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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 195


Mr JENKINS (12:36 PM) —In support of the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007, which is a bill to amend the law relating to veterans entitlements and military rehabilitation and compensation and for other purposes, I wish to make a few remarks about the nation’s obligation to those that serve in the defence forces.

Some 21 years ago I concluded a 13-year period of my life when I worked for the then department of repatriation. I was of a fortunate generation of officers of that department in that, for that 13 years, we did not have forces on active duty. We had defence personnel involved in peacekeeping missions in a number of places around the world, but of course now in the first decade of the 21st century we operate in a completely different environment. We have several contingents of defence personnel very much on the front line. So the type of danger that defence personnel are in is greatly different. We also have a greater awareness of our obligation to those employed in our defence forces but not on active service, because there have been a number of accidents of an occupational health and safety nature in peacetime movements and the like that we have learnt a lot from.

I am also from a generation that is proud to indicate that it marched in moratorium marches. I am of a generation whose marble was in the last ballot of conscription to take place—a ballot that did not have any use because that intake was never taken up. But I am also of a generation that did not see active participation in protests against the government’s decision to send forces overseas and for the way in which those returning ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen were treated. I admit that at the time I did not understand the conditions that confronted those returning ex-defence personnel. I think that as a nation we should be genuinely ashamed of the way in which those people were treated when they returned.

I am pleased that in the intervening nearly 40 years, especially for the Vietnam conflict, many processes have taken place that have healed that open sore. It is, of course, interesting that sometimes Korean vets do not think that they have yet seen similar actions and can sometimes be of the opinion that they are beginning to be a forgotten generation of our returned service men and women. But the lessons that we learnt through those actions should dictate the way in which we are able to treat and administer those pieces of legislation that deal with proper compensation and proper recognition of the sacrifices made.

To the extent that this piece of legislation tidies up a number of items and brings into line some of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act measures with the Social Security Act and the like, the opposition has no great problem with it. But one aspect that goes to the way in which the ex-service community see themselves being treated relates to the length of time that is taken for the assessment of claims. This was first brought to my attention by a welfare officer at one of the local RSLs that service the community that is covered by the electorate of Scullin. I suppose from my past career within the department I have an understanding of the proper way in which these things have to be assessed. The act has changed drastically since my time. The references to the way in which these things are assessed have changed dramatically. But I would have hoped that that made it a simpler task to ensure that claims are processed within the proper periods. This is a matter that the member for Bruce, the shadow minister for veterans’ affairs, touched upon.

When we look at the last annual report of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs—the 2005-06 annual report—we find that, under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, the average time taken for processing primary injury claims has blown out from 90 to 146 days, up 62 per cent from the time taken in 2004-05. According to the figures given, we find that the time for processing new impairment claims has increased from 26 to 130 days. Perhaps that is a statistical anomaly because it is a small number of claims, and we might not dwell too much on that. However, the average time taken to process primary compensation claims under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act was 106 days, a 40 per cent increase over a target that had been set of 75 days.

These are the things that are causing concern in the community. As I said, there are from time to time reasons that these things take a while. It is not being churlish to observe that we see there has been a reduction of one-eighth in the number of claims processing staff. It appears there was no mention in the budget of any increase in the number of staff. I raise these matters not for the sake of political point-scoring but to indicate that, when things like this lead to a perception that veterans are not being treated with the importance they deserve, it rolls on to concerns about a whole host of matters. We should have learnt the lesson that, no matter how hard we try to have proper recognition of the service given, no matter how often we say that we treat that service as being important, we have to make sure that our actions indicate that.

At one of the ceremonies for the Australian Defence Medal recently, I had a chat to a man who had served in the Royal Navy. He had had the misfortune of being in the vicinity of both collisions of the HMAS Melbourne. What was interesting about the discussion was that, while this was a peacetime activity, it still gave him great distress in a psychological sense because there was no discussion, debriefing and counselling after the incidents. He has vivid memories of retrieving bodies and the like. These are, as I said, important matters that we have to make sure that we understand so that we can do the right thing.

He had another interesting beef that I think is ongoing at the moment. He was one of the guys who were asked to go in and clean—I describe them as bilge tanks; there is probably some other technical term—within the outer skin of the ship and the inner skin. To describe his working conditions as Dickensian is probably raising them up because at least the chimney sweeps were of a small stature. I do not think this man was of a small stature, but they hauled themselves down, attached to the manhole by a rope. They had to be careful of the conditions because of the build-up of gases and different substances. As I understand it, there is an ongoing discussion about whether the conditions exposed them to a variety of chemicals that have been injurious to health and it is something that I have asked him to give me further detail on. I hope to be able to return to that at some other time.

The other thing that I have to observe is that for once, by comparison to the United States, I think we can hold our head high. I refer to the recent discussion of the treatment of US returned service people in their veterans administration hospitals, which is nothing short of scandalous. I do not refer to this because the member for Mackellar is in the chamber but I think the checks and balances that the Australian parliament has in dwelling on the actions of departments would have picked up the types of things that we saw in the United States much earlier than was the case in the United States. However, it appears there might have been a small deception of US Senate committees about the way in which the veterans affairs hospital in Washington was being administered.

I think it is very important, without pointing a finger and accusing people of not doing the right thing, that we do have these processes so that we can indicate our concern. I hope that the minister and, through the minister, the department would see my comments about the blow-out in processing times in that light. As I said, at the end of the day you can have a collection of cases that might be more difficult than another collection of cases. When we are dealing with a community that is very sensitive to the way that it is treated—it is in the context of political decisions of the government, for instance, not to put in place indexation of benefits and the like, which is in a different sphere of political discussion—we must make sure that the perception is not that because of laxity in the blow-out of times we in some way do not recognise the service.

With the way that modern warfare is conducted, a whole new range of pressures is being placed on members who are in active service and we must ensure that we keep cognisant of those new pressures. There may be people who, because of great fortune, do not see themselves as being directly under fire, but that pressure of not knowing what is around the corner is as real as the pressure experienced when under direct fire. That sort of pressure is seen to exist in all conflicts and it becomes even greater in the types of conflicts that Australian troops are involved in at the moment, where there is uncertainty about who the enemy really is and whether they are dealing with friend or foe. So I think people’s psychological wellness should be paramount.

I was in the department when the Vietnam Veterans’ Counselling Service first commenced. I think that was one of the first steps in bridging the gap between the perception that Vietnam vets were not accepted by the community and the fact that people wanted to reach out to them and understand the types of pressures they had confronted and the type of assistance they needed. I hope that we continue to do that for all generations and for waves of service personnel that return from involvement in conflict.

Finally, I wish to say—and this probably is completely off the piece of legislation before us—that I still have a little concern about the purchasing practices of Defence and making sure that Defence personnel, especially on active service, are adequately kitted up and given the right equipment. But that again is a debate for another day. I simply conclude that I am very proud of the tradition, which has continued in a bipartisan manner, of the repatriation system, now called the veterans affairs system. I hope that the minister takes on board our concerns about processing times. I hope that, in a political sense, the government, when sharing the bounty it holds in its coffers, will recognise that the veterans community see themselves as deserving of additional resource.