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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
Department of Veterans' Affairs

Department of Veterans' Affairs


CHAIR: I welcome Mr Simon Lewis and officers of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Minister, would you like to make an opening statement?

Senator Payne: No, thank you.

CHAIR: Mr Lewis, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Lewis : Yes, I would. I would like to acknowledge the recent tabling of the government response to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee report The constant battle: suicide by veterans. I want to assure this committee that the Department of Veterans' Affairs is committed to implementing the recommendations of this report, together with the recommendations from the review into the circumstances surrounding the tragic suicide death of Jesse Bird and the recommendations from the National Mental Health Commission review of suicide and self-harm in our serving and ex-serving communities. On behalf of the department, I would like to apologise to Mr and Mrs Bird and their family for the department's policies and processes that didn't support Jesse, and any role that these failures had in Jesse's untimely death.

As the committee reported, any death by suicide is tragic, and our aspirational target rate should be zero. However, it's misleading to represent that any recommendations will achieve this goal. As I've outlined in recent hearings, DVA understands that we need to change, and we need to transform our department. We are committed to implementing the recommendations and to continuing to progress our transformation through the Veteran Centric Reform program, which we've talked about on previous occasions. The 2017-18 budget announced the funding of several measures in response to the National Mental Health Commission's recommendations. It also announced funding for the first phase of our Veteran Centric Reform, which is a necessary and important evolution of the DVA service offering to veterans and their families. It's about knowing our veteran community, which extends to those who are still in service, those who have served and their families and dependants. This budget underpins a comprehensive year of reform activity for the department. This investment and ongoing investment is essential to ensure our staff can deliver support and services to our veteran community.

The government yesterday announced a further $31 million for the department to respond to some of the key recommendations of the Senate inquiry tabled yesterday, and in response to the joint Defence and DVA report into the handling of Jesse Bird's case. This package includes a new payment for financially vulnerable veterans, an annual health check of veterans for the first five years after discharge, extended support for families, and the piloting of a case-management service for transitioning or discharged veterans. With our partners in Defence, the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation, and Health, DVA's exploring all opportunities to reduce the challenges veterans and their families face during transition, and identify those where intervention may reduce the risk of self-harm and suicide. DVA recognises it is essential we look at reducing the risks and increasing protection. DVA is continuing to deliver, in broad terms, a wide range of support and services to veterans and their families. We would be happy to address any questions you have for us tonight.

CHAIR: Thanks very much, Mr Lewis.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: My first question is in relation to a program called Coordinated Client Support for clients of DVA. I'm aware that at the moment its focused on supporting clients who have complex or multiple needs. I've heard some quite good feedback about the program. I just wanted to know whether or not that is currently subject to any reviews. What can you tell me about that?

Mr Lewis : I will ask Mr Orme to assist.

Mr Orme : The Coordinated Client Support program is an issue that has been put in place in the last number of years. It was the result of a budget outcome to ensure that we made better contact with our clients. We had something in the order of 33 staff, or FTE, provided to build Coordinated Client Support. Ms Leanne Cameron, to my left, is responsible for that. I will ask her to speak further in detail. Overall, it has been a successful program so far. We've found that engaging with our clients personally and managing our clients with more difficult and complex needs has been beneficial. Also, our call back and Reconnect programs, reaching out to veterans who may not have been involved with the department for some period of time, has been very beneficial, as well. I will ask Ms Cameron to further elaborate.

Ms Cameron : As Mr Orme indicated, the Coordinated Client Support program has been in place now for about 18 months. Under that program, we service our clients over several different levels of support.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Perhaps I wasn't clear in my question. My question was specifically around whether or not that program is being reviewed at the moment.

Ms Cameron : The program itself has only been in place for 18 months. We're not reviewing it as such, but we do have a number of different pieces of work that are under way to help us further evaluate or, rather, put in place an evaluation process that will help us understand whether or not that program is having the impact that we want to have.

Mr Lewis : Excuse me for jumping in, Senator, but we are actually piloting a new program in addition to that specific program. It is linked. In a sense, it's around case management. It's not what we call our Coordinated Veterans' Care Program. If you would like us to talk us about that pilot that we just got money for—

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Is that the one that was announced?

Mr Lewis : I'm just wondering whether that's what you were actually questioning.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: The pilot that was announced in the government's response.

Mr Lewis : In relation to the Senate inquiry.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: No. The program I had in mind is the one that has been in existence for some time, but if it's not subject to any review at the moment—

Mr Lewis : It's still under way.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Okay; thank you. I just wanted to ask a quick follow-up question, Minister, based on my question in question time last week around the reparation scheme for victims of abuse. I just wanted to know if there were any further updates since your response in terms of the progress for that scheme?

Senator Payne: Not at this stage.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Thank you. I'd like to turn now to the government's response to the veterans' suicide report and, in particular, a number of the specific measures. The first one that I'd like to go to is recommendation 21, which was in relation to a trial of assistance animals for veterans with PTSD. I'm aware that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs has announced that, shortly, he will release a tender document that will outline the parameters of the trial. Can you provide me with any more information about the parameters? All I know is, essentially, all I've told you. So any extra information would be welcome.

Ms Hancock : You would be aware from the previous information that we have provided that the department was working on preparing an approach to market to commence a trial of assistance dogs. A request for expressions of interest was released on AusTender last Friday, 20 October. The documents released on 20 October actually explain in some detail the requirements that we're looking for.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: And they are on AusTender?

Ms Hancock : Yes.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: What's the cut-off for expressions of interest?

Ms Hancock : 11 December.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: After those expressions of interest have been received, when do you hope to eventually start the trial?

Ms Hancock : We expect to start in mid-2018.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: So halfway through next year.

Senator LAMBIE: What's the lag time? Why six months?

Mr Lewis : That's a good question, Senator. It could be as late as mid-2018, it could be a lot earlier than that. Once expressions of interest come in, we'll have a sense for what the providers in the marketplace can provide. It may well be that we'll go into direct negotiation shortly thereafter, in which case it will be significantly earlier in 2018. That would be my preference, to get the trial—in 2018, and it could easily be in the first quarter of next year. It depends on what comes from the market. To some extent this is a little bit experimental in Australia, but there are several providers that are doing this now, so we are hoping that they will express interest. And we may well be able to move more quickly to get this pilot going by tendering with one or more possibly in partnership. Our intent is not to go slow with this. Our intent is to move with this as quickly as we can.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Have any of the organisations that are currently doing work in this space been notified about the availability of the documents on AusTender?

Ms Hancock : Not, specifically, at this stage.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Is that something you would do as a matter of practice? Would you notify organisations about it?

Ms Hancock : We wouldn't routinely do it but there is no reason why we couldn't, and we're quite open to doing that.

Mr Lewis : If there are some you know, Senator, please make sure they're aware as well, because our intent would to be get the pilot going ASAP. If there are some doing the job right now, they are probably already dealing with the issues around their duty of care—not just the individual but also the animal—to ensure that the interests of both are being looked after in the process of piloting these treatments.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: The AusTender website: if somebody was going to try to access documents on there, is that available to the public—

Mr Lewis : Yes.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: or do you need to create an account?

Mr Lewis : I don't believe so.

Ms Hancock : You do have to enter your details in order to download the documents, but anyone can do that.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: So you don't need to be a company or a charity; there are no restrictions on that.

Ms Hancock : No.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Will you advertise?

