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Thursday, 25 March 2004
Page: 27331

Mr CAMERON THOMPSON (10:08 AM) —I am pleased to speak on matters pertaining to the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Electronic Delivery) Bill 2004 and I am disappointed that the member opposite chose to raise those other issues. The letter that he quoted said that the people writing the letter did not want the matter to become a political football, so I do not know why the member opposite chose to make it a political football by bringing it to this occasion.

Mr Edwards —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order that goes to relevance. I wonder exactly what the member is saying has to do with the bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—I do not think it has much to do with the bill, but in fact the member for Cowan did raise the issues and he is replying. I ask the member for Blair to get back to the bill.

Mr CAMERON THOMPSON —As I said, I do want to speak specifically in relation to the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Electronic Delivery) Bill 2004. This government is committed to ensuring its services are kept up to date with modern technology and it has long demonstrated this commitment. This bill is designed to facilitate the provision of veterans' entitlements and veterans' services via the Internet so that veterans can pass their queries through a system that is very convenient.

I would like to point out just how convenient the Web can be, not only for veterans but also for the general community. This is a system that enables people to complete and lodge forms from their own lounge room or bedroom or wherever they have those facilities. I do not think it would displease members to think that veterans should be entitled to this kind of service too. As the member opposite discussed in the early part of his speech, many veterans do avail themselves of access to the Internet. I have quite a few people in my electorate who do that—for example, Don and Ronda Herrmann. Ronda, in particular, has some illnesses that make it very difficult for her to go outside. This is the case for many vets too. If that is the case, how do you then go in and complete all these forms, get all this paperwork done and access the services of the department? Ronda is not a veteran, but she is an older member of the community who likes to be involved in community activities. She is able to use the Internet to contribute to the community and be practically as active as she has ever been in her life, and the veterans community is able to do that too under this bill.

The idea that you should have to pick up a piece of paper and scribble your name, your submission and everything on it in order to access government services is really an outmoded view, I think. We now have a situation where plenty of people can do it simply by tapping on a couple of keys and that submission goes immediately into the system. You do not have to hop into your car or, if you are disabled, call up your neighbour, get in their car, go all the way into town and make your submission; you can do it instantly. One of the immediate advantages that flows out of that is that your form is lodged straightaway. The time that it takes you to get into town or post the letter is not part of the issue. Through this, you get immediate lodgment. This is, of course, a much improved situation.

In December 1997 the Prime Minister released a statement entitled Investing for growth: government commitment to online services, and this bill is another example of the government's modernising and updating of the system to make it as convenient and practicable as possible for Australians. It is the next step in upgrading technological delivery of government services. I welcome this application of technology. The Veterans' Entitlements Act may be 85 years young, but it can be improved all the time. This is another way in which we do it. In my community of Ipswich, Dr Hilda des Arts, who has unfortunately passed on, really pioneered the application of IT and its benefits in the seniors context. She was a pioneer of the group known as SeniorNet—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 10.13 a.m. to 10.24 a.m.

Mr CAMERON THOMPSON —I was saying before the suspension that really this is a step in a process where we are providing greater technological delivery of government services. It is an important opportunity not only to communicate better with the community but to ensure that government is provided in a more efficient way. The efficiencies that are created when, for example, we move to electronic lodgment are quite significant. It is something that we must keep very closely focused on. Every time we move from all this paper shuffling to an electronic document that is able to be filed directly, we create an opportunity for savings in effort by the public servants whom we employ to carry out these duties. I think it is important that we continually review, review and review to ensure that the benefits of that are then passed on.

As the member for Cowan said, there are people who seek to lodge documents electronically, but there are also people who do not. We do not want those people to be disadvantaged by the fact that they are still tied to paper documents. Perhaps they are in a more remote location or are on a tougher wicket. What I am saying here today is that by making savings through the use of electronic lodgment we can then redirect those savings to provide better services to the ones who need it. They are the ones who are more disadvantaged. They are the ones who do not have a computer and probably will never own one. They probably would not want one if we went and gave it to them. That is a fact.

