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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
06/02/2017
Suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel

QUINN, Mr Michael Joseph, Advocate (Level 4), Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans Association

THOMPSON, Mr Roderic John, Advocate (Level 4), Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans Association

[14:07]

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans Association. Would either of you like to make a brief opening statement?

Mr Thompson : I would like to note that, as well as practising with the Peacekeepers, I am part of the royal commission working group and another organisations.

Mr Quinn : I would like to start with an opening statement. Originally we were coming down here representing the Peacekeepers but, due to allegations and restrictions that have been put on us from the department, we have had to step aside from the Peacekeepers Association and self-fund to actually get here. We intended on continuing through and doing this, because we feel like it is an absolute effort from the department to crush the veterans from being represented.

We do have sitting, and I do not know whether the—

CHAIR: I did not understand any of that. If you have not made a submission, you need to address the terms—

Mr Quinn : Yes, I have made a submission, sir.

CHAIR: of the inquiry.

Mr Quinn : Yes, I have, sir.

CHAIR: I am not sure about the department 'crushing'. You are here. You have a job—an opportunity to address the terms of reference to this committee.

Mr Quinn : I do have a submission, as a veteran advocate. It is written by Michael Quinn.

Mr Thompson : It is listed on the appearance, Senator.

CHAIR: Can we have a short opening statement in relation to the terms of reference?

Senator LAMBIE: With all due respect, Chair, I think the terms of reference were all other-related matters. I think this is why these guys have come in here now.

Mr Thompson : We have put a submission in. I myself put a detailed submission together. Mr Quinn and I have been a driving force in raising awareness of the issues that you have heard over probably the last—

CHAIR: Your opportunity now is to give a short opening statement before we go to questions.

Mr Thompson : That is what I am attempting to do. As we say in our submissions, as you will see—obviously you will have questions arising from those—there are some significant problems. We are level 4 advocates. We are operating at the administrative appeals level down, representing veterans coming across the issues we have just seen the Repatriation Medical Authority bring up on SOPs and many other issues. Both Michael Quinn and I are quite successful at the AAT level. We have tried to raise these issues with the department time and time again over many years, and the department have not wished to engage with us and discuss the issues we have brought forward, which are related directly to veterans' suicide, which we are here today to discuss. Probably one of the greatest issues we have is departmental policy and the fact that the department sees the fiscal bottom line as more important than the lives of veterans. That is my opening statement.

Also, if you read the recent media in the Herald Sun in Melbourne, and across the country, there was an issue with a commando, WFLT. Well, WFLT is here today, if senators wish to ask him any questions about his experiences. Michael and I were the advocates that spent six days in the AAT over three years trying to get this man his compensation. This sort of process is pretty damn typical of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. This case involved a significant amount of money, and we know the department was going after it to win at all costs. It did not matter that this veteran was being psychologically damaged. It did not matter that his family was under pressure, that his relationships broke down.

I also have a lady in the gallery here whose now estranged husband has basically been bullied from pillar to post by the department. There are six children. He has had a number of suicide attempts. The department do not want to engage with this man. They have forced him to withdraw claims. There are some significant issues going on. The department needs to be honest—seeing they are appearing after us, hopefully they will be—and transparent and stand up in front of you guys and tell us how they are going to fix these problems.

Mr Quinn : Time taken on process is killing our veterans. An example of this is that it took from 2012 through to 2017 to resolve an issue which, as advocates, we believed we were going to win right from the start. Multiple suicide attempts: requests to the department to follow the model litigant rules to stop further suicide attempts were completely ignored. The whole process our veterans are going through is an absolute farce. If a veteran is going through the legal system of the Department of Veterans' Affairs their file goes off to the legal system. Anything to do with rehabilitation or anything else that is going on stops. They only have one paper based file. I cannot even photocopy it. When that stops, the veteran stops all rehabilitation which is going to be planned. It falls back onto the veteran community, through his welfare and assistance, to work through that period of time until we resolve it at the AAT. We become counsellors, we become overwatch for their suicides, we provide them with financial assistance to get them all the way through this process and then we tag them at the end of the process and try to rebuild an absolutely broken man, who has been broken by the system. That is where DVA comes into harming the veterans. They will not listen to the advocates. When these problems are happening, they will not listen.

Craig Orme, rather than actually embracing us, has said, 'No, you can't practice anymore.' He has told five advocates—high-success advocates around Australia—'No, you can't practice anymore.' He did not use those words. He used words like: 'You cannot send us a letter, you cannot do this, you cannot email us. If you email us you can only send one email a week.' I was closed down—and, again, this is the department causing suicides. I was stopped from practising. I have got one email I can send a week, and that is going to be answered, according to Mr Craig Orme.

