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Thursday, 14 May 2009
Page: 4016

Mr CHAMPION (12:04 PM) —Thank you, Deputy Chair.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr S Sidebottom)—Deputy Speaker!

Mr CHAMPION —If I may be so bold as to offer the member for O’Connor some advice about reading material: he should read Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, which talks a bit about people’s brain functions when they are placed in extreme situations. It is a very interesting book and you may find it informing.

Mr Tuckey —I ran a pub for years, and I was in that situation every evening!

Mr CHAMPION —I rise to speak in favour of the Defence Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2009, which introduces amendments with two commendable policy objectives. The first is to ensure the safety and security of our Defence Force in the field. The second involves provisions for their access to housing back home in Australia. Both are important administrative amendments which will have a big impact on the lives of our ADF personnel.

The first amendment introduced by this bill involves the Tactical Payment Scheme, or TPS. This scheme will provide new, efficient and effective means for making quick, no-liability payments to persons who have suffered damage, injury or loss due to the activities of the ADF abroad. The necessity for such a scheme reflects Australia’s approach to treating all people with common decency as well as respecting the customs of the local communities we are operating within. The TPS acknowledges that, where the ADF causes damage to property or injury to local people, we have a responsibility to offer some form of compensation. Often that compensation will be financial. This is not just the right thing to do; it also benefits the security of our forces. Recognising the unintended damage that ADF actions can sometimes cause will ensure that relationships with local communities remain intact. You cannot fight an insurgency or a guerrilla war or provide security in civil conflicts unless you have the consent of the community you are operating within. That has been proven in many different wars over the last 100 years. Strong relationships with local communities enhance the safety of ADF personnel and provide possible strategic advantages in operating in those conflicts.

The current arrangements for offering this type of compensation are covered by the act of grace provisions under the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997, and that provides for a payment to be made where the government has no legal liability but accepts responsibility for some damage caused. As the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel explained in his second reading speech, the TPS was developed in response to lessons learned in operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor. Our recent experiences in these conflict zones showed that the current administrative arrangements for making act of grace payments were inappropriate, given the time pressures that exist in operational environments. We cannot expect people to go through lengthy processes—processes that they would be completely unfamiliar with. Obviously, this is especially true where the payment costs are small—particularly from our perspective—but where the damage is perceived in the local community as being great. Small delays in making such payments have immediate negative impacts on our relationship with the local community. Small delays aid our enemies in these climates, who use such incidents to undermine our consent to operate within the community. They undermine all the previous good work we may have done. So a delay in redress for damage done obviously affects the security of our personnel and undermines our operational objectives.

To counter this, the TPS will operate independently from the act of grace payment provisions as a separate discretionary mechanism, managed and operated by the Department of Defence. There will be a cap on payments under this scheme. A range of criteria will be considered, including the prevailing culture and society of the area in which the compensation is required. As payments under this scheme have been capped, the ADF will continue to have recourse to the act of grace provisions if a particularly large or unusual payment is required. Importantly for the people affected by these actions, their acceptance of TPS or the act of grace compensation will not necessarily preclude future legal action if they have a case to make in that circumstance.

The introduction of the TPS is a simple administrative amendment that will improve our relationship with communities in which our forces serve. It will simultaneously improve the safety and security of our Defence men and women. Finally, it will assist our operational objectives in these conflicts.

The second important measure in this bill amends the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme Act 2008, which provides a legislative basis for the operation of the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme. This scheme was introduced last year to encourage the retention of ADF personnel. DHOAS provides eligible ADF members with home ownership assistance and is responsive to changes in the housing market. It recognises the difficulties that ADF members may have in purchasing a home due to the nature of their career in the military and it provides increased assistance to those people. The scheme provides flexibility and choice to ADF members through a panel of home loan providers. As of February this year, the scheme has over 5,000 ADF members receiving subsidy assistance.

While the scheme has been tremendously successful, and I know many of my constituents have taken advantage of the scheme, I guess there were some unintended outcomes in that original bill. This administrative act removes windfall gains in the eligibility and entitlement for members who rejoined the ADF after a break in service prior to 1 July 2008. This measure will ensure that members who rejoin the ADF, no matter when they rejoin, have the same access and the same rights and benefits. The bill also clarifies that if ADF service personnel take a break in their service that is greater than five years then their previous service is not eligible for consideration as part of that person’s proof of their right of access to DHOAS. The same test will apply to reserve service personnel but with a two-year break constituting the test for consideration of previous service. This reinforces the aim of the program, which is to encourage retention of Defence personnel. It would be unfair to make such arrangements retrospective, and that means that any member who currently receives access to the subsidy based on the previous provision will not have that benefit removed. I think that is a fair and reasonable approach by the government.

The bill also makes amendments to focus the benefit to those who need it the most. Access to lump sum payments is an enormous benefit when organising the purchase of a new property, especially for a first-time buyer. That is why under this bill only ADF members who are buying a home for the first time will have access to the subsidy lump sum payment option. And in recognition of the reality that many personnel want to buy a house with their partner, the bill also changes the treatment of the shared liability for a loan. The entitlement of a subsidised borrower who enters into a joint loan with a person who is not defined as a partner in the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme Act 2008 is calculated as proportional to the subsidised borrower’s liability. The amendments will also clarify the entitlements where both partners are Defence Force members and so both are entitled to a subsidised loan. This clarification includes entitlements on the death of one of the partners, allowing partners together to maximise the amount of subsidy payable in respect of a loan to which they are both parties. These changes bring the legislative scheme in line with the original policy intent of the DHOAS scheme and establish a consistent framework for the calculation of the subsidy where there is more than one party to the loan.

I have come in contact with many defence force families since I was elected. One of the things that becomes really apparent is that many of the families echo the commitment, service and sacrifice of ADF personnel. I think these families give a great deal to the service of the nation. ADF members may be volunteers but the families, in many ways, are conscripted to the cause as well. They support the ADF, the personnel and the ethos of the service. That said, I do not think that that commitment is always matched by the attitude of the defence hierarchy, which is not as family friendly as it could be or should be. I think bills of this nature do help with retention of personnel and help families, but so much of the way families are treated is administrative and decisions are made by particular people. I think the more family friendly the ADF becomes, the more likely it is to retain valuable and longstanding personnel.

The member for O’Connor talked about submarine staff. I think the greatest pressure for submariners is that they are away for six months and they are uncontactable for that time. In those situations it is a pretty tough thing for the partners, the wives and the families of those ADF personnel. I think the more help we give the family, the more likely we are to retain the personnel in active service. If we care for the family, we are much more likely to retain the soldier, the airman and the sailor in service to this country.

This bill contains two very different but two very valuable policy objectives. The first area reaffirms our common decency in responding to the unintended damage caused by our forces in these very complex situations, these very dynamic theatres of war and civil conflict. The second area of the bill focuses on the defence home ownership scheme, which is not only an incredibly important policy in retention terms but also a great benefit to defence force personnel. I think those objectives have really good short-term, medium-term and long-term impacts on the safety, the security and the size of our defence forces, and I commend the bill to the House.