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STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE
Department of Veterans’ Affairs
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STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE
Department of Defence
Department of Veterans’ Affairs
Senator IAN MACDONALD
Major Gen. Stevens
Lt Gen. Hurley
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Content WindowSTANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE - 14/02/2007 - Department of Veterans’ Affairs
CHAIR —We now move to consideration and particulars of proposed additional expenditure for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. I welcome the secretary, Mr Mark Sullivan, and officers of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The committee will begin with the portfolio overview and then consider the outcomes. When written questions on notice are received, the chair will state for the record the name of the senator who submitted the question. The questions will be forwarded to the department for answer. I remind senators to provide their written questions on notice to the secretary promptly and by 5 pm this Friday at the latest. The committee has resolved that Thursday, 29 March 2007 is the return date for answers to questions taken on notice at these hearings.
Please note that under standing order 26 the committee must take all evidence in public session. This includes answers to questions on notice. Witnesses are reminded that the evidence given to the committee is protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. The giving of false or misleading evidence to the committee may constitute a contempt of the Senate.
The Senate by resolution in 1999 endorsed the following test of relevance of questions at estimates hearings:
Any questions going to the operations or financial positions of the departments and agencies which are seeking funds in the estimates are relevant questions for the purpose of estimates hearings.
The Senate has resolved that there are no areas in connection with the expenditure of public funds where any person has a discretion to withhold details or explanations from the parliament or its committees unless the parliament has expressly provided otherwise.
An officer of a department of the Commonwealth or of a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy. He or she shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground upon which the objection is taken and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer having regard to the ground which is claimed. Any claim that it would be contrary to public interest to answer a question must be made by the minister and should be accompanied by a statement setting out the basis of the claim.
Mr Sullivan, do you have an opening statement or any matters you want to raise with the committee before we go to questions?
Mr Sullivan —No, thank you.
CHAIR —Senator Macdonald, you have some questions on a matter and Senator Hurley has kindly agreed that you can go first, given that you only have some short matters on war memorials.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is under outcome 3. Is it okay to move to that?
CHAIR —I think it is. Mr Sullivan, we will deal with outcome 3. Senator Macdonald has some short questions, and I have suggested it might be best if we get rid of those.
Mr Sullivan —That is fine.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Can I clarify that the department is generally responsible for and in charge of war memorials both in Australia and overseas?
Mr Sullivan —Yes, we are responsible for official Australian war memorials in Australia and overseas. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible for war graves overseas, but we are on the board of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and we are responsible for official commemorations in Australia.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Does the War Graves Commission appear before Senate estimates committees?
Mr Sullivan —No. I am not sure how you would describe it, but the War Graves Commission is a British commission, the board of which is made up of Commonwealth countries. They are headquartered outside of London.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Who is the Australian—
Mr Sullivan —The Office of Australian War Graves is headed by the Director of War Graves, Major General Paul Stevens (retired).
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is the memorial at Hyde Park your responsibility?
Mr Sullivan —That is Australian, yes.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —I have written to the minister and I am not sure whether my letter has got to the department yet, but could you tell me about the water system at the Hyde Park memorial?
Mr Sullivan —The memorial, as you would know, is basically a stone memorial with lighting and water. The water circulates through the memorial. We have had some problems with the water circulating through the memorial. The other aspect of the water is that, due to its volume, we turn the water side of the memorial off during the very cold months of winter to avoid the water freezing, which can damage the memorial.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —I have seen the memorial at least four and perhaps five times in the last several years since it has been opened and never once have I seen water flowing over it. My times of being there have been quite spaced, both in summer and in winter.
Mr Sullivan —I will ask Major General Stevens to talk about it, but we did have a problem in the early stages of the memorial with water dispersal, particularly with the engineering behind the scenes, and particularly its interaction with the electrical supply. That caused us to turn the water supply off for some time while we made both electrical and plumbing alterations to the memorial.
We have also been doing some work on the gold lettering on the memorial because we are seeing some degradation of that lettering a bit more quickly than we thought. Some thought it had to do with the composition of the water. We are comfortable now that it is not the water. We have overcome the plumbing issues and the electrical issues, and the water will be turned on permanently, I believe, at the conclusion of winter. Major General Stevens may correct me on that.
Major Gen. Stevens —I think the secretary has it right: in the past, we did have various problems with the memorial and the water was turned off at various times in order to solve them. At the moment we are turning the water off over winter. It could probably operate for longer than we have it operating at present—it has cut-off switches if it does freeze. But we do turn it off, which allows us to service the water system and then give it a good check before we turn it back on again after that time. We are still tracing one remaining leak in the memorial. The chap who made the installation is going over in early March to do that, and it is better that the water has been off for a while before he goes there so he can find it.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —This was opened in November 2003, as I recall.
Major Gen. Stevens —At the end of 2003, yes.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —What was the approximate cost of the whole edifice?
Major Gen. Stevens —About $9 million, I think.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —After a bit over three years we still have not been able to get it right—after spending a total of $9 million?
Major Gen. Stevens —We still have these periodic problems that we have to solve, yes. That has been our experience.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —I was there in June or July, leading a delegation, and we could not get near the memorial—that is a slight exaggeration—because it was all cordoned off for the major repair and maintenance work going on then. I popped in two or three weeks ago when I was passing through London, thinking that everything would have been fixed after that last massive maintenance and repair outfit, and the water is still not working. Then I am told it is because of London winters, when the pipes might freeze—as the secretary has said and as you have indicated—yet every other water feature in London, some quite ancient—
Mr Sullivan —I do not think that is true. Most water features in London are turned off. A lot of them are.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Not the ones I saw. If you want to see my holiday snaps, I can show you a few in Trafalgar Square, where the water is running without any major problems.
Mr Sullivan —As General Stevens said, I think we have fixed the major problems. The water has flowed on every major commemorative event, so each Anzac Day and each Remembrance Day the water flows. It was certainly a design parameter that the water could be turned off during the wintertime. If we get it all clear, I think we can review whether or not we will leave it on in wintertime.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Are you slightly perturbed that, after 3½ years and obviously a lot of money, we still do not have what would seem to me to be a fairly simple engineering program actually working?
Mr Sullivan —I am perturbed by it. It has caused General Stevens and me to basically revisit the entire governance of how we manage memorial constructions and designs. On design, one of the lessons I think we both concur on is that there is a lot to be said for the old-fashioned stable stone memorial. When you start mixing water, electricity and stone you start inviting problems. It is clear that is has been in our domain to fix it, and we have proceeded to fix it.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —You must have engaged professional engineers at the beginning, and I am quite sure you would have paid them a lot of money. Do they accept any responsibility for the fact that it does not work? Are they going back to fix it or have we just shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘Okay, you made a mistake. We’ll pick up the bill’?
Mr Sullivan —There are some aspects of it for which they have accepted responsibility and there are some aspects of it where it is very difficult to pin down the responsibility.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Well, it does not work. With engineers and scientists we can land people on the moon and yet we cannot get a memorial to flow water.
Mr Sullivan —We have a memorial ready to flow water.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —I hope I live long enough to see it. I have tried a number of times—
Mr Sullivan —In my answers, I am not attempting to evade the issue that we have had a problem with the London memorial. I think in the estimates before last we had quite a long question-and-answer session about it and that is where we did express some concern about the original commissioning and the definition of responsibilities between design, construction and maintenance. At one level, where you do not have that proper and good definition, the owner of the memorial is left with the problem. There is an element of the fact that we have been left with the problem and have fixed it. The time it has taken to fix it has been worrying, but I am confident that the next time you are in London—and the next time you come to estimates, you will remind me—you will see the water flowing at the London memorial.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —I will certainly give credit where credit is due if that occurs. I will not comment on the design. Design is, I guess, in the eye of the beholder. It is not a design that I would have picked as a major recognition of Australia’s efforts over there, but I guess everyone has a view on that. I move on to quickly talk about the repair of memorials. Several years ago, when I was in France, Le Hamel had orange tape all around it because it was not only falling into disrepair but it was doing so dangerously. Has that been repaired? What are we doing with that?
Mr Sullivan —No. In the last budget the government announced a measure to provide funding to actually replace the memorial at Le Hamel. We are in the process of implementing that budget decision. We are at the point of appointing a project manager. Once the project manager is appointed we will go to detailed design work and construction work with a view that Le Hamel will be a new memorial, we would hope by the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Hamel, in July next year.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Will the design and engineering drawings be on public display before the final—
Mr Sullivan —There will be significant consultation about what we are doing.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —I know there is a lot of concern about the existing one. It is not that old, is it?
Mr Sullivan —No.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —And yet it is a complete shambles. Again, someone—architects, engineers, designers or constructors—must have a fair share of responsibility for the mess that it is in.
Mr Sullivan —Again, there were issues between design, implementation and construction which we now need to remedy. Having to remedy those issues, we have taken to, I guess, redefine the purpose or check the purpose of the memorial itself at Le Hamel and ensure that whatever is constructed there reflects the deeds of Monash and his men in what was probably the first significant Allied victory of the Western Front.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Indeed. I understand that most other countries now have fairly accessible and very useful interpretive centres in the World War I battlefields area. That is being done for all sorts of reasons—part of which, of course, is the commemoration of the country’s involvement in those particular battles and in that battlefield generally. But, as well as that, they have the role of explaining Australia’s involvement to Europeans, who have long forgotten—if they ever knew—and building Australia’s reputation for what it did to help save France and other parts of Europe 50 and almost 100 years ago. There is a lot of good economic sense in it, as well as the commemoration of the work of our troops. Is Australia looking at something like that?
Mr Sullivan —Yes. I was reading something today which said that Australia has more individual memorials for the Western Front than any other country but, if you like, our great interpretive centre of the Western Front is the War Memorial in Canberra.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —It does not help teach the European youth what our involvement was.
Mr Sullivan —Last budget there was a measure for us to conduct a feasibility study of our building an interpretive centre in France, and we have progressed that feasibility study and it will be in the upcoming budget for government to determine its next step.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —So you have a concept, a design, a positioning, a plan of action for it?
Mr Sullivan —We have some options for government to consider and we will be putting to government some views as to the feasibility study of an interpretive centre and some options as to where to put it. In terms of options of design, we are really only talking about scale, not detailed design. The next step, if government wish to pursue it, would be to go through what are generally detailed and protracted negotiations in the country in which you wish to build and detailed design work.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —I gather it is inappropriate for me to ask you—and if I did you would not tell me—what conclusions you have come to before the time you put it to government for government’s direction on where to go. Is that right?
Mr Sullivan —That is right.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Is it fair of me to ask you what are the options for placement of the interpretive centre?
Mr Sullivan —I think—without saying exactly—that they are reasonably obvious. There are the scenes of great battles like Fromelles or the site of the Australian National Memorial in France at Villers-Bretonneux, and I guess you could imagine other places. There is no option we are considering which would be seen as a left-field option. It would be the site of major Australian exploits in battle, which of course includes all of those sites; one of those sites is Villers-Bretonneux, which is the site of Australia’s national memorial on the Western Front.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Villers-Bretonneux is very impressive, but constituents who follow these things a little more closely than I do—and I have been through that area a few times—suggest to me that, while Villers-Bretonneux is a fabulous and very moving recognition of Australia’s involvement, it is off the beaten track of interpretive centres, and apparently there is now quite a significant tourist trade in going from interpretive centre to interpretive centre. The suggestion made to me is that if it is at Villers-Bretonneux, it will be down in the southern pocket—or is it up in the northern pocket? It will certainly be in a pocket, away from the bulk of other nations, and therefore may miss out on the organised tourist traffic going through every other interpretive centre.
