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Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Page: 179

Mr BILLSON (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) (11:14 AM) —Mr Deputy Speaker Secker, may I add my congratulations on your elevation to a presiding role. I hope you enjoy having the opportunity to keep us all in line, consistent with the standing orders. It is a hearty moment when both sides of the House concur.

There seems to be concurrence on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Statements of Principles and Other Measures) Bill 2006, although I will touch on some of the points of deviation that seem to have emerged in some of the commentary. I would like to acknowledge my friends and colleagues the members for Fisher and Moreton, and also the member for Bruce and the member for Cowan, for their contributions. The bill that we are discussing today is part of what I call the ‘everlasting march’. There is not the opportunity to rest on our laurels, as a nation or as a government, when it comes to the support we provide those who have served our nation. There is a constant challenge of evolution, of improvement and enhancement because the service of our men and women in the Australian defence forces, the challenges and the medical conditions and the support that our veterans deserve, constantly evolves. It is constantly changing and we need to change, adapt and evolve with it so that we maintain a well-earned and well-established international reputation as having the world’s best repatriation system.

The bill that is before the House is probably not the most significant legislative reform that the parliament will debate, but it is important in carrying forward that ongoing commitment to constantly improve, refine and finetune our systems as they support the serving men and women of the Australian defence forces and our veteran community.

This government and its predecessors over many years have developed a comprehensive repatriation system which recognises the very special standing and the special duty we have to care for, support and respond to the needs of our veteran community. The bill is yet another example of this government’s recognition of the need for improvements in the delivery of repatriation services to our veterans, their dependants and those men and women who continue to serve in Australia’s defence forces and who benefit from the support we provide through the legislative changes.

Our repatriation system provides a range of benefits to compensate veterans, serving members and their dependants for injury, disability or death resulting from that service. It is important to reflect on that transformation. One of the earlier speakers—I think it might have been one of the opposition speakers—rightly identified that the aggregate number of people in our veteran community is declining. Sadly, that is as a result of time taking its toll on primarily World War II veterans. Thank goodness we have not seen a mass mobilisation of the scale that was required to defend our nation and support our allies in World War II. That was a rather significant population hump in the veteran community and many are moving on to a more peaceful place because of their age.

Notwithstanding that, when the Howard government was elected, our Veterans’ Affairs budget was just a tad over $6 billion. Over time, and notwithstanding the declining number in our veteran community, today it is $10.8 billion. It is clearly evident, from that simple statistic alone, that our efforts to support the veteran community continue to evolve and that, far from taking the foot off the accelerator, we have actually expanded and increased the range of support to recognise the changing needs of an albeit declining number in the veteran community.

This bill is part of that ongoing journey. The changes made by this bill will improve the efficiency and the delivery of those benefits and other services that are provided to veterans, serving members and their dependants under both the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. The bill enables the Repatriation Medical Authority to review one or a number of factors in a statement of principles rather than the entire contents of the statement of principles. Statements of principles are formulated by medical and scientific experts for use in the assessment of whether or not a claimed injury, disease or death is war or service related. That is important because, in addition to the benefits that veterans enjoy as citizens of Australia, there is another layer and a comprehensive range of support available because of their unique contribution to Australia, and that is delivered through the repatriation service.

To maintain the understanding within the community that that is not only appropriate but entirely justified and warranted, we need to ensure that we recognise that those additional benefits are available as a result of that link to the need for those benefits and to a person’s war or service experience. That is a key tenet that is captured in the statements of principles. Sadly, we all acquire illnesses, diseases and injury as a broader population. Which of those conditions, though, are likely to be as a consequence of our military service and our war service? That is what is captured in the statements of principles in order to give legitimacy and authority to that additional range of benefits that I have touched on.

Regular reviews are carried out of those statements of principles, based on the latest medical and scientific evidence. The amendments captured in this bill will enhance the review process, making it quicker and more properly focused—that is, if there is a new scientific or medical insight that is relevant to our statements of principles, we can target and embrace that new insight, adjust one or two factors which are relevant and make our statements of principles as contemporary and as well informed as possible without the need to entirely examine the complete statements of principles.

The bill also enhances the operations of rules on existing income streams and clarifies the policies relating to those income streams. The rule changes follow on from changes in the family law and allow the means test to be applied to certain non-superannuation annuities that are split following a divorce property settlement. Another minor change to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act will enable benefits and allowances, the rates or amounts of which are fixed by or calculated under the regulations or a legislative instrument, to be funded from the consolidated revenue fund.

The bill also corrects some minor errors and anomalies in the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme. This scheme provides treatment, rehabilitation and compensation for all permanent and reserve members of the defence forces who suffer an injury or disease as a result of service after 30 June 2004. That is a new scheme that carries forward the best of the old schemes—and I will touch on that shortly. Benefits provided by the scheme match and, in many cases, enhance those provided under the previous arrangement—that being CERCA and the veterans’ entitlements system.

