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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 175

Mr GRIFFIN (11:11 AM) —I commence by saying that the Labor Party supports the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007. The bill amends the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and the Income Tax Assessment Act. There are a range of amendments principally to the VEA to formalise current practice and policy, better align the VEA with the Social Security Act, correct unintended and unfair consequences of the drafting of veterans affairs legislation and improve the department’s administration. These amendments touch upon the income and assets test, the tax treatment of veterans pensions and assets, bereavement payments and eligibility criteria for assistance and compensation. These amendments are mostly of a technical and housekeeping nature. I will go to the specifics of some of the amendments for the benefit of the House.

The amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act cover issues such as the written notification of income support pensions decisions. This will require the Repatriation Commission to provide written notification of its decisions in relation to a number of claims and other matters, in line with current practice, and make a written record of that determination, setting out its findings on questions of fact, evidence and reasons for its determination. The commission will also be required by law to provide a copy of the decision, findings and rights of appeal to the claimant, except where it is of the opinion that the information is of a confidential nature.

In addition, the family assistance payments will ensure that additional one-off payments of family assistance under the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (More Help for Families—One-off Payments) Act 2004 are not counted as income under the act. This will bring the VEA into line with the Social Security Act, which exempts one-off payments to families from the income test. It will also ensure that the disposal of assets provisions do not apply where the assets’ disposition took place more than five years before the person or the person’s partner became eligible to receive a service pension or income support supplement, or less than five years before the person or person’s partner became eligible and before the time that the disposer could reasonably have expected that the person or person’s partner would become eligible to receive a service pension or income support supplement. It will also expand the definition of compensation-affected payment to include supplementary benefits so that, in cases of overpayment, supplementary payments will be recoverable where primary payments are recoverable, in line with the provisions of the Social Security Act.

The bill will amend the bereavement payment provisions to ensure that, where a deceased person’s payments include the Defence Force income support allowance, the bereavement payment provided to the surviving partner or carer also includes that allowance. It will also amend the income and assets test for the service pension and income support supplement so that, where an asset is disposed of for less than its full value and adequate consideration is later received, the application of the deprivation provision can be cancelled or disregarded. It will also expand access to rent assistance for special rate disability pension recipients to amend an unintended provision of the VEA that precludes access to some SRDP recipients on a reduced rate due to compensation income from another source for the same injury or illness.

Under schedule 2 there are a range of amendments to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004. The bill will amend the MRCA to clarify and broaden the definition of service injury or disease to include those injuries or diseases contracted or aggravated as a consequence of medical treatment for an earlier service injury or disease. The schedule will also amend the onus of proof provisions of the MRCA to cover both persons claiming for the acceptance of liability and persons claiming for compensation. This will apply to an injury sustained or disease contracted and to injuries or diseases aggravated before, on or after the commencement of this item, from 1 July 2004.

Further amendments, which relate to tidying the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Act 2004, reflect earlier amendments to the VEA. The bill will also explicitly list the income support supplement as a payment that is exempted from the requirement in the Income Tax Assessment Act to provide a tax file number, and it will also clarify the taxable status of the Defence Force income support allowance payments in line with the tax treatment of the payment that it substitutes, such as the basic rate component of the ordinary age pension or the disability support pension. Thus the DFISA payment will be tax exempt in respect of those components of the payment for which the age pension payment is also tax exempt under the ITAA.

As I said, the act is largely administrative, of minor note, but is important for ensuring we have an effective operating system and administration which provide for the needs of the veterans community. We must make sure that, through those processes, we have a system which looks after those who have served our country so well.

In that context, it is an opportunity to also make some comments regarding the system overall, particularly departmental administration issues. One issue that concerns me greatly is the time it has taken the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to process claims. The 2005-06 annual report for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs revealed a dramatic increase in the time it takes to process veterans claims, particularly those relating to injury claims. The time taken to process a primary compensation claim under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act is recorded as 106 days, while the target is 75 days. That is a 40 per cent increase over the department’s target. The mean time taken to process primary injury claims under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act ballooned from 122 days in 2004-05 to 181 days in 2005-06. This is a 48 per cent increase since 2004-05. The mean time taken to process primary injury claims under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act has blown out from 90 days to 146 days, up 62 per cent since 2004-05. The time taken to process new impairment claims under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act has dramatically ballooned from 26 days to 130 days—up 400 per cent since 2004-05.

These figures are part of an overall picture that is not very pretty. The latest figures that I have been able to obtain from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs have revealed that 4,570 claims have exceeded the average time taken to process a claim. This backlog included 2,583 claims for a disability pension, 956 claims for compensation under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and 545 claims for compensation under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

The high number of overdue veterans claims comes after the department revealed that they had been forced over the last two financial years to implement a net national reduction of 12.5 per cent in staff allocated to process compensation claims under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. The department have said that the reduction of staffing was made in order to meet the government’s budget allocations. The minister should not be cutting staff or resources to his department when they are failing to meet their current obligations. One thing that must be understood, and understood clearly, is that veterans and ex-service personnel are often at their most vulnerable during the claims process. Emotionally and physically the process can be very draining for people. Veterans and ex-service personnel deserve more. They deserve respect and a timely consideration of their claims rather than a long and drawn-out process. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that this happens. We are talking about people who served our country, and they deserve a lot better service than what they are getting from the Howard government.