Mr Sullivan —I think you are getting into exactly the discussion of options that it would be remiss of us not to put to government. We cover issues of national significance, such as the fact that we would not want to see Villers-Bretonneux diminished as a national memorial by having something somewhere else. We cover the fact that there are interpretive centres of other countries in certain places and there are pros and cons as to whether you join them or whether you set yourself apart from them.
We look at the logistics of travel from Paris. Many Australians probably lack the knowledge that you can get to the Western Front and back in a day trip from Paris, and particularly to certain parts of the Western Front. We have examined all those issues. It will not be for me or for Paul Stevens to say. It will be for government to answer the first critical question of whether we wish to proceed with one and the secondary questions as to where and what form of capital commitment we are willing to make and to set us off on our job.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —I have been convinced that the site should be near Pozieres. If I want to progress that, you are suggesting that I should make my submissions to the Prime Minister?
Mr Sullivan —You are well positioned to progress that.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Not through you, though?
Mr Sullivan —We can pass on anyone’s views. We have been approached by many with their views and we pass those on. So it is any way that you would like to do it.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Stop me if I am on dangerous ground here, but when would you hope to get a decision from government? I am trying to look at the timetable on that.
Mr Sullivan —The budget processes are well and truly on—
Senator IAN MACDONALD —So it is part of the budget process?
Mr Sullivan —Yes. We were asked in last year’s budget to come back this year with our feasibility study for government to consider what to do next.
Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you very much.
Senator HURLEY —I will go back to Le Hamel for a little while. Before the decision was made to redo the memorial, did the department talk to the original designer about any alternatives?
Major Gen. Stevens —I do not know that we did, but we have subsequently done so.
Senator HURLEY —Did he make any recommendations?
Major Gen. Stevens —He is obviously keen to see if we can keep the current design, but he understands that if the current design cannot be kept we might be looking for something different.
Mr Sullivan —The consultation that we did before the budget announcement was with the family of General Monash. Before that, we did some consultation with the Returned and Services League of Australia.
Senator HURLEY —I would also like to ask some questions about Anzac Cove. I have some follow-up questions. We have been taking advice about this. What is the current status of the roads and car park at Anzac Cove and along the coastal strip—
Mr Sullivan —It is much the same as we spoke of last time.
Senator HURLEY —I think you said that that was fair at best.
Mr Sullivan —It remains fair at best. I guess the good news is that the winter in Turkey has been mild and the reports that we have had is that further degradation has not occurred in any significant way. The Turkish authorities continue their consideration of what needs to be done. We have been offering and they have been accepting some advice. We expect that the Turkish authorities will make some announcements as to some preliminary work—
Senator HURLEY —I thought that was done last week when Orhan Kirli said that an agreement had been reached with the contractor who originally built the road to repair it ahead of 25 April.
Mr Sullivan —That has always been in place. The Turkish authorities have always guaranteed that, until they conclude the long-term repair to the road, they will ensure that temporary repairs to the road are conducted to ensure that the Anzac commemoration can occur without a problem on the road. That is what happened last year. Governor Kirli has assured us that that will be in place this year. What I am talking about is that our understanding from the Turkish authorities is that they are close to determining their position in respect of long-term repair of the road. We have an expectation that we would see such repairs occur in this dry season.
Senator HURLEY —When do you expect to hear about that?
Mr Sullivan —I think we will hear some word on that very shortly—I expect it will be prior to Anzac Day.
Senator HURLEY —Have you seen a copy of the master plan at any stage?
Mr Sullivan —Yes, the master plan is a longstanding document. I think we have provided it the committee on another occasion in both Turkish and English. All plans which will be determined by the Turkish government will be in accordance with the master plan. Those plans will have been through an independent committee for the preservation of the Gallipoli Peace Park, which is a committee of engineers, architects, historians and others established by the presidency. Any proposal, including proposals by any government agency, for works in the Anzac Peace Park must be approved by that committee. Their guiding tenet is the master plan, and they will always ensure that the plans they approve are in accordance with the master plan. So, yes, anything they do will be in accordance with the master plan.
Senator HURLEY —Will any extra excavation be required as part of that?
Mr Sullivan —No further cutting. We are strongly of the view that the slope from the road down to Anzac Cove needs to have a lesser gradient than it currently does. That will require some work, but certainly there is no need for any further cutting or excavation. If they go down the track of the repair of the culverts and the work to ensure the drainage from the hill to the beach and from the slope to the beach then some significant engineering works would be required.
Senator HURLEY —I think during the Senate inquiry into developments on the battlefield there was some discussion about the issue of human remains being uncovered. Have any plans or new guidelines been drawn up regarding this issue?
Mr Sullivan —The guidelines were reiterated as a result of that controversy. Those guidelines are certainly well in place. They are administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission office on the peninsula. The guidelines state that, first and foremost, people should not remove bones from the Gallipoli Peace Park and, secondly, they should report any remains to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Where the commission believes that something needs to be done, it will organise for removal, reinterment or whatever is required for those remains.
Again, the overarching thing here is that people need to understand that the Anzac battlefield is in respect a very large cemetery and human remains will be unearthed after every winter’s rains. We still believe there is credible evidence that human remains were uncovered in the Turkish roadworks of two years ago. Certainly, with the guidance of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and with their implementation, we have reiterated these guidelines for people. It is a very regular occurrence for people who travel to Gallipoli to come across human remains in the battlefield area.
Senator HURLEY —Thank you, Mr Sullivan. I have finished my questions in that section.
CHAIR —We will now move to outcome 1.
—Before we start general questioning, I want to confirm an answer I received to a question on notice from the last hearing regarding the Clarke review on veterans’ entitlements. Can you confirm that all recommendations from the Clarke review have now been fully considered and that those accepted under the review have now been implemented?
Mr Sullivan —If I can take that on short notice, I will answer it before the end of this evening.
Senator HURLEY —The indexation of disability pensions is ground that we have been over before. In 1979, the government reindexed many of its pensions to respond to increases in the cost of living but not to fall below a certain percentage of the average wage. What percentage of the average wage did the TPI pension represent in 1979?
Mr Sullivan —That is a question which I would have to ask for clarification on. Is it gross TPI versus gross average wage? Is it gross TPI versus disposable average wage? Average wage is taxed; TPI is not. I need to know what you are after, and I would have to take it notice.
Senator HURLEY —It is the MTAWE.
Mr Sullivan —I know. Male average weekly earnings are at a level which incurs taxation and superannuation liabilities, et cetera. TPI is tax free. Is it a comparison of a gross level of TPI, which is tax free and superannuation contribution free, to a disposable MTAWE, which is what a male average weekly earner can expect to have?
Senator HURLEY —This was a decision of the government for it not to fall below a certain percentage of that figure. It was the government’s figure.
Mr Sullivan —TPI is well above the percentage of male average weekly earnings that government decided pensions could not fall below.
Senator HURLEY —What percentage was that in 1979?
Mr Sullivan —That is where it is hard. The pensions are taxed, but most pensioners do not pay tax. TPIs are untaxed. I think the last time we had this discussion, I said that you were comparing apples with oranges. You keep asking me to compare an apple with an orange when saying, ‘What percentage of the apple is the orange?’ and I am saying it is very difficult to tell you that. I can give you the numbers of how much the TPI was at the time and how much male average weekly earnings were at the time.
Senator HURLEY —That is what I am asking, thank you.
Mr Sullivan —In 1999?
Senator HURLEY —In 1979 and also the current percentages.
Mr Sullivan —Why 1979?
Senator HURLEY —It was in 1979 that the government made the decision to reindex its pensions.
Mr Sullivan —I do not think so. In 1979, it was the whim of the government as to how much they indexed anything by. There was no automatic indexation. I will be corrected by people, but I think it was this government some time in the 1990s that decided to reindex age and other pensions to MTAWE and to ensure the 25 per cent. I will certainly respond.
Senator HURLEY —In 2004, part of the TPI pension was reindexed. Could you also tell me what its value would be if the whole pension rather than part of it had been reindexed?
Mr Sullivan —We can provide that information to you on notice.
Senator HURLEY —How many claims for disability pension have been received by the department as a result of the conflict in Iraq and Operation Catalyst?
Mr Sullivan —I will need to take that on notice. We do not necessarily have claims for disability based on a conflict, so I will need to look at what I can do. Certainly, in respect of a claim which is to do with death, it is linked clearly to a particular incident in a conflict. But, in respect of a veteran’s claim, it may be linked to all sorts of things. Would you like to know how many claims there were for any form of compensation?
Senator HURLEY —Yes.
Mr Sullivan —Do you mean twisted knees, sore legs, broken arms, fell over on the way from—
Senator HURLEY —I am specifically looking for disability pensions.
Mr Sullivan —Yes. Is that at all levels?
Senator HURLEY —Yes, I believe so—where people have made that claim.
Mr Sullivan —Any service person who injures themselves in any way which they believe is compensatable now comes through us and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme, whether it is a twisted ankle or—
Senator HURLEY —I see. Could you then list for me the general nature of the claims.
Mr Sullivan —I will see what I can do, because, again, you do not make a claim for X percentage; you make a claim and we determine it.
Senator HURLEY —Could you give as full a list as possible and then we can possibly come back on notice with some of those questions.
Mr Sullivan —I have just been advised that we can do a claim by persons who have served there. To go beyond that into what their injury was would require a file-by-file search. So maybe I will give you the aggregate data and then, if you really need more, we can have a discussion as to the resources required and whether we can narrow it down.
Senator HURLEY —Yes, thank you. That would be good. I will ask a more general question. If these claims are accepted, do they become part of the official casualty list, or does that depend on severity? How does that operate?
Mr Sullivan —No. For a compensation claim to be accepted you need to establish that a condition, disease or illness is a result of your service. Some of those may be what you would call casualties. Others are clearly not casualties but just linked to war service. The great majority of claims from World War II veterans, Korean veterans and even Vietnam veterans today which are accepted you would never contemplate going into casualty lists. Therefore it is not a direct correlation between having a compensation claim accepted and being described as a casualty.
Senator HURLEY —Would any of them under any circumstances be described as a casualty?
Mr Sullivan —Of course. Are you asking: would people appear on both lists? Of course they would. If you are damaged in the field of combat, your immediate health care is taken care of by Defence, and, if there is a compensatable issue out of it, that is dealt with by us. So if you are a casualty who has no future consequence—in other words, you heal and you are right again—you are not on our list. You might be a person who, for instance, was in a motor vehicle accident or twisted your leg on parade or did something and damaged your knee. You are probably not a casualty but you may be a compensation statistic for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. But, if you are in a field of combat and the damage is such that it would be compensatable, there is no circumstance in which you would not be on both. But they are not the same thing.
Senator HURLEY —Yes, I understand. We are still on claims and so on. On the Sea King crash on the island of Nias: have all those compensation claims been settled at this point?
Mr Sullivan —They are settled in that decisions have been made. In two instances there are appeals regarding decisions which remain outstanding. They go to dependency issues.
Senator HURLEY —And when do you expect they might be settled?
Mr Sullivan —I do not know. They are ongoing appeals and it is up to the independent appeal body now to determine them, so I should not be saying when I expect that. I expect that when they deal with them. In both cases they would have a further avenue of appeal if they were not happy with the decision of the appeal body.