Mr Lewis : That would be the fastest way to provide it to you. We could respond on notice, but I think the fastest way would be to do a straight download.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: And will you be advertising about the trial?

Mr Lewis : The minister put out a press release in relation to the trial.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: I got the press release about the trial, but I didn't know about the documents being on AusTender from last Friday. So I just wondered if there would be advertising about it.

Mr Lewis : We might look to see what more we can do to get the message out about that.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Just in relation to some of the other measures that were announced as part of the government's response to the report, how much detail is available about the new spending measures? I'm just thinking, for example, about the $16.1 million for a new veterans' payment for financially vulnerable veterans. Do you have information about eligibility criteria, the process that someone will have to go through?

Mr Lewis : I will ask Ms Foreman to come to the table now, thank you.

Ms Foreman : This is a new income support payment that goes to veterans who are in vulnerable financial positions. The payment will be open to veterans when they lodge a claim for a mental-health condition, and it will be paid while they're waiting for their claim to be assessed. It will be subject to income and assets tests, because it is an income support payment. We know, at the moment, from recent experience that that is a time when veterans are very vulnerable, when they've put their claim in and they're waiting to hear what the outcome is—and that's the impetus behind this payment. The proposal will be implemented from May next year. It will require legislation to give effect to it, as it is a new payment.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: The fact that it requires legislation to give it effect, does that apply to the other new funding measures that were announced in the response?

Ms Foreman : It applies to the extended family support package as well. In relation to the veteran payment, it's not just about giving the veterans money—although that's an important component, obviously—the veterans will also have access to rehabilitation assistance. They'll work with a rehabilitation provider to look at what their circumstances are. As I think I've explained to the committee before, our rehabilitation program is not just about medical rehabilitation. It's also about psychosocial and re-engagement with the community and it's also about vocational re-skilling to help veterans draw on the skills that they have, recognise that they are valuable and that they can be used in lots of ways and in lots of different types of employments in society. Veterans will have access to that service as well while they're waiting for their claims to be assessed and also, of course, non-liability health care.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: So they'll be eligible for those other services if they are eligible for this new veteran payment?

Ms Foreman : That's right, yes.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: I would like to have a similar level of detail for each of the other funding measures that have been announced.

Ms Foreman : Certainly.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Is that something that is already available in a document that could be tabled for the committee?

Mr Lewis : There will be more detail very shortly, but we won't be able to provide you any document right now. I'm sure Ms Foreman would be happy to provide more detail as part of responding to your questions right now.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Thank you.

Ms Foreman : The extended family support for veterans supports contemporary veterans when they most need it. It's often during times of family crises. It supports younger veterans who are in difficult situations because they've returned from conflicts. They will have access to psychosocial intervention, such as more childcare and counselling to enable the family unit to remain in place, and also assistance to remain connected with the community more broadly.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Do you have to have returned from conflict to qualify for this payment?

Ms Foreman : Yes, you have to be eligible under the MRCA, which is our recent legislation. Like the previous payment, it's about assisting people to return to civilian life. We know that that's a difficult time for veterans and we want to do what we can to help them and their family manage this time. There will also be access to extended home care programs—so home care assistance as well. It's also available, importantly, to widows and the partners of people who have taken their lives.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Thank you. There was also the annual health assessment measure that was announced.

Ms Foreman : Yes. I'll start on that one, but I might ask somebody else to come up and assist. That's the GP health assessment for the first five years post-discharge. This will enable separating members from the ADF to access an annual comprehensive health check for the first five years following their discharge. It will start on 1 July 2019 and all people who have discharged from the ADF during that year will have access to a health check for five years. This is about early intervention. It's about trying to pick up people who are having difficulty coping with life after they've left the defence forces. It provides funding for them to see their doctor and have a discussion about how things are going and pick up on any mental health, or other, issues that might be affecting them.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: I just want to double-check the amount of funding that's been allocated for each of these new measures. Does that funding also include the money that would be required for advertising the fact that these payments are available, or would that come from a separate bucket?

Ms Foreman : We would maximise our current methods for promoting new measures, which include our newsletters, bulletins, Twitter and social media, et cetera. Where we would need to do further advertising, we would take that into consideration. I might have to take on notice whether there's a specific component for advertising, but wide advertising of these measures is required. It's very important.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Mr Lewis, you mentioned it would be possible for us to get some more detailed information in writing about these new measures. When do you expect that would be available for us?

Mr Lewis : Very shortly. The minister will be issuing the information, but I expect it'll be very shortly.

Ms Hancock : I can confirm that there is a component for advertising in the measure for an annual GP health assessment.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Within the $2.1 million?

Ms Hancock : Yes.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Thank you.

Mr Lewis : Part of the reason is that we've had this measure for some years, and one of the problems is: a lot of veterans don't take up the opportunity, and we need to communicate as best we can that the opportunity is available to them, because often, when they've just been going to their joint health resources while they're serving, they don't have any need for actually making contact with and maintaining those contacts with health providers. Once they've transitioned, it's critical.

Senator LAMBIE: I'll come back to that, but first of all I want to go into the TPI. I just want to know, in very simple terms: how is the economic loss component of the special rate TPI payment determined?

Mr Lewis : Certainly. I will ask Ms Foreman.

Ms Foreman : The TPI pension comprises both a financial component and a gold card, so it's a total package. At the moment, the TPI rate is $1,373.80 per fortnight, and more than 80 per cent of people who receive TPI also receive the income support pension, which is $894.40 a fortnight, so that's a total of $2,268.20 a fortnight that they receive, as well as a gold card. I need to mention that we're working with the TPI Federation on this matter at the moment. We've had a couple of meetings with them and we're going to be having some further ones so that we can look at reaching a better understanding of their particular concerns. But I can confirm to you that, at the moment, the TPI pension is not treated as an economic payment. If it were considered to be an economic payment, it would be taxed; it would be considered as income when you're looking at income support payments; it would stop at the age of 65½ years and people would be transitioned onto the age pension; and it's not offset against any superannuation payments. While sometimes people call it an economic payment, it's actually not treated as one. If it were treated as one—and it would be taxed; I think I mentioned that—those other parameters would apply.

Senator LAMBIE: What percentage is getting over that $2,000 mark and what percentage is getting about $1,300 a fortnight?

Ms Foreman : More than 80 per cent are getting the $2,268. I think it's about 85 per cent.

Senator LAMBIE: That's the older population. What about the younger population that are being done for TPI? How are they going with their payments?

Ms Foreman : Our younger population don't receive TPI; they receive incapacity payments under the MRCA. The TPI is only available under Veterans' Entitlements Act, which was replaced by the MRCA in relation to injuries and illnesses arising after 2004, so it's an older cohort who are on the TPI payment.

Senator LAMBIE: Is that not two standards? One lot's getting paid about $1,300 a fortnight and the other ones are getting $2,000.

Mr Lewis : There's a taper rate on income and assets.

Senator LAMBIE: Are you talking about this one here?

Mr Lewis : I don't know what you're looking at, Senator.

Senator LAMBIE: I'm going to table these documents. I guess the other question I have—

Ms Foreman : Senator, if you're getting the income support pension, that means you're under the asset threshold and you're under the income test threshold, but the TPI pension itself is not considered income, so it doesn't count. For all other payments that you're receiving from Centrelink, or other economic loss payments, they are considered income, and that reduces your service pension, or your age pension, but the TPI pension doesn't work that way. That's an important issue. It's important difference between the payments.

