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Tuesday, 28 June 1994
Page: 2166

Senator LEES (Deputy Leader of the Australian Democrats) (11.25 p.m.) —The bill we are considering this evening represents the first stage of the government's budget measures in the veterans' affairs portfolio. Before going on to the specifics of this particular piece of legislation, I would like to state that the Australian Democrats were pleased to see the allocation in the budget of additional funds for aged care and for carer education to assist veterans and war widows to stay in their own homes for as long as possible.

  We were also pleased to see the allocation of funds for the assistance of younger veterans. In this context, I would like to make special mention of the tireless work of the Vietnam veterans family support link line and its secretary, Mrs Doreen Smith. They have been the closest to the younger veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and have been directly affected by the health, social and vocational needs the Minister for Veterans Affairs (Mr Sciacca) identified in his second reading speech. They have coped in the past without any recognition for their difficulties and I believe anything we can do to support the families of younger veterans, as well as the veterans themselves of course, is very worth while. I now turn to the measures in this bill.

  The Democrats were extremely pleased to see that at long last merchant mariners from World War II are to be brought under the aegis of the Veterans Entitlement Act. The Democrats, through my predecessors in this portfolio area, Senator Paul McLean and, before him, Senator Michael Macklin, spoke on this on a number of occasions and I am certainly very pleased that we have finally achieved this measure.

  The Democrats have no problem with the measure, which will ensure that a member of a couple who subsequently ceases to be a member of that couple and has heretofore received half of the partnered rate on separation will now be entitled to receive the single rate. In the past such people have been forced to move to the higher social security pension and they will now be able to receive the higher rate from veterans affairs, thus removing the need for them to deal with two separate departments. Similarly, those who currently receive the income support supplement from the Department of Social Security can opt to have that payment made through the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Again, this will abolish the need to deal with two separate departments, although, of course, those who opt to stay with social security can do so if they wish.

  We support the measure which requires those who are entitled to an overseas pension to claim that pension. Although receipt of a foreign pension will count as income under the incomes test, veterans will still be better off as their Australian pension reduces only at the rate of 50c in the dollar.

  I now turn to the one measure in this bill with which we do still have some problems, and that is the process through which veterans have to go in order to claim a disability pension. We will all remember the panic measures which the government attempted to bring into this parliament within a week of the findings of the Bushell decision back in 1992. We will also remember that, following the referral of that legislation to the legal and constitutional affairs committee and the overwhelming evidence brought before that committee, the government was forced to withdraw those measures. Then we had an election and they disappeared altogether as the bill subsequently lapsed.

  At that time, the government was giving us dire warnings about the floodgates opening as a result of the Bushell decision and enormous numbers of claims coming forward. That simply has not eventuated. Even so, we have been assured that veterans are indulging in `doctor shopping', as it is called, and that one or two `outrageous claims', in the government's words, have got through. But I also note here that there are those veterans who still believe that they have legitimate claims which have not been able to be heard under the current system.

  There have been two recent reports critical of the compensation payments to veterans and war widows. The first was the Auditor-General's report which appeared at about the same time as the Bushell decision came down. The second was the report on compensation for veterans and war widows entitled A Fair Go, commissioned by the former minister, Senator Faulkner, and led by Professor Peter Baume. This committee was required to consult with the Ministerial Advisory Council on Veterans' issues, which consists of members drawn from the ex-service community.

  Unfortunately, the process by which this organisation works involves secrecy and its members were sworn to secrecy about the consultations they were engaged in during this process. I cannot believe that, following the mistrust generated in the veterans community as a result of the lack of consultation in drawing up the legislation that led to the attempt to overturn the Bushell decision, the government has again indulged in a similar lack of consultation about the compensation program. My office was inundated with letters protesting about this secrecy. Surely the government should allow veterans to go back and consult with their organisations, because naturally veterans are highly suspicious of any moves that are going to affect their access to a disability pension. In the event, their worst fears were unfounded as far as this was concerned, but I would ask why we cannot find a better way to deal with such sensitive measures—indeed, with measures that will be highly unpopular to the community most affected.

  The Democrats are pleased that the government has not accepted the harsher recommendations in either of the two reports but, as I said, we do have concerns about the means of dealing with the changes to the payment of income support. We have been approached by a number of veterans groups who are deeply concerned with the measures in this bill which deal with the establishment of statements of principles binding on the courts and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

  In the past, the courts and the AAT have complained that they as lay people should not be asked to make decisions on medical evidence when both sides have expert medical opinion to back them up. This legislation sets up the Repatriation Medical Authority to provide an appropriate forum for the resolution of technical, medical and scientific issues. This forum is meant to ensure consistency of decisions, which has been a problem in the past. The RMA will prepare statements of principles which will be binding on the courts and on the AAT, thus taking away the power of the courts to make decisions on medical evidence.

  Veterans will be able to make submissions to the RMA which will be considered in the process of making statements of principles. If they are not satisfied with decisions made on their cases, they can appeal to the Veterans Review Board. However, because the courts will be bound by the statements of principles, the veterans will no longer have access to that appeal process in their individual cases.

  Veterans can also request the RMA to carry out investigations into the cause of any injury, disease or death, and they can request a review of any statements of principles. Provision exists for the Repatriation Commission to override any of the statements of principles for certain specific categories, but this would be done only on very rare occasions.

  Following the concern expressed to us by many of the veterans groups, the Democrats referred this matter to the community affairs committee, and at the hearing the minister foreshadowed amendments and acknowledged that he had already been approached and that discussions were under way. It has been very much of a rush but we are pleased to see these amendments before us, because they certainly improve the original legislation.

  We have now had a chance to look through these amendments and basically what they do is set up the Specialist Medical Review Council. On those grounds this bill as it stands does at least leave some avenue of appeal, even if that avenue of appeal is not back through the courts process. Basically, what will now happen is that an individual veteran or his or her medical representative can appeal the decision. We certainly will not be opposing these amendments.  We would still like to point out, however, that we do have deep concerns, that we in this place through this legislation are taking away from veterans a legal right which they previous enjoyed—that is, the right to appeal to the courts.

  The Vietnam veterans have informed me that they intend to challenge the matter in the High Court. We think in view of the fact that it is the courts which have previously complained about making decisions on medical evidence, this is an appropriate course of action and we await the outcome with interest.

  I would like to make two points in finishing. The first is that a number of veterans have expressed concern that there could be a delay in the consideration of an appeal. The minister's office has assured me that it will be an easy matter to ensure that these delays do not occur, certainly that there are no undue delays in the consideration of appeals. I ask that the minister give an undertaking again tonight that this matter will certainly be addressed should it arise.

  Secondly, the minister in his second reading speech gave a personal commitment that, if after 12 months this legislation has not achieved its objectives, the scheme will be reviewed. I would like to put on notice here and now that, if this does prove to be the case, the Democrats will be holding the minister to that commitment.