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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
24/10/2018
Estimates
DEFENCE PORTFOLIO
Department of Veterans' Affairs

Department of Veterans' Affairs

CHAIR: Welcome. Do you wish to make an opening statement?

Ms Cosson : A very brief one, if I may. Since budget estimates, the department has farewelled some of our senior executives who will be well known to the committee. I would like to recognise and thank them for their significant contributions to the veteran community: Mr John Geary, Ms Lisa Foreman and Ms Caroline Spears.

The Department of Veterans' Affairs has now entered the second year of it's transformation journey. I would like to update the committee on several significant achievements. As part of the transformation program, our digital front door, MyService, now has more than 37,000 registered users. It has won two categories at the 2018 ACT Project Management Achievement Awards, including the award for best ICT/telecommunications project and the overall award for project of the year. This follows winning the Australian Business Award for business innovation. But, importantly, MyService is helping our veterans access support and services quicker and easier. The 120-day time taken to process is now down to an average of 33 days. In some instances, with our streamlining of conditions, straight-through processing and decision-ready claims, the time taken to process can be less than 24 hours.

DVA has also retired about 100 of its phone numbers and is well on its way towards implementing a single contact number, 1800VETERAN. Our focus is on putting veterans and their families first and moving to a greater emphasis on their wellbeing. Through better use of evidence and our data, more than 2,000 veterans have already been connected to earlier access to medical treatment through the Provisional Access to Medical Treatment trial. Through collaboration and engagement, DVA has reached out to more than 20,100 veterans, their families, ex-service organisations and partner organisations to co-design the future DVA with those who will benefit the most. We have seen a number of significant reviews highlighting issues in the operation of the department and the quality of service delivery. We provide updates in relation to progress of these reviews on our website.

The department very proudly hosted an event in Ballarat last week, with a number of our ex-prisoners of war to commemorate the 75th anniversary of work on Hellfire Pass and the completion of the Burma-Thailand railway. This was a remarkable story of sacrifice and endurance through some of the worst treatment imaginable. It struck a chord with the Australian Associated Press, which featured the associated media release as the editor's pick of the week.

The Sir John Monash Centre project, which was delivered on time and under government, was recognised at the Comcover Awards for Excellence in Risk Management 2018, where it won the risk initiative category that highlights the successful delivery of a key government program or services with outstanding ability to manage risk well. I'm sure the committee will capture other achievements and commemorations during the course of the hearing.

Finally, you would all be familiar with the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service. It was, last week, relaunched as Open Arms—Veterans and Families Counselling. This free, confidential 24-hour, 7 days a week service continues to support our veterans and their families, including onsite at Invictus Games.

CHAIR: Thank you, Secretary.

Senator PATRICK: I asked a question at the last set of estimates about the Qantas chairman's lounge and Virgin the club membership. Thank you for your answers, but there's a statistic in here that's quite disturbing. If your senior officials only had membership to either the club or the chairman's lounge, then I asked you to provide details of their breakdown of travel. You have three people in your organisation—and you don't need to identify them—that are members of the chairman's lounge. In terms of their flights, person 1 has 24 flights with Qantas and nil with Virgin, person 2 has 12 flights with Qantas and nil with Virgin and person 30 has flights with Qantas and nil with Virgin. There's a very strong test we employ in this parliament; it's called the pub test. It doesn't matter what you might say, I can't find any way that this would pass the pub test. Would you care to comment on that?

Ms Cosson : Certainly. I had a look at those figures, and I'm certainly aware of the figures that you have. I did a complete look at all our travel, domestic and international, in the department. I certainly have spoken to those particular individuals. We are actively looking at best fare of the day policy. Can I say that across the department, generally, we do compare favourably with other departments. We have a good split of about 64 per cent travel with Qantas, about 34 per cent travel with Virgin and the rest in other aircraft. We do look okay domestically and internationally. Of the individuals that you reference, yes, I have had a conversation with each of them.

Senator PATRICK: I'm happy for that to be the end of the matter, if you're telling me that, if I ask this question again at some stage in the future, I won't see an answer like that.

Ms Cosson : That's correct.

Senator PATRICK: Thank you very much.

Senator MOORE: Just a clarification—I know you talked at length at the last estimates and had this discussion with Senator Patrick—do many of your staff have memberships of both of the lounges or are they only eligible for membership of one lounge?

Ms Cosson : For the chairman's lounge and the club that the senator is referencing, that is by invitation. So some of the senior executives—

Senator MOORE: May not have had invitations to the other airlines? That would put them at a disadvantage of accessing some—

Ms Cosson : Yes.

Senator MOORE: I just wanted to put that on the record.

Senator PATRICK: My point is that Virgin is often a lot cheaper than Qantas. I don't mind the lounge access—I think that's absolutely fine—but the taxpayer deserves people taking the most efficient form of transport.

Ms Cosson : Certainly, I did have a good look at that.

Senator PATRICK: Thank you.

CHAIR: I may take the Chair's prerogative of asking a few questions. Firstly, to the secretary: can you confirm that your department agreed some 12 months ago to get an independent assessment or analysis of the TPI Federation's claims?

Ms Cosson : Yes.

CHAIR: If the answer is yes, can you tell us where it is up to?

Ms Cosson : I've had the privilege of having quite a few conversations with the President of the TPI Federation and her members and I must admit it is an extremely complex issue. I think I'm finally getting my head around the complete issue with what the TPI Federation is seeking, and I know the minister has also had the opportunity to meet with the federation to talk about what it is they're seeking. I commissioned KPMG—

CHAIR: When did you do that?

Ms Cosson : A couple of months ago. I can't remember the exact date; I can take that on notice.

CHAIR: Why did it take so long, when you made the promise about 12 months ago? Why did it take so long, to commission them only in recent months?

Ms Cosson : What we were doing previously with the TPI Federation was packaging things up. As was pointed out to me on many occasions, 'Don't confuse what we're seeking with a Gold Card.' The federation certainly was not comfortable with the language that we were using. What I needed to do was actually unpack it all to understand the special rate disability and the tax-adjusted national minimum wage. I think I have that all now. I understand what the gap is—about $884 per fortnight—and that the federation is seeking to increase the special rate disability to bring it in line with the national minimum rate.

CHAIR: Are all these complexities in the brief to KPMG then?

Ms Cosson : KPMG met with the department to seek the department's position. They then met with the federation to seek the federation's position. They are doing some analysis for me, because what I'm very conscious of is that if there are any TPI veterans who are experiencing financial hardship I want to understand that. The recent feedback from KPMG is they want to do further analysis for me so that I can prepare a fairly fulsome brief for the minister and—

CHAIR: Do you have a time line on that?

Ms Cosson : Certainly, my aim is to have that all wrapped up before the budget next year—and, hopefully, by the end of this year.

CHAIR: Good. The earlier the better, so thank you for that. Has the department done an analysis, or is that part of KPMG's task as well, to determine the actual cost per annum if the TPI Federation's claims were to be met?

Ms Cosson : So TPI—

CHAIR: And to short-circuit this, the figure of $240 million per annum has been put to me. Regrettably, with the passing of time and the passing of the TPI pensioners that would then be a reducing figure each year. But as a starting point, is $240 million per annum accepted by the department?

Ms Cosson : Yes.

CHAIR: Thank you. Now, I understand you've been provided with some graphics. For the sake of Hansard, the first one is:

VETERAN'S COMPENSATION (SPECIAL RATE TPI) AS A % OF AVERAGE WEEKLY EARNINGS

That's the heading. And then in the bottom left-hand corner, it says:

Data Sources: Toose Report 1975, RBA, QLD Treasury, ABS, DVA.

© Peter Thornton 2016

Has the department had a look at this graph, and does it dispute the lines on it and what it tells us?

Ms Cosson : I certainly have seen this graph. Based on the analysis that I have been provided with, to date I cannot dispute the figures.

CHAIR: Thank you. Then can we move to what I will describe as a chart, headed:

TPI WELFARE PAYMENT DISTRIBUTION

With 'TPI Numbers' on the horizontal and, in the bottom left-hand corner:

Notes: Graph not to scale

…   …   …

Data Source: DVA.

With the permission of the committee, I would seek to table these two documents. Can I ask you, Secretary, do you dispute the chart other than recognising that it's not to scale?

Ms Cosson : Chair, I'd have to have a good look at this one. I'm just trying to—

CHAIR: Take it on notice and analyse it and let us know

Ms Cosson : Yes, I would like to do that.

CHAIR: Finally, how many TPI recipients receive 100 per cent welfare pensions, such as age, disability and service pensions?

Ms Cosson : I'd have to take that on notice.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you very much. Is somebody able to assist us?