Senator LAMBIE: I guess this would be for the minister: do you think 65 per cent of the minimum wage is an acceptable level as measured by community standards for the men and women who are now totally and permanently incapacitated?

Ms Foreman : I would also say, as I mentioned earlier, that, even if you're not receiving the additional income support component because your assets are at a higher level and your income is at a higher level over the threshold, you still get a gold card, which is worth a considerable amount of money in terms of the concessions that it enables you to access. You get discounts on your utility bills, like gas, electricity, telephone.

Senator LAMBIE: They get what the age pensioner gets, exactly the same. They get gold card standard, which is pretty much the same. Most of that relates to everybody else's entitlement to health care. They may get in a bit quicker. Then you're basing it on assets, and most of them, I would imagine, don't have a great deal of assets.

Ms Foreman : That's why 85 per cent of them get the service pension as well as the disability support pension. They get an income support pension, because of their income and assets being below the threshold, and they get the TPI special rate, which is the component—which everybody gets, that is the disability pension.

Senator LAMBIE: I'm sure you're aware that to put everybody on the same footing it would be about a billion dollars a year. I'm sure you would be aware of that. That is to make sure they are getting the payments that they receive, which Veterans' Affairs—I don't know how they could possibly say no, because you would know what I do: with the widows passing on and the totally disabled clients, the decline in them is amazing. It is the same thing I brought up with Joe Hockey five years ago. I can tell you what, you people are on savings right now. Wouldn't that be right? 'I'm going to give you this table'—you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Mr Lewis : Senator, I have no clue what you're talking about.

Senator LAMBIE: Of course you do—

Mr Lewis : But to go to the point about—

Senator LAMBIE: You would know that totally disabled clients were close to 150,000 back in 2001; that's reduced now, down to just under the 100,000 mark, about 90,000. And I can tell you now that the war widows—and we all know the bigger fraction of them is right at the top here—are old, they are elderly; they are passing away, unfortunately, and the decline in their numbers is absolutely amazing. Back in 2001, you had 120,000; you've now got, I think, nearly half of them left—that is all—that is over the last 15 to 17 years. I can tell you, you're saving a bang in that department right now, from all those war widows and other clients passing.

Mr Lewis : Senator, just to pause for a moment: the budget the department gets, and the estimates over the forward estimates, are automatically adjusted on our behalf by Finance. We don't control that. They work off a whole range of parameters, but obviously a key one is the number of our clients. And you're absolutely correct: as we've discussed on previous occasions, we have three main cohorts inside DVA. Our oldest cohort are essentially World War Two, who are, principally, the widows of World War Two veterans—there are still some of the veterans but not many. The second cohort, essentially, are from the Vietnam era; and the third cohort are younger veterans who have served in conflicts since 1999. Each of those cohorts attract—and because of the ways in which amortisation stats work, the finance department adjusts our estimates into the future based on expectations of the number of clients we need to service. We don't control that. If more of them live than estimated, our budget lines adjust; if fewer of them do, they reduce down. Same thing when it comes to hip replacements: if there are more or less, our budget lines just adjust. There are no savings to be made. If more people need hip replacements, we just get more money to fund hip replacements; the same thing with the service pension, the same thing with the widow's pension.

Senator LAMBIE: Okay.

Senator GALLACHER: When do you have actual assessments—

Mr Lewis : They're done and they're reconciled consistently. If the way in which the year is progressing needs to have a change during the additional estimates process, then it gets done automatically. The system does that. There's no bucket of money—just because we used to have, say, $12½ billion in one year and this year we're at about $11½ billion, there is not $1 billion available to do other things with—that is not the way the budget process works.

Senator LAMBIE: No, I'm aware of that but, in fairness to all, you are actually on savings—considering that you used to have a lot more clients on your books, who are now dying out. And this is the same point I tried to raise with Joe Hockey five years ago, or four years ago. I'll table those and let the minister have another look at that and see what he thinks about that, because his TPI issue is really heating up, as you would know. They are doing a great job out there on the social media; it is really starting to bite the coalition.

I want to go into this mefloquine issue. We've got a problem here. Who's responsible for it? Is it Defence or DVA? Where are we with this mefloquine?

Mr Lewis : What's the question, Senator?

Senator LAMBIE: The people that are holding out, they are not getting the healthcare that they need, and nobody wants to admit the mefloquine has been a mistake. So I'm trying to work out what we are doing with the victims out there, and there's nearly 2½ thousand of them, I believe, give or take. How much longer are they going to sit there on the sidelines, in disarray? What is Veterans' Affairs doing about this? That is what I want to know.

Mr Lewis : Let's try to help you, Senator. I'm not sure 100 per cent sure what the question you're targeting is. But if it is about mefloquine—

Senator LAMBIE: The question is: why aren't they getting payments or help for mefloquine, if they're mefloquine-affected? That is what I would like to know, please.

Mr Lewis : Some of them would be. Dr Gardner, over to you.

Dr Gardner : DVA is very interested, and concerned about the mefloquine matter. We've worked closely with our colleagues in Defence for many years. As you know, Senator, these studies started in 1999, based on the fact that there were very significant rates of malaria in the troops deploying to East Timor. About 2½ thousand people, over the period of the trials, were enrolled as volunteers in these trials. And, as you know, there are a certain number—we don't know the exact number, but a couple of hundred people—who believe, even to this day, that they were seriously adversely affected by those drugs. The manufacturers and Defence and DVA have admitted that some people are affected by these drugs. What is in dispute, though, is the numbers, the severity, and the longevity of those problems. Up until now, until quite recently, it's been difficult to determine what the long-term effect has been, because there haven't been many large-scale, well-controlled studies. However—just at the end of last year, in November 2016, and published in hard copy on 11 January 2017—there is now a massive US study of more than 340,000 servicemen and women, both deployed and non-deployed, in all four services in the US; and of the three different groups of drugs—they didn't use tafenoquine—mefloquine, Malarone and doxycycline. That major study, which is in the public literature—I could table it if you have not seen it—

Senator LAMBIE: I've seen it.

Dr Gardner : It was referenced by the Repatriation Medical Authority in their very recent, August 2017, determination about chemically-acquired brain injury.

Senator LAMBIE: So are they now able to put in claims? Is that what—

Dr Gardner : No. The Independent Repatriation Medical Authority basically determined, at the end of their careful consideration, that there was not sufficient sound medical scientific evidence to support an association between mefloquine, tafenoquine, or primaquine and chemically-acquired brain injury. That was their finding. It has been gazetted. It has been published. It is now well understood. However, there are 15 other conditions for which persons who've taken mefloquine can put in a claim, and for which there are existing statements of principles that cover those conditions. But it is not the chemically-acquired brain injury one which some of the mefloquine advocates are keen to pursue.

Senator LAMBIE: Has Veterans' Affairs reached out or at least sent a letter out to them and asked? Have we bothered to ask for a study ourselves? What are we doing about it here? Or are we just leaving them on the sidelines?

Dr Gardner : No, we're certainly not. You might recall, Senator, that last Senate estimates—about three ago—there was a question similar to this. As a result of our concerns at the time, DVA set up a flag in its compensation systems because we didn't know, actually, how many people may have put in a claim at some stage in the past related to mefloquine or the other antimalarial drugs. In August 2016, we put that flag in place. As of our outreach program in December 2016 in Townsville, we had only seven claims that we knew about. A specialist processing cell was set up with seven people in Melbourne, anticipating a flood and, as of last week when we looked at the numbers, the number of claims where mefloquine, tafenoquine or primaquine have been listed is now 32—I repeat, 32. This is not hundreds, it is not thousands. There certainly may be other people there that are worried and are concerned but, as of today, we have very few of these claims submitted to DVA.

