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Monday, 20 March 2017
Page: 1342

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (12:42): I rise to support the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Digital Readiness and Other Measures) Bill 2017. I intend addressing firstly the question of the general thrust of the minister and the Department of Veterans' Affairs with regard to this IT upgrade. Secondly, I intend to comment on the objectives of the bill. Thirdly, I intend to address the very fair comments made by my colleague Senator Ludlam with regard to privacy. I want to use a couple of personal examples in relation to the need for digitisation as it is expressed in this bill. I want to briefly cover the amendments to the explanatory memorandum that have come about as a result of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee's deliberations. I also, of course, wish to speak to the recommendations of the chair's report on this particular legislation, since I was the chair.

I want particularly to commend all members of the committee and in general the chamber for the highly responsible and concerned way in which all of us are addressing issues associated with veterans, associated with the capacity of the department to do its job and associated with the willingness of the minister and indeed all sides of the chamber. We come at some of these questions from different perspectives. I accept that; that is the value of what we do in our Senate and in our democratic process. But I also want to say that it is critically important that we have and put veterans front and centre in terms of the objectives we have and the legislation that we are moving. It is very much in that direction that this bill has been presented to the parliament.

As Senator Ludlam has quite rightly said, manual cards are used in some circumstances within DVA to keep records of the applications of veterans in various areas for compensation. We know the secretary of the department, Mr Lewis, when questioned in Senate estimates about the IT capacity of his department at the moment said it was the equivalent of a Commodore 64 computer—which, if my memory serves me correctly, were being used in the 1980s. We have silos all over Australia. We have files that move physically between states for decision makers to make their contribution to this. This is unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory from everybody's point of view. I will be urging that the government continues the process of funding the very necessary upgrade to the IT systems so that we can break down those silos, so that we can achieve outcomes for veterans, so that we can make the task of those who have to deliberate upon their applications much easier and so that we can end up with an honour to the veteran community. As I say, on the committee and in this chamber there are many of us whose lives are touched by military veterans. Nobody has got a mortgage on that situation.

I go to comments made by the minister—I think they have been repeated by Minister McGrath—that the bill will make the Department of Veterans' Affairs digitally ready in line with the government's broad digital transformation agenda. I want to make this point very strongly: DVA is undertaking veteran-centric reform to significantly improve services for veterans and their families by re-engineering the DVA business processes. The role of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade—be it the references committee chaired by Senator Gallacher or the legislation committee which I have the privilege to chair—and the activity of the members of that committee have got to be directed towards veteran centricity and that of their families.

The bill, if passed, will institute reforms that will reduce claims times for the processing of claims. We have a circumstance now in which we see figures of 150 days on average being mentioned. They are unsatisfactory. They do not deal with business days and they do not deal with times when an applicant may request a cessation or an interruption in that process. By anybody's standards, 150 days is unacceptable. Anything that this chamber or this parliament can do to reduce those times must surely be to everybody's benefit.

The bill also introduces amendments to information-sharing provisions and a couple of minor amendments. I am very pleased to be able to report to the Senate that the deliberations undertaken by the committee, as a result of submissions made and personal appearances by witnesses, have indeed led to amendments already being placed before this chamber with regard to this legislation. That speaks, in my view, very strongly of two things: first of all, the capacity of Senate committees to influence outcomes; and secondly, the willingness of the minister to listen, to act and to introduce those amendments as outlined in the amended explanatory memorandum.

So we see, as others have said before me, what the objectives in the whole process of computerising the decision making are. I will listen very carefully to the amendment which I understand my colleague Senator Lambie may move in relation to further restricting any situation in which a computer replaces a human being on important decisions associated with liability. I will listen very carefully to that type of amendment.

What we see associated with the computerised decision making, of course, are issues associated with public interest disclosures and information sharing under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment Bill, should it be enacted. I want to make the point again, if I may, that the thrust of this legislation is veteran centric. My colleague Senator Ludlam made some comments about the need for privacy. I want the chamber and those listening to understand carefully and clearly just how this legislation strengthens the privacy factors for veterans. Under present guidelines which are in the Privacy Act 1989 there are certain precepts which I intend to contrast with the digital readiness legislation. We will see how this legislation strengthens, not weakens, the rights of the veteran.

First of all, under existing legislation the department does not need to contact an individual prior to releasing information. However, under digital readiness, when disclosing this information the secretary must contact the individual. That is the first point.

Under current existing legislation the department does not need to provide an opportunity for the individual to respond prior to release. By contrast, under the proposed digital readiness legislation, the secretary must give the person a reasonable opportunity to respond, including their circumstances relating to their age, health, disability, culture or family, and any circumstances which are physical or psychological, to do with national security or anything relevant. Remember: currently, the secretary does not have to alert the individual nor seek the individual's response.

