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Thursday, 25 March 2004
Page: 27340

Mr DUTTON (11:08 AM) —It gives me great pleasure to rise today to speak on the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Electronic Delivery) Bill 2004 and to follow the member for Herbert, Peter Lindsay, who does a great job for his constituents in that part of the world who are involved in the armed forces. I know Townsville well and I know that the work he does up there is greatly appreciated by members of the Australian Defence Force. This is an important bill that aims to further develop the delivery of repatriation services to the Australian veteran community. We are in the age of information technology and it is important that we acknowledge and participate in this era. This bill provides for the electronic communication of claims, applications and other documents to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Under these amendments, claimants will now have greater options when lodging forms with the DVA. Instead of using existing methods such as normal mail, telephone, fax or lodgment in person, claimants may now choose to email claims, applications and other documents to an approved electronic address. Veterans will be able to submit forms at any time from their own home or anywhere else where they can access the Internet. Veterans will be able to apply online for services such as a disability pension or a war widows or widowers pension. In addition, veterans may apply for an increase in the disability pension and notify DVA of changes to their circumstances that may affect their pension.

For the purpose of calculating benefits once a claim is accepted, the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986, the VEA, relies on the date of lodgment of a document, which is why the amendments are vital. Through online submission, the delivery time of claims will be decreased. Both the electronic and physical delivery of documents into the Department of Veterans' Affairs will be provided for by the amendments inserting a new general lodgment provision. The general lodgment provision grants that a document will be regarded as having been lodged on the date that it was received at an approved place or delivered to an approved person. The electronic communication of all claims, applications and other documents will be possible due to the inclusion in this bill of amendments to all of the lodgment and delivery provisions of the VEA.

Through the amendments, the government is building on the success of the NOVEL program—the networked online veterans electronic lodgment program. The trial pilot offered online services to Tasmanian veterans from September 2002 and was then extended beyond the original four-month period due to the excellent way in which it was received. This bill is consistent with the Australian government's commitment to putting all appropriate government services online and improving the access of all Australians to government information and services at all levels. By providing this online service to the veteran community, we are increasing the availability of online access to information and services, and this will assist in removing the constraints of distance and mobility experienced by regional and rural communities, older Australians, the disabled and the home-bound.

The Howard government is committed to providing for Australian veterans, and this will allow the DVA to better meet the needs of the veterans' community as a whole. Veterans will be able to access a service on a scale previously unimagined. This is not about removing a veteran's right of choice to lodge documents with the DVA using conventional methods such as normal mail, telephone, fax or delivery in person; it is about providing more options to make that choice. The service of online delivery will complement, rather than replace, the traditional means of delivery services.

Importantly, the security risks of providing the service have been addressed. The DVA has developed a secure online communications system which will allow the DVA's service providers and the veteran community to communicate with the department via secure email. Veterans will now have access to a service which is provided outside normal hours—whether it be in the evening, at the weekend or on public holidays—and this will result in many claims, applications or other documents being lodged on and therefore benefits being calculated from an earlier date than if the lodger had waited for office hours to physically deliver the papers, telephone or send them by conventional snail mail.

I also want to take the opportunity today to talk about this government's proud record in relation to veterans affairs. This is just the latest example among many of how the government is committed to addressing the needs of veterans. Since coming to office in 1996, the Howard government has increased spending on veterans affairs from $6.4 billion to more than $10 billion in the federal budget for 2003-04. By increasing spending on veterans affairs, the Australian government is acknowledging that as Australian veterans, war widows and widowers become older so their needs change and grow. The Howard government is certainly demonstrating this recognition of the ageing veteran community through the increase in spending in veterans health, where funding has risen from $1.7 billion in 1996 to a record $4.1 billion this year; the extension of the gold card to Australian veterans over 70 years old with qualifying service; and the introduction of veteran partnering contracts with private hospitals to broaden the availability of hospital care. Through programs such as HomeFront and Veterans Home Care, we are helping veterans and war widows to continue living at home.

The government's recent response to the Clarke report gave an additional $267 million over five years for veterans and war widows or widowers. The main aspects of the government's response to the Clarke report included the exemption of recipients of a DVA disability pension from the means test at Centrelink, at a cost of just under $100 million. This benefits 19,000 veterans and can mean up to an additional $257 per fortnight for a single TPI recipient. It also ensures equity amongst veterans, regardless of whether they receive their income support from DVA or Centrelink.

Forty-five thousand veterans will benefit from the indexation of above general rate, in the same way as service pensions, at a cost of $66 million. This ensures that the most disabled, those who cannot work or who can work only part-time, receive the maximum level of support through appropriate indexation. We have also granted to war widows and widowers rent assistance of up to $94.40 per fortnight in addition to the income support supplement at a cost of $73 million. This government has also provided at a cost of $27 million the funeral benefit, which will increase from $572 to $1,000 and will benefit 14,500 people each year.

The Howard government has done more for war widows and war widowers in eight years than Labor ever managed. In addition to the recent announcement following the Clarke report, we have also indexed the war widows and widowers pension to male total average weekly earnings, or MTAWE, in 1998-99 at a cost of $163.7 million. In 2001-02 we restored benefits to widows and widowers who remarried prior to May 1984 at a cost of $86.6 million. We removed the freeze, initiated by Labor in 1986, on the ceiling rate of the income support supplement for war widows and widowers in 2002-03 at a cost of $84.7 million. The new Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat was also a beneficiary of government funding, receiving a grant of $50,000 in 1999 at the launch of the public fund-raising appeal and an additional grant of $150,000 in 2002 as part of the government's commemorations program.

Veteran and Community Grants announced in February delivered Australian government funding for organisations which provide care and support to the veteran community: in my own state of Queensland, over $125,000; in Victoria, over $386,000; in New South Wales, over $265,000; in South Australia, almost $153,000; in Tasmania, $86,000; and in Western Australia a touch over $24,000. Veteran and Community Grants offer important assistance to projects that aim to improve the quality of life for veterans, war widows and their dependants. Organisations such as the Pine Rivers RSL sub-branch in my own election of Dickson have been worthy recipients of the grants. Projects have received Veteran and Community Grants for health education, lifestyle enhancement, community activities and support for carers and independent living at home. Veteran and Community Grants will assist projects across Australia with more than $2.7 million of funding during 2003-04.

In our government's response to the Vietnam Veterans' Health Study we have also recognised the health needs of younger veterans and their families. One of the great aspects of my job is that I remain in constant communication with the veterans and their ex-service organisations and will continue to work hard to deliver to those who served the defence of our nation so well. Labor's silence and lack of policies on veterans' issues has not been left unnoticed by the veteran community.

This bill will allow the veteran community to participate in the electronic age. Information technology is the way of the future and it is important to provide the services which are associated with this age. The amendments proposed in this bill are relatively minor; however, they are vitally important in relation to keeping pace with the electronic age. The changes made by this bill will improve the delivery of repatriation services to the Australian veteran community and therefore I commend the bill to the House.