Senator LAMBIE: Dr Gardner, Defence would know—they would have medical records of who took that mefloquine. It's not that difficult. I want to know whether or not you've contacted them and liaised with them—those 2½ thousand people—and sent a letter out to them That's what I want to know. I'm not sure if you know, but when DVA tries to sell something, nobody bothers with it anymore. It's no good using their social media platforms. They're not flash. Nobody bothers with them. It's done through the service organisations and things like that. That is the first time I've heard about this red flagging, and I have got people monitoring your social medias. I'm asking DVA: 'Have you gone to Defence and asked for the names of all those people? Have you been proactive?' because this isn't good enough. What have you done with Defence and how have you liaised with them to get those names? These are the guys who went to East Timor. It's not going to be very difficult. We're not looking at it 40 or 50 years behind. Surely, under the circumstances, we can at least try and contact them, because right now some of them would not be in very good condition.

Dr Gardner : At the moment, unless a person puts in a claim, we don't know about them. Defence does have the list of names. Certainly, in the service newspapers and even in our Vetaffairs newspaper, there have been multiple articles about mefloquine, encouraging people to come forward and contact. I understand maybe around 300—I'm not exactly sure—people have contacted the surgeon general of the ADF to say, 'Show me the piece of paper where I signed consent.' Defence has been able to find all of those pieces of paper and has given that information back to individuals. The short answer to your question is: we, at DVA, don't know who those people are. They are not our clients unless they put a claim in, and we have not personally contacted them. However, we have done multiple outreaches, including through our Vetaffairs and through the service newspapers.

Mr Lewis : There is one bit I would like to take on notice and come back to you on. I would like to consult with Defence to determine the extent to which we could readily track those people that you have mentioned to see whether we might, via our Defence channels, access those individuals and provide them with some information. Defence might do that, rather than ourselves, but I'm happy to take on notice whether, by working with our colleagues in Defence, we might be able to reach out in the way you've suggested.

Senator LAMBIE: Even if Defence takes it on and uses their last known address when they discharged to at least try and get a letter through to them, maybe that would be an option. I notice that the Royal Australian Regiments are now coming—I'll pass this in, not sure if you have seen it. At their last council meeting, this was one of their big agenda points that they are noticing. There would have been quite a few Royal Australian Regiment people taking that stuff, and it's now concerning them, so maybe Defence could do that bit.

Mr Lewis : It's possible the contact details have gotten stale over time, but we will consult them to see what we can do there.

Ms Hancock : I'd also mention that, in that context we did do an outreach in Townsville in December last year, which was a public meeting attended by 91 people, which we conducted in concert with the Repatriation Medical Authority and the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service.

Senator MOORE: Was that specifically on this issue?

Ms Hancock : Yes.

Senator MOORE: So it was advertised on this issue and 91 people in Townsville turned up?

Ms Hancock : Yes.

Dr Gardner : The important thing about that was that, of those 91 people who turned up, there were virtually no questions about mefloquine. Apart from Colonel Ray Martin and a couple of other individuals, the bulk of them were to do with access to non-liability healthcare, mental health support and family support—a whole stack of issues. We were quite surprised. We were expecting there to be lots of questions about mefloquine, but there were not.

Senator MOORE: But you provided the option?

Dr Gardner : Absolutely. That was the prime purpose of that outreach.

Senator MOORE: I think that's where Senator Lambie's questions were going: providing the option. If the people don't take it up—

Dr Gardner : That is their choice.

Senator LAMBIE: I think, if I've just mentioned it to you that 4RAR has a thing, then be proactive and go and speak to them, because, obviously, they're not getting through to you people. Obviously, the RARs have a problem, and, since they're running most of the combat troops, I suggest we open talks with them and find out what's going on from them. I can tell you how that community works, if you don't know—I'm sure you do: when the RAR speaks it gets out to those who are serving, ex-serving and the rest. They are still all very well connected in those regiments.

Dr Gardner : Very well. Last year I wrote to every general practitioner in Australia to alert them to this issue, to say to them, 'Here are some resources, including on a Commonwealth Health TGA and the Defence Department website, and to provide them with contact details if they needed further information.

Senator LAMBIE: Did you inform those doctors what they should be looking for in those patients?

Dr Gardner : That's a somewhat leading question, because we in DVA don't specify what to look for or the treatments.

Senator LAMBIE: You've got SOPs, for goodness sake. Surely, come on.

Dr Gardner : We said: 'Here are some independent websites that you can look at. This is an issue which is of concern to many veterans, especially in North Queensland and a few in and around the Melbourne region, which is where the two clusters are. If you need advice, here is the definitive advice, and, if you'd like to get back in contact with DVA, here are my contact details.' We sent that to every registered doctor in Australia.

Senator LAMBIE: Would I be able to have a copy of that letter, please, Minister?

Dr Gardner : It has been provided previously, but we could find another copy.

Senator LAMBIE: Sorry, I haven't seen it.

Mr Lewis : I think the senator is asking for it to go back to the committee.

Senator Payne: Certainly, and also, Senator, in relation to the issues you've raised between Defence and DVA, I understand that we may be able to provide some assistance in that regard. We of course do have quite a bit of information, particularly on our website which is dedicated to this issue, but I will take up with the Defence organisation, following this discussion, what we might be able to do in concert with DVA, as you've suggested.

Senator LAMBIE: Okay. I don't want to touch on Jesse Bird too much, but—

Senator GALLACHER: Before we go off mefloquine, could I put a couple of—

Senator LAMBIE: Yes, if you'd like to go on with the mefloquine, keep going with it.

Senator GALLACHER: Dr Gardner, I note that you referenced the United States, but are you aware of the situation in Canada, where, as of 20 June 2017, a parliamentary committee has called on an examination of the administration of mefloquine, and its statement was about 'long-lasting psychological and neurological issues—side effects now acknowledged by Canada's allies and the drug's maker'? So is there evidence that the drug's maker is admitting that there are some potential side effects with the administration of mefloquine?

Dr Gardner : The short answer to your question is that the drug maker in—I think it was—2013 issued an update in relation to its warnings. There has been nothing more recent than that. That updated warning was basically to say: if you have previously had a neuropsychiatric illness, do not take this pill. I'm aware of the Canadian recent stuff, also last year in the UK, and also, as you may be aware, there's a High Court case coming up in Ireland in relation to mefloquine. Again, we believe, based on the independent analysis of the sound medical scientific evidence, that the evidence is not there in relation to this. However, it could change in time, but I do particularly refer you to this massive US study, which is never likely to be able to be repeated in our lifetime because of the numbers. Certainly, in Australia, our numbers are tiny compared to their 350,000 plus.

Senator GALLACHER: Are you aware that the issue has been raised on the prime ministerial advisory council?

Dr Gardner : Yes, I'm a member of that committee.

Senator GALLACHER: You're aware that mefloquine use or side effects have been raised there?

Dr Gardner : Yes, it's been discussed, not as a very big or hot issue. Yes, certainly it's been discussed, but it's never been a major item of discussion in all of the meetings that I've attended over the last two-plus years.