Mr Orme : Around 83 per cent of TPI pension recipients are over the pension age. I'm just finding the exact figure. And over 80 per cent of TPI pension recipients also receive an income support payment, like a service pension, and that's the general—

CHAIR: Given the time this evening, if you could come back with a considered written answer, I would be much obliged. I'll hand over to Senator Gallacher.

Senator GALLACHER: We have quite a number of briefs to go through, and I don't want to curtail anybody's overabundance of helpfulness, but, if you just answer the questions I ask, we might get through it quicker. When was the August Veterans' Ministers' Roundtable date confirmed? Do we know?

Ms Cosson : It was scheduled for 24 August, is my memory.

Senator GALLACHER: And that was cancelled?

Ms Cosson : We converted it to an officials meeting. Yes, that's correct. The Veterans' Ministers' Roundtable was cancelled and we had an officials' meeting in lieu.

Senator GALLACHER: Was an agenda distributed?

Ms Cosson : Yes, there was.

Senator GALLACHER: State ministers were invited, obviously, and supplied an agenda?

Ms Cosson : That's correct, Senator.

Senator GALLACHER: What reason was given for the ministers not attending?

Ms Cosson : We had advice from five of the ministers that they were unable to attend. And we had one minister advise that he would send a representative to the round table.

Senator GALLACHER: Were any concerns expressed about the cancellation?

Ms Cosson : The secretariat phoned the officials to advise of the cancellation and, at that point, I'm not aware of any complaints. Certainly, when the officials met, we were able to go through the detailed agenda in preparation for the Veterans' Ministers' Roundtable scheduled this weekend.

Senator GALLACHER: Essentially, it was downgraded from a ministerial round table to an officials one?

Ms Cosson : That's correct.

Senator GALLACHER: When was the decision actually made to cancel the ministerial round table?

Ms Cosson : I don't have the date in front of me, Senator, but I can get that for you before the conclusion.

Senator GALLACHER: I want the date and the time.

Ms Cosson : Okay.

Senator GALLACHER: How were ministers informed?

Ms Cosson : I would suspect their officials would have advised them of the cancellation of the meeting.

Senator GALLACHER: They might have surmised that something was happening that perhaps would preclude a meeting. Is that an unfair assumption?

Ms Cosson : It was an agenda that we could have dealt with at the officials level, and there were things happening, absolutely.

Senator GALLACHER: When was the last Veterans' Ministers' Roundtable held?

Ms Cosson : I haven't got that date in front of me, but I can get that.

Senator GALLACHER: Did you as secretary cancel the meeting or was the cancellation signed off by the minister?

Ms Cosson : I conferred with the minister and we both agreed to have an officials meeting rather than a Veterans' ministers meeting.

Senator GALLACHER: When was that? Did that happen over a day, half a day, an hour or a couple of days?

Ms Cosson : It would have been a couple of days, leading up to—I'll get the exact dates for you. Someone behind me should have the time line for that. It was cancelled on 23 August, and the meeting prior to that—no, I don't have that, sorry.

Senator GALLACHER: So it was cancelled on 23 August, and that was after a conversation between yourself and the minister over two days?

Ms Cosson : That is correct.

Senator GALLACHER: The 21st, 22nd, 23rd—in that time frame there was a decision made to cancel it?

Ms Cosson : That's correct. I do have the date. The meeting prior to the scheduled August meeting was on 8 November 2017.

Senator GALLACHER: Are they generally annual?

Ms Cosson : We've really only recently initiated the veterans' ministers round table. Minister Tehan initiated that in 2016, so we've only had a couple since that first meeting.

Senator GALLACHER: Were you aware of anyone already in the air? Were people travelling at the time the cancellation notice went out?

Ms Cosson : I wasn't aware of ministers travelling, no. I'm not aware that the officials were in the air travelling.

Senator GALLACHER: You would have been aware if there were any costs incurred by the department or the Commonwealth as a result of the cancellation?

Ms Cosson : I could get that on notice for you.

Senator GALLACHER: Are you aware of any costs incurred by the offices of other ministers as a result of the cancellation, combination, flight transfer costs?

Ms Cosson : As we convened the officials' meeting, there wouldn't have been any costs lost, because we did actually convene and have a discussion against the agenda item.

Senator GALLACHER: And these meetings have been ad hoc, for want of a better word—there haven't been others cancelled?

Ms Cosson : Not that I'm aware of.

Senator GALLACHER: Did any of the ministers raise direct concerns with you or with the minister about the meeting not going ahead?

Ms Cosson : I'm not aware if they have raised anything with the minister, but they did not raise any concerns with me.

Senator GALLACHER: Is it appropriate to ask you to check with the minister's office on that question?

Ms Cosson : I can take that on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: Was any consideration given to teleconferencing?

Ms Cosson : I have had teleconferences with officials, but not ministers. Given that four ministers advised they weren't going to be there, I suggested that it would be good to just to continue with the officials meeting rather than bringing those other ministers into Canberra.

ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Gallacher ): Were there any veterans groups that expressed concerns about the cancellation at the round table?

Ms Cosson : Not to me.

ACTING CHAIR: I presume you are the one they would have come to, because you organised it?

Ms Cosson : I will check with the secretariat, but no-one brought that to my attention no.

ACTING CHAIR: If we move on to allied health changes, the 2018-19 budget signals changes to the dental and allied health schedules expected to save some money. Is that you, Mr Orme? Can the department detail what work has been undertaken in relation to the establishment of the new treatment plan for allied health?

Mr Orme : I will ask Ms Hancock to talk through that issue in detail.

Ms Hancock : We have been working on the implementation plan for the new treatment cycle. It is due to come into effect on 1 July next year, 2019. We've been doing consultations with primarily the provider associations, so those associations that represent allied health providers.

ACTING CHAIR: Has a trial begun? Is there a trial involved in these preparations?

Ms Hancock : The trial itself is what begins on 1 July 2019.

ACTING CHAIR: So that's prospective work?

Ms Hancock : Yes, it's preparatory work.

ACTING CHAIR: Will it be nationwide?

Ms Hancock : Yes, it will. The proposal is for the treatment cycle to take effect on 1 July next year. That will apply to all allied health treatment except for dental and optical.

ACTING CHAIR: It won't be staged at all—it will be a nationwide trial?

Ms Hancock : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: Are you in consultation with allied health professionals at the moment in relation to the proposal?

Ms Hancock : We have discussions from time to time with various groups.

ACTING CHAIR: Can you itemise that? If you don't have it, you can take it on notice.

Ms Hancock : I'll take that on notice.

ACTING CHAIR: Who has been engaged? How has it been conducted? What feedback have you had? Has anyone raised concerns about the RMFS and has anyone raised concerns about the flexibility for long-term patients? That's the tenor of it. Those discussions are under way, I suppose?

Ms Hancock : That's right.

ACTING CHAIR: In respect to ex-service organisations, who have you engaged there?

Ms Hancock : We have been keeping the ex-service organisations informed of progress, primarily through the ex-service organisation round table. We also had ex-service organisation representatives involved in the development of the idea through 2016 and 2017.

ACTING CHAIR: How is that consultation conducted? Is it a forum or a meeting?

Ms Hancock : There's been a range of types of discussions. The working groups that developed the ideas through the review of dental and allied health arrangements met as small working groups, divided into the different sorts of allied health professions. Since the announcement of the measure and the work on the implementation of the treatment cycle, we've primarily been keeping ex-service organisations informed via the ex-service organisation round table.

ACTING CHAIR: So you conduct probity here? You're not going to get to the end of the process and have a couple of people pop up and say no-one spoke to me? You would tick off all of the organisations?

Ms Hancock : We have consulted with all of the professional groups that represent the different provider groups.

ACTING CHAIR: Perhaps on notice, could we get a copy of that list?

Ms Hancock : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: Is there a summary of any feedback that you've received, or is it too early?

Ms Hancock : It's too early, really. We are working on the design. In particular, we're talking about how we can make sure that any issues that are brought to our attention are addressed in the design stage.

ACTING CHAIR: Has anyone raised concerns about the RMFS?

Ms Cosson : They have. There have been a few veteran and ex-service organisations that have raised concerns with the allied health save and the program. That is why it is very important that we are talking with them about it. Importantly, as Ms Hancock said, it doesn't come into effect until 1 July next year, so we do have time in the design of it.

ACTING CHAIR: You are engaging with them—

Ms Cosson : Absolutely. Importantly, it will also be subject to a complete evaluation in 2020, so that we can make an assessment of the effectiveness of that. I think we gave you a list in an answer to a QON—I'm looking for the number—at last estimates where Ms Hancock had provided a list—

Ms Hancock : It was question 3.

ACTING CHAIR: If you can point us to that, that's fine, if that answers the question. Has anyone raised concerns about flexibility for long-term patients?

