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Monday, 15 June 2009
Page: 5994

Mr COMBET (Minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science and Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change) (4:31 PM) —The Defence Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2009 makes amendments for two separate measures. I will refer to them in summing up the debate. The first measure introduces a new part into the Defence Act 1903 to allow for a tactical payment scheme which will provide an efficient and effective means for making expeditious, no liability payments to persons who suffer damage, injury or loss due to ADF activities abroad. This is a very important amendment which is a direct response to Australian Defence Force operational experience, particularly, in recent years, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I would like to thank all of those who have contributed to the debate. I also thank the honourable member for Lyne because he put forward a number of questions relating to the current act of grace scheme and why that scheme does not meet the needs of operational matters for defence. It highlighted recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan which have shown that the current administrative requirements involved in making act of grace payments do not enable timely and responsive payments to deserving individuals. While Defence and the Department of Finance and Deregulation have developed, over a period of time, a close working arrangement to enable timely payments, the turnaround time is still at least three to five days. As locals have an expectation of immediate financial recompense for damage or for injury, any delay runs the risk of causing ill feeling. This in turn may affect the ability of the ADF to win the hearts and minds of the local communities in which they are deployed. Respect for, and recognition of, local customs is vital for building relationships with these communities. In turn, it enhances the safety and security of our deployed ADF personnel to make such timely payments.

As the members for Paterson and Herbert also made clear, it is critically important to empower our people on the ground to be able to take immediate action. The tactical payment scheme allows our deployed personnel to address such instances in very rapid time. The tactical payment scheme has been developed in close consultation with the Department of Finance and Deregulation as well to ensure that it meets the needs of Defence and the relevant financial transparency and accountability requirements. To allay concerns raised in the debate over the reporting requirements and accountability of the tactical payment scheme, I can inform the chamber that the tactical payment scheme will be bound by strict and transparent parameters. Although the bill does not explicitly outline reporting, this does not mean that there are no provisions for accountability and reporting.

While there is no specific mention in the bill, the effect of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 is that there is an obligation to report in the Defence annual report. This is similar to other equivalent schemes, such as act of grace payments and special circumstances payments made under section 73 of the Public Service Act 1999. To put this issue beyond any doubt, my predecessor in the portfolio, Minister Snowdon, wrote to Minister Tanner, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, who has agreed to amend the finance minister’s order to explicitly recognise Defence’s obligation to report on the tactical payments scheme in the Defence annual report. The report will identify by operation the total amount paid for casualties and for other damage. The tactical payments scheme may also be subject to audit by the Australian National Audit Office.

All payments made in theatre will be recorded at the time of payment, in accordance with guidance provided by Headquarters Joint Operations Command. Specific details of payments under the tactical payments scheme will not be made public for reasons of privacy and operational security: firstly, disclosure may be dangerous to the safety of the recipients and compromise their privacy and, secondly, Defence is obliged to avoid disclosure of operationally sensitive information, particularly where that could endanger the security of deployed personnel.

I would also like to confirm that there will be no additional financial impact for this legislation because the tactical payments scheme will cover the payments that in the past have been made by other means, particularly through the act of grace mechanism, which are Defence portfolio funded. In sum, the tactical payments scheme we believe is an overdue initiative to allow small expeditious payments to be made to locals adversely affected during ADF operations overseas. The scheme will be bound by strict transparency, accountability and reporting procedures. Equally as important, it will allow Defence to remain respectful of individuals’ right to privacy and the need to protect them from being targeted by enemy forces.

There have also been some contributions made by many speakers on the second amendment, which relates to the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme Act 2008, which provides the legislative basis for the operation of the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme itself. The Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme commenced on 1 July 2008, but a number of unintended outcomes, inconsistent with the initial policy intent, subsequently became apparent. I think a number of the speakers, including the member for Tangney, made reference to this. The bill addresses these issues, ensuring the scheme is consistent with the initial policy intent. Finally, I thank all the contributors to the debate on this amendment bill and commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.