Senator GALLACHER: We may want to return to that, Chair, but I'm happy to give the call back to Senator Lambie.

Mr Lewis : Can I just make one comment about it. The RMA made that gazettal just recently in relation to 'statements of principle, no change'. It's important to remember that it's possible to appeal that. The SMRC, whose job it is to review decisions made by the RMA, exists, and it's quite possible that the SMRC may end up doing a review of the RMA.

Senator GALLACHER: I think the difficulty here is that we all understand how you need evidence and studies to effect change, but, a bit like the Australian Design Rules, sometimes it takes 12 years to approve the change, and in those 12 years a lot of people may be suffering.

Mr Lewis : I understand, but under our system the RMA is tasked with the job of assessing that evidence—

Senator GALLACHER: That's the system.

Mr Lewis : independent of the department.

Dr Gardner : Senator Gallacher, in the veteran community, there is not good understanding of how the RMA works or the fact of what they mean by 'sound medical scientific evidence'. This is defined in the act, and it basically says that there's got to be an evidence base for it; it's got to be consistent with the global literature; and it also meets the principles which were first laid down in 1965 by Sir Austin Bradford Hill in relation to causation. That is available on the Specialist Medical Review Council website, as well as the RMA website. So, the fact they haven't found it doesn't mean there is no evidence.

Senator GALLACHER: I am on the public record as saying that you are governed by an inordinate amount of regulation and legislation, and you do an exceptional job in respect of that. Sometimes the expectation of the veterans community is quite different.

Dr Gardner : Yes, that's right.

Mr Lewis : One of the really exciting opportunities arising from the Senate inquiry, which the government has accepted, is for the Productivity Commission to review our legislative framework. As we've talked about on previous occasions, it is complex: we have three acts that are completely different philosophically It is not just difficult for us to administer; it is virtually impossible for veterans—and even for expert advocates, in many cases—to understand. We're all very hopeful the Productivity Commission might come up with some sensible recommendations for legislative change.

Senator LAMBIE: Is there a timeline for when that Productivity Commission review will start and finish?

Mr Lewis : ASAP, as far as I'm concerned. I have already spoken several times to Peter Harris, the Chairman of the Productivity Commission. The terms of reference have to be provided to the Productivity Commission by the Treasurer. The Productivity Commission is a body that exists inside the Treasury portfolio.

Senator Payne: They will be developed in consultation between the Treasurer and the Minister for Veterans' Affairs.

Mr Lewis : There will be very close consultation between the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and—

Senator Payne: The Treasurer.

Mr Lewis : the Minister for Defence, as well. We will be seeking to finalise those terms of reference ASAP. When the Productivity Commission does its reviews, it has a very standard process. I am no expert on it, but it involves seeking submissions and public hearings. My sense is that it probably takes around 12 months for a full PC review, but how long this would take would be a matter for the Productivity Commission itself.

Senator LAMBIE: When does the National Audit Office start heading in there to do its—

Mr Lewis : You can't direct the Auditor-General, that's the first observation I'd make.

Senator LAMBIE: I realise that. I'm not worried about that; I'm worried that time is of essence here, as you would know. You just have to look at Jesse Bird. This is a pattern of behaviour; he is not the first. Under the circumstances, surely the pressure must be on? Surely somebody must have said, 'This is really important; there are lives here.' Out of respect to the veterans, at least tell them something—either a starting date, or: 'We're going to wait for the national audit. Hold on to your lives.'

Mr Lewis : In relation to the Audit Office, I couldn't give you a date because the Auditor-General will make his own decisions in relation to that. It can't be directed by the government.

Senator LAMBIE: Has anyone bothered to write a letter to say how important this is?

Mr Lewis : I have already spoken to the Auditor-General.

Senator LAMBIE: Thank you. That's what I wanted to know.

Mr Lewis : I impressed upon him the fact that this is important work. The DVA space and the interests of our veterans are critical. But, ultimately, the Auditor-General will make his call. As I said, I have also spoken to Peter Harris. He's quite keen to get involved. He thinks this kind of reference is precisely the sort of work the Productivity Commission is well set up to do. It's a good recommendation from the Senate committee, and he's keen to get going.

Senator LAMBIE: Was there a recommendation in here about the legal assistance? What number was that?

Mr Orme : Could I suggest it is recommendation No. 23?

Senator LAMBIE: I notice here that you're going to provide $1.7 million over two years to undertake a scoping study on possible operational models. So that's going to take two years?

Ms Foreman : No, it's going to take one.

Senator LAMBIE: How many level 4 advocates do you have right now?

Ms Vardos : Senator, at the moment we have a handful of level 4 advocates—

Senator LAMBIE: A handful? What are you saying? Half a dozen advocates?

Ms Vardos : It is probably around 40. I'd have to take the exact number on notice and I can get back to you on that. We have run a course in the last 12 months, which is what we call a level 4 course, to ensure there are suitably qualified level 4 advocates in the system at the moment. We are currently preparing a trial under our new advocacy program to deliver a level 4 recognition of prior learning course and that will be trialled early in 2018.

Senator LAMBIE: You've just done a course. How long before that course was your last course?

Ms Vardos : I'd have to take that on notice or I can have a look later. I have the documentation but it will be difficult to pull that out specifically.

Senator LAMBIE: Where do you put all those level 4 advocates? Are they on your website for people to obtain?

Ms Vardos : I'm sorry?

Senator LAMBIE: Do you people have on your website where you can go and see an advocate, where they are, the contact number and all the rest?

Ms Vardos : We don't at the moment.

Senator LAMBIE: Why not?

Ms Vardos : But we are developing that as part of the new advocacy training program and it will be available shortly. We've only just had our first sets of advocates come through to be qualified at level 2 and that is about to come up and be publicly available. It will be promoted through various channels.

Senator LAMBIE: How many people?

Mr Orme : Could I just mention that we recently launched the Engage portal, the Defence-sponsored portal for a range of services available to ex-serving members and the ex-service community, where they can post on one location all details about locations for advocacy services, the services they offer. You can search by location, by region a range of things. The Engage portal is a great joint initiative to get information out to veterans and serving men and women and their families to link the veteran ecosystem together—a single place people can go to—so they can get the information that they're after. That will also rely heavily on the ex-service community to populate that portal and to provide the information, because the advocates you were talking about generally align themselves with an ex-service organisation so that's the combination of partnership we need to have.

Senator LAMBIE: I'm aware of that. Are you telling me that over the years you haven't kept a list of who's where, who's who or what levels they are?

Ms Foreman : This is why the advocacy training and development program was introduced. You are probably aware we are transitioning from the old training information program, TIP, to the advocacy training program, ATDP as it is called. TIP was run on a state basis and there wasn't a record where you could go to each state and say, 'Where's an advocate at level 4 that I can get in touch with?' That was not on the website.

Senator LAMBIE: Was that not concerning for you people?

Ms Foreman : Yes, it was.

Senator LAMBIE: Right, well, that went on for years, so why has it taken this long?

Ms Foreman : It is because we are transitioning to this new structure. We got our courses accredited by ASQA to say they were legitimate accredited courses in April of this year. We had to make a decision about where to focus our efforts. Most of the advocacy work is done at level 2 and so that's the level we have been focusing on. That's where most of the claims assistance is at. We are going to have around 700 to 800 advocates accredited by the end of the year at levels 1 and 2. In the next few weeks there's going to be a level 3 course for advocates to get accredited and recognised. Those who are currently level 3 advocates will go to recognition of prior learning, and the level 4 candidates will go through that process early next year. In the 12 months we have been transitioning to this new structure, a lot has occurred.