Senator HURLEY —Has the department received any compensation claims in relation to the death of Private Kovco?
Mr Sullivan —The department has dealt with compensation claims in respect of the death of Private Kovco.
Senator HURLEY —So there were claims received and they are concluded?
Mr Sullivan —Yes.
Senator HURLEY —And what was the nature of the claim—not the actual detail, but—
Mr Sullivan —Clearly, in respect of Private Kovco you had a dependent wife and dependent children, and they were dealt with in accordance with the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.
Senator HURLEY —On the Black Hawk crash, what I would like to know before we get into the compensation is: do the services provided by the DVA differ for the dependants of service men or women who are declared ‘missing in action’, as opposed to ‘missing presumed dead’? Is there any distinction between those in services provided?
Mr Sullivan —It moves to a point of no distinction.
Senator HURLEY —So the services are so similar that—
Mr Sullivan —Once someone is presumed dead, it is as if they had died and been discovered, if you like.
Senator HURLEY —What about missing in action, though?
Mr Sullivan —Missing in action is a status which does not stay for too long. Basically, missing in action remains a category, as I understand it—and you really should talk to Defence about this—which applies mostly in circumstances where there may be a belief that the service person may be a prisoner of the enemy or whatever. In accidents or incidents such as this, ‘missing’ is a category where sometimes it is confirmed that they are no longer missing—they are found—and sometimes they are either presumed or determined to have died.
Senator HURLEY —But the DVA has no involvement if a person is missing in action? You are saying that is a Defence—
Mr Sullivan —We take our advice from Defence.
Senator HURLEY —So any services provided are on the advice of Defence?
Mr Sullivan —We started this conversation in respect of the Black Hawk accident on Kanimbla, so I am answering you in respect of the missing servicemen in that accident. Yes, we take our advice from Defence, and, when Defence basically conclude their search for the individual and presume that individual to have deceased, there is no difference in the fact that that individual’s body has not been recovered as opposed to—
Senator HURLEY —No, that was not the point of my question; it was whether the DVA provides services if the person is regarded as missing in action.
Mr Sullivan —Again, it is Defence you need to talk to. While they were missing they were probably still on Defence’s payroll and regarded as a service person missing.
Senator HURLEY —Has the department received any compensation claims arising from the Black Hawk crash?
Mr Sullivan —Yes, we have received compensation claims in respect of the SAS trooper who died, and we have paid some compensation claims. We have not yet received a claim in respect of the other person who died, although we do expect a claim. There have been some criticisms of the compensation arrangements under the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, including: the quantum of compensation payable; the distinction between compensation payable for someone in active service as opposed to someone who is injured or killed in a training accident or otherwise; and the time frames in which people are required to take what are very important decisions for them. The Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act has addressed each of those issues with improved levels of compensation, no distinction in respect of where a death occurs and much more liberal time frames for the dependants to make claims and decide the form of compensation they want.
Senator HURLEY —In the case of one of the deceased servicemen all the claims have been made and settled?
Mr Sullivan —No. Claims have been made and settled. We expect further benefits to be paid as appropriate. There may be more. In respect of the other death, no claim has been made yet but we expect that it will be made.
Senator HURLEY —But I presume the department has made contact with the person?
Mr Sullivan —Yes. In such incidents, Defence takes the lead. We leave it to Defence to handle the initial relationship with the family. Behind Defence, we regard these as high-profile priority cases. We assign an individual who is able to take information to the dependants—either through Defence or directly to the dependants—as required. In the case in which we have not yet had a claim, we have had contact from her representative. We are expecting that to be pursued and we see no issues.
Senator HURLEY —I would like to move on to the general area of post traumatic stress disorder claims. An article entitled ‘Surge in diggers’ disorder claims’ was printed in the Australian on 29 January this year. That article made a number of claims that I want to explore. Firstly, it stated that there had been 15,000 successful claims for PTSD out of the 60,000 Defence personnel who served in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. Is that correct?
Mr Douglas —I cannot confirm your figure. It is not a figure that sticks in my mind or one that I can immediately find a briefing on, but I would not necessarily deny it either. I would like to take on notice confirmation of a precise figure like that.
Senator HURLEY —That is fine. You may have to take this question on notice. Did you see that article?
Mr Douglas —I did.
Senator HURLEY —But you did not check it out?
Mr Sullivan —It is not a matter of checking it out. They are checking out a gross number. We can give you some material in respect of PTSD by conflict. We know that almost 50 per cent of disability pensions paid to veterans of the Vietnam conflict involved the acceptance of PTSD as a condition.
Senator HURLEY —I understand that. I am just asking about this article and whether it triggered any response within the department and whether it was checked for facts.
Mr Sullivan —No. As Mr Douglas suggested, we do not go checking newspaper articles for facts every time they appear. They write all sorts of things.
Mr Douglas —There was an issue that Mr Sullivan referred to before, which is an important distinction that is difficult to make—that is, we receive claims from individuals who may have served in more than one conflict. So our information in reporting like this is such that we have claims from a certain number of individuals who served in a particular conflict and in those claims one of the conditions we would have accepted would be PTSD or generalised anxiety disorder or bilateral sensory neural hearing loss. We cannot then say that, because we have a claim accepted in respect that individual, that claim relates to that conflict.
Senator HURLEY —These were not wild observations from a journalist. They were in response to a freedom of information request from your own department.
Mr Sullivan —In terms of accuracy, we would hope that a journalist who uses freedom of information would be accurate. If they are or are not accurate, I am not going to—
Senator HURLEY —Didn’t you provide it?
Mr Sullivan —Yes, but you are talking about what we provided as opposed to an article that was written. That does not mean the same thing. We provided factual and accurate information to the journalist.
Senator HURLEY —So when that information went out to the public, you did not bother to check whether the journalist had been factual in reporting your FOI request?
Mr Sullivan —There was a fair amount of comment at the time. I think with respect to the VEA the journalist did have a reasonable understanding of what he was doing but in respect to some of some other things he did not. I do not write to every newspaper saying, ‘Your journalist made an error of fact in his article.’
Lt Gen. Hurley —Can the committee have a copy of the FOI document?
Mr Sullivan —Of course you can. You can make an FOI request and get exactly the same material. I will shortcut that by saying that we will provide you the information and you may find out why there can be some doubt between the volumes of information provided and a four-paragraph article and whether there is an issue of accuracy.
Senator HURLEY —Whether the article was accurate was exactly what I was asking.
Mr Sullivan —I am not commenting any further. I am not saying that it is inaccurate or accurate. I am not going to provide hundreds and hundreds of documents and then determine that four paragraphs are accurate or not; it is his story. If you want some statistics on PTSD in Vietnam, I can give you some. Rather than talk about a newspaper article, I can give you some very good statistics on PTSD in Vietnam veterans.
Senator HURLEY —I would appreciate that. If I could just flag a particular area of interest: between 2004 and last year—so the recent statistics—and how many claims were accepted. I think the article said that there were 3,069 Australian military members who had served overseas. What percentage of those were PTSD and what claims were resolved?
Mr Sullivan —I can tell you that in respect of Vietnam. In 2004, 688 claims were made and 628 accepted. In 2005, 679 claims were made and 560 accepted. In 2006, 580 claims were made and 459 accepted. Of all claims made or disability pension decisions taken in respect of Vietnam, 50 per cent of them involved the acceptance of PTSD. That does not mean that they were made on the basis of PTSD; it means the acceptance of PTSD as a condition.
Senator HURLEY —Are there still personnel who were involved in World War II making successful claims for—
Mr Sullivan —There are. In 2004, 309 applications were received in respect of World War II, of which 302 were accepted. In 2005 there were 261, of which 253 were accepted. In 2006 there were 183, of which 171 were accepted. But of World War II disability pensions with PTSD, as a percentage, only 5.6 per cent involved the acceptance of PTSD.
Senator HURLEY —Is there any analysis of why that might be so?
Mr Sullivan —No.
Senator HURLEY —There is some discussion, and I think the article in the Australian that I was referring to quotes medical science. It quotes Alexander McFarlane as saying that significantly more claims would emerge because of Australian’s high tempo of military operations currently, and that has been also backed up by the national president of the RSL. Does that seem like a reasonable statement?
Mr Sullivan —No, not necessarily. I think you have got to balance that against, and again this is something for Defence, defence preparedness; the preparation of servicepeople to face the sorts of conditions which may have in another time created PTSD in respect of predeployment briefing, on-deployment briefing and postdeployment briefing; and the engagement within Defence health of psychologists and others. I think the distinction you must make between the Vietnam conflict and later conflicts is that in Vietnam I do not think there was an understanding or an awareness of the impact of the trauma of that conflict on servicepeople, which has seen a high number of claims and acceptance of claims for PTSD and acceptance by the government that anyone who was in Vietnam who displays symptoms of PTSD shall be treated through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs regardless of whether that is a compensatable matter or not. In modern deployments, I think governments—including the Australian government and through the Australian Defence Forces—have understood that probably the greatest damage that can occur to servicemen and servicewomen on deployment is psychological damage. So I think you have got to accept that, yes, there is an increased tempo and there is an involvement in events or deployments which may involve trauma, but at the same time I must say from where I sit that the preparedness of Defence in respect of the deployment and postdeployment of those servicemen and servicewomen must counter that significantly.
Senator HURLEY —Yes, in fact the minister has said that PTSD is one of his priority areas. The minister is giving that great priority. I was wondering if the department has actually deployed any staff or had any formal research or review into whether it may or may not be a problem in the future.
Mr Sullivan —Again, I think it is Defence who take the primary responsibility for—
Senator HURLEY —And yet it is the Department of Veterans’ Affairs that deals with people’s claims.
Mr Sullivan —We deal with claims. We deal with people—
Senator HURLEY —And the effects.
Mr Sullivan —and we work very closely with Defence in respect of the identification of issues with servicemen and servicewomen which may result in a claim. But in respect of deployment—and that is what we are talking about and what the McFarlane comment was about—Defence’s role and responsibility, and something they take extraordinarily seriously, is the preparation of those servicemen and servicewomen, the care of them while on deployment and, postdeployment, reintroduction from deployment back to normal military life. We are not responsible for Defence health.
Senator HURLEY —No, I understand that, but you are responsible if they do not do it well because you get the claim. I am really asking how closely you work with Defence on these issues, because you know, having dealt with veterans, the effects of PTSD, so it is in your interest to know if Defence are dealing with it efficiently.
Mr Sullivan —We particularly work with Defence in research about it. For individual service people Defence health is responsible. However, we support a number of research initiatives on PTSD, particularly through places such as the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health. We contribute over $1 million a year to their funding and they are a leading body in understanding PTSD. In the last three years, we have spent about $1½ million specifically on research programs concerning investigating PTSD.
Senator HURLEY —So there is no intention to increase that effort, given that the minister has said it is such a priority of his and that there are fears—at least in some quarters—that PTSD might be an increasing problem?
Mr Sullivan —We have increased our research effort.
Senator HURLEY —In what way?
Mr Sullivan —We are spending more on research than we have ever spent before and particularly research which is concentrated on PTSD.
Senator HURLEY —How much more? Is that over the last year, since the last budget?
