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Tuesday, 28 June 1994
Page: 2168

Senator FAULKNER (Minister for the Environment, Sport and Territories) (11.35 p.m.) —The Veterans' Affairs (1994-95 Budget Measures) Legislation Amendment Bill 1994 contains important parts of this year's veterans affairs budget package. It delivers major benefits to the ex-service community and has been developed following extensive consultation with ex-service community leaders. The initiatives respond in part to recommendations of the committee chaired by Peter Baume in its report A Fair Go, and concerns expressed by the Australian National Audit Office, which the government was bound to address. The remaining initiatives of this budget package that require legislation will be presented in a bill to be introduced at a later date.

  Agreement was reached with the national bodies of the major ex-service organisations that the package was to be an all or nothing package. These groups realistically recognised that it was not possible to improve benefits to veterans and their dependants without increased expenditure being offset by savings achieved by ensuring that the benefits are provided to those with a genuine entitlement. Nevertheless, following concerns expressed by certain ex-service leaders, the government has worked closely with both the ex-service community and the opposition, and has agreed to certain amendments that will be moved by the opposition tonight. I will return to those proposed amendments at a later stage.

  These are significant changes that will result in greater equity and will more appropriately recognise groups within the ex-service community that until now have not been adequately recognised. The beneficial impact of the initiatives contained in this package has unfortunately been overshadowed by some misinformed debate about the new Repatriation Medical Authority.

  There has been considerable misunderstanding concerning review rights following the introduction of this bill and, as a result, negotiations have taken place as to whether there should be additional review rights to those already contained in the bill. Tonight I want to correct that misunderstanding. I emphasise that the bill does not take away the right of any veteran to apply to the Veterans Review Board or the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in relation to the circumstances of his or her particular claim. Those bodies will still have the duty to determine all the relevant facts and particular circumstances relating to individual veterans' claims.

  It is only the medical scientific issues of causation of disease and injury that are appropriately left to experts that will be determined by the statements of principles. Accordingly, the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills, in its Alert Digest of 8 June 1994 commenting on the bill, did not indicate that it trespassed unduly on personal rights or makes such rights unduly dependent upon non-reviewable decisions or inappropriately delegated legislative powers.

  For the record, I set out on behalf of the government the details of the proposal that has been agreed to. It is proposed to establish a specialist medical review council which will review determinations of the Repatriation Medical Authority in certain circumstances. The review council will be made up of a number of councillors selected from lists of names submitted to the minister by the medical colleges. The convenor of the specialist medical review council would then be appointed by the minister from those lists.

  In conducting the review, the review council would be made up of at least three, and not more than five, councillors. The selection of councillors to determine a particular appeal would be based on the fields of specialist medical scientific knowledge relevant to that appeal. The same categories of persons who can make submissions to the repatriation medical authority would be able to make submissions and appear before the specialist medical review council.

  The review council will have the power to conduct reviews in relation to a statement of principles, a declaration that the repatriation medical authority does not intend to make a statement of principles or a decision of the authority not to carry out an investigation in respect of a particular kind of injury, disease or death. In determining the review of such matters, the review council will have the power to issue directions to the repatriation medical authority, the effect of which will be to require the authority to make or amend a statement of principles, or reverse such declaration or decision of the repatriation medical authority, or to affirm such a statement of principles, declaration or decision of the repatriation medical authority and to reconsider the matter in accordance with any directions or recommendations of the review council, including any further investigation that the authority might undertake.

  The review system will preserve all of the review and appeal mechanisms that are currently in the Veterans' Entitlements Act and in the bill, including the existing right of appeal to the Veterans' Review Board and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to review decisions of the Repatriation Commission on all aspects other than the narrow medical scientific aspects that will be dealt with by the statement of principles.

  It is important to note that the explanatory material that Senator Kemp will have incorporated into Hansard has been prepared in conjunction with the government and, therefore, is to be read together with the explanatory memorandum that was tabled at the time of the introduction of the bill into the Senate.

  I thank honourable senators, especially Senator Kemp and Senator Lees, for their contribution to this debate. I commend this bill to the Senate. I sincerely believe that the package of veterans' reforms that we see arising out of the budget this year certainly represents a great step forward in terms of veterans' entitlements. I believe the decisions upon which the Senate will deliberate in a moment, and the further legislation that is to come before the Senate, really represent great achievements in the area of veterans' entitlements in this country.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.

  Bill read a second time.

The bill.