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Thursday, 25 March 2004
Page: 27343

Mr GEORGIOU (11:19 AM) —I wish to support this bill and I am pleased to see that at last the Department of Veterans' Affairs will be authorised to accept information from its customers and clients via the Internet. We have a very real obligation to do our utmost to help our veterans' community and this bill does serve that. It is very pleasing to note that it has bipartisan support for bringing the DVA into the electronic age.

The bill is designed to assist veterans and their families by providing better access to government services through the electronic communication of claims, applications and other documents to the department. At present, the law requires documents lodged with the department to be physically sent to the department at an approved address or physically delivered to a designated person. Modern communications have now overtaken the need for what are at present anachronistic provisions in the Veterans' Entitlements Act. The amendments proposed in this bill will help to bring veterans' dealings with the department into the modern era—and it is a modern era that veterans are, by and large, astonishingly well equipped to move into. My colleagues have mentioned some of the advances in the utilisation by veterans of contemporary computer technology.

The bill provides for the Repatriation Commission to determine the methods by which information is to be delivered to the department. It specifically includes for the first time the power for the commission to approve that a claim, application, request or other document may be lodged electronically. Under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986, the date on which a document is lodged with the department in many cases assumes a critical importance. It often forms the basis for the calculation of entitlements and can make a significant difference to the enjoyment of life for a veteran and their family. The bill therefore provides that, in the new section 5T of the Veterans' Entitlements Act, to be regarded as having been lodged, a document that is approved by the Repatriation Commission for electronic lodgment not only must be sent to an approved electronic address but also must be received at that address. Under section 5T the document which is lodged electronically will be taken to have been lodged on the day on which it is received at that approved address. A document that has been sent electronically to the department but has not been received at the approved address will not be regarded as having been lodged. These may seem to be pedantic points but, as I said, the date of lodgment and receipt are of fundamental importance in a number of cases to the ability to get the full measure of veterans' entitlements.

The Repatriation Commission will be able to determine which claims, applications, requests or other documents will be approved for electronic lodgment under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. Claims, applications, requests or other documents which are not approved by the commission for electronic lodgment must continue to be lodged at a place or delivered to a person approved by the commission for this purpose. It is worthwhile noting that the commission has a degree of discretion over what it will accept and not accept, but I do believe that the commission will use its power to the maximum extent possible to facilitate electronic lodgment.

There are 127 items in the schedule to this bill. All of them relate to the Veterans' Entitlements Act and are about facilitating electronic communication. As just one example of the improvements made by the legislation, I would like to focus on items 4 and 5 of the schedule to the bill. Items 4 and 5 amend a particular paragraph of sections 14 and 15 respectively of the Veterans' Entitlements Act. Section 14 deals with the requirement for a claim for a disability pension. Section 15 deals with the requirement for a claim for an increase in the disability pension. Under the old sections 14(3) or 15(3), a claim for a disability pension or for an increase in that pension was required by paragraph (a) to be in writing and by paragraph (b) to be accompanied by such evidence as is available and relevant. Under paragraph (c) the claim was required to be made by forwarding it and any accompanying evidence to, or delivering it at, the office of the department.

Paragraph (c) has been amended, and the new paragraph (c) in each of these sections provides only that a claim is to be lodged in an office of DVA in Australia in accordance with section 5T and will be taken to have been made on a day determined under that section. This will mean that, once the commission gives approval for electronic lodgment of such a claim, a person wishing to claim a disability pension or an increase in such a pension under the Veterans' Entitlements Act will have the additional option of lodging the claim by email at an approved departmental email address and the date of lodgment will be the day on which that email is received at the address. Any evidence required to be lodged in support of a claim may also be lodged by email if it lends itself to that process. This will clearly be to the benefit of disabled veterans and will be welcomed by those concerned with veterans' wellbeing. The bill will not change the existing arrangements covering the provision of information to the department by telephone, such as information provided orally in response to a notice or the oral withdrawal of various types of written applications.

These amendments are in line with the government's commitment to putting all appropriate government services online. Until now, the DVA has had an exemption from this general trend. This bill will bring the department into line with the bulk of the public service. I wish to conclude by saying that I believe some very important steps have been taken in terms of the government's response to the Clarke review to improve the situation of our veterans. I think that an important aspect of that was that the cabinet was willing to review the matters that had arisen under the response to the Clarke committee and to adopt a very effective response to the issues raised by that report. I commend the bill to the House.