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Monday, 7 September 2015
Page: 6021


Senator LAMBIE (Tasmania) (10:38): I rise to contribute to the debate on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015. Before I turn to the detail of the legislation, I will make some general comments about the management of veterans' affairs by the Abbott government. The common feedback I receive from Australian veterans or former members of the Australia Defence Force, who have risked their lives and faced our enemies, is they would rather face the Taliban than face the Department of Veterans' Affairs. How damning! I note that, while we had 60,000 veterans serving in Vietnam, in the last 15 years, including the peacekeeping roles in Africa, the Solomon Islands, East Timor and the war in the Middle East, about 70,000 young Australians have put their lives on the line in peacekeeping, warlike or war zones. In Michael Ronaldson, Australia has one of the least caring and most incompetent veterans' affairs ministers to ever be appointed to that very important position, especially when you consider the large number of Australians affected by his dysfunctional and flawed management of his dysfunctional and flawed government department. If Australian veterans were not unnecessarily dying, self-harming and being forced to live rough on the streets in record numbers, then the management of Australia's Department of Veterans' Affairs could well be thought of as a bloody joke that could easily inspire many episodes of a national comedy TV show in the style of Yes, Prime Minister. But, unfortunately, the needless heart-breaking suicides, the gut-wrenching family break-ups, the family violence, the drug addictions, the homelessness and the jailing of veterans in our community inspire nothing but a feeling of dread, deep depression and a desire to rage against this filthy national shame.

In my office in Burnie I have one electorate officer dedicated to helping veterans from all over Australia. We have created nearly 300 cases on file in just one year. I have just participated in a series of public hearings that examined the plight of our veterans. My comments are not out of line or over the top. The Department of Veterans' Affairs, though criminal mismanagement and under-resourcing, has made the lives of many of our veterans and their families a living bloody hell, a misery few Australians can understand until they are confronted with the whole truth, which can only be revealed by a royal commission into defence abuse and veterans' welfare.

Of course this Liberal government—and I strongly suspect a future Labor government—will fight very hard not to hold a proper public inquiry into the bureaucratic and administrative mess that has become the Department of Veterans' Affairs or shine a light on the wicked crimes committed by rapists and criminals in the Defence Force—some of whom are still serving in senior ranks—who have preyed upon the weak and the voiceless. Those crimes were covered up or turned a blind eye to by those in the highest leadership positions in Australia, including our federal Governor-General and the New South Wales state Governor-General. Volume 2 of the DLA Piper review mentions the existence of 33 top secret books containing the worst sexual assaults, abuse and crimes in our military history that prove former Chiefs of Defence Cosgrove and Hurley 'did nothing to bring justice to the hundreds of Australian Defence Force victims of gross abuse and sexual assaults'.

It is interesting to note that should a royal commission by some miracle be established into defence abuse and veterans' welfare, two of our Governor-Generals would most likely be key witnesses. Indeed under our laws, in order to establish a royal commission, our highest government representative would have to give official approval to an investigation where he and a fellow state Governor-General would most likely be a key witness. And not only him, but many serving and former senior members of the Australian Defence Force would also likely be called to give evidence, so it is no wonder that the recommendations from the Defence Abuse Taskforce—once again from a former senior military man; not an independent party with no conflict of interest—are, surprise, surprise, against the establishment of a royal commission into defence abuse. My question to all those former senior ADF commanders who are actively working to stop a proper investigation into crimes, which happened on their watch and were clearly covered up from public and parliamentary scrutiny, is this: what do you have to hide?

I now turn to this government's Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015, especially schedule 2. A letter I recently sent to the minister neatly summarises the situation. I stated to Senator Ronaldson:

Dear Senator Ronaldson,

I am writing in regards to the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015 that is scheduled for the Senate Program on 7 September 2015.

This legislation, in particular Schedule 2, strips veterans of appeal rights and gives DVA more power to frustrate and deny claims without independent review of their decisions. This results in a single and inferior pathway for appeals (through the VRB only) and replaces the current arrangement, which provides an injured veteran with dual pathways. The current pathway, which this legislation will abolish, may not be ideal, but it is better than the VRB process. This Bill removes any ability for veterans to seek independent help during the veterans' compensation review process.

   …   …   …

Listed below are responses we have received in relation to this proposed legislation pointing out numerous areas of concern.

Slater and Gordon Lawyers

•   "To insert Schedule 2 will have severe and a profound impact on the rights of our Veteran's and ex vets. Schedule 2 should be opposed. It is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt by this government to keep all decision making in house and avoid independent review. The waffle about access to legal aid is sugar coating a bad piece of legislation. We think the claim about legal aid is a smokescreen as lawyers cannot appear in the VRB so what is the—

bloody—

point. Whilst they may recover something from legal aid (if they are eligible—

that is if they are eligible—

legal aid is means tested, and no lawyers with skills and relevant experience will be able to afford to do the work at rates paid by legal aid.