Ms Hancock : Yes. The question has been put to us about whether the essence of the treatment cycle, which is referral back to the general practitioner after 12 sessions of treatment with an allied health provider, is reasonable when somebody's having a chronic long-term condition treated. We've had a number of discussions with people about the extent to which a number small or greater than 12 might be appropriate. The essence of the idea is that the purpose of the measure is to improve the quality of care by ensuring that the GP remains involved and coordinating. That's even more important when somebody has a serious and chronic condition.

ACTING CHAIR: What's been described to me is they might have high frequency of visits and you're then going to have high frequency of referrals.

Ms Hancock : Many of our clients visit the doctor on average 12 times or more per year already.

ACTING CHAIR: You can demonstrate that statistically?

Ms Hancock : Yes. That's actually shown in the Review of DVA dental &allied health arrangements report which was published on our website in May this year.

ACTING CHAIR: I know that certainly with aged care they sometimes get a number of free visits, then they might be asked to contribute, then they drop off for whatever reason.

Ms Hancock : Our DVA clients are using their cards to pay for the treatment, both with the doctor and with the allied health practitioners.

ACTING CHAIR: Is it true that these changes are expected to save $40 million over two years?

Ms Hancock : Yes, over the forward estimates.

ACTING CHAIR: What is underpinning that figure? Is that veterans accessing fewer services?

Ms Hancock : Yes. It's primarily veterans having fewer services, particularly in musculoskeletal.

ACTING CHAIR: Why would that be the case? Why would they suddenly get fewer services? Have they been overserviced—is that what you're saying?

Ms Hancock : One of the issues that came up in the review of the case arrangements was that whilst the number of DVA clients is decreasing, the number of allied health services is increasing over time, as is expenditure.

Senator MOORE: Is that a surprise?

Ms Hancock : I don't know about surprise. But it was very clear from our data.

Senator MOORE: I can't see why that would not be unexpected.

ACTING CHAIR: Given your statement there, you are saying that the number of veterans is decreasing but the number of service accesses is increasing. How do you get to the $40 million of savings, if that's the case? Are there enough people leaving to save some money, even though people are accessing more services?

Ms Hancock : We are assuming that a general practitioner reviewing periodically will suggest different forms of care at various points. A GP may say, 'The treatment seems to be working and you should do another 12 sessions,' or they may say, 'That doesn't seem to have made a difference to your condition and now we should try a different form of treatment.'

ACTING CHAIR: Are these discussions up-front with the various groups that you deal with? You talk this all through?

Ms Cosson : Absolutely. What we are doing is actually aligning with the broader health program for other Australians to say that it's good health practice to go back to your GP to check the appropriateness and effectiveness of the services that you are receiving. We're very conscious that potentially some providers may be giving additional services to our veteran community without having that check in place. As I mentioned, we do want to design it properly. A few veterans have raised with me their concern that they get other benefits from the allied health services, such as psychosocial. We need to have a very good close look at that. That's why we did receive funding this particular financial year to design the program that Ms Hancock is mentioning. From my perspective it's important to then evaluate it and measure whether we did realise those savings, because a few veterans have said, if they're going back to the GP that often won't it cost more. We do need to do that analysis. Those concerns have been raised with us.

Senator GALLACHER: So this takes place from 1 July 2019?

Ms Cosson : Yes, with evaluation in 2020.

Senator GALLACHER: And it's reviewed in 2020?

Ms Cosson : Yes.

Senator GALLACHER: You've got a business case underpinning the savings?

Ms Cosson : That's correct.

Senator GALLACHER: And you're interacting with the community organisations to satisfy their concerns before it starts? We won't be here in 2019 arguing about a whole cohort of people who are storming the barricades? You've got protocols in place to make sure that genuine cases will be addressed, like these long-term cases?

Ms Hancock : We are still in discussion with the various professions about issues of that nature that they are bringing to our attention.

ACTING CHAIR: I just want to move on to the military covenant. Does someone have knowledge of the—

Ms Cosson : I could start off a taking questions on that.

ACTING CHAIR: Can the department advise what work has been completed in relation to establishing a veterans covenant?

Ms Cosson : Yes. A while ago, a number of our ex-service organisations represented that they were—they liked the UK model of a military covenant, and we formed a working group to discuss what does that actually look like, given in our country we have legislation for our veterans. Admittedly, three of the pieces of the legislation can be confusing and complex, but we do have legislation underpinning our veterans support and services and we also have a standalone department for our veterans, whereas the UK does not. The UK, for all health services, relies on their National Health Service, where we actually provide health cards and we pay for additional services for our veteran community.

So when we were having those broad discussions with our ex-service community and in their working group, what we recognised—and in conversations with the minister talking about the fact that this nation is very grateful for those that serve—we are now saying all Australians should be grateful and it is broader than government to ensure that our veterans and their families, once they settle in their new communities, are welcomed into the new communities and they're integrated into a new community. So we were exploring what a veterans covenant looks like for Australia. We have been trying to bring that altogether into a package for consideration by government. At the Five Eyes conference on Friday, the minister had the opportunity to hear from the other nations on their thoughts on a covenant. So we're still working up that business case.

ACTING CHAIR: So you would be characterising it as addressing the lack of similarity between the UK and putting together a package of what should be recognised?

Ms Cosson : It's for Australia. And also picking up on the initiatives such as the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program, looking at how the department supports veterans, community organisations, our ex-service community and bringing that into a package for our veteran community and for their families.

Senator McGRATH: This is something I've pushed for for some time. Is it just going to be for veterans as such or will it be for those who are currently serving?

Ms Cosson : It will be for veterans and their families. It won't necessarily be specifically for current serving because the CDF actually has an agreement with government for his serving men and women. That is why we were moving away from the military covenant, as the UK has, because he already has that agreement that he will look after those that serve in our Australian Defence Force. So, yes, it is more aligned with our veteran community and their families.

Senator McGRATH: A number of the ESOs I spoke to were quite keen for it to be enshrined as an act of parliament. Is that the intention of the government or what you are working on?

Ms Cosson : That would be a matter for government to make that decision. But certainly, if you look at our legislation and the minister has responsibility for the legislation, he could put something in the legislation if that was what the government wished to take forward. We will put a business case together for government to consider.

Senator McGRATH: Thanks.

Ms Cosson : That is one option.

ACTING CHAIR: I've got five questions so I'm going to borrow from Senator O'Sullivan. I'll ask you a dorothy dixer—don't turn it into an Agatha Christie! So you have communicated with ex-service organisations about this proposed covenant?

Ms Cosson : That's correct.

ACTING CHAIR: What has been the content of those discussions? Are they general in nature or detailed?

Ms Cosson : Both.

ACTING CHAIR: And who have those discussions been with?

Ms Cosson : So, they have been with the ex-service organisation Round Table, and we then formed a working group, nominated by the ex-service organisation Round Table, which had the Australian Defence Services Organisation, the Defence Force Welfare Association, the RSL, a couple of younger veterans, the War Widows and the department.

ACTING CHAIR: Excellent. How would you characterise the feedback?

Ms Cosson : Very positive. Very engaging. And we worked together in designing what it might look like.

ACTING CHAIR: You've obviously communicated with the department and the Department of Defence, in relation to this. What has been the tenor and content of those discussions?

Ms Cosson : Certainly, when we moved away from it being a military covenant, the conversations with Defence have been very positive and supportive of what we are considering in the proposal.

ACTING CHAIR: Was the department working towards announcing a covenant on 11 November?

Ms Cosson : The department wouldn't be announcing, no. It would be a matter of government to announce—

ACTING CHAIR: Were you working towards a date of 11 November?

Ms Cosson : We were certainly working towards putting a submission to government to consider and to have that with government before 11 November.

ACTING CHAIR: Was that driven by the department or an instruction from the minister?

Ms Cosson : Probably both. The ex-service organisations were very keen to have this available and something to move forward for, 11 November, for armistice.

ACTING CHAIR: Will there be accompanying legislation introduced, in relation to the covenant, as per the UK experience?

Ms Cosson : There are a couple of options that we'll put forward for government to consider, on whether it is in legislation or not in legislation.

ACTING CHAIR: Is it possible we might see something on 11 November that will be followed at a later date by legislation?

Ms Cosson : That's correct, you could see that.

ACTING CHAIR: Excellent. Thank you. Legal fees. Is there anybody here who can give us a run-down on legal fees?

Ms Cosson : Absolutely.

ACTING CHAIR: Your annual report indicates your expenditure on legal fees has increased from $10.27 million in 2016-17 to $13.6 million in 2017-18. That's a reasonably significant increase. Can we get some detail on why that has risen?

Ms Campbell : It is correct that we have spent a total of $13.26 million on legal services compared to $10.27 million in 2016-17. This expenditure includes internal and external legal services. The further breakdown is $9.44 million in external legal services compared to $7.24 million in 2016-17. This includes disbursements. It includes procurement, contracting, and litigation.

