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Wednesday, 12 May 2004
Page: 23003

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (11:27 AM) —The Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Electronic Delivery) Bill 2004 enables the Department of Veterans' Affairs to accept electronic lodgment of documents. It provides for electronic and physical receipt of claims, application requests and other documents relating to benefits paid. It is legislation that the Democrats support. The need to amend the Veterans Entitlements' Act flows from the passage of the Electronic Transactions Act 1999, which facilitated the development of electronic commerce in Australia by broadly removing legal impediments that prevent a person from using electronic communications to satisfy obligations under the law.

The Department of Veterans' Affairs was originally specifically excluded from that act pending the development of procedures and technology. It is certainly now well and truly time, five years down the track, that the fuller benefit of electronic communications with government and agencies is passed to veterans and their families and, indeed, benefits the invaluable work that veteran advocates and ex-service organisations do.

We know that older Australians are steadily increasing their Internet use. There has been a 40 per cent growth in the number of people over the age of 65 using the Internet since the start of 2001. Indeed, judging by the amount and complexity of the electronic communications I receive from the veterans' community, particularly in relation to some of their campaigns for better treatment from this government, I would say that many of them are already adept at using the technology quite extensively. We also know that many older adults rely on informal sources—family and friends, for example—or established contacts such as doctors for information. Many still prefer face-to-face personal interactions as, of course, do some people of any age. That aspect must not be lost.

Retirement, previous positive experience, peer support and encouragement, and the desire to extend their knowledge parameters have all been major driving forces in the Internet take-up of Australians, including older Australians and veterans. Retired Australians are increasingly motivated to go online and embrace the benefits of new technology. This act, in effect, will enable them to do that more commonly and more effectively should they so wish.

The idea of veterans—the veteran community is perceived as being full of older people, but of course it includes some young people—being technophobes is simply not realistic. Indeed, seniors are the strongest growing group when it comes to the use of online technology. However, some people do not wish to use that technology, and they should have that option.

It goes without saying that the Democrats insist that the department comply fully with the information privacy principles under the Privacy Act with regard to electronic communication and the collection, storage, use and disclosure of personal information in its possession. I think it is fair to say that, whatever your age, there is still greater distrust about the security of material and information that is transmitted electronically. We need to ensure that everything is not only done but seen to be done to protect that security and privacy. Electronic information is no less valuable than paper records and is in many ways more efficient in an administrative sense. There must be a secure environment and a reliable system, a secure mechanism, when people are seeking or providing personal information.

We need to make sure that electronic communication options do not inhibit open, direct verbal communication—telephone communication—by veterans and their families with the department. Despite the high take-up of the Department of Veterans' Affairs 1300 and 1800 telephone numbers, many veterans still tell my office that they would prefer to have an individual staff contact point. So we need to ensure that electronic communication and telephone options complement the improvement in the delivery of services. We certainly need to have the minister monitoring the performance of electronic communications against service charter standards. I am sure all of that will be done and I am sure we will hear about it very quickly from the veteran community if there are problems with the broadening of the usage of electronic communications that will be enabled by the passage of this legislation.

I would like to briefly take the opportunity, as I often do when speaking to any legislation dealing with veterans' affairs, to give recognition on behalf of the Democrats to the staff of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, who we know are dedicated and who operate under the mantle of frequently changing legislation and regulations, such as we have seen recently and such as we will see again perhaps later this week, and now in a new technical environment. It is pleasing to note a recent report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman that the number of complaints received in the Defence jurisdiction has been decreasing over the last few years and the further comment by the Ombudsman that comparatively few complaints are received about the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I trust this is a reflection of the increased standards of service by the department and of the access by veterans and their families to well-established avenues of appeal within the portfolio and further rights of appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

I note that items within this bill extend electronic means of communication to requests for review. Certainly it is our hope that this further means will support and enhance the practice of veterans exercising their full rights of review and appeal. There will inevitably be problems. As always, part of the task of all members of the parliament representing their constituents—certainly the Senate—is monitoring the operation of the government to ensure that any problem areas are scrutinised properly and that we continually strive to further improve standards of service delivery.

We should always acknowledge that we owe the veteran community a special debt. At present we have service personnel most notably and controversially still in Iraq, but personnel are also serving, much less prominently but just as importantly, in many other regions of the world. Today's service men and women are tomorrow's veterans. We owe them the specific debt of ensuring that we do not just give them a welcome home parade but provide ongoing assistance and recognition of the service they have provided.

It is always worth reinforcing, and taking the opportunity to state, that despite differing views about whether or not personnel should be in places like Iraq there is a close to unanimous feeling of support amongst the Australian community—and certainly it is unanimous, as far as I am aware, in this parliament—for our personnel in the work they are doing. They have to operate under instruction from the government and they do their job as effectively as possible. We acknowledge that and it should be reinforced every time we have the opportunity to debate veterans' legislation—even a bill like this, which in effect is technical legislation dealing with what are seen as arcane matters to do with lodging forms by the Internet and other sorts of things. It is all about improving service, getting a better deal for veterans and ensuring that they are assisted and are able to access their entitlements as effectively as possible. The fact that this bill provides a mechanism to do that is welcome and is the reason the Democrats support it.