With the means testing it is unlikely people who are currently earning a wage will qualify for any legal aid. This will leave veteran's spending thousands of dollars on legal representatives which they will not recover even if they are successful in their Appeal.

Even if they are successful at their appeal, they will not be able to recover their own money back to fight.

If the government wants a single path of appeal then it should abolish the VRB and create one new, fair process, not expand a process that doesn't work.

And it clearly does not work.

The SOP's used are far more restrictive so less liability claims will be accepted. More claims will be denied and the VRB after … years will re-affirm DVA decisions. Then clients will have the unqualified RSL advocates that DVA fund and train to represent them. Caesar judging Caesar once more.

A $2.2 million saving is ludicrous for the adverse impact it will have on the rights of service personnel.

And I will not put a price on a life.

If the veteran gets a refusal from the VRB and wishes to appeal, it appears they may be able to apply for legal aid but it's a token amount that few will be helped by unless they are eligible because they have nothing left. On the other hand DVA have seemingly endless resources to pay lawyers to help then deny the veteran compensation."

KCI Lawyers

The current two (2) pathways to appeal i.e. internal review and VRB means that only those who go through an internal review and then to the administrative appeals tribunal—AAT can have their legal costs reimbursed i.e. the Veteran can have most of their legal costs paid, barristers can undertake cases on a contingency basis, Veterans can have the cost of medical reports they may have paid for reimbursed to them.

However if, as proposed by Government and DVA, the Veteran can only go through the VRB and is dissatisfied with the decisions are not eligible to have their legal costs reimbursed although they are eligible for a grant of legal aid which is substantially limited i.e. approximately $1,500.00 for the lawyers to prepare their case and for a barrister to prepare and attend a hearing.

And that is without any of the fightback from obtaining doctors' certificates, medical certificates and specialists' certificates which add up, at any one time, to about 3,000 bucks a pop.

I attach my advice paper for those Veterans who face the appeal path option and implications of going to the VRB as opposed to the internal review option. The delay to have the case heard by the VRB is The VRB will take up to 418 days to hear an appeal as opposed to the internal review that will take … up to 127 days to consider the reasons for reconsideration.

And obviously, as they have been stipulating from the other side, if you have a look at the military compensation arrangements, volume 2, DVA, February 2011, chapter 17.35.

DVA propose to limit all appeals to go only to the VRB which has serious consequences for Veterans and their ability to review decisions to the AAT as we, as lawyers generally will not be able to act on a contingency basis and Veterans will need to pay for the whole appeal—

and process—

win lose or draw.

DVA will undoubtedly continue to use the panel firms and reward them handsomely against Veterans who will largely be represented by ESO—

external service organisation—

advocates i.e. non lawyers notwithstanding the complexity of the legislation on the legal process.

Considering that we have four acts that we cannot deal with and that the veterans' affairs minister does not even know about—because he has no idea of the legislation that is contained in them because he is too busy running around having cups of tea and scones out there promoting the Anzac centenary, where he will go and spend $750 million in the forward estimates and says, 'Stuff $2 million to the veterans; we'll just cut down a pathway.' Shame!

Of significant benefit to DVA through this process will be less scrutiny by DVA have to decisions made by the AAT and in particular appeals that would go on to the Federal court and full Federal Court of which there have been many by the law firms such as my own and others. Without appeals, lawyers cannot push the boundary of DVA's interpretation of the Acts and essentially their "policies" and what I have deemed DVA's "LORE" as opposed to how to apply or interpret the "LAW".

This is a serious issue and one that the Senate Committee respectfully needs to address and have Veterans' Affairs explain how Veterans will be able to have access to the appeal process when DVA knows that the number of appeals, the quality of representation in the appeal process, the delays and the opportunity for Veterans to get legal representatives to take matters on further appeal to the AAT and Federal court will be substantially limited by their proposal to funnel everything to the VRB's

Please be advised I will not be supporting this Bill and will ensure the public, cross-benchers, Greens and Labor are made aware of the above points so that this Legislation can be seen in its true light - unfair.

Simply—it is bloody unfair and it is ripping the veterans off again—

Yours sincerely,

Jacqui Lambie.

It is clear, after reading independent feedback from veterans' affairs legal specialist lawyers Slater and Gordon that the alarm bells have rung. I will not go into mentioning the ex-service organisations who have been crying down my throat all weekend to stop this legislation from going through. They are absolutely disgusted.

Of course, had the minister gone out and done a reasonable consultation and bothered to speak to the ex-service service organisations, he would have received the same feedback that I have. It is not on, and it is not fair! Once again, they are ripping the heart and soul out of veterans.

