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Monday, 7 September 2015
Page: 6013


Senator McLUCAS (Queensland) (10:02): I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015. Labor supports the majority of measures in this bill because they represent a modest improvement to entitlements of and services to veterans. However, we have concerns about schedule 2 and think it appropriate that it be referred to a committee for further examination.

The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986, the VEA, the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004, the MRCA, and the Defence Act 1903, the Defence Act, to: expand the range of services available under the Veterans' Vocational Rehabilitation Scheme—the VVRS—and make changes to the way certain periods of work undertaken as part of the VVRS, income earned from that work and periods of unemployment affect the rate of disability pension and/or service pension paid to participants; and create a single path of review for original determinations made under the MRCA and allow the Minister for Veterans' Affairs to amend regulation 31 of the Defence Force Regulations 1952 so as to provide for the repatriation of the remains of service dependants buried in the Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia. Schedule 1 amends the VEA to: expand the range of services available under the Veterans' Vocational Rehabilitation Scheme and make changes to the way periods of work undertaken as part of the VVRS, income earned from that work and periods of unemployment affect the rate of disability pension and/or service pension paid to participants. These changes were announced in the 2015-16 budget.

The VVRS has been administered by the Department of Veterans' Affairs since the mid-1990s and was introduced to meet concerns that younger veterans were being accepted as totally and permanently incapacitated for work without being provided with opportunities for vocational rehabilitation. It is a voluntary scheme aimed at assisting eligible veterans to find or maintain paid employment. The scheme is intended for former members of the Australian Defence Force with qualifying service, or those about to leave the ADF. The ADF has its own rehabilitation scheme for serving members. The VVRS is separate to other rehabilitation services provided under schemes such as the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004, and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988. Veterans cannot undertake vocational rehabilitation under the VVRS concurrently with any other vocational rehabilitation program.

VVRS services include: assistance in assessing and updating a veteran's skills, job-seeking techniques and interview skills; and assistance to increase hours of work in an existing position, or, where the veteran is having difficulty coping, to manage the situation or look at alternative options. Assistance is provided to find suitable employment before the transition from the ADF to the civilian workforce and for skill development or assistance in gaining recognition for skills to assist in finding employment. While the VVRS is not restricted to those with disability, as a rehabilitation service it is targeted at those with impairments that can affect an individual's ability to find and/or maintain employment. As such, many VVRS participants may also be in receipt of payments from DVA in respect of their impairment, particularly the veterans' disability pension and the invalidity service pension.

There are two key changes proposed by schedule 1. The first is to allow intermediate rate disability pension recipients participating in the VVRS to have paid employment of up to 20 hours a week disregarded for the purposes of calculating any disability pension rate reduction. This aligns the disregarded work income with the work test that applies to intermediate rate pensioners. Currently, intermediate rate disability pensioners have any income from paid employment over eight hours a week used in the calculation of their rate reduction—the same as special rate disability pensioners. The amendment will mean that an intermediate rate pensioner participating in the VVRS cannot receive a lower rate of disability pension than an intermediate rate pensioner who has not participated in the VVRS. It will actually provide a greater financial incentive for intermediate rate pensioners to participate in the VVRS and to find paid employment, as a greater number of hours can be worked and more income earned before the veteran's pension rate is reduced.

The second key change is to set the maximum reduction for a special rate disability pensioner who is participating in the VVRS and in paid work of more than eight hours but less than 20 hours a week to the intermediate rate, rather than 100 per cent of the general rate. Special rate disability pensioners participating in the VVRS with less than 20 hours of paid work a week will receive a pension rate calculated under the current method or the intermediate rate, whichever is the higher. Again, this is aimed at ensuring a special rate pensioner participating in the VVRS and undertaking less than 20 hours of work a week will not receive a lower rate of pension than an intermediate rate pensioner who is not participating in the scheme. Both of these key changes are beneficial to intermediate and special rate pensioners participating in the VVRS, and they will provide an added financial incentive for veterans to engage with the scheme and the workforce.

The other amendments proposed by the schedule will include specific references in the VEA to medical management and psychosocial services, which will be made available through the VVRS from 20 March 2016, and will ensure periods of unemployment of six months or more will be disregarded in determining different periods of employment used in calculating the amount of income assessed under the invalidity service pension income test for participants in the VVRS. This latter amendment refers to the two-year initial period of employment in which only 50 per cent of income is assessed under the income test, and the following five-year period in which the percentage of assessed income gradually increases. This will ensure that participants in the VVRS will not have prolonged absences from the workforce treated as part of their employment period.

Schedule 2 will create a single review pathway for original determinations made under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004—the MRCA—removing the option for internal reconsideration by the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission and allowing only for review by the Veterans' Review Board. It is fundamental to Labor that the compensation system for injured veterans', including the appeal system, is balanced and fair. The system must also operate without unnecessary delays because delays exacerbate hardship.

