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Thursday, 25 March 2004
Page: 27347


Mrs VALE (Minister for Veterans' Affairs) (11:36 AM) —I welcome the comments and the support this morning for the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Electronic Delivery) Bill 2004 from the member for Cowan and the member for Franklin, and I also acknowledge the government members who spoke on this bill and recognise their very strong commitment and support for the veterans in their own electorates. These members were the members for Blair, Pearce, Moncrieff, Herbert, Dickson, Kooyong and Flinders. I was lucky enough to visit the electorate of Flinders and meet veterans and hear their concerns directly on a special visit arranged by that member. Members have emphasised the importance of ensuring that our veterans and war widows have efficient and practical ways of contacting and working with the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

As members have stated, the circumstances and ages of our veterans span a great range. Ensuring that services are delivered in a way that meets the needs of all our veterans is a priority for our government. We are committed to maintaining a comprehensive repatriation system that recognises the special standing and the special needs of the veteran community. This bill is further evidence of the Australian government's recognition of the need for improvements in the delivery of repatriation services to Australia's veterans and their dependants. The repatriation system provides a range of benefits to compensate veterans and their dependants for injury, disability or death resulting from their service during wartime or other conflicts. The changes made by this bill will improve the efficiency of the delivery of those benefits and the other services that are provided to veterans and their dependants under the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

The bill is designed to achieve two purposes: the unification of all the existing lodgement provisions within the Veterans' Entitlements Act and provision for both the electronic and physical delivery of documents into the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The bill contains a series of amendments that will enable the electronic lodgment of the documents required by the Department of Veterans' Affairs for the provision of benefits under the act. In providing for the electronic communication of claims, applications and other documents to the department, the amendments will not impact on the existing arrangements that provide for the physical delivery of those same claims, applications and documents.

I would like to address some of the issues raised by the members for Cowan and for Franklin. The member for Cowan has implied that the introduction of this legislation will compound issues concerning the handling, retention and storage of all electronic records by the department. I wish to assure the Main Committee that the department and the other authorities established in the Veterans' Entitlements Act will ensure that all electronic documents will be handled and stored in accordance with the advice and standards promulgated by the National Archives of Australia. The member for Franklin raised issues concerning current practice and expectations about future usage of electronic means of lodgment. At the moment, it is not possible for the department or the Repatriation Commission to accept electronic claims. The trial in Tasmania involved the issuing of passwords and electronic access to both veterans and members of the ex-service community. Approximately 22 per cent of the claims lodged during the trial period were lodged electronically. I would expect that the use of online services will be an increasing feature of the way veterans, ex-service organisations and their families interact with my department. I remind members that, under TIP and the BEST program, the government provides funding to assist ex-service organisations with their role as advocates and pensions officers, including funding for information technology.

This bill will assist both veterans and their families directly, as well as the hardworking volunteers who assist as pension officers and advocates. This government has demonstrated a commitment to veterans and their families to improve the repatriation system to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of those who have served our country. The passage of this bill provides another step forward in the government's ongoing program of improvements to the delivery of services to the veteran community by building on our government's commitment to the use of new technologies in service delivery to veterans. It will ensure that the veteran community continues to enjoy the high standard of compensation and care that is provided by the repatriation system.

I also take the time to point out that this commitment is reflected in the $10.1 billion allocated to this portfolio in the last budget, 2003-04, and a further $267 million in the government's response to the Clarke review, which was of great concern to the veteran community. This is very important legislation for the future for the delivery of our relationships with our veteran community and their families, and I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.