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Thursday, 25 March 2004
Page: 27336

Mrs MOYLAN (10:45 AM) —It is a pleasure to speak in the debate on such an important piece of legislation as the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Electronic Delivery) Bill 2004. I have the home of the 10th Light Horse Brigade in my electorate. The brigade has a wonderful history and those wonderful people are keeping those traditions alive. It is always a great privilege for me to be able to stand and speak in the chamber on any bill to do with veterans.

The debate on this bill comes very soon after the government's response to the Clarke report. I notice that my honourable friend the member for Franklin referred to the good outcome of that—finally. It was a good outcome. I know that the veterans in my electorate are very pleased with the response of an additional funding of $267 million and with the acceptance of many of the 109 recommendations in the report.

I particularly welcome the decision to link the portion of the TPI and disability benefits of the general rate to the male average weekly earnings in a similar fashion as for the service pension. I suppose that has to do with the bill in that these new programs—the electronic transaction programs—can deliver services to veterans much more efficiently online. That applies to lodgments and assessment, and people will have plenty of access via these services.

The member for Blair mentioned a point that relates to me as well. I have an electorate of 25,000 square kilometres or so, much of which is in rural, regional and certainly outer metropolitan areas. Being able to use online services is a great boon for many veterans. While I acknowledge that some of them are still a little uncertain about this new method of accessing services, many of them are embracing it in increasing numbers. It reminds me of my dear late father who passed away last August. He embraced the new technology in his 80s with great enthusiasm. He could do everything and he could teach us lots about how to access services online. My dad passed away last year. He was 89. He had just the most wonderful time. He could not stay away from the computer. He was doing absolutely everything on it. I think lots of people in the community are getting involved and, through the Minister for Ageing, I know that we have federal programs to help older people learn to use the new computer technology. In that respect, this bill is very timely. People in the rural, regional and outer metropolitan areas of Pearce will have a much easier form of access. Being able to transact by email and perform other functions on the computer is a boon, especially to some of the older veterans or those who have mobility problems, of whom there are quite a few. It is a great thing.

To return momentarily to the government's response to the Clarke report, Clarke recognises those veterans who can no longer work because of service disabilities. As I said, some of those with service related disabilities have mobility problems and this bill goes to the heart of making access to services much easier. There is an economic loss component in disability pensions. Because of the disability, there is loss of potential earnings and so on. The Clarke report recognised this when it decided to change the way the pensions were indexed for the TPIs and people with a disability. In addition, 11,000 war widows and widowers will receive increases in their income support payments as well. Now they will be able to manage this on line. There are many benefits arising from the response to the Clarke report. I must say they are very welcome changes.

Over the summer break I had the pleasure of meeting with Mr Bill Gaynor, the President of the RSL in Western Australia, and Mr Ross O'Connor, the Vice-President of the RSL in WA. They contacted me with regard to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Bill 2003, which I think is currently in the Senate. We discussed that, the Clarke report and matters of general concern to the veteran community. I greatly value the kind of representations that were made. They were constructive and they went to the heart of matters, and there were many sensible suggestions made to improve the outcome of both the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Bill and the Clarke report.

We have a very active veteran community in Pearce. In fact, on Australia Day this year the 10th Light Horse Brigade put on a fantastic display in one of my little country towns, which is basically a one-pub town, called Spencers Brook. They keep that tradition alive. It is really fantastic. They have a museum, which they tour around country shows so that some of our young people can gain a greater appreciation of our history and of what happened in those times. An enormous effort goes into liaising with schools and local communities to ensure that the tradition of Anzac Day is observed. I very much value and appreciate my relationship with our veterans and those who are leading the veterans in Western Australia.

In our contemporary world, we now operate substantially, both commercially and socially, via electronic media. People of all ages, from all parts of the globe, now communicate socially or for business via the Internet. Many of us are resistant—and I have to confess I was one of them—to making the changes. I suppose it is through fear. Our children and grandchildren now grow up around computers. It is nothing for them. My six-year-old and my eight-year-old can teach me a thing or two on the computer, I can tell you! But, although there are those who have resisted the change, especially those from the older generation, because they do not understand the technology, there are still a lot in the older generation who have embraced this new technology and who feel quite liberated being able to communicate widely. I have quite a few people in my electorate who belong to the University of the Third Age. I know they use the computer to study, to shop, to do their banking and so on. So they are pretty up with it.