The anomalies being rectified by the bill include the removal of the age limit of 65 for the special rate disability pension, which is payable for life. The government’s intention was absolutely clear and always has been and it was unfortunate that the member for Bruce sought to cast some aspersion on what our motive was. The government’s position has always been clear: that those benefits should be payable for life, and the changes in this bill ensure the continued payment of the pension beyond age 65, which is consistent with payments of the special rate or TPI pension under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. That was always the government’s intention. It stated so. We are ensuring that there is no doubt about that in the legislation.

The bill also makes changes to correct the liability provisions by excluding the acceptance of any self-inflicted diseases. This brings the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act in line with the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. Thankfully, we do not have many examples—in fact none—of self-inflicted diseases resulting in claims for compensation. But that does ensure that that provision is available where, heaven forbid, such a behaviour occurs.

The bill also ensures that service personnel incapacitated by injury or disease during training are remunerated at levels commensurate with what they would have earned if they had completed their initial training. That is designed so that, if someone in training is injured and therefore not able to achieve the income they would have achieved had they completed their training, we will base our payments on their having completed their training, which they certainly would have done had they not been injured. That is the logic and policy imperative that sits behind that provision.

The bill also provides for the payment of travelling expenses for claimants attending a hearing by the Veterans’ Review Board—and I think that is a very positive step. Section 88A of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act is reopened for certain persons who are eligible under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. This will enable those eligible persons to receive specified treatment of a kind determined by the Repatriation Commission. The bill clarifies, for the purposes of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, who may lodge a claim on behalf of a member or dependant who is under the age of 18—this is particularly relevant for our cadets—and removes the unnecessary requirement for the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to determine a treatment path for a serving member.

The proposed changes and minor technical amendments contained in the bill will enhance my department’s capacity to deliver benefits and entitlements for our veteran and Defence Force community. This bill further demonstrates this government’s ongoing commitment to this very deserving group of Australians.

Before I close, let me just touch on some of the remarks that were made by the opposition spokesperson. There is a very worrying but seemingly consistent trend of the opposition being in the mode of grievance peddling. It seems not to be able to come to terms with positive or constructive solutions or suggestions about how to improve our repatriation system. That is solely the work of the government and government members. Mr Deputy Speaker, you might recall the Clarke review—a very comprehensive review looking at anomalies and suggestions for improving our system. There is not one sitting ALP member in this parliament who actually made a submission to that review. Thankfully, about six current Liberal and National members of parliament brought forward submissions to that review showing a freshness and an idea driven approach to repatriation services, rather than sitting back and seemingly endlessly carping over individual cases and then trying to argue that an individual case is representative of the broader system.

The opposition spokesman touched on one case. If it is the case I believe he is talking about, that matter was very quickly resolved upon it being known that the delay had occurred. My department recognised that a document was put in a wrong file and quickly identified that a mistake had been made, quickly apologised for that mistake and remedied the matter. The opposition would have you believe that that isolated incident represents the general experience of veterans, and it is simply not the case. The opposition seem to be looking at a complex, comprehensive system through a straw. They will look through the straw and see one particular example of the more than 30,000 claims that we receive a year—admittedly, a decline from around the 50,000 claims a year that were received some years ago—and say, ‘Look, there is this one case, this one anomaly, this one example, where an error has been made,’ and then try to make that out to be the case for all of the claims being processed by my department. It is simply unfair, unrepresentative and completely unhelpful.

My department is staffed by very dedicated, skilled and experienced people. In fact, I think those in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, on average, have the longest period of employment within a Commonwealth department, so committed are they to their work. That is an example where the opposition are not only letting themselves down; they are letting the veteran community down. Thankfully, there is much energy and much vigour within the government to ensure that our systems continue to evolve and improve.

Let me touch on an example. The opposition has been making much about claims processing times, arguing that there is some administrative malfunction or something going on and then drawing out selectively some material to evidence that case. In his contribution, the opposition spokesman again did this. One of his favourite examples is to be critical of the time taken for claims determined under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme. He says they have blown out by 400 per cent, but he does not mention the fact that only two cases were determined in the first year of the system—

Mr Price —Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek to ask a question of the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Secker)—Minister, will you allow a question?

Mr BILLSON —I am sure it is just designed to stump my momentum, but I am happy to field any questions.

Mr Price —Mr Deputy Speaker, I was carefully listening to the minister and his comments about the motivation of government members and I was wondering, given that six had made submissions to the Clarke review, what his views were about the majority of government members who failed to make a submission. Does he feel that they are not interested in issues of repatriation or not capable of coming up with good suggestions?

