budget? Obviously the funding is uncapped and those services are good. Are there any new initiatives specifically around mental health?
Senator Ronaldson: I will ask Ms Daniel to take the question.
Ms Daniel : There is a range of new initiatives coming into place in the upcoming period. The minister mentioned in his opening remark three new initiatives that start on 1 July 2014, subject to legislation currently before the parliament—greater access to Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service, greater access to mental health treatment for mental health conditions for eligible veterans and peace time without the need to establish the mental health condition is related to service, and a new post-discharge physical and mental health assessment by general practitioners for ex-serving personnel, including re-serviced. This initiative will be funded under the health assessment items on the Medicare benefit schedule. That is therefore available and accessible to those who have left service but are not yet DVA clients. We see it as an important addition to our strategies around early intervention and early pickup.
Senator FAWCETT: Can you just explain what the changes to eligibility for access to VVCS are and consequently what are the categories of people that were not previously entitled who now are?
Mr Carmody : The categories of personnel who will be available from 1 July, pending the passage of the legislation, are ADF members who have served in disaster relief or on border protection operations; former ADF members who served in the Royal Australian Navy as submariners; those who have been medically discharged; those who were involved in a serious training accident; the partners and dependent children up to age 26 of those groups that I just mentioned; and also the partners, dependent children and parents of members killed in service-related incidents. Those groups all come into eligibility from 1 July.
Senator FAWCETT: The minister mentioned that a veteran does not have to establish their mental health condition is related to service before being able to access treatment. Can you just tell us what percentage of people who seek support are in that category?
Mr Carmody : I might get somebody else to assist me in answering the percentage. That is in the non-liability space.
Ms Daniel : I think we would have to take that on notice.
Senator FAWCETT: I am happy to take that on notice. I am glad that they can get the treatment without having to go through the stress of proving it, but I am just interested to know how large that cohort is.
Senator Ronaldson: It is a very considerable improvement, as your background experience would appreciate.
Senator FAWCETT: Could you just outline a little bit of what is new and what is occurring under this budget to assist that transition process from being part of the Defence Force into DVA?
Mr Carmody : There is a very strong relationship between DVA and Defence, which has been increasing and becoming stronger over the last few years. For transitioning members, we are trying to ensure that their transition is as smooth as possible. For those who have a medical condition or are under treatment, we are endeavouring to manage the continuity of care as they transition from being treated and looked after by the ADF to being treated and looked after in the veteran community.
We work hard to ensure that members in the ADF are aware of what is going to be available for them. That is challenging at times because quite often members of the ADF are very keen to leave the ADF and if they are feeling fit and healthy they are not always keen to hear messages about what service they might need at some future time, so that means we need to use lots of channels to get to them. We are involved in transition seminars and we actually speak at transition seminars. Of course, we have our on-base advisory network on 35 bases around Australia. Therefore, we are very available to serving members so that serving members can identify the services that might be available from DVA and can just come in, make an appointment and talk to people.
With the cooperation of the ADF, we also speak on pre-command training courses so that we are in a position to educate the command and their commands about what might be available for serving members, because quite often, of course, that is a very important lesson for senior leaders to know and understand the services that will be available. Under the Support To Wounded, Injured and Ill Program where we cooperate very closely with Defence, we have all of these measures in place to ensure that, to the extent possible, we can identify people as they are leaving the ADF.
As you would appreciate, about 6,000 members leave the ADF any given year, but only about 10 per cent or less than 10 per cent of those leave on medical grounds. So, the other members of the ADF just separate and move onto other things and they are the ones, therefore, that really have no direct need to make contact. They are the ones that we really want to engage with to ensure that if they have issues that have not come forward, we can deal with them early. As the minister was indicating in his opening address, early intervention in all facets of this is really important.
Senator Ronaldson: If I can just add to that, there are immediate benefits with the Department of Defence and DVA working closely together, pre and post transition. As I am sure you are aware, sometimes the onset of symptoms does not occur for a number of years, so it is not just about establishing a relationship between DVA and Defence to meet the immediate needs pre and post transition, but to establish a relationship and a level of understanding, and a level of trust, within those who have not transitioned or immediately transition to understand what services will be available to them if the onset of those symptoms occurs sometime after.
Often, it will be when someone has transitioned out, they are in the workforce and they are seemingly getting on with life and then there will be an onset of symptoms. What we do not want is for those to manifest themselves before that individual accesses our services. It is about relationship building and about that immediate impact of the relationship.
Mr Lewis : I might just add one thing.
Senator FAWCETT: I am just conscious that Senator Farrell has very graciously allowed me to ask questions before him, so yes.
Mr Lewis : My very brief point is this, because the issue of Defence-DVA Links is probably one of the most important issues for the department, for veterans and for me personally. Last week we had another meeting of a group that I co-chair with the secretary and CDF. It was the turn for us to have this meeting in Woden. They both came along with senior representation on both sides to work through a range of practical issues we are trying to solve in terms of establishing better links which allow for better support for the transitioning member and also for us to be able to provide some support to the member before transition. I will stop there.
Senator FAWCETT: Once they do come into DVA's system, Minister, one of the things you were very critical of in opposition was the processing time, the time it took to process, and you said in your opening remarks that there has been an improvement there. Could you give us a little more detail on where those improvements have been and what plans you have for future improvements?
Senator Ronaldson: Yes, there has been an improvement. Yes, you are right, I was deeply concerned about it. As I say, the DVA staff have worked very hard to start addressing this issue. I will get the secretary to give you the precise details.
Mr Lewis : As the minister said before, it was in fact the very first of a relatively small number of issues he raised with me in our very first meeting. We have progressed with the four key strategies that I outlined at the last estimates hearing. I will not repeat all those unless you want a bit more detail on that, but from these we are already seeing some positive results with a reduction in claims processing times. For the period 1 July 2013 to 30 April 2014 the times taken to process compensation claims have reduced on the 2012-13 financial year results under all three acts—modestly, as the minister said, but they are in the right direction.
Claims under the Veterans' Entitlements Act of 1986, the VEA, are at 78 days, a reduction of one day. Liability claims under Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act of 2004, the MRCA legislation, are at 147 days, a reduction of eight days. The liability claims under the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act of 1988, the SRCA legislation, are at 160 days, a reduction of 11 days.
We have laid the foundations for some further improvements. We are not going to over promise and under deliver, but we think we have taken some important steps in each of the four areas that I mentioned at the last hearing and if you did want me to give an update, either now or later, just let me know and I will go into more detail.
Senator Ronaldson: I think it is probably important for the secretary to explain that the first task was to address a significant backlog of very longstanding claims. Maybe the secretary can just elaborate on that.
Mr Lewis : We established a tiger team operating out of Victoria which is really experienced quality staff focused on trying to reduce the backlog. That team was formed and basically got us through the backlog which allowed us to then start tackling the base load claims. The number of claims on hand has been reduced, and I think I reported at the last estimates that we had gone from about 7,000 down to about 5,884, and I believe they just reduced slightly further since then to 5,496 on hand. Again, we are trending in the right direction with less claims on hand, but we have still got a lot of work to do in the four areas that I articulated at our last hearing.
Senator FAWCETT: Thank you.
CHAIR: Thank you. Senator Farrell.
Senator FARRELL: Thank you for getting those Dorothy Dixers out of the way so early in the proceedings. Mr Lewis, I wonder if we can ask you a few questions about the budget and then a few questions about changes that have resulted in the budget as they relate to veterans' pensions. The first question I would like to ask is can you tell us what the total amount of the veterans' affairs budget is expected to be for the years 2014-15?
Mr Lewis : Certainly. I might ask our CFO to join us so that I do not get the arithmetic wrong.
Senator FARRELL: Did you hear my question, Mr Rochow?
Mr Rochow : I did, indeed. The total amount we expect to spend for 2014-15 is $12.3 billion.
Senator FARRELL: Can you recall what the budget spend last financial year was?
Mr Rochow : I remember, it was $12.5 billion.
Senator FARRELL: Okay, so there is a reduction of $200 million, is that correct?
Mr Lewis : Well, $12.5 billion to $12.3 billion, but if you went to that year's budget and looked at the first year of the forward estimates you would have seen $12.3 billion because we are projecting a declining client base, as you are aware, as particularly the World War II and Korean cohort age and at a goodly age pass on. We can estimate what those reduction in claim numbers would be, so in last year's budget we had a budget of $12.5 billion and we estimated that the first year of the forward estimates would be $12.3 billion. Roll forward a year, the budget year is $12.3 billion.
Senator FARRELL: That is a real decrease though, that is $200 million less that you intend to spend.
Senator Ronaldson: This was in the first year of the forward estimates of your government's not last—
Senator FARRELL: We started this way last time, Minister.
Senator Ronaldson: Just so it is absolutely clear.
Senator FARRELL: I am asking the questions and I have got the experts here. I know you are the minister, but we have got the experts here and I would like for you to at least let the witnesses answer the question. It is a pretty straightforward question. I think Mr Lewis is on top of the answer and he ought to be given the opportunity to complete.
Mr Lewis : My answer would be $0.2 billion because, of course, there is a rounding issue there. You said $200 million and I would not go to $200 million, it is around $0.2 billion. We can give you more precise numbers.
Senator FARRELL: This current financial year we spent $12.5 billion, we are now spending $12.3 billion.
Mr Lewis : We are budgeted to spend $12.3 billion.
Senator FARRELL: I am happy to use those figures. I would have thought it was $200 million.
Mr Rochow : Can I help with the conversation, Senator?
CHAIR: Let us do it all one at a time.
Mr Rochow : I can assist this conversation because I can give you exact numbers.
CHAIR: Are you happy with that, Senator?
Senator FARRELL: I would be very happy with the exact numbers.
Mr Rochow : The numbers that are quoted, the $12.5 billion and the $12.3 billion, come from the front of last year and this year's budget papers out of our agency resource statement. The exact number for last year is $12.45—
Senator FARRELL: When you say last year, is it this current year?
Mr Rochow : In the 2013-14 budget it is $12.454 billion. These numbers normally get rounded up to the nearest 100 million, which gives us the $12.5 billion. In the 2014-15 budget, the number is $12.347 billion and it gets rounded down. In absolute terms, the difference between the two numbers is only $107 million, not $200 million.
Senator FARRELL: Thank you for clarifying that Mr Rochow. I appreciate that.
Senator Ronaldson: You should have let me answer it.
Senator FARRELL: I will have plenty of questions for you as the night goes on. You will have plenty of opportunities.
Senator Ronaldson: It was not the response you wanted.
Senator FARRELL: That difference, the $107 million, can you tell us where the savings are, starting at the highest and going through to the lowest?
Mr Rochow : Certainly. The numbers change year on year in the budget. There are a number of things that can change the numbers. There are changes in indexation rates; there are changes in beneficiary rates, particularly driven by numbers of clients; and there are also changes in government policy decisions. The $107 million that I quoted is the majority, if not most, of the change is driven by what I would call the program or beneficiary rate change. It is due to declining client numbers. About $82 million of that mostly sits in Outcome 1, which is in relation to our service, pensions and war widows pensions. That is where a majority of the decrease is occurring.
Senator FARRELL: So, that leaves $25 million. Where would that other $25 million come from?
Mr Rochow : There are changes in our departmental appropriations. All in all, between capital and operating, we are seeing about a $12 million reduction there. There is also some NPP funding—
Senator FARRELL: How much is that worth?
Mr Rochow : It is about $12 million.
Senator FARRELL: Okay, we are down to about $13 million then.
Mr Rochow : Yes, and there are also just a few other ANZAC Centenary related NPPs, which we had in the 2013-14 budget which drop away in the 2014-15 budget. It makes up most of the rest of the difference.
Senator FARRELL: Thank you, Mr Rochow. Mr Lewis, you will be aware Budget Paper No. 2 indicated that the veterans affairs and income support pensions will lose their current indexing mechanism of the average male earnings and the particular basket that relates to pensioners from 1 September 2017. Is that your understanding?
Mr Lewis : You are referring to—I am just trying to get the measure right—
Senator FARRELL: I would call it the veterans affairs pensions, but you may call it something else.
Mr Lewis : Yes, pension and pension equivalent payments—
Senator FARRELL: Yes.
Mr Lewis : which will be indexed by the CPI.
Senator FARRELL: Instead of the best of three methods of measurement; is that correct?
Mr Lewis : Yes, correct.
Senator FARRELL: I want to go through a number of categories of people. Can you give me an indication of how those people will be affected as a result of these changes? My understanding is that there are 73,631 of the veterans service pensioners.
Mr Lewis : I might have to check that.
Ms Foreman : We estimate 109,650 service pensions in 2017-18. Excuse me, just one moment. A number of our veterans are on multiple payments, so there is some crossover. It is 109,650 receiving service pension.
Senator FARRELL: What does that include?
Ms Foreman : That is paid under the Veterans' Entitlements Act.
Senator FARRELL: The income support supplement recipients?
Ms Foreman : In 2017-18, 47,050.
Senator FARRELL: Social security age pensioners?
Ms Foreman : That information is actually held by the Department of Social Services, so it would be better to actually get that figure from them.
Senator FARRELL: Do you have the figure for Commonwealth seniors card holders?
Ms Foreman : No, we do not have that figure.
Senator FARRELL: I am talking about as it relates to veterans here.
Ms Foreman : Not for this measure. We have just got the payments that are affected by this measure.
Senator FARRELL: Disability pensioners receiving income support?
Ms Foreman : Yes, 86,800.
Senator FARRELL: Disability pensioners not receiving income support?
Ms Foreman : I have got a combined figure for that, which is the 86,800.
Senator FARRELL: Are you able to break those two figures down?
Ms Foreman : I will take that on notice.
Senator FARRELL: How quickly could you get that information to us?
Mr Lewis : I doubt this evening if that is—
Senator FARRELL: No, that is okay.
Ms Foreman : We will do our best to get that in the next day or so.
Senator FARRELL: War widow or widower pensioners receiving income support?
Ms Foreman : That would be 66,850.
Senator FARRELL: War widow/widowers pensioners not receiving income support, is that a combined figure again?
Ms Foreman : That is the combined figure, yes.
Senator FARRELL: Orphan pensioners?
Ms Foreman : I do not have a figure for that number. I will take that on notice.
Senator FARRELL: Are there any categories I have missed there that you would have included?
Ms Foreman : No.
Senator FARRELL: Just quickly, what was the total figure?
Ms Foreman : The total number of payments made under the ones we have just gone through is 310,350.
Mr Lewis : Which will not equal the same number of individual clients.
Ms Foreman : That is right, because some of them receive multiple payments. The numbers I have just given you add up to 310,350.
Senator FARRELL: Just so I am clear, would there be more clients than that or less clients than that?
Ms Foreman : No, less clients because some receive multiple payments.
Senator FARRELL: Do we know how many receive multiple?
Ms Foreman : No, I do not.
Senator Ronaldson: We can take that on notice.
Ms Foreman : I do know that approximately 50 per cent of the disability pension population also receive service pension. That is one crossover that I am aware of.
Senator FARRELL: Fifty per cent of the disability—
Ms Foreman : Approximately.
Senator FARRELL: That is a fairly substantial number. Is it fair to say then that figure of 310,350 is the number of pensions that will now be calculated solely by CPI from 1 September?
Ms Foreman : That is right. I can give you the total number of clients.
Senator FARRELL: Okay, what was that figure?
Ms Foreman : It is approximately 270,000.
Senator FARRELL: Okay, so 270,000 veterans get 310,000 pensions.
Mr Lewis : Veterans or dependents.
Ms Foreman : I need to round properly, I would say 280,000.
