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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 19848

Mr MURPHY (12:42 PM) —Like the member for Reid and the member for Gilmore, I support the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2000. Quite obviously, the government has done the right thing for the victims of the Black Hawk helicopter crash in 1996, and their dependants, by extending the compensation of $200,000 for death or severe injury and $50,000 in respect of each dependent child at the date of death or at the time of severe injury. The payment of $1,000 to severely injured members or dependents of deceased members for obtaining professional advice is a very worthwhile thing. As I said in my previous contribution, anything that the government does for the veteran community by way of extending compensation and benefit is justly deserved and will invariably be supported by both sides of this House. It is a very worthwhile cause.

The extension of counselling services under the Veterans' Children Education Scheme is also a very good thing in terms of counselling services which need to be provided to young children. In my contribution in the debate on the Family Law Amendment Bill 1999 I talked about the high level of youth suicide. It is much higher in the children of the veteran community, as the Morbidity of Vietnam Veterans Study shows. The extension of that service to those children is a very worthwhile thing.

I also support the amendments relating to the Repatriation Medical Authority, where you get people who seek a review but do not state grounds for it, where the RMA considers that there are not any grounds for review, or where there is a frivolous or vexatious appeal. Anyone who has worked in Commonwealth jurisdictions knows that people will try a lucky dip approach if there is an avenue of appeal, notwithstanding that there are absolutely no grounds for appeal. This can be very costly and time consuming for the department and, ultimately, for the taxpayer. If there is absolutely no chance of getting a positive outcome, it makes sense to give discretion to the determining authority to not conduct a review and to give the Repatriation Medical Authority time to clarify any reasonable connection between a war caused disease or injury and a veteran's service. The time is better spent there than with those frivolous or vexatious appeals.

Another area of amendment deals with the Veterans' Review Board, which is the final determining authority which one can go to within the repatriation system before contemplating going off to the Federal Court, the High Court or the AAT. Clause 104A of the bill is a proposed amendment to allow the principal member of the VRB or the member who presided at the review in question to alter the record where they are satisfied that there is an obvious error in the text of the decision or the reasons. I worked for many years in the Department of Veterans' Affairs, and I know we have some officers from the department here as advisers to the government. I am sure they have experienced errors in recording determinations, because the Department of Veterans' Affairs has made hundreds of thousands of decisions over the years, and at times the determining authority puts the wrong effective date or the wrong spelling of a disease.

When I was working with the department, there were powers under section 31, I think, of the Repatriation Act, where a delegate of the Repatriation Commission could amend something where there had been a wrong recording. I can think of a funny instance when someone wrote down `cerebral haemorrhoids' when they meant to write `cerebral haemorrhage'. It was quite obvious, even to those not enlightened in the field of medical science, that if someone was suffering from cerebral haemorrhoids, there had been a terrible mistake. You can imagine the cost to the taxpayer to fix that through some formal process of going back to the determining authority—who was, in my day, the assistant commissioner.

I can think of another occasion when a doctor from the department wrote to another doctor to do a medical report on a veteran and asked the doctor to report on the veteran's A/Ds. Anyone who has worked in the Department of Veterans' Affairs knows that when you talk about A/Ds you are talking about `accepted disabilities.' But the stroke between the A and the D was very small, and when the doctor received it—and he did not know the veteran's medical history—he read it as `AIDS'. When the patient came in and was assessed by the doctor, the first thing the doctor said was, `How is your AIDS?' The 75-year-old veteran almost had a stroke on the spot, because he was not aware that he was suffering from AIDS, and indeed he wasn't. Several ministerials and an apology from the minister followed, but these are things that can happen. We all like to be precise in our written expression, and we do not like any terminological inexactitude, so if there is some sort of cosmetic surgery to be done on a determining authority's decision—in this case, the VRB's—and the principal member can do that with a minimum of fuss, obviously that is a very good thing.

I do not think I need to say more on this bill, because there is support on both sides of the chamber. I think that the net result, as has been described by the member for Gilmore, who went through the amendments more exhaustively, is that it will be of great benefit to the ex-service community because it will streamline the process and it will be more efficient for officers of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. That is what those provisions are designed to do, as well as providing extended compensation to the victims of the Black Hawk helicopter disaster and counselling services for children under the VCES. I commend the bill to the House.