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Monday, 15 November 2010
Page: 1127

Senator RONALDSON (12:32 PM) —I rise to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Weekly Payments) Bill 2010. The coalition supports this bill. The bill will enable the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to establish a class of persons who are homeless or at risk of homelessness who will be eligible to receive their DVA entitlements weekly instead of fortnightly. Eligible veterans can make application to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to be treated under these more beneficial arrangements. The bill ensures that homeless veterans are able to access similarly beneficial arrangements under veterans legislation as is available to other Australian government pensioners.

I do not propose to go through each section of the bill, but there are a number of related matters which I wish to discuss today. Last Thursday a number of Australians at 11 o’clock stopped for a minute’s silence to commemorate the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War. It was on that day that 10 new names were added to the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial. They are Sapper Jacob Moerland and Sapper Darren Smith, who were killed in action on 7 June this year; Private Scott Palmer, Private Timothy Aplin and Private Benjamin Chuck, killed in action on 21 June this year; Private Nathan Bewes, killed in action on 9 July this year; Trooper Jason Brown, killed in action on 13 August this year; Private Grant Kirby and Private Tomas Dale, killed in action on 20 August this year; and Lance Corporal Jared MacKinney, killed in action on 24 August this year. Lest we forget the sacrifice of these 10 fine young men, we will remember them not just on 11 November but every day.

But I was disgusted to read in the Herald Sun newspaper in Melbourne that workers at VicRoads did not pause for one minute at 11 o’clock on 11 November. I say this in an apolitical sense because I know that the Premier expressed his outrage at the time, as did the leader of the opposition, but I do want to make further comments about this. I want to talk today about the commentary that was associated with and attached to the VicRoads decision in relation to this matter. They apparently were concerned about causing offence. VicRoads’s statement said that the organisation was ‘conscious of possible different cultural issues’ and did not ‘wish to cause offence to anyone’. Cause offence to whom exactly? To whom are they referring? Only after significant public pressure did VicRoads relent and encourage staff to observe a customary and traditional one minute’s silence for the fallen of all wars at 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month—a tradition, I might say, that well and truly predates VicRoads.

Disappointingly, the attitude of VicRoads has also been replicated elsewhere. Again the Herald Sun reported, last Friday, that Centrelink staff and customers in Newport ‘failed to observe the minute’s silence’. Further, the paper reported:

At the McDonald’s store on the corner of Victoria Pde and Smith St, Collingwood, burgers and fries took priority.

                   …              …              …

At the Commonwealth Bank branch in Burke Rd, Camberwell, service continued as normal.

                   …              …              …

RMIT University did not mark the 11th hour across its three campuses …

                   …              …              …

RMIT chief operating officer Steve Somogyi said the university respected “the right of its staff and students to mark Remembrance Day in their own way”.

What a complete and utter cop-out—observe it in their own way. Surely one minute’s silence every year is the absolute least that this nation can do to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defence of our nation, our values and our way of life. I regret that this is the approach taken by some in positions of authority who are probably the same people who want to ban Father Christmas, carols and decorations at Christmas. It is simply political correctness gone mad. Remembrance Day is not a cultural cringe, as some believe. It is the most important of days to commemorate, reflect on and remember the sacrifice of others which has led to the nation we have today. Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun last Friday wrote:

So far from showing “sensitivity” to its multicultural staff, VicRoads has insulted them. And rather than show “sensitivity” to all cultures, it has disrespected the one that matters most, and that’s where it’s been so irresponsible.

I absolutely and totally endorse those comments. We need to have positive leadership on this important national issue from the Gillard Labor government and it will be wholeheartedly supported by the coalition. Later today I intend writing to the vice-chancellors of Australia’s universities calling on them to mark 11 am on 11 November as a time for one minute’s silence on campus. I will be writing to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs inviting him to join with me in establishing a program which I think should be called ‘Recommitting Australia to Remembrance Day’.