Mr Sullivan —I will have to get you the break-up by years. As I have said, there is our work with Defence, particularly in respect of the concept of discharge ready transition management from services to out of the services and the potential to be a client of ours. You must remember, when my minister speaks, he speaks as the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence. So he also has a responsibility as minister for many of the initiatives that Defence are taking, both on deployment and outside of deployment. So, when he says it is a focus of his, I clearly know that, but it is across his two portfolios. There is a clear distinction and division. We are not an agency that is involved in the direct health of service people in the military.
Senator HURLEY —And that is not what I was asking.
Mr Sullivan —We concentrate on research and we talk about veterans.
Senator HURLEY —I was asking about preparedness for a possible increase in the number of veterans who have PTSD.
Mr Sullivan —I think the research work that we have done and the work that comes out of places like the institution I talked about and other places has very much informed Defence in their preparation and development of programs for their service people.
Senator HURLEY —If I can have that breakdown of the figures from veterans’ affairs that have gone on PTSD research and other areas of PTSD, I think that would answer my question, thank you.
Mr Sullivan —Dr Killer may wish to say something.
Dr Killer —We have had an ongoing dialogue with Defence for quite a number of years. We do this formally through the Defence links program. In the Defence Links program, which brings together the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, we have a joint health working group. This health working group looks at issues of common interest. It looks at the mental health problems, the physical casualties and the preparedness. While we are not involved in provision of care in any way for servicemen, we share information on cases of post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems, we discuss strategies, we work with the Department of Defence through the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs established the national centre, as it was then, for PTSD and, at a later date, we invited Defence to join us in this organisation and they are now contributors. Through that centre, we have a lot of common direction dealing with mental health issues. But, within the department also, through our joint health working group, once again there is a synergy and we, in a sense, harmonise our mental health policies; they are worked in sync. So our programs in fact complement what Defence are doing.
In a way, there is a very strong working partnership between Defence and DVA. In the department, we are actually looking at moving beyond just that Defence-DVA working relationship; we are looking at the issues now in general practice. We are working with the divisions of general practice. What we are attempting to do is to draw to the attention of general practitioners the fact that servicemen may have been exposed to deployments overseas and some of the service may have impacted on the family life. So we are providing education to general practitioners around Australia into some of the effects of military trauma. Unless veterans or their families are aware of it, these issues may not be understood. So, in a sense, it is, shall we say, throwing a stone in the pond so that doctors will not just look at the serviceman or veteran; they will also take account of the family. I think this is a fairly significant step forward. So overall you can see there is quite a network of working together.
Senator HURLEY —I will move on to the general issue of claims processing. When did the department first identify that there was a problem in some areas in the time taken to process claims as compared with the targeted time?
Mr Sullivan —I think in about 2002 where the department then started to see increasing backlogs in its claims processing. You have in your questions last time and on notice concentrated on average claims processing times. We look a bit more broadly. We look at the age profile of the caseload, the backlog and whether it is increasing or decreasing, the quality of the decision making—we have a measure there which says we would like to see an error rate of less than whatever—and we look at the resources applied to compensation claims processing per claim.
Senator HURLEY —Speaking of resourcing, after the problem was identified in 2002, what action was taken in response to that?
Mr Sullivan —Resources spent on claims processing on a per claim basis have gone up every year since then.
Senator HURLEY —Resourcing has gone up?
Mr Sullivan —Yes, the resources spent on a per claim basis continue to increase.
Senator HURLEY —Those increased resources—they would be mostly staffing resources?
Mr Sullivan —They are measured in money and we report to you each year in terms of money. You will see that the cost per claim to process continues to increase. So we have applied resources. 2002-03 I think was the first year where we saw emerge an increase in the backlog—that is, we were starting to process fewer claims that were being received in a year. 2005-06 is the year where you saw the backlog reduce for the first time since that time. So, in respect of that performance measure, we saw an improvement in the 2005-06 year.
Senator HURLEY —Was that due to increased staffing?
Mr Sullivan —You use the word ‘staffing’; I use the word ‘resourcing’ per claim.
Senator HURLEY —I am interested to know whether at least part of that ‘increased resourcing’ was spent on an increased number of staff dealing with claims.
Mr Sullivan —No. It means more staff time is applied to each claim. When you have a 15 per cent reduction in claims it does not necessarily equate to more staff to spend more time on each claim.
Mr Killesteyn —Perhaps I can give you some figures about what is happening. I think it is an interesting picture in terms of the workload that the department is facing and what then is happening to the resources that we have available as a consequence of that workload. If you are interested. These are figures that are easily extracted from the annual report and also from the portfolio budget statements, so the analysis is there and available for you. If you look, for instance, at a couple of primary indicators of our workload, one is what we call the treatment population, which is essentially those people who are receiving some form of treatment from the department; the other indicator is beneficiaries, who are not only receiving treatment but also may be in receipt of the pension.
If you look in 2003-04, the treatment population we had was 325,798. As at the end of June 2006, that treatment population has fallen to 305,229. That fall-off in our workload is escalating. The fall-off in 2003-04 was about 2.7 per cent; by the end of June 2006 it was falling away at 3½ per cent per annum and the rate of fall-off is projected to increase. If you look at beneficiaries, using the same period, the number of beneficiaries at the end of 2003-04 was 484,000 and as at the end of June 2006 it is now 453,000. The fall-off rate has gone from 3.4 per cent now to four per cent annually.
So there is an increasing rate of decline in the number of clients, but our resources are not falling away at the same level. We do have a resource agreement with the department of finance, which is based around workloads. I guess it is not unreasonable as our workloads fall that our resources also fall, but they are not falling at the same rate. So, as Mr Sullivan said, if you just look at the cost per head, that is maintaining the level that it was at a few years ago.
Senator HURLEY —Let me ask a more specific question. Are the current targeted processing times, the times when claims should be processed, realistic?
Mr Sullivan —Yes, they are. We have reaffirmed our average processing time goals as being realistic. Why I want to talk about the backlog is this: as we have improved our backlog management—that is we have reduced the backlog—our average processing times have escalated partly as a result of that strategy. In fact, you asked how long we have been worried about this and I replied that it was 2002 that the department recognised it had an issue; it has probably been the last couple of years where we have really looked at the issue of processing times. I think the current minister, on his taking up the portfolio, identified to me reasonably forcefully that he was concerned with the average processing times and we have been working hard at doing it. The first thing we have done is basically to reduce the backlog and we are now at the point where we believe that we have removed from our processing workload much of the very old material.
Senator HURLEY —Are you saying that the backlog are the difficult cases, so that is contributing?
Mr Sullivan —They are difficult by all sorts of definitions of difficulty. It could be difficult because a medical specialist will not provide a medical report. It could be difficult because we are having trouble extracting relevant Defence records. It could be difficult because it is a very complex compensation claim and it is just hard. There could be some elements where it was not that difficult but it was not done. Partly, if you drive an organisation purely on a performance indicator of average processing times, you can fall into the trap of putting aside the hard cases. If you do the quick ones—
Senator HURLEY —This is not what you are saying has been done really.
Mr Sullivan —No. However, if you say, ‘Look, the only thing I want is a good average processing time,’ people will say, ‘We’ll do all the simple ones as quickly as we can and our average processing time will be wonderful and we will ignore the backlog.’ As we address this backlog, we will see—and we have now committed to publicly declaring our performance twice a year against all of our standards and of course 90 per cent of our standards we meet or better—I would love to talk about those one night. In respect of this one, I would expect that our next report, which will be very soon, will probably show a rapid improvement in the backlog rate and we may actually see some—
Senator HURLEY —Just on the question of that backlog, if I could clear that up, from questions on notice placed at the last estimates, I think it said that there was a backlog of 4,570 claims?
Mr Sullivan —Yes.
Senator HURLEY —Is that right?
Mr Sullivan —Of over a certain age, yes.
Mr Douglas —Older than the average.
Mr Sullivan —Yes.
Senator HURLEY —So you do not regard that as an acceptable level and you will see that—
Mr Sullivan —There always have to be cases older than the average. By definition, there are as many cases older than the average as there are under the average.
Senator HURLEY —Median.
Mr Sullivan —But certainly we do not see as acceptable a case going way beyond what we should expect as an average processing time. We have addressed that in a number of ways. We have progressively, over the last 12 months or more, put in place a number of strategies, which we will see produce good fruit this year. That is not constrained in any way by the resources that the government gives us.
Senator HURLEY —So you are saying that the processing time is acceptable—the current standard.
Mr Sullivan —The current standard we have reaffirmed as being a standard we should seek to achieve.
Senator HURLEY —Are those standards set down anywhere?
Mr Sullivan —Yes.
Senator HURLEY —Can we get a copy of those?
Mr Sullivan —Yes, you would have received a copy from us of our customer charter in recent months, but I will send you another one.
Senator HURLEY —Thank you.
Mr Sullivan —They are in our customer charter and they are also, of course, in our annual report. All of our performance standards are in our annual report, they are reported in our parliamentary budget statements and they are on our website.
Senator HURLEY —The backlog—you also regard that as unacceptable, but you expect that that will come down.
Mr Sullivan —As I said, I think in 2002 they realised the backlog was growing. Since 2002, but most particularly last year, we have reduced the backlog. It needs to be reduced further. More than the number, I am worried about aged cases, cases that are outside the bounds of the standard. This financial year so far, we think in respect of the VEA we have improved our performance from that in the annual report already quite considerably, but we have certainly reduced the number of claims outstanding as at 31 January 07. There were 6,100 claims outstanding as at the end—
Senator HURLEY —Under the VEA?
Mr Sullivan —Under the VEA at the end of January 2007. These are of all ages, be they one day old or whatever. We have now moved to a position where only 215 of those, which represent 3.5 per cent of that caseload, are more than a year old. That is quite a considerable improvement. If we take the impact of the F111 cases out of it, which we have reported in our annual report before, we believe that we are probably down to about under three per cent of cases being one year old. I should make a special mention of our South Australian office, because in our South Australian location—which is important to some—
Senator HURLEY —Yes, indeed—two of us at least.
Mr Sullivan —There is no case which is more than a year old. At a location level, they have done a tremendous job.
Senator HURLEY —Why is that? I just get back to this issue of resourcing. Surely it would be better to have more staff to get through this backlog, and yet you are saying resources are not the issue.
Mr Sullivan —As I said, we have not seen a decline in the number of assessment staff in the face of a rapid decline in application rates; therefore the resource applied to each claim has gone up. We are applying more resource to each claim. That is very clear and it was reported in our annual report. It is clear for all to see that the application of resource to each claim we are processing has increased.
Senator HURLEY —But you were saying yourself that the backlog cases are often difficult cases.
Mr Sullivan —But what I am saying is that I am very satisfied with where we are seeing the reduction in the workload strategies going. I have great confidence in seeing our return to meeting our declared performance indicator, including our average processing times, in a reasonable period of time. You cannot apply new resource in terms of more staff very quickly to this task. A claims assessor under the VEA, the SRCA or the MRCA is a resource that takes about 12 to 18 months to develop and get to a point where they are usable.
We have gone through a number of issues in respect of all of our compensation systems. One, the introduction of the military rehabilitation and compensation system, saw us needing to take some experienced people out of VEA and SRCA claims and put them into MRCA claims. In the transition period, we had to consider any SRCA claim that could have been dealt with under the MRC legislation to be considered by the MRCA people as well as the SRCA people to ensure that we did not give benefit to the applicant. The other way from MRCA back to SRCA—we had to refer all those cases back. We put in place, for a period of time, a new level of claims assessment for cases involving special rate. That was over a concern that some had about the quality of decision making. We are re-examining that and the Repatriation Commission has had a good look at that. We have basically asked locations and they have responded to identify different and new ways of dealing with the caseload. We are looking at how we could probably expedite some of our very routine caseload at the moment, which still does involve a fair amount of interaction with the veteran and we are questioning whether we need to do that.
