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Gallacher, Sen Alex
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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
(Senate-Wednesday, 25 February 2015)
Department of Defence
Defence Materiel Organisation
Senator IAN MACDONALD
Vice Admiral Barrett
Vice Adm. Barrett
Air Vice-Marshal Davies
Air Vice Marshal Davies
Lt Gen. David Morrison
Lt Gen. Morrison
Major Gen. McLachlan
Vice Adm. Griggs
Air Vice Marshal Deeble
Air Vice Marshal Davies
Vice Adm. Griggs
Air Chief Marshal Binskin
Air Vice Marshal Needham
Air Vice Marshal Deeble
Vice Adm. Barrett
Air Vice-Marshal Gordon
Rear Adm. Sammut
Air Vice Marshal Gordon
Department of Veterans' Affairs
Major Gen. Chalmers
Major Gen. Kelly
Australian War Memorial
- Department of Defence
- DEFENCE PORTFOLIO
Content WindowForeign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee - 25/02/2015 - Estimates - DEFENCE PORTFOLIO - Department of Veterans' Affairs
Department of Veterans' Affairs
CHAIR: This evening the committee will examine the supplementary budget estimates for the defence portfolio in the following order: the Department of Veterans' Affairs until 10.30 pm, followed by the Australian War Memorial until 11 pm. The committee has set Friday, 17 April, as the date by which answers to questions on notice are to be returned. The committee has also decided that senators should provide their written questions on notice to the secretariat by the close of business on Friday, 6 March.
Under standing order 26, the committee must take all evidence in public session. This includes answers to questions on notice. I remind all witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee they are 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. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee. The Senate by resolution in 1999 endorsed the following test of relevance of questions at Senate estimates. Any questions going to the operations or financial positions of the departments and agencies which are seeking funds in estimates are relevant questions for the purposes of estimates hearings.
I remind officers that the Senate has resolved that 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. The Senate has resolved also that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to the 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.
I particularly draw the attention of witnesses to an order of the Senate of 13 May 2009, specifying the process by which a claim of public interest immunity should be raised.
The extract read as follows—
Public interest immunity claims
That the Senate—
(a) notes that ministers and officers have continued to refuse to provide information to Senate committees without properly raising claims of public interest immunity as required by past resolutions of the Senate;
(b) reaffirms the principles of past resolutions of the Senate by this order, to provide ministers and officers with guidance as to the proper process for raising public interest immunity claims and to consolidate those past resolutions of the Senate;
(c) orders that the following operate as an order of continuing effect:
(a) a Senate committee, or a senator in the course of proceedings of a committee, requests information or a document from a Commonwealth department or agency; and
(b) an officer of the department or agency to whom the request is directed believes that it may not be in the public interest to disclose the information or document to the committee, the officer shall state to the committee the ground on which the officer believes that it may not be in the public interest to disclose the information or document to the committee, and specify the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure of the information or document.
(2) If, after receiving the officer’s statement under paragraph (1), the committee or the senator requests the officer to refer the question of the disclosure of the information or document to a responsible minister, the officer shall refer that question to the minister.
(3) If a minister, on a reference by an officer under paragraph (2), concludes that it would not be in the public interest to disclose the information or document to the committee, the minister shall provide to the committee a statement of the ground for that conclusion, specifying the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure of the information or document.
(4) A minister, in a statement under paragraph (3), shall indicate whether the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure of the information or document to the committee could result only from the publication of the information or document by the committee, or could result, equally or in part, from the disclosure of the information or document to the committee as in camera evidence.
(5) If, after considering a statement by a minister provided under paragraph (3), the committee concludes that the statement does not sufficiently justify the withholding of the information or document from the committee, the committee shall report the matter to the Senate.
(6) A decision by a committee not to report a matter to the Senate under paragraph (5) does not prevent a senator from raising the matter in the Senate in accordance with other procedures of the Senate.
(7) A statement that information or a document is not published, or is confidential, or consists of advice to, or internal deliberations of, government, in the absence of specification of the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure of the information or document, is not a statement that meets the requirements of paragraph (1) or (4).
(8) If a minister concludes that a statement under paragraph (3) should more appropriately be made by the head of an agency, by reason of the independence of that agency from ministerial direction or control, the minister shall inform the committee of that conclusion and the reason for that conclusion, and shall refer the matter to the head of the agency, who shall then be required to provide a statement in accordance with paragraph (3).
(Extract, Senate Standing Orders, pp 124-125)
Witnesses are specifically reminded that a statement that information or a document is confidential or consists of advice to government is not a statement that meets the requirements of the 2009 order. Instead witnesses are required to provide some specific indication of the harm to public interest that could result for the disclosure of information or the document.
I now welcome Mr Simon Lewis PSM and the secretary and officers of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Minister, do you wish to make an opening statement?
Senator Ronaldson: I have an opening statement which I will table, given the time. I would like to publicly welcome Major General Craig Orme, who is the new Deputy President of the Repatriation Commission. Major General Orme will be known to many in this room. He is very experienced in many Army and Defence personnel roles, and we very warmly welcome him to the team.
Mr Lewis : I do not have an opening statement, but I can see people looking for Major General Orme. He is actually on a week's leave, which I pre-agreed before he took on the role—a commitment he owes to his wife.
CHAIR: Warm him up for the budget estimates!
Senator GALLACHER: I have questions about the report of the capability review of the Department of Veterans' Affairs conducted by the Australian Public Service Commission. The report was released in December 2014. Can the department update us on the steps that have been taken to address the issues raised by the Australian Public Service Commission's capability review as requiring urgent attention? What steps has the department taken to improve governance arrangements?
Mr Lewis : I will ask Ms Dotta to come up to provide a little bit of detail. But, just to give you a little bit of the overview, as you may see from that report it was dated November of the previous year. It is a report that was delivered to the department before Christmas the previous year. So we are actually well embarked on addressing it.
Senator GALLACHER: My paperwork is wrong, is it?
Mr Lewis : No, it was tabled in November last year. The government releases these pretty much in a big bang, which provides the opportunity for the government to consider a range of capability review reports at the same time and look for systemic issues across agencies—and there are a lot of common issues.
Senator GALLACHER: So you have had 12 months to do this?
Mr Lewis : We are 12 months underway.
Senator GALLACHER: So we should fly through this.
Mr Lewis : I would be happy to hand over to Ms Dotta to give you as much detail as you like.
Ms Dotta : Regarding the capability review, we have since tabled reports to the APSC on the actions that we have taken. There have been a range of actions against each of the findings. In particular, some of the earlier actions we have taken are to update our governance arrangements. That was one of the very early actions that we took. We have also updated our strategic plan, DVA towards 2020. We have undertaken some other reviews. I am able to provide more information as a question on notice.
Senator GALLACHER: Can you give us an example of what you did in governance?
Mr Lewis : We have restructured our top-level governance structures across the whole department. It is not one committee. It is a suite of new committees, and a number of former committees have now been abolished. We have streamlined some arrangements. We have probably left more in the accountability of relevant line managers. We can provide a fair bit of detail about that if you want.
Senator GALLACHER: If you have restructured your committee structure, perhaps just a table on that might be sufficient, a table of where bits lie. It is quite normal if you see a government structure of where things go to. What about your ICT?
Mr Lewis : Senator, we will just finish that first question for you.
Mr Carmody : A range of other arrangements have been made, including structural changes in the organisation that the secretary mentioned, including the creation of the chief operating officer position which I now occupy. Essentially, that is designed to drive the reform agenda through the department. A big element of the reform agenda is the capability review. We have just provided our second updated report to the Public Service Commission. What we are doing on a regular basis is reporting our performance against each of the items on the capability review to the Public Service Commission for their review. As I said, we have just provided the second report to them.
Senator GALLACHER: So you have structure in place and you have a chief operating officer. What steps have you taken to more effectively use feedback to you? Give us an example of that.
Senator Ronaldson: Feedback from where?
Senator GALLACHER: From clients. I might as well put this to you in a—
Senator Ronaldson: I only asked that because I did not want any confusion between our clients and the Public Service Commissioner, for example.
Senator GALLACHER: There is the governance structure, which you have explained, and ICT arrangements. What steps have you taken to more effectively use feedback from clients, and what steps have you taken to improve your approach to clients? That is your role, isn't it?
