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Monday, 20 March 2017
Page: 1355


Senator LAMBIE (Tasmania) (13:38): I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Digital Readiness and Other Measures) Bill 2017. I have to say that when I first got into parliament in 2014 I went to see Senator Ronaldson. Finally, three years later, the government has its act together. If it has taken them three years to work this out and they still cannot connect the rules, or show the rules at the same time, then maybe they need to know about poll numbers today. But I am not talking about their poll numbers—the ones in their own parties. I am talking about 21 veterans who have taken their lives this year. I want to thank Ray Martin for those statistics this morning. That is where we are.

This bill would allow the Department of Veterans' Affairs to undertake business reforms and to implement new information and communications technology, otherwise known as ICT, to reduce time spent on claims and processing, and to improve services to veterans. The bill gives DVA's secretary the authority to use computer programs to make decisions in any claims over three separate acts, which include the Veterans Entitlement Act 1986, or the VEA; the Military Rehabilitation Compensation Act 2004, formerly known as MRCA; and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988—the DRCA. The bill also significantly alters veterans' privacy in three pieces of veterans' legislation—the VEA, the MRCA and the SRCA, which may become known as the DRCA if it is enacted by this parliament.

Firstly, the bill would commit the Department of Defence and DVA to share personal and medical records—sending alarm bells already, I can assure you. Secondly, it permits the DVA secretary to disclose information about a particular case or class of cases if the secretary believes it is necessary and in the public interest to do so. And if that is not an alarm bell in itself for Simon Lewis, gee, shoot me down today! The bill's overall intent is good, particularly in making necessary reforms and introducing ICT, which will likely benefit veterans if their claims are processed more quickly and efficiently—they are the key words—and improve veterans' services by DVA overall.

However, schedule 2 of the bill, which deals with the privacy of veterans, has not undergone a robust and thorough independent privacy impact statement or assessment. This means that schedule 2 fails to comply with the PIA guidelines provided by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. In fact, just a few days after this bill was passed by the House the South Lake Macquarie sub-Branch of the Returned Services League of Australia in New South Wales started a change.org petition to urge this Senate to stop the bill, based upon serious privacy concerns by the veterans' community. In fewer than two weeks, the petition received over 10,000 electronic signatures.

The change.org petition received thousands of comments supporting the petition, including from the RSL New South Wales chief executive officer, Glenn Kolomeitz. He noted:

Veterans' entitlements and rights have been slowly eroded via the passage, over the last 30+ years, of a complex and inequitable legislative regime. It is time for the RSL to get its mongrel back and fight legislation of this nature lest it devolves into irrelevance.

The DVA and the Minister for Veterans' Affairs have stated in media releases, as well as on social media, that DVA had consulted the veterans' community on this bill and that it was developed in consultation with the veteran's community, including the RSL. That is absolute rubbish! Absolute rubbish! Basically, the Department of Veterans' Affairs stood in front of them and told them that this was what was going to happen—that it was all hunky-dunky and all good to go. They know what I do with these ESOs. They do not have barristers and lawyers to look after them because the government does not pay them enough! The government does not pay for that service for them.

Just last week it was revealed in a hearing into the different veterans' legislation and the DRCA bill by the Senate Foreign Affairs and Defence Legislation Committee that the committee is concerned with DVA's current consultation and engagement practices. In a report issued just today, it recommended a review of DVA's consultation and engagement practices. The change.org petition contained more than 10,000 signatures, and showed that the Senate committee's concern about DVA's inadequate consultation practices is more than valid. That the petition to stop the bill, based on veterans' privacy concerns, gained these signatures in fewer than two weeks suggested that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs' statements about consultation with the RSL are either lies or that the consultation did not go far enough. I can say to them: they might well have gone up by about 50,000 signatures if I had plugged it on my social media account.

The Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee raised questions about why rules or guidance about the exercise of the secretary's disclosure power cannot be included in the primary legislation and asked why there is no duty on the minister to make rules regulating the exercise of the secretary's power, noting that this bill will provide the secretary with significant power. I would have thought that the secretary, Simon Lewis, has more than enough already that he cannot control.

In response to the Scrutiny of Bills Committee, on 12 December 2016 the Minister for Veterans' Affairs indicated that with respect to a veteran's privacy the proposed public interest provision was modelled on the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, which had been in operation for 17 years and had never been a cause for concern. And what do you know? Here it comes! Two months later this statement by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs came back to haunt him, when in February 2017 Centrelink leaked personal information to a journalist after a Centrelink client had publicly claimed she was wrongly targeted by Centrelink over an unfair debt.

Basing veterans' privacy on social security law, given the Centrelink release of personal information, should give serious pause for thought to my fellow colleagues here in the Senate. Veterans deserve no less than robust protection of their privacy for their personal and medical files. Schedule 2 of this bill fails in providing strong privacy protection and, as such, I will introduce an amendment that will scrap schedule 2 from the veterans' digital readiness bill, for which I do believe I have support from the crossbenchers. However, Labor is still going to play the game, so while they are making up their rules—I think it was nine lots they have already done and they are now on their 10th or 11th—and mucking around with that, it will be interesting to see how many more veterans suicide over the next month while we are waiting for them to clear up this little matter. It is an embarrassment to the government that something so simple has been made into mincemeat and that more veterans' lives are being put on the line.