This has been a process, as I have said, that has been going on for a couple of years. It has certainly been a process where, as I have said, this minister has pushed us hard in the last 12 months. It is a process where you cannot walk away from a meeting and say, ‘I’ll fix it tomorrow’; you have to walk away saying, ‘I can fix it and I will fix it.’ The officers of the department and the delegates of the Repatriation Commission are really doing everything within their powers to address it and the department is matching that with adequate resourcing—and, as I said, increased resourcing per case. I think that we will see a reaffirmation of that processing standard confirmed by meeting it within a reasonable time frame.
Senator HURLEY —What is a reasonable time frame?
Mr Sullivan —I would hope that by the end of this financial year we would have marked improvement, and there is a general consensus that we are heading towards it. Not long after that, I would like to see us declare our results and be very proud of the fact that we have met it.
Senator HURLEY —So you are saying in a year or so.
Mr Sullivan —I would hope that within the 2007 calendar year I have that measure up with 90 per cent of other performance measures that we declare, meet and sometimes and often better. If I had a concern at the last discussion we had on this and the subsequent use of that material, it was that to look at that single measure—particularly as it related to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act cases—was not a fair reflection of performance. It was, which is fair enough, a highlighting of an aspect of our performance that was not at the level we wanted it to be, but I do not think it really showed some of the problems that were suggested that it did. We are addressing it and it will be addressed.
Senator HURLEY —You were saying yourself that the processing times are being addressed and should be at least on their way to being pretty much resolved. You were saying yourself that there will always be some kind of backlog, something on either side of average. Some claims will be dealt with quickly and others will not. I think you have said pretty clearly that the current backlog is not acceptable. What kind of level of backlog would you be looking at as acceptable?
Mr Sullivan —We have addressed this in an incremental way. Clearly, what we have asked people to consider is to ensure, as far as we can, not to have any claim within the department unresolved after a year. We had claims unresolved after a year and, as I have reported, we have seen that number of claims now reduced to a couple of hundred—too many, but it has reduced. I think our first goal would be to ensure that there is not a claim that is more than a year old. We also have a goal to make it transparent as to what the problem is here. We would like—and it is a fairly long-term project—to be able to alert the claimant and the claimant’s advocate to the current status of a claim at any one time. I have quoted to a number of veterans’ organisations an example of where a member of the parliament wrote to the minister concerning an outstanding claim. It got to me some way and I asked some people to get the file. We got the file. That person had lodged their claim. There had been a timely response to that claim in respect of sending them off to a medical specialist—in this instance a psychiatrist—and, since that time, seven months had gone without a psychiatrist’s report. On the file were four records of chasing, but the veteran was not aware of that. When I actually told the veteran, ‘This is the problem,’ to use his language, he said, ‘I will put dynamite under them.’
Senator HURLEY —I am sure we are all aware of those kinds of problems and the distress that delay causes people and so on, but perhaps we could get back to the question about the backlog and what kind of level is acceptable.
Mr Sullivan —I was going the long way around to saying that my biggest concern is to remove any undue delay that is the fault or the cause of the department, first. That is, if I have people who are tardy in their own response or find it difficult to conclude a case or whatever, that is what I want to do.
Senator HURLEY —So you do not have particular targets.
Mr Sullivan —The clear target I have is to have a case mix which produces a 75-day average processing time. That is a clear target. For every case that I allow to get older, I have to do another case quicker. So my target is the one expressed and that is that, if I have a case mix which produces a 75-day average processing time, I will be satisfied. But the things I am concentrating on are where the department can do things faster, cut red tape, take some reasonable risk management approaches to some conditions and remove some time frames. I can make sure that we do not have too much of a command chain, I can concentrate the quality assurance into being beneficial to veterans as well as being beneficial to staff and I can get senior people engaged in the most complex matters to facilitate those claims through. That is what I have asked the officers of the compensation area to do and that is what they are responding to in their work. The results so far are very encouraging.
Senator HURLEY —Perhaps we could move on now to another target time and that is the time to action or acknowledge correspondence. I believe that the DVA service charter says that that should happen within 28 days. What percentage of correspondence sent to the minister or the department over the last two years has been replied to within that target time of 28 days, if that is indeed the correct target?
Mr Sullivan —I will have to get that information for you.
Senator HURLEY —Please also include with that whether any correspondence to the minister or to the department received no reply whatsoever; also how much has gone unanswered for over a year and how much has gone unanswered for over six months. Do you keep figures on that?
Mr Sullivan —We track our correspondence. There is a distinction between departmental correspondence and ministerial correspondence.
Senator HURLEY —Moving on from the broader topic of correspondence to specific complaints, is the department aware that the Veterans Agency in the United Kingdom offers the following guarantee on their website: complaints received by us in writing will be acknowledged in five working days and they aim to issue a full response within 10 working days? Would the department ever be able to meet those kinds of guidelines?
Mr Sullivan —It depends. There are a few definitional issues there—what is a complaint? We actually have a complaint handling mechanism, which we get very few of and we manage them very quickly. Correspondence is often not a complaint. Correspondence can be the questioning of government policy, it can be the questioning of all sorts of things.
Senator HURLEY —So are you saying that the complaints might be dealt with within five working days?
Mr Sullivan —We have a complaints mechanism where we respond, but I am sure we do not offer that guarantee.
Senator HURLEY —So you have no specific target for complaints.
Mr Sullivan —I did not say that. I said I do not offer that guarantee. I wish you would not do this to me, Senator, because every time I answer you I tend to have my answer read back to me as different. I said I did not have a guarantee of five days, 10 days.
Senator HURLEY —Do you have a target for complaints?
Mr Sullivan —We have a complaints mechanism with targets in it and we have correspondence targets and I will get you those on notice.
Senator HURLEY —Thank you. Perhaps we will move on to something a bit different from correspondence—the F111 reseal deseal issue. In regard to the government’s ex gratia payment scheme for the F111 desealers resealers and not especially the healthcare program announced today, how many claims were received by the department under that ex gratia payment scheme?
Mr Sullivan —Mr Barry Telford, who is the group manager, Policy Development, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, will answer.
Mr Telford —Thank you, Mr Sullivan. I have those figures here. I will start from the bottom. We have 29 outstanding. We have made 583. Was the other one the total number received?
Senator HURLEY —Yes, the total number.
Mr Telford —I cannot lay my eyes on that one.
Senator HURLEY —So that is 583 plus the 29, is it?
Mr Telford —No. There are 29 that we have not dealt with yet. There are 583 that we have paid and then there are the other ones which were not successful, which I will find for you in a moment.
Senator HURLEY —Thank you. Do you have any idea when the outstanding claims will be finalised?
Mr Telford —No. We have had a small number of claims which have been coming in recently, so I do not know when those ones will be finalised. But, as you can see, the vast majority of them have now been dealt with, so it is a matter now of tidying up the ones that are coming in in dribs and drabs.
Senator HURLEY —So what was the number of claims that were declined?
Mr Telford —Ask me another question and I will find it.
Senator HURLEY —It was related to that one. Was the number declined significant? Does the government regard that scheme as a success? Was there any revision, or any consideration of revision, of the criteria?
Mr Telford —There was no consideration. There was consideration of revision, but there was no revision made. I believe that it has gone well. There has been a lot of diligent and professional input into the assessment of the ex gratia payments and the evidence supporting those particular claims along the way. The process has focused on ensuring that we get as much evidence as possible from the individual and from other sources in order to be able to support those claims and make the right decision for the right reasons.
Senator HURLEY —In the decision by the government, the criteria was fairly arbitrary. Has there been feedback, for example, from the cases that were declined about the quality of the criteria?
Mr Telford —I suspect that anyone who does not get a claim that they put in has a reason to complain. I do not accept that the criteria was arbitrary. It was based upon a very rigorous and long and detailed study involving a range of professionals, doctors and others. I do not accept it was arbitrary. But, when any rule is put in place, people will always say that you have drawn the line in the sand in the wrong spot.
Senator HURLEY —Were you able to find the figure of those who were refused? Perhaps you could take it on notice.
Mr Telford —Yes, I will take it on notice.
Senator HURLEY —I have some priority questions under outcome 2 and the contract the department now has with the Centre for Military and Veterans’ Health for the development of research protocol for the study of the health of the children of Vietnam veterans. At the last estimates hearings we heard that the CMVH wanted more time to complete the study. Has there been any update on that? The results are due by 30 June this year. Is the CMVH expected to deliver at that time?
Mr Sullivan —We had a discussion about whether the CMVH wanted more time. I said in our earlier discussions that there was some to-ing and fro-ing about that but that there was an agreement on the time. So there was no formal ‘They want more time’ and a contract was signed.
Senator HURLEY —But you are confident—
Mr Telford —No, they have not asked, they have not sought—
Senator HURLEY —That it will be delivered on time?
Mr Telford —Yes.
Senator HURLEY —And 30 June is the date.
Mr Telford —That is correct.
Senator HURLEY —Once those results are delivered, what are the processes and consideration that the department and the minister will need to go through?
Mr Sullivan —We will provide advice to the minister on the CMVH’s work. It is a hypothetical. I make it clear: the reason the minister has decided to go down the path of using the CMVH is to bring the prospect of a health study of the children of Vietnam veterans to reality quicker than it otherwise would have been. We are expending this money in the hope and expectation that the CMVH will provide us with some methodologies and advice which will help—through the minister—the government to determine whether it can conduct such a study.
Senator HURLEY —You were saying that the time is expected to be shortcut by the CMVH study. Do you have a target time? When do you expect a result?
Mr Sullivan —It is a shortcut. If the CMVH in their report of July give us some material which we can progress to the minister, it is well within the three-year pilot study that was the alternative proposition put to determine some of the methodological issues by the scientific reference group. So we would hope that—and I am not pre-empting what the CMVH are going to do; their task—they will be able to address positively some of the issues which would allow then the minister to take, through government, recommendations as to the next stages.
Senator HURLEY —Given that you hope it is to be shorter than the three years, do you have any idea when the minister is expected to make an announcement about that?
Mr Sullivan —Are you asking me to make an announcement about something they are doing now—
Senator HURLEY —About the progress of where we go next.
Mr Sullivan —I would think the minister would want to share, particularly with the Vietnam veterans’ constituency, the advice he receives from the CMVH as early as he could.
Senator HURLEY —Which is?
Mr Sullivan —We are expecting a report from them in June.
Senator HURLEY —So shortly after that?
Mr Sullivan —I am just saying that I would expect that the minister would want to share it with the Vietnam veterans’ constituency, their partners and their children, each of whom has great interest in the prosecution of this matter, as early as possible, subject to him having to take whatever he wants to do through the process of government.
Senator HURLEY —Which veterans’ groups or individuals are involved in the work being done on these protocols?
Mr Sullivan —The CMVH is doing the work on the protocols.
Senator HURLEY —Do you know which groups they are involving in this discussion?
