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Thursday, 1 March 2001
Page: 24859


Mr MURPHY (11:04 AM) —I would like to begin by congratulating the members for Franklin and Stirling for their very sensitive contributions to the debate on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Application of Criminal Code) Bill 2000 this morning. They made invaluable contributions to the debate on this bill. They have both had the opportunity to visit a number of theatres of war overseas where our servicemen gave up their tomorrow for our today. Although I have not had that opportunity, I know that one day I will do so. I am very proud to say that I worked for 20 years in the Department of Veterans' Affairs, as the member for Franklin said. It is a great department. Overwhelmingly, the staff have a commitment to ex-service men and women and their dependants. They deserve to be congratulated for the great service they have done and will continue to do.

Over the years, in the various roles that I undertook in the department, I had the experience of meeting ex-servicemen from all walks of life—those who served in all the conflicts, from the Anzacs to those serving today. I was very privileged to be made an honorary member of the Legion of Ex-Service Clubs, which organises the dawn service in the Cenotaph in Sydney every year. I have attended many dawn services there over the years. I had an uncle who served in the Owen Stanley Ranges. He did not die there but effectively it ruined his life. He ended up on the streets and was a trust case of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. So I know at first-hand the impact of war on the lives of those who gave us the opportunities that we have today in this great country. The only problem I have with the Department of Veterans' Affairs is that it has shed so many staff over the years. It started when I was there, and it continues to downsize. That worries me a bit because the number of clients of the department are dwindling and their needs are ever increasing.

I would also like to pick up on what the member for Stirling said when she spoke about the Sandakan campaign. Recently, in my capacity as the federal member for Lowe, I was made the patron of the Sandakan Community Education Committee, which is based in Burwood and is supported by the Burwood council. I felt very privileged that that honour was bestowed upon me. I take the opportunity to thank the members of that committee for giving me that great opportunity—Enid Maskey, Christine Robertson, John Walsh, Priya Powell, Bob Williams, Paul Webb, Councillor John Faker, Councillor David Weiley, the former Mayor of Burwood, Clyde Livingstone, the Reverend Jim Doust and Elaine Doust, Morry Goldberg and that well-known, local, popular RSL figure, Russ Kenny. One of the most satisfying elements of my public life as a federal member is doing anything that I can to facilitate and help the ex-service community, and I will continue to do that.

I am supporting this bill because it seeks to bring penalties into line with other Commonwealth legislation by amending sections which contravene chapter 2 of the Criminal Code Act 1995. Labor is broadly supporting the bill, which makes a number of amendments to the offence provisions administered by the Department of Veterans' Affairs, including identifying strict liability offences, clarifying defences and fault elements and playing a housekeeping role by removing references to the Crimes Act and replacing them with references to equivalent provisions in the Criminal Code.

Firstly, I wish to discuss the strict liability provisions. A strict liability offence must be clearly identified under the Criminal Code. Neglect to do so means that fault elements which must be proven by the prosecution will apply to all physical elements of the defence. An example given by the Bills Digest is: if a businessman or tradesperson were to suggest that his or her operations were a `war service home' or a `defence service home', he or she may be committing a strict liability offence under section 50A of the Defence Services Homes Act. However, under the Criminal Code a defence may be applied as a `mistake of fact' to such an offence.

Also the bill amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 to identify a number of other offences which may be strict liability. However, according to the Bills Digest by the Parliamentary Library's Jennifer Norberry, the amendments retain the `defence of reasonable excuse in each case where it presently applies to an offence identified as a strict liability offence'. The bill also works to make amendments to the Veterans' Entitlements Act relating to fault elements. For example the word `wilfully' in subsection 93D(7) of the Veterans' Entitlements Act is replaced with `intentionally'. This is because the Criminal Code provides fault elements of `intention', `knowledge', `recklessness' and `negligence' rather than `wilfulness' or `knowingly'. These amendments also clarify the physical element of fault as being one that involves performing proscribed conduct: for example, deceiving an officer of the department. There are a number of ancillary changes which this bill amends in an effort to clear up references to the Crimes Act of 1914 and replace it with appropriate references to the Criminal Code. In particular, these include references to incitement and conspiracy to commit an offence against any Commonwealth law.

I would like now to turn briefly to an issue which cuts right to the heart of the veteran community, which I was referring to earlier, and that is a problem of grave concern—namely that of service provision and the declining staff levels of the department. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I spent some 20 years working in the department and since my election in 1998 I have managed to build a good relationship with the veteran community in my electorate as the federal member. That is pretty easy when you have worked in the department for so long. I know the minister is here and I will commend the minister. He does a good job and he is very widely respected throughout the RSL community. It is one of the fortunate things with veterans' affairs that there is bipartisan support generally. Yes, at times we have our battles and our debates on various issues, particularly with regard to entitlements—and the one we are looking at at the moment is the gold card—but, generally speaking, I think the ex-service community is very well served by the Australian government of the day.

