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Monday, 7 September 2015
Page: 6044

Senator RONALDSON (VictoriaMinister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC and Special Minister of State) (12:16): I move:

At the end of the motion, add "and that :

(a) that Schedule 2 of the bill be referred to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 25 September 2015; and

(b) further consideration of the bill be an order of the day for the first sitting day after the Committee presents its report on Schedule 2".

I am completely at a loss as to how we have got to this position today. I do not understand how the Australian Labor Party, who have supported this matter for three years, have had their supposed political masters, by the looks of it, Slater and Gordon, come in at the eleventh hour in relation to this matter. Mr Feeney has supported this bill all the way through. Mr Feeney was still supporting this bill on 6 September. Yet, today, we have had the shadow minister putting forward an amendment. Hopefully this amendment of mine will avoid the Senate having to vote on his. Mr Feeney was going to take schedule 2 out of this bill altogether. It would have required the parliament to again legislate. The bill would have had to go off to committee and, depending on what the committee said, it would then have had to come back through by way of further legislation.

I am afraid that at base today is about those who are here to protect the rights of veterans and those who are here to protect the rights of lawyers. What the Australian Labor Party have done today is make quite clear that they want to protect lawyers before they protect veterans.

Senator Lambie, for all that she says she cares for veterans, has again chosen the path of supporting lawyers over veterans. I do not care what Senator Lambie says about me personally. It is water off a duck's back. After 22 years in politics, there is not much of my back that is not covered in scar tissue. But I will say to Senator Lambie that her disgusting behaviour in relation to her description of the staff of the Department of Veterans' Affairs cannot go without mention. They are a loyal and dedicated group of men and women. I am, quite frankly, proud to be their minister. Senator Lambie has not come to me with one constructive thought since she was first elected. Had she done so, it would have been given appropriate consideration. You can attack but, unless you are saying something proactive, you will be judged accordingly.

I will just go back to the words of Warren Snowdon, who was the appropriate minister, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, when this whole issue was looked at in what was eventually known as the Campbell review. This is what Warren Snowdon said when this bill was being debated in the other place. He said:

Schedule 2 of the bill will streamline the appeals process into a single pathway for reconsideration or review of an original determination under chapter 8 of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. This amendment has the support of ex-service organisations and I commend the government for putting it in. What it will do is change the appeal process to a single path, which will avoid the complexities that claimants currently face relating to different time limits for the submission of appeals, different times taken to determine the review, the choice they make impacting on the entitlements to legal aid and the awarding of costs for appeals that progress to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Graham Perrett from the other place said:

Schedule 2 of the bill concerns itself with the appeals process available for reviews of 'original determinations'. The current review arrangements create two separate pathways. As Hugh Polson says:

The current review processes are not only confusing for veterans, but younger veterans often find themselves falling into the trap of a 'No Win-No Fee' predator.

… The changes to be made to the review process under this bill will streamline the process into a single pathway, and that is a good thing. This part of the amendment has the full support of the ex-service organisations.

Mr Feeney said again in the other place on 20 August:

… Labor will support this bill because it does represent a modest improvement to entitlements of, and services to, veterans. I commend this bill to the House.

Then again on 6 September, Mr Feeney is quoted as saying that

…he believed the amendment would actually speed up the appeals process.

He said the review process began under Labor back in 2007 and to date no one had made any strong arguments against the changes.

"It makes sense to have a single appeal pathway via the Veterans Review Board"…

He said there could be further reviews of the system down the track to look at the length of time appeals were taking.

"That is not a reason not to do something constructive now."

This matter has been discussed with the ex-service organisations for in excess of two and a half years. Mr Bayles from the department and others have been speaking to ex-service organisations over that period of time. They were briefed about this matter on budget night, when they were told it would be introduced sometime this year.

This has the full support of the ex-service organisations. And yet Slater and Gordon, three days out from this being debated, suddenly impose themselves on the Australian Labor Party and influence them in a manner that I have not seen exhibited in nearly 22 years in public life. At the eleventh hour we have Mr Feeney, who not only was talking about referring this off to a committee but actually wanted this chamber to vote against these particular measures so it might be reviewed and have to come back again. I suspect that the words of Paul Copeland from the APPVA are true. He said this in an email to another veteran yesterday: 'The choice to have a reconsideration of appeals pathways lengthening is normally rejected. Therefore the next step is the AAT. They are streamlining the appeal process as VRB then AAT—a fairer system. The lawyers are just spewing because they cannot represent us at the VRB. Some have been known to deliberately provide irrelevant evidence at the reconsideration phase so they can just go to the AAT and get the money.' His email goes on: 'The pathway's exactly the same as the VEA, which has been time tested. With a competent advocate there should be no need to see the Federal Court of Australia and no need to pay out for lawyers. The only thing that is being stripped here is the lawyers' opportunistic use of the reconsideration pathway.' That is from an ex-service organisation who have made it quite clear what should happen.