Once the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and the DVA undertake an independent PIA—privacy impact assessment—on veterans' privacy and then consult with all stakeholders, including the veterans' community, the minister is free to come back to parliament to introduce an amendment to the veterans' digital readiness bill that provides adequate privacy protections in dealing with veterans' records. Until this is done, this Senate should not authorise schedule 2 of this bill because it would be bad law and could have negative consequences for vulnerable veterans. I can assure you that, after 13 years of being in the Middle East on rotation after rotation after rotation, there are a lot of vulnerable veterans out there. We have only to see the vulnerability of our Vietnam veterans where most did one year in a war zone. These veterans have done nine, 10, 11 and 12 tours. Simply put, veterans' privacy should not be framed from social security law. Veterans make an enormous sacrifice to serve and protect our great nation and, as such, the very least we can do, as lawmakers, is to afford them a robust and independent privacy impact assessment and consultation process before we vote on something so important.

Automated decision-making will be useful to speed up claims processes; however, the DVA computer system and software have yet to be designed and built—that is the other issue. There is a lot of concern with regard to initial decisions related to a service injury or disease or reassessment of such. There is absolutely no computer program—if anyone can show me one or present different evidence, please do—that I am aware of, that is able to take into account High Court and Federal Court precedents in the decision of a claim for liability of an injury or disease—we just do not have the algorithms to do that.

Noting the recent serious concerns about the Centrelink debt-recovery data-matching system and the errors that have been reported about that system, it would be wise to only allow the legislation to make decisions on matters that do not involve initial decisions on liability of injuries or disease. To protect vulnerable veterans, I will be introducing an amendment to this bill which would limit decisions to those that do not involve claims for liability on an injury or disease which is service connected. This amendment will include reassessments of such claims. I do not see an issue with a computer program being able to make decisions on travel claims, reimbursement or expense-related claims and claims of a similar nature. For those who not know, this is actually already being done. I can submit a claim through the computer to DVA. The only thing that is holding them up is that it has to be signed off by a delegate, so I do not know why this has taken so long. I do not understand why it needs to be signed off by a delegate if you are already entering it into the computer system yourself.

Until DVA has a proven track record in the building and development of ICT, this Senate should not risk subjecting any veterans who defend our great country to a system where the computer says no to a legitimate compensation claim involving the initial liability determination or reassessment of injuries or diseases related to their Defence service. This parliament owes our veterans a duty of care in ensuring there are little to no errors in allowing DVA to make computer program decisions, especially with respect to first getting a veteran's foot into the door at DVA. After the Department of Veterans' Affairs has built and designed the computer system and the software and has developed a track record of success with decisions such as travel expenses, then it may come back to parliament to seek an amendment to broaden its computer program decision-making abilities.

Given the high number of veteran suicides—as I mentioned—and the present Senate inquiry into this most serious issue, we should not risk giving DVA free rein to make any and all decisions by computer program. If this Senate passes this bill as is, that is exactly what we will be doing: giving complete freedom to the executive branch of government, through the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and the Department of Veterans' Affairs, to make any and all decisions by computer program, before it is even designed, built and tested, with very little input and oversight by the legislative branch of government.

In a few years' time we do not want to find ourselves holding another Senate inquiry into veterans' suicides due to computers saying no to an initial liability claim for injury or disease that effectively seals off the door to DVA, absent an appeal. We, as lawmakers, need to get this right as there is far too much at risk to give the executive branch free rein to allow a computer program to make decisions, given the program has not even been designed, implemented or tested as yet. I think we are jumping the gun—you may want to start with the design. I understand this is based on money and that the government wants it to go through the budget. I think it is about $30 million. It is the same $30 million that former Senator Ronaldson spoke to me about—I am assuming it is in that same area. Until the computer program is out there and we can all see that it is working, why—in my own words—do we need to do this backwards? Because it is backwards. You are doing it the wrong way in an about face. I hope my Senate colleagues will support my amendments to this bill which will help to protect veterans' privacy and will prevent computer systems getting in error in DVA.

Before I sit down, I have some really serious concerns about giving so much more power to the Secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I do not know if people out there know that there have been recent cases where DVA delegates at level 4—they are not little delegates; they are advocates at level 4; they are about as high as they can go—have been told. They are out there putting their messages on social media and voicing their opinions. They are allowed to. It is a democracy. It is a free country. Simon Lewis does not like that. Simon Lewis does not like it when the truth is in his face. These level-4 advocates are now paying the price. One has 45 cases sitting on his desk and he has been told, in no uncertain terms, that he has to follow the rules; the rules that have been set by Simon Lewis. One of those rules is that he is allowed one email per week. How can he do that when he has 40 or 45 files on his desk, and I think there are about a dozen going through the AAT?

How does a secretary get so much power that he can shut down a level-4 advocate? He has put nothing in place to take over the veterans that this level-4 advocate has on his books. He has done nothing. He has left veterans out there sitting on the sidelines, wondering who the hell they go to next. This is the power already shown by Simon Lewis, and you want to give him more? Come on. He is already dictating to level-4 advocates how they are going to interact with DVA, because goodness forbid we put things on social media which are pretty much true. I will say they are true, and I have no problem putting it up there either when it comes to Simon Lewis and his lack of action or his inability to do his job. He does not like it? I say this to you, Lewis: here's a box of Kleenex. Suck it up. If you started doing the job properly, we would not be 'slandering' you all over social media with the facts coming back to bite you. That is how it operates.

As for checks, balances and all this sort of stuff: no, there are no checks and balances in DVA. That is why you have already had this many suicides this year. As a matter of fact, while we have been screaming for two years to have a royal commission into Veterans' Affairs, I think that, after the 500 or 600 submissions that have come through in the most recent inquiry and the one that was held into mental health in February-March last year, we have no other choice but to do the right thing as politicians and at least call for an independent forensic audit into the management and administration of Veterans' Affairs. We do not have a choice. There is something really wrong going on in that department. It stinks to high heaven and it is taking out veterans.

Before you vote for this bill—especially Labor—have a good think about what you are doing. I would hope that people are going to support my amendments.