Mr BILLSON —That is a gripping question from the opposition. It is good to see they have workshopped something of that kind. The simple fact is there were six who came forward with constructive suggestions, compared to zero sitting ALP members. Those figures are quite evident. I encourage members to embrace the proactivity of the six who did. It is a very good example about how a local representative can draw from a broad range of experience and provide some useful input, and I encourage my colleagues to embrace that kind of approach.

Focusing solely on the time taken to process a claim for compensation can be and is misleading. My department concentrates not only on the timeliness of our decisions but also on the quality of them to ensure that there is consistent, legitimate decision-making across what is a very comprehensive system that can be quite complex. Nevertheless, it is our goal to constantly improve the timeliness and the quality of those decisions, and a number of measures have already been taken to embrace that ethos since my appointment as minister.

I was asked a question before by the opposition in relation to my earlier comments. It is simply ridiculous to draw a conclusion about turnover performance in a claims area for a new system that has been introduced for the first time where, in its first year, two claims were determined to establish the benchmark against which full-year operation statistics are compared. Most people would realise that that is simply nonsense. As the claims numbers have increased through the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act pathway, so have the department’s resources. Those resources have expanded to accommodate and address the processing load that is coming through those various systems. I would encourage the opposition spokesperson to actually come to grips with these issues. Another area that he draws on relates to claims under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

Mr Griffin —Mr Deputy Speaker, I have a question for the minister.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. DGH Adams)—Will the minister take a question?

Mr BILLSON —Sure, as long as he is quick.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The chair will decide those issues.

Mr Griffin —I will be very quick. You spoke earlier about the issue of submissions to the Clarke review. Can you explain to the Main Committee why in fact in the Clarke review submission you suggested a certain set of actions regarding the treatment of nuclear veterans and then as minister you ignored it?

Mr BILLSON —I thank the opposition spokesman. He is keen to quote that almost as a defence for not having put a submission in himself. In relation to nuclear veterans, my concern was for their health. I was completely motivated by that. This government has implemented yet another initiative—a comprehensive program to support the health of not only veterans but also civilians involved in the nuclear testing. His argument would be whether the pathway we have chosen was appropriate compared to what I had proposed at that time.

If he would check the Hansard record, he would see that I have explained what my motives were. They were very clear. Moreover, not only did I recognise that action needed to be taken but also action has been taken on an issue that was long outstanding, including over successive Labor governments. It is another example where the point about getting outcomes for the veterans community is what motivated us, whereas the opposition is motivated by very base political motives.

It seems to be wise counsel that was shared with the opposition spokesman at the recent conference that he and I attended that claims processing is actually a collaborative exercise. My department is not completely in control of every aspect of that process. We work in partnership with the veterans and the claimants, the ex-service organisations and the medical practitioners.

Mr Griffin —Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Is the minister willing to take a question?


Mr Griffin —Could the minister explain, though, why there has been a cut in resourcing with respect to the claims processing area, as admitted by the head of department?

Mr BILLSON —As the opposition spokesman knows, there has been no slashing of resources in my department. There are sufficient resources there to handle the claims and there is a nimbleness in the way those resources are deployed to take account of the different complexions in the make-up of those claims across the three statutory schemes. Again, had he shown some interest in the subject, he would have been aware of that and he would have had the opportunity to apprise himself of some of these issues that are important to our scheme. In concluding, the other issue raised by the member—

Mr Griffin —Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Is the minister willing to take a question?

Mr BILLSON —So you do not want me to respond to your other question? That is fine.

Mr Griffin —Given the minister’s earlier comment about the fact that these are only blips in the system and it is focusing on a very small number of people, how does he explain the figure of over 4,000 with respect to claims being over the average?

Mr BILLSON —This is another example of where the collaborative nature of the claims processing pathway is something not well understood by the opposition. With 32,000 claims a year coming through, some of which actually relate back to military service more than 60 years ago, with a cursory glance, anybody with even a passing interest in the veterans area would know that those claims can be very complex. They can involve a large number of separate ailments. They do require a proactive compilation of information. That is the collaboration in our system and it is a shame that people seem to attack it for base political motives. There is no mention of the enormous improvement and reduction in the long outstanding claims that I am sure would have been of interest to the veterans community—but the opposition seems to overlook that—as well as improvements in the claims processing pathway.

The issues regarding the Vietnam Veterans Health Study have been well canvassed. As the member for Cowan would know, I have discussed the views of the Vietnam Veterans Federation. They recognise that they had not seen the whole media press event, where four volumes were introduced, nor did they recognise that I did say the most compelling of that work was the national servicemen’s study as it neutralised the healthy soldier effect. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.