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Friday, 15 June 1984
Page: 3107

Senator GIETZELT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)(10.30) —in reply-The Government asks for support for the Repatriation Legislation Amendment Bill because it is the culmination of a considerable number of discussions and consultations designed to overcome all of the difficulties to which Senator Macklin referred. It has to be said that all governments accept to the utmost their responsibilities and support for the veteran community. In no way does this legislation disadvantage any veteran who desires to have an application for a benefit determined by the determining authorities. This Government continues the same policies with respect to its obligations as the previous Government. I think I can say that in respect of all past governments. The purpose of the legislation is to simplify and speed up, in other words to facilitate, the opportunity of veterans to have their applications for a benefit or pension or an increase in their pension dealt with in a satisfactory way and in a manner conducive to their application being dealt with in a sympathetic way.

It was always my intention that this legislation be dealt with in the autumn session. The veteran community requested that not only this legislation but also the veterans entitlement legislation be dealt with in the autumn session. I have to say in response to Senator Macklin that only one organisation requested a delay in respect of this piece of legislation. On the contrary, the veteran community-the veterans themselves and the veterans organisations-has been as near unanimous as any group of men and women can be in suggesting that the Government's obligation was to have the legislation in respect of the determining system and the legislation in respect of repatriation entitlements dealt with in this session of Parliament. It was always my intention to accede to that request. Finally, I was able to convince the Government, despite its heavy legislative program, that we should at least get the Repatriation Legislation Amendment Bill, which deals with the determining system, dealt with in this session.

The Bill was introduced into the Senate because I happen to be the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and also a senator. Because of the complexities involved in the legislation and the intimacy of relationships and discussions that I have had with the veteran community, I believe it is logical and proper that I should have carriage of the Bill in this place. When the legislation is passed by the Senate it will be transmitted to the House of Representatives when it resumes for the Budget session. This will enable us to perform the important function, which does not seem to be understood by a small minority of persons, including some people in this chamber, in regard to the changed emphasis that the legislation provides to assist the veteran community. We can have views about the old system and what will happen when a matter reaches the final tribunal, but the purpose of the new legislation is to put in place a new process which will avoid the processes, when an application goes through the system, which are too long and too cumbersome and which disadvantage the applicant.

The emphasis in this legislation will be to have a single delegate, a specialist officer, dealing with the initial determination. The aim will be to train an adequate number of suitable men and women who will, on the basis of an improved administrative structure within the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Repatriation Commission, be able to carry out their responsibilities at that level. We do not envisage the numbers of appeals going through to bodies such as the Repatriation Review Tribunal that existed under the old system. We will place emphasis on having those applications dealt with sympathetically, compassionately and efficiently at the primary level, as Senator Scott referred to it. If the Government's strategy in that respect is achieved, we will not have the long delays that appalled my predecessor, Senator Messner, and that prompted him to initiate the administrative review of the determining system.

Such delays appalled me when I read my brief on the weekend after I was appointed Minister and saw what was happening under the existing appeal system. Therefore, a common aim that my predecessor and I had was to bring about changes to enable applicants under the repatriation system to be dealt with in a satisfactory way. When we put the emphasis not on the various appeals that existed under the old system but rather on the single delegate that will be a feature of the new system we will achieve the objectives which the major ex- service organisations and the veterans want.

It is suggested that because one or two individuals have been active in opposing the legislation we should delay it even longer. That would mean that the present average time in which applications are dealt with would remain, probably into 1986 rather than 1985. The veteran community, whose average age is now 65 years, would suffer still further from the old system if we were to leave the legislation until the Budget session. We know well the pressures that come upon the Parliament at that time. The very fact that the Government has taken on board the major recommendations of the report of the Toose Independent Inquiry into the Repatriation System and the Administrative Review Council's recommendations indicates that the system we are proposing in this legislation will be beneficial to all concerned-veterans, the administration, veterans' families and the community at large. The Government has seen fit to change the name of the body proposed in the ARC report, the veterans appeal board, to the Veterans' Review Board because we do not want to create the impression that there may be any likelihood of the single delegate being difficult in respect of an applicant's case because of the limited scope of appeal rights. The previous Government set in train the review of both the determining system and the legislation. This Government has carried on in the same environment, with the same principles and with the same degree of sympathy which encouraged the previous Government to set in train those inquiries. We have moved in the same direction to consult and confirm with the principal ex-service organisations in respect of this legislation.