Senator LAMBIE: They know the DRCA back to front, do they, by now?

Ms Foreman : It's the same as the SRCA. It is the SRCA as it was on 12 October when it came into being so there is no change in that legislation; it is exactly the same as part 11 of the SRCA.

Senator LAMBIE: I'm not sure why you need to experiment. There was money spent at the Bondi veterans' centre. You were shown how it could be done by bringing in law students. Slater and Gordon are doing it now with their second and third-year law students. They are bringing them in to do pro bono work. Surely, you must know about this?

Ms Foreman : There are lots of models that are working across Australia.

Senator LAMBIE: The one at Bondi, which is sponsored by the Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet is already done and has been quite successful. We need that spread out. There's not enough. Why do you need to spend any more time and money when that modelling, if anything, needs to be tweaked, and the only thing it needs to be tweaked with is more boots on the ground.

Ms Foreman : That is the purpose of the scoping study. It's to work with ESOs. It will be done by somebody independent to work out what the future model for advocacy should be.

Senator LAMBIE: Okay, with the ESOs—your ESOs are not legal, they are not lawyers. You know that as well as I do. They are under-trained. I don't think I even see a lawyer who represents one of those ESO groups around the round table. That is why you keep walking all over the top of them with your legislation. This is why they're not picking it up. This is really unfair to do this at these round tables. You know what I'm talking about, though, don't you, Ms Foreman.

Ms Foreman : That was why the recommendation here was to look at the Canadian model. I think you're probably aware of the Canadian model that does actually use professional lawyers. That will be one of the models that we will look at to see whether that will deliver a sustainable model for advocacy into the future. The model that you referred to with that organisation—I'm sorry, I can't remember the name—is another possible model that would be looked as to whether that is a sustainable model that could be taken forward into the future.

Senator LAMBIE: I have one more question for you. The service organisations or ESOs are at a disadvantage at the round tables because they do not understand the legislation—they are not lawyers. I'm asking whether you will now allow a lawyer while you're doing this, out of goodwill, to come in with those people so that they can take them aside and explain what is going on—because this is not fair.

Mr Lewis : Are you talking about the scoping study? Are you talking in relation to the scoping study here—to involve—

Senator LAMBIE: While this scoping study is going on, until you can get this sorted, I'm asking you when you have your round tables that you allow those service organisations to bring in a lawyer that fights for veterans' affairs so that they can understand it and break it up.

Mr Lewis : Let me try to break up the bits of your question and try to respond. When it comes to legislation, we are establishing a new body—it is a legislation workshop in relation to legislative changes—where we invite ESOs and we are happy for ESOs to bring along people, including qualified lawyers, to this legislation workshop to understand not only how the legislation works but also how we might change it—no problem.

Senator LAMBIE: That would be good.

Mr Lewis : The round table was not designed to be getting into the detail of legislation. It is a high-level meeting of the national presidents, chairs, of the war widows federation, RSL, et cetera, et cetera. It is not designed to be for lawyers, so it is a different kind of meeting. In terms of the legislation workshop, and there will be one on 9 November, if an ESO wants to bring along a lawyer to that, that's where they are going to get into the detail of the legislation.

Turning now to recommendation 23, the Senate committee recommended a bureau of veterans' advocates. That may be the right answer, but it may not be the right answer. It needs to be properly looked at in conjunction with ESOs, in conjunction with individual veterans et cetera, and the government's decision is to scope what the alternatives are. It may well be that a bureau of that kind is precisely the answer. Maybe it's part of answer. But that's what the scoping study is going to be about, and I can assure you we will report back to the committee once that work is done.

Senator LAMBIE: Would you have a quick look at that Canadian system as well, since you're scoping out, please?

Mr Lewis : We certainly will. In fact, in many ways it has a lot of appeal for me.

CHAIR: I wanted to get an understanding of how the Veteran Centric Reform is progressing.

Mr Lewis : I will ask Ms Cosson to start.

Ms Cosson : As you would be aware, in the budget we received $166 million to continue our work in our transformation agenda. I'm pleased to report that we have actually made some considerable achievements since that budget, where what we've been able to do is work very closely with our partner in the Department of Human Services to look at our information technology, to address some of the risks there, particularly leveraging off the program, known as WPIT, in our income support area. We have also been able to continue the work that we referenced at the last committee in addressing some of our high-risk IT systems. What we've also been able to achieve is connecting a lot more with our veterans. We've had further discovery workshops to help in designing our future state. We've looked at consolidating our—

CHAIR: How widely spread are those veterans workshops?

Ms Cosson : We've had them around Australia—so in the states and territories. We've also invited veterans to Canberra, and I think our reach has been to about 900 current serving or ex-serving personnel, plus family forums, where we've invited families in to talk about their experiences. Recently we held our second female veterans' forum as well. We've been really keen to continue to learn about what they would like to see in relation to the change that we need to deliver. Looking at our channel management and our telephony, we had over 200 telephone lines into the department, which can be confusing for our veterans. One of the key foundations to Veteran Centric Reform is accessibility, and that means connecting with serving personnel before they leave, and we want to make sure that they can access the services. We've consolidated the telephony down to 70 lines; ultimately we want to get to one1800VETERAN.

CHAIR: Excellent. One access point. You've whittled it down to 70. What outcomes does the department expect from the full rollout?

Ms Cosson : In our Veterans' Affairs newspaper, we recently talked about the future state for us, down the track in a few years. Then we will know everyone from the day they enlist, as we do now, but, importantly, we will have information-sharing with Defence throughout their service. When someone deploys on operational service, we will have that record electronically transferred; we'll know about all their medical conditions. If they report to a medical officer and their illness or injury is service related, that information will be shared with us and, before they transition, we will be able to help them in that transition phase to allow them greater certainty about their benefits and the support services they will receive once they've left military service.

We've certainly heard a lot from our veterans and families about the importance of connecting with them, to help them in planning their transition. We know that most people transition well, but some people, particularly those who are leaving involuntarily or who have complex medical needs, will need assistance before they leave. We need to make sure that we've put in place continuity of care and that we are with them in a proper case-management arrangement for the first 12 months and then to be able to connect with them into the future.

The whole of Veteran Centric Reform is to move our thinking from a transaction to a person, to connect them where they need to be connected, to help them self-manage, to digitise a lot of our services so that they can actually go online and put forward their claims without needing someone to do that for them. We really want to be able to predict what their life experiences may be, so that we can be there if they need us, but help them to, as I said, be independent of, rather than dependent on, DVA. By being there from enlistment and through their journey, they will know us. At the moment, as the Deputy President said, we don't know a lot of our veterans, unless they've put a claim with us, and so we need to reach out to them.

Senator LAMBIE: Minister, I know that sometimes incident reports are not reported to the RAP and so are not on their medical file. Has anybody thought about that with incident reports? I haven't seen an incident report for a long time. They used to be very basic, have they been upgraded?

Senator Payne: I will get some advice on that. Thank you for raising that.

CHAIR: You've said you have taken the phone lines down to 70 with the aim of going to one. You've just outlined that you want those reforms to end up in a seamless continuum. What are we doing in the meantime, before we get to the end point, to deal with the claim times, the administration pressures that veterans are experiencing right now?