I remember well one of his predecessors, Con Sciacca, who put in place the fantastic Australia Remembers program. I think Con Sciacca played a pivotal role as a former Labor Minister for Veterans’ Affairs—for those listening to this speech who do not know who Con Sciacca is. He was, in my view, pivotal in re-educating another generation of young Australians about the importance of commemorating the sacrifices that others have made for this country. I invite the minister to join with me in establishing this program. I am happy for him to introduce it tomorrow and for him to take ownership of it, but we do need to recommit Australia to Remembrance Day.

Look at those universities, TAFEs and schools and tell me one group of people in this country other than those educational institutions which is better able to organise one minute’s silence for one minute of the year. I call on them to use the rights they have to ensure that, as far as possible, classes cease for that minute and there is that minute’s observation. Would it not be fantastic for this country if at 11 o’clock every bus stopped, every tram stopped, every commuter stopped for a minute to commemorate, as I said before, what is one of our most important days of commemoration?

This brings me to another matter—that is, an issue raised with me last week by a colleague from the other place. In an email distributed last Thursday there is a claim that a veteran had committed suicide as a result of difficulties in claiming his entitlements through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. This is obviously deeply distressing and very, very worrying. I am aware of allegations made in the past which have linked suicide to slow responses from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in the processing of claims. Obviously all these allegations have been previously investigated. In light of this email, I ask the Minister for Veterans Affairs to request a thorough investigation of the claims made in the email and, where appropriate, to inform the parliament of the outcome. I have the email and, whilst I do not propose to detail the specifics in this place, I ask that the minister take on board the contents of the email which was, I note, sent to him and that he take action to ensure that the issues raised are dealt with and properly investigated.

As we near the end of a busy year, I draw the Senate’s attention to the plight of the Review of Military Compensation Arrangements. This review was commissioned by the previous Minister for Veterans’ Affairs in 2009. The previous minister appointed a steering committee to manage the review and appointed the secretary of his department to the role of chair. The steering committee includes representatives from the Department of Defence, Treasury, the Department of Finance and Deregulation and the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations as well as an independent academic expert in veterans and compensation law. The review was due for completion in March 2010. The deadline was later extended to the end of this year. We now hear it will be 2011 before the review is completed and recommendations released for comment by the veteran and ex-service community. I raised concerns with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs through Senate estimates about the progress of the review and some of the issues being considered by the review. I am particularly concerned that defence personnel returning from Afghanistan may not be able to access additional compensation for new injuries. I am sure this will horrify many, many senators. This is the result of the offsetting of previous compensation payments under other acts against any new injuries covered by the MRCA legislation.

I am quite sure that when Danna Vale, a previous coalition Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, introduced the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Bill 2003 in parliament, she did not intend this to happen. In fact, Mrs Vale told the other place when she introduced the bill:

A member who suffers an injury or illness after that date—

that is, 1 July 2004—

will be able to combine prior impairments from the SRCA and VEA—

the Veterans’ Entitlements Act—

with the new arrangements to get the best possible outcome.

I quote from the House of Representatives debates of 4 December 2003, page 23,809. I emphasise the words ‘the best possible outcome’. I hope that the former minister’s words have been used by the review in their deliberations into the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, because they reflect very clearly the intention of this parliament—specifically, the previous coalition government in making provision for injured veterans and ex-service people’s entitlements under the law. I remain concerned, however, that this critical review is being delayed by bureaucratic argument. I have heard from a number of sources that the review’s delay is due to an argument between Finance, Treasury and Workplace Relations wanting to water down provisions of the MRCA to make it more of a civilian workers compensation scheme versus Defence, DVA and the compensation law expert, who, quite rightly, demand that MRCA appropriately reflect the unique nature of military service.