The appeal rights of injured veterans who are refused a claim for compensation by DVA are significantly changed by schedule 2 of this bill. There have been genuine questions raised about whether the changes are balanced or fair. I am concerned, and Labor is concerned, that the consequences of the changes in schedule 2 have not been properly examined. The community and the parliament are entitled to know whether these changes will make the situation better or worse for injured workers and so they should be properly examined by an appropriately thorough inquiry.

By way of background, an injured veteran denied benefits currently has two options to appeal a decision that has denied them compensation benefits. Option 1 provides internal reconsideration by the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. If the veteran is not happy with an internal reconsideration decision they have a right, same as under Comcare, to seek an independent review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. For veterans who choose this path, if they prove a DVA decision wrong at the AAT the veteran is able to be awarded reimbursement of the reasonable costs of medical reports and legal representation they needed to substantiate their case. Option 2 is a review by the Veterans' Review Board. This currently takes 18 months to two years. If a veteran has elected this path and is dissatisfied, they can still pursue independent review by the AAT; however, veterans' who choose this path cannot be awarded reimbursement of their costs of challenging a DVA decision.

I now go to why schedule 2 should be closely examined by a committee before a vote is taken on this schedule in the Senate. The Senate inquiry into the mental health of Australian Defence Force personnel heard evidence in recent weeks that has highlighted the way in which delays and poor DVA decision making in the compensation process adds to the mental stress of veterans. In light of this, it is critical that the Senate is satisfied that the measures in the bill will improve the appeals system as the government promises. I refer to page 9 of Parliamentary Library's Bills Digest, which is headed 'Key issues and provisions'. It states:

… while implementing Recommendation 17.1 of the Review for a single appeal path, the proposed amendments ignore Recommendation 17.2 for internal reconsideration by the MRCC to be the first step in this review process. Instead, the proposed amendments will remove internal reconsideration by the MRCC from the appeals process altogether …

While ex-service organisations are supportive of the move to a single pathway, many have previously stated their support for an internal reconsideration component to be included as part of this appeals process.

It is unclear whether ex-service organisations have changed their position or whether they support veterans' not being able to be awarded their costs at the AAT.

Schedule 3 amends the Defence Act 1903 to expand the regulation-making power under paragraph 124(1) to authorise, under regulation 31 of the Defence Force Regulations 1952, for the repatriation of the remains of eight service dependants buried at Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia, if requested to do so by their families. The Terendak Military Cemetery is located within a Malaysian military base, the Terendak Camp, on the coast of the Malacca Straits, approximately 21 kilometres north of Malacca. Terendak Camp was built by the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand during 1957-59 to house the 28th Commonwealth Infantry Brigade. Of the 521 Australians killed in the Vietnam War, 496 were repatriated to Australia with full military honours. There are 24 Australian servicemen buried at Terendak, Malaysia and one other buried at Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore. These 25 soldiers are the only remaining Australian servicemen killed during the Vietnam War who have not been returned to their families for burial. During the early days of the Vietnam War, a family would have had their son's body sent home only if they—his next of kin—or a benefactor were willing and able to pay 500 pounds for his repatriation to Australia. If families could not afford this, the soldier would be buried in Terendak in Malaysia.

In January 1966, the Australian government resolved that all soldiers killed in Vietnam were to be returned to Australia at the expense of the Commonwealth. After a public campaign by the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia—Operation Bring Them Home—and other ex-service organisations, and long-running negotiations between the Australian and Malaysian governments, the government announced in May 2015 that it would repatriate the remains of the 25 Australian Vietnam veterans buried overseas, where this was the wish of the deceased's family. As the Terendak Military Cemetery is difficult to access—being within a large Malaysian military base and requiring special permission to visit—the Australian government also extended the offer to repatriate remains to the families of the other three Australian servicemen and eight service dependants buried there.

Labor has continued to support the government's offer to repatriate the remains of deceased Vietnam veterans buried in the Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia and in the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore if requested to do so by the families. As we move into the 51st year since the first Australian serviceman was killed in the Vietnam War, we must remember that we owe these men, and their families, an enduring obligation and respect for the sacrifice they made.

As I said in my introduction, Labor supports the majority of measures in this bill because they represent a modest improvement to the entitlements of and services to veterans. However, we believe there is reason to examine the measures in schedule 2 more closely. It is fundamental to Labor that the compensation system for injured veterans, including the appeal system, is balanced and fair. The system must also operate without unnecessary delays, because delays exacerbate hardship. The appeal rights of injured veterans who are refused a claim for compensation by DVA are significantly changed by schedule 2 of this bill. There have been genuine questions raised about whether the changes are balanced or fair. I am concerned that the consequences of the changes in schedule 2 have not been properly examined. The community and the parliament are entitled to know whether these changes will make the situation better or worse for injured workers, and they should be properly examined by an appropriately thorough committee.