ACTING CHAIR: Is the increased spread across all of the items in your budget or is there any particular activity that's incurred a higher expenditure?

Ms Campbell : It would be fair to say that it's across all legal services rendered, although, in particular, we've seen an increase in AAT litigation on VEA matters, which has essentially escalated 25 per cent year in. So it would be fair to say that a fair proportion of that expenditure has been on AAT legal matters.

ACTING CHAIR: Perhaps, on notice, you could give us a breakdown of the additional expenditure and the comparison between last year and this year—

Ms Campbell : I'm sure we can do that.

ACTING CHAIR: and how much of the $13.26 million went to internal legal costs and external. Do you have that figure to hand?

Ms Campbell : I do have that figure to hand. DVA's total internal legal spend for 2017-18 was $3.824 million—in comparison to our external legal spend for 2017-18, approximately $9.4 million, which includes the costs I've just mentioned to you along with costs paid to applicants under DRCA and MRCA costs orders.

ACTING CHAIR: Just run that past me again. The internal legal costs—what were they?

Ms Campbell : $3.824 million.

ACTING CHAIR: So the increase is predominantly in external costs. Is that what you're saying?

Ms Campbell : Predominantly in external costs. We've seen a small internal legal spend increase, but the predominant increase has been in external legal expenses.

ACTING CHAIR: Can you split out how much went to the VRB and the AAT?

Ms Campbell : I don't have those figures with me, but I can take it on notice and split those up.

ACTING CHAIR: That's fine. In relation to the external costs, do you have any KPIs? How do you manage that? I assume that's probably a pretty difficult area to constrain. So, what's your process? Do you have a budget for legal costs? What happens when it's overrunning? What do you do?

Ms Campbell : It is. I guess, year on year, it's difficult to predict the number of matters that will proceed to AAT hearing—

ACTING CHAIR: Sorry—this is the number of cases that are going to the AAT?

Ms Campbell : That's right.

ACTING CHAIR: Not an increase in actual legal costs per se, like services? It's the number of cases?

Ms Campbell : It would be a bit of both, I guess. Lawyers would tend to increase legal fees year on year. We would negotiate a capped amount with firms, where we can, in relation to matters that would proceed to the AAT. But, ultimately, costs increase for CPI and other reasons, and law firms tend to increase their costs year on year. Of course it's very difficult to estimate what that cost would be, year on year, simply because we are subject to the AAT and the matters that essentially come before the AAT year on year.

Ms Cosson : A good KPI would be not going to the AAT—

ACTING CHAIR: That's where I was going. Who makes the call about what you need to defend and when you might as well settle because you're going to spend the money anyway? That's brutal, but is that how it works?

Ms Cosson : What we're trying to do is make better decisions so that they don't need to go for review to the Veterans' Review Board. What we have implemented there is alternative dispute resolution, for example, so that we can move that decision to non-controversial and through mediation. Ultimately it is to avoid having to go to the AAT. I don't think we'll ever avoid all matters. There will be a few, depending on the legislation, that don't go through the VRB; they would go straight to the AAT. The Productivity Commission is having a look at this arrangement with our legislation and appeals.

ACTING CHAIR: I have very little experience in this area, but I do remember a Federal Court registrar telling me that this shouldn't be wasting the court's time, that it should be settled and that it would be an abuse of the process to go any further. Do you have a similar such system where there is a conference where someone says, 'We're this far apart; let's get together'?

Ms Cosson : Yes, and we want to do more of that.

Ms Campbell : It does depend on the process that they go down. Every claimant has the right to avail themselves of a review, and that review ultimately depends on the legislation that they fall under. They may end up with the VRB, but they also may end up with a reconsideration decision that is favourable to them. In all cases we apply a beneficial approach to the legislation in an attempt to settle. At the AAT and prior to the AAT, we will also entertain a conciliation conference. At that conciliation conference, further and better particulars are provided to the department, and, as model litigants, we do all we can to essentially settle and find a preferable and correct decision prior to the AAT hearing. But, of course, if the claimant wishes to proceed down the AAT path, they are fully supported to do that.

ACTING CHAIR: So, despite your best endeavours under the current system, there's been an increase. You're seeking to improve the best endeavours to make that go away?

Ms Cosson : Absolutely—making the right decisions at the beginning but also working with the veterans through the process so that we can understand how we can get to a better decision before they need to appeal, rather than make the decision early and then they appeal. I have been working with the principal member of the Veterans' Review Board as well to try and find better ways to resolve appeals and claims that potentially aren't to the benefit of the veteran.

ACTING CHAIR: Thanks for that. I think Senator Moore is going to take a little bit of a gallop through the papers.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Sorry, if I may, I have a couple of questions on the same point. You said the internal spend was $3.8 million and the external was about $9 million. How many in-house lawyers do you have? Do you have a number of in-house lawyers, or is most of your work predominantly handled by your in-house lawyers?

Ms Campbell : We do have a number of in-house lawyers. I believe we have approximately 15 in-house lawyers. We also have three in-house advocates, who are in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, who also support AAT matters.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: So why then do you have such a large external spend? Do you brief out as well?

Ms Campbell : Yes. For the AAT matters, we do brief out. That is as a result of the internal advocates retiring and us not replacing those internal advocates. The need to support the AAT matters is now driven by external expenditure. We are, of course, reviewing that. Robert Cornell has undertaken an advocacy study, which of course includes this aspect. To Senator Gallacher's point, we'll be looking further into how we can look at a more appropriate model, or other models that we can consider, where we can look at a more balanced spend moving forward.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Do you direct brief, or do you then go through law firms or the AGS?

Ms Campbell : We have internal lawyers who would brief panel lawyers. Currently we use Moray & Agnew, AGS and Sparke Helmore.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: So, you've got your internal lawyers, and they then brief the AGS or other firms of solicitors, who, in turn, then brief counsel?

Ms Campbell : We have, I think, one or two lawyers that, essentially, brief externally in the SRCA, DRCA and MRCA matters. With the VEA matters, depending on where they are of course, we would try to use our internal advocates in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane to handle those matters primarily and predominantly, unless they become complex, which is when we would undertake to seek some special counsel assistance to advise.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Could you, on notice, outline those procedures for me. Ms Cosson was saying that if you're going to do a lot more internally then one presupposes that you'd use a lot more of your internal resources rather than expending out and briefing out.

Ms Cosson : I'd rather the delegates make the official decisions upfront rather than have to engage the lawyers.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: That was my point, yes.

Senator MOORE: Ms Cosson, congratulations to you and your team on the awards you mentioned in your opening statement. I know the value of those in an organisation, particularly when there's been years of concern, and to have that must be a reinforcement of some of the processes. Congratulations. There aren't too many questions, and they're ones you would expect. I've got some questions about the Invictus Games, in terms of the role of the department with the Invictus Games and whether there's funding involved and what support you're offering. In what way is DVA engaged in this wonderful event?

Ms Cosson : We were involved prior to the games in convening a families forum and an employment forum, where we were able to connect with policymakers on the importance of recognising families' contribution to the veteran community and supporting our veterans. The employment forum was engaged to talk about the value that veterans bring to any employer and to look at initiatives across the Five Eyes nations and talk about policy settings in Australia. On the second day, we convened the Invictus 18 Symposium, with a focus on transition. We invited international speakers and we showcased a little bit about what we were doing here in Australia. Those three events were held at the Maritime Museum in Sydney. We then hosted a Five Eyes conference on the Saturday and Sunday where the veterans' ministers and officials from those countries were once again able to share the different initiatives in our countries, the barriers and how we can better support our veteran community, and compare what the different countries provide to veterans and families. The games themselves are actually run by the Invictus organisation and we are providing support in a couple of ways there. The national manager for our Open Arms veterans counselling service, Dr Hodson, will talk a little bit about that. She and her team are providing close support to veterans and their families where they reside in the facilities with a range of different support services. I might hand over to Dr Hodgson to talk about those.

Senator MOORE: Can we get on notice the funding for those events I just identified and I will come back to some more detail.

Ms Cosson : Absolutely.

Senator MOORE: I am really keen to hear from you, Dr Hodson. I know there has been a lot of work done leading up to this process, so now's your chance to tell us. Is it day 4 or something?

Dr Hodson : Yes, it is four days today. We are providing part of the mental health support team. There are 15 mental health providers and we are one-third of that support.

Senator MOORE: Are they international providers?

Dr Hodson : It is actually Australians.

Senator MOORE: So the Australians are providing the service, but are you providing it to all competitors?

Dr Hodson : To the 18 nations and their families and the volunteer workforce.

Senator MOORE: So you are one-third from DVA. Who are the other two-thirds?