Mr Lewis : Certainly, it is. We have quite detailed responses we can provide to each of these. In relation to the feedback, there are a couple of things I would draw your attention to. We have revised our consultation framework with ex-service organisations. That is a discussion in its own right, because a substantive review was conducted and we implemented those results nearly 12 months ago now. We have conducted a survey of veterans and we are analysing the results of that now. They will be made public once that work is done.
Senator GALLACHER: What areas identified in the review as requiring urgent action or attention have not been addressed?
Mr Lewis : All the urgent areas have been tackled. There is one we have not touched yet which I would like to mention, because it receives a number of references in the capability review report. That is the need for us to revise and refine our operating model—the way in which we undertake our business activities across the department. There is a lot of work underway in the department now focused on that issue. Again, that sits within the responsibility of the chief operating officer, Mr Carmody.
Senator GALLACHER: Would we say that that is ongoing?
Mr Lewis : Some elements of the phase are into transition now—we are actually implementing the transition—others are further behind. But that work will take several years, and it was always anticipated that it would. But that will be transformative work, so you do not do that overnight.
Senator GALLACHER: So you are assuring me there is a system in place to address all the issues we have raised?
Mr Lewis : We are totally wedded to these changes. They are important to the department. It was a good review; I do not necessarily agree with every word used in the report, but it is their report. The recommendations for change across the department are very useful to the department, and the senior leadership group is very committed to driving the changes embedded in it. We would be very happy to give you regular updates.
Senator GALLACHER: Could you provide a snapshot of what you have just described?
Mr Lewis : Certainly, Senator.
Senator GALLACHER: Thank you. That concludes that item.
Senator Ronaldson: In relation to that issue, I think it is worthwhile having a look at the department's forward plan out to 2020. That really is a significant reflection of the changed face of this department. I think this report actually provided a great opportunity for the department to sit back and have a look and see where it was and where it wanted to be. There were some issues that we might have disagreed with in the margins, but we took the report at face value and responded accordingly.
The fact that Mr Orme has come in and that Mr Carmody has taken on a new role is actually an indication of the fact that we had looked at some of these issues. We will be judged, of course, on the success. I am not saying that we have reached dizzy heights at this stage, but what I am saying is that we are starting the process. We have a long-term plan and we are implementing that, and we are acutely aware of the challenges facing this department over the next 10 years.
I know you would appreciate, Senator, the changing face of this department with the sad but inevitable decline of the World War II veteran population and their war widows, and the ageing of the Vietnam, Korean, Malaya and Borneo cohort—and, of course, the younger contemporary veterans. This department, I think more than any other department in the federal government, has actually had to step back and have a look to see where we are going. We have responded to that report; I think the forward plan until 2020 indicates where we want to be, and there is a great determination in the organisation to get there.
Senator GALLACHER: You are willing to share your progress?
Senator Ronaldson: Of course.
Mr Lewis : We will be able to attach a copy. The plan itself, the strategic element, is only several pages long. But I say to our staff, 'If you cannot remember the whole plan, just remember: client focus, responsive and connected.' They are the three themes we are using to drive change across the department.
Senator GALLACHER: In the ministerial paper, Smaller government: towards a sustainable future, it was stated that the cessation or merger of a number of veterans advisory groups would result in no savings returned to the budget. Is that true? Are there no savings returned to the budget?
Mr Lewis : These are portfolio agencies you are talking about?
Senator GALLACHER: It includes the Vietnam Veterans Education Centre Advisory Panel and various MATES groups.
Ms Daniel : The budget papers do not reflect any savings from that. I am happy to talk through the detail related to our consultation forums and committees. We will be looking at revised approaches which will still see us meeting with committee members, so the agreement was that there was not a budget saving.
Senator GALLACHER: I will ask you three questions related to the first question. You are confirming there are no savings returned to the budget?
Ms Daniel : That is right, yes.
Senator GALLACHER: Are these bodies made up of volunteers or paid staff? I am talking about the Vietnam Veterans Education Centre Advisory Panel and the Medicines Advice and Therapeutic Education Services. Are they paid or are they volunteers?
Ms Daniel : The MATES committee operates under the contract we have with the University of South Australia to run that program. There is a mix of professionals and veterans' representatives on that committee. The education one belongs to a colleague. I would have to get that for you. We will do so during a break.
Senator GALLACHER: Are they veterans or subject matter experts? I think you just answered that one.
Ms Daniel : There is a mixture.
Mr Lewis : It is a bit of both.
Ms Daniel : The MATES committee—there are a number of committees—involves veteran representation but also clinical expertise in a range of areas, pharmaceutical and medical.
Mr Lewis : Sometimes it is a case of finding ways that one committee can do the work that used to be done by three committees—more efficient ways in order to minimise the impost on everybody's time.
Senator GALLACHER: I hear what you are saying, but we are a very parochial lot, Australians. But basically it is a mix and there are paid experts and there are volunteers.
Senator Ronaldson: I stand corrected, but I think the veterans centre group you were talking about before was set up to assist in a program in the United States which was funded by them. I do not think that had met for some time. This was not a—
Mr Lewis : That was piece of work done at a particular time. The work was done so the group's work had come to an end.
Senator Ronaldson: So there is no need for the group.
Major Gen. Chalmers : The Vietnam Veterans Education Centre Advisory Group was just that—a group of experts to provide us with advice on the content for the Vietnam Veterans Education Centre in Washington. That body still exists. Its tenure will expire when its job is done. It has not been disestablished yet, but it will be when the job is done.
Senator GALLACHER: Is that a group of experts, did you say?
Major Gen. Chalmers : Yes.
Senator GALLACHER: So they are all paid?
Major Gen. Chalmers : I would have to call the director of the Office of Australian War Graves forward, but I think—
Senator GALLACHER: What I am trying to get to is: will the cessation or merger of these groups impact on the range of advice and, most importantly, the input of veterans to the department?
Major Gen. Chalmers : In the case of the Vietnam Veterans' Education Centre, the answer to that question is no. It will cease when its function has been completed.
Senator GALLACHER: Does anybody else have a comment on that? Will the cessation and/or merger of these groups impact on the range of expert advice and veterans input available to the department?
Ms Daniel : In the health area and the research area there are a range of committees—in fact, the majority of them. The research ones, generally speaking, are finishing because that research project has finished and we no longer need the consultative forum for that research. For the health committees, we have a range of advisory frameworks with different health professional groups and we are looking to reshape those into a smaller number of committees that are multidisciplinary and give us, therefore, that focus on our consultation. We intend to continue that consultation process, so we will not lose.
Senator GALLACHER: There will not be a diminution of the range of expert or veterans advice? Is that what you are telling me?
Ms Daniel : Yes, but I have said that a lot of the ones in the health space relate to consultation that we have with health professionals.
Senator GALLACHER: It is indicated in the MYEFO documents that residual responsibilities would be managed by the department. If there is something that has not been done through this system, it comes back to the department. Is that correct?
Ms Daniel : The majority of the changes in the DVA portfolio relate to consultative forum rather than an external body performing a function.
Senator GALLACHER: If that were deemed to be vital or relevant, would the department take up that responsibility?
Ms Daniel : Yes, if there were a function that was missing.
Mr Lewis : Senator, let me assure you that I do not think I have ever seen a consultation framework in any department which I have been in in my entire career such as the one we have in DVA. We have a plethora of consultation frameworks and fora for veterans, for healthcare providers, for commemorations—and the list goes on.
Senator GALLACHER: So you are telling me that you can pick up this, if it is additional, and distribute those responsibilities to the existing staff?
Mr Lewis : The reductions in the numbers of such portfolio bodies in the department are relatively modest and entirely manageable, with no loss of capability for the department and no loss of access to consultation where we need it.
Senator GALLACHER: You are also saying that these residual responsibilities do not put extra pressure or extra cost on your department?
Mr Lewis : In some cases it might streamline it a little bit. I mentioned earlier in relation to another question that we had streamlined our consultation framework with the ex-service organisations. Again, we can provide you details of that if you want. You will see as a result of that that we have fewer consultation groups than we had previously, but the ones we have got now work much more efficiently and are still accessing all the required ex-service organisations in relation to the wide range of issues that we need to talk to them about.
Senator GALLACHER: Are you satisfied that the department or staff will have the same expertise, experience and insight as the staff in the terminated veterans bodies? Are you confident you are still going to get the same input?
Mr Lewis : We continually get the input we need via the bodies that we still have in place, of which there are quite a large number. The answer to your question is: we are very satisfied that we have got access to all the consultation and advice we need from our expert bodies, of which we have a number.