I think it is true to say that historically we have had the most generous repatriation system in the world. When I worked in Veterans' Affairs, to get something out of the American government or the UK authorities for health and social security was like trying to get blood out of a stone. You almost had to produce your gunshot wounds; they were pretty tough. But the criminal standard of a reasonable hypothesis gives most ex-servicemen a reasonable chance of success of linking their war caused diseases and injuries to their service. If there is any contribution, aggravation or occurrence, most of the claims succeed—and so they should—and the civil standard is applied to the determination of the rate of pension and associated entitlements. So I think we do a good job, Minister, and I will take the opportunity to feed back to you while you are sitting here in the chamber that you are well regarded by the ex-service community in my electorate. Even if there is a change of government at the end of the year, I am sure that the ex-service community will continue to be well served.

I want to say that the staffing levels of the department have been declining since the election of the government, and I want to look briefly at the figures. In 1995-96 under the Keating Labor government the total departmental staff, including hospital staff at repatriation hospitals, numbered 3,384. I know that is a big component because we have shared our institutions predominantly with the Department of Veterans' Affairs, and that is not a bad thing because most ex-servicemen, ex-servicewomen and their dependants would like to be treated locally, so I can understand that.

Nevertheless, departmental staff numbers drastically reduced to 2,746 in March 1996 as part of a smaller-government philosophy by the government. Further cuts have continued each year. The declining staff rate left the department with just 2,475 staff in 1999-2000. This results in the staff of the department having more work to complete and less time to do it. The staff are doing a good job, as I have said earlier, but even they are limited by some of the government philosophies and policies. Just looking closely at those figures, at 30 June 1996 there was a total of 972 people across Australia working in the health section of the Department of Veterans' Affairs from different areas, including administration, war graves and corporate services. The figure for those working in the health section at 30 June 1997—just one year later—was 768 staff across Australia. This is a reduction of 204 staff or almost 21 per cent of the staff in the health section of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I am concerned about that. Overall since 1996, the total departmental reduction has been almost 27 per cent.

The veterans' community, particularly given that this is an ageing community—the majority of World War II veterans and dependants are now in their 70s and 80s—needs an increased level of care, particularly health care, to be available. As the health of these World War II veterans diminishes and there is an increased need for health facilities and care due to service related injuries, staff numbers must not be allowed to continue to decline. Realistically, services to the veterans' community will not improve unless the government decides to boost the staff levels.

Finally, I note that over the past decade there has been an increasing number of medals created by the federal government to recognise community service, including civilian service during World War II. This should not mean, however, that the service of our national servicemen should not be recognised. I know the minister is here today. I recently asked him a question on notice about getting the Australian Service Medal for national servicemen. The government have declined to do that, but they are having a look at providing some recognition. I encourage the minister to pursue that because I think they deserve that. I remind the minister that national servicemen recently marched to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the introduction of compulsory peacetime military service from 1951. I was pleased that the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Senator Chris Schacht, and the shadow minister for defence science and personnel, Laurie Ferguson, recently announced that, when we get into government, we will support an appropriate form of recognition for the quarter of a million Australians who undertook compulsory military service between 1951 and 1972.

I hope we do not have to wait to get that recognition for the national servicemen. I am a patron of our local national servicemen's association and I have given them a commitment to do whatever I can to get the recognition that they deserve. I really think, Minister, while you are here and we are talking about the needs of the veteran community, that you should do something before the election. I would give you recognition for it because I think it is something that is desperately needed by the national servicemen's community. We should not have to make something like that an election issue. I am sure you can do something about that before 17 November, 24 November or 1 December—whenever the election is likely to be held—because I am not really anticipating that there will be an election earlier. I realise the heartache that you are experiencing at the moment. You are a good minister for the veteran community; I will say that. I know you will continue to serve the ex-service community well. I will give you any support I can as someone who has worked in the department for such a long period of time. Probably technically, with great respect, I know more about the insides of the department than you do. You have to rely on your minders, so I am quite amenable to getting a phone call from time to time if your minders do not tell you the true story. We know sometimes these things happen.

I certainly remember that, when I was a New South Wales audit manager in the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the management of the department did not appreciate my telling them that the systems were not meeting their objective all the time. I would have thought an audit manager's role was to be a good director of intelligence and to report directly to the secretary if something was wrong. I offer you any service that I can give you from my side of the House, Minister. If I can help you do anything to make things better for the ex-service community, the member for Lowe is at your service.