I know in response to this—because I have raised these issues in the past—that the minister makes the point that through flexible administration within the department they have been able to address some of these issues. We are still to see the evidence of that. He also makes the point that what happens on some occasions is that, effectively, because of the time taken for claimants to respond with paperwork et cetera and because the department does do not have a stop-the-clock system, this leads to an appearance of greater blow-outs in the time taken for claims to be considered than is actually the case. Nonetheless, there is absolutely no doubt that there is still an issue that needs to be addressed and this government has to do something more about it.

When we go to that question about staffing in relation to the department and the administration of the department, in last night’s budget it was revealed that the government intends to reduce the department’s average staffing level again for the third budget in a row. If we go back through that time, average staffing levels in 2005-06 were 2,463 actual, down 24 from the year before, and in 2006-07 were 2,320 actual, down 143 from the year before. The estimate as proposed in 2007-08 appears to be a cut to 2,289, down some 31. We do not know where those positions are being taken from. We are not sure. We do not have those details yet. But we will be trying to seek some further breakdown through estimates and other processes. I think we have to be really concerned that, with these problems identified in the annual report of the department, there are issues there which, frankly, need to be looked at. When we are still cutting staffing in a department who have a very important role to play in ensuring that veterans get a fair go, we have to think about whether in fact that is a good thing. I note the figures for the department are certainly well down from when you, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, were the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs some years ago.

It would also be remiss of me, given last night’s events, not to talk briefly about some of the other issues which have come up in veterans affairs in recent times relating to benefits and administration and which were dealt with to some extent in last night’s budget. I will be saying more this afternoon in the main chamber when the legislation dealing specifically with some of these items is considered, but I will take the opportunity to mention them briefly now. I make it very clear that Labor welcomes the announcement of a $25,000 one-off ex gratia payment for Australian former prisoners of war in Europe or their surviving widows. These prisoners in fact missed out on the earlier decisions some years ago, which meant that prisoners of war of Japan and then later Korea received that payment. Certainly, we welcome on this occasion that matter being dealt with.

I also congratulate the government on moving on the issue of increasing funeral benefits for eligible veterans under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, doubling the benefit from $1,000 to $2,000. This has been a longstanding concern within the veterans area and is certainly a step in the right direction. It does not take into account fully what veterans under MRCA have available to them, but it is certainly an issue that needs to be dealt with, to a degree, and I congratulate the government on doing that.

It is good that the government has recognised the fact that special intermediate rate disability pensions have been eroded dramatically over the last 10 years in particular, but I also make it very clear that, although there has been a catch-up payment out of this budget, that catch-up payment does not deal with the complete erosion that has occurred over that 10-year period. Nor does it deal with the central issue of indexation, which has been the issue the veterans community has been concerned about right the way through that period.

I know the debate regarding the formula has been used as a justification for not acting on this matter over the years. I make it very clear that Labor support the catch-up payment that has been announced and will endorse that without any problem whatsoever, because we can see that there is a need for it to occur. But our commitment to implement indexation on a full basis which was made some days ago, prior to the budget, is still in place. We will do that after the next election. We will do it as a result of our first budget after the next election at the first indexation point post that budget, which will be September 2008.

In those circumstances, we want to make sure that TPIs and other severely disabled veterans are not put in a situation where every several years—every budget before an election—they have to come along cap in hand trying to catch up that which they have lost due to the erosion of their benefit with respect to community standards, because certainly that is what this payment is about. It does not address all of it, but the government’s announcement is certainly the first catch-up payment over the last decade that, it can be argued, seeks to address the indexation issue. The only other catch-up payment that was made was directly in relation to the costs of implementation of the GST. So, yes, it is long overdue. It is short of what it probably should have been and definitely does not address the central issue which is, as of two months time when this payment starts to be made, that the erosion will continue. That is the matter that the veterans community has been saying consistently needs to be addressed with respect to this issue.

I will make a couple of brief points about the budget. To ensure that veterans are not disadvantaged in any way, Labor will closely monitor the Howard government’s announcements of increased compliance measures and the potential savings arising from the areas of disability pensions, medications and health treatments. We are awaiting more detail. On the face of it, the initiatives appear to be worth while. We need to make sure that we do not disadvantage the veterans community—which, in some respects, is quite fragile—in order to drive savings. That would not be a good idea, and it would strike at the heart of a system that is compassionate and ensures that our ex-service people and veterans get a fair go. I will have more to say about those issues this afternoon in the other place. Labor supports the bill before the chamber, and I wish it a quick and speedy passage through to the other place. Its implementation will assist with the overall administration of the entitlements for veterans. I commend the bill to the House.