I place on the public record my thanks to the previous Minister for initiating those reviews because they have enabled us to fulfil his objectives and this Government's objectives in respect of our obligations to the veteran community. I certainly thank the staff of the Administrative Review Council for the work that it put in to preparing the report. Of course, we have not adopted all of the recommendations. It is up to the Government to put into legislative form what it believes are the motivations and the principal recommendations of that Council. I also want to thank the veteran community at large. I believe that the support that has been given to me by the National Executive of the Returned Services League has been very useful. I am appreciative of that support. I am also appreciative of the communications which have reached me in the last few days from the National President of the War Widows Guild. She expressed her support for the early passage of the legislation. I have also communicated with Alan Robertson, the former National Convenor of the Legacy Club who represented Legacy on the Advisory Committee. He expressed his personal view on the matter. He stated:

. . . satisfied that the Bill contains the spirit and intention of the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Repatriation Legislation Review concerning the determining system.

Of course, I also thank other members of the Advisory Committee for their tireless effort over the last 18 months which has culminated in the introduction of this piece of legislation. I am sorry that a degree of confusion has been creeping into the debate in recent times. I feel I am obliged to comment upon that. I believe it has had its origins with some of the members of the Repatriation Review Tribunal who fear that their future membership of any of the review bodies may be in jeopardy. They have commenced a campaign of some pressure which has been directed to members of all political parties. I believe that it is to be regretted that they have placed their own personal interest against the interests of the veteran community. As I say, I received a proposal on only one occasion that the legislation should not be proceeded with in this session. I think it can be described as grossly improper behaviour for Commonwealth statutory officers of such a Tribunal to campaign in the way that they have regarding their own particular interest and not the interests of veterans generally. A member of a particular organisation has written to me several times about his view of the legislation. I respect his view but he is not speaking on behalf of the great majority of the veteran community.

In response to some of the questions raised by Senator Macklin, it is just not true that there have been no innovations in the proposed legislation. My Department has established a task force which has been working for the last six months to establish new procedures that will enable this system, when it is passed by the Parliament, to operate on 1 January 1985, so that we can reduce the alarming delay of, on average, almost a year for most applications, and sometimes three to five years on many others.

New computer systems have been introduced and claim management and pension and allowances systems reviewed. These new systems will bring about major improvements in the administration of the new determining system. They will provide for more information to be obtained by the single determining officer and there are to be more opportunities for appearances before the Veterans Review Board. We have even taken the extra step of establishing such innovations as telephone hearings to assist the applicants.

It seems to me that some people have not been able to distinguish between the legislation that deals with the determining system and the veterans' entitlement Bill which is scheduled for introduction later in the year. This system in no way affects the rights of any veteran already in the repatriation system. This system, which I hope Parliament will approve in this legislation, will be designed to improve the procedures under which the applications are being dealt with. It in no way affects section 47 and all of the other aspects of the Repatriation Act which have been a source of some contention in the veteran community for most of the post-war years.

One could talk at length of cases before the Repatriation Review Tribunal and about the independent statutory role under which the Repatriation Commission operates by the authority of this Parliament. It has a statutory obligation to the Parliament. It makes decisions which do not necessarily accord with the views of government, whatever its political colour. It is an independent organisation and, of course, it is subject to its own discipline. It is also subject to criticism in the veterans' community. That aspect of the work of the Repatriation Commission is dependent upon the later legislation, not the legislation that we are debating today. So whatever may be the misgivings of some members of the veteran community, those misgivings are not justified so far as the Repatriation Commission is concerned.

Some of that criticism of the legislation we are currently debating is that it is somehow associated with a cost saving exercise. In point of fact, if we speed up the processing of applications and provide the means by which applications can be dealt with quickly and sympathetically, clearly it will cost government money rather than save it. One does not have to be a mathematician to appreciate that in order to deal with the large number of applications we are currently receiving the system has to be improved. If we improve the system, which is the basis of the legislation, the Government, of course, will be required to make even more money available in the Budget as a result of those decisions.

Time does not permit me to deal with every point that was raised by Senator Macklin. Perhaps in the Committee stage I will deal with some of his specific questions about the way in which the new system will operate, how the Veterans Review Board will be constituted, about its delegates and about the repatriation division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. I urge the Senate to give the support that we believe is essential to improve the capacity of the Government to meet its obligations to the veteran community.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.