We need to continually review and take those savings. It is not just a matter of having a bureaucracy that remains constant or continues to grow in size and continually taking away work from it by providing for electronic lodgment and improved technology. We have to look at it and say, `Do we need such a big bureaucracy? Can we reduce or can we redirect that to provide a better service?' Veterans definitely demand good service. They have provided services to our country and they expect services in return. I think that, by engaging in this good practice, the government is providing that improved service.

The services, the range of opportunities that veterans are able to access through the government, are getting larger all the time. We have seen another example of that in the new entitlements that have just been provided by the government in response to the Clarke report. They will be accessible through electronic lodgment. The government is now moving to index above the general rate component of the disability pension by MTAWE—that is, male total average weekly earnings—or CPI, whichever is the greater. There are 45,000 beneficiaries of that. Half of them, about 28,000, are TPI veterans. The rest include 14,500 veterans on the extremely disabled adjustment rate and 1,000 on the intermediate rate. So there you are. I think it would be difficult to say that increased efficiencies are totally responsible for providing the money that is available to the TPI people in those categories, but they are a factor. By providing increased efficiencies we are improving the capacity of the government, of the taxpayers, to make things better for veterans.

It is likewise with rent assistance. Recommendation 83 of the Clarke report stated that rent assistance should be provided in addition to the existing war widows pension and income support supplement. The number of widows affected by that is 11,500. Some of them will be able to access that through the use of electronic forms on the Internet, and that will make it much easier for them. By engaging in that process and realising the savings, there will be more opportunities down the track to extend benefits such as rent assistance to a wider number of people.

Similarly, in recommendation 91 of the Clarke report, it says that the maximum funeral benefit should be increased to $1,000. The government has moved on that and it has moved on rent assistance. All of these things will be able to be accessed by people using the electronic measures that I have spoken about. This is not inconsequential. The member opposite might laugh—

Mr Quick —No, I am just laughing about the wide-ranging debate we are now having.

Mr CAMERON THOMPSON —No, it is not a wide-ranging debate—I am talking about the ability of people, through electronic lodgment now, to access a wider range of government services. Why is there a wider range of government services? Because we have achieved greater efficiencies by providing things such as electronic lodgment. I welcome this. I think that it is significant. I am pleased that the government are providing that increased range of services and it is important that we continue to do so. So, by being more efficient, we are able to provide a better range of services.

One thing that concerns me is whether or not we are able to continue doing that. It is most important that the government remain focused on the needs of veterans. As I said before, these are people who have made their contribution to Australian society. They have helped to make Australia a much better place and, for that, all Australians are greatly appreciative. It is important that the government maintain the focus and I am pleased that I am part of a government that does that. Long may that be so and long may we keep that focus.

This bill will allow veterans the flexibility that comes with the technology of online lodgment. The government is expanding the options available to our veterans and making the processes as simple as possible. It allows for the better delivery of repatriation services. It allows our veterans to have online access to information and services. This is particularly important in regional areas such as those that I represent. It breaks down the distances and gives people immediate access to information and services. As I said, by providing savings, it also creates the opportunity for us to improve services to those who are unable, unwilling or whatever to get involved in the electronic age. It does mean that we can reach out to everyone by using these devices. Applications, claims and other documents can be lodged electronically or by mail or in person.

The bill builds on a successful trial held in Tasmania, which I know will be very much of interest to the member for Franklin. That trial conducted by the government demonstrated the efficacy of electronic lodgments. So, even in Tasmania and every other rural part of Australia, we are able to take advantage of this change. It is an important one. Our repatriation system is keeping pace with online technology. It is another example of the government's commitment to improving service delivery and technology. As I said, the Veterans' Entitlements Act has been in operation for 85 years. The government is focused on the need for continuous reform in this area and for providing improved benefits and improved means of delivery. For that I am very appreciative. I commend the bill to the House and urge members and those within the veteran community to maintain their focus on improving the process of service delivery to our veterans.