Senator GALLACHER: Okay. We will now we move onto the vexed issue of indexation. Can you provide an update on the number of veterans, war widows, war orphans and disabled veterans who will be impacted by the proposal to index the CPI only?
Ms Foreman : Senator, your question was: how many people are going to be affected by this measure? Is that right?
Senator GALLACHER: Yes.
Ms Foreman : The measure begins in 2017-18. In that year, we estimate that approximately 220,000 clients will be affected.
Senator GALLACHER: You do not have the disaggregation between veterans, war widows, orphans and the disabled?
Ms Foreman : I do not have that at hand.
Senator GALLACHER: The total number is 220,000 in 2017-18?
Ms Foreman : That is right.
Senator GALLACHER: Are you able to provide a breakdown of the different payments affected by this change with the number of people?
Ms Foreman : We can give you an estimate for 2017-18. I can tell you the payments that are affected and then we will take on notice the number of people who we estimate receive those payments. The payments that will be affected are the income support payments, such as: service pension; the disability pension, war widower pension; the military rehabilitation and compensation assistance, wholly dependent partner; and special rate disability pension.
Senator GALLACHER: That is five categories?
Ms Foreman : Yes. The income support payments cover a number of payments in that category.
Senator GALLACHER: And you will, on notice, provide the detail for that?
Ms Foreman : We will.
Senator GALLACHER: Is the department in a position to provide an update on any projected savings resulting from this measure?
Ms Foreman : Yes. For the forward estimates, I could give you that figure. As it appears in the documentation for 2017-18, it is a total save of $65 million.
Senator GALLACHER: Where do these savings come from? Is that going to be a reduction in the number of veterans, given the statements by the minister earlier about the cohort that is leaving, the long lead-in time, if you like, before you get people putting it claims? Are there fewer people in the system? Are those savings resulting from that? Or is it basically lower payments?
Ms Foreman : It is not from falling customer numbers—no. No-one will lose money under this measure. It is just that it will not be—
Senator GALLACHER: Yes, I understand. We have had the debate here a couple of times.
Ms Foreman : I know. We have.
Senator GALLACHER: Has the department undertaken any community consultation or education or informing of veterans about the effect of these changes?
Ms Foreman : We have regular forums with our veterans both at the state level and at the national level. Every year after budget we sit down and go through it with the roundtables and the ESO forums. We advise them of the budget measures and their impact. We enjoy a very robust discussion with them.
Senator GALLACHER: Knowing a couple of veterans, I am sure you do. Has the department—this is a dorothy dixer—received feedback from the veterans community via meetings with ex-service organisations or feedback provided by individual veterans with respect to these proposed changes? Do you keep any track of that? Do you have a summation of it?
Senator Ronaldson: I am concerned you are asking Ms Foreman a dorothy dixer. I will let her answer the question.
Ms Foreman : We get feedback in a range of fora. As you have said, sometimes it is through discussions with veterans and veterans groups; at other times it is through ministerials; and at other times it is through personal representation. No, we do not keep track of all of those.
Senator GALLACHER: Are you able to say what the nature of the feedback is? Is it positive or negative?
Senator Ronaldson: I think you are asking the officer for an opinion on the feedback. She said that she is getting it. I am sure—
Senator GALLACHER: If you have conducted forums nationally and sought feedback, then you should know whether it is negative or positive.
Ms Foreman : There is a range of opinions that we have received. That is what I would say. Some of that has been negative—yes.
Senator GALLACHER: And some would be expressed more forcefully than others.
CHAIR: That is probably a good spot for us to have a 15-minute break.
` Proceedings suspended from 20:59 to 21:14
CHAIR: Senator Smith, in continuation.
Senator SMITH: My questions go to the awarding of the French Legion of Honour and the efforts to award the French Legion of Honour to veterans who served in D-Day operations and the liberation of France as part of Operation Overlord. At the time of the British Prime Minister's visit, this issue drew a lot of attention. I was just wondering if you could give me an update in regards to the department's activities in ensuring that Australians who are eligible or who think they might be eligible are getting the necessary documentation and that the French are being made aware of their existence.
Major Gen. Chalmers : Clearly, it is a French award and it is up to the French to determine whom they are awarded to. There have been very generous in their recognition of our veterans. The department is working closely with the French embassy in ensuring that the veterans who they want to honour are being honoured. In fact, only this morning, I travelled down to Melbourne to the French consulate in Melbourne, where four of our World War II Bomber Command veterans were so honoured. The French ambassador and the visiting French Chief of Air Force both were at the ceremony. They asked me to be the master of ceremonies. They honoured four of our veterans with the French Legion of Honour. As you are aware, this is a very, very high French award. The French have been working through those veterans who served in the liberation of France. There is now a process of ensuring that all such veterans are honoured.
Senator SMITH: Do we have any sense of the time that it takes for a veteran to notify the French embassy, a decision to be taken and then the award be given? I am familiar with the award ceremony that coincided with the Albany commemorative events at the end of October and early November, with the minister was present. Is there a sense of the time line that it takes for an application to be processed and for a recipient to be notified?
Major Gen. Chalmers : It is a French process. Clearly, because it is an award of such significance, it does take some time because of the level of authorisation is very high. The President of the French Republic, in the end, is the delegate, I think you would say. Having said that, the French are very keen to ensure that—they understand that the veterans they are honouring are, for the most part, in their 90s—time is of the essence. This is not an award that can be made posthumously. When a veteran is to be honoured, then they need to work through the process fairly quickly and do so.
Senator SMITH: That is a very important point, because the veterans are very aged now. Certainly, those that I have met—people like Doug Groome and Eddie Davis, for example—are well and truly into their 90s. They are very fit and spritely; I will add that. In correspondence that I have received from yourselves, dated 12 January, in response to a letter that I sent to the department identifying 12 to 16 veterans or their families that had made their presence known to me as a result of some media activity, a commitment was given to me that the department will notify each of the veterans or their family member who enquired about eligibility on behalf of a veteran. Was that undertaken?
Major Gen. Chalmers : I am not aware, so I will have to take that on notice for you.
Senator SMITH: In that same letter, dated 12 January, there was a commitment that the nomination process that was established by the French would be discussed so that Australian veterans or their families knew exactly what the process was.
Mr Evans : My understanding is that all of the families that were named in your letter had either been contacted already or were then contacted when we compared your letter with the existing list and that follow-up occurred. My understanding is that all of the people you named now have, or already had, the information about the process that they needed to undertake. I think in a couple of instances the veterans were veterans of the British Armed Forces now living in Australia and, in those cases, we advised them of the direction they needed to follow, which was to gain the verification of service from the British High Commission.
Senator SMITH: Mr Evans, can I extend to you my thanks for your effort and the department's effort with regard to that. I am most appreciative, as I am sure the families are. The same letter of 12 January says, 'The French embassy is currently working through over 180 applications so far.' Is that 180 applications that have come to light as a result of the commentary around the British Prime Minister's visit, or is that 180 applications that perhaps were initiated before that media commentary?
Mr Evans : I would say it would be a combination of both sources. The Department of Veterans' Affairs assisted the French embassy by putting an article in its newspaper Vetaffairs, which alerted the veteran community to the French government's intent. I think the award ceremonies themselves—I believe we are now up to four—have also had a ripple effect through the veteran community. Then there was publicity around the announcements that were made during the state visits at the time of the G20.
Senator SMITH: Can you identify where those four ceremonies have been and how many recipients were involved in each of them?
Mr Evans : The four ceremonies have been at Albany, Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne. There were three at Albany—
Senator SMITH: Senator Back, can I be told each of the three of them? They are very worthy recipients.
Mr Evans : two in Adelaide, four in Sydney—
Major Gen. Chalmers : And there were five today, although unfortunately one veteran had injured himself and was unable to attend the ceremony today, so four were presented today.