I sent an email in there to say, 'I have numerous cases open at the moment. I have numerous veterans who are quite likely suicidal. Can you notify these veterans at the primary level and at the VRB that I can no longer practice due to the constraints that have been put on me—and in my case I take on some quite heavy PTSD cases and high suicide risk cases. Can you advise these people that they may need some counselling because your advocate has just dropped you like a hot potato at the request of our DVA delegate, Mr Craig Orme.

Mr Thompson : Adding onto that, I have got the woman who is in the gallery here. When I raised concerns after she called me about her husband being suicidal, the delegate I spoke to, who was a senior mid-level manager in the Brisbane office, accused me of emotional blackmail. I have put this guy into hospital twice after suicide attempts. The DVA delegate basically stated that I was using emotional blackmail. These things are very poignant.

I was lucky enough to be in Brisbane for the hearings there and we heard about employment. Dr Khoo and a number of others spoke about how important employment is for veterans. Everyone seemed to jump on that. I see that as very dangerous because, yes, it is important but we have got to fix the process of liability, which is a joke within the department, then we have got to fix the process of permanent impairment to get them ready to go to rehabilitation, to go back to vocational rehabilitation. The rehabilitation system itself, we have presented to the department on about six or seven different occasions that rehab providers are ripping off the system. They are providing the department with reports and billing the department for work that has not been done. Many veterans have never even met their rehab provider. So this whole point about rehab is only as good as the people managing it and, at the moment, it is not very good.

CHAIR: Is that the end of your opening statement?

Mr Quinn : I will continue with the opening statement in regards to incapacity if I can.

CHAIR: I will give you the drum: we have got to 2:30 so if you want to question—

Mr Quinn : I will just need to talk fast. I will continue with incapacity payments. Incapacity payments are processed through the department because none of the government departments will link up and trust DVA to hook into their computer system, which prevents the veteran getting paid incapacity payments. When a veteran is not paid incapacity payments, this affects the whole family. It removes kids from school, does not put food on the table, and this process can last up to four months. So we can have a veteran psychologically affected, the mother has stopped working to be the carer, and DVA slowly trickles through the system. Four months later, after the ex-service community has held the family together, they come through like the shiny knight and turn on the incapacity payments. Time taken to process, lack of care, poor primary decisions are major problems with this department. I have represented thousands of veterans through this system, uncountable VRVs. I heard Doug Humphreys sitting here talking earlier about extra evidence has to be presented before they would overturn a decision. The extra evidence is the evidence that the primary delegate has not got. It was her job to investigate it, to get the evidence, to make sure it was followed through, not to put a veteran into an appeal path which is going to kill him. I think that is the end of our opening statement.

CHAIR: Can you both put on the record how many cases you are currently handling.

Mr Thompson : I have eight current outstanding AAT cases. I have in the vicinity of 30 Veterans' Review Board cases and I probably have got more coming in the door while I am here. I have around about 50 or 60 primary claims in different areas and levels. That would be a conservative estimate. My office, through Queensland, ran almost 400 cases last year.

Mr Quinn : At the moment, I have handed all of my cases back to the department so the only cases I have are AATs at the moment of which I have five, which the departmental lawyers will not meet me with.

Senator LAMBIE: I believe you guys were heavily involved in the article that was in the paper at the weekend. Can you quickly give us, within two minutes, exactly what happened and why it came to the situation it came to.

Mr Quinn : The article that was in the paper over the weekend was classified due to the department, I believe, getting a little bit paranoid about names being put in the papers, mistakes being made and the bastardisation that took place of one of our injured veterans. He was injured in Afghanistan in a helicopter incident and medivaced back to Australia. Then Defence sent him back over to Afghanistan with neck problems.

After his severe PTSD case discharge he had his allowances removed from his pay when consideration was given to his incapacity payments. It was rejected at the primary level and it was rejected at the VRB. However, an outside deal was offered to us to accept another year's worth and walk away. It went to the AAT and it ran for three years. There were two days sat for each of the three years. There was a meeting that took place every month and a half with me. Defence was always giving as the excuse that they would not provide any information. The whole lot was dragged on.

I rang up, complaining about the breaching of model litigant rules and multiple attempts on the veteran's life. I was told by Stuart Maris, who was a contracted lawyer, that he did not matter, 'The case will go where the case will go.' Three years—we are lucky to still have this man in the room.

