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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 19846


Mrs GASH (12:32 PM) —Today I will speak briefly on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2000, not just as the member for Gilmore but also in my capacity as chair of the government defence and veterans' affairs committee. This bill contains 11 amendments to various acts, all of which will improve and clarify the position of current and former service personnel and their families with respect to a range of benefits, entitlements, financial assistance schemes and administrative procedures. In the main, these amendments are being made in response to matters raised during consultation with our current and former ADF personnel. The federal coalition should be congratulated for its preparedness to listen to its people and to look at their concerns, and for having determined that, indeed, there is a need to address the situation and proceeding to amend the legislation so promptly. In government we are not just concerned at the state of technology and equipment in the ADF, we are also particularly concerned about the health, welfare and morale of our service personnel and their families.

This bill is full of amendments to various acts to make things better and simpler for Australian Defence Force people. I propose to work my way through the 11 amendments, briefly detailing the reasons for and advantages of each one. The first amendment relates to compensation adjustments. Members may recall the terrible crash involving the Black Hawk helicopters in 1996, the year we came to government. Subsequently an inquiry was held into the adequacy of compensation for ADF members undertaking high-risk activities in Australia. That inquiry resulted in changes to the amount of compensation to be paid in the event of death or severe injury, the types of services covered by these measures and the recipients of each type of payment or service.

The amendments contained in this bill ensure that additional payments for the death or severe injury of a service man or woman made by a determination under the Defence Act 1903 will not affect compensation payments under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. Because competition within our legislative program has delayed the introduction of this bill, arrangements have been made to adjust payments for any veteran who has been adversely affected in the interim. This is a clear demonstration of the determination of the federal government to ensure that the recommendations of inquiries are not simply shelved but acted on for the benefit of our service personnel who, for far too long, have been let down by Labor's inaction.

The second amendment relates to the extension of counselling and guidance services to the children of ADF personnel who have died or been severely injured during their service. Obviously any resulting trauma could adversely affect the children's educational progress, so it makes good practical sense to ensure that the expertise and educational experience of the members of the Veterans' Children Education Board is made available to those children. The third element of this bill, again, has been sparked by recommendations from a report. Yet again this government is showing its preparedness to adopt the recommendations of the report and its commissions. No more are issues doomed to languish on dusty shelves just because the government has asked for a study or an inquiry into a matter.

Many of the amendments in this bill are the direct result of such reports and studies and here we are, again taking action. Professor Denis Pearce looked at the role of the Repatriation Medical Authority and the Specialist Medical Review Council. He suggested some changes to improve the system for determining claims for compensation. His recommendations clarify the powers of the authority in respect of requests it receives to review statements of principles. Again, wide consultations were held with the ex-service community, as well as their peak bodies, to test endorsement of these recommendations. We can now confidently say that these changes represent our veterans' needs and wishes.

Amendment No. 4 relates to increasing the Repatriation Commission's flexibility in accepting certain applications for travelling expenses lodged outside of the three-month time limit. Where a veteran has suffered a long-term illness that has impaired that person's ability to manage their affairs, he or she could suffer an unintended difficulty in obtaining reimbursement of travelling expenses incurred in seeking medical treatment. I suspect that the veteran community and ex-service organisations will welcome this change, as I know my office in Gilmore has been made aware of the need. Having demonstrated the need, they expected this government to heed the call and I am happy to say that we have responded appropriately. It is an honour indeed to be able to serve our veterans in a government that will take practical action on their behalf.

As you may imagine, the competing demands of other legislation in our program has delayed this announcement. But the veterans in Gilmore have known that we would make it happen as soon as possible. As chair of the government's defence and veterans' affairs committee, it is great to see our veterans' confidence in government being restored where distrust had grown for some years under the Labor government. As the minister highlighted in his second reading speech:

The present restriction on the Repatriation Commission to delegate its powers to a person employed under the Public Service Act 1999 is a barrier to effective use of contracted and outsourced services.

The fifth amendment, not to be confused with the American one, under this bill enables the Repatriation Commission to delegate its powers to contractors, agencies and firms that are working on its behalf. Control will be maintained through contractual arrangements. The opposition may whinge and ask, `What's wrong with the current delegations? Why change them?' The example that the minister quoted is an excellent example of why it should be changed. If the new pharmaceuticals approvals centre operations were managed by a private contractor it would currently require a contracted pharmacist to make a recommendation to a delegated DVA employee, who would make a decision based on the recommendation. It sounds like something you might see on a television comedy. One of the many things at which this government has proved itself very effective is the streamlining of bureaucracy.

This is just one more example. The sixth amendment in this bill covers the creation of funds for special assistance or benefits granted under section 106 of the Veterans' Entitlement Act. This will streamline the processes associated with any such grant by the commission in the future and will solve the current issues of delays while arranging finance. Amendment No. 7 will facilitate greater flexibility and efficiency in the Veterans' Review Board's operations. These better arrangements include an additional configuration of the board, the use of the slip rule where an obvious error has been made in the text of the decision or its reasons to allow its correction, and power to delegate certain action within the board's registry.

Highlighted in these amendments are the government's commonsense solutions to possible barriers to efficiency in the service of our veterans. Part 8 of this bill introduces a measure to assist the surviving partner of a deceased veteran. This amendment indemnifies a financial institution against further claim for an amount of income support payments received after the death of a person when the institution, at the request of DVA, allows the partner to access the amount as bereavement payment. Again, this measure streamlines a process that financial institutions have been willing to facilitate. Nobody wants to deny a bereaved partner immediate access to the payment.

The ninth amendment relates to GST consequential issues. It completes the measures to ensure that benefits were retained at their current levels after the new tax system came into force. Rather than having to present legislation to both houses of parliament every time—for, for example, increases to the maximum payment for a medical report—it makes practical sense to allow such fee setting adjustments to occur more easily and without wasting our time on such fine detail. Of course, this amendment will also allow GST to be added.

The 10th amendment relates again to the streamlining of administrative requirements, this time with regard to health care providers. In keeping with the government's commitment to reduce red tape, this item reduces DVA's administrative demands of providers. We want our veterans to be able to access health care without it causing them or the providers a mountain of paperwork. This will save both time and money, as the time delay currently produced by the provider's having to obtain DVA's permission to treat the veteran will now cease. It is high time that we recognised the significant majority of providers and rendered an appropriate level of care. We can rely on the informed and selected monitoring of contractual arrangements to ensure that the desired level of care is being delivered without overservicing occurring.

Last is a measure to provide for an alternative credit provider to administer some advances under the Home Support Advance, HSA. This is one of our initiatives that supports this government's and our community's priorities for our senior Australians to be able to age in place—that is, to assist older people to stay in their homes for as long as they desire. Obviously people can get to a point where the regular home maintenance functions that one performs become too much of a load. Rather than have these chores left undone, thereby reducing the quality of life in the home or creating undue anxiety about finances, HSA has been available but only through one provider, that being Westpac. This amendment will provide the opportunity for tenders for the provision of advances on the open market, therefore ensuring competition engendered by such opportunities will make sure that the best prices and service will be available to our veterans.

Mr Deputy Speaker, as you have heard, this bill contains many changes to programs that affect our ADF personnel and veterans. Every single amendment I have addressed today will provide good news to our current or former service men and women and to their families. That is the message from this government—actions, not empty words for cheap political points. I commend the bill to the House.