Ms Cosson : As part of this program, we have developed an application, which we talked about at the last hearing, where we've reduced our claim times for our initial liability. When someone submits a claim under the MRCA, we have reduced the time taken to process from around 120 days to around 30, and we will get that down even further. That will roll out to all our legislation and acts over the coming months. Also, for those veterans who need mental health treatment and care, with the extension of non-liability health care, rather than 13 days to process a claim for treatment, we have that down to a day. Mr Geary could report that in some cases we can do it in a couple of hours and turn it around if it's urgent. We've also streamlined a lot of our conditions. Where we've identified a condition that is related to your service, we don't need to seek evidence. So, through the digitisation of our claims processing, we've reduced the number of questions we ask as well, from about 40 questions to, in some instances, five to seven questions, so that we're taking a lot of the burden away from veterans seeking our support. The final thing, which we've already done, is that we've moved the needs assessment up to the front. When somebody registers and submits their first claim with us, we actually ask them what they're seeking so that we're not trying to second-guess what a veteran might be coming to the department for. So we're already doing a lot of work there.

As you'd be aware with the Senate report, one of the recommendations and government responses was about a case management model. We have recognised that we had instances where our staff were not equipped with the tools to look at complex cases, so we've identified risk flags. Where we now have a veteran come to us who presents and we consider to be at risk, or if the family contacts us and says, 'We think our veteran's at risk,' we will have a different case management model and we will help connect them with the clinical support they need. We will also have welfare checks. We will be close with the veteran, rather than having a distance from them. So there's a lot of work underway at the moment as we go through this process.

CHAIR: That is good to hear.

Senator GALLACHER: I would like to re-examine a couple of issues that have been traversed by other senators, starting with mefloquine. We have an additional question or two of Dr Gardner. We know that the RMA has a process for collecting evidence. You obviously accept evidence from overseas—you referred to a US study. What evidence have you been given in regard to its investigation concerning chemically acquired brain injury caused by mefloquine, tafenoquine and primaquine? Is that gathered by way of submissions?

Dr Gardner : We have received multiple dumps of documents from mefloquine concerned veterans, including the articles written by Stuart McCarthy. We've read and received material from Dr Jane Quinn. We've also read everything that's available in the public literature by the US physician who the mefloquine advocates believe is God, Dr Remington Nevin. We've also read the stuff from Canada, the UK and Ireland.

Senator GALLACHER: All of that's fair enough, and you need to make a decision on a statement of—

Dr Gardner : The RMA makes that decision.

Senator GALLACHER: Has the RMA always had emphatic evidence? Is there any grey area there? Do you have any room to move at all, or do you just have to have incontrovertible evidence and that's it? Is that how it works?

Dr Gardner : No, they do not need incontrovertible evidence. They just need sound medical scientific evidence, as defined in section 5AB of the Veterans' Entitlements Act. There is a process by which they look at all of the evidence and weight it up. Then, once they've determined that there may be evidence, they apply the legal judgment to determine how much of that exposure you need under each of the two conditions that they look at under the balance of probability and reasonable hypothesis standard.

Senator GALLACHER: I just wanted that on the record—that there was room to move, but you haven't.

Dr Gardner : It's a judgement call.

Senator GALLACHER: It's a judgment call.

Dr Gardner : It's not our judgement; it's the RMA, as the secretary said. Or, as you may know, the Specialist Medical Review Council sits over the top of the RMA and can, when eligible persons ask, review their decisions. They have already been asked to review the decision of the RMA.

Mr Lewis : I think, as Dr Gardner said earlier, the RMA has made—is it 16?

Dr Gardner : There are 15 other conditions that they have accepted, where exposure to mefloquine or other antimalarials is accepted as a factor in causation of 15 conditions, including suicide and attempted suicide, as well as more common things like tinnitus. They are all listed on the RMA website.

Senator GALLACHER: Thanks very much for that. It's a very complex area, but I do know people think that mefloquine has been a wrong decision—and I do receive advocacy on behalf of people who think that. Another issue that was touched on by Senator Lambie was—

Senator Lambie interjecting

Senator GALLACHER: If you're still on mefloquine, you can still go.

Senator LAMBIE: No, mefloquine's done.

Senator GALLACHER: Can the department please advise how many individuals are currently in receipt of a TPI payment?

Mr Lewis : Certainly, I'd hope we could do that—

Senator GALLACHER: On notice, yes.

Mr Lewis : I hope we can do it pretty much straightaway.

Senator GALLACHER: Have you conducted or completed modelling on a decrease in this cohort? Do you have a live actuary? Does someone update you—

Mr Lewis : We work with the Government Actuary. There would be numbers, projections over future years as well. We would have that information. Whether we've got that tonight, I'm not sure. But, in terms of the straight question you asked—

Senator GALLACHER: So the number in the current year.

Mr Harrigan : The department publishes our Stats at aglance document. That's available and is updated every six months.

Senator GALLACHER: Every six months, you can find out how many TPI recipients there are?

Mr Harrigan : Yes, that's right. As at March 2017, there were 27,861 recipients of the TPI pension.

Senator GALLACHER: We know what that figure is and it's published every six months. So does the department do any modelling, probably encompassing some actual assessments, on these numbers in the forward estimates? Do we know whether that is—

Mr Lewis : I wouldn't describe it as modelling. Basically, when you're doing the forward estimates, you need to estimate what your client group will be in all of the various cohorts—how many war widows will we have, how many TPIs will we have, how many on disability support pensioners of various kinds—and those are projected forward just based on amortisation stats and other assumptions.

Senator GALLACHER: We know what the baseline is every six months?

Mr Lewis : We could probably give you a projection on that.

Senator GALLACHER: Is the projection plus or minus?

Mr Lewis : There's probably a plus and a minus. But I'll go to Ms Foreman.

Ms Foreman : We'll take that question on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: Yes, I think that would be good.

Mr Lewis : The short answer will be there'll be a plus and a minus, because we get new ones coming through.

Senator GALLACHER: I listened to your answer about how you only get paid for what you're doing; you don't get a budget to allocate.

Mr Lewis : No, that's it.

Senator GALLACHER: You've got a hip replacement or whatever to do—

Mr Lewis : If a hip comes through, that part, the administered appropriations, would just adjust automatically.

Senator GALLACHER: I think the point that has been made here repeatedly over the years is that you don't have any discretionary funds; it is a real challenge to find money to do—

Mr Lewis : Our departmental vote is a bit over two per cent, and that's the bit that is very, very tight.

Senator GALLACHER: Every other dollar is committed.

Mr Lewis : Everything else is legislated.

Senator GALLACHER: And finding the extra funds to do your ICT and all the other things that you want to do is a real challenge out of that two per cent.

Mr Lewis : Exactly, which is why the last budget was so important to us; we received that new money to start the reinvestment so critical to the future of the department.

Senator GALLACHER: Thank you very much for those two clarifications. I wanted to say, with respect to the Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel, that it came at the end of the DART and the mental health inquiry, and all members of this committee could not help but be affected by the three inquiries. By the time I, Senator Back and others got to the third inquiry, we were absolutely determined to try to put together some evidence based recommendations which could make a difference here. I am eternally grateful that it looks as though we have made some impact. The fact that the recommendations have been accepted, either in full or in principle, is evidence of the good work that was done in a very collegiate manner. I know Senator Back, as the father of a serving officer at one point, was dedicated and committed to making sure that we did get some evidence that would make a serious impact in this extremely important area, where I don't think there's an ounce of politics. I really don't. There are no politics in the community or in this committee about this area. I think it's just astounding that we've been able to do that. But, as always in politics, as soon as you get an announcement of something successful and good, some pesky person says, 'When and how much, and how are we going to progress?' So I think it's been a remarkable effort by all parties in the chain. It looks like it's on the track to make a difference. The sorts of questions we immediately get are: will this involve legislative change; are payments able to start before legislation has passed parliament—that is, the new veteran payment? Are you in a position to answer?