Mr Sullivan —It is basically a scientific study to determine methodologies. I think we have gone through this many times. It is not a study of Vietnam veterans. It is our task to basically keep the various groups involved, which range from the Vietnam veterans’ association, the Vietnam veterans’ federation, the partners of Vietnam veterans and, as I say, importantly, the children of Vietnam veterans. It is important to keep them engaged as to progress. We use all of the consultative mechanisms of the department to make sure that they are as informed of progress as we can.
Senator HURLEY —Informed of progress but not consulted as part of the protocols study?
Mr Sullivan —I think the CMVH may consult various people but it is, as I say, largely something for the scientists and the statisticians and the methodologists, who are answering some complex questions. What we are really about is asking: ‘How we can conduct such a survey?’ and we have asked: ‘You tell us please.’
Senator HURLEY —So once the CMVH has told you how to conduct it, that study will definitely proceed?
Mr Sullivan —No. The CMVH are doing a study. As I said, my expectation and hope is that that study will resolve some of the issues. I cannot guarantee that that study will resolve the issues. So, one, we have to await the outcome of the CMVH work and, two, we have to await the minister’s response to the outcome of their work. If the outcome of their work is that they have a road map through the methodological issues, I think that would be encouraging to us and encouraging to the minister, but he would still need to take the next stage in the process through government. If you are talking about best outcome, they would say: ‘Here are the methodologies. This would see a survey conducted which is efficacious, full and answers some of the concerns that were raised in the scientific advisory committee study et cetera. This is how you do it.’ It would then be the department’s job to scope the actual study, including the resources required for it, and for the minister to take that through government.
Senator HURLEY —So, given that the aim is a fairly tight time frame and you will not get the report until 30 June, has the department done any preliminary work on scoping or if it is not possible to scope or a possible costing?
Mr Sullivan —No. The nature of the task of the CMVH is basically at the moment—and I think this is, to a degree, frustrating for some of the constituents—not seeking to study the health impact of the children of the Vietnam veterans in what they are doing. They are basically providing us with some advice and science as to how we can overcome the difficulties well outlined and explained in the report provided.
Senator HURLEY —My concern is that if we do not have any budget for the study in this current year’s budget, the report will be delivered on 30 June and then there will be a decision about whether or not there will be a study. So we will be looking at next year before—
Mr Sullivan —That would have been a whole of an advance on where we would have been otherwise. Otherwise we were basically seeing a commitment to a pilot study costing several million dollars to determine methodological issues and in three years time, we would have had advice as to whether or not we could do the study. So even on that time frame you are talking about, I am not agreeing with it, we would be well advanced in the processes we otherwise faced.
Senator HURLEY —We have had that discussion about the relative merits of at least having some sort of pilot study done, so I will not go over that ground. I might move on. It has been brought to our attention that two of the experts currently working on that study are from the University of Queensland’s School of Population Health, namely, Professor Annette Dobson and Professor Jake Najman. Is the department aware that all staff in the University of Queensland’s School of Population Health are currently denied access to ABS files after a hacking incident last October. I am not by any means inferring that those two people who I have mentioned are involved or have anything to do with that incident, I am just saying that ABS made this kind of blanket decision to block that school’s access to ABS data. Is this a concern to the department in terms of the report?
Mr Sullivan —I will take that on notice. While the Centre of Military and Veterans’ Health is attached to the University of Queensland and uses some of the Queensland university staff, it is an institution in its own right and I will check.
Mr Telford —I am not aware of that either, however, it needs to be said that we are not asking—I am just repeating again what Mr Sullivan has been saying—the CMVH to do any data analysis. They would not be contemplating looking at ABS data or other data, they are purely doing an exercise in methodology and academic research establishing power tables and a whole range of methodological academic work which does not relate to actual number crunching. So the impact of that would not affect the study at all.
Mr Sullivan —If it were there.
Mr Telford —If indeed it was.
Senator HURLEY —I might move on to talk about the chaplaincy services. What chaplaincy services does the department administer or fund at the moment?
Mr Sullivan —The department through its providers or directly funds chaplaincy services at several hundred hospitals across this country.
Senator HURLEY —So just services across the country.
Mr Sullivan —Yes, in respect of our arrangements with the state government in respect to public hospitals, we fund chaplaincy services. In respect of our private hospital contracts, we accept in our pricing model the funding of chaplaincy services. In respect of hospitals that once were repatriation general hospitals, we provide special chaplaincy funding for commemorative events, and in respect of one hospital, we provide direct funding on top of the state government funding, which we provide to the state in respect of that hospital.
Senator HURLEY —My colleague from South Australia Senator McEwen has a particular interest in the Daw Park Hospital about which there has been some controversy, so I will ask her to run through some questions she has about that.
Senator McEWEN —There is a current review into chaplaincy services at the Repatriation General Hospital at Daw Park, is that right?
Mr Sullivan —That is right.
Senator McEWEN —Can you tell me when that review is likely to conclude?
Mr Sullivan —That review was established some 12 months ago where we put in some interim arrangements until it was concluded. It is to be concluded within the two-year funding window agreed then, so it needs to be concluded in the next several months.
Senator McEWEN —Before the end of the financial year?
Mr Sullivan —No, the funding goes beyond that, but the review should be completed by the end of the financial year.
Senator McEWEN —That review was a consequence of the outcry in February 2005 when the department tried to cut funding to chaplaincy services at the hospital.
Mr Sullivan —Let us just say there was an outcry, not that we were trying to cut chaplaincy funding. We spend more on chaplains today per veteran than we have ever spent in our history of chaplaincy.
Senator McEWEN —The review was a consequence of some public disquiet about changes to funding arrangements?
Mr Sullivan —Yes, in one hospital. That ignored the fact that the level of chaplaincy funding at that hospital had remained static, despite the fact that that hospital is now a 32 per cent veterans hospital and we fund chaplaincy services at dozens of hospitals all across South Australia. In South Australia we see the need for pastoral care to veterans in hospitals as a very, very important concern. That is why we incorporate it in all of our private hospital funding agreements. It is why we incorporate it in all our funding agreements with the state governments, including the South Australian government. We provide chaplaincy funding to the South Australian government for every veteran in every state hospital in South Australia—and Daw Park is a South Australian state hospital; it is not a Veterans’ Affairs hospital.
Senator McEWEN —Maybe that was not the understanding of the veteran community.
Mr Sullivan —I am not funded to provide chaplaincy services to the 67 per cent of patients who use Daw Park who are not veterans.
Senator McEWEN —What then is the purpose of the review?
Mr Sullivan —The purpose of the review is to find, with the South Australian government, the hospital and the veterans, a way forward that is satisfactory to all.
Senator McEWEN —Way forward to what? What are the potential outcomes of this review?
Mr Sullivan —It is a way forward to ensure that veterans throughout South Australia have access to chaplaincy services and that the chaplaincy services funded by the department are spent on veterans. If you go back in time you find that we provided chaplains at all repatriation general hospitals because veterans affairs was a health provider, the provision of those health services was largely through its own hospitals and only veterans went to repatriation general hospitals.
When the government of the day sold the repatriation hospitals or transferred them and basically turned the department from being a health provider into a health purchaser there were two hospitals—one in Brisbane, one in Perth—which were sold to a private group but with contracted arrangements between the department and the Ramsay health group that they would remain veterans hospitals—not exclusively, but they would provide exclusive services to veterans in their location. The South Australian government decided, when it took over Daw Park, to maintain it within the state hospital system as a veterans’ hospital.
Senator McEWEN —I understand that.
Mr Sullivan —The outcome that we want is a good relationship with respect to the South Australian government and ensuring the chaplaincy services are provided to all veterans in all hospitals run by the state of South Australia. We have an agreement with the state of South Australia as to how to do that. We recognise that Daw Park is a particular focus of veterans in South Australia—and Adelaide in particular—and around that special requirement, we acknowledge the need for funding. So the outcome we are after is an outcome that is acceptable to the parties.
Senator McEWEN —Will the outcome be that your department will not reduce funding to chaplaincy services at the Repatriation General Hospital at Daw Park?
Mr Sullivan —That is like asking me what this review of something will do. I do not set up reviews or set up such a group with a predetermined outcome. I will see what that review team says.
Senator McEWEN —So the recommendation may be to cut funding or it may be to not cut funding?
Mr Sullivan —You can say that as well as I. I do not think that that is a question; that is a statement.
Senator McEWEN —Who are the members of the review?
Mr Sullivan —The review team consists of the South Australian government, the department—
Mr Douglas —It is chaired by our deputy commissioner. It contains, as Mr Sullivan said, the South Australian Health Department, the Daw Park Hospital and members of the ex-service community.
Senator McEWEN —What organisations in the ex-service community?
Mr Douglas —I would have to take that on notice. My recollection is that it is the RSL.
Senator McEWEN —So it is an organisation, not just individuals?
Mr Sullivan —It is representatives of the organisations. The RSL I think is the nominated organisation.
Senator McEWEN —What about the Vietnam Veterans Association?
Mr Douglas —I am not certain.
Senator McEWEN —Are there any members on the review panel who are representatives of churches?
Mr Sullivan —No.
Senator McEWEN —Why not?
Mr Sullivan —The churches are a provider here. Some people get shocked when they find out that we pay for chaplaincy services. They thought chaplaincy services sometimes came with the job. We pay.
Senator McEWEN —I just asked whether the churches are represented.
Mr Sullivan —No, because as a provider we do not put them on it. We consult—
Senator McEWEN —The RSL and the Vietnam Veterans Association are also counselling providers.
Mr Sullivan —They are not providers. What do you mean they are providers?
Senator McEWEN —They provide counselling services to veterans, but you have got them on this particular—
Mr Sullivan —But they do not provide chaplaincy services to veterans. There is nothing wrong with having a provider who provides something else to help you do things.
Senator McEWEN —There has been some criticism of the department that you did not include church representatives on the review panel. Is that right?
Mr Sullivan —There was some criticism that we did not.
Senator McEWEN —So whose decision was it to not put church representatives on the panel?
Mr Sullivan —I set up the review team. There is a general principle where we do not in discussing future funding incorporate in those future funding discussions the providers who will receive that funding. We do not do that. We consult very closely with them.
Mr Douglas —We have undertaken to continue to consult with the churches throughout the context of the review.
Senator McEWEN —Are there plans for reviews of chaplaincy services in states other than South Australia?
Mr Sullivan —No, there is no arrangement like that which exists in South Australia anywhere else in the country to review. For instance, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, which is a state run hospital in New South Wales, is funded for its chaplaincy services through the state hospital arrangements with the state of New South Wales, which covers all public hospitals in New South Wales. We provide $50,000 additional to that to the Concord Hospital for special commemorative events. It is an arrangement satisfactory to the hospital, to the veterans and to the New South Wales state government. There is no like arrangement to review.
Senator McEWEN —You explained to me the different funding in the states, but overall has the department reduced the amount of funding for chaplaincy services across the board?
Mr Sullivan —The department has not reduced the amount of funding on chaplaincy for each veteran in this country.
Senator McEWEN —Has it increased the amount?
Mr Sullivan —I would need to check. What we have ensured in the expansion of our hospital services is that chaplaincy services remain available whether you are in a private hospital in Kadina, a public hospital in Whyalla or Daw Park.
Senator McEWEN —Thank you. Perhaps you could just provide on notice the amount of funding that the department has provided specifically for chaplaincy services on a state by state basis for the last two years.
Mr Sullivan —I will need to see what I can do. As I said, in a lot of our agreements it is within the pricing agreements, so it is incorporated in the amount of money that we are willing to pay a provider—be it a state government or a private hospital provider—in the price they charge us per veteran in hospital per day.