Major Gen. Kelly : Just to explain to Senator Smith as well, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of D-Day last year, where eight veterans were identified to travel back to France to participate, the French government commenced the process for awards for those veterans that were going to be in Normandy at that time, and they were presented in Cannes on the first day of our commemorative mission there. Coinciding with that, I was asked by the defence attache here at the French Embassy in Canberra, rather than giving the personal details—which we cannot do of veterans to a foreign government—we took it upon ourselves to assist them by writing to over 125 veterans that we had records of who had served in France during the year 1944 saying that they were being considered for the award of the Legion of Honour. I personally signed over 125 letters to those veterans, hence the number of applications that came back through the French embassy. It also encouraged them to tell friends who had served in their squadrons and who may be eligible to contact the French embassy, hence the embassy being overwhelmed with over 180 applications, as you have mentioned, seeking that award. The process then goes back to the Honours Secretariat in Paris, a bit like our own Honours Secretariat here at Government House. They then confirm the details of those veterans' service. They were overwhelmed by the number of applications that came. One of the gentlemen, Tom Lofthouse from Bunbury, who received the award—a great character—was actually selected for that mission. His process had been done in time for the June mission to France. However, Tom had clots in his lung and legs, and was unable, through medical advice, to travel. So that one was already done. Then there was Eric and Murray Maxton, who are great farming folk from down Albany way. They were the two brothers that also received theirs at Albany. Theirs was one of the first applications that were processed after those letters went out from me, as early as May last year.
Senator Ronaldson: I acknowledge your keen interest in this, Senator. You, I and Senator Back were indeed at Albany when this presentation was made, and it was a marvellous afternoon.
I met with the French ambassador in Canberra last week to talk about this specific issue, and I think it would be unfortunate if the Australian community was in any doubt about how importantly the French people view the presentation of these Legion of Honour awards. The French have never forgotten the contribution of Australians, in the context of both the Second World War and the First World War. And while these are, of course, awards around the Second World War, I think it is indicative of the service and sacrifice of so many Australians in Europe—in France and Belgium in particular—in the First World War. The French view this matter very, very seriously. It is their highest award, and the ambassador, the President and the French people are determined to ensure that those who can receive it do receive it, and we are working very closely.
I have to say that it is of great assistance when honourable senators and members such as you contribute to that process. I would encourage everyone to do so through newsletters and other forms of communication because these are not posthumous. They are old men, and I think it would be fantastic if we could get the Legion of Honour to them before they pass away.
Senator SMITH: I have high hopes for those other Albany and Great Southern residents that have made applications. Again, I extend my appreciation—and, I am sure, the appreciation of the family members of veterans as well—for the cooperation of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, and of course the generosity of the French government.
Senator FAWCETT: The issue of processing times has been consistently raised by veterans and veterans' groups. Could you talk about where you are at the moment with reducing processing times?
Mr Lewis : I might ask Ms Foreman to provide the detail, but we are continuing to make small but significant gains in our processing times and we have got mechanisms in place to enhance our business processes. I think, based on those foundations, we will continue to improve over 2015 and beyond.
Ms Foreman : As in the annual report that was released last October for the 2013-14 year, under the Veterans' Entitlements Act we have a target of 75 days for compensation processing, and I am pleased to say that we met that target of 75 days. Under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, our outcome was 144 days, which was an improvement of 11 days on the year before, but is still above the target of 120.
Senator FAWCETT: So that is clearly an average figure?
Ms Foreman : Yes, that is right.
Senator FAWCETT: In terms of your outliers, how quick are your quickest and how long are your most complicated?
Ms Foreman : I think I should take that on notice—to get the accurate answer to you—rather than attempt to answer tonight. There are two other targets that we have. In relation to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, the outcome last year was 160 days, with the target of 120. In our income support area, we have a target of 32 days and we were at 34 days, which was a seven-day reduction on the previous year. What I can say is that we are getting better, but we still have a way to go.
Senator Ronaldson: The SRCA figure was 11 days. I do not think Ms Foreman said that. So it was a reduction of 11 days. Before I get Ms Foreman to continue, can I just make this comment very quickly in relation to this issue. I have said it before and I will say it again: these are not numbers. In my view this is an early intervention measure as much as it is a mathematical reduction issue. There is no doubt that we are putting enormous resources into trying to bring these claim-processing times down. Someone with your military experience will be acutely aware of the need for that to happen, because as the days come down it is days that families are not waiting for claims to be processed and are not waiting in limbo to get on with their lives. I know you do not, but people sometimes talk about these issues as a mathematical figure. This is actually, in my view, an early intervention matter, and the more we can get them down, the greater the early intervention impact it will have.
Senator FAWCETT: My next question is about part of that early intervention in terms of helping veterans and their families understand the investment that you are making. How are you communicating the investments and the progress you are making to the veteran community? What specific steps are you taking to (a) let them know what you are doing and (b) find whether there are things that they can be doing to expedite and increase the chances of a claim being processed quickly? What are you doing in that area specifically?
Mr Lewis : It is a regular conversation at our Ex-Service Organisation Round Table. That is the group that I chair which includes the national presidents, or their equivalents, of the dozen biggest ex-service organisations. Similar conversations happen at state level at the consultation forums run by the deputy commissioners in each of the states. We communicate via our quarterly newspaper, Vetaffairs. About a quarter of a million of those go out each three months, and we provide updates in relation to our work on claims processing. It is probably about time for another update to go out, but it is also a reminder—as you say, Senator, because that is a really important part of this—that if the veteran can help us in accessing things like service records and they have got their medical assessments done, it is quicker for us to process a claim. If we say, 'You have got to go off and get those things' then it is going to take longer. I think we need to take every channel we can to communicate with the veterans. Of course there is the more personal channel. Once we know that they are in the system, we are communicating with them on a regular basis about the progress of their claim.
Ms Foreman : Just to build on what the secretary said: I think that is a really important part of our process, which we started doing last year. When veterans lodge a claim themselves or through their ESO group, we communicate with them up-front about what the claims process is. We discuss with them that they have provided this information but that we still need further information whether it is from Defence or from a medical specialist et cetera. We are up-front with them about what is needed and we seek their assistance and cooperation in getting that additional evidence so that we can make our claims process flow as smoothly as possible. As the secretary said, there is this broader communication through the ex-service community at various fora, but there is also the individual communication that we have with our clients when they launch a claim.
Senator FAWCETT: What role does the BEST funding, something that the government committed to restoring before the election, play in equipping groups to help veterans be better prepared?
Ms Foreman : The BEST program is a really important program we run, because it funds the ex-service organisation community. We know that a lot of veterans would prefer to go to an ex-service organisation or another veteran to get advice on how to lodge a claim and prepare a claim. The restoration of the million dollars that happened last year was significant. As a result of that, we were able to fund 91 of the applicants. There were 144 applicants, and 91 of those received 100 per cent of the funds that they were seeking, because we had the additional money. The additional money is available, it is going out across Australia and it is going out directly to ex-service organisations. It is funding work in assisting either with compensation or income support claims or with broader pension and service based work that they do.
Senator FAWCETT: Given that the demand has outstripped even the additional commitment the government has made, which is fantastic, how do you develop the guidelines to select which groups actually receive the funding?
Ms Foreman : Actually, it is an interesting process that we have here. We have a formula, and the formula is developed and updated in association and consultation with our veterans about whether the formula is fair and effective et cetera. Every year we have a discussion with our ESO Round Table and other veteran organisations about how the formula is working. What happens is we have a formula that takes into account things like how many cases each ex-service organisation has on, the types of cases they have on, the complexity of the cases, how much compensation processing assistance they are giving versus how much pension assistance they are giving, and we put that into a formula, and that formula calculates how much work they are doing as a proportion to other ESOs across Australia and gives us an amount. The good thing about that is it is transparent. Everyone knows what the formula is. They know what is expected of them and the information they are to provide. They know how we will treat that information once it comes in. Then, once we are through a round, we will have a discussion: have we got the balance right here or do we need to amend it?
Senator Ronaldson: Regarding the $1 million, we went down and met with ESORT, the Ex-Service Organisation Round Table, and said to them, 'We're putting a million dollars back on the table. You sort out how you want that allocated.' I said, 'You're the ones who're delivering those advocacy and welfare services. You come back and tell me. I'm not going to tell you how to do it. You're the experts. You come back.' To its great credit, ESORT had long discussions about this, and they did come back with a formula and it has been implemented. This has been really well received around Australia. It was $1 million that was inexplicably taken out by the former government. I do not want to politicise this but there was no explanation for it. Actually, I think, it was that round 14 had closed. No-one was aware of it, and it caused huge problems. This money is the glue that holds the ex-service community together, and that $1 million being restored has made a substantial difference. Quite frankly, if I had another $3 million or $4 million I would be putting it into BES because it is a great return for everyone, and the ex-service community deserves a really big pat on the back for the way they use these funds. They use them well and they maximise the benefits to the wider ex-service community.
Senator FAWCETT: In November last year there was an article talking about repatriation of Australian Vietnam veterans from the Terendak cemetery in Malaysia. Can you give us an update on whether that has prompted action by DVA on that issue?