Caught in the middle of all this is the Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the chair of the review, Mr Ian Campbell. As well as being secretary of DVA and chairman of the review, Mr Campbell is also Chairman of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, the MRCC, and the President of the Repatriation Commission. He is in the unfortunate, yet deliberate, position of being both the poacher and the gamekeeper in relation to this issue. The MRCC is the independent commission which determines entitlements under the MRCA and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act for compensation for ex-ADF personnel. The commission is responsible for determining how the act is administered and the level of entitlements available to claimants. It is independent of government, and the Minister for Veteran’s Affairs has no legislative authority to override decisions of the commission. So the minister has no role in this; it is truly independent. It has five commissioners, of which Mr Campbell is the chair. Here we have the chair of that commission—the commission which sets the entitlements—also chairing a review of the entitlements provided by the act. When I said before that it is independent, I of course meant it is independent of government. But that is where the independence stops, because where the chair of that commission—the commission which sets the entitlements—is also chairing a review of the entitlements provided by the act, there has to be a clear conflict of interest. There must be.

During the last parliament, the Labor government championed two key reviews, out of some 180 in total, to highlight their so-called ‘reform’ credentials. The first was the Harmer review of pensions. This is a review which has fallen foul of the veteran community because it did not include a number of matters, but it was undertaken by Dr Jeff Harmer, Secretary of the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, FaHCSIA. But Dr Harmer is not also the head of Centrelink, the authority which administers payments under the Social Security Act. Dr Harmer’s position of policy making versus policy delivery is clearly defined.

There is also, of course, the Henry taxation review. While much of this review remains shrouded in secrecy, what is clear is that while the author of the review, Treasury secretary Dr Ken Henry, made recommendations on revenue measures, he is not also the Commissioner of Taxation. Dr Henry is not responsible for the administration of his recommendations. It falls to the Commissioner of Taxation to make determinations under the tax act about compliance, not the secretary of the department. So, under the Social Security Act and the tax act, the delineation of the roles of the respective secretary and decision makers is clear. Yet in Veterans’ Affairs, a deliberate conflict of interest has been established by the Labor government. In this case, the secretary is both the decision maker and the reviewer—the poacher and the gamekeeper. The Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs must be the most conflicted departmental secretary in the entire Public Service in relation to this matter. It is not fair that the secretary of the department has been placed in this position. Something simply has to give.

I am very concerned that the important review of military compensation arrangements presently underway is being bogged down by bureaucratic games. Putting to one side the cost implications of a review such as this, efforts by some on the steering committee to, apparently, make military compensation more comparable with civilian workers compensation are, quite frankly, utterly disgraceful. The unique nature of military service requires that compensation for injuries sustained in the line of duty reflects the uniqueness of that service. But, in the event of a three-all tie on the steering committee, which way does Mr Campbell go? In this position both Mr Campbell and the review he chairs are conflicted. He has been placed in an extraordinary, invidious position by this government, and as a parliament we must ask ourselves whether this is a tenable position in which the executive government has placed the Public Service.

I am fully aware that there is a long tradition and a legislative basis which enables the Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to also be the President of the Repatriation Commission and Chair of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. But the time has come to ask whether this continues to be the right approach, and I ask the minister to take a closer look at this issue to see whether he has formed a similar view to me.

For the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is faced with a large, younger client cohort. This presents a cultural challenge for the department it has not experienced in four decades. As a parliament, we must ensure that these veterans are looked after properly by the department, that the department is properly resourced to do this and that decision makers are appropriately trained to ensure advice and entitlements are provided accurately. This country cannot afford to treat veterans of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in the same appalling fashion as veterans of Vietnam were treated when they came home. Former Prime Minister John Howard clearly documents this in his memoirs, and I wholeheartedly concur.

The time has come for the Australian parliament to again consider how we treat our veterans. We have to consider whether it is time that the secretary of the department focus solely on delivering services to veterans and their families and that an independent commissioner be appointed to chair the MRCC and the Repatriation Commission. Such a step would enable the secretary of the department to focus on the needs of veterans whilst maintaining the independence of the MRCC and the Repat Commission in determining compensation claims. Cutting the Gordian knot could well be in the long-term best interests of veterans and their families. Mr Campbell is highly respected, and I respect Mr Campbell, but he is conflicted. I ask the minister to have another look at this on the basis of and on the back of the absolutely changed dynamics of this department.