CHAIR: So, 280,000, and how many pensions?
Ms Foreman : It was 310,350.
Senator FARRELL: You did say that 50 per cent of disability pensioners receive—
Ms Foreman : Service pension. We are talking in 2017-18 terms, so I have adjusted figures for that.
Senator FARRELL: I appreciate you have given me those future figures, yes, but 50 per cent of 86,000 is 43,000. You might have thought that the figure was a little bit lower.
Mr Harrigan : As Ms Foreman mentioned, these are approximate as she proceeded to answer the question approximately. That is why when we say roughly 50 per cent of the DP population also receive service pension; that is an approximation.
Senator FARRELL: Can you tell us are there any veteran pensioners who will not be affected by this change in what we call the fair indexation?
Mr Harrigan : The payments that Ms Foreman has just outlined cover the majority of payments made by the department. They include the service pension and the flow-on effects to disability pensions. They too, at the moment, are indexed by the CPI, MTAWE and PBLCI, so there is a flow-on effect to them as well.
Senator FARRELL: My question was actually the other way: are there any people who do not lose the fair indexation?
Mr Harrigan : In terms of specific payments, there are components of the war widows pension, for example, that are only indexed by CPI at the moment and will continue to be indexed in that way from 2017.
Senator FARRELL: But there is nobody else—
Ms Foreman : Can I take that on notice? We have a large number of payments and there are a small number, I think, that have other wage indices that are used. I will take that on notice and get back to you on that. It is only a small number, though.
Senator FARRELL: Is it fair to say then roughly 280,000 people lose fair indexation from 1 September 2017?
Ms Foreman : That is correct.
Mr Lewis : I am not sure what you described in those terms—
Senator FARRELL: No, they are my terms. They are not yours.
Mr Lewis : Well, you asked us to confirm that it was correct.
Senator FARRELL: Yes.
Mr Lewis : I simply say 280,000 approximately will be indexed according to CPI.
Senator Ronaldson: You have used the expression on two or three occasions—and I am going to do this at some stage during the evening, so I may as well do it now. It is the height of utter hypocrisy for you, on behalf of the Australian Labor Party, to be talking about indexation. On two occasions in the last Parliament, you had the opportunity to do something about DFRB—
Senator FARRELL: Minister, what was your justification for making that change?
Senator Ronaldson: I will get to that.
Senator FARRELL: It was the fair indexation principle that applied to other beneficiaries.
Senator Ronaldson: Chair, I am trying to finish—
Senator FARRELL: I have not finished my questions.
Senator Ronaldson: Yes you have. You have talked about so called fair indexation—
Senator FARRELL: You are obviously embarrassed, Minister, by what you have done or what has been done in this—
Senator Ronaldson: I am talking about it and I am embarrassed? I do not think so.
Senator FARRELL: You are embarrassed.
Senator Ronaldson: I will finish—
Senator FARRELL: I would be embarrassed, Minister.
CHAIR: Lets just have some order!
Senator Ronaldson: We have until 11 o'clock tonight, so we can have lots of discussions about it.
CHAIR: We do not really want to go quite that long.
Senator Ronaldson: The embarrassment—
Senator FARRELL: I am happy to stay here, Chair.
Senator Ronaldson: lies with you. On two occasions you had the opportunity in the last term—
Senator FARRELL: What basis did you use to justify that legislation?
Senator Ronaldson: to do so.
Senator FARRELL: It was fair indexation.
Senator Ronaldson: There was a fair indexation bill in the Senate, which you voted—
Senator FARRELL: You just removed it from 280,000 people.
Senator Ronaldson: against. The Australian Labor Party voted it down.
Senator FARRELL: Yes, but a couple of weeks ago we voted in favour of it.
Senator Ronaldson: There was then an amendment in the House of Representatives—
Senator FARRELL: Your house removed it!
Senator Ronaldson: You voted it down!
Senator FARRELL: You are embarrassed, Minister—
Senator Ronaldson: Now you have got the gall to—
Senator FARRELL: by taking it off 280,000 pensioners!
Senator Ronaldson: come up here tonight with a big smile on your face and talk about this issue.
Senator FARRELL: I have got no smile on my face, Minister!
Senator Ronaldson: It is the height of utter hypocrisy!
Senator FARRELL: I am not smiling after what you have done to 280,000 pensioners!
Senator Ronaldson: What am I—
Senator FARRELL: That is not the subject of smiling, Minister.
Senator Ronaldson: doing? When we had the opportunity to do something about it with a bill in the Senate—
Senator FARRELL: Chair, can I get that comment removed? I was not smiling and I have not smiled any time tonight.
Senator Ronaldson: you did nothing about it at all. How dare you come in here! It is the height of utter hypocrisy!
Senator FARRELL: What this minister is doing to those pensioners—
Senator Ronaldson: Absolute hypocrisy.
CHAIR: Senator Farrell says he was not smiling, Minister, so perhaps we should acknowledge that.
Senator Ronaldson: Well, he has got nothing—
Senator FARRELL: I want that withdrawn, Chair!
Senator Ronaldson: For God's sake! He has got nothing to smile about.
CHAIR: Let us move on, I think.
Senator FARRELL: No, I do not have anything to smile about and nor do you.
Senator Ronaldson: Your behaviour, you as the shadow minister, have got the gall to come in here tonight and talk about—
Senator FARRELL: I supported fair indexation.
Senator Ronaldson: You did not! You voted against it!.
Senator FARRELL: I supported—
Senator Ronaldson: You voted against the fair indexation bill.
Senator FARRELL: it two or three weeks ago. I supported fair indexation.
Senator Ronaldson: You did not, you voted against it.
Senator FARRELL: You are now taking it off 280,000 people.
Senator Ronaldson: I am sure my staff are listening, and I will go and get the Hansard record of what you did when you had the opportunity to vote in relation to DFRB fair indexation bill—
Senator FARRELL: I am talking, Minister, a couple of weeks ago.
Senator Ronaldson: and you, my friend, voted against it.
Senator FARRELL: I was talking a couple of weeks ago. I voted for fair indexation.
Senator Ronaldson: I am sure my staff are listening, and I am sure they will bring it down and I will table it. The utter hypocrisy of your comments—
Senator FARRELL: Why did you not—
Senator Ronaldson: will be well known.
Senator FARRELL: stop Mr Hockey taking fair indexation away from these pensioners?
Senator Ronaldson: I will of course during the evening refer to—
Senator FARRELL: Why did you not stop him?
CHAIR: Let us all have some order!
Senator Ronaldson: During the evening I, of course, will—
CHAIR: The minister is making a point.
Senator Ronaldson: remind you again of a letter written to Lindsay Tanner—
Senator FARRELL: You can remind me plenty of times.
Senator Ronaldson: the Minister for Finance by Mike Kelly, Bob McMullan, Annette Ellis, Senator Kate Lundy—
Senator FARRELL: Please explain—
Senator Ronaldson: saying that you breached indexation promises in 2007 in relation to this.
CHAIR: One at a time, Senator Farrell!
Senator Ronaldson: I will give you some feedback in relation to this. In doing so, I will do what you have failed to do in your deplorable campaign in relation to this matter. You failed, and continue to fail, to talk about the budgetary situation this government inherited. We are paying—
Senator FARRELL: Minister, that is simply not fair. I have explained to every audience I have been to with you as to why we do not have a budget crisis in this country. Even if we did, if we accept your argument, veteran pensions are not the people to pay for the budget crisis. They are not the people to pay. I would like to hear what you said to Mr Hockey when he said, 'I am going to slash these pensions for these veterans.' I would like to know what you or the department said to Mr Hockey to try and stop the slashing of these veterans' pensions. What about answering that question?
CHAIR: Why do we not just deal with issues in the budget, which is what we are supposed to be doing?
Senator FARRELL: The minister interrupts, Chair.
CHAIR: You were being provocative.
Senator FARRELL: I was asking civilised questions and the minister interrupted and made a personal attack.
Senator Ronaldson: Your behaviour with the fair indexation bill—
Senator FARRELL: I have got no protection from the Chair.
Senator Ronaldson: Your behaviour in the fair indexation bill was absolutely appalling. You are not asking decent questions.
Senator FARRELL: Your behaviour—
Senator Ronaldson: You have asked me—
Senator FARRELL: to 280,000 veterans is appalling, Minister.
Senator Ronaldson: You have made the comment that the budgetary situation is not as I say it, so I will go through and explain to you why it is as I say it. Having been invited by yourself, I will go through where it is at. If you disagree—
Senator FARRELL: I was not inviting you.
Senator Ronaldson: then you can, of course, tell me where I am wrong. I have been invited, Chair, to discuss the budgetary situation and I will do so.
Senator FARRELL: I am not inviting you to do that.
Senator Ronaldson: Well, you said it did not exist.
CHAIR: Can I—
Senator Ronaldson: I am telling you it is—
Senator FARRELL: Yes, that is right, it does not exist.
Senator Ronaldson: and I am going to tell you how—
Senator FARRELL: We do not have a budget crisis in this country.
Senator Ronaldson: it exists. You can talk over me all night—
Senator FARRELL: No, Minister, I want you to explain to me—
CHAIR: What I am going to do is go to a dinner break at 6.30.
Senator FARRELL: why they have to suffer for your alleged budget—
Senator Ronaldson: You can talk over me all night.
CHAIR: Excuse me, Senator Farrell! We are two minutes off a dinner break, so let us have some rationality for two minutes, then we will do the dinner break.
Senator Ronaldson: I could not agree more. If Senator Farrell would stop talking over me while I answer his question in relation to the situation—
Senator FARRELL: I am not asking you to answer these questions.
Senator Ronaldson: Because you are embarrassed about it, like you were with the fair indexation bill.
Senator FARRELL: I am not embarrassed; you are the one who is embarrassed for taking pensions—
Senator Ronaldson: You are embarrassed about it. Every veteran—
Senator FARRELL: cutting the increase in pensions off 280,000 people. That is embarrassing. I would be embarrassed.
Senator Ronaldson: in this country—
Senator FARRELL: I would not do it.
Senator Ronaldson: Are you finished?
Senator FARRELL: Yes, are you?
Senator Ronaldson: I have not started. I am just about to. I just wanted to make sure you are finished.
CHAIR: Well, we are calling a dinner break so we will do that now. Thank you. We will resume at 7.30.
Proceedings suspended from 18:29 to 19:32
ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Stephens ): The hearing will now resume. We currently are investigating the budget allocation for the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
Senator Ronaldson: Before we start, I seek leave to table Journals of the Senate No. 33 of Thursday 16 June 2011, from page 998 onwards. The matter of business before the Senate was the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Amendment (Fair Indexation) Bill 2010. On three occasions, Senator Farrell voted against the measures in that matter. He therefore voted against the DFRDB/DFRB changes in the Senate.
CHAIR: Thank you; you may do so.
Senator FARRELL: I have no objection to that, because it obviously relates to me. I want to make two points. The first one is that at no stage did I dispute what the minister was saying in respect of that. I made the observation that, in respect of his legislation a few weeks ago, I supported that. As I have said publicly in front of him and others, I did support that in the shadow cabinet. He is obviously happy to talk about my voting record. I want to talk about—
Senator Ronaldson: Well, just—
Senator FARRELL: Look, I did not interrupt you, Minister. When you read that document out, I did not interrupt you—
Senator Ronaldson: You have just raised that matter—
Senator FARRELL: Could you please give me the same courtesy? Can I talk to you about your voting record on this issue, and about when—
Senator Ronaldson: Sure, I am happy to talk about it.
Senator FARRELL: the Prime Minister and the Treasurer proposed cutting the rate of increase for pensioners—the veteran pensioners; the people that you are supposed to represent: did you vote against that in cabinet?
Senator Ronaldson: Two things—
Senator FARRELL: Do not hide behind cabinet confidentiality. Tell us; did you or did you not—
CHAIR: Cabinet confidentiality and secrecy is a fact of life which cannot be breached.
Senator Ronaldson: There is one key point that you are missing here, and I thought that someone with your experience would actually understand that.
Senator FARRELL: Tell me. Tell me, Minister.
Senator Ronaldson: I am actually not in cabinet. That might be an extraordinary revelation to you. But if that is the way your question is premised, then I was not there.
Senator FARRELL: Are you saying that when this issue was debated in cabinet that you were not invited to attend to put the position of veterans, in opposition to the cut in their pensions? Is that what you are saying?
Senator Ronaldson: You talked about—
Senator FARRELL: I was the minister for a relatively short period of time—
Senator Ronaldson: And how many votes did you take in cabinet?
Senator FARRELL: Whenever there was an issue relating to my portfolio, I was invited to a cabinet meeting to attend and to put my argument. If you are telling us tonight, Minister, that when this issue was debated in cabinet you were not invited to defend the position of Australian veterans' pensions, then I am shocked. And you ought to be shocked, too.
Senator Ronaldson: Is that finished? That was a statement.
Senator FARRELL: No, I have not finished yet. I have a whole lot of other questions that I would like to ask. But, I tell you what, the veteran community should be embarrassed.
CHAIR: May I suggest you proceed to ask questions, Senator Farrell.
Senator Ronaldson: You started off that tirade by asking me about the way that I voted. Well, I know how I voted in relation to the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Amendment (Fair Indexation) Bill on 16 June 2011. I actually voted yes for it. I have no idea what the processes are in the Labor Party cabinet. I do not know whether they used to take votes or did not take votes—
Senator FARRELL: It is about democracy.
CHAIR: Can I to suggest that we get back to the business of the committee. You ask questions, Senator Farrell, and the minister will deal with them.
Senator FARRELL: I am very happy to do that, but the minister brought up my voting record. I did not raise it. He brought it up—
Senator Ronaldson: I am surprised; why would that be, I wonder!
Senator FARRELL: I am very proud to say that with this issue of fair indexation for the people on the DFRB pensions, a couple of weeks ago I voted in favour of it. When shadow cabinet discussed it—and I am happy to release the information about this—I argued in shadow cabinet that this be released. I am not a member of shadow cabinet but I went in there.
CHAIR: That is all very interesting. But, as you say, you are not a member of the shadow cabinet. Let's get on with the business of this meeting.
Senator FARRELL: If the minister is happy to let me ask questions of the public service, I am very happy to proceed down that track.
CHAIR: Let's get on with some questions and deal with some issues.
Senator Ronaldson: You cannot just sort of toss it in and then say, 'I don't want to talk about it anymore.' I will answer the allegation that was put—
Senator FARRELL: Answer the question, then. Come on, we are going to be here all night. Tell us what you want to say. What do you want to tell us?
Senator Ronaldson: Stop thumping the table and carrying on!
Senator EDWARDS: Can I seek leave for a private meeting?
CHAIR: Yes, we can have a private meeting if you so desire.
Proceedings suspended from 19:38 to 19 : 40
CHAIR: We are going to proceed with the hearing. Questions will be asked and answers should be given. Let's get on with the proceedings.
Senator FARRELL: Mr Lewis, I was asking some questions before dinner about the total number of people affected by the axing of fair indexation in respect of veteran's pensions. I think it was Ms Foreman who had some very good information there for us. How much will be saved in the budget by switching from fair indexation to CPI from 1 September 2017?
Mr Lewis : The change in indexation in 2017 saves $65.1 million in 2017-18.
Senator FARRELL: Is it your understanding that the change from fair indexation to CPI will be a permanent change from that point onwards?