Also, currently the department can release all—I repeat 'all'—of an individual's record. However, under the proposed legislation, an individual's entire record can never be released. Currently, the department can release details of an individual's medical condition. However, under the proposed legislation, no individual's specific medical information can be used to correct misinformation. Should this legislation be passed, the secretary has to consider the individual's circumstances—be that age, health or psychologically related or a national interest matter. Should this legislation be passed, the secretary can only release information proportionate to the objective in the outcome. They have to consider whether anonymous or general information would achieve the same outcome. None of this exists in the current act—the Privacy Act 1988. Only misinformation that is detrimental or harmful to the broader veteran community can be addressed. When addressing misinformation, the secretary has to use anonymous information in the first instance. Each of these points upgrades the privacy factors for military veterans. Only the amount of information required can be used. No individual's medical information can be used to correct misinformation. No individual's national security or service records will be compromised under these safeguards. Private information can never be released in order to argue medical liability. The secretary must take into account comments by the individual, which, if you recall, do not even have to be sought under the current legislation. I make this point: any failure to comply with the above will result in the secretary being subject to criminal penalty. The point is made with numbers of penalty units. Penalty units do not make much common sense to those who do not understand them, but we all understand criminal conviction. It would be a fairly career-limiting move for the secretary of a department of the Commonwealth to be found guilty of a criminal conviction. The penalty will apply to any number of failures. I ask people to reflect on each of those points.

There are five rules pertaining to this legislation for which I do not think I have seen equivalents under other legislation in other portfolios. Firstly, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs sets the rules for how the secretary will exercise his or her powers. Secondly, only the minister can set those rules. So accountability comes back to this place very directly. Thirdly, the secretary cannot delegate those powers given to he or she by the minister of the day. Fourthly, the secretary is personally accountable. The secretary is accountable to the minister and, ultimately, to the parliament. I say again: before disclosing any information, the secretary must notify the person in writing and give them an opportunity to make written comments on the proposed disclosure, and then they must consider those comments. The fifth of the five rules is that, if the secretary fails to comply with the requirements before disclosing personal information, they will commit the offence about which I have spoken.

There would not be anyone in the chamber or, I suspect, among most people listening to this debate who would not now be using the advantages of the digital world. We know when we are banking, for example, that we can use that IT 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from anywhere in the world. We know that we can pay our utility bills in advance, remotely, using electronic technology. We know that we all now have access to, for example, databases of information. What we do not often have is access to how accurate the information might be in a databank. We know that, from anywhere in the world, we can electronically use modern IT techniques. We can book airline tickets online. We can make automated payments. We can transfer money internationally from our device. We can pay our toll road fees electronically, if we happen to go to Sydney. Those of us who are not from the eastern states but are from WA do not experience toll roads, as my good friend Senator Dodson knows. Nevertheless, if you happen to go to Sydney, you can pay your toll electronically. This technology is there in abundance. We even submit our tax returns electronically, and we are told by our computer the amount of our refund or the amount that we have to pay.

I turn now to the strengthening of the protections that are in place in the legislation. There has been consultation on this issue with veterans communities, there has been the Senate process, there has been input by the Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee, as well as our own Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, and there have been amendments made as a result of those consultations. The amended explanatory memorandum speaks of the need for a positive duty on the minister to make rules regulating the exercise of the public interest disclosure power by the Secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. We all take some credit for the introduction of that amendment. As a result of a recommendation, there will be an amendment to include a mandatory review of this legislation and its accompanying rules two years after the date of its commencement or proclamation.

In conclusion, I will speak to the recommendations of the committee. The committee agreed with the Privacy Commissioner's suggestion that DVA consult with the Ombudsman and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner in relation to the drafting of the minister's regulations. That is the first recommendation of the committee—that the department consult with the Ombudsman and the commissioner so that the minister can be sure the regulations, before they are put before the parliament, have been observed and commented upon by those two.

Leading to the second recommendation is the Privacy Commissioner's suggestion that DVA undertake a privacy impact assessment to identify and manage privacy risks associated with the bill, and that the completed assessment be published, so that the public can view potential impacts arising from the proposal. That led to our second recommendation: we recommend the Department of Veterans' Affairs undertake that privacy impact assessment and that it be made public.

The third recommendation of the committee is that the bill be amended to include a mandatory review of the implementation of the legislation, and accompanying regulations, within two years. The fourth recommendation of the committee is that the bill be passed.

I wish to conclude my comments by reflecting on the enthusiasm of the minister, the Hon. Dan Tehan, for the way in which he is leading, and the department is responding to, the need to continue to put veterans first. But we must give them the tools. There is no point operating with the equivalent of a Commodore 64. There is no point trying to work with manual cards, sending them all around Australia. There is no value in that. There is no value for the veteran, there is no value for the staff, there is no value for the minister or the department and there is certainly no value for this chamber to see those constraints. I commend the bill to the Senate.