Additional feedback in a media release from lawyer Brian Briggs, who recently gave a submission to the Senate committee examining the mental health of our diggers and veterans, says that the misleading and ill-conceived amendment in the bill before the Senate will strip vulnerable injured veterans and blow-out appeals against the Department of Veterans' Affairs refusals by up to two years. I believe he is actually being kind by the 'two years'. I would put it more at three years.

Slater and Gordon military compensation lawyer, Brian Briggs said that the Machiavellian amendment was hidden between two innocuous schedules in the Veterans Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015, and said, 'On behalf of injured veterans I am calling on all parties in the Senate to stop this inhumane removal of rights.'

He said that the schedule 2 amendment in the bill is deeply concerning as it strips the right to a fair process for appealing decisions by the Veterans' Affairs when they deny eligibility for support or compensation for injured veterans. At a time when the Senate is holding an inquiry into the mental health of veterans and Australian Defence Force personnel, the very thought that the Senate would consider passing this legislation, that will deny veterans health and cause them further trauma and suffering, is abhorrent.

Veterans already appearing before the inquiry have already described how delays, unfair decisions and the appeals process left them at rock bottom—it let them down and added to their trauma. It added to their trauma! Some have even described how friends and colleagues have taken their own lives as a result, and God knows how many have attempted to take their own lives. I can assure you that there are thousands of them. The bill will add up to two years to the DVA appeal process, and that means an extra two years that veterans in dire need will go without help. I wish them the best of luck surviving that—I really do.

Mr Briggs said that the schedule sought to force veterans through the Veterans' Review Board, which would strip them of their right to legal representation and of the right to recover costs when they are successful against the Department of Veterans' Affairs. He said that it means veterans will not be able to appeal the decision unless they are deemed to qualify for legal aid, or are able and have the funds to pay for it themselves, win, lose or draw.

This is about veterans not having the money for the medical and psychiatric treatment and reports that they need, as well as forcing them to battle against the Department of Veterans' Affairs and their bloody crappy lawyers without their own representation. Mr Briggs said that the net result is that the appeal system will become so hard and costly for injured veterans that they will be forced to give up their entitlement to be supported by DVA. I can assure the Senate that in the long run it is going to cost the taxpayer a hell of a lot more money. Trust me, I would know: I have been through the system. Without those dual pathways I would have been screwed. It would have cost me thousands and thousands of dollars and I would have still been down in the ditch. That is where I would be!

Mr Briggs said, 'The government has stated this will produce budget savings of around $2 million, but in fact the windfall for the government's coffers will be far greater because they will not be paying injured veterans the compensation that they are entitled to.' Mr Briggs said: 'This bill, if passed, will strip vulnerable, injured veterans of their rights and make it virtually impossible for them to access the support they are entitled to when they are refused by DVA because of the cost and added delay of challenging poor DVA decisions. These are literally matters of survival versus bankruptcy, life versus death, for the veteran affected. We trust that this bill will not be allowed to pass unless the stripping of the appeal rights is removed from the bill'.

The Liberal government has tried to sneak through the Senate the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015 by labelling it non-controversial when there is obviously plenty of controversy surrounding it. Of course, had the Minister for Veterans' Affairs done his homework, he would know that. Both respected military compensation lawyers essentially agree that this new government legislation, particularly in schedule 2, strips veterans of appeal rights and gives DVA more power to frustrate and deny claims without independent review of its decisions.

I am sick of the cover-ups and I am sick of the lies—and so are the bloody veterans—which are daily coming out of the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the minister's mouth. We have had a gutful. I am sick, too, of hearing about the harm and the suicides of veterans. And I am sick of talking to bloody young veterans who end up living in tents on our streets because of the delays and underpayments of entitlements caused by a dysfunctional, incompetent minister and the Department of bloody Veterans' Affairs. The Prime Minister must act now and sack Senator Ronaldson—I have asked for it in the past and I will continue to ask for it—and put someone in the position who at least actually gives a shit about veterans more and does not worry about overseas junkets.

Senator Colbeck: Mr Acting Deputy President, I understand—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Back ): Do you have a point of order, Senator Colbeck?

Senator Colbeck: I do have a point of order. It is with regard to parliamentary language. I very much understand Senator Lambie's passion on this issue because, as she knows, I have had considerable interaction with her around it, but I would ask that you perhaps suggest some caution around the way she is using her language because on reflection she may very well regret some adjectives that she has used—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Colbeck. You are debating now. Please come to your point.

Senator Colbeck: particularly in the context of the veterans themselves.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you.

Senator Colbeck: I am trying to assist Senator Lambie here, but some of the adjectives she has used, particularly adjacent to the veterans themselves, I think she may regret on reflection.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you; I note that. Senator Lambie, I ask you if, in your concluding comments, you could bear in mind the language. The point you are making is certainly valid, but I just ask if you would be senatorial in your final comments. Thank you.

Senator LAMBIE: Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I oppose the legislation in schedule 2, and I call on all senators who want to look after our veterans and their families and cause them no more harm to do so themselves.