Senator Ronaldson: Chair, this is where Senator Farrell started this before. He is asking the officials at the table questions on the back of a political expression that he is using. I ask him not to do that. If he wants to talk about indexation, that is fine. If he wants to talk about fair indexation, I will just simply go back to his voting record in relation to this. If he asks questions about indexation, we are going to have a very pleasant evening. If he wants to play politics, then I will keep on raising this matter.
Senator FARRELL: Chair, we had a discussion a few moments ago about this issue and I would appreciate a direction.
CHAIR: We want answers to questions. If questions will be made within the parameters required, the answers will be given. Let's proceed. We have wasted a lot of time already.
Senator Ronaldson: I could not agree more.
Senator FARRELL: Mr Lewis, on the change from fair indexation to CPI, will that be a permanent change?
Senator Ronaldson: Chair, the expression 'fair indexation' is political commentary. If the shadow minister wants to ask about—
Senator FARRELL: I will be more specific.
Senator Ronaldson: I will just keep on talking about what you did with the fair indexation bill if you want me to. If you want to go and ask some questions, just ask—please—about the indexation changes and then we can happily take those questions. It is as simple as that. The call is yours.
CHAIR: Consider the questions in those terms, then. Let's have the answer.
Senator FARRELL: We had a private meeting. I do not like to discuss the decisions of private meetings, but the indication at that meeting was that I would be allowed to ask my questions to the public servants.
CHAIR: Yes, it is. I agree.
Senator FARRELL: Mr Lewis, how would you describe the changes that the government has made to the indexation process?
Mr Lewis : As a change in indexation.
Senator FARRELL: Previously, veterans' pensions were calculated as the best of three formulas. Is that correct?
Mr Lewis : Yes, that is correct.
Senator FARRELL: The government, from 1 September 2017, is now changing that and the change is in respect of just one formula, namely CPI.
Mr Lewis : That is correct.
Senator FARRELL: Do you understand that to be a permanent change?
Mr Lewis : It depends on what you mean by permanent. Governments bring down budgets every year and we have got a budget year in three of the forward estimates. What you see is a $65 million change in the last year of the budget estimates.
Senator FARRELL: Have you been advised that it is anything other than a permanent change?
Mr Lewis : No.
Senator FARRELL: It has been stated that the government will achieve savings of $449 million over five years by indexing pensions, equivalent payments and parent payments singled out by the CPI. What are the estimated savings in Veterans' Affairs?
Mr Lewis : The Veterans' Affairs component is $65.1 million.
Senator FARRELL: When the proposal to change the method of indexation was first raised, was the department given an opportunity to put an input into that discussion?
Senator Ronaldson: These are matters between the department in relation to consultations on the budget matters. I thought that Senator Farrell would be aware—
Senator FARRELL: I am not asking for the advice. I am not asking what the advice was. I am asking whether or not you were invited to put a position when this issue was raised. I am not asking for the advice.
Senator Ronaldson: They are matters surrounding the budget decisions. We have had this discussion in Department of Industry estimates all today and it has been acknowledged by your colleagues that matters discussed by the department in the context of whether it was other agencies or not are not matters that can be canvassed at these estimates hearings.
Senator FARRELL: I am not asking for the advice. I am asking was—
Senator Ronaldson: I know what you are asking for. I am telling you that matters raised—
Senator FARRELL: I am asking whether or not the department was invited to make or provide advice in respect of the change of the CPI calculator.
Senator Ronaldson: It is a long-standing tradition in this place that matters surrounding discussions in relation to budget issues, whether intra-agency or inter-agency, do not form the basis of discussions at Senate estimates. Your colleagues are acutely aware of that. I have always been acutely aware of that. I am just not prepared to break the precedent for you, I am afraid.
Senator FARRELL: Minister, can you tell us if you were invited to make a submission in respect of the proposed change to the calculation of veterans' pensions.
Senator Ronaldson: Similar to my previous answer, I will not be discussing with you what discussions I had intra-department or inter-department about matters that were announced on budget night. You can ask me a thousand times, but I am going to give you the same answer.
Senator FARRELL: Minister, your job is to look after veterans. That is your job, is it not?
Senator Ronaldson: Do not start playing politics again.
Senator FARRELL: You are very proud of that job.
Senator Ronaldson: You know very well—
Senator FARRELL: Your job is to look after veterans. What was being proposed here was a change to the way in which the indexation of veterans was going to be done into the future. Did you make any submissions? I am not asking you what your submissions were. I am just trying to find out whether or not you sought to defend veterans from this terrible change to the calculation of their pensions.
Senator Ronaldson: Laden with politics, you certainly were not defending veterans when you voted against the Fair Indexation Bill.
Senator FARRELL: Forget about my voting record. We are talking about—
Senator Ronaldson: So it is okay for you to ask me questions, but I am not allowed to compare what you might have done? I do not think it works like that.
Senator FARRELL: No, you are happy to publicly talk about my voting record. Let's talk about what you did for veterans. Not in 2011, but a few weeks ago. Let's talk about what you tried to do to protect veterans from the change to their indexation calculations.
Senator Ronaldson: I am not aware of any—
CHAIR: That is a whole of government decision. Why don't we just—
Senator FARRELL: He is the Minister for Veterans Affairs. What we want to know is: did he defend the veteran community?
CHAIR: It is a whole of government decision. You cannot link it back to one individual person. So ask other questions about general issues. That is not going to work.
Senator FARRELL: No. Okay, I accept that he is not going to tell us what he did.
Senator Ronaldson: You just cannot mutter under your breath. I have told you before that discussions intra and inter department in relation to—
Senator FARRELL: Minister, the veterans community would like to hear you say, 'I went into bat for veterans' pensions.' That is what they would like to hear you say. I have invited you to say it. You have hidden behind cabinet confidentiality. That is all I am going to ask on that.
CHAIR: Senator you really are playing politics there. The minister represents the government—
Senator FARRELL: I am a politician. I am a senator.
CHAIR: That is fine, but this is a process of getting information about various things that happen, and it does not include trying to dissect government decisions.
Senator FARRELL: Okay, Minister, if you are not prepared to tell us what you did about defending veterans in the cabinet, can you tell us whether, before the election, you told veterans that you were going to change the way in which their pensions were calculated. Did you ever do that?
Senator Ronaldson: The same way that was referred to in the letter from Mike Kelly, Bob McMullan, Senator Kate Lundy and Annette Ellis dated 11 September 2009 to Lindsay Tanner, where they were raising their deep concern about the fact that the Australian Labor Party had indicated prior to the 2007 election that they would change the DFRDB/DRFB indexation, and it was not done. Listen Senator, I will say this: Since I have got his job I have taken enormous pride in this job. I have tried to do a number of things, which includes addressing very serious issues in relation to claims processing times. This was the most significant issue raised with me by contemporary and older veterans—apart from DFRDB issue—in my time as the shadow minister. I immediately sought to work with the department to address those issues. I have also taken it upon myself personally, because of my desire to see better outcomes for veterans who have now or may have serious mental health issues, and we are doing substantial work in that area. You have heard me talk about the fact that—
Senator FARRELL: Minister I am not—
Senator Ronaldson: You have insinuated that I do not care about veterans. I find that deeply offensive and I am answering your question by telling you some of the things that we have been doing.
Senator FARRELL: Well that is very good. That is terrific. But, Minister, did you tell the veteran community in your policy for veterans and their families on September 2013 that, and I quote, 'The government does not increase Centrelink pensions just by the consumer price index, so it is not fair to apply only that index to the pensions of those who have risked their lives for our country.' Did you tell the veteran community that before the election?
Senator Ronaldson: What date?
Senator FARRELL: I think one of your staff has very kindly provided the document to you. So you will be able to read it for yourself. Did you say—and I assume you wrote this document—the coalition's policy for veterans and their families, dated September 2013:
The government does not increase Centrelink pensions just by the consumer price index, so it is not fair to apply only that index to the pensions of those who have risked their lives for our country.
Is that the coalition's statement before the election?
Senator Ronaldson: It was not a statement. It was actually a policy.
Senator FARRELL: What is the difference between a statement and a policy, Minister?
Senator Ronaldson: It was more comprehensive than just the statement you are reading out. It was very comprehensive and it is called 'The coalition's policy—
Senator FARRELL: Were those words that I have just read out in that document?
Senator Ronaldson: Well hang on. Chair—
CHAIR: Yes I agree. Let us give everybody a little bit of space. Give the minister the opportunity to answer please, Senator.
Senator Ronaldson: Just relax. This was a policy dated September 2013. You might be interested in going back, Senator Farrell, and seeing what the Australian Labor Party's policy was for veterans before the last election. I am sorry to say that you can hunt around for 48 hours—
Senator FARRELL: We did not tell them any lies, Minister.
Senator Ronaldson: You did not have a policy—
Senator FARRELL: We did not tell them any lies. You have lied to them about what you are going to do—
CHAIR: Let's stop being pejorative—
Senator FARRELL: That is the point, Minister.
CHAIR: Let's just deal with the facts, one by one, and I suggest we move on to something—
Senator Ronaldson: The government does not increase—
Senator FARRELL: Hang on a minute!
Senator RONALDSON: Centrelink pensions just by—
Senator FARRELL: Hang on a minute. Chair, I have put a clear question to the minister. He does not want to talk about what he did in cabinet.
CHAIR: He cannot do that, because that is for the government to talk about.
Senator FARRELL: Okay. I am asking him to confirm or deny—
Senator Ronaldson: I have just been verballed. I am being verballed all the time about these issues.
Senator FARRELL: Well, defend yourself. If what is in this policy is not right, tell me what is wrong with it.
Senator Ronaldson: Look, Chair, Senator Farrell throws one comment in, then he gets back to something else, then he throws one back in. Can I please have the opportunity to answer his questions?
CHAIR: Yes, go ahead and answer them.
Senator Ronaldson: He has insinuated that I was in a cabinet meeting. I am not in—
Senator FARRELL: We know that you were not in a cabinet meeting. We know they did not invite you in. You are the minister; they did not invite you in.
Senator Ronaldson: I am not in cabinet, but I have no intention of breaking a longstanding precedent in relation to these discussions.
Senator FARRELL: No, I am not asking you about cabinet. We have moved on. I want to know whether you told the veterans community, prior to the election, that CPI was not a fair way to index their pensions. Yes or no, Minister?
Senator Ronaldson: Please don't tell me how to answer questions. You have asked a question.
Senator FARRELL: I am asking you to answer it. I am not telling you. I am asking you.
Senator Ronaldson: Chair, I appreciate this is Senator Farrell's last estimates hearing—
Senator FARRELL: You have made that point on a number of occasions.
Senator Ronaldson: and he is trying to go out with a bang, but can he please just let me answer these questions.
CHAIR: Yes, go ahead. Answer the questions.
Senator Ronaldson: The policy said:
The government does not increase Centrelink pensions just by the consumer price index …
That is a statement of fact. So what was read out is correct. There has been a whole-of-government decision that those pensions will now be linked to CPI. So at no stage did I do what Senator Farrell said—and it is such an offensive word that I will not even repeat it. Clearly, the indexation in a whole—
Senator FARRELL: Have a glass of water, Minister. I shall have one too.
Senator Ronaldson: I think you need something stronger, quite frankly, Senator.
Senator FARRELL: No, no, water is fine.
Senator Ronaldson: There was a whole-of-government decision in relation to the future indexation of these pensions that you have referred to.
Senator FARRELL: Minister, what I am asking you is: did you say one thing before the election—namely, CPI is not acceptable for people who risk their lives for this country—and have you now done something else, after the election?
Senator Ronaldson: Why don't you read the start of that?
Senator FARRELL: I did read the start of it.
Senator Ronaldson: It says:
The government does not increase Centrelink pensions just via the consumer price index …
When that policy was released, that was—
Senator FARRELL: Minister, come on.
Senator Ronaldson: That was the situation. There has been a whole-of-government decision in relation to that. What we have made quite clear in relation to the superannuation pensions, the DFRDB and the DFRB, is that the indexation arrangements that you voted against and then were dragged kicking and screaming into supporting this year—
Senator FARRELL: What was the rationale for that change, Minister?
CHAIR: Let the minister answer, if you would.
Senator FARRELL: But he is not answering the question.
Senator Ronaldson: were a whole-of-government decision, and they are now indexed by CPI. So I emphatically refute your allegation that I did anything other than provide a statement of fact in September 2013 in relation to the way Centrelink pensions are increased.
Senator FARRELL: Did anybody in your party—
Senator Ronaldson: There has been a whole-of-government decision which has changed that.
Senator FARRELL: Did anybody in your party tell us before the last election that you were going to change Centrelink payments just to CPI?
Senator Ronaldson: There was a budget announcement this year which was a whole-of-government announcement in relation to the future treatment of those pensions from September 2017. The statement that I made in that policy was correct. There has been a whole-of-government decision to change that in the budget. As I said to you before, I do not intend discussing with you what internal and external discussions there were in relation to the formulation of the budget.
Senator FARRELL: You have made your point; we are not going to get an answer from you on that. You went to the last election telling those people who are beneficiaries of DFRB pensions that you were going to introduce fair indexation, did you not?
Senator Ronaldson: And we did.
Senator FARRELL: But you did not tell the other recipients of veterans pensions that you were going to take away fair indexation from them, did you?
Senator Ronaldson: I am not entirely sure how many times I have got to say this.
Senator FARRELL: It is a straightforward question. Yes or no?
Senator Ronaldson: The policy that I as shadow minister for veterans' affairs announced in September 2013 reflected the indexation at the time that policy was released. There was a whole-of-government approach in the budget which changed that measure of indexation. Frankly, I do not know what more I can add to that.
Senator FARRELL: Minister, you can agree with me—
CHAIR: Senator Farrell, you have got an answer and the minister said he cannot add to it. So let's move onto something else.
Senator FARRELL: I was given the opportunity to ask questions. I will ask one more question on this. Minister, is it fair to say that, before the election, you told the DFRB beneficiaries that they were going to get fair indexation but you did not tell the rest of the veteran pension community that they were going to lose it?
Senator Ronaldson: I will read the policy again—for the fifth time. Perhaps if you listen, you will understand what I am saying. It says the government does not increase Centrelink pensions just by the consumer price index. When that policy was released in September 2013, I think the Greens might have had a veterans policy—I do not think I am misquoting you, Senator Wright—and the coalition had a policy. The Australian Labor Party had no policy before the last election. The government does not increase Centrelink—
Senator FARRELL: Did you tell veteran pensioners that you were going to take away fair indexation? It is a very simple question. I can understand why you cannot answer cabinet questions, but I just want to know why you told one group of veteran pensioners one thing but did not tell the rest of them what you were planning to do.
Senator Ronaldson: Clearly in the budget, in terms of the legislation that was put through in relation to indexation for DFRDB and DFRB recipients, the decision was made by the government that legislation which had been passed two months before the indexation would remain in relation to that group of people. So those who were on superannuation schemes, whose eligibility is quite defined under the DFRDB and the DFRB, who cannot actually take their superannuation out, have retained the legislation which was introduced by the government and passed by you and others—dragged kicking and screaming—
Senator FARRELL: That is an unfair comment. I was not 'dragged kicking and screaming'. I went into the shadow cabinet meeting fully prepared to argue the case. I did argue the case and, I am pleased to say, the shadow cabinet supported my decision. I was not dragged kicking and screaming. Chair, I would ask you to get the minister to withdraw that comment.
CHAIR: You have made your point, Senator Farrell.
Senator Ronaldson: If you had so much interest, did you talk about the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Amendment (Fair Indexation) Bill 2010 in the party room? Did you stand up and say at that stage, 'We've got to support this'? Did you or did you not?
Senator FARRELL: I stood up in front of the caucus and said we support your legislation. You took it to the last election. You were elected—
CHAIR: Order! This is just debating petty points which neither of you can verify.