Dr Hodson : We also have representatives from Concord Hospital and St John of God. Over 70 mental health providers volunteered to be part of the workforce. Because we are sponsoring with in-kind support from Open Arms, and because of the veteran awareness, we took a number of staff from Open Arms. But we wanted to make sure that we were also accessing other clinicians, so we looked for clinicians with a link to military service, with experience. The actual group, the 15 individuals, which includes psychologists, social workers, a mental health nurse and three lived experience peers, are providing support. I'm here tonight directly from the games and I'm a tiny bit tired. We have had a wonderful week. It has been absolutely amazing. Some of the nations have their own organic mental health support—the UK and the US. But some of the other countries have not brought their own health support and we are embedded. Basically, we are that safety net that sits underneath. There is a clinic in Invictus House and it is open between seven in the morning and 11 at night. We have people who are available all day in the areas where the families and the competitors have their lunch. We wander around and we talk to people. We are available in the clinic. We have a lovely relationship with our partner nations. So when our partner nations are worried about someone, they bring them into the clinic.

At each of the sporting venues we have created quiet rooms. The Invictus organising committee here has learnt from other Invictus Games and has been really keen to make sure we have mental health support at every venue and anywhere our competitors and families are. As a result of that, in our quiet rooms, as well as providing staff and military awareness, Open Arms is also providing noise reducing headphones, iPads and resources that allow people to—some of our competitors have never been in front of the media like this before or such large crowds. We know that many of the people have hidden rooms. What we are finding is that people will drop into the quiet rooms and use the noise reducing headphones to just have a little bit of time out. It is all about optimising performance. There is a tiny bit of crisis support but, on the whole, this has all been about making sure we have the best possible support network for our teams out there and for competitors and families to have a really good games.

Senator ABETZ: Your enthusiasm shows through, which is great.

Dr Hodson : It has been a truly amazing week and a great privilege and honour to work with these competitors and their families.

Senator MOORE: This is focusing on mental health. Is there a complementary medical service provided for other needs?

Dr Hodson : Invictus has done a great job. I have been a part of the Invictus medical health team for the last six months. What has been exciting for me—and obviously I am excited—is the fact that the house support is being provided by Australian experts who work on the Olympics and in particular the Paralympics. So our lead doctor does the Paralympic Games and our lead physio—these guys have been to Barcelona. For me it has been a lovely learning experience about how our health professionals look after Paralympians and people with these types of disabilities in these environments. I have a number of lived experience military on my team with me. What has been great is sharing the military experience with our Paralympic and Olympic health professionals, and they've taught us a lot about how an Olympic event runs. This is a very professionally run event.

Senator MOORE: In terms of the expense around this, has this been calculated in terms of how much this specialist medical support is worth?

Dr Hodson : That would be a question for Invictus.

Senator MOORE: So all of that is done through the Invictus Games Foundation?

Dr Hodson : That's through the foundation. As the department, we have provided in-kind support. The staff we have there are doing this as a professional development opportunity.

Senator MOORE: So DVA is paying for that?

Dr Hodson : Yes, to have the staff there.

Senator MOORE: Have you calculated that cost?

Dr Hodson : I can take that on notice.

Senator MOORE: It's perfectly fine on notice. I'm just trying to get a quantum amount in terms of the investment required. Certainly, Defence is involved as well. I think those questions will be asked elsewhere. This is purely from a DVA perspective. This is the third or fourth games? These are evolving as it goes, so the model that you're presenting now—

Dr Hodson : There has been Toronto; there's been last year in Orlando. There must have been four.

Senator MOORE: I think the UK kicked it off?

Dr Hodson : Yes, the UK.

Senator MOORE: The UK, the US, Canada and now us.

Dr Hodson : Yes. Next year is the Netherlands. We're working very hard to collect data so that the next Invictus will understand how to do that support.

Senator MOORE: That's the modelling about the best possible way of providing services. Are there people from previous games who input to the model that you are using now and then you'll reinvest what you have gained into the future Invictus Games?

Dr Hodson : Most definitely. A number of the people who I have worked with in the Invictus actually went to the last games. They have brought that knowledge to this one. We were given a report from the last games to help us do the health report, and we are definitely working very hard to collect data. The other thing we've done is that nationally our 1800 number has been the number that is being promoted. All the competitors, their families and Australian families have highly—

Senator MOORE: That's the Open Arms number?

Dr Hodson : Yes. We made sure we briefed our staff for Open Arms and every day they give me a daily update of any calls overnight.

Senator MOORE: Have the calls increased?

Dr Hodson : We have had a few calls that are directly related to Invictus, which is good because it's about raising awareness and having people step forward and ask for help. That has allowed us to link new people to services.

Senator MOORE: We will get the information from the department about the particular seminars that were held. In that case, these were extra seminars for families and about employment. They are different to the ones you've been running. You've been running a series of seminars around families and employment over the last couple of years, haven't you? So these were extra ones that were linked to the Invictus?

Ms Cosson : That is correct. These were completely different to what the department has run.

Senator MOORE: And by invitation?

Ms Cosson : By invitation, that is correct.

Senator MOORE: On notice, can we get who was invited?

Ms Cosson : Absolutely.

Senator MOORE: That would be good. I love the term 'Five Eyes'; it cracks me up. In terms of the Five Eyes thing, that was linked to the Invictus process and that's an expense for the department as opposed to the Invictus?

Ms Cosson : It was an expense to the department. It was not associated with Invictus.

Senator MOORE: Were there any other forms of in-kind support provided by the department apart from that which you described, Dr Hodson, which was the staffing that came through? Were there other things that the department is responsible for?

Dr Hodson : All the iPads and headphones were purchased with funding that we provided to Invictus. However, Invictus will gift them all back to us to put into our centres after the games. Of course, once Invictus finishes and the games move on, the resources they've been given come back to us.

Senator MOORE: Can you itemise that—not you personally—and give us an idea of how much has done?

Dr Hodson : We can take that on notice.

Senator MOORE: One of the things that has been under scrutiny in Queensland is what has happened to the equipment and the facilities that were put into the Commonwealth Games. I would imagine a similar kind of process will go on in these games as to what was purchased, by whom and where it goes. Is there a supervisory or advisory group responsible for that part of the process?

Dr Hodson : I think it's a question for the foundation and for how they—

Senator MOORE: I'm still struggling a little bit there with what's the foundation and what's the department. If the money came from the department—

Dr Hodson : What we have done is provided some sponsorship to Invictus in order to purchase some items that can be used during the games, and that will come back to us.

Senator MOORE: They will be itemised in one way?

Dr Hodson : It has been itemised. They've all been tagged, and they will all come back at the end.

Senator MOORE: Most of them will. That's what happens; you can't guarantee it!

Dr Hodson : I have said to the team, 'If an athlete wanders off with some headphones who desperately needs them, I want him to have them.'

Senator MOORE: And they end up in an unnamed other country—that's fine. The plan is that DVA allocated funding, which you will provide to us, that was used to purchase certain equipment. At the end of that, it will come back and then there will be a process where it goes out to the ESOs or groups?

Dr Hodson : They will be used in the waiting rooms in Open Arms.

Senator MOORE: What about other stuff? I'll put this on notice, as it's dumb to take the time. But I remember the wash-up from the Commonwealth Games, where it was down to basketballs and that kind of thing. There will be a full audit at the end of the process, will there not? I know that is a question for the Invictus Games Foundation, which I don't think it has the honour of appearing before this Senate estimates committee, which would be of great disappointment to them, I know. It's in terms of the process, just in terms of a wash-up. I would think probably by the next estimates there could be questions around that, but that's what happens in these kinds of things to quantify what was invested and what happens afterwards. On the expectation for the things you have described so carefully about the quiet places and the things that were there to provide that kind of support to people, that expectation is they will come back into Open Arms in some way?

Dr Hodson : Yes, definitely.

Senator MOORE: We will come back to that later.

Senator GALLACHER: You've turned the page!

Senator MOORE: I have turned the page to another topic. Is there anything else? In terms of the involvement you have had, is there that something you want to put on record at this stage?

Ms Cosson : I might do. I'm very conscious that during the games the participants are on a real high at that moment. The concern is what is going to happen after. Dr Hodson and I are very conscious of that. I know Defence will have an initial outreach post the games. But Open Arms will be there for veterans and their families beyond that period. Given the participants and their families are already part of our community, it is really important that we get the message out that we are 24/7 available for any support, because they will feel a bit let down after the event.

Senator MOORE: Was that the kind of evidence that was given from other hosting nations when they got together about what they had to do post the games?

Ms Cosson : Yes, that is correct. They certainly learned a lot of lessons from the first games and how they would support even the second and third, but there have been lessons emerging.

Senator MOORE: And some nations competing for the first time. This will be their very first experience.

Ms Cosson : That's correct.