Mr Lewis : The answer would be no, Senator. We'll need to get the legislation drafted ASAP and get it through the parliament so that the payment can be made. That is the answer to that.

Senator Payne: This is a priority, though, Senator. As Minister Tehan has set out—and, if I can say from experience, from sitting on your side of this process: on the work that the committee has done in this regard, the government recognises it as extremely important and acknowledges that it is actually not an easy task for senators either. The engagement with witnesses is one which places a burden on both senators and on secretariats. I also want to acknowledge that.

Senator GALLACHER: It really was—all crossbench senators, as you say. I made some remarks about the work of Dr Griffith, in the tabling statement, but I don't think anybody who sat through those three inquiries wasn't affected in a way that made them really determined to get a successful outcome, and that includes all of the parliamentary staff involved as well. So, we will need some legislative change.

Mr Lewis : Looking at the page you have there, you may have some questions to put on notice for us to respond to, just in terms of time frames and dollars and legislation. Perhaps I could add one thing: these reviews have also affected the department and they've affected me, the senior staff and the other staff of the department. We're all determined, as I said in my opening statement, that we need to transform this department. We need the government support and we need the parliament support in relation to legislation, but we need the investment to allow us to modernise the systems that we work with as well. It's a cultural change journey. We have processes to change and we've got organisation to change, but that's all under way now as Ms Cosson said before.

Senator GALLACHER: We only have a very short amount of time left, so perhaps we'll leave the questions on the inquiry there and pursue them at a later date. We can probably go back to some more—

CHAIR: If you don't have any questions, Senator Gallacher—

Senator GALLACHER: I have about two or three chapters, Chair, but I have five minutes to go. If Senator Lambie has a five-minute segue—

CHAIR: Senator, you have the call. I'm just hoping you can ask some questions.

Senator GALLACHER: I have plenty of questions, Chair, and I'm able to go to about 1 o'clock.

Senator LAMBIE: Me too.

Senator GALLACHER: But, in the five minutes we have left, if Senator Lambie would like the call, I'm happy to cede the call to her.

Senator LAMBIE: Thank you. Just quickly, Mr Lewis, we had some argy-bargy about a letter. I asked the people in Veterans' Affairs to stand up and be counted and to put submissions in to the inquiry. Guess how many we got from workers in Veterans' Affairs? Not one. I'm not sure it had something to do with your letter that was not that encouraging to make them come forward. You know what, Mr Lewis? If you really want to know the problems that are going on in DVA, you need to speak to your workers, because they know, too, and they know what's going on. They may not be in a high position, like you are, but I can assure you that they know what is going on. So you have the productivity commissioner—

Mr Lewis : Senator, I talk to my staff all the time.

Senator LAMBIE: It would have been nice to get some things. I want to talk about these round tables and about the black list.

Mr Lewis : I would like to put something on notice in response to your point, though.

Senator LAMBIE: Okay.

Mr Lewis : I will just make reference to the fact that we've got two reference groups looking at cultural change across the department. We understand that we've got changes we need to make across the department, and there's a lot of work under way in relation to our staff references groups. If you know one or two people who want to make a contribution to that, no-one is getting shot down because they bring forward ideas for change—nobody. So please suggest to them that they contribute through our working groups. A lot of this work is happening right now. We have regular email opportunities with our staff, as well. Get the ideas to come forward, and if there are issues to be tackled we're open to tackling all of those.

Senator LAMBIE: Do you have an anonymous IT site that they can go to, without sending in emails, that they can put suggestions in?

Mr Lewis : Ordinarily we wouldn't expect that people would feel a need to be anonymous.

Senator LAMBIE: Just before finishing up, I want to ask about these round tables. There seems to be an issue with the roundtables. I have in front of me the Newcastle and Hunter Region Vietnam Veterans. They are getting pretty annoyed that they don't get asked to the round table. There are plenty of other people out there that don't. There seems to be a very select group that you continually have at these round tables.

Mr Lewis : The round table has expanded since I became secretary. It has got bigger, not smaller. The whole idea is to bring forward the peak national ex-service organisations together—

Senator LAMBIE: How do you determine what's peak? The RSL is in turmoil—

Mr Lewis : We've got 14—is it 14, Craig?

Mr Orme : Almost 20.

Senator LAMBIE: Nearly 20 out of—how many organisations out there that call themselves organisations? Nearly 500. How do you cherrypick here? Because obviously the people you've had on those round tables for a very, very long time have allowed us to go into chaos. I have a question as to what they've been contributing. One of those would be the RSL, I have no problem in saying that. I say that with the utmost respect to the war widows. That's fine. Those widows are pretty much settled in their payments. What we have to do is worry about the younger generations. I need some of those other service organisations to be on that round table. They've had their opportunity for many years, and look where's it's got to, Veterans' Affairs. Look what's happening to my generation. We are terribly concerned about that.

Mr Lewis : We have the round table, we have the younger veterans forum. The organisation to which you refer, I'm not sure who they represent.

Senator LAMBIE: This is one of the Vietnam veterans. Do you have the VVAA and the VVFA at the table?

Mr Lewis : Yes, we do.

Senator LAMBIE: So obviously they are asking now for sub-branches.

Mr Lewis : We have the press clips at the table. What organisation do they represent?

Senator LAMBIE: This is the Hunter region Vietnam veterans.

Mr Lewis : The national—

Senator LAMBIE: The Newcastle and Hunter region.

Mr Lewis : We have both the VVAA and the VVFA on our round tables.

Mr Orme : We also have state forums that are conducted by our state deputy commissioners. I've been to a number of those this year all around the country. So each state is able to represent their issues at the state level and at the national level as well. The state deputy commissioners meet with their stakeholders two or three times a year.

Mr Lewis : I'm wondering whether we need to respond, national and state.

Senator LAMBIE: Maybe I could have a list of who is at the round tables. That would be great.

Mr Lewis : There's no problem with that. We have a national framework, but we also have state based frameworks.

Senator LAMBIE: I want to make sure you are aware that the Newcastle branch of Soldier On has folded. I'm hearing many things about Soldier On. I know that the PM seems to be fond of Soldier On, but I tell you that, on what I'm hearing and seeing out there, I suggest we do our homework a little bit better. Just making that statement.

Senator Payne: I was with the Prime Minister and others recently at the announcement of the expansion of Soldier On's efforts in relation to other national security community members. I know that government works closely with Soldier On and a large number of other organisations. I will ensure that the information that Mr Lewis has undertaken to provide is made available, and if you wish to pursue it further, either with Minister Tehan or myself, then of course we can do that.

CHAIR: That concludes today's examination of the Defence portfolio. I thank the minister and officers for their attendance, Hansard and broadcasting. Senators are reminded that written questions on notice should be provided to the secretariat by Friday, 3 November. The committee will begin its hearings tomorrow morning at 9am with Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Committee adjourned at 23:00