Senator McEWEN —Are you saying that you cannot provide that information?
Mr Sullivan —No, I did not say that. I said I will look to see what I can do.
Senator McEWEN —Thank you.
Senator HURLEY —I will move on to other areas. The recent veterans home care tenders were just finalised. What criteria were used to select the successful providers given that the minister has said publicly that they were not selected on the basis of cost alone?
Mr Sullivan —Like all Commonwealth tenders, they are selected in respect of value to the Commonwealth. I am happy to provide on notice a copy of the tender document which set out the criteria that the tender would be evaluated against.
Senator HURLEY —What consultation occurred with the recipients of veterans home care during the tender process?
Mr Sullivan —I will ask Mr Douglas, but there was general consultation. We particularly used a consultative forum that we have.
Mr Douglas —We consulted with the assessment agencies and the service providers. We have a regular forum where we have industry discussions with those providers. I took your question to mean, ‘Did we consult with the recipients?’ as in the veterans and war widows who received those services.
Senator HURLEY —Yes.
Mr Douglas —I am not aware of any specific consultation that we undertook during that tender period. We certainly have two major consultative bodies, the National Treatment Monitoring Committee and the National Ex-service Round Table on Aged Care. Particularly at the National Ex-service Round Table on Aged Care, which includes representatives of veterans groups, we undertook consultation through the whole tender development process.
Senator HURLEY —Yes. I am concerned for the recipients, because I understand that some of them were quite taken by surprise by a sudden change in their carer. What kind of warning were the clients given that there was going to be a change?
Mr Douglas —We have been providing this service over quite a number of years and there is a regular turnover in service providers and—
Senator HURLEY —Not always, of course.
Mr Douglas ——carers to people receiving those services. This is not a new phenomenon at all. But we identified those recipients of services who were likely to receive a change of provider and we wrote out to each of them advising them of this occurrence.
Senator HURLEY —Can you advise me what date that notification went out?
Mr Douglas —That date would have varied depending on the particular location, but I will take that on notice and see what we can give you.
Senator HURLEY —I will move on to the smart card and its relationship with the gold card. Will current gold card holders have to apply for the new card or will it automatically be provided to existing gold card holders?
Mr Sullivan —As a general rule, gold card holders will be expected to register for an access card. The policy on this is something which is still being developed and is partly with the Department of Human Services. There will be exceptions where people are exempted from registration, and those will definitely include some of our gold card population, so they would not be required to enrol. As a general rule, a gold card holder would need to register for the access card.
Senator HURLEY —What are the exemptions? Who will be exempted?
Mr Sullivan —As I said, they have not been decided yet, but people in high-care nursing homes and in palliative care institutions are possible examples. You should talk to the Department of Human Services, which has primary carriage of the access card, about those. Our role is to ensure that we reflect what we believe is necessary for our veteran population.
Senator HURLEY —Given that most veterans on the gold card have been through quite a long and extensive application process and verification process, will they have to fulfil the same documentation requirements as any other applicant for the smart card?
Mr Sullivan —If the veteran has the documentation required for under proof of identity, they can certainly use it. If the veteran does not have that, we believe their relationship with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs will be sufficient to see the issuing of an access card to them.
Senator HURLEY —Without the documentation that—
Mr Sullivan —If they are lacking in documentation. We will still need to finish the registration process, which means taking of a photograph and things like that, but if, a veteran has problems with proof of identity, I think their relationship with the department will be sufficient to satisfy issuing authorities of their identity.
Senator HURLEY —For those who perhaps have the documentation and do not qualify for exemption, will the department be assisting them with the cost of providing the documentation or travelling to get the photograph taken or whatever else?
Mr Sullivan —We are still looking at the issues of assistance in getting to registration, although we understand no-one will have to travel too far for registration. But, no, if a person does not have the documentation and wishes to procure it themselves, we are not offering at this stage financial assistance in procuring that documentation. But, well and truly before any registration process happens, we will be explaining to veterans how their relationship with the department can assist them in the registration process.
Senator HURLEY —What about the TPI veterans? Will they be exempt or is it not necessary?
Mr Sullivan —Not necessarily. They are a gold card holder and we would think the same applies to them. But certainly a very important message we are putting to veterans is that we and the government recognise the fact that the overwhelming majority of veterans in this country have a very well known record with the military and with the department, and any difficulties in respect of identity will not preclude them from registration for an access card.
Senator HURLEY —After 2008, when the government is set to provide only the new card—the access card—what will happen to those cardholders who have not finalised their application for the gold card?
Mr Sullivan —Who have not been assessed as eligible for the gold card?
Senator HURLEY —Yes.
Mr Sullivan —I think this is something more for Human Services. Barry Telford may help me here, but the government’s stated intention is more about sometime in 2010 or afterwards, when you must have an access card to access veterans services in respect of our agency. So we will be encouraging people who become eligible for a card after 2008 to register through us or another agency for an access card. That access card will be a gold access card, will recognise their status as a veteran, will separately recognise their status as a TPI and will replace any need for other cards. We would not expect that they would have any more difficulty in getting the access gold card than they would have had with a gold card anyway.
Senator HURLEY —Many will still have to go through a separate application process?
Mr Telford —No. They have to go through the same application process everybody else has to go through, but I think the important point, if I understand the question, is that they have from 2008 to 2010. During that period, of course, we will be getting every possible one of our veterans to be registered with an access card, such that when the access card takes over from the gold card we will have had a very good idea at various points throughout that period about who does not have a gold card and who is still retaining a gold card. We will be following them up very carefully, encouraging them, finding out what the difficulties are and supporting them through the process to get them registered. I am not concerned about that issue.
Mr Sullivan —Gold cards will be issued and reissued during the period 2008 to 2010. There is no compulsion on an access card in that period of time.
Senator HURLEY —Going to the area of mental health, could you advise what new mental health initiatives have been put in place since January 2006. By ‘new’ I do not mean an expansion of current programs or a continuation of programs that were put in place, but new initiatives.
Mr Sullivan —An expansion is a new initiative. We will take it on notice and we will get you a good list. As far as I am concerned, an expansion is a new initiative. We will get you the lot and you can discard what you do not what.
Senator HURLEY —It may or may not have been an initiative. I mean, some expansions will just be a slight—
Mr Sullivan —For instance, expansion of the heart health program to younger veterans is a mental health initiative and a new one. If you said, ‘I don’t want that; that is an expansion,’ I would say, ‘Rubbish’. It is a mental health initiative aimed at younger veterans.
Senator HURLEY —If you could get me a list of those projects that you regard as new—
Mr Sullivan —Yes. I will get you the whole list.
Senator HURLEY —And how much they have cost then I would be grateful for that.
Mr Sullivan —We can do that.
Senator HURLEY —An answer to a question I placed on notice at last estimates said that there was no collection of statistics on veterans’ suicides unless they were part of a formal health study, such as the Vietnam Veteran’s health study. Given the problems faced by veterans in the area, I was a bit surprised by that. Could you confirm that that is so and why the department does not—
Mr Sullivan —We can report on veterans who are being paid compensation where the department is notified of the death and the death is at their own hand. We cannot report on the death of a veteran who is not seeking compensation or is not in receipt of compensation payments from the department or is not being dealt with by the department who takes his own life. We are saying that if you want comprehensive statistics on veteran suicides, the only time we do that is when we do a comprehensive health study, such as the Vietnam Veteran’s health study. We can provide material. There is a compensation element to notification of death. Sometimes notification of death, by whatever means, may just result in the termination of payments. Where the death results in a claim by a dependent or a claim for a war widow’s pension, then we examine the cause of death to determine whether or not it is war related or not. We can give you statistics on that. But, in respect of asking: ‘Do we hold comprehensive statistics on suicide in the veteran community?’ the answer is, no, we cannot and we do not because we do not compel veterans to deal with us, there are a lot of veterans who do not deal with us and we do not know in respect of death and cause of death. We can provide some material where we are advised in respect of cause of death. If there are no dependants, we may only be advised that the veteran has died and the consequence of that is termination of payment. Where there is a compensation element in respect of a dependent or a widow, then we look at the cause of death to determine whether or not it was related to war service or not.
Senator HURLEY —Even though it won’t be an exhaustive indication of the number of suicides, it would be helpful if we could get the statistics that you do have in relation to that.
Mr Sullivan —We could look at what statistics we have. We will make sure the answer is endorsed and we just hope that people use it correctly—this is not a statement of how many veterans commit suicide. The statements about suicide amongst the Vietnam veteran cohort found in the Vietnam veterans health studies are far more accurate than anything you will extract from the Department of Veterans Affairs compensation statistics.
Senator HURLEY —Yes, I appreciate that. We might move on just briefly to outcome 4.
Senator Ellison —It is now 10.30, Mr Chair, and I was just wondering if there were any outcomes which we might say are now concluded. We are looking at outcomes 1, 2 and 4.
Senator HURLEY —This question will finish outcome 4.
Senator Ellison —Okay, that is good.
Senator HURLEY —But I would like to go back to outcome 1 if we have got time.
Senator Ellison —Okay. After this question, officials from outcome 4 can go.
Senator HURLEY —I turn now to the BEST program, the Building Excellence in Support and Training program. Could you give me a brief description of that program, its aims and the value of the current funding?
Mr Killesteyn —The BEST program was introduced in early 2000. Essentially it is a program designed to provide support for the ex-service organisations who are offering advocacy and pension officer services to veterans seeking to make a claim with the department. Essentially it provides two ex-service organisations administrative funding to run an office. So it is funding that might cover things like computer resources. There might be running costs associated with paper and stationary and so forth. There is probably small amounts of money there also in relation to administrative support staff. The funding is provided by way of application. Applications are called for each year. I think we are in round 9, if my memory serves me correctly. I think the applications close this year on 28 February. An evaluation process is then gone through and recommendations are made to the minister for the grant.
Senator HURLEY —What about the Training Information Program or TIP?
Mr Killesteyn —The TIP is a related program. It is a training program for those very same pension officers and advocates to provide them with the basic knowledge on the operation of the Veterans’ Entitlement Act; the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act; and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. It is a training program which is very strongly supported by the ESO community. In fact a lot of the effort that goes into the TIP comes from particular individuals within the ESO community. The running of the programs in each state is overseen by a committee which is drawn from the ex-service organisations. They largely determine the number of programs that are going to be run in each state, the need for the programs and the types of individuals that are likely to benefit from the programs.
Senator HURLEY —Are there any current reviews of either of those programs or both of them?
Mr Killesteyn —There have been some issues in relation to concerns that have been expressed by the ex-service organisations in some states about the level of funding. We have provided assurances to the ex-service community about the level of funding. The funding for the BEST program is a special appropriation so it is fixed. In relation to the TIP, those funds are drawn from departmental resources. I guess as a consequence of our overall resource management issues as we move to national structures within the department, we have looked at the resourcing that goes into those programs. But the level of funding that has been provided, certainly to TIP from departmental and most certainly to BEST, is staying much the same.
Senator HURLEY —So the funding is the same, but is there any formal review of the program?
Mr Killesteyn —No, no formal reviews of those programs at this stage.
Senator HURLEY —There is no plan to cut funding for the foreseeable future?