Senator MOORE: So there is a plan in place for that post-games experience?

Ms Cosson : That is correct.

Senator MOORE: No doubt that will be all written up, in terms of the impact and so on, so that the people who are interested can come back and see how it worked later about the way you approached it?

Dr Hodson : Most definitely. We've been working hard to make sure there is good data across the entire games about what support there was and where the support was most useful so that the next nations can use that. I think, for ourselves, we are part of an adaptive sports program more generally. Open Arms supported the Sydney to Hobart last year. I was talking to the psychologist in the Australian team. They have an excellent plan, and we're working together. They will work with these athletes for a month. They are competitors. The competitors and their family will have plans. We will check in on everyone who would like to be at six months. We will make sure that we follow-up.

Senator MOORE: That's a structured element, as opposed to people just making the intervention themselves?

Dr Hodson : Yes. What we know is that people will finish on a high and won't think they will struggle in six months, so we will make definitely contact in six months.

Senator MOORE: To see how they are.

Dr Hodson : Unless they have opted out. That's just to see how they're going.

Senator MOORE: Are these games an annual or biannual gig?

Ms Cosson : I think they're still determining whether it will be annual or biannual. We had some discussions with the international Five Eyes community about potentially having them every two years rather than every year.

Senator MOORE: Because, in terms of that cycle, you have it. You're following up in six months—that could actually be the beginning of the preparation for the next round, so there are all kinds of pressures going on there.

Dr Hodson : What we are hoping is that in the next month, post the games, most individuals will come up with new goals and we're checking in about six months.

Senator MOORE: Reassess.

Dr Hodson : Yes. There are many other opportunities—some of them might go on to do some Paralympics; some of them might actually—

Senator MOORE: There was media on that today.

Dr Hodson : This is about a journey of recovery, and I think that's what struck me. We've worked so hard on it not being about crisis support but: 'This is your next step; the games are only one step along the road to recovery.' The other thing I would say is: it has been an absolute honour to be with these families and athletes from around the world, and we have amazing Australian volunteers—and we check in on the volunteers regularly. People from every walk of life in Australia are there at the games supporting these athletes. I think everyone would have seen some of the footage of people cheering the person who comes last, which is truly the spirit of the games.

Senator MOORE: In preparation for the games, was there any particular program to raise awareness of the media about appropriate coverage? It seems there have been some true efforts by the media to have responsible coverage and not to be too intrusive, while at the same time trying to milk—I think that's a generous term—every bit of emotion and inspiration out of the whole process. Leading up to it, was there a program run by people with your qualification and knowledge to prepare the media for this process?

Dr Hodson : Fundamentally, this is all the foundation. Having said that, I did go to a whole series of planning meetings at the invitation of Invictus and the Invictus Games 2018, and we did talk about those issues with the Invictus Games 2018 comms team. During the games, I've been talking to their social media team just so that we do everything we can to support everyone who actually needs support.

Senator MOORE: They're special challenges, so just how to handle them.

Dr Hodson : There were planning meetings where all of this was brainstormed and war-gamed—to use a military term.

Senator MOORE: Thank you, and I don't always ask people at Senate estimates whether they would like to add anything, Chair; I just thought it was appropriate in this case to do so.

Dr Hodson : I very much appreciate it.

Senator MOORE: Thank you, and good luck for the next couple of days. Enjoy it.

Senator MOORE: The next couple of questions are about the transition seminars—we've asked about those before, Ms Cosson, and about how they operate.

Ms Cosson : Transition seminars are run by the Australian Defence Force.

Senator MOORE: You don't run them in a cooperative way? It's Defence Force.

Ms Cosson : We do participate. We're invited to participate and have representation, but we don't conduct the seminars.

Senator GALLACHER: The ads are done by the Defence Force, are they?

Ms Cosson : That's correct.

Senator MOORE: So, there was no conversation with you about the timing and length of the transition seminars?

Ms Cosson : No, but we were aware of Defence changing the length, and they do publish their dates.

Senator MOORE: That was not part of your responsibility?

Ms Cosson : No.

Senator MOORE: The next one—the Honouring Women United by Defence Service event. Can you tell us a bit about how that event came together and the funding

Ms Cosson : I will try to, and Ms Pope might join me.

Senator MOORE: But this is a DVA event?

Ms Cosson : No. Honouring Women United by Defence Service was actually an initiative of the war widows.

Senator MOORE: I knew it originally came from them. For a number of years, through their conferences, they were talking about it. I knew it was their idea, but did DVA have a role?

Ms Cosson : We had our Female Veterans and Families Forum at the same time.

Senator MOORE: So, you maximised the opportunity?

Ms Cosson : That's correct, and we paid for all of our members of the Female Veterans and Families Forum to participate in the event. A lot of the Honouring Women United by Defence Service joined our Female Veterans and Families Forum as well, so we took advantage of that event. I don't think we paid anything else—no, we didn't.

Ms Pope : But we did provide support—we were involved in it. We assisted and attended the planning meetings and provided whatever in-kind support we could in working towards it and helping them approach potential sponsors and so on. The event was entirely driven by them. It was their idea, and we were just proud to be a small part of it and to assist them to make it the wonderful event that it was.

Senator MOORE: Was there any kind of organising committee?

Ms Pope : Yes, there was.

Senator MOORE: Were the DVA part of that?

Ms Pope : Yes, we were represented on that.

Senator MOORE: So you had a formal role in terms of working to make it happen.

Ms Pope : Yes.

Senator MOORE: Without taking anything away from the War Widows and it being their program and their idea, making it actually happen is a different thing. So there was an organising committee. Who was on that? Can you tell me that? Where do we find this information?

Ms Cosson : There is a website that they have established and a social media site where they have listed their—

Senator MOORE: Who funds that?

Ms Cosson : War Widows New South Wales.

Ms Pope : And Legacy.

Ms Cosson : And Legacy.

Senator MOORE: As organisations, they are not overburdened with funding, so this was a big deal.

Ms Cosson : Absolutely.

Senator MOORE: From your understanding, was there any particular government funding for the event?

Ms Pope : No, not particularly.

Senator MOORE: Not from you.

Ms Pope : No. They did manage to secure private sponsorship support.

Senator MOORE: Events cost, and no-one knows that more than departments, who tend to pull that together.

Ms Cosson : They had some big sponsors. PricewaterhouseCoopers was one sponsor. Ernst & Young and RSL New South Wales were significant sponsors of the event.

Senator MOORE: In terms of the women and families, was that invitation or people volunteering? From your perspective, the women that you supported to get there were your standard women and families—

Ms Cosson : That's correct.

Senator MOORE: I know we asked questions about this at a previous estimates, but remind me: do women nominate or are they invited? How do you pick which women get to go to your conference?

Ms Cosson : It's a bit of both. We went out to ex-service organisations and invited them to nominate representatives from their organisations. Then, over the last couple of years since we've been convening these female veterans and families forums, there has been word of mouth. People have put forward that they would like to participate. So it's a bit of both.

Senator MOORE: Do you have a cap on how many people get to come?

Ms Cosson : We haven't capped it at this stage, but we know that about 50—

Ms Pope : It's about 50, and we try to make it possible for some new people to attend each time.

Senator MOORE: Surely, yes.

Ms Pope : The organisations largely work that out themselves as well. But, as the secretary said, there are individuals who might approach and so on, so there's an opportunity. Year to year, some people can't make it, so there's room for others to attend. But the balance of about 25 veterans and about 25 family members seems to work really well.

Senator MOORE: How much does DVA put towards that?

Ms Pope : This was a funded election commitment, and it has funding of $150,000 a year, which goes towards not just that one function but other engagement with female veterans and families.

Senator MOORE: Can you tell us how much you allocate towards the actual gathering?

Ms Pope : I'd need to take that on notice.

Senator MOORE: Take that on notice.

Ms Pope : But it covers their flights and—

Senator MOORE: Was there any extra expense for attending the Honouring Women project? You would already pay fares and accommodation.

Ms Pope : That's right.

Senator MOORE: Was there an extra accommodation night or something?

Ms Pope : No, because our event is a two-day meeting, and we timed it so the dinner was the middle night of that. We paid, as the secretary mentioned, for our attendees to go to the dinner, but we would normally have put on a dinner for them in any case.

Senator MOORE: Of course, so it just worked out well.

Ms Pope : Yes.

Senator MOORE: Are you aware of any plans to have further functions?

Ms Cosson : I'm sure they have many plans. Certainly the organisers are very keen to keep the momentum, and I know they have talked tentatively about having another function next year.

Senator MOORE: At this stage, has DVA been asked to be involved?

Ms Cosson : It is a standing invitation to be on their committee, but they haven't started that conversation yet.

Senator MOORE: Was there an evaluation of the event?