Senator Ronaldson: I might take this initially. This is a really important issue. In January 1966 there was a change of government policy in relation to the repatriation of the remains of those who had died serving this nation. After January 1966 those remains were returned to this country. As you would be acutely aware, the Vietnam war started before January 1966. So you had two groups of men who had fought for this nation, and the way they were treated in relation to the repatriation of their remains was different depending on whether they fell before January 1966 or post January 1966. Of the 521 Australian personnel killed in action in Vietnam, 24 are buried in the Terendak cemetery. Ten of these men were killed prior to the change of policy and 14 were buried after the change. For these 14 that were buried there after the change it is really important to remember that it is either at their request or at the request of the family that they remain there. The 25th veteran buried at Terendak is Lieutenant David Brian who was killed in action in the Malayan emergency. For some further context—and I am just making sure I have got the exact figures right here—323 graves of Commonwealth servicemen and their dependants are at Terendak. Thirty four of these are Australians, including the 24 and the one I said before who was from the Malayan confrontation.
I was approached by Major General David Ferguson prior to Christmas in relation to this matter. I met with him in Brisbane and I was personally taken with the matters that he raised with me. In conjunction with Major General David Ferguson, I then met in Sydney about two weeks before Christmas with the late Tim McCombe who was the president of the Vietnam Veterans Federation. We met also with Ken Foster who is the president of the Vietnam Veterans Association. I wanted to get a sense from them as to what their views were. I wanted to get a sense from them before I took this matter any further because these men at Terendak are buried in Malaysia—it is a working military base. Before I made any approaches to the Malaysian government, I wanted to make sure that those men who represent the Vietnam era were comfortable with this approach and we had a long discussion.
I will take this opportunity to place on the public record, the Vietnam veteran community is really still in a state of shock following the passing of Tim McCombe. He was a fearless advocate for the Vietnam veterans. As long as they are not listening, I said at his funeral that the four people who scare me most are my mother, my wife and my two daughters and after that it was Tim McCombe. You knew you had had a good clip around the ears from Tim if you deserved it. He had no fear and no favour. He was a fantastic advocate and he will be very sadly missed. I know I speak for everyone at the table here in relation to that.
We then had a process to go through and we are in that process. I have enormous sympathy for this. What I do not want to happen is for the families of those men who made the decision to not have their remains repatriated to Australia post January 1966 to be under any pressure. They should not be put under any pressure to change their mind. Those prior to January 1966 should have the opportunity. Similarly, those who have changed their mind, I want to facilitate that as well. You will understand this is a long time ago now. We have got to work out who those relatives might be and how close they might be to the deceased. We are working through a process and I think it is one of those matters that probably should have been addressed decades ago, but it has not been, and if it can be achieved then I am anxious for it to occur.
Senator GALLACHER: On 10 November 2014, AusTender published that KPMG had been contracted by the Department of Veterans' Affairs to review the pension indexation process. The contract value was $28,000. Could the department provide details of the tender successfully won by KPMG in regard to detail and scope; purpose of contract; time line for work to be done; details of the work carried out to be made public; and, in the event of it being made public, timing of the public release?
Mr Lewis : Can I just be crystal clear on which contract they won?
Senator GALLACHER: Okay, it is KPMG CND 002 455—
Mr Lewis : You described the works. I am sorry, Senator. Can you just repeat the description.
Senator GALLACHER: This was published on AusTender: KPMG have been contracted by the department of Veterans' Affairs to review pension indexation process.
Ms Foreman : That was a contract that my division took out. We have a range of models that we use to make predictions over the forward estimates about what the average rate of payment is going to be. That model is quite sophisticated. It has to take a range of things into account, such as population numbers et cetera. And we wanted to be assured the model was as good as it could be. I will pass to Mr Harrigan, who can provide you with some further details.
Senator GALLACHER: It might help the process if I just ask the detailed questions that I need to ask and you just answer those ones. As I understood what you just said, you have commissioned KPMG to look at your modelling?
Ms Foreman : That is right.
Senator GALLACHER: So the detail and scope of the contract is precisely what?
Mr Harrigan : The brief for KPMG was to come in and do some detailed analysis of the model that Ms Foreman has just described. It goes a little further than what was described though because every quarter there is an adjustment to our pension rates by either one of the factors that you are aware—CPI or MTAWE. It is important that the way we use that factor that is advised to us is applied to our pension rates in an accurate way. Whilst we were confident that the model we have in place was working as it should, we sought some independent assurance from KPMG to confirm what we believed.
Senator GALLACHER: It is not a huge contract, $28,000. Are they looking at the effect of your different application of indexation?
Mr Harrigan : I am not quite sure of your question but they have advised us about the effectiveness of our model—that is, whether we are applying the change in factors correctly to the underlying payment rates on a rolling basis. The payments are adjusted each quarter. So if the model is not working as it should it can result in an incorrect underlying payment rate. We sought and received the assurance that we were after from KPMG.
Mr Lewis : This is quite a modest contract, as you have already observed, so it is more in the validation space. This is quite a common thing in modelling work of this kind that you would get in an independent house just to look through to make sure that the logic of the model hangs together.
Ms Foreman : It is unrelated to the budget measure.
Senator GALLACHER: What is the time line for it to be done? Does it take a long time to do?
Mr Harrigan : The work is complete.
Senator GALLACHER: Will it be made public?
Mr Lewis : We do not usually provide that sort of material to the public at all. The result of that work would be something like, 'Yep, the model worked fine.' Or, 'You have an issue with your model here that you might want to relook at.' But it is really a validation on our model.
Senator GALLACHER: Is the department able to confirm the contract will see a review of the pension index process? You are saying it is validating what you do.
Mr Lewis : It was a limited exercise, I imagine, in relation to spreadsheets. Is that right?
Ms Foreman : Yes, that is right.
Mr Lewis : It was just in relation to spreadsheets and how we have constructed spreadsheets.
Senator GALLACHER: And it is validating that?
Mr Lewis : Just to ensure we do not make a mistake in how we build it. As I said, it is quite a common thing to do when you are building spreadsheets. You just get someone to come in and look at it and check that you have got the logic right.
Senator GALLACHER: I accept your answers. I am just working through my sheet. Does this review have any relevance to the government's plan to implement CPI-only indexation?
Ms Foreman : No, it is business as usual.
Senator GALLACHER: We will now got to the issue we traversed last estimates—the Veterans' Access Network office closures. At the October estimates, it was stated that six VAN offices and three VAN like offices had closed. Have there been any further closures?
Mr Carmody : Since that time, there has been Parramatta—a change mentioned last time as well—and there are consultation arrangements in place now for two further locations, being Geelong and Tweed Heads.
Senator GALLACHER: Are they closed or are they in line for closure?
Mr Carmody : We commenced consultation about a month ago with the veteran community in both locations, Geelong and Tweed Heads. That consultation finished on 21 February and now we are evaluating the results.
Senator GALLACHER: The rationale that was given for the closure of the VAN and VAN offices in New South Wales and Victoria was limited client numbers and the fact that the leases on these offices were coming to an end. How many VAN or VAN like offices have a lease agreement which is due to come to an end this year?
Mr Carmody : The only two that are due to come to an end this year are Geelong and Tweed Heads, as far as I know. I am certain that is correct.
Senator GALLACHER: You can confirm these offices are currently being reviewed for possible closure?
Mr Carmody : Both of the leases expire in April this year.
Senator GALLACHER: Outside of Geelong, Parramatta and Tweed Heads, should we expect further VAN or VAN like office closures over the coming year?
Mr Carmody : Not over the next 12 months. We have undertaken, though, to ensure that whenever leases are due for renewal in locations that we do an evaluation of the client numbers and all aspects of that particular site before we determine whether to extend in that location.
Senator GALLACHER: Do you do that proactively? Do you do that before the end of the lease?
Mr Carmody : We certainly do. That is the consultation we are undertaking now. In the case of Parramatta, for example, we discussed that extensively with the community and the lease expired in the location that we were in. We created a new smaller office in Parramatta and opened office for another 12 months to look at the veteran numbers in that location to see whether there were any changes. In some cases, for example, in Victoria we co-located with the Department of Human Services. In the Parramatta case, we created a new office and also a network of outreach arrangements to go out and visit local communities.
Senator GALLACHER: You are confirming that prior to the end of the lease, you have the consultation and the like?
Mr Carmody : That is correct.
