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Monday, 9 December 2002
Page: 7513

Senator MARK BISHOP (10:07 PM) —I rise tonight to address the annual report of the Veterans Review Board. The tabling in the parliament of annual reports such as this and other papers is an important part of our democratic process, whereby accountability is guaranteed—the assumption being, of course, that such reports are read and scrutinised. This we do in the Senate in the context of estimates hearings but, personally, I believe that we should more actively avail ourselves of the opportunity to comment within the Senate proper as well as acknowledge the matters being reported on in the various reports.

The Veterans Review Board has a special place in veterans policy and legislation. While in its current form it has only existed since 1986, its antecedents go back much further as a specialised body of review with the express purpose of safeguarding the rights of veterans to compensation for their war-caused injury and illness and, in the case of war widows, ensuring fairness and justice for those who quite often are unable to represent themselves adequately. The VRB, as an independent body of review, has a special significance for veterans and in recent times, as the government has sought to introduce some rather misguided and ill-considered reform to our processes of administrative review across the board, the ex-service community have reacted sharply to any suggestion that their specialised tribunal might in some way be compromised. This is understandable, simply because veterans and war widows have long held a special place in our political system.

Within the law on veterans' entitlements there are also some unique characteristics which go to the benefit of the doubt. These are not well understood and are based on the respect and sympathy shown by a grateful nation for service rendered in times of war. For that reason, the VRB has a strong in-built commitment to ensuring that consideration of veterans' appeals is managed sympathetically, as the parliament and the Australian people intended, and with an actual understanding of service life, which is generally not available in other tribunals with a more legalistic approach to assessing fact and the requirements of the law.

In reading the VRB report for 2001-02, it is clear that these principles remain paramount but that, at the same time, serious endeavours are being made to ensure that service levels are improved and that maximum help is provided to veterans in having their cases heard expeditiously. Clearly, this is a huge problem for the board because, notwithstanding the desire to provide expedition and service, the difficulties seem to me to rest more with the veteran community, who, by nature, find dealing with the complexity of the law and government quite difficult—this, of course, is perfectly understandable. Indeed, it is for this reason that administrative review is so important in a democracy such as ours. It is simply counterproductive to provide a system of care and support to people in need if the very process designed to help them makes it impossible to access it.

The veteran jurisdiction is a complex one, having grown over a period of 80 years with frequent legislative change—often ad hoc and driven by budgetary considerations or by politics—producing confusion and, quite often, plain contradiction and injustice. The basic point remains, however, that no matter how a review system such as that available under the VRB is constructed and managed the weak point is the capacity of the veteran or the widow to make their case and to have it argued before tribunals which necessarily must also perform effectively and efficiently.

There is a view that in theory the longstanding requirement is that veterans' claims for compensation should be investigated by the Department of Veterans' Affairs, with full consideration given to veterans' lack of access to records and lack of ability to come to grips with the complexity of the technicalities of the act and the associated procedures. That is to say that the department must take the veteran's claim, go beyond its actual contents and make an assessment on all the information available to it, substantiating and adding to the evidence submitted and then making a determination on the total merit. As all veterans say, however, this intention is fine but contradictory in that the department is so pressed by performance indicators and the savage reduction of resources over the period of the Howard government that this simply does not happen. In fact, the more hardened members of the ex-service community say that any departmental research undertaken invariably entails research for reasons to deny a claim rather than to accept it.

Whatever the circumstances, it is clear that the department cannot act for the interests of the claimant and adjudicate as well. Yet the dilemma then is this: how does the claimant make a full and well-supported claim? The answer to date has been to rely on the services of ex-service organisations such as the RSL, Legacy, the VVAA, the VVFA and many others whose voluntary and paid resources are stretched to the point where they simply cannot cope with the demand. The value of this effort is reflected by specific programs of support—namely, the BEST Program, which provides quite inadequate resources to those bodies as well as training under the TIP program. However, this is only minor and is not sufficient to allow ex-service organisations to properly prepare cases under review.

As I have travelled around Australia over this year speaking to veterans and ex-service groups, this issue more than any other dominates the conversation. These organisations simply are not coping and, as a result, veterans are not being served. The sad fact of life in this jurisdiction is that appeals against a rejected decision are a given as the success rate of reviews and appeals is very high and so there is a direct incentive by example for veterans and war widows to exercise their rights. Unfortunately though, this attitude, and in fact the entire system, is geared to dealing with symptoms rather than the primary cause, which—to put it bluntly—is the poor quality of primary claims, unsatisfactorily prepared and with insufficient evidence in support.

As I have said, this is the nature of the jurisdiction and the lack of capacity of veterans to deal with the system, especially where the events prompting the claim could have happened half a century or more ago. To appeal a rejected claim is, therefore, standard practice and that is the advice given by all. The odds of succeeding eventually are just so good, and in most cases this is simply because new and better evidence is forthcoming as a result of more professional case investigation. The sad irony is that, in many cases, had this evidence been submitted in the first place the claims would not have been rejected.

The appeal process for veterans includes, however, much more than the VRB. It includes the AAT and eventually the Federal Court on matters of law. It goes without saying that this is extraordinarily expensive. One can only wonder what difference would be made if some of this cost were transferred to the front end to make sure that claims are better prepared in the first place. The logic simply cannot be faulted. Those costs are those of the VRB and the AAT, the time of the Federal Court and the costs of legal aid. This is on top of the costs of the department's internal review, advocacy function, freedom of information and the costs of others who get caught up in the paper dominated process flowing from the need to justify primary decisions and produce documentary evidence. The sad feature of this very litigious attitude to veterans' claims is that the VRB is often regarded as a stepping stone to the AAT, where legal aid is available free of any means test but where, fortunately, the skills of the legal profession are brought to bear more effectively than are those available from any other source earlier in the chain.

These matters go beyond the bounds of the VRB annual report, but they must be dealt with. The system is inefficient and does not serve veterans. The role of the VRB is diminished. Try as it might, it is but part of a system desperately in need of review. Such an opportunity does exist, and I make particular mention here of the work being done to develop a new, single military compensation scheme in which review should be a fundamental component but where I suspect the hard issues might be shirked.

This evening I do not intend speculating any further on that matter. Instead, on behalf of veterans, I simply make a plea that a hard look be given at this system, which can only be described as an expensive folly for not just its cost but also the inconvenience and frustration it causes. Put simply, the system can be managed much better. In saying that, though, I make it quite clear that I believe the fundamental status and make-up of the VRB must be preserved. It is a specialist body with a long history and experience most relevant to understanding the veteran jurisdiction in all its facets. It must remain independent. At the same time, it should not be hidebound by past practice and modus operandi. It should, for example, remain informal.

The other question which also must be addressed is the future of the VRB and, in the event of a new, single compensation scheme, what its role should be in an environment where it can be expected that most serving people in their career will obtain the equivalent of qualifying service. There is a need for a system of review which is common to all, rather than two separate systems. I look forward to joining that debate whenever the government's legislation emerges. I will stop my remarks here, but in so doing may I compliment the VRB on its efforts in the last year and on the quality of its report.