Ms Pope : They may be conducting one. I'm not aware of it.

Senator MOORE: Your role in the advisory group doesn't involve being involved in an evaluation?

Ms Pope : It may do if they ask us to.

Senator MOORE: Do you represent the department, Ms Pope, on this group?

Ms Pope : I have done, but the secretary attended at the outset, and there are a couple of other staff members who've attended as well, because the meetings, as you can imagine, became quite frequent leading up to the event, so there were a number of us involved.

Senator MOORE: So, from your perspective, it doesn't have a beginning and end date? There could be more work done?

Ms Pope : Yes.

Senator MOORE: But it would be fair to say DVA has committed?

Ms Pope : We have a close relationship with the organisers, which is an ongoing one and it weaves very nicely into the agenda for the female veterans and family members forum that we hold in any case. It's really just part of the work that the department tries to be involved in.

Senator MOORE: You always evaluate your own Women in Defence events, so was there an extra element of the evaluation this year for that event—that is, 'how did you find going to two events? Was it something that was good for you?' Is that something you'll do?

Ms Pope : I'll have to clarify that, because I was away at the time. Unfortunately I missed it. But we publish a report of the event each time, and this will be part of that.

Ms Cosson : Certainly, Senator, I was there and the next morning at the female veterans and families forum at the beginning of the day, everyone was extremely positive, because what they recognised is that they were all united, they weren't an organisation, and that all of these females and families just came together. It was extremely positive.

Senator MOORE: Was there representation from every state?

Ms Cosson : Absolutely. There were about 500 who attended.

Senator MOORE: And from the DVA group, was there representation from every state and territory?

Ms Cosson : Not from DVA. The DVA team was quite small. It was the team that actually runs our forum.

Senator MOORE: That's what I'm saying: you don't control the other event, you control the DVA participation. Was there representation from state and territory amongst the DVA group?

Ms Cosson : No, that's run from Canberra.

Ms Pope : I think the senator means, of the participants who come through—

Senator MOORE: Yes, your participants.

Ms Cosson : Yes, sorry. There were a couple of states missing, we did a stocktake on that—we actually do a little vote at the beginning. I can't recall, but there were a couple of states—

Senator MOORE: Could you provide that on notice?

Ms Cosson : Absolutely.

Senator GALLACHER: You will note there are quite different styles of questioning. Can the department advise whether the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training program is still running?

Ms Cosson : I'll need someone to join me on that one, Senator. Dr Hodson will come to the table.

Dr Hodson : At the moment, the ASIST programs are still running. There has been no change or reduction.

Senator GALLACHER: Who funds those?

Dr Hodson : It is paid from the Open Arms appropriation that we have every year.

Senator GALLACHER: Is there any reason for someone to be concerned about funding for this intervention training program?

Dr Hodson : I believe there was a little bit of confusion by a member of our veteran community; however, we've talked to that individual and reassured him that—if anything, we've been working to increase the number of programs, and this year we will have run more programs than we had the year before.

Senator GALLACHER: Could you just run through the basics and the operation of it: when was the last training? If you don't have it to hand—

Dr Hodson : I definitely know that there was one run up in Darwin only last month with at least 22 people on it.

Senator GALLACHER: Sorry, how many people?

Dr Hodson : I will take that on notice to give you the exact number. About 20 people did Darwin. I think we ran one in Katherine that was really well attended as well and we've done one in Perth; looking across the country, we try and run them regularly. The way that ASIST works is there is the two-day full ASIST course, which is the suicide prevention training course, and we also run top-up courses. We have had a particular focus this year to try and run as many ASIST and suicide prevention courses as we can. If anything, we would love any member of the veteran community that would like to do an ASIST course to contact us. As soon as we have enough people—we need about 10 to run a decent program—we will run that course.

Senator GALLACHER: Perhaps on notice, could you give us a snapshot of the last 12 months of activity and the number of participants?

Dr Hodson : Yes.

Senator GALLACHER: It appears to be a very valuable preventative program. And there is no lack of clarity about the funding—that's been sorted out.

Dr Hodson : It is our uncapped appropriation. We are fully committed to run as many suicide prevention programs nationally as we possibly can. We're also actually about to trial, next month, a one-day version. One of the things we've been concerned about is the numbers over the years, and the ability for people to take two days out of work and busy lives with children and family. We were worried that maybe that would be one of the reasons that we'd had a bit of a drop-off in attendance, so we are next month trialling a one-day suicide prevention course that is part of our suicide prevention initiative. We are trying to find other ways to deliver suicide prevention training. We are trying more alternative, modern ways in order to make it as easy as possible for our veteran community to get to this training.

Senator GALLACHER: In addition to the concern that you've cleared up about funding, have there been any complaints about there not being enough training? Have you had feedback like that?

Dr Hodson : Sometimes in a region we end up with only a couple of people to run the course, so we have been trying to partner with community courses. We will actually go out to more broadly LivingWorks and say, 'Is there something happening in the community?' We regularly try to run courses with Defence. In order to get enough to run a course, we will work hard to pull extra numbers together from other community groups or Defence.

Senator GALLACHER: Thanks very much. If I go to the concerns raised by the Prime Ministerial Advisory Council on Veterans' Mental Health and the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service National Advisory Committee about the impact of the Medicare freeze on the RMFS, is there somebody able to speak to that?

Ms Cosson : I'll try, Senator.

Senator GALLACHER: It's been raised in two of those forums: the Prime Ministerial Advisory Council on Veterans' Mental Health and the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service National Advisory Committee; that's correct, isn't it? Those two committees have raised the impact of the Medicare freeze?

Ms Cosson : They have certainly raised some concerns in relation to access to some providers. There have been some anecdotal reports that providers are no longer accepting our health cards and in some instances there are not enough clinicians in their areas to support the veterans seeking health care. Their main concern has been absolutely in the mental health area.

Senator GALLACHER: I've got four questions. It has been raised at those forums. Have you taken any action as a result of that being raised?

Ms Cosson : Yes, we have.

Senator GALLACHER: What have you done?

Ms Cosson : There are a couple of things. Ms Hancock will be able to outline the analysis that was undertaken in relation to the number of reports of complaints, the number of providers and the number of services we are providing now.

Senator GALLACHER: So we don't duplicate I'll give you the other questions. Has the department received complaints from providers or veterans about the freeze and its impact? So we've got the peak advisory groups and then the veterans or providers. If so, how many? How have you worked your way through that?

Ms Hancock : The first thing I would say is that the pause on indexation has actually been lifted. That's the first thing we explain to these committees or indeed any other person who inquires. Pursuant to a government announcement in 2017—

Senator GALLACHER: The pause on indexation has been lifted, but it doesn't fix the residual problem. It just means in future it's going to be indexed.

Ms Hancock : We do get from time to time complaints that the level of fees is too low. That comes sometimes from particular providers, from provider associations and occasionally from DVA clients or ex-service organisations. One of the activities we have been undertaking over the last several months is a look at our data about psychiatric services—the number of services, the number of clients, how our expenditure is tracking and data about providers, including the geographic locations. That's developing into a report, which we'll be submitting for executive and ministerial consideration.

Senator GALLACHER: The committee has taken evidence in previous inquiries that some psychiatric providers just don't want to deal with veterans because they don't see it as profitable as other people.

Ms Hancock : It's up to every individual provider to accept or not a DVA client at any given time. For example, we funded around 9.5 million medical and dental services and 160,000 medical, dental and allied health providers in 2016-17.

Senator GALLACHER: Can we get that broken up in, say, states and territories?

Ms Hancock : Yes, I'll take that on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: On notice, could we have the breakdown of those applications by state and territory? Additionally, have there been applications made to the department to request additional funding to cover the gap?

Ms Hancock : It's possible for providers to contact DVA to request an above-fee rate, and from time to time providers do that. There needs to be a clinical reason why the service they're providing needs an above-fee rate.

Senator GALLACHER: Could you go to your data and extract that?

Ms Hancock : Yes, we can do that.

Senator GALLACHER: And can you extract those requests for additional funding on a state and territory basis? You said that you've been contacted by some specialists about the gap. How many have done that? Is that isolated, or is it—

Ms Hancock : It's a relatively rare occurrence. I'd refer you to the answer to question 6 from estimates in February this year, where there was a question about approaches to DVA for assistance in locating health providers. In the period between January 2016 and March 2018 we had 26 requests for assistance in relation to various queries, including from people who were having trouble finding a provider who would accept a DVA card rate.

Senator GALLACHER: Is that indicative of the fact that the person can't be asked to go somewhere else, but they have to be treated and the specialist has said, 'Look, I'll ask for an increased fee'?

Ms Hancock : That can be the situation.

Senator GALLACHER: Is this a problem for the department? Have you made any representations to the government about the fees and whether they're causing any discomfort?

