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Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Page: 14692

Mr HILL (Bruce) (18:48): As I rise to speak on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill, reflecting on veterans' affairs issues, I'll just note that I'm proud to follow the previous member for Bruce in this chamber, who served for 23 years and, for some years, held ministerial rank as the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel, amongst other things. He was an outstanding Minister for Veterans' Affairs—he used to tell us that—but he was also much loved, as I know for a fact, around the RSLs in the community, not just here but nationally, because of the work that he put in—the very detailed and intense work that he put in—in his tenure of that portfolio. He was much loved by those opposite, too, as I've been told—often more than his own side!

I'm not a person who has ever served in the Defence Force. In taking over from Alan Griffin, one of the lessons which was drummed into me by him when I was a staffer from 1995 to 2000—many a year ago; last century, even!—was that you had to treat everyone nicely. It was a marginal seat; I think the margin was 0.7 per cent. It was the only seat we won from the Liberal Party in 1996. It was not an easy feat, so you had to be nice to everyone. There was a special chewing out, castigation, that you would receive if ever he caught you not giving the gold standard service to any veteran or anyone from an RSL who rang up. However they voted, however angry or grumpy or happy they may have been, there was a recognition right from the start with Alan that veterans deserved special treatment and recognition and understanding.

I acknowledge Deputy Speaker Hastie, who's well-known for his service, and the member for Eden-Monaro, who is also well-known for his service, by most people. I do think there was a low point last year when the member for Hume seemed to have forgotten that he'd served and accused him of being a friend of terrorists. That was when we had a little low point in public debate around the encryption bill, but apart from that I think the service that both of you have given to your country in your time in the Defence Force has been well recognised.

This bill, in terms of recognising service, does two main things: the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant and the more general recognition clause, which provides a normative statement in legislation around general recognition of the service of veterans. I'll turn my remarks in due course to the beneficial clause in there, which is an interesting tweak or use of the legislative clause. I'm a bit of a public administration nerd, having at times been involved, in former lives, in drafting legislation in different portfolios. It did strike me that this is a genuinely interesting, useful and innovative approach to legislative interpretation. There may be other portfolios where such an approach could be used beneficially.

In saying that I've never served—and acknowledging the service of Deputy Speaker Hastie and the member for Eden-Monaro—as a member of parliament you do have some obligation to spend a bit of time each year with the Australian Defence Force for a number of reasons. The work that they do and the capability that they provide to the nation is an important part of our national architecture. Those of us in this place with any kind of interest in our defence, foreign affairs or internationalisation need to understand that. But I think there's a moral imperative on all of us here to put a human face to the people who have served and who are currently serving, because, at the rawest, state sponsored violence or war is the greatest failure of politics. When we stuff up our jobs, when we do the absolute worst in this place or elsewhere around the world so that there's a failure of politics, then it's the women and men of the Australian Defence Force and their brethren elsewhere in the world who are the first to put their lives on the line in the name of duty.

I heard the member for Eden-Monaro acknowledge that it's about recognising not just the sacrifices in the line of active duty but also the sacrifices that are made through the constant training, capability building and maintenance and the fact that much of that work is also dangerous in that people—including people in the ESA—risk their lives simply through the nature of some of the training that is done. So, for all those reasons, it is appropriate that we provide greater recognition as a nation to the service that is provided.

I'll make a couple of remarks on the bill. It does create a framework for the government, but not just for the government; importantly, it's for the business and the community to recognise and acknowledge this unique nature of military service and to support veterans and their families. The Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant is one way that the government has put forward to do that and we're pleased to support it. Those interested in this space would be aware that Labor actually announced the establishment of a military covenant as one of our policies in September last year. There is an important difference between the government's proposal and our proposal. The government's proposal is focused on veterans, whereas our proposal was that such a military covenant should cover both currently serving and ex-service personnel and their families, recognising the commitment which has been made in that way to their country.

I'm pleased to see the government has adopted the covenant, but it's a little bit like the tax cuts, isn't it? Finally, 12 months late to the party, they couldn't quite copy the policy properly. They get a seven out of 10 over there for copying our covenant idea, but we think it would be an improvement and that there is merit in the approach we've put forward to include current serving personnel. 'Copycat from Ballarat' as people in Victoria would know is one of those childhood refrains that get sung, but every time we say it the member for Ballarat rounds on us. She doesn't approve of it. She's not here, but she's probably listening somewhere. By leaving out those currently serving, we believe the government is missing a significant element and an opportunity to do something which is better. It's only part of the picture that they're covering.

Importantly, it wasn't just the normative statement through the covenant that Labor was proposing but a form of accountability through annual reporting in a formal statement to the parliament on how a government of the day is meeting its obligations to current and ex-serving personnel. So, whilst the government have word-associated the name 'covenant' and copied it a bit, they didn't get the point of what we were saying in our policy. We would encourage the next parliament—as I don't think we are going to get to this by tomorrow—to give further thought to the points that we were making in the policy that we put forward because, whilst we are supporting this and it's a welcome start, we think it can be improved upon. We referred it to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade because we thought that it was important that there be a formal process of consultation to allow people in the community, including members of the ex-serving community, to be consulted and be comfortable with the provisions.