Senator Ronaldson: So where were you in 2011? Did you stand up in the government party room and say, 'We should be supporting this legislation'?
Senator FARRELL: Minister, where were you when Joe Hockey was cutting veterans' pensions? Were you standing up for them? That is the question the veteran community want to hear answered.
CHAIR: Senator Farrell, you have had 45 minutes. I am now going to move to Senator Edwards.
Senator FARRELL: I have got some more questions I would like to ask on this topic.
CHAIR: You can do that later. Let's move to Senator Edwards.
Senator EDWARDS: I will try and be quick.
CHAIR: You do not have to be terribly quick.
Senator EDWARDS: I should just let everybody know that I did have some sugar at dinnertime so hopefully my levels will be a little bit moderate. I want to go to the minister's opening statement. I note that the government spends $166 million per annum on meeting the mental health needs of our veterans. Is that a demand-driven model, not capped?
Mr Lewis : It is a demand driven model and the amount we ultimately spent in the department will be a function of the number of clients we have that are seeking services and the extent to which they require services. Ms Daniel might be able to provide some details.
Ms Daniel : The breakdown of that $166 million for 2011-12 is: pharmaceuticals, $30 million; private hospitals, $32 million; public hospitals, $29 million; private psychologists and social workers, $2.4 million; general practice, $22.5 million; consultant physicians, $17.8 million; VVCS, $26.1 million; and other budget mental health measures, $5.1 million—that is where we do the online activities and some of our support for ACPMH.
Senator EDWARDS: I want to talk about the new initiatives in the budget relating to this. Has that been covered already?
Ms Daniel : I have talked about the new initiatives that will come into place from 1 July 2014.
Senator EDWARDS: At any time over the last six years did Labor change any indexation rates from MTAWE to CPI?
Senator Ronaldson: I understand that, in the 2009-10 budget, the former government changed the family tax benefit indexation from MTAWE to CPI. I think the member for Jagajaga was the minister at the time. She said that reform—changing indexation to CPI—was 'designed to ensure the current system is sustainable, provides continuing support for families who need it most and encourages participation and productivity.' In answering that question, this government was required to introduce a range of measures that ensured the sustainability of support that we give to all Australians including veterans.
We were left by the former government with a budgetary situation that was quite simply unsustainable, and doing nothing was not an option. There are a large range of budget measures, none of which quite frankly we have taken any joy from having to do, but they were necessary if we were to have the sustainability that the member for Jagajaga referred to when the changes were made to the family tax benefit payment indexation from MTAWE to CPI when she said 'these reforms are designed to ensure the current system is sustainable.' We believe we have an obligation to have a sustainable pension system in this country.
You may or may not be aware that as a result of the legacy of the Labor debt we are borrowing $1 billion a month. That would be $2.8 billion a month in 10 years' time if nothing was done. If nothing was done each Australian's share of the interest would be $9,400 over the next 10 years. We were left with $191 billion in record budget deficits, $123 billion in cumulative deficits and gross debt headed for, on my understanding, about $667 billion. The International Monetary Fund had warned that without policy change Australia would record the fastest spending growth of the top 17 surveyed advanced economies and the third largest increase in net debt as a share of the economy between 2012 and 2018. Under the former government our debt position deteriorated at the fastest rate in our history.
As I said to you before, the measures that are across portfolios that have been taken in every area were required to ensure the sustainability of the pension support system. Senator Farrell heard me say this at a recent conference: I simply am not prepared as both a father and a grandfather to sit back and leave with my children and grandchildren a debt in which they had no part in making but which unless something was done they would have the ultimate responsibility for. I can say with some confidence, having spent a number of years as the member for Ballarat, actively engaged with the veteran community, as the shadow minister for three years and now the minister for nine months, there is not one veteran listening tonight who does not accept that something had to be done, that it was unsustainable and that we have obligations to our kids and grandkids. If we had not been left in this mess we would not have been required to make some of the cross-portfolio decisions that we have.
Nothing would have given me greater joy than to walk in here tonight and say I had an extra billion dollars to put into vets' affairs over the next 12 months. I am quite pleased that we have been able to retain the forward estimates figure of $12.3 billion—and that has only been done because there are people like me in the government who are determined to ensure that we can give the veteran community the best deal possible. We cannot give them the best deal possible if we are running an unsustainable budget. Again, this was the comment made by the member for Jagajaga, former Minister Macklin—this is about sustainability. That was the reason they changed it from MTAWE to CPI. It was about sustainability. We are absolutely determined and committed to ensuring that we pay down this debt and do not leave our kids with a legacy that they had no part in the making of, but which they would ultimately have responsibility for if nothing were done. We are spending a billion dollars a month—a thousand million dollars a month—just to service this debt. That would have gone up to $2.8 billion dollars a month in ten years if nothing had been done. I thank you for your question.
Senator EDWARDS: Minister, the government is, as I understand it, committed to restoring funding for the Building Excellence in Support and Training program, which is known as the BEST program. They made that commitment before the 2013 election. It had been inexplicably cut by the former government. Has this commitment been delivered in this budget?
Senator Ronaldson: It has. I will get Ms Foreman to elaborate on it. In the budget, as we promised before the last election, there is an additional million dollars to top up, back to where it was, the amount budgeted by the former government. That million dollars had been inexplicably removed by the former government without any consultation at all with the veteran community. I initiated, either late last year or early this year, discussions with the Ex-Service Organisation Round Table—the peak ex-service body—and I said to them: 'I have the million dollars as promised. You go away and have a think about how you want it spent. I am not the one delivering it; you are delivering it. You tell me how it is to be spent.' So we fully consulted. Ms Foreman might like to detail how that extra million dollars is going to be spent on the back of recommendations from ESORT.
Ms Foreman : As the minister has just mentioned, the Building Excellence in Support and Training program, or the BEST program, is one of our most important programs. It provides support to veterans for advocacy, pension and welfare groups. It helps to meet salary costs for ESO practitioners, the cost of administrative support, the cost of equipment et cetera. As the minister mentioned, the $1 million was restored last year as part of the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook and an additional million dollars for 2017-18 was included in the budget papers for this year. Restoration of that funding will support the work of the veterans' advocacy, pension and welfare offices right across the country.
The minister also talked about the involvement of the ESO Round Table. They were an integral part of this program. The advice they give us helps us to decide how to best allocate the funds. At the meeting last year, we talked about the restoration of the money and we followed their advice. They indicated to us that they thought that some additional funds were needed in the area of out-of-pocket and administrative expenses for welfare practitioners. That has been incorporated into the formula for the grants for the next financial year. I can also report that we opened BEST round 16 for applications last week. That application round will close towards the end of June—I think it is 23 June. It opened on 26 May. The funding for BEST for round 16 for 2014-15 will be $3.8 million.
Senator EDWARDS: Can you or the minister explain how this funding will be delivered to the veteran community over the forward estimates?
Ms Foreman : Each year we consult with the ESO Round Table. We talk with them about how the funding was allocated the previous year and we seek their advice on whether we have the mix and the formula right. We use a formula for funding across the states and territories based on the cases, and the complexity of cases, each ESO takes on. We also talk to them about whether there have been changes within the community, or in the type of work they are undertaking, which we need to take into account when we are allocating the funding for the next financial year. We have all that agreed, obviously, before we go out and open applications.
Senator EDWARDS: Minister, can you tell me if you have involved the ex-service community in deciding how this funding will be delivered?
Senator Ronaldson: It is full consultation, as Ms Foreman said. The department went back to ESORT and said, 'You are the ones delivering this. The department is not delivering the BEST funding; it is the exservice community that is doing so.' They are best placed to know what the needs are of their members, whether it is training on welfare or whatever it might be. I said: 'Right, you make the decision. I don't deliver it. You make the decision.' I think we are very satisfied with the outcome of those discussions.
Senator EDWARDS: All right, thank you. Chair, I have a couple of other questions but I am happy to come back when other senators have had some time.
Senator WRIGHT: I will start off with asking some questions about the concerns that members of the veterans community have raised with me about changes to the way that increases to the veterans disability support pension are paid. They have brought it to my attention that the government is proposing to achieve savings by paying new claims and applications for an increase in the rate of veterans disability pension effective from the date of lodgement of the claim or application. That is in contrast to the previous regime. Under previous arrangements increases in payments were backdated by up to three months. Is that correct—that they were previously backdated?
Ms Foreman : For up to three months, yes.
Senator WRIGHT: How did that previous system work?
Ms Foreman : Clients would put in an application and we would note the date on which the application was received and then when the determination was made as to whether that claim was accepted or not, if liability was accepted, then we would potentially backdate that claim up to three months before the date on which it was received.
Senator WRIGHT: Okay, so 'up to three months'; it means that if in fact the liability may have been beyond that period it was a total of up to three months that the backdating could occur?
Ms Foreman : That is right.
Senator WRIGHT: What was the rationale for previously backdating claims in that way?
Mr Harrigan : It was a longstanding practice of the Repatriation Commission that pensions would be backdated in that way in a similar way that war widows pensions are backdated. I might note that war widows pensions will continue to be backdated, notwithstanding this particular measure.
Senator WRIGHT: What was the rationale for that, though? Why has it previously been considered to be an appropriate way to deal with these sorts of claims?
Mr Harrigan : I think it was recognised that it provided some flexibility for individuals to lodge their claim and the department would recognise that that cannot always happen in a timely fashion and therefore afforded them the benefit of up to three months fortnightly disability pension payments once the determination had been made for that claim.
Senator WRIGHT: Why can't it always happen in a timely fashion? Why would there have been that recognition? What things might interfere with that ability to lodge those in a timely fashion?
Mr Harrigan : That is a difficult one to answer. I guess it is similar to the way that we face challenges in obtaining medical evidence to support a claim. That may be one reason. Whether we are assessing claims for incapacity payment or permanent impairment or indeed a disability pension one of the pieces of evidence we rely on is medical advice. That is an important part of the claims process and there can often be a delay in obtaining that or a delay in the individual lodging the claim providing it to us.
Senator WRIGHT: Given the nature of the disability that may be at the root of the application, I wonder if in some cases it might be an incapacity, an inability to lodge or needing assistance to actually lodge the claim? I am just trying to think about the sorts of circumstances, because you said there was a recognition that people cannot always lodge a claim in a timely way previously. Might it be that someone is not aware of the fact that they have a right to make a claim and that comes to their attention and they make the claim? Whereas they could have actually made it at some earlier point?
Mr Harrigan : Sure, that is possible. To understand the claims process, they may not necessarily have understood that they would be eligible for payment from us and therefore there is some flexibility to allow them to lodge their claim, recognising those circumstances.
Senator WRIGHT: So there was previously in relation to the veterans disability support pension but not any longer?
Mr Harrigan : That is right. This measure removes the backdating of disability pension back to the date of lodgement. This creates a consistency with other DVA payments, including the income support service pension, which is also paid under the Veterans' Entitlements Act, and permanent impairment payments for permanent incapacity paid under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004.
Senator WRIGHT: It was put to me that one of the rationales for this previous arrangement was recognising the types of incapacity that might give rise to the claim and the unique nature of military service. What would you say to that? Was that some of the thinking around the previous arrangement?
Mr Lewis : That is speculation, Senator.
Senator WRIGHT: I thought there may have been at some point some documentation as to why? When these proposals are introduced at different times in history, there is usually an accepted understanding as to why particular arrangements are in place. I was not asking you to speculate; I was asking whether there has been any commentary or any understanding on the basis of documentation, speeches in introducing regulations or whatever?
Mr Harrigan : Not that I am aware of. I have not been involved in any discussion.
Senator WRIGHT: Will the capacity to backdate be completely eliminated? Is there any room for discretion? Are there any circumstances in which it could be seen that there would be a real injustice where someone perhaps was not aware of their right to make a claim, makes the claim quite late and there is no capacity to backdate—or is there still going to be some discretion?
Mr Harrigan : The budget measure removes any ability for delegates to be able to backdate. Once legislated, we must therefore comply with that. It is from date of lodgement of claim.
Senator WRIGHT: All right. Thank you. So that is what is envisaged then.
Mr Lewis : Before you continue, can I just add one thing.
Senator WRIGHT: Yes, Mr Lewis.
Mr Lewis : You notice it says from date of claim. It does not say from date of completed claim.
Senator WRIGHT: Right, okay—that is interesting.
Mr Lewis : I report regularly in relation to our processing of claims and I am increasingly providing some details about our challenges in getting those claim periods down, because they are too long. One of our problems is that we start paying from the date of claim. We do not start paying from the date of the completed claim. I think Mr Carmody has used the analogy: bung knee, Afghanistan 2005. The day that lands on our desk we start the clock. If that claim is eventually accepted we will pay back to that date. But the reality is, from our perspective, a completed claim we could process a lot faster.
Senator WRIGHT: Sorry, I did not catch that last bit.
Mr Lewis : A completed claim we could process a lot faster. The completed claim might come a fair bit later but we actually pay back to the date the claim was first lodged.
Senator WRIGHT: So when you say 'lodgement of claim' it has to be in writing, presumably—it cannot be a telephone conversation or maybe it can, I'm making an assumption? What is the nature of a claim?
Mr Lewis : I think for the legislation it has to be in writing
Mr Harrigan : It is in writing, Senator.
Senator WRIGHT: Is there a specific form that would have to be completed or can it be letter?
Mr Lewis : We would need to get our experts on claims processing to the table for that sort of question.
Senator Ronaldson: I think it is really important that this is not a non-payment period of three months. Once a claim is lodged in my understanding is that if it is accepted and the medical evidence and everything else is provided then payment will start from the date of the claim. It is not a three-month waiting period.
Senator WRIGHT: No. That is not my understanding.
Senator Ronaldson: I just wanted to make—
Senator WRIGHT: My concern, and what has been raised with me, is that some people who do not make a claim by dint of not having the facility to do what is needed to lodge the claim in writing, or who are not aware of their right to make a claim, will face a delay and will actually now forego that previous potential backdating. In some cases there may be significant hardship from that and that is what I am trying to tease out. It still is clear to me that there has to be some form of written documentation of a claim—which would suggest that someone needs to know they need to make a claim. Anyway—
Mr Lewis : I might ask Ms Spiers to—
Ms Spiers : You are correct to say there is a formal claim form that the commission recognises for the purposes of making a claim for the disability pension but equally, if a person puts the details of their claim in writing, it is considered an informal claim. If there is substantially enough information there as to what they are claiming and why they are claiming it we do accept that, but obviously we prefer people to complete the full claim form and get the details in place.
The other thing I think I should mention is the measure that has been proposed comes into effect for new claims that are received on or after the date the measure comes into place— that is 1 January 2015. Claims received prior to that date will have the benefit of up to 3 months backdating.
Senator WRIGHT: But it will go forward from then on.
Ms Spiers : Correct.
Senator WRIGHT: It does highlight for me the absolute importance of the role played by welfare officers in various ESOs, for instance, in terms of making sure there is sufficient advice out there in the veteran community that people become aware of the rights they do have. Certainly it is a complex system. That is what is fed back to me a lot, so again I have concerns that there will be some people who will slip through the gaps and will not have the benefit of that backdating.
Ms Spiers : Senator, if it reassures you: if they put in the wrong claim form, for instance—say their claim relates to service post-2004 and they happen to pick up the wrong claim form and fill that out—the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission have recognised those other forms for the purposes of the claim. So they will not be disadvantaged in that sense.