Senator GALLACHER: At the October estimates, it was stated that regarding six of the office closures the department had reached agreement with DHS to provide services by specially trained DHS staff or DVA staff in their local office. What happened in the other three cases? I think there was nine.
Mr Carmody : I can go through the office locations, if you wish. There were trained DHS staff or we located DVA staff in those offices, or we introduced a smaller agency arrangement in DHS locations so that information was available to the veteran community in those locations. So there are a number of models, depending on the demand from the community.
Senator GALLACHER: Has the closure VAN or VAN like offices increased the amount of outreach work undertaken and has this resulted in additional costs?
Mr Carmody : It has increased or changed the amount of outreach work that has been undertaken, but it has not increased the costs in the sense that in a number of locations we had fixed costs—we had fixed office locations—and we do not have those fixed locations anymore, but we have travel costs. So, in fact, there is no net increase in costs.
Senator GALLACHER: So the efficacy of the department's outreach program is due to be reviewed—is that correct?
Mr Carmody : We actually review the outreach program all the time. We are always looking at locations and making sure that our outreach meets the needs of the veteran community in these locations.
Senator GALLACHER: Does that include services over the phone and the internet?
Mr Carmody : It does. It is part of our client-facing model, in terms of how we deal with clients. We have client satisfaction surveys and we know what percentage of our clients use the internet. Every six months we put new material, if you like, onto the internet to make access easier for clients, but we monitor face-to-face service, which is coming into the van, or the telephone service or the internet service. There is a bit of a mix of those services.
Mr Lewis : In relation to the internet, just going back to an earlier conversation: we are building our internet capability, so there is no doubt that we are seeking to have more of our DVA clients aggressively access services online. For a lot of them, that is how they want to transact with the department. They want to be able to do their business and their processing online. If they have some mental health issues, we have smart apps which they can now access via our online resources. Over time, we have to build that channel to be a much bigger channel than it is now, progressively, because it takes time to build and because we are doing it inside our resource base.
Senator GALLACHER: I accept the technology, and I accept what you are saying, though some experience in the national disability sector is that there have been people taking up the internet and there has not been a correspondingly efficient response from the department.
Mr Lewis : I will put my hand up now and say we have the same challenge. In fact, you referred earlier to the capability review into the department. You would have seen from that that we work off quite antiquated ICT which is in serious need of an update. Progressively that will need to be done. Right now, our big channel for doing that is through partnering with the Department of Human Services. We are progressively doing that. We have now modernised our infrastructure, but we have a fair way to go. That work is critical to the work that I was talking about before, which is to build our online channels, because for a very substantial proportion of our clients that is where they want to be. We are just not well configured for that.
Senator Ronaldson: The contemporary veterans in particular, the younger veterans, are using this form of access, and our department has had to move very, very quickly to meet those needs. Whether it be online applications, whether it be access to mental health services, whatever it might be, we have had to move very, very quickly to meet those requirements.
Senator GALLACHER: Will any review that you do of this area be made public? Can we get a look at it? Can the customers get a look at how you have reviewed and improved?
Mr Lewis : Which sort of review are you talking about?
Senator GALLACHER: The efficacy of your outreach program. You say you review it all the time.
Mr Carmody : We certainly do that. With outreach we do that locally and on a state basis. With the consultation on the van sites, for example, the ex-service community is fully involved in that and has visibility of the figures—how many people are visiting those locations and what is that we based our decisions on. It is very transparent.
Senator GALLACHER: I suppose if you are reviewing the efficacy of your service provision including internet and phone, is that ongoing review published anywhere? Do you have KPIs or service standards?
Mr Carmody : We have KPIs for telephone answering, for example—call waiting time and all those sorts of things. I would have to check: I am not sure how public they are, but they are certainly available.
Senator GALLACHER: Perhaps you could take that on notice.
Mr Carmody : I certainly can. I need to correct something that I said a moment ago, too, just make something very clear. I have just been advised that we did have one other lease that was due to expire this year, which was our Townsville van. Late last year we exercised an option to extend that by five years. Technically, it was due to expire this year, but we exercised the option in advance. There are no other vans on the agenda expiring this year, except for Geelong and Tweed Heads.
Senator GALLACHER: Going back to the vans: has the department received complaints regarding the provision of services in the areas that have been affected by these van or van-like closures?
Mr Carmody : We have had some feedback, surprisingly little. I do not have the details of the feedback with me, but there has been surprisingly little. Sometimes the complaint has been simply that people do not like going into that particular DHS location. We have found also that, where we have put DVA staff into offices, the service has hardly changed at all because the people know the people concerned and are going into those offices.
Senator GALLACHER: So the key point you are raising there is the interaction between veterans and Human Services?
Mr Carmody : Veterans and Human Services is certainly one aspect. The ex-service community in some cases does not like going into Human Services locations. In other cases, it makes no difference to them at all. So it sort of varies across the board.
Senator GALLACHER: How do you address that concern?
Mr Carmody : The best way for us to address it is to make sure that people who are at the Department of Human Services are well trained and that, wherever possible, we can make very good arrangements for the veterans in those locations in terms of, for want of a better term, prioritised access to service, good signage and clearer entrances—making the access as quick and easy and as simple as we can make it.
Senator GALLACHER: If the outreach services or programs, in conjunction with phone and internet services, are not sufficient—and I have not heard you say this—to address the service requirements of veterans in areas where VAN offices have been closed, would you consider reopening any of them?
Senator Ronaldson: That is a hypothetical question and I do not think Mr Carmody can answer it.
Senator GALLACHER: I will rephrase it. In the interaction that has come back since the closures, has there been a pressing case that you are able to sustain to reopen offices?
Mr Carmody : No.
Mr Lewis : There has been nothing even close to pressing. I would describe it as very modest feedback.
Senator GALLACHER: I understand there is an MOU signed between the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Department of Defence to facilitate closer cooperation between the departments in supporting current and former military personnel during the transition process from defence to veteran. Can the department update us on the specific policies and programs in place to assess defence personnel with the transition to being veterans?
Mr Carmody : We certainly can. There is a huge amount of activity and energy in this transition space. One of the initiatives, which I think the secretary mentioned before, was a letter to every transitioning member from the Secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs shortly after they transition, advising them of the availability of Veterans' Affairs services. That is a new initiative. It is one that we have not been able to do before. It focuses them on a couple of things: basically, on the availability of services from us and also on the availability of counselling services if they need them and the availability of a post-service medical check. That is one aspect. We are working much closer with Defence in sharing information in the transition space. We get actively involved in the transition seminars that are run by the ADF, so we are in a position to provide information through our participants, mainly from our on-base advisory service, which is a new service in place in the last couple of years. Of course, we are working very closely with Defence in data exchange so that we can find ways to facilitate the exchange of data between the two organisations so that it does not slow down. We have a lot of paper records—Defence has a lot of paper records as well—but some things are transitioning and we are finding ways, wherever there are opportunities, to enhance our cooperation in that space.
Senator GALLACHER: The on-base advisory service: is there a number of staff employed in that area?
Mr Carmody : I do not have the number in front of me.
Senator GALLACHER: Maybe I will put those on notice.
Mr Carmody : I think it is about 35, but I can confirm the number.
Mr Lewis : We have 38 bases.
Mr Gerrick : The Secretary is correct. It is around about 38 bases where we have representation.
Senator GALLACHER: I want to get to another issue, so I will put those questions on notice.
Senator Ronaldson: Just really quickly: one of the first things I spoke to the Secretary about when I was appointed as a minister was this relationship between DVA and Defence. And it has been a matter of long-term frustration for DVA that we know only approximately one in five of the transitioning members. People say, 'Well, why aren't you interacting with those who are coming out to advise them of what's available?' We do not know who they are. We are making the right moves. I can assure you it is only a work in progress. It has a long way to go, because the very person who comes in as a 16-year-old is the same person who turns 80, and the transition from Defence to DVA should be absolutely seamless. We are working very hard. We are pleased that Defence has come onboard. But we are not there yet. And I intend pursuing this, and the Secretary intends pursuing this with great vigour, I can assure you, because it is just untenable for young men and women who are exiting the Defence Force not to know what their entitlements are under DVA. And I can assure you that we are not going to rest until that issue gets resolved.
Senator GALLACHER: Rather than have time constraints on this we will put these questions on notice.
Mr Lewis : We are happy to help.
Senator GALLACHER: I really have a brief here on homelessness. The last report on veterans who are homeless or potentially homeless was conducted in 2008. Do we have any information on this now—the number of homeless veterans?