In the interests of time so that this does get passed we won't be moving amendments to the legislation. There is still a lot of business before the House. It's funny that in February the government were in here reading bill after bill while they were desperate to not actually have the parliament sit. That was a little curious. There is not a lot of time left in the parliament, so we won't be moving amendments to the legislation despite the fact that we maintain our view that there is merit in including the current serving members and strengthening the legislation by including a report-back element.

I just want to make a few further remarks on the general recognition clause which I touched on before. That clause is there to recognise the unique, special nature of military service and the demands we place on those who serve the Commonwealth's commitment to supporting veterans, acknowledging that there is additional service and support that they may require after they finish their time in the defence forces. So Labor does wholeheartedly support the ongoing recognition and, indeed, recognition in legislative form, as has been proposed to this ongoing obligation as a nation to support those who have put their lives on hold, disrupted their families and sacrificed so much in service to our country.

So, as I was noting before, an interesting extension of this general recognition clause wording in the bill is this overarching statement about the 'beneficial' nature of the veterans' affairs legislation in that portfolio. The purpose of this is to make it clear to the decision-maker. By 'decision-maker' we on this side of the parliament mean human beings sitting in the Department of Veterans' Affairs looking at the paperwork in front of them and trying to make a judgement as to whether someone's claim or request for support meets the requirements of the legislation. That's an important duty that public servants perform. I say 'on this side of the parliament' because one of the problems which we have been enormously critical of this government about has been the fake staffing cap on the Public Service that has not affected the Department of Veterans' Affairs, to be fair, as endemically as many other areas of government but which has seen enormous waste in overheads for contractors and consultants and a growth in the use of temporary casual labour hire workers who do not save money. They decrease the quality of the service in the assessment process. I think it is an important innovation whether an application is being assessed by a skilled permanent Public Service expert on the legislation or a more temporary labour hire contractor under the government's privatisation-by-stealth agenda, which is really what the staffing cap is. Let's be honest: it's privatisation by stealth, forcing government departments, if they are to get their outputs delivered and perform the public services which they are funded to deliver, to privatise, outsource and bring in labour hire workers. For both those cohorts of people making these decisions, I think the clause proposed around the beneficial nature of the portfolio legislation is worthy of support and remark because it may be something which members in future years in different contexts may see as appropriate to put in other portfolios and guide decision-makers towards interpreting legislation in a way which benefits in a positive way those for whom the legislation has been enacted.

The intention of the section is to say that where the provision of an act or the instruments under an act can be interpreted beneficially, then it should be so interpreted. Of course, that is not to undercut specific obligations or deny the fact that in some circumstances a claim simply won't meet the requirements of the legislation and has to be rejected, or that in cases of serious error or incorrect information the debts will be raised and they need to be dealt with appropriately. Of course it's not meant to undercut those other obligations. Departmental training, I understand, will be developed so that decision-makers making these decisions and being guided by this new beneficial intent clause can understand the purpose of it and appropriately apply the legislation to support the intent of the clause.

As I said, one of the most common complaints I receive about the Department of Veterans' Affairs is the sheer time it takes for things to be decided. It's a lengthy and very complex claims process. We on this side of the House believe that a reason for that is excessive staff cuts. It's no great comfort, of course, to people in the veteran community to say, 'It could be worse; you could be trying to deal with Centrelink, or you could be trying to deal with the National Disability Insurance Agency'—which seems to have almost no permanent staff and thousands of labour hire contractors. I do acknowledge that the situation is not as bad as the majority of other agencies in the government, but it's still not acceptable that things take so long. So any commitment to timeliness will be welcomed by the veteran and ex-serving community. In that regard, the paragraph proposed to be inserted which will seek to provide that claims decisions should be made within a time that's proportionate to the complexity—of course we would all understand that complex things take longer but simple things should be able to be done quickly—will be of comfort.

In my remaining minute I'll just read the covenant for the record. I was curious while watching some of the speeches on the television. I thought: what is the covenant? The wording is simple. It's four sentences:

We, the people of Australia, respect and give thanks to those who have served in our defence force and their families.

We acknowledge the unique nature of military service and the sacrifice demanded of the men and women who commit to defend our nation.

We undertake to preserve the memory and deeds of all those who have served and promise to welcome, embrace, and support all military veterans as respected and valued members of our community.

For what they have done, this we will do.

It's a neat, simple form of words. In closing, I again state Labor's view that this legislation is an imperfect copy of the proposal we put forward, which we believe would have been better, which would have recognised current serving defence personnel and not just the ex-serving community and their families, and which would have provided an important accountability mechanism through requiring the government of the day, via the minister, to come into this place and make a statement to the parliament about how the government is going with regard to their obligations to enforce the covenant and support veterans in the way they so deserve.