Senator WRIGHT: Again, that goes to your point about substantial details about the claim. There will still be a risk that there are people who are not even aware that they could have made a claim and have not made one; in that case they will not be saved by that kind of discretionary power.
Ms Spiers : You are correct.
Senator WRIGHT: I will take you now to the budget savings of $42.1 million for the enhanced compliance program. I am interested to know how those figures were calculated. Does it—
Mr Lewis : We should be able to provide some details on that for you. Of course, the underlying point here is that all those entitled to receive benefits will continue to receive them. We are just increasing our compliance program to ensure that those who are getting the benefit of these various entitlements continue to enjoy those under the act.
Senator WRIGHT: Sure. I am interested in how that figure was calculated or how that estimate was made. Does that represent the amount the government anticipates is being spent in incorrect overpayments?
Ms Foreman : It is a combination, Senator. It is approximately 57 per cent of clients or 4,500 clients who will have a reduction in their payments. Approximately 20 per cent of clients will have no change as a result of the review and approximately 18.5 per cent of clients will have an increase to their payments.
Senator Ronaldson: It is a compliance program, Senator.
Senator WRIGHT: Yes, and that takes me to the next part of my question. If you could just tease out for me, then, what mechanisms there are to ensure people are not underpaid as well. Clearly there is an anticipation that some of this will indicate that some people are being underpaid. How does that work?
Ms Foreman : That is right. When we write out to clients we ask them to confirm, or advise us of changes to, their income and assets. What will happen is that people's circumstances will have changed for a very wide variety of reasons: some people's income will have declined, some people's assets will have declined, and others will have increased. So we take that information—the correct information—and recalculate what their payments should be.
Senator WRIGHT: How quickly is that recalculated? Is this a random program or is it a regular—
Mr Lewis : It is a sample.
Ms Foreman : It is a sample. It comes from a review that we are doing, and we tend to focus on people in the high-risk areas close to the asset and income thresholds. They are the people whose change in income could positively or negatively affect their pension.
Senator WRIGHT: Is there any limit to the backdating of the overpayment?
Ms Foreman : I might take that on notice.
Senator WRIGHT: Is there a three-month limit on that one?
Ms Foreman : I will take that on notice.
Mr Lewis : It does not usually work that way. If there is an overpayment, we will need to recover that—if we can do that reasonably. In some cases we cannot and we may need to waive the debt. It depends on the circumstances of the individual.
Mr Carmody : This is a compliance program, and in some cases some people may not have declared their assets correctly. That might be an oversight or it might be deliberate. Therefore the money should be recovered.
Senator WRIGHT: I suppose there has to be some discretion or ability to judge between what is often a somewhat complex situation that people face and what is deliberate.
Mr Carmody : That is correct.
Mr Lewis : We understand, Senator, that it is a complex legislative framework.
Senator WRIGHT: My next questions are about the Veterans Review Board and moves to have it included in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Mr Lewis : I do not know that that is a decision of the government. I am not sure whether that was a part of the recommendations of the Commission of Audit, but I am not aware of any decision.
Ms Foreman : It was not.
Mr Lewis : It was not even a part of the Commission of Audit.
Senator WRIGHT: I thought the Attorney-General was talking about the inclusion of new tribunals under the AAT, but the Veterans Review Board is not among them?
Mr Lewis : Not the Veterans Review Board.
Ms Spiers : The combining of the tribunals affects the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the Migration Review Tribunal, the Refugee Review Tribunal, the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Australian Classification Board. The Veterans Review Board was not included in that group.
Senator WRIGHT: Thank you for clarifying that. My informant was somewhat misguided in that. I have another question around the difference between assessment of claims of abuse by the department and by the DART, the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce, which I understand is within the Attorney-General's Department. There have been questions about the way the department assesses claims and the way DART resolves them.
Mr Lewis : In a nutshell, our legislative framework has not changed. We process claims the way we did last year and the year before, according to the balance-of-probabilities test or the reasonable-hypothesis test. The DART process is part of the Attorney-General's portfolio, and there the claims are subject to a plausibility test, which is different to the tests we are subject to.
Senator WRIGHT: Could you outline those tests for me, please?
Mr Lewis : I might get the experts to do that.
Mr Harrigan : The reasonable hypothesis test is generally applied by delegates and there is a specific statement of principle for that test for claims originating from injuries on operational service. Injuries that arise in peacetime service generally apply the balance-of-probabilities test and statement of principle. Under the reasonable hypothesis test, a claim must be accepted by the delegate unless they are satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that there are grounds for that claim not to be accepted. That is a fairly strong test. It is certainly much stronger than 'plausibility', which is applied by the DART. The other test is the civil standard of proof—the balance of probabilities. In applying that and in deciding on a link between the particular injury and the service, the delegate must decide if it is more probable than not that there is that link and that injury did arise in relation to a service incident.
Ms Spiers : I would just like to add to Mr Harrigan's comments. The other key difference is DART is not actually assessing an injury or disease. DART is actually making a decision on plausibility about whether an event or a circumstance occurred. The test applied for compensation under the Veterans' Affairs portfolio is looking at specific injuries, illnesses and diseases and linking those to service. It is a bit chalk and cheese in that it is quite a different premise for determining what the two different bodies are looking at doing.
Mr Lewis : We will be going from the event to try and identify the illness or injury which falls within our framework.
Senator WRIGHT: But presumably you would have to be making a finding on the balance of probabilities as to whether an event actually occurred to start with, I would have thought. Don't you? Isn't that part of the test?
Ms Spiers : It is part of the test, but how you have described the test is slightly simplistic as to how the case will run in this area. It is actually quite a complex area of case law. Mr Harrigan has tried to explain it in simple terms. The test asks: did the event occur? Is there an injury or illness? Is there a factor in the statement of principle that could link that injury or illness to war service? Are there any other factors that might suggest it is not? Then with the warlike or operational service the delegate has to determine beyond reasonable doubt that there are no other factors that could relate that to service. It is a complex four step decision-making process in coming up to compensation claims.
Senator WRIGHT: That is how a situation can arise where a person who has made a claim about abuse that occurred during their service or during their training with the ADF—maybe it was operational service or maybe it was a matter of training—may receive compensation through the DART process but not necessarily be found eligible for compensation through the DVA process.
Mr Lewis : Indeed. They might appeal to the VRB and, if that is unsuccessful, they appeal to the AAT and be unsuccessful at the AAT as well.
Ms Spiers : The DART payment is not a compensation payment; it is a reparation payment. The person does not have to claim a condition to link to that abuse. The very fact that the abuse has occurred is the decision that the DART is determining, not the flow-down effect of it, which might be that they have a mental health condition or a physical condition. All that DART is looking at is the plausibility that the event occurred and then, on that scale that the DART applies, determining what is an appropriate reparation payment. We look at a slightly different part of the continuum. We then look at conditions linked to service by specific events and then determine compensation on the basis of incapacity arising from those conditions.
Senator WRIGHT: In terms determining whether an event occurs, is it fair to say that the plausibility test is similar to the balance of probabilities test?
Ms Spiers : No. For the balance of probability test there is quite a bit of case law. As Mr Harrigan has said, it has to meet the test of 'more likely than not'. The plausibility test is a fairly low threshold to satisfy. In fact, I am not even sure if there is case law on it. It is a concept that is underneath—
Senator WRIGHT: I am a lawyer and the plausibility test is not something that I am particularly familiar with, so I was wondering about that.
Ms Spiers : No, it is a low threshold.
Mr Harrigan : The other way to describe the plausibility test is: does the allegation look reasonable? Is it reasonable to think that there was an incident of abuse? That is how it has been described to us by the DART.
Senator WRIGHT: Thank you.
Senator McEWEN: Minister, did you or your department have any input into the Prime Minister's YouTube video and/or press release about his attendance at the D-day landing remembrance ceremonies?
Senator McEWEN: You may be aware that a very large number of Australians are disgusted by the YouTube video and the press release, in which the Prime Minister talks very briefly about the D-day landing and then segues into domestic politics, where he talks about repealing the carbon tax and the mining tax et cetera. Do you share the disgust of Australians about this overt politicisation of the D-day landing remembrance ceremonies by the Prime Minister?
Senator Ronaldson: Can I separate out the politics-driven nature of your question and say this: the Prime Minister will be joining these men at the D-day commemorations and he will be doing so very proudly as the Prime Minister of this country. The Prime Minister—
Senator McEWEN: I asked you whether you share the disgust of other Australians—
CHAIR: Let the minister—
Senator McEWEN: about the politicisation of those ceremonies by the Prime Minister of Australia.
CHAIR: Senator McEwen, please let the minister answer the question. Do not be provocative; let the minister answer the question.
Senator McEWEN: I would, but he is not answering the question.
CHAIR: You are being more provocative. Just calm down and let the minister answer.
Senator Ronaldson: The Prime Minister, from my understanding of his press release, was detailing what his overseas travel would be. A component of that was his very proud attendance at the D-day commemorations. Indeed, the Prime Minister hosted these men at Kirribilli on Saturday morning to show his grateful thanks and the nation's grateful thanks for their service. He will be joining them in Normandy for the D-day commemorations. The Prime Minister is also travelling overseas to Canada and, from recollection, he might be going to the States—I do not know what his itinerary is. He will be discussing matters pertaining to Australia, to our engagement with Canada and to our engagement with the United States, to explain to them that, with the election of a new government and matters we have introduced in the budget, indeed this country is open for business again. He will be over there. I think he is taking Minister Robb with him. I think I saw press reports about that. It is a trade mission and he will be taking a lot of senior businesspeople with him—and it is actually to sell this country to the United States and to Canada.
The D-day commemoration is a very solemn occasion and no-one is more acutely aware of that than the Prime Minister. We have seen this afternoon and tonight that there is a great deal of hypocrisy, regrettably, in relation to some of the questions that are coming from the opposition. I am advised that in 2007 there was outrage—not the confected outrage that Senator McEwen has come in with tonight; outrage generally in the community—about Prime Minister Rudd trying to arrange to move a dawn service in Vietnam forward so it would fit in with prime TV in Australia.
Senator KROGER: That was the Sunrise program, wasn't it?
Senator Ronaldson: Yes. So here we have a Prime Minister of this country, for his own personal purposes, trying to move a dawn service. I think it was described as a fake dawn service. It might have been the breakfast show from Long Tan in Vietnam. He blamed someone else for that. There is the solemnity of the occasion that the Prime Minister is attending for these D-day commemorations with world leaders. The times are not being changed to suit a TV program and times are not being changed to massage the massive ego of Minister Rudd. It will be a solemn occasion. I can assure you that there is no-one in this country who better knows and understands the solemnity of these commemorative events.
Senator McEWEN: I will try one more time. Minister, I asked you, as the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, responsible to the veterans community and representing the veterans community, whether you share their outrage and the outrage of other Australians at—
CHAIR: I think you are being very provocative, Senator.
Senator McEWEN: the overt attempt by the Prime Minister to make political mileage out of what you yourself said was a very solemn occasion, which is the remembrance of the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings? I want your opinion.
Senator Ronaldson: Who is 'them'?
Senator McEWEN: Australians. People who have been bombarding Twitter, Facebook—
Senator Ronaldson: You said 'their outrage,' so I presume—
Senator McEWEN: You are not going to answer the question. You apparently have no opinion. I will move on.
CHAIR: Yes, please move on, Senator, because you are just wasting our time.
Senator Ronaldson: I am sorry, Chair, we have had this—
Senator McEWEN: I am not wasting time.
CHAIR: You are trying to be provocative.
Senator Ronaldson: We have had this confected commentary. I have just asked the senator where this has come from, who is it, and all of a sudden we are moving on to the next question. Anyone listening and those at the table will probably say, 'It was good to be said, but we'll move on to something else.'
Senator McEWEN: I take it, Minister, that you do not look at Twitter or Facebook or any other social media sites where this particular issue has been running hot since the Prime Minister's YouTube video was launched on Sunday?
CHAIR: I have not seen it and I look at those sites, so let's move on.
Senator McEWEN: Have you seen it, Minister? Have you watched the YouTube video?
Senator Ronaldson: I presume this is the same one with the buttons being pushed by the Australian Labor Party who have sought to make politics out of a solemn occasion and a proud Prime Minister attending the D-day commemorations.
Senator McEWEN: Minister, have you watched the video?
Senator Ronaldson: We know what you have been up to.
Senator McEWEN: Minister, have you watched it?
Senator Ronaldson: We all know what the Labor Party has been up to.
CHAIR: Senator McEwen, there is no point in persisting.
Senator McEWEN: He will not answer that either.
Senator Ronaldson: They are trying to politicise this and I think it is outrageous.
Senator McEWEN: Are you travelling to France with the Prime Minister?
Senator Ronaldson: No, I am not.
Senator McEWEN: Are you worried at all about the international embarrassment that that this incident has already caused?
Senator Ronaldson: I am not going to delay proceedings, Chair, by even proffering an opinion on that garbage.
Senator McEWEN: Have you spoken to the D-day veterans who are accompanying the Prime Minister to France since the YouTube video was published on YouTube?
Senator Ronaldson: I presume it was a Labor sponsored YouTube. I mean, that is the way you do these things.
Senator McEWEN: No, I said: have you spoken to the D-day veterans—
Senator McEWEN: who have featured in the video since it was published?
Senator Ronaldson: No, I have not. I had hoped to—
Senator McEWEN: Have you spoken to them?
CHAIR: He said no several times.
Senator Ronaldson: Didn't I just say no?
CHAIR: Senator, please move on.
Senator McEWEN: Do you intend to speak to them?
Senator Ronaldson: If the opportunity arises, I would love to speak to these men. I was, unfortunately, unable to attend Kirribilli House where I was invited. There was an official dinner on Saturday night which, I have already indicated, I was very pleased the shadow minister was able to go to. I was, regrettably, unable on Saturday to be in Sydney. Do I regret my inability? Yes, I most certainly do. I can think of nothing better than to have spent a morning tea at Kirribilli with these men and then at the dinner, but it just was not feasible. Am I sorry I did not have the opportunity? Absolutely. I can think of nothing better than to have met these men.
Senator McEWEN: Have you spoken to the Prime Minister at all about his YouTube video?
Senator Ronaldson: I think if I rang the Prime Minister and said, 'The Labor Party's running a YouTube campaign to make politics about your comment'—
Senator McEWEN: No, no. It is the Prime Minister's YouTube video.
Senator Ronaldson: I could just hazard a guess at what the response might have been.
Senator McEWEN: So you have not spoken to the Prime Minister about—
Senator Ronaldson: Of course I have not spoken.
Senator McEWEN: the video that he made?
Senator Ronaldson: Honestly, this is the biggest beat-up I have ever heard.
Senator McEWEN: I want an answer to my question.
CHAIR: Senator McEwen, we might wind this up, I think.
Senator McEWEN: No.
Senator Ronaldson: Do you want to ask some sensible questions of the department about matters that are of concern?
Senator McEWEN: You are the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. The veterans community are outraged. Have you spoken to the Prime Minister about the YouTube video?
Senator Ronaldson: You keep on using these expressions—'outrage' and 'YouTube'. The Australian Labor Party and your leader—
Senator McEWEN: I note you did not answer that question either.
Senator Ronaldson: your leader, who quite frankly, I think his behaviour has been quite deplorable—
Senator McEWEN: Have you spoken to anybody in the Prime Minister's office?
Senator Ronaldson: You have been trying to raise this is as a political issue—
Senator McEWEN: Have you spoken to anybody in the Prime Minister's office?
