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Monday, 20 March 2017
Page: 1359

Senator PATERSON (Victoria) (13:54): I want to begin by recognising Senator Lambie's evident passion and longstanding interest in this issue. She is a very sincere and genuine advocate for the interests of veterans, and I recognise her for that. But I also think that all of us in this place value our veterans. All of us should value our veterans. All of us want to take the absolute best care of them in recognition of the wonderful service that they have given throughout their careers representing our interests and our values overseas. I include in that the minister responsible for this legislation, Minister Dan Tehan. I do not think you will meet a more conscientious, caring, thoughtful or compassionate minister. He is very passionate about delivering the absolute best outcomes for our veterans. In this place we may disagree about the best means to deliver that, and that is well and good. We should have that debate. But I do not doubt for a second the genuine commitment that the minister has shown on this issue and any other issue in his portfolio when it comes to the interests of veterans.

I would like to focus for a moment on one of the positive aspects of this bill that perhaps has not had sufficient airing in this debate so far, and that is the potential for these reforms—the modernisation of these processes—to deliver much faster resolution of claims by our veterans with the department. There are veterans who wait up to 120 days to get an outcome for their applications to the department, and that is not good enough. Technology can and does allow us to really significantly improve that, and that is something that we should all welcome. Computerisation is not something to be afraid of; with the appropriate checks and balances, modern systems can ensure that we do deliver much better, more efficient service to veterans. I know one of the issues that they commonly raise is the length of time it takes to resolve their claims. They are right to be concerned about that, and this bill and the measures associated with it absolutely seek to address those concerns.

Obviously, Senator Lambie and others have raised concerns about the privacy safeguards in this bill, and they are right to be concerned about the privacy of our veterans. We are all concerned about that. But the truth is that this bill significantly improves in a number of key areas the protection of the privacy of our veterans. I will summarise a few of the key ones here for the benefit of the Senate and anyone watching, particularly veterans who may have concerns about their privacy.

Currently, the law which dictates how veterans' privacy should be dealt with is the Privacy Act 1988, and there are a number of inadequacies under it. Under this new policy, they will be addressed, and that will be improved. One example is that, under the Privacy Act, the department is not required to contact an individual prior to releasing their information. This bill, if passed, will require them to do that. It will require the secretary of the department to contact the individuals. Another weakness of the current law is that the department does not need to provide an opportunity for the individual to respond prior to the release of their information. Under this bill, if passed, the secretary must provide a person a reasonable opportunity to respond, including age, health, disability, social, cultural, family circumstances and any physical, psychological, national security or relevant circumstances. This is a much more extensive requirement than exists under the current act.

Currently under the law, the department can release all of an individual's record. Under the change that will be brought about if this bill passes, an individual's entire record can never be released. Under the current law, the department can release details on an individual's medical conditions. Under the proposed bill, no individual's specific medical information can be used even to correct misinformation. Under the current law, the department can provide information to anyone it believes should have it whether or not they have a need for it. Under this bill, only people who have a genuine and legitimate interest can be provided with that information.

Those are just some of the key safeguards that are being introduced by this bill and which are an improvement on the status quo. I recognise that they may not be sufficient to accommodate Senator Lambie's concerns, but I think they are a significant improvement on the status quo. The secretary also has to consider an individual's circumstances, as I mentioned before. They have to consider the physical, psychological, national security or relevant circumstances about the individual. The release of the information has to be proportionate to the objective of the outcome, which is not something that is required under the current law. The secretary has to consider whether anonymous or general information could achieve the same outcome.

Only misinformation that is detrimental or harmful to the broader veterans community can be addressed. When information is used to address misinformation, the secretary has to use anonymous information in the first instance. No individual's specific medical information can be used to correct misinformation. No individual's national security or service records will be compromised. An individual's private information can never be released in order to—

The PRESIDENT: Order! It being 2 pm, we now move to questions without notice.