This schedule enables an appeal process that is threefold—not twofold, as is the current system. The introduction of the single appeal pathway for appeals under MRCA was an accepted recommendation—17.1 from the 2011 Review of Military Compensation Arrangements, known as the MRCA. The MRCA report described the single pathway through the VRB as a means of a more timely review that is less complex and less costly. As I said before, the MRCA single appeal pathway through the VRB has the unanimous support of the ex-service community.

The suggestion by Slater and Gordon, lawyers, that the VRB is not independent of the government and the department is absolutely and emphatically rejected. The VRB is headed by a panel of three members, one of whom at least has to be a former member of the ADF. New evidence which was not considered during the primary claims process can be presented at the VRB during the hearing. The Department of Veterans' Affairs is not represented at this hearing. It is a completely independent tribunal. The bill also provides for a discretionary internal review mechanism similar to section 31 of the Veterans Entitlement Act as a first step in the review process. This was also recommended by the RMCA. In July 2014 this parliament passed legislation which enhanced the powers of the VRB to improve its case management, including powers for the VRB to use alternative dispute resolution methods, such as case conferencing. This again was another recommendation from the MRCA. Indeed, from 1 January, the VRB has been conducting a 12-month trial of ADR case conferencing in its New South Wales registry with a view to possible further rollouts, if successful. Indicative outcomes are very positive that ADR can reduce the need for many appeals to go to a VRB hearing.

This is an extraordinary process that we are going through today. How a political party and how an independent senator can do what they have done today and pretend to represent the best interests of veterans is beyond me. What we have seen today is a disgraceful case of some in this Senate supporting lawyers before they support veterans. The veteran community knows full well that the VEA appeals path has worked well. It has stood the test of time, and that is why the Campbell review recommended that we go down the single appeal pathway—to bring the MRCA pathway in line with the VEA, to make it less complex, to make it less costly, to try to get an early resolution of these matters without the need to be in the AAT. But what do Senator Lambie and the Australian Labor Party do? They want to keep a costly process in place and they want to keep a complex process in place, all for the benefit of lawyers who want the ability, as Mr Copeland said, to get some action in this. Well, I am terribly sorry but I do not support lawyers being put before veterans.

As I said, this was an accepted recommendation under the RMCA outcome. It has had extensive consultation over two or three years. I believe this bill should have gone through today. It was going through today until last Thursday or Friday when Slater and Gordon became involved. It should have gone through as noncontroversial legislation. It should have been put in place now to assist the veteran community—not just this part of the bill, schedule 2, but every other part of it. We now have to wait another month before we can start the reinterment process for those men in Terendak. We now have to wait another month for the appeal process to go through. We now have to wait another month for the changes to the rehabilitation—

Senator McLucas: Do it our way.

Senator RONALDSON: I will take the interjection from the other side. How you can possibly seek to justify your behaviour today is beyond me. Have you actually read the amendment which would take schedule 2 out of this bill? Clearly not, otherwise you would not have interfered with such an ignorant comment. You have absolutely buckled to Slater and Gordon. You were prepared to take schedule 2 out of this legislation and for that you stand utterly condemned. The veteran community will be listening to this, they will see the transcripts and they will know what you have done today. They will know what Senator Lambie has said and done today. If you do not believe me, speak to the people who represent the veterans in this nation and speak to the ex-service community. You do not seriously think we would be going down this single-appeal pathway without the complete and utter and passionate support of the ex-service organisations, do you? I can assure you, parliamentary secretary, that we would not have done so.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Bernardi ): Your comments should be addressed through the chair, Senator Ronaldson.

Senator RONALDSON: Through you, Acting Deputy President, do you think that former Minister Snowdon would have been such an enthusiastic supporter of this schedule if he had not consulted with the ex-service organisation? Of course not, and it beggars belief to think anything else. But we have heard Mr Perrett in the other place and we have heard Mr Snowdon in the other place, and the shadow minister himself—who has constantly supported every aspect of this bill—gets a phone call from Slater and Gordon three days out and all of a sudden the world has changed, it is a different world. I challenge Senator Feeney and I challenge Senator Lambie to vote for this matter in its entirety when it comes back—vote to take a complex and costly system out, to support those younger veterans that Mr Perrett in the other place referred to, and to make this a non-adversarial process as the VEA has always been. If you want to choose adversarial over non-adversarial, that is entirely your choice. That is not what the veterans' community want; they want the VEA single pathway process because it has worked and they want it because it is good for veterans—it is less costly, less complex and less imposing on them. We have gone down this path because we believe the ex-service community is right. That you have gone down this path through the Australian Labor Party is a reflection on you.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: The question is that the government's amendment on sheet 7755, referring schedule 2 to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee and deferring further consideration of the bill until after the committee presents its report, be agreed to.

Question agreed to.

Original question, as amended, agreed to.

Bill read a second time.