Many have recognised the great benefits that come from electronic communication. In 1997 our Prime Minister released a policy statement called `Investing in growth', which outlined the Australian government's commitment to putting all appropriate services online. This gave rise to the parliament passing the Electronic Transactions Act 1999. The Electronic Transactions Act removed legal impediments that may have prevented people from using electronic communications in conducting business with the Commonwealth. It essentially gave validity to transactions that took place via electronic communication.

There did, however, remain a number of exemptions. In 2001, the Repatriation Commission advised the minister that certain provisions of the Veterans' Entitlements Act would require exemption from the effects of the Electronic Transactions Act 1999. The exemptions entitled the Department of Veterans' Affairs not to accept claims delivered to the department electronically. As with any major technological change, it really is important to ensure a smooth transition and have adequate time to make necessary changes so that the electronic claims and documents can be developed appropriately. There are good legal reasons for it, but also it is important that the community have time to adjust to a new system.

Under this legislation, a unified system is designed to allow both electronic and physical delivery of documents into the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I think it is very important that we allow time for people to become accustomed to electronic transactions and allow both systems to operate together for the foreseeable future at least. So those people who are not comfortable with electronic communications are still able to lodge their documents personally.

As with most transactions, there is a need to have clarity as to what makes lodgment effective. Subsection 5T(3), for example, provides that a claim, application, request or other document that has been approved for electronic lodgment will be taken to have been lodged at the office of the Department of Veterans' Affairs if it is transmitted electronically in the approved manner. The document received at the electronic address will be taken to have been lodged on the day that it has been received. These are the kinds of technical aspects to this bill that are important in a legal sense. The amendments will apply to the lodgment of claims, applications, requests and other documents under the Veterans' Entitlements Act and will not apply to any other information that is received by the department.

The successful trial has already been talked about. It happened in Tasmania, the home state of our colleague the member for Franklin. This bill is another step forward in implementing the government's program of improving service delivery and ensures the repatriation system keeps up with electronic services. The member for Franklin asked whether the Minister for Veterans' Affairs was able to provide any figures on how many people make electronic lodgments to the department. Of course, that has not been possible in the past because they have not been offered electronic transactions. This bill will give effect to an ability to do electronic transactions, but I understand from the department that, during the voluntary trial, 22 per cent of people volunteered to use electronic transactions. I think that is a very positive number for a first-off trial of electronic transactions within the veteran community. I am sure we will see that number grow.

As I said, I know that our Minister for Ageing has programs operating to provide funds to train and teach older people how to use computers to transact business electronically. As those kinds of programs become more available and older people take advantage of them, they will be much more comfortable in using the service. The delivery of services to the veteran community is enormously important. I think that whatever can be done to improve the ease with which veterans can lodge documents and conduct their affairs with the department will be very welcome by veterans whether or not they wish to take advantage of the electronic service.

In Western Australia, we deal quite a lot with the WA Department of Veterans' Affairs, because we have quite a big veteran community within the electorate. I have to say that, in all the time I have been there, which is now just over 11 years, we have had nothing but the best of service from the staff. I think they work very hard to provide a really good service. You get the odd hiccup but, by and large, it operates pretty smoothly. So I am very grateful to those people in the WA department.

As I said, we have come a very long way in ensuring a high standard of care for veterans over the years. Some papers that Bill Gaynor gave me contain a quote from Sir George Pearce, after whom my electorate was named. Former senator George Pearce was once the Minister for Defence, and I have Pearce air base in my electorate. His quote takes us back and shows us how far we have come. At the turn of the century, probably just after the First World War, he said:

One of the saddest spectacles in the past has been to seen men who have been willing to risk their lives in the defence of the country left destitute and the dependants of men who have laid down their lives for the country having to live on charity. ... It would be an eternal disgrace to this young and rich Commonwealth if any of the relatives of those who are going to war had to beg for a living. We desire in this Bill—

he was talking about the first bill that was ever passed—

to make such modest provision as will keep the wolf from the door of those who are unfortunately bereaved of their breadwinners. ... This Bill also provides for a Pension for any man who is disabled or incapacitated so that he cannot earn his living or a living for his wife and family or others dependent on him.

It is good to read that, because it shows us how far we have come and how important it is to discharge our obligations to people who are prepared to lay down their lives for their country. They are people who, in the course of their duty, may become injured or incapacitated in some way or may lose their lives. I am proud that we have dealt with these benefits in a bipartisan way and that we are all committed to ensuring that our veterans and their families can live their lives with considerable dignity.