Senator Ronaldson: The Prime Minister's country said he was going proudly to the D-day commemorations. In the same press release, the Prime Minister's country said he is then going to Canada, or he might be going to Canada first—Canada, the United States—to sell this nation. Which of these two things do you not think he should be doing? Or do you not think he should be doing any of them?
Senator McEWEN: Minister, have you spoken—
Senator Ronaldson: You are completely exercised about this. Which ones don't you want him to do?
Senator McEWEN: Chair? Minister, have you spoken to the Prime Minister since Sunday?
Senator Ronaldson: I have been at Senate estimates for most of this week.
Senator McEWEN: Have you spoken to the Prime Minister since Sunday?
CHAIR: For what purpose, Senator McEwen?
Senator McEWEN: I want an answer. Have you spoken to the Prime Minister since Sunday?
CHAIR: You do not have to get an answer to that.
Senator Ronaldson: Well—
Senator McEWEN: You should know.
Senator Ronaldson: As much as I like you, Senator McEwen, I do not think you really expect me to tell you what my discussions with the Prime Minister have been.
Senator McEWEN: I am not asking you to tell me what the content was.
Senator Ronaldson: If you are asking me—
Senator McEWEN: I said: have you spoken to him?
Senator Ronaldson: People listening to this must be scratching their heads. We have had serious questions from Senator Wright. We have had serious questions from Senator Edwards. We have had attempted serious questions by the shadow minister. All we are getting from you is complete and utter drivel. I have not raised this matter with the Prime Minister because, quite frankly, I would have no reason to raise with him a campaign being run by the Australian Labor Party trying to play politics with something as important as the D-day commemorations. I am just not prepared to answer any more of your silly questions.
Senator McEWEN: As the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs—
Senator Ronaldson: Chair, are there any veterans related matters that we can talk about?
Senator McEWEN: I have got one more question, Chair.
CHAIR: I think we will be breaking for tea.
Senator McEWEN: Minister, as the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and for the centenary of Anzac, would you have linked those domestic political issues with the commemoration of the D-day landings in a YouTube video?
Senator Ronaldson: The attack that you are talking about is just playing pure politics. My understanding is that the Prime Minister's comments in relation to his overseas trip—he is not going over and coming back and then going over and coming back and then going over again; he actually is on one trip and he is going to the D-day commemoratives services and he is going to Canada and he is going to America. If he is talking about his overseas trip, do you expect him to have three YouTube clips, do you? 'I'm going to the United States,' then we cut that one, then roll the cameras again, and then we will have another one in relation to Canada, then we will stop that, and then we will roll the cameras again and we will talk about D-day. This is just an extraordinary notion. I do not know where you are coming from. I think I do, regrettably, but anyway I think it has been an abject failure.
Senator McEWEN: Just one final question: did you or anybody in your office have any conversation with either the Prime Minister or anybody in his office after the press release of Saturday and the YouTube video of Sunday were launched, about taking down either of those?
Senator Ronaldson: I think it is fair to say that the minister—
Senator McEWEN: So nobody from your office, and you certainly did not ring up and say, 'I think this is inappropriate.'
Senator Ronaldson: that the minister for—
Senator McEWEN: The Minister for Veterans' Affairs did not stand up for veterans.
Senator Ronaldson: Here we go; this is the theme of tonight, is it? We need one more to get the trifecta. I am sure that may be coming. Can I just finish this very, very silly conversation in this way: I, of course, was acutely aware that the Prime Minister was going to the D-Day event. You would be very, very surprised if the veterans affairs minister and the minister—
Senator McEWEN: So you did know he was going to make that DVD, that video.
Senator Ronaldson: That is just outrageous, Chair. Would you please ask Senator McEwen to stop verballing me before I finish the answer.
CHAIR: If you could finish your answer, because it is 9 o'clock and it is the tea break.
Senator Ronaldson: Senator, of course I knew the Prime Minister was going to the D-Day commemorative event. You would be far more surprised if the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of Anzac and the veterans affairs minister was not aware that the Prime Minister was going to the commemorative event. I have had no discussions with Prime Minister about a YouTube or anything else. Frankly—
Senator McEWEN: Did they show you the video or the press release before it went out?
Senator Ronaldson: Why would the Prime Minister run it past me—
Senator McEWEN: I am just asking—
Senator Ronaldson: details of his overseas trip which took in Canada—
CHAIR: I am calling order. It is the tea break.
Proceedings suspended from 21:01 to 21:20
CHAIR: I welcome everybody back.
Senator EDWARDS: Thank you, Minister my questions go to the Anzac Centenary Public Fund. The previous government established an Anzac Centenary Public Fund to hold corporate donations received by the Australian government to allocate to projects to commemorate the Anzac centenary. Can you give the committee the balance of that fund as it is today? Are you able to provide that?
Major Gen. Chalmers : The balance of the fund at the moment is just over $45,000.
Senator EDWARDS: They have all been in donations committed to that fund?
Major Gen. Chalmers : That is correct, Senator.
Senator EDWARDS: Who are those donations from?
Major Gen. Chalmers : The donations are from a small number of private donors. I have a list here that I could read out but it is—
Senator EDWARDS: How many are there?
Major Gen. Chalmers : There are about 20 individual donors.
Senator Ronaldson: Rather than reading out the names of individuals—they may well be happy, but we have to check with them.
Senator EDWARDS: I do not want to embarrass anybody, Minister. How will the government determine which project to support from that fund?
Senator Ronaldson: I think there have been 24 donations, just to answer your question before.
Senator EDWARDS: Thank you.
Senator Ronaldson: There were a large number of commitments made by the former government in relation to a wide variety of projects, including co-partnering with most of the state and territory governments on projects. Mr Lindsay Fox, who has been running this fundraising campaign, has done a fantastic job. We have commitments from a number of corporations at the moment. Obviously, we are hopeful that money will start to flow sooner rather than later. There are some time-sensitive projects that the former government indicated to state governments that would be funded. There is the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, there is Hyde Park and there are projects in your home state and around the country. We are very grateful for the commitments we have had from the corporate sector. They are very substantial donations. I do not know whether Major General Chalmers has got the full list of companies there, but I will get Major General Chalmers to go through those and then I will make some very short comments.
Major Gen. Chalmers : Thanks, Minister. There is just over $45,000. These donations have come from staff at DVA, and I think Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston would not mind me saying that he has donated the payments he received as chair of the Anzac Centenary Advisory Board to the fund. Those funds have been provided through those personal donations, but there is also, as the minster said, around $100 million worth of corporate donation commitments that Mr Fox has gained. So there is just over $100 million of commitment by corporations.
Senator EDWARDS: That is a lot of cabbage.
Major Gen. Chalmers : It is a substantial amount of donation to the fund. Those donors are at the $10 million mark, and companies like Telstra, CBA, Rio Tinto and the AFL have all committed to $10 million. That is not a complete list. In fact, I have the list here. CBA, Telstra, NAB, Woodside, BHP and the ANZ committed $10 million each. Santos committed $5 million and Horizon committed $2.5 million. Newcrest committed $1 million and Boral committed $500,000. Those are commitments that have been made, and we expect that those funds will be paid into the account, in the case of the $10 million donors, in $2 million tranches over the next five years.
Senator EDWARDS: That is a substantial amount of money, Minister.
Senator Ronaldson: I would very much like to place on the record my grateful thanks to those companies. They are very substantial donations.
Senator EDWARDS: Indeed.
Senator Ronaldson: Quite frankly, they deserve to be recognised in a public setting such as this. There are a number of potential commitments which are well in excess of the $100 million. As the responsible minister, I am looking at the funds that are coming in and the funds that may be required, and the public board will be making decisions about the allocation of that funding in due course. We are certainly getting there. Mr Fox has done a fantastic job. There have been very generous donations. It is probably fair to say that the really hard work starts now.
Senator EDWARDS: Yes, indeed. On that, when do you think the first projects might be announced?
Senator Ronaldson: You will appreciate that with $40,000-odd in the public fund at the moment I would be most reticent to say to some of the state governments and others that our contribution will definitely be there. It would not be fair to them. These funds have to come out of the public fund that the donations will be made to. We are getting towards the pointy end, as you will appreciate. I hope that those funds will start to flow soon so that I can meet some of those commitments that were made by the previous government in relation to this matter.
Senator EDWARDS: Good luck with that one. I would like to move now to the proposed World War I interpretive centre at Villers-Bretonneux in France. The budget contains funding for a detailed business case for an interpretive centre on the Western Front in France. What is it, in actual fact, that this funding will provide?
Major Gen. Chalmers : The budget contains $6.9 million, as you have said, to develop a detailed business case in the next financial year. Of that, $6.1 million is administered and $0.8 million is departmental funding to enable us to support that. Essentially, the money will be spent in three main areas: in land acquisition; in services such as cost planning; development of architectural and interpretive design elements; legal services; and project management. Because we have a very short time frame to develop the Western Front interpretive centre and have it opened within the period of the ANZAC centenary, we are going to fast track and do some concurrent action which will include a detailed architectural design in this phase of the project. The $6.9 million really goes to ensuring that by March next year we can put forward a very detailed proposal for consideration by government.
Senator EDWARDS: There is currently an Australian remembrance trail being constructed over there. How will this project that we are talking about interact with that construction?
Major Gen. Chalmers : I might ask the Director of the Office of Australian War Graves, who is responsible for those projects, to answer that question.
Brig. Appleton : The proposed centre, if it is progressed in March next year, will complement the Remembrance Trail. You are probably aware that the Remembrance Trail encompasses nine infrastructure projects and four other sites of interest over a very large area. The Australian area of operations on the Western Front extends from the Channel Coast to Belgium for 120 kilometres south to Amiens and from there east another 80 kilometres out to Montbrehain. If you were to visit all the sites of the trail—and many dedicated tourists and visitors do—it could take somewhere between five and 12 days. The centre will complement that trail by providing a start or a finish point or it will provide a one-day experience for those who do not have five or more days to see it all. It will complement it by, in one place, encompassing the entire Australian experience of the Western Front and will provide information resources that will allow visitors to be led to the other sites on the trail.
You may be aware that in Villers-Bretonneaux one of the sites of the trail is the Franco-Australian Museum, about to be the subject of a $3 million refurbishment commencing in December this year. Although this museum and the centre are just a couple of kilometres apart they will be designed to complement one another—the museum, a traditional objects based museum, and the centre, a modern multimedia interpretive centre. I had the opportunity to be in France last week and met with national, regional and local officials, and the response I received from the Franco-Australian Association, which runs that museum, was extremely positive about the complementary nature of the two and the potential for the centre to draw an increasing number of visitors not just to their region but also to their museum.
Senator Ronaldson: Just so we are clear, Senator, a detailed business case identifying the design, interpretive content and cost will be provided to the government in March next year. But I will just add to the previous witnesses comments. The men and women who run this V-B museum are just an absolutely fantastic group. And the feeling towards our nation by the people of Villers-Bretonneaux—and right throughout France, I have to say—is that we made an extraordinary contribution during that First World War and the Second World War, and they have never, ever forgotten. It is the same in Belgium. They have never, ever forgotten, and you can just see the sense of pride when they talk about what they have done in Villers-Bretonneaux, when they talk about their museum. And it is just a fantastic experience.
Senator EDWARDS: Thank you. It is a very important project for all Australians, and of course the French. And I will be taking a lot of interest in it, because I have recently been appointed chair of Parliamentary Friends of France, and I will be travelling there when I get some spare time to visit and check the progress. Thank you very much.
Senator Ronaldson: I also should mention the extraordinary amount of support we are getting from the Turkish government in relation to Gallipoli 2015 and the Lone Pine commemorative service in August. The Turkish people are fantastic hosts. They are very, very generous hosts, and they are doing everything they can to ensure that this very important period of time for us next year goes smoothly and is appropriately commemorated. And the Turks, as you will be well aware, lost many, many tens of thousands more soldiers during that period, but we are now very close friends and it is a relationship that can only be cemented by the events of next year.
Senator EDWARDS: Yes, 2015 will be a very important time for all of those countries involved in that conflict. Thank you.
Senator FARRELL: Senator Edwards asked some questions about whether the stakeholders—the ex-service community—have been consulted about the spending of the BEST funding, and the answer to that was yes.
Mr Lewis : In fact, the ESO Round Table is a forum that I chair. We could give you the membership of the round table, but it is essentially the dozen or so peak ex-service organisations as represented by their CEO—so, Ken Doolan in the case of the RSL, et cetera. There was a meeting of the ESO Round Table where the issue was discussed, where the minister put the request in relation to how the extra $1 million should be allocated. We asked for the national president of the RSL to coordinate a response on behalf of the members of the ESO Round Table, which he did, and we got a written response back in relation to that.
Senator FARRELL: Thank you for that answer. Has there been any consultation with the ex-service community about the change to the indexation method for pensions?
Mr Lewis : We had a meeting on budget night, the briefing, about 7 pm. And we outlined all the budget effects relevant to the DVA portfolio, including the indexation issue.
Senator FARRELL: Did you get any feedback about that from them?
Mr Lewis : Not a great deal of feedback.
Senator FARRELL: Have you done any modelling on the impact of the change from 1 September 2017 on—
Mr Lewis : $65.1 million.
Senator Ronaldson: We have discussed this.
Senator FARRELL: But you have not reduced that to individual pensions as to what the impact is going to be, in order to get that figure? Or have you
Mr Lewis : There will be many different categories of individual that make up that $65.1 million.
Senator FARRELL: We understand that the change is going to happen from 1 September 2017, but the official document put out by the department in Western Australia stated that indexation pension and pension-equivalent payments by the consumer price index will take place from 1 July and that male total average weekly earnings and the pensioner and beneficiary living costs will no longer be used as indexation of aged and service pensions—
Mr Lewis : Just to be clear: you are talking about a document put out in Western Australia?
Senator FARRELL: Yes, by the department.
Mr Lewis : So presumably it was put out by our deputy commissioner.
Senator FARRELL: You are not aware of a different date being used in Western Australia?
Ms Foreman : No. The only thing I can say is that this measure applies to a number of social security payments, and one of those takes effect from 1 July 2014.
Senator FARRELL: So, they could in fact be talking about a different measure. Okay; that clarifies that.
Senator Ronaldson: Well, they could only be talking about a different measure, because this does not commence until—
Senator FARRELL: Thank you. I want to ask some questions about changes in the budget to the seniors supplement received by Commonwealth seniors card holders. The budget papers state that the government will achieve a saving of $1.1 billion over five years from 2013-14 by ceasing the seniors supplement for holders of the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card from 20 September 2014. Can the department confirm that veterans who are gold card holders and the Commonwealth seniors card holders not receiving income support will no longer receive assistance via the seniors supplement?
Ms Foreman : That is correct.
Senator FARRELL: Do we know how many veterans are affected by that?
Ms Foreman : Approximately 29,000.
Senator FARRELL: What is the value of that supplement?
Ms Foreman : It comes at a single rate and a partnered rate. The single rate is $876.20 per annum, and for a member of a couple it is $660.40. That is the annual rate.
Senator FARRELL: Were you aware that this afternoon in the Queensland budget papers the Queensland government has decided to remove the seniors supplement that they provided?
Ms Foreman : No.
Senator FARRELL: Can you tell us on what date this month the seniors supplement will cease to be given to Commonwealth Seniors Health Card holders?
Ms Foreman : The last payment of this supplement will be made on 26 June.
Senator FARRELL: Have the recipients of this supplement been advised about the change?
Ms Foreman : It has been announced as part of budget. I will take it on notice, but I do not think we have sent all the recipients a letter at this stage. There is information on our departmental website about budget measures, but I will take on notice whether we have contacted people individually.
