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Tuesday, 28 June 1994
Page: 2165

Senator KEMP (11.19 p.m.) —The Veterans' Affairs (1994-95 Budget Measures) Legislation Amendment Bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Community Affairs. A public hearing of the bill was held on 6 June 1994. Twelve submissions were received from a range of organisations including: the RSL; the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia National Council; the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia (New South Wales Branch); the Totally and Permanently Disabled Soldiers Association of New South Wales; the Australian Veterans and Defence Services Council; the Legacy Coordinating Council; the Australian Federation of Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex-Servicemen and Women Ltd; and the Veterans' Independent Consultation Group. A range of concerns was expressed to the committee, including the way the proposed Repatriation Medical Authority restricted rights of appeals, the lack of consultation and the delays which may be caused in finalising entitlements.

  The purpose of the bill is to encompass amendments to current legislation to implement part of the 1994-95 budget package for the veterans' affairs portfolio. It responds to some of the issues raised in A Fair Go, the report on compensation for veterans and war widows by the Veterans' Compensation Review Committee, the so-called Baume report, in respect of the ageing of veterans of world wars and the different set of problems facing younger veterans.

  The bill was first addressed on behalf of the coalition in the House of Representatives by the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Wilson Tuckey, on 9 June. During that speech, on behalf of the coalition he indicated support for measures contained in the bill. The first is the special and intermediate rate pensions for severely disabled veterans of a relatively young age who never go back to work or can never support their families after returning from war. Change to the eligibility criteria will mean that these pensions will not normally be granted to veterans who are over 65. Exceptions will apply if the veteran was engaged in remunerative work after the age of 65, commenced prior to reaching 65, and in the same employment for 10 continuous years, demonstrating that it was a long-term intention to have a longer than normal working life.

  Secondly, Australian World War II merchant mariners will now receive the same rights and benefits as those available to World War II veterans under the VEA. Thirdly, with regard to claims for comparable foreign pension, existing service pensioners and claimants for service pension may be asked to take reasonable action to claim any overseas pension entitlements, thus reducing Australia's contribution.

  Fourth, the partner service pension allows the payment of a partner service pension to a widow, widower or separated spouse of an age or invalidity veteran service pension at the higher single rate, as is the case with social security pensions. Currently the lower or couple rate applies. Fifth, there is the income support supplement. War widows and widowers who currently receive an income support payment under the Social Security Act 1991 in addition to their veterans' pensions will now be able to receive the support payment under the VEA. They can remain with social security if they wish.

   At the time of his speech, the honourable member for O'Connor expressed his concern as to the likely outcome on the rights and entitlements of veterans due to the rigidity of the proposals in clause 11. Clause 11 proposes the creation of the Repatriation Medical Authority to issue principles relating to causation of various ailments now affecting veterans so as to identify any links those ailments might have with the veteran's service and therefore his or her right to certain entitlements. The explanatory memorandum describes the RMA and its functions as follows:

The Authority will be an independent body consisting of five eminent medical specialists. The members will be appointed by the Minister after consultation with the ex-service community.

The Authority will prepare Statements of Principles based on sound medical-scientific evidence that will exclusively state what factors related to service must exist to establish a causal connection between particular diseases, injuries or death and service.

Statements of Principles prepared by the Repatriation Medical Authority will be disallowable legislative instruments that will be binding on the Repatriation Commission, the Veterans' Review Board and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The proposal to bind the Repatriation Commission and the various appeal tribunals associated with veterans' claims, the exclusivity and the tops down approach clearly would remove most opportunities for a veteran to appeal the original departmental decision, notwithstanding the government's promise to maintain the standard of proof mechanism of the reverse criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt based on a reasonable hypothesis. In fact, a legal opinion obtained by a veterans' organisation claims the proposed process would effectively negate the right of appeal on the grounds of medical causation.

  The coalition, along with most of the veterans' bodies, including the National President of the RSL, were quick to raise this particular issue. Nevertheless, in recognition of the positive aspects of the bill, the shadow minister, Wilson Tuckey, advised the parliament that the coalition was willing to assist the government to find a solution that addressed the problems but was fair to and protected the rights of individual veterans seeking compensation for present day ailments which they believe are service related.

  In the context of a very tight time frame, the coalition has achieved this task through negotiation with the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Con Sciacca, Department of Veterans' Affairs officials and the veterans community. The solution is encapsulated in the amendment circulated to honourable senators, together with an explanatory memorandum, that I will move during the committee of the whole stage. I acknowledge and am grateful for the support of the minister, Con Sciacca, and the government in reaching this outcome.