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Thursday, 25 March 2004
Page: 27334

Mr QUICK (10:33 AM) —I was not intending to speak on the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Electronic Delivery) Bill 2004 but I had a father who was an original Anzac and a mum who was a war widow, who passed away recently. Also, I have a few veterans having a few hassles. So I thought I would take this opportunity firstly to congratulate the government on this initiative. As the honourable member for Blair said, it is the result of a successful trial in Tasmania with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. As representatives of that state, the honourable Deputy Speaker Adams and I are always of the mind that lots of things should be trialled in Tasmania. We have a population of 470,000 and it has been a pretty sedentary population up until recent times. Things can be trialled rather successfully down there because of the networks. So I congratulate the Tasmanian Department of Veterans' Affairs.

I would also like to compliment the department on the level of service they provide to the many veterans and war widows in Tasmania. They do an excellent job. Occasionally there are a few concerns about communication, which I hope to raise in this brief speech today. The second reading speech of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs stated:

This bill marks the next step in the government's ongoing program of improvements to the delivery of services to the veteran community. It builds on the commitment to the use of new technologies in veteran service delivery ...

It goes on about lodging information electronically. I would be interested to hear from the minister what percentage of information is lodged electronically currently and what percentage is expected as a norm and average once this has been up and running for a few years. As we journey through life we will see veterans age and pass away. I would like to know whether there is an expectation on the part of DVA that total communication with veterans will be done electronically. The young veterans who served in the gulf wars of 1991 and 2003 are used to having computers at home and at work. Will this be the modern trend?

I ask this question because, as I said, my father was an Anzac veteran and amongst my collection of memorabilia is his very first RSL badge. He told me of the hassles and trials and tribulations of veterans when they came back from the First World War and how that built up to the successful and wonderful movement that we all acknowledge today, the RSL. Those were a couple of questions that immediately came to my mind.

Talking of communication, which is mentioned in great detail in the act, one of the things that does worry me about the service for veterans, especially in remote rural and regional areas such as the ones that the member for Lyons and I represent, is that quite often communication with government departments is through 13 numbers and 1800 numbers. I know that my late mother, who lived over 300 kilometres from Melbourne, had to communicate with the Department of Veterans' Affairs in Melbourne. I am interested to know how all this is going to change.

Senators and members have a way of bypassing that by having the direct numbers of state managers of various departments. If we come across blockages in the system or see inequities or injustices, we can pick up the phone and ring the state manager of DVA, Centrelink or the Child Support Agency, and we can weave our way through the bureaucracy. But many of our veterans from the Second World War are now in their 90s and I know that people of that age have a fear of administration and bureaucracy and they are reluctant to push themselves forward. They have come from a different generation. I am thinking of a couple of 91-year-old veterans who are very close to me—almost second fathers—who have had hassles with DVA about getting taxis, changes to payments, access to the gold card and those sorts of things. Rather than pursuing things with DVA, they will say: `Okay, that's life. I have been used to hardship. I won't really push it any further.' We have a couple of groups—we have the old diggers from the Second World War, as I said, in their late 80s and early 90s; we have the Korean, Malaysian and Vietnam veterans, and now we have the Gulf War veterans.

What I am trying to say is that, if there is going to be a simplification of information one way and information the other way, I think it is a wonderful idea. As I said—and I am not sure whether the departmental people heard me before—for lots of people the 13 and the 1800 numbers are a bit of a turn-off. Communication is a two-way thing, and veterans expect nothing less, and I think they deserve nothing less, than the best.

I want to raise a couple of issues that relate to this whole communication thing. Just recently I congratulated the government for their recent announcement, when they sorted out the mess over the Clarke report, that the 13 Korean POWs, or their widows, have got their $25,000 ex gratia payment. I congratulate the government for that initiative. But I would also like to raise the issue of those World War II veterans who were in the European theatre, who were POWs and who still have not got anything. The 91-year-old I have been talking about today is a real person who spent 4½ years in absolutely appalling conditions in German POW camps. As someone with a wife whose family is Lithuanian, I have heard first-hand about the conditions that even the local people experienced in the latter part of the war, with German and Russian involvement in those critical areas. I know for a fact, having spoken to Jack Shepherd and his cobber, that they did experience things—not as bad as the Japanese POWs but, I can assure you, just as bad and horrific as the Korean POWs. They are not going to be with us much longer, and I think they deserve the $25,000 ex gratia payment.

Finally, in relation to this idea of communication and the introduction of electronic disclosure and consolidation of information, I would like to talk about the Smith family who were overpaid. I have spoken to the minister personally about it, but there was nothing she could do. The Smith's failure to notify of an overpayment was a genuine mistake on their part, but they did the right thing when the DVA came to them and said, `You owe us a whole lot of money.' They sat down with the DVA and said: `We can't pay it; we're pensioners. I'm a veteran; my wife doesn't work. We've got medical conditions. Take some money out of our pension. That's the only way we can repay you.' The DVA said, `Yes, fine.' So they signed an agreement and it was put into the system. The Smiths were able to relax and think: `We're going to live off less. We've made a genuine mistake. There has been a failure to notify on our part, but we feel happy that the matter has been resolved.' Then, out of the blue, the DPP sent them a notice to appear at the Magistrate's Court, and they are going to be sentenced next week. God knows what is going to happen. As I said, their health is poor. I went to the minister and the minister said, `I can't intervene,' and I can understand that. But, if there has been a genuine mistake—and, following an arrangement, a communication, between the department and the recipient of the DVA benefit, money is being taken out to repay the debt—why in the name of creation are we going to punish a veteran and his wife by dragging them through a court in Hobart and potentially jailing them? Communication is a wonderful thing. If we get it right, everybody benefits.

The communication trial in Tasmania worked wonderfully well. I compliment the minister on the initiative. This is a simple bill but, as I said at the outset, it is part of this progression. We are now moving on to information stored on wonderful computers. I hope that the DVA does not experience some of the things we experienced a couple of weeks ago in this place when the whole system fell apart and we could not communicate with our offices, nor our offices with us, and we could not access speeches and documentation or recall information; the whole world fell apart. I am delighted to speak on this bill. I congratulate the minister and the government on the next step in the process. If the few queries I have raised today have been noted by departmental officials and can be addressed, I would be delighted. I commend the bill to the House.