Senator FARRELL: Are you aware of any representations by members of the government to the Prime Minister to overturn this decision?
Mr Lewis : We would not comment on a matter like that.
Senator FARRELL: You are not aware of any?
Mr Lewis : I said I would not comment on a matter like that.
Senator FARRELL: Why not?
Mr Lewis : It is inside the government. It could be cabinet discussions, it could be related discussions—
Senator FARRELL: No, this is members of the government seeking to—
Mr Lewis : Senator, I have never commented on conversations that my minister may have had with someone else or another member of the government may have had with—
Senator FARRELL: No, I am talking about representations—
Mr Lewis : You said 'anyone inside government'.
Senator FARRELL: No, I am talking about representations by members of the government to—oh, I see what you are saying. Right: you are assuming I am talking about the minister. No, I am talking about—
Mr Lewis : You said 'members of the government'.
Senator FARRELL: Yes, I did, but I am assuming backbenchers are members of the government. I am asking you: are you aware of any backbenchers who have approached either the Prime Minister or the minister concerned about these changes?
Senator Ronaldson: Senator, Mr Lewis is the Secretary of a department with a $12.3 billion budget. You do not seriously think he is going to talk about matters that are being peddled by you in relation to discussions that some other backbencher might have had with someone?
Senator FARRELL: Well, can you answer the question then, Minister? Do you know the answer to the question?
Senator Ronaldson: There are 72½ thousand people who have served overseas since 1999. There are a whole lot of issues surrounding them. Can we actually take up Senator Wright's—
Senator FARRELL: Do you know the answer to the question? I will withdraw my question to Mr Lewis and I will ask you the question. Are you aware of any backbenchers who have made representations either to you or to the Prime Minister to reverse this decision?
Senator Ronaldson: I am not going to comment on discussions I might have had. I speak to colleagues every day about a whole variety of issues. I also speak to a number of people from your side in relation to a whole range of issues, and I would no sooner divulge those conversations that I have with your side than I would conversations I have with people on my side.
Senator FARRELL: Thank you, Minister. Can I ask some questions, then, regarding the payments that are being made to children of war veterans. As you are aware, there was a $215.60 payment as part of the annual income support bonus for roughly 1,200 children, including orphans, of veterans. You might be aware that a disallowance motion was moved in the parliament to overturn a decision to withdraw that payment. Is the government continuing to seek to reverse the decision?
Ms Foreman : We will be paying the next income bonus in September this year.
Senator FARRELL: Has there been any indication as to whether the government will proceed to reverse that payment?
Senator Ronaldson: That is a matter for government.
Senator FARRELL: Can you answer the question, Minister: is the government intending to seek to reverse that decision?
Senator Ronaldson: As you know, these—
Senator FARRELL: It is a straightforward enough question, Minister. We do not want some long, complicated answer; it is getting very late. Give me a straight answer: yes or no. That would be very helpful at this point in the evening.
Senator Ronaldson: You can say, 'It is just a yes or no answer.' You may not be aware—and clearly you are not aware—that this bonus was linked to the Minerals Resource Rent Tax Repeal and Other Measures Bill.
Senator FARRELL: That is correct. I am aware of that.
Senator Ronaldson: From my recollection, that bill did not pass the Senate.
Senator FARRELL: No, it did not. What I am asking, given that the—
Senator Ronaldson: That was the only way that was going to be addressed. It was not going to be done by way of legislation, as you know; it was to be done by way of regulation. As you know, the regulation was defeated in the Senate and so the bonus will be paid in September. It is a purely hypothetical question to the extent that the minerals resource rent tax repeal bill did not go through. This is tied to that, so that is the end of the matter, as far as I can see.
Senator FARRELL: There have been some reports in the media that the government is discussing with Clive Palmer continuing this benefit in exchange for support for other things. Can you confirm that those discussions have taken place.
Senator Ronaldson: My advice is you should always be very, very careful about what you read in the media—
Senator FARRELL: I am not passing judgement on it; I am just asking the question.
Senator Ronaldson: Was that in a newspaper? I am unaware of that. Have you got the article there so I can have a look at it?
Senator FARRELL: I can find it for you.
Senator Ronaldson: Perhaps you could table that. It is not that I disbelieve you but, under the ordinary protocols, if press reports are quoted we always get a copy.
Senator FARRELL: It was in the Australian Financial Review of 23 April. I will circulate it.
Senator Ronaldson: Thank you.
Senator FARRELL: I will move on to another topic—the military superannuation establishment accumulation arrangements. Mr Lewis, can you outline the plans for the establishment of a new superannuation system for new members of the ADF from 1 July 2015—
Mr Lewis : That is not a matter for this portfolio.
Senator FARRELL: So you have had no discussions with—
Senator Ronaldson: This is a Defence matter. These questions can be asked of Defence.
Senator FARRELL: But has there been no discussion with—
Mr Lewis : I have had no involvement whatsoever.
Senator FARRELL: Can I ask some questions about the enhanced compliance program, Mr Lewis?
Mr Lewis : Certainly.
Senator FARRELL: It has been stated that the government will achieve savings of $42.1 million over four years by boosting the yearly number of enhanced compliance programs.
Senator Ronaldson: Sorry to interrupt, we have discussed this at some length. Senator Wright asked questions—
Senator FARRELL: I have a different question regarding it; you may have answered this question already. What percentage or number of veterans will be moved off the benefit? Do you know that figure?
Ms Foreman : I do not have a figure for the number that will be moved off. I do have a figure for the number that will have a reduced payment.
Mr Lewis : Some will have a reduced payment, some will be unchanged and some will actually have an increased payment because they have been short-changed because of changes to their circumstances under the income or assets test.
Senator FARRELL: But some will be moved off.
Ms Foreman : A small number. I will take, on notice, the actual number.
Senator Ronaldson: That would only occur if there had been a change in their circumstances which had not been communicated to the department. The reason for these reviews is to ensure a compliance. Those in receipt of these benefits have an obligation to advise the department of any change of circumstances. Sometimes when the compliance review is done there has been no change. On some occasions when these compliance reviews are done someone's assets and income was reduced and that means they are entitled to a larger amount. Sometimes those compliance reviews show that assets and income levels have increased and that might lead to a reduction. I think as Ms Foreman said to Senator Wright—I do not know if you were here or not earlier on—the compliance includes people who are at the upper limits of the income and asset limits. Ms Foreman, you might like to quickly go through the evidence that you gave to Senator Wright in relation to this matter.
Ms Foreman : With these reviews we will be focusing on the customers, or clients, who are at the high-risk end, as the minister has mentioned. They are the people who are close to the income and asset thresholds and who have experienced changes in circumstances.
Senator FARRELL: I have got some questions about the seniors health card as it relates to untaxed superannuation. Can somebody give me some information about that? How will the inclusion of the military and untaxed superannuation in the assessment of income from January 2015 affect an applicant's eligibility for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card?
Ms Foreman : Can I confirm that you are referring to the inclusion of untaxed superannuation income in the eligibility assessment for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card?
Senator FARRELL: Exactly, yes.
Ms Foreman : Can you ask me your question again?
Senator FARRELL: Can you tell us how that will work and how it will affect the applicants' eligibility for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card?
Ms Foreman : We will be deeming untaxed superannuation. We will be including that amount in the income test for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. I do need to mention that there is some grandparenting occurring with that one.
Senator FARRELL: Grandfathering, you mean.
Ms Foreman : Yes. Some call it grandparenting, but grandfathering, yes. All existing superannuation accounts—
Senator FARRELL: It is a modern word.
Senator Ronaldson: I think we agree on something.
Ms Foreman : I am sorry.
Senator FARRELL: Is the department going to change its—
Ms Foreman : It is inclusive language. For Commonwealth seniors health cardholders, their existing superannuation accounts will be excluded from this measure. It will only be customers who apply for the card after 1 January 2015 or existing customers who open new accounts or change their accounts who will be affected by this measure.
Senator Ronaldson: In the 2013-14 budget there were some changes made, and this measure will align the treatment of account based income streams with those introduced in the 2013-14 budget for income support recipients.
Senator FARRELL: Thank you for that information, Minister. Obviously, there is a cut-off point where some people will fall this side of it and some people will fall the other side of it. Can you give us some examples of what the effect of either falling this side or that side of it might be?
Ms Foreman : This measure also needs to be read with the measure where the government is going to be indexing the Commonwealth seniors' income test. There is only an income test for this card. At the moment, the limit is $50,000. If you are single and your income goes over $50,000, you are not eligible for a Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. If it is under $50,000, you will be eligible. So if you have deemed income, it will add to your income that is assessable for the income threshold. Is that clear?
Senator FARRELL: Yes. Everything you have said tonight has been very clear, Ms Foreman. This measure saves about $20.9 million—
Mr Lewis : In the veterans affairs department, it looks like it is about $0.1 million for each year of the forward estimates.
Ms Foreman : It is $0.3 million over the forward estimates, because of the grandfathering arrangement.
Senator FARRELL: Will the untaxed superannuation include income from the DFRDB and the MSBS in that eligibility assessment?
Ms Foreman : I think it will, but can I take that on notice, please.
Senator FARRELL: Okay.
Ms Foreman : I want to just check that.
Senator FARRELL: What is your reservation?
Ms Foreman : I have not thought that through, but it does apply to all superannuation account based income streams. I think it does, but I just want to take it on notice to confirm.
Mr Lewis : A little excess caution by Ms Foreman. We will make sure we get it right, Senator.
Senator FARRELL: I am very happy for you to do that. You have been so thorough on everything else, I just thought there had to be some reason why you had your reservation on this occasion, so I thought I would ask.
Senator Ronaldson: My understanding is that this may impact on 26 clients in the 2014-15 financial year. That figure is reflected in the very small portfolio savings for veterans affairs. I would not want it to be thought that we are talking about hundreds or thousands of people.
Senator FARRELL: I appreciate that clarification, Minister. I have a question regarding the resetting of the assets test deeming rate thresholds. Can you tell us how much the government will save by resetting the assets test deeming rate thresholds for the Department of Veterans' Affairs pension recipients?
Ms Foreman : The resetting of the asset test deeming rate thresholds will provide a save of $4.7 million in 2017-18 in the DVA portfolio.
Senator FARRELL: What will the new deeming rate be?
Ms Foreman : The deeming rate will not change—it is either two per cent or 3.5 per cent—but the thresholds will change. They will now become $30,000 for a single person and $50,000 for a couple combined. That takes effect on 1 July 2017.
Senator FARRELL: Will this measure affect those with a part pension with a small amount of assets?
Ms Foreman : It will affect people on the part pension rate, yes.
Senator WRIGHT: This is outcome 2—is that right? Am I in the right spot? Okay, so I would like to ask some questions around services the department provides to former attendees of Defence Force training facilities who have completed their training but did not actually go on to serve in the ADF. I am interested in what mental health services, including the VVCS, are available to people who would fit within that criteria.
Mr Carmody : I will get Mr Penniall to come forward. In the meantime, just to make sure it clear, you are referring to people who entered the ADF for training but did not complete their training?
Senator WRIGHT: There are probably two examples there. There are those who did complete their training but did not go on to serve, so ended up leaving before they actually served, and then those who commenced training but did not complete their training.
Senator Ronaldson: Senator, Mr Penniall is at the table; could you just give him a very brief overview of your question?
Senator WRIGHT: That is fine. I was waiting to see who—but you did not know who would be needed here until you knew what my question was of course. This is probably a small sample of people, but some of these have come to my attention. It may be someone who has trained to become a member of the ADF but has not actually gone on to serve, so they may have completed their training, something may have occurred during their training and they have not actually served. I am interested to know what services the department provides, particularly in relation to mental health services; to what extent would the VVCS be able to assist someone like that? That is the first person I am talking about. The second is someone who may have commenced training, an incident may have occurred during their training, they do not ultimately go on to serve in the ADF, so what services are available to them—again specifically in relation to mental health.
Mr Penniall : Those who might undertake some training but not have operational service or not continue in the ADF would not generally be eligible for VVCS. If such a person came to us seeking some support, we would not turn them away; we would provide them with some initial support, maybe some assessment, and then probably a referral to a more appropriate service. Under the broadening of eligibility, in relation to your second point there, people who have been involved in serious training accidents, which would include in their training, would therefore be eligible from 1 July 2014.
Senator WRIGHT: That would include people who do not ultimately complete their training and do not go on to serve, to be employed?
Mr Penniall : The expansion of eligibility includes those who have been medically discharged from the Defence Force. If a member of the ADF is undertaking training and is medically discharged, or were involved in a serious training accident, then they would become eligible under the new eligibility arrangements from 1 July, yes.
Senator WRIGHT: For VVCS.
Senator Ronaldson: Senator, I think they are probably serving in the wider context, unless I am wrong. If they are training—
Senator WRIGHT: It may be my terminology that is wrong, but really what I am trying to ascertain is—there has certainly been evidence that has come out over recent times about people who have experienced injury and psychological injury through incidents that have occurred while they have still been training. They have not actually graduated or finished their training. In some cases they may complete their training but then not go on to actively serve—I am using the term 'serve', but ultimately 'work' I suppose is the other word you would use there. And there are also some who may not complete their—they may leave Duntroon or whatever the training facility might be without completing it, but may have a need for some assistance in the future in terms of psychological injury. I am interested in knowing what services are available for people who fall within those descriptions.
Mr Lewis : I think Mr Bayles might be able to provide a little bit more assistance to you.
Mr Bayles : If a person enlists in the ADF and goes into training, they have access to the compensation system as a member of the ADF even if they subsequently leave the ADF during the course of their training and do not complete their training. It is the act of enlistment in the ADF that gives them coverage under the compensation schemes. So they may be able to claim a condition that is a mental health condition as a result of an incident that occurred during training.
Senator WRIGHT: Thank you for that, because that does answer some of my question. But in terms of access to VVCS, my understanding is that the criteria is different—it is not really compensation that I am talking about, but it is access to services, and the criteria for establishing a condition would be somewhat easier than what would be required to establish a compensation claim. I am still not quite clear on whether someone, for instance, who had enlisted, had started their training, but did not finish their training and left—would they be able to access services with VVCS?
Mr Penniall : They would certainly be able to from 1 July, from next month.
Senator WRIGHT: So they come within those broadened criteria?
Mr Penniall : Yes, the expanded eligibility—that is correct. But as I have said, if someone approached us now saying, 'I'm in crisis; I need some help', we would of course help them.
Senator WRIGHT: Thank you for that. The other question I have is about medical specialist reviews of department clients who have been in continuous receipt of incapacity payments for 12 months or longer. I understand that this is a budget measure that is expected to achieve savings of about $12.7 million.
Mr Lewis : Is there a question?
Senator WRIGHT: The question is will these reviews occur every 12 months or on a rolling basis? How will the system work?
Ms Foreman : We will be conducting 500 reviews over the next 2½ years, starting on 1 July 2014.
Senator WRIGHT: How will they be selected? It sounds like that would be somewhat random or that not everybody will be reviewed, so what will the process be?
Ms Foreman : We will be focusing on clients who have a single condition—
Senator WRIGHT: A single?
Ms Foreman : a single condition, not a multiple condition—where they have been receiving incapacity payments for more than 12 months.
Senator WRIGHT: And is that 500 clients or will there be—where does that number come from? Is that what is feasible or is that the number of clients who fall within that description?
Ms Foreman : Yes, that is our estimated number of clients falling in—
Senator WRIGHT: That is how many you think there are who fit that?
Ms Foreman : That is right.
Senator WRIGHT: How will this apply to those who have been found to be permanently incapacitated? Will it apply to people like that?