Mr Lewis : I will ask Ms Daniel to respond. The short answer of course is that it is not the job of the Department of Veterans Affairs per se, as you would be aware. We obviously have a keen interest, because there are indeed homeless veterans.
Senator GALLACHER: I think we all have a keen interest. I do not know the answer to any of this. Do we know how many homeless veterans there are?
Ms Daniel : We do not have specific data on the extent of veteran homelessness. We do know from broader studies of homelessness in Australia and internationally and from specific studies of veteran homelessness what some of the risk factors for homelessness are. Short-term homelessness tends to be associated with housing crisis or family breakdown. With longer-term homelessness, the risks are associated with substance abuse, mental health issues and—probably not so much for us—also youth-to-adult homelessness. You mentioned the earlier DVA study in 2010. That involved interviews with 60 homeless former serving and their dependants and did indicate a higher incidence of mental illness and substance abuse among homeless veterans than in the general population of homeless men. It also found that slightly more than half of those were in receipt of DVA benefits or income. For a start, not all homelessness will involve DVA clients and be known to us. So, we do not have specific data, but we certainly know the issues around it. I can talk about what we do as a department to assist those—
Senator GALLACHER: I accept the difficulty you would find, but I suppose if someone turns up in Adelaide at a homeless shelter and indicates that they are former service personnel there is a mechanism to deal with that, isn't there?
Mr Lewis : There is. The ex-service organisations will often come to help. And remember, from what the minister just said, that if that is a younger vet, the chances are that only one in five of those will actually be clients of DVA. We will not even know about the other four in five, if they are younger vets, just because of the way in which transitioning members make choices about whether or not they want to access the services of DVA.
Senator GALLACHER: I think that to do justice to this we should put this on notice and get a considered response from the department.
Ms Daniel : I might just add very quickly—you talked about homeless organisations and identifying veterans—certainly I know from my conversations, for example with the RSL in Victoria, that they work very closely with the homeless organisations in Melbourne and actively encourage those organisations to encourage people who are homeless and who they become aware of to identify whether they are former serving members so that they can direct them towards the services that the ex-service community can offer and also make sure that their DVA entitlements are in order. That is the sort of thing that happens at the local level from our regional and state offices.
Senator Ronaldson: Senator, we are going to take this on notice, because it is a really, really important issue. As you appreciate, homelessness is dealt with under Commonwealth-state partnerships. But if DVA finds out that one of our clients is in this position, then we do move very quickly. We contact organisations that are providing immediate accommodation, crisis accommodation. We get in touch with Centrelink to make sure they are getting their benefits. So, I think to do justice to your question, which is a very good one, we will take it on notice and give you a detailed response.
Senator GALLACHER: Thank you.
Senator SINODINOS: Minister or Secretary, can you detail the changes to the non-liability health care and how this is assisting the ex-service community?
Senator Ronaldson: There have been important recent changes, and I will ask Ms Daniel to go through them for you.
Ms Daniel : For the benefit of the committee, non-liability health care is where the department pays for treatment of certain health conditions, whatever the cause. That is, the condition does not have to be linked to service. Mental health conditions covered are PTSD, anxiety and depression, and also some cancers. Two significant changes made with effect from 1 July 2014 improved access to mental health nonliability. The arrangements were expanded to include treatment for alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder. In those circumstances, the department can pay for treatment for those conditions without it having to be linked to service. Eligibility for these arrangements was also extended to a greater number of people with peacetime service. The other, more recent, change that we made is that previously only psychiatrists were able to diagnose a mental health condition for these arrangements. That has been changed so that for non-liability cover we will now accept a diagnosis from a GP or a clinical psychologist.
Senator SINODINOS: I think that was actually a beef of clinical psychologists we have had, yes.
Ms Daniel : And obviously thinking of how hard it can be, particularly in rural and remote areas, to get in to see a psychiatrist, it is a very good avenue towards what we are aiming to achieve, which is early intervention, earlier treatment and speedy recovery. We have actually seen, since those changes, a significant increase in the number of non-liability claims.
Senator Ronaldson: Which is great news.
Senator SINODINOS: That is understandable. Just on mental health issues more generally, you are expanding what you do—is that right?—and trying to find new ways of dealing with these issues. There has been talk about the role of the internet and technology in delivering support and services and working more closely with the medical profession to improve primary mental health care. Is that right?
Ms Daniel : The department has a range of activities underway. In terms of the medial profession, we have developed a number of resources to increase mental health professionals' understanding of the military experience and their knowledge of best practice intervention. The minister launched in December a new online training program for GPs that we did in conjunction with ACPMH and the College of General Practitioners. We have also made available a veteran mental health consultation companion as a supplement to our veterans' mental health advice book. In terms of other activities, our At Ease website is a key initiative. The minister mentioned previously the phone apps that we produce—the PTSD app. So, there is a range of initiatives there. We are continuing to work in that space, looking at some resilience products and some suicide prevention tools.
Senator Ronaldson: We will give you a detailed response to this, because an enormous amount of work is being done. Thank you for your question, Senator. It is a really important one.
Senator SINODINOS: I have just one more, on a slightly different topic. We are commemorating the centenary of Anzac. Of course, part of that is what happened on the island of Lemnos, in the Aegean. I was just wondering whether one of your officers had an update on what commemorations there were in relation to that.
Major Gen. Chalmers : There will be a commemoration on Lemnos. Navy has undertaken to conduct that commemoration, and it will occur, from memory, on 24 April, but I could stand to be corrected on that date.
Senator SINODINOS: And there has been some interaction with Greek-Australian groups around that. Is that right?
Major Gen. Chalmers : I understand that is the case, yes.
Senator XENOPHON: I want to go to issues around the Senate committee's report. I might ask the minister questions on this. I do not want him to feel lonesome from not being asked questions!
Senator Ronaldson: I think I have been asked lots of questions tonight.
Senator XENOPHON: I mean by me. This relates to the Senate committee's report about Defence abuse, the second report, tabled on 31 October last year. One of the recommendations made was that the Australian government introduce amending legislation to remove the three-year minimum service requirement for eligibility for non-liability health care and to make non-liability health care available to any person who has completed any service in the context of Defence abuse. Can you tell us where the government is at regarding that recommendation of the Senate committee?
Senator Ronaldson: My understanding is that it will form part of the government response, so there will be a response to it in due course.
Senator XENOPHON: In relation to another recommendation, I wonder whether you could give us some direction as to what your view would be. Looking at the legal and practical barriers to victims of abuse in the ADF succeeding in establishing the facts necessary to access entitlements to DVA benefits, there is one case, a constituent in South Australia, who was anally raped on HMAS Leeuwin when he was 15 years old. He would have done a few months there. He went home a broken young boy. He is now in his late 50s and has never received DVA benefits. There has been I think some reparation through the DART process and I think his lawyers are acting on a common law claim, or another claim. But the three-year minimum time period seems to be quite onerous in those circumstances, particularly where the abuse occurred within one or two years of their service, and particularly where they were minors. So, I am just wondering whether the government has any views about that or whether you say we need to wait for the government's response.
Senator Ronaldson: Well, you will. This is clearly a matter that is exercising this department. You and I have discussed at some length the different requirements and the standards of proof in relation to these issues. And indeed there has been some discussion at Senate estimates before, particularly in relation to events that occurred at Leeuwin or similar events, and there have been some discussions around that. This is an incredibly vexed area, as you know. There is a report there. The government will be giving it an absolutely appropriate level of consideration, as will this department, because we are of course an important part of the way forward, and we will be responding appropriately.
Mr Lewis : Can I just add very briefly—I know time is short—that that issue did come up at the last hearings. I am not sure that you were here at the time. I had several meetings with the former chair of the DART in relation to this issue and the different tests that we have and I asked whether it was possible to get the information from the DART. We realise that they need to depersonalise it because they cannot provide individual records and files, but if they could give us cluster information we could work out whether there was some way we might be able to use some of that information to help us in evidence in support of some of the claims that individuals might bring forward.
That is still a work in progress, and what we are getting at this stage probably needs to be a bit better than what we have been getting to date. If we can get better information, that might actually help us in the assessment of individual claims such as the one you mentioned before. Clearly there are some tragic circumstances some of these individuals suffered decades ago, and if there are ways we can work within the system we have we would certainly like to do it. I note that the report suggests that legislation changes would help too. Obviously that is a matter for the government, and the government response to that report is expected shortly.