Ms Hancock : At the moment we're looking at our data to see if there is evidence of a widespread or systemic problem. In every case it's up to individual providers to make a decision as to whether to accept a card rate, and there will always be a certain number of providers whose books are already full or who, for whatever reason, don't wish to accept a DVA patient. But, as I said, with 9.5 million services and over 160,000 providers, there's certainly evidence that there are providers out there who are willing to take DVA patients.

Senator GALLACHER: But I did hear you say that you're looking to see if there's a systemic issue here.

Ms Hancock : Yes.

Senator GALLACHER: And you're evaluating your data?

Ms Hancock : Yes.

Senator GALLACHER: Thank you for that. I will move to ICT. Could we get an update on the progress of the ICT reform?

Ms Cosson : We're just looking for Ms Pope.

Senator GALLACHER: We're just managing our time. I have four questions, so sync them with progress of ICT reform. How many systems have now been addressed? How many systems at risk of failure have yet to be funded? What are the functions of those systems? And how much is the estimated cost of updating the remaining systems?

Ms Cosson : The first year of our transformation—we are now in our second—was all about the foundational work with the Department of Human Services. Our rehabilitation and compensation systems that were at risk were the first tranche—18 of those systems—we still have those running as a 'read-only'. They certainly haven't been decommissioned at this stage, but we have built that front end and, importantly, we have rolled out our student payments system as part of that year 1 and, as you heard earlier, we've done the MyService work. In year 2, we're now working to address the other components of the at-risk systems. Ms Pope can outline which ones they are.

Ms Pope : Certainly. The focus for this coming year is the income support systems that will be built out following the same pattern as for the student work done in cooperation with DHS.

Senator GALLACHER: Your 2018-19 budget committed $111.9 million over four years?

Ms Pope : That's right.

Ms Cosson : It's not all over four years.

Ms Pope : Not all of it's over four years—that's correct.

Senator GALLACHER: Did it include money for ICT and for DVA processes with regard to claims processing and health and community providers?

Ms Pope : Yes.

Senator GALLACHER: Are there systems still at risk of failure that haven't been funded?

Ms Cosson : There are certainly applications that we're working with the Department of Human Services on, and they're helping us stabilise those until we can actually make that move onto systems. They've done a complete road map and stocktake for us to identify where we need to address the initial funding. They have identified some of those applications at risk—where we can actually use their applications to support us—so we have a very comprehensive road map now for the ICT—

Senator MOORE: So you have a four-year plan into the future looking at that expenditure and looking at what you're going to do in each year?

Ms Pope : Yes, and it's beyond four years, in fact. But DHS—

Senator MOORE: In fact, your funding's only for a four-year window at the moment, isn't it?

Ms Pope : We're funded year-to-year for the bulk of the work. There are some measures that have been funded over four years where they are—

Senator MOORE: So you've got four years of funding, but you could be getting more funding if it's identified? I'm just trying to look at the work plan—

Ms Pope : I understand. The majority of the ICT work is funded on a one-year basis, so we've been funded in successive budgets. We are funded for 2018-19, and in due course we'll be seeking funding for future years.

Senator MOORE: And within that forward plan you have identified what your priorities are each year?

Ms Pope : Yes, indeed. The original second-pass business case that was developed for veterans-centric reforms sets this out, and the work to date has been to refresh that each year and present the next set of priorities for ICT development.

Senator MOORE: Have you provided us with that plan?

Ms Pope : No.

Senator MOORE: Can we get that plan?

Ms Pope : Much of it's kept in confidence, but there are—

Senator MOORE: Can we get what we can get—

Ms Pope : elements of it that we can certainly provide.

Senator MOORE: in terms of what the—

Ms Pope : Certainly, with regard to the ICT road map that the secretary referred to, we could—

Ms Cosson : Importantly, our work with ICT is aligned with the Welfare Payments Infrastructure Transformation that the Department of Human Services is leading. We're reliant on that delivery. That's funded year by year, so we need to demonstrate that we're still reusing that and leveraging off the WPIT. So we're very closely aligned with that funding arrangement.

Senator MOORE: I'm not quite sure what a 'whippet' is, but I'm sure it's important.

Senator GALLACHER: Can I just ask: how much is the estimated cost of updating the remaining systems? Is that a publicly available figure?

Ms Cosson : No, it's not.

Senator GALLACHER: Are you anticipating any further funding in MYEFO or something like that?

Ms Cosson : We have a business case for the next year of funding which will go forward for government consideration as maybe part of MYEFO but probably as part of the budget.

Senator GALLACHER: Some of the interactions I have on another committee is that the Department of Human Services is taking over and sometimes just offering advice and offering payment services. There's a really interesting comment by a director of the NDIS board, who said that, when they got some services done by the Department of Human Services, there was no need for a contract because departments can't sue each other. But their lived experience seven months later was that there needed to be a service agreement, because, if one or another party doesn't meet the standards, then who fixes it? In that case there, it meant that the Department of Human Services supplied additional people to make good the service failure, so you've got all that covered.

Ms Cosson : Absolutely. We have a service agreement with the Department of Human Services, and we learned a lot from the NDIS experience. PricewaterhouseCoopers did a report in relation to that relationship between the NDIA and the Department of Human Services. The services agreement that we put in place with DHS is fairly robust. But, importantly, we've also got very strong partnership relations through our governance and secretary-to-secretary monthly meetings, so we've got a good arrangement.

Senator GALLACHER: Thank you. That's good to hear.

Senator McGRATH: I'd like to see if someone could assist in relation to mental illness and suicide. I believe you commissioned a report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. One of the stats that really comes out is that, for ex-serving men under the age of 30, the rate of suicide is a lot higher than for men—

Ms Cosson : Yes.

Senator McGRATH: But for those who are serving, it's actually lower. Is that something you'd care to comment on? I know you have strategies in place, but why is this happening?

Ms Cosson : Senator, we've had many conversations with our colleagues in Defence to understand. If you look at Defence service, you have a lot of protective factors around you whilst you're serving. You have access to health care, you have camaraderie and you have that mateship. It's described as the 'healthy soldier effect' as well in my language. When you are recruited and enlisted, you're healthy and fit and you have access to all of that health care and the fitness tests. So the healthy soldier effect plays into it and you have those protective factors. What we're finding is that most people who leave the Defence Force leave well. They transition well and go on to lead healthy and productive lives, but there is about 20 per cent that we assess who are not ready to leave. They're leaving for health reasons, medical discharge, or for administrative reasons. What they find is that it is very difficult to make that transition. Looking at the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report and looking at the younger set of men particularly, they may be the young men who have gone into basic training and have potentially been injured, and then they're told that they don't have a career. If it's something that they've wanted to do their whole life, it's challenging. That's where we're focused on: understanding where those risks are and what support mechanisms we can put in place. The key thing for me and for the department is to work with Defence for those who are leaving and may be at risk and may need some additional protective mechanisms around them during that transition to help them through.

Senator McGRATH: Can I ask a dumb question? Defence will almost red-flag someone to DVA?

Ms Cosson : We look at the risks. It could be that they're young, they've been injured, they've got an alcohol dependency or they've already been diagnosed with a mental health condition and we know they may be at risk. Certainly, Defence and DVA work very closely to ensure that continuity of care when they are separating and we can then take over that care once they've left.

Senator McGRATH: I have a couple more questions, but I'll put them on notice in relation to that area. On a totally different area, I want to go into employment within DVA. How many senior executive roles are there? I was looking at your website and I can't understand the difference between highly paid staff and executives.

Ms Cosson : In our senior executive service, our cap at the moment is 31. Those are band 1s to me. Thirty-one is the cap.

Senator McGRATH: In Queensland, on the road you mix with those who have served, and I always have a bit of a whinge. Sometimes it's about the Veterans' Affairs; sometimes they praise DVA also. They believe that there are not enough formerly enlisted Defence personnel in senior levels. How many of those 31 would have formerly served?

Ms Cosson : I would have to get you that on notice, Senator. Certainly, counting off the top of my head, there's at least eight of us who have served. The criticism is that we potentially weren't soldiers. We were officers. I also highlight that, to me, it's not about whether they've served or not but they understand the unique nature of military service and have empathy. I actually have found people who have served and have no empathy. It's a bit of: 'I did it tough, so you can do it tough.' I want to get the right mix in not only our senior executive but our whole staff. We need that diversity and we need some really good representation from the public sector but also from service.

Senator McGRATH: I might put some more questions on notice on that to assist. Chair, that's all from me for the time being.

CHAIR: Minister, Secretary and officials of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, thank you very much for being present today. That concludes the committee's examination. We will reconvene at 9 am tomorrow morning with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Thank you all very much. Thank you Broadcasting, Hansard and the secretariat.

Committe e adjourned at 22 : 55