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Thursday, 25 March 2004
Page: 27328


Mr EDWARDS (9:59 AM) —The Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Electronic Delivery) Bill 2004 provides for the electronic receipt of many communications with the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the Veterans' Review Board, the Repatriation Medical Authority and the Specialist Medical Review Council. The bill gives those electronic communications legal status. At the same time, the bill regularises and standardises the form, language and processes of those communications.

Until this bill, all communications with respect to claims and lodgment of documents with DVA and its agencies had been exempted from the provisions of the Electronic Transactions Act. This act required the electronic communications with the Commonwealth to be given legal status. In making the provisions needed to bring veterans' matters in line, the opportunity has been taken to standardise processes, form and language in the principal act. These changes affect claims for most benefits, advice, applications for reviews, change of circumstances, withdrawals and most other communications between veterans and DVAs. The bill is therefore purely technical with significant housekeeping by way of simplification and standardisation. It is therefore supported.

As we know, the Veterans' Entitlements Act is a very complex piece of legislation. It has many unique characteristics which have evolved over 85 years of operation. Needless to say providing for electronic communication in an act designed only for pen and paper is a dramatic change. However, it is not only the act which needs to be changed. Changes such as this dramatically affect internal departmental processes. It assumes that all electronic systems have the capacity to handle electronic communication—which some do not. It assumes that record keeping of electronic communications is also possible. It assumes that the veteran clients also want to do business this way—which some do. Certainly, in the modern world, this type of communication is very efficient. In the future we can expect the majority of business to be transacted in this way. So to that extent this bill is an inevitable sign of that process. It is also a sign that veterans' business is not going to diminish. While ever we have defence forces we will have conditions of service providing for those unfortunate enough to be injured or to require treatment as a result of their service. It is important that they be delivered as efficiently as possible.

It is important for another major reason: record keeping and access to records from Defence are notoriously bad. Many ex-service people have been thwarted in their claims for benefits because paper records have been lost or mislaid. In fact, the keeping of personal health records by Defence is a disaster. It can only be hoped that, as the electronic route becomes established, with agreed and standard protocols, it will cease to be an issue for the future.

Having dealt with the technical aspects of the bill, I want to touch on another issue of importance to the veteran community. I want to bring before the committee the case which is being pursued by retired Lieutenant Colonel Jim Bourke, who heads up an organisation called Operation Aussies Home. He has recently written to me, and I want to read part of the letter into the committee records and make a plea to the government, and the Minister for Veterans' Affairs particularly, to have a look at what this organisation is about.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Cowan, there are other forms of the House in which to read a letter into the Hansard. I am wondering what that has to do with the bill before the House.


Mr EDWARDS —This is an issue relating to the veterans community. Traditionally, debates in this place on veterans' issues have been very wide ranging, and I would think that you would at least give me the opportunity to introduce this matter.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I am not denying the member the right, but I am saying that, under the rules of the House, you have to be relevant to the bill before the House. There are other forms of the House.


Mr EDWARDS —This is a veterans' issue and I would argue strongly that it is very relevant to veterans' legislation.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I have to tie it in. Is it to do with the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Electronic Delivery) Bill 2004?


Mr EDWARDS —It is to do with communication. It is interesting: if you are going to apply a very narrow interpretation of how we deal with this bill to me, then you are going to have a lot of difficulty with the other members who are due to speak on this issue because I know that the issues they want to raise are very wide ranging and of interest to the veterans community.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Cowan can rest assured that every member will be dealt with the same. I will listen to what you have to say, but I remind you that there is a bill before the House and you have to be relevant to the bill.


Mr EDWARDS —I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for that very narrow approach and very narrow ruling.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —If the member for Cowan wants to reflect upon the chair, then I will deal with him.


Mr EDWARDS —I might say it is not the first time you have tried to curtail me in this place when we are debating legislation to do with veterans.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Cowan can put what reflection he likes. I am dealing with the standing orders—


Mr EDWARDS —What I am saying to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, is that you are dealing with this in a very narrow way, which will inhibit, in my view—


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —If the member for Cowan wants to debate the chair, I will sit him down.


Mr EDWARDS —I am already sitting down.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —He will continue to speak on the bill and he will connect what he has to say with the bill.


Mr EDWARDS —I very much want to connect this to the bill because it does indeed go to communication and it relates to a problem of communication which this group of veterans working under Operation Aussies Home is having in communicating with the government and with the minister. I might say it is a very non-contentious issue which I am seeking to deal with. There are other forms by which it can be dealt with and other more political forms by which it can be dealt with, but I do not want to do that. I simply want to bring to the attention—


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I remind the member for Cowan: if he thinks he is going to threaten the chair, he should think again. I am just dealing with the forms of the House at the present time. If he wants to threaten the chair, I will sit him down.


Mr EDWARDS —I have no intention of threatening the chair. What I am simply trying to do is to state a case for a group of veterans who are having problems communicating with the government. I will read the letter and you can make your own mind up, Mr Deputy Speaker:

Dear Mr Edwards,

... ... ...

I am writing to you for your advice as to how I may be able to encourage the government to take action to engage the US agencies to carry out some in-country investigation re our six men left in Vietnam. We, OPERATION AUSSIES HOME, have done some in-country work and may have had some success regarding one of the six cases—further details to follow once we have confirmed a few items.

As you are aware, I do not want this issue to become a political football ... but I have given up trying to progress this issue logically and quietly with the government ...


Mrs Gash —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on point of order. As much as I respect the member for Cowan and what he has to say, there are other places in the House where you can do that sort of thing. You can put it in the adjournment debate or put it in a question on notice. I do not believe that this legislation—


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I have the point of order. Member for Cowan, I have just been looking through the schedule and the bill and really it has nothing to do with what you are trying to put into the record. You can do it in the adjournment debate or in a grievance debate. There are forms of the House, if you want to get it into the record, which are quite relevant, but this particular bill is not.


Mr EDWARDS —Mr Deputy Speaker, I accept your ruling with some concern because I have listened to many debates in this place—indeed I have taken part in many debates—on veterans' issues and there has always been a licence to allow members, when they are bringing issues of concern to the veteran community, to do that in what has always been considered a fairly wide-ranging debate.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —It depends on the title of the bill. Some bills are wide ranging.


Mr EDWARDS —I will accept your ruling and I will draw it to the attention of the veteran community.