Senator XENOPHON: Dr Gary Rumble led the DLA Piper review, which of course had a very key role in triggering the formation of DART and the Senate inquiries. What resources would you need, and are you considering analysing your own file information from claims indicating patterns of abuse over decades, such as common patterns of conduct, the types of assault, the locations and the like? That could be important in issues of the credibility of allegations and to get those clusters of claims.
Senator Ronaldson: Senator, the secretary touched on this before.
Senator XENOPHON: Yes. I am elaborating on that, Minister.
Mr Lewis : It may be better for us to respond on notice to some of this, Senator. Just to give you a sense, we process 50,000 claims a year. Some of the cases we are talking about obviously go back four decades or more, and we are talking about paper records which probably would be archived in some places distant from the department and not easy to return to the department. I am guessing that in many cases there is an absence of the key records we would need in order to substantiate a case. That is why we are trying to work out other ways to get some evidence that might help with some of these cases.
Senator XENOPHON: If you could take that on notice, especially in the context of that evidence and the recommendations by the DLA Piper review and Dr Rumble and his evidence before two inquiries. Thank you very much.
Senator FAWCETT: I am sometimes surprised when I get contacted by people who are obviously listening to estimates. We forget sometimes that it is closely watched. Something tells me that after I asked you the question about Terendak that it was mentioned on A Current Affair tonight on Channel 9. There were some criticisms about access to the base. I think you said it was a working military base and talked about the condition of the war graves there. Do you have any comment to make on that? Apparently it was opposition criticism about the grave.
Senator Ronaldson: I was advised of that before by one of my staff members. I actually made some comments. It was an interview I did about three or four weeks ago—certainly three weeks ago. As I indicated, we have got to be really careful with this issue. This is a cemetery which is maintained by the Malaysian authorities. We are very grateful for the care and respect that they show for them. I will say to you that I was extremely disappointed with the shadow minister's press release last week in which he reflected on the maintenance of the cemetery and access. That was viewed so badly that there was actually an article in the New Straits Times in relation to this, and there was clearly an offence taken. Indeed, I will just quote from this report. 'Army refutes Aussie claim that cemetery is run down and difficult for families to visit. The army' —that is, the Malaysian army— 'has refuted a claim that graves of Australian war veterans at Terendak camp in Malacca have not been properly maintained. Army chief General Noor said that camp authorities had taken steps to maintain the cemetery in respect of the fallen soldiers. He denied a claim by Australia's opposition Labor Party defence spokesman, David Feeney, who had said the cemetery was not maintained and difficult for families to visit.'
This issue has to be dealt with with great sensitivity, not just going off, as the shadow minister did. He did not even bother to have a chat to me about it. When I was the shadow, if there were matters of sensitivity, the former minister and I would discuss it and sit down with it. There was no discussion with me at all. He has just gone off on this matter without making any inquiries. I will be honest with you; I just hope that he is actions have not impacted upon further discussions with the Malaysian authorities. They have to be treated with the utmost respect as the working base of our maintaining these graves—this cemetery.
I had a note from my staff who said that the report said tonight that these graves were well maintained. If we start playing politics with this, I will not get the outcome that I want to get. It has to be done sensibly. It has to be done delicately. I want to do whatever I can to get these men back with the support and consent of their families. And going off on a folly like the shadow minister did, quite frankly, does not assist that one iota.
CHAIR: Thank you, Minister. Can I just go back to you, Senator Gallacher. I think you said you had two or three that you want to put on notice.
Senator GALLACHER: I have three or four items to cover. Given that there are some detailed questions, we will just do the headline stuff, and then the rest will go on notice. Could the department provide an update on repairs being undertaken on the Anzac Cove seawall which sustained significant damage. Could you just broaden that out a bit. How you are going with the Turkish authorities and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to offer assistance to complete the repairs?
Major Gen. Chalmers : As you are probably aware, the seawalls were constructed by the Turkish government to help preserve Anzac Cove, which is subject to storms. Between 31 January and 2 February there were very heavy windstorms—not much rain—that caused a lot of wave action. The wave action has caused some damage to the seawalls. At the Anzac commemorative site itself the gabions, or the wire baskets filled with rock, have suffered some minor undermining, but are stable. Further away on the northern end of Anzac Cove there has been more significant undermining of concrete walls, and one of those concrete seawalls has collapsed slightly.
Turkish authorities and engineers have conducted a full site inspection on Monday, 16 February. A report is currently being prepared by those engineers for the Gallipoli campaign historical site president and the governor of Canakkale on the repair work that is required. We are working very closely with the Turkish authorities on this issue. The Turkish authorities understand that 25 April is a significant date for us. There is no threat to the conduct of the Anzac Day commemorations on 25 April. The Turks will conduct some immediate temporary repair work and then, in the longer term, permanent repairs to the seawall.
Senator GALLACHER: So we do not anticipate any measures that will impede—
Senator Ronaldson: No, this will not impact at all.
Major Gen. Chalmers : Not at all.
Senator Ronaldson: The seawall worked. That is the good news. The seawall actually stopped an enormous amount of damage.
Senator GALLACHER: Could you provide an update on the repair work being undertaken to replace metal plaques which were stolen.
Major Gen. Chalmers : Certainly, Senator. As you know, some months ago the metal words 'Anzac Cove' and I think nine Bastiaan plaques were stolen. In order to recover the metal value, we acted immediately to put in at a temporary replacement for the letters at the Anzac commemorative site. We are working with Dr Bastiaan to replace his plaques. That work will be completed by the time of the dawn service on 25 April.
Senator GALLACHER: Are we funding that, or is it a joint exercise?
Major Gen. Chalmers : No, we are funding that work.
Senator GALLACHER: The Turkish government is not contributing to it?
Major Gen. Chalmers : It is not a Turkish responsibility.
Senator GALLACHER: Thank you.. Could you just give us a snapshot of what has happened with Right Way research services. I do have some detailed questions which I will put on notice. We have not got time to do them here.
Mr Lewis : There is a short answer is there is a review under way. It is not quite finalised. It will be very soon and the results will be public this quarter. So that is the short version.
Senator GALLACHER: That will be perfectly fine rather than trying to traverse some of the stuff that is in here. Can the department explain the fundamental differences between veterans hearing aid services for SRCA where accepted conditions were funded before and now after? So there is a change in hearing aid services?
Ms Daniel : The arrangements that operated under the SRCA prior to the initiative which moved those clients to the convenience of white cards was that they worked in an arrangement through the department where the department reimbursed reasonable cost of services. The arrangements that apply for the vast numbers of our clients—gold and white card holders—is that we access hearing services through the Office of Hearing Services. Through the Office of Hearing Services arrangements, the hearing aids that are available are under what is called the 'free to client' list, but it is an extensive and regularly reviewed schedule of hearing aids that provide services—
Senator GALLACHER: In the interests of time—and I will put these questions on notice—but I suppose the brutal question is: does the department expect to save money as a result of the change and have you projected that there will be a saving?
Ms Daniel : The introduction of the SRCA white cards for that group of SRCA clients who were previously on the reimbursement pathway was part of the whole range of initiatives that were introduced in response to the MRCA review. The card transitioning aggregate was a saving component but the funding was redirected into other initiatives in response to the MRCA review.
Senator GALLACHER: You have got a smaller menu in respect of hearing devices?
Senator Ronaldson: This was under your government, so you might perhaps go and ask the former minister some of the rationale—
Senator GALLACHER: I have not taken a political view here!
CHAIR: No, that is right.
Senator GALLACHER: We had just about finished and Rono has got in. We were just about finished.
Senator Ronaldson: Just I thought I would remind you, as your government was responsible for this change.
Senator GALLACHER: I am so reminded. I just got through that.
CHAIR: Mr Lewis, on behalf of the committee I thank you and your officers. It is just so evident the passion with which each of the people has addressed the questions this evening. I congratulate you.
Senator Ronaldson: Chair, with your indulgence can I please on behalf of the committee farewell Ms Judy Daniel, who is up the other end of the table there. Judy is leaving the department. For those who have been coming along to estimates now for some time, she has given frank advice and frank answers to questions. On a departmental basis, she has just been a fantastic asset to the department and she will be very, very much missed by everyone. I have valued her frank advice to me since I have been the minister. So, Judy, a fond farewell to you.
Ms Daniel : Thank you.
CHAIR: Thank you, Minister. I do not think you will miss the estimates process, Ms Daniel. Thank you, Mr Lewis.
Senator Ronaldson: She loves it.