Mr Harrigan : This budget measure will not apply to individuals receiving permanent impairment payments. We are merely conducting these reviews to ensure that those receiving incapacity payments from the department, that their service-related injury continues to affect their ability to work. The focus for the department continues to be rehabilitation and rehabilitating individuals back to a condition that might enable them to work, which is why the focus of these reviews is on those with a single condition.
Senator WRIGHT: Is the rationale to try to identify people who may no longer really be incapacitated or to identify people who may benefit from rehabilitation, or both? What is the thinking behind it?
Mr Harrigan : It is both. We know there are individuals who are not able to work because of their condition, and we therefore provide them with assistance. But we also know that individuals who are affected by their service condition do reach a point in their life where they are then able to re-engage in meaningful employment, and our rehabilitation programs can assist them with that.
Senator WRIGHT: Is this $12.7 million saving assessed or estimated on the basis of the savings that may be achieved by having people no longer receiving that support? Has it taken into account the additional costs of further rehabilitation or other services that will be provided to some people?
Mr Harrigan : The budget costing takes into account an estimated expectation that a small percentage of those that we review will, through a rehabilitation program, be fit to resume their work. Therefore, the savings associated with the budget measure relate to the department no longer needing either to pay an individual incapacity payments or to pay an individual the level of payment that they are on. As a result of these reviews they may receive a payment less than what they are on now, depending on the level of their incapacity.
Senator WRIGHT: I understand that. I am wondering whether it is a net saving. In that figure is there any amount that has been taken into account in identifying someone who, with some additional rehabilitation or medical assistance, may end up being able to reduce the level of support they receive, which may potentially be a cost, initially. Is it a net figure or is it the savings that are anticipated by the number of people who will not be eligible for what they were receiving, or for any payment at all?
Mr Harrigan : The savings in the budget measure relate to the incapacity payments. Any additional cost associated with rehabilitation is captured by our ongoing program budget, so that is not accounted for in this budget estimate.
Senator WRIGHT: Yet conceivably there may be more people who need to attend those programs or to receive additional services if, as you say, the rationale is to try to put some work into getting people rehabilitated rather than just finding people who are not entitled to their payments. That has not been factored in?
Mr Harrigan : In our forward estimates, particularly in our rehabilitation programs under the SRCA and the MRCA, we always allow for an increase in the populations expected to benefit from rehabilitation. That is only natural, given that there is an increasing number of clients who are covered by, particularly, the MRCA. We are comfortable that our existing program forward estimates would take account of and capture the cost of any rehabilitation for an individual who might be found suitable for rehabilitation if they are not already on a rehabilitation plan coming out of one of these reviews.
Senator WRIGHT: I certainly commend it if it is indeed going to assist people to get back to participating and having meaningful work. It is a good thing. But obviously that does require an investment in some cases, and that is what I am asking about. How will veterans who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions, who may find regular reviews invasive or debilitating, be accommodated? I am thinking about accounts I have heard from partners of veterans who tell me how it is often quite difficult, particularly with veterans who might have serious PTSD, to get them along to a doctor—even to be able to fulfil the criteria to get a carers allowance or carer payment or something like that. How will that be managed? It is not always an easy thing to enable and assist someone to undergo those reviews.
Ms Foreman : We will require people to have a current report from their treating specialist. For people who have mental-health conditions, if their treating specialist is a psychiatrist, we would get a report from their psychiatrist.
Senator WRIGHT: Is it something that would be reviewed every year? Is it at 12-monthly program?
Ms Foreman : At this stage it is 500 reviews over 2½ years. But for people on this payment we do require regular reports to ensure that they are on the correct rate of payment.
Senator WRIGHT: You do currently, or you will under this proposal?
Ms Foreman : We are doing this for all customers who have been on it for over 12 months with a single condition, but for customers on incapacity payments we do undertake reviews and get up-to-date material to ensure that they are receiving their correct level of payment.
Senator WRIGHT: I am still trying to get a sense though—500 over 2½ years does not necessarily mean anything to me. Is it likely to end up being something like a regular 12-monthly review?
Mr Harrigan : These reviews are specific in that they require a specialist report. We describe them as a review because they would be more thorough than we might ordinarily do for a review on an individual on an incapacity payment. For instance, it might be appropriate, at the moment, for an assessment of an individual, for the individual to provide a medical certificate from their general practitioner as evidence that they are still incapable of work. These reviews go one step further in that they require a specialist report. An individual may have one of those to hand and can submit that. They are also, as Ms Foreman mentioned, targeted at those who have a single condition and have been on incapacity payments for over 12 months.
Senator WRIGHT: Will there be any protections in place to minimise the impost on veterans or their carers, like additional travel expenses and so on? If someone is living in the country, for instance, and needs to travel to the city to get a specialist medical review, is there any assistance there?
Mr Harrigan : With each of the reviews, we need to consider the circumstances of the individual who is being subjected to the review. That is why we allow individuals to submit a report that they may already have to hand rather than insist they attend a specialist review to obtain that report.
Senator WRIGHT: But if it is a specialist medical review which, as you said, is more vigorous than the usual reviews, it may well require someone who is in a country area, for instance, to travel to the city. As we know, there are not that many medical specialists in country areas. Will there be any protection against the costs that may be incurred? It may even mean an overnight stay somewhere to do that, with a carer as well.
Mr Harrigan : Not as a result of this budget measure. I think what you have outlined there and described is a circumstance that many veterans face, outside the scope of this review, in accessing treatment on a day-to-day basis, whether it be a specialist or a general practitioner.
Senator WRIGHT: So there is nothing that would assist someone in that position.
Mr Harrigan : No, not that is being provided for in this budget measure.
Ms Foreman : I think we understand the question you are asking. I will take that on notice and get back to you. I need to confer with some of my colleagues about that.
Senator XENOPHON: Minister, I was inspired by your comments in Hansard during estimates on 19 October 2011 and 15 February 2012, on the issue of British Commonwealth Occupation Force veterans, in terms of their appropriate recognition. At one stage you read out part of the ADF submission supporting recognition of these veterans' service in Japan. Can you advise what the government's position is on the recognition of BCOF veterans for full active-service repatriation benefits?
Senator Ronaldson: The department can assist with that at the moment, and I am happy to add to that.
Mr Lewis : Just so we can be clear about the question, your question is whether they have full access to repatriation benefits—is that what I heard?
Senator XENOPHON: Yes.
Mr Harrigan : BCOF veterans have access to a wide range of benefits under the Veterans' Entitlement Act. They, by virtue of their service, have operational service which allows them to access the disability pension for injuries or illness associated with their service. Depending on the level of disability pension that they are eligible for and the extent of their injuries, they may then become entitled to a repatriation health gold card.
Senator XENOPHON: But not automatically.
Mr Lewis : No.
Senator XENOPHON: Unlike others who have served in warlike activities—is that right?
Mr Lewis : That is right—unlike those with qualifying service or warlike service.
Senator XENOPHON: There is previous Hansard on this. I understand from a 97-year-old constituent of mine whom I have met and my office is working with—he served in Japan—that there are only about 879 veterans left alive who served during the relevant period prior to June 30, 1947. A large proportion of his former colleagues died from cancer, potentially as a result of exposure to radiation during their service in Hiroshima in the clean-up in the occupation. On notice, can you tell me how many of these veterans are still alive?
Mr Lewis : We will attempt to answer that on notice, yes.
Senator XENOPHON: I note that the promises made go back to Prime Minister Chifley, who thanked this group of young men who volunteered for one of the dirtiest jobs of the war—that is, the occupation of devastated post-nuclear Japan. Will there be any consideration given to deal with this, given that they were required to clean up in Hiroshima and were exposed to significant radiation? They also had to face hazards like landmines and water mines, as I understand it. Does that not qualify as warlike?
Mr Lewis : The qualifying service as it applies to World War II at the moment requires individuals to have incurred hostile danger from the enemy, and there is a period of time for which one must have served in World War II to qualify for benefits.
Senator XENOPHON: So being subjected to, say, landmines, water mines and the radiation of a bombed Hiroshima does not qualify?
Mr Lewis : I think the question the senator is asking is in relation to the numbers. We can certainly answer the question in relation to that. I think you are also asking a question in relation to government policy in the legislation. Of course, as I think you understand, this is underpinned by legislation.
Senator XENOPHON: Can I perhaps ask the minister—and, Minister, I say this respectfully; this is something that in opposition you agitated very articulately on behalf of these BCOF veterans back in 2011 and 2012, and I presume on other occasions as well—are you able to provide the government's position either now or on notice as to whether these BCOF veterans will obtain the full repatriation benefits recognition that they have been seeking for many years?
Senator Ronaldson: Senator, I think in fairness I can say that we will follow the approach taken by the former government in relation to this.
Senator XENOPHON: That wasn't your approach in opposition though, was it?
Senator Ronaldson: Just in relation to qualifying service: I think qualifying service is ultimately determined by Defence as opposed to this department. If I am wrong, I am sure someone will correct me very quickly—and I haven't reviewed the Hansardas you will appreciate in relation to this particular issue. The issue has always been—and I think the Webster review looked at it and, from recollection, the Sutherland review looked at it as well—that, if you alter the definition of 'qualifying service', it causes enormous problems. The qualifying status underpins a range of benefits, including, in certain circumstances, the automatic gold card. I recently wrote to Max Burgess, the chair of BCOF in your home state. If you do not have a copy of that, I am very happy to provide it to you. In all honesty, I cannot see any circumstance where the longstanding decisions of various governments will be changed under this government.
Senator XENOPHON: But, Minister, back on 15 February 2012 in this estimates committee, you said:
Justice Clarke recommended, as did Brigadier Webster, that these people's service until 1 July 1947 be recognised.
Was that not your position back then?
Senator Ronaldson: If you are quoting that, I accept that is what I said then.
Senator XENOPHON: So your position in opposition is not the position the coalition now has in government?
Senator Ronaldson: Clearly, if I am saying to you what I just said, yes, that is not unreasonable. What I am saying to you is that I have received very substantial briefings in relation to this matter that were not, obviously, available to me in opposition. My view on the back of that is—and the precedent that would be created with changes to 'qualifying service' criteria—that the previous position taken by a number of governments, including the last government, will not be changing.
Senator XENOPHON: I will finish off on this and put some questions on notice in respect of Maralinga—we had a discussion in previous estimates about issues of military compensation. I know that you are trying to deal with a backlog, so I will put those on notice.
Senator Ronaldson: That is the claims processing?
Senator XENOPHON: Yes, I will put that on notice.
Senator Ronaldson: You will get some of that from Hansard. It was asked about earlier on and the secretary answered.
Senator XENOPHON: That might deal with it. I will look. The last issue I want to raise related to this ad that appeared immediately after World War II. It says:
The A.I.F. wants recruits for overseas service. Splendid opportunity for young men between 18 and 40. Here is an opportunity for young men to gain overseas experience! The A.I.F is calling for volunteers to serve in Australia and in Japan. If you are a British subject, you are eligible to join this famous fighting force. Recruits will be accepted for two years' service and will be eligible for the benefits available to members of the wartime A.I.F.
Then it refers to those benefits—allowances, concessions, rehabilitation benefits and so on. They were kind of ripped off, weren't they, Minister? I am not suggesting you were responsible for the ad from 1945. I do not think you were around then.
Senator Ronaldson: I will let Mr Carmody comment on that.
Senator XENOPHON: I seek to table this, with the leave of the committee.
CHAIR: That is fine.
Mr Carmody : If I am correct, there is a difference between peacetime and overseas service and service in a theatre of war. In this case, the BCOF members were serving on overseas service, as the advertisement suggests, but they were not serving in a theatre of war—because the war had ceased.
Senator XENOPHON: But they were told they would get all these full benefits.
Mr Carmody : For serving overseas, they are entitled to repatriation benefits. There are a lot of benefits they are entitled to. But they are not entitled to the same benefits as those who have served in a theatre of war.
Senator XENOPHON: I have tabled the ad. I do not think the ACCC was around then either—from the perspective of false and misleading conduct.
Mr Carmody : They are the differences, I think—that is what I am endeavouring to outline.
Senator Ronaldson: Senator, on the back of some advice I have just received from one of my staff members, I will need to review your interpretation of my questioning in relation to this matter. I know you would not do it deliberately, but I just have some concerns that there might have been some misrepresentation so I will—
Senator XENOPHON: Minister, I would never want to misrepresent you, you know that.
Senator Ronaldson: I appreciate that you have been a passionate supporter of these men for some time. I am advised that the line of questioning that I have conducted in relation to these matters was on the basis of why the former government, when they had the Webster report, then went and got another review, so I will need to have a look at—
Senator XENOPHON: The understanding, interpretation or imputation that I drew from that was that you were critical of the former government for these men not receiving further benefits. If I misinterpreted your line of questioning, obviously I withdraw that, but I think that was a reasonable interpretation that could have been drawn from that.
Senator Ronaldson: I accept your comment. I think it is not a reasonable interpretation. If I think it is any different to that then I will clearly pick the phone up and talk to you about it. I think that is an unintentional misrepresentation of my line of questioning on the back of an interpretation of that line of questioning, if that makes any sense whatsoever.
Senator XENOPHON: Sure, and I am very happy to sit down and discuss it with you, Minister. Thank you. I will put those other questions on notice.
Senator WRIGHT: I have a couple of quick questions. One is about veterans who have had to march without medals because of significantly increased waiting times for replacement medals. I had a constituent who needed replacement medals in time for Anzac Day this year—
Senator Ronaldson: Senator, I hate to interrupt, but this is actually a Defence issue.
Senator WRIGHT: Okay. I will put that on notice. The other question goes to Anzac commercialisation. I understand that since the 1920s permission from the DVA has been required in order to use the term 'Anzac'. ABC 7.30 reported this year that the enforcement has been less than stringent leading to the term being used to promote products as diverse as cosmetic surgery. The department apparently advised Triple J's current affairs program that there are about a dozen companies that are permitted to use 'Anzac' for commercial purposes. Is that right?
Major Gen. Chalmers : That is correct. There are some companies who have permission to use the word 'Anzac' for commercial purposes. From the top of my head, mainly they are biscuit manufacturers who manufacture Anzac biscuits.
Senator WRIGHT: To save time, could you provide those on notice, please.
Major Gen. Chalmers : Sure, but I want to put on the record that I would contest the assertion that we do not police the regulations regarding the use of the word 'Anzac'. We carefully guard that legislation—
Senator WRIGHT: I hear that. I used the term 'less than stringent', but you obviously disagree with that description as well.
Senator Ronaldson: I personally review every brief from the department in relation to the use of this word. I deliberately have not delegated that, as I think I was probably entitled to do. I deliberately have not done that because I think this is the most significant issue that faces us in relation to the inappropriate use of 'Anzac'. I was incensed—
Senator WRIGHT: I am sorry, I am going to cut you short. I beg your pardon, Minister, but I am on borrowed time. I want to know what the factors are that are considered in terms of whether it is appropriate. Again, you can answer that on notice.
Senator Ronaldson: I will take that on notice, but I do need to say that I was absolutely incensed about this prize package, including tickets to the AFL Anzac Day and a free consultation for breast augmentation surgery. We moved very quickly to address that issue. You know exactly the one I am talking about. It was absolutely outrageous.
Senator WRIGHT: It was pretty astounding.
Senator Ronaldson: I can assure you that I am not going to tolerate that sort of behaviour from anyone in the Centenary of Anzac period. I was appalled, you were appalled and I think most Australians were appalled.
CHAIR: I would like to thank Veterans' Affairs and the minister for appearing. We now call the Australian War Memorial.