Mr Killesteyn —There is no plan to cut funding for TIP, and the funding for BEST, as I said, is an annual appropriation—it is ongoing. To give you the figures, this financial year for BEST funding totalled approximately $3.583 million, which included some $1.7 million in supplementary funding that the government provided the year before last, I think. That funding for BEST does lapse in June 2008 and, of course, we will be taking steps during the budget and policy process to look at that particular issue and put the issues to government.
Senator HURLEY —What is the funding for TIP?
Mr Killesteyn —I do not think I have the specific funding for TIP available to me. I can take that on notice.
Senator HURLEY —My next question is about prepaid envelopes. We have received a complaint from a volunteer pension officer for the RSL. The officer said that until recently they were provided with prepaid envelopes for their work but that they are no longer getting these envelopes. Has the department ever provided them and has there been any change to that?
Mr Killesteyn —That was a particular circumstance in Tasmania, if I remember correctly. It arose some time ago. It was a unique arrangement that had grown up in Tasmania. There was no other provision of self-funded envelopes in any other state. I guess on the basis that the BEST funding that is provided to ESOs is designed to cover administrative costs of running pension officer and advocacy work, which included correspondence, it was considered that that arrangement should no longer continue.
Senator HURLEY —When was that decision made?
Mr Killesteyn —I am going on memory, but it was sometime early last year, I think. It might have been late 2005, but I can get you more details on that.
Senator HURLEY —Who made that decision? Where did that emanate from?
Mr Killesteyn —We will let you know.
Senator HURLEY —That is all for outcome 4.
CHAIR —We will move to outcome 6.
Senator HURLEY —Late last year there was an international veterans summit in Paris. Could you please explain the purpose and value of the International Veterans Administrations Ministerial Summit for veterans administration?
Mr Sullivan —Yes. In 2005 the British minister for veterans affairs asked his colleagues from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US to meet in London, and that was the first ever such meeting of veterans affairs ministers. It was a chance for ministers to discuss issues of common concern. That meeting heard some of the scientific evidence around post-traumatic stress disorder in particular and various approaches to it. It went for a day. Minister Kelly attended that one, incorporating it into a commemorations visit that she was making to France. She also suggested that if there were to be a further meeting Australia would be a good venue and that we would be willing to host such a meeting.
Getting a majority, let alone all, of those ministers to come to Australia at the one time was proving very difficult. When the French government invited a number of countries to a conference in Paris which was to discuss commemorations, particularly the French government’s plans for commemorations of the 90th anniversary of World War I battles and leading up into the armistice, we encouraged the minister to seek approval to go to that meeting with the French. That was approved. We then thought that, if our minister and all of those other ministers were going to be in Paris for the French meeting, one suggestion would be that Australia in its hosting of the ministerial summit could host that meeting in the Australian embassy in Paris on the day before the French meeting. So the Australian hosting of the ministerial summit took place in the Paris embassy on the day before the major French meeting. You would need to ask ministers what they saw the value of, but, as an observer to it, it was basically again a very, very good opportunity for ministers to discuss common issues. The issues which got particular attention, I think, were issues around younger veterans; the issues of reservists; a very good presentation by the American Secretary of Veterans Affairs on the experience of veterans coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan; and a presentation by, I think, the British assistant minister for defence for veterans affairs on the same topic.
Senator HURLEY —Were those papers circulated around?
Mr Sullivan —No, it was a closed informal discussion, but one which had relevance. In terms of holding it, for Australia it was a significant cost reduction. Certainly, as an observer to the meeting, I thought it was a very high-value meeting.
Senator HURLEY —A cost reduction in that if we had hosted it in Australia we would have hosted accommodation and—
Mr Sullivan —We would have generally hosted the in-Australia costs of the participants, which would have meant probably two or three nights accommodation plus programs around it. Instead of that, we used the Australian embassy, with the good graces of Ambassador Penny Wensley; we had a dinner at the home of the ambassador, who hosted that for the ministers; and we had no expenses in respect of those ministers.
Senator HURLEY —How many participants from Australia took part in that?
Mr Sullivan —The minister was the only participant, but I and two others from the department who were in France for the commemorations meeting were observers.
Senator HURLEY —If we could move back to outcome 2.
Mr Sullivan —This is a non-priority question.
Senator HURLEY —Speaking of priority questions, do you have an answer to the Clarke review questions?
Mr Sullivan —I think what it got down to is the question as posed—part 1 is yes, all of the Clarke review recommendations have been considered and those implemented, implemented. You went on to ask for a lot of information about details of each recommendation and costings, and I think our answer was that this is basically all too hard. The offer I would make is that, if there are particular recommendations, we would be happy to have a look at whether we could provide further information. I think in the end the question as posed was probably so broad that it would require us to do an awful amount of work to deliver the response, but in response to the question you asked me—has the government considered the Clarke recommendations—the answer is yes. Has it implemented those it wished to implement? Yes, it has.
Senator HURLEY —That is basically to say that everything that was recommended be implemented has been and anything that was refused clearly has not?
Mr Sullivan —Yes. There was then a lot of detail required, and if that could be refined, and maybe you can discuss it with us, we will see what we can do.
Senator HURLEY —Okay, so you are saying that the costing was too difficult.
Mr Sullivan —To cost every proposition put to Clarke is a very resource intensive exercise. If we could narrow it down, we can look.
Senator HURLEY —Okay. I will briefly go back to outcome 2 and the gold card announcement. In regard to Tasmania, the Central Queensland area and other hot spots in the country, have the medical specialists begun to accept the DVA card system?
Mr Sullivan —I think they have more than just started to accept it. The response to it has been very, very positive. In Tasmania, for instance, which I think was one of the ones you mentioned, and certainly is one of the ones that we were concerned about, we now understand that both neurosurgeons who had withdrawn services are treating veterans again. Eleven of the 12 orthopaedic surgeons in Tasmania had withdrawn services; all 12 have resumed services. Two of the five neurologists have resumed services to veterans. I do not have data on Central Queensland, but again the reporting we are getting from the AMA and others is that the measure has achieved its goal—that is, to restore confidence in the medical practitioners and other health providers in terms of the prices we pay for medical services. The response of the veterans organisations and community generally is also extraordinarily positive.
Senator HURLEY —So that includes major metropolitan areas as being an uptake?
Mr Sullivan —Yes.
Senator HURLEY —I am happy for you to take this on notice, but could we have the numbers and the specialties around the country for—
Mr Sullivan —I think we have talked about this before in terms of doctors advising us they have withdrawn and doctors advising us they have come back. We are doing this through direct research. We are asking if they have come back. I think our statistics are based on whether a doctor who comes back tells us he has come back. Not all of them do. So what we really are basing our very positive reaction to the measure on is that the veterans organisations—particularly through the treatment monitoring committees at both a state and national level—and the AMA are saying that doctors are coming back and are pleased with the result.
Senator HURLEY —As well as those who are coming back, are there any specialists who were not part of the scheme prior to this who are now starting to register?
Mr Sullivan —We are always registering new people and specialists. I would love to say that every new person we have done is—
Mr Douglas —We do not cover specialists. So they either elect to provide services under our arrangements or they don’t. There is no obligation to tell us.
Mr Sullivan —But if they start doing it and they have never done it before, they can do that, but whether it is because of the new pricing or because they have just decided to—I would love to claim the credit for. I probably will.
Senator HURLEY —The minister will. We might move on to the next topic. Back into outcome 1, funeral allowances. Under the VEA, who is eligible for the $1,000 funeral allowance?
Mr Sullivan —Any veteran whose death is regarded as war caused.
Senator HURLEY —Last year how many people received that allowance?
Mr Sullivan —I think we would need to take that on notice.
Senator HURLEY —Given the current DVA population and general trends, how many people would be eligible for this allowance over the next five years?
Mr Sullivan —I will provide you with some demographic data on veterans and you can make your conclusions from that. I am not going—I can’t be in the business of predicting that.
Senator HURLEY —There has been—
Mr Sullivan —Clearly we have a World War II veteran population now of about 130,000 and that declines by about 10 per cent per annum as a rough guide. I am not sure what proportion of those you would expect to have been classified as war caused deaths.
Senator HURLEY —So it is not a huge number.
Mr Sullivan —It is a lot of money.
Senator HURLEY —Speaking of a lot of money, there are some veterans organisations noted—
Mr Sullivan —I think to give you a guide, in 2005 we had 10,522 recipients or their estates of dependants. In 2006 it fell to 9,591. I think you would expect it will decline at about that level.
Senator HURLEY —They are the people that got the $1,000—the families got the $1,000 funeral allowance.
Mr Sullivan —Yes.
Senator HURLEY —As I was saying, the veterans organisations noted that while a funeral allowance of $5,000 was granted for the victims of the Bali bombings and note that they do deserve that kind of allowance, the funeral allowance for the war veterans is only $1,000, under the MRCA it is $9,000. Is the government looking at that figure?
Mr Sullivan —The government will look at all sorts of figures at all sorts of times. We have made the point that the funeral allowance under DVA is a contribution towards a funeral. It is not suggested to be the cost of a funeral. It has actually escalated in recent times quite significantly. So if I give you the number for 10 years ago, five years ago, one thousand looks very high. The compensation schemes which provide for funeral allowances, it is meant to cover the cost of a funeral. I will use very loose language and I do not want to be held to it, but it is a direct result of a compensatable event or the death in itself was the compensatable event, which is different. But government is—the veterans organisations and veterans have certainly made government aware that they believe that it is inadequate and they draw the comparison between—I hadn’t heard the Bali comparison, but they draw the comparison between SRCA and MRCA act benefits and government looks at these things.
Senator HURLEY —Just in the final few minutes that we have left, I want to talk about transport for gold card holders. Are there any regulations that specify a gold card holder is allowed only one DVA provided vehicle return trip per day regardless of how many consultations or appointments they have?
Mr Sullivan —Not that I am aware of. I think a DVA—a veteran who is meeting the guidelines as to travel will have that travel met. I will come back to you if I am mistaken in that belief, but I am very confident that there is no such restriction.
Senator HURLEY —Just on the subject of compensation for prisoners of war, what was the rationale for the government only awarding prisoners of war from Japan and Korea a one-off compensation payment of $25,000 and not extending this payment to prisoners of war from Europe?
Mr Sullivan —At 3 minutes to 11, I will not talk for 15 minutes. If you want a very short but not complete answer—
Senator HURLEY —I do.
Mr Sullivan —One of the key distinctions was the failure of Japan or North Korea to sign the Geneva Convention, and the failure, in Korea and Japan, of things such as Red Cross parcels being accessible by prisoners. That was one of the key distinctions. In making any distinction like that there was never an intention to downplay or discredit in any way the experiences of prisoners of war in Europe because they lost their liberty, but the government decision, which is a decision that has been taken by most similar countries, was to restrict such compensation to the prisoners of Japan and the prisoners of north Korea.
Senator HURLEY —Do we have any figures about Australian prisoners of war in Europe, how many are still alive?
Mr Sullivan —I can give you those numbers. Would you like the figures of the widows of prisoners who are not alive? That is important material as well because you cannot forget the widows.
Senator HURLEY —Yes, that was going to be my next question. If I could have those statistics as well that would be good. I do have other questions but perhaps—
CHAIR —There are two minutes to go.
Mr Sullivan —Is this our Valentine’s night bonus? No roses but a two-minute break.
CHAIR —I hope this is not going to reflect on our productivity.
Senator HURLEY —The other questions I will put on notice.
CHAIR —Thank you all for coming along and participating as always very frankly and helpfully.
Committee adjourned at 10.58 pm