Senator LAMBIE: And he has now received his payout, because DVA were shown to be wrong—is that correct? What was the decision?

Mr Quinn : The original decision was overturned, and he is receiving his full payment, backdated to 2012.

Mr Thompson : I might say that it has not come through yet.

Mr Quinn : The decision was only made four weeks ago on incapacity payments. I expect it will not be processed for another two months.

CHAIR: So the system works, it is just that you are complaining about the time it takes?

Mr Quinn : This system is not working, sir.

Mr Thompson : If the system takes that amount of time, sir, it is not working.

CHAIR: That is what I am saying: you are complaining about the time it takes. But you have achieved the result that you sought.

Senator LAMBIE: But is it—

Mr Quinn : The wrong decision was made in the first place, sir.

Senator LAMBIE: Yes, that is what I am saying. It is the decision that is made in the first place by the delegates. They are not making the right decisions and it is costing the taxpayer a fortune.

Mr Thompson : This is purely a financial decision—

Senator LAMBIE: You see this—you are in this all day. How many of you guys are left who have the experience that you have had and who have not been run out of the DVA in the past two or three months by the heavy-handedness and aggressiveness at the top of Veterans' Affairs?

Mr Thompson : There are very few level 4 advocates left practising—

Senator LAMBIE: Right.

Mr Thompson : simply because of the complexities of three sets of legislation and the rest of it. Michael and I have probably represented over 60 cases in the last three or four years. We have been quite successful. We probably run at about a 65 to 70 per cent success rate at the AAT. I do not have university or a law degree; I am a high school dropout. If I am winning those cases at the AAT then the primary decision is probably very wrong and it should never have got there.

The department has the processes and the people in place to stand up and say, 'Hey, we were wrong; we can overturn this on an own motion review,' but they refuse to do it. They want to push these veterans all the way to the AAT, and only very few are fortunate enough to get advocates. We do not charge a cent; we are both volunteers. We do this voluntarily and we do not charge a cent; so we are not lawyers. But the emotional cost on the veteran is unbelievable, when you see some of these guys who we have to nursemaid through the system. And there is the fact, as well, that a lot of these people turn around and make threats against the department and the delegates who did them wrong—we spend a lot of time talking them down.

Sometimes I think to myself, 'Well, why do I bother?' But we do that because that is part of what we do. I do not think the department fully understands how many times we have stopped people going in there and taking actions into their own hands. This is very dangerous.

Mr Quinn : At the same time, with regard to that, I have lost count of the attempted suicides. I do have a count on the suicides of those who I have been representing through the department, which is two. However, I have lost count of the attempted suicides; I have lost count of how many veterans I have had to have stay over in my house because they could not front up to a board where it was basically a 'walk in, straight win', because the department had made serious errors at the primary level.

The system is very broken. I would go as far as to say that the system almost appears to me to be completely corrupt.

Mr Thompson : Sometimes it seems like the department is deliberately running this system with three sets of legislation which do not get on with each other and which do not speak with each other. We have veterans who are coming back from overseas with severe injuries or psychological damage, who are then confronted by three legislations—if they are unlucky enough to be under all three legislations—plus ComSuper and an unhelpful department that is only looking at what is best for the department, which is: 'You come back from Afghanistan yesterday; you're under MRCA,' not: 'Oh dear, you went to the Gulf War or you went to Cambodia or Rwanda under the Veterans Entitlement Act, and that may be far more beneficial for you in your current circumstance.' We were told by the minister, when MRCA was brought in, that no veteran would be disadvantaged by the introduction of this legislation. Well I can tell you now that there are literally thousands of veterans who are being disadvantaged because of this legislation and the way the department is interpreting it, and the way the department is forcing veterans under a legislation that is not beneficial.

Mr Quinn : I would like to throw on top of that—

CHAIR: We do have to rotate the questions. One more question, Senator Lambie.

Senator LAMBIE: How does the veterans compensation system compare to those for the public service?

Mr Quinn : We are on a lower standard of compensation for Defence members. We are on the lower treatment basis compared to public servants. We are now going into a system where it is going to be changed over to a new act, which is appropriately named the 'durka'. It would be laughable—

Senator LAMBIE: What does that mean—the 'durka'?

Mr Quinn : That is the nickname. The other one was the 'murka'; this one is the 'durka'. That is what they have called it.

Mr Thompson : The Defence Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

Mr Quinn : It has removed numbers of items, and has been pushed through while this Senate inquiry is going through. I have only just had a quick breeze through this. I am going to sit down with a number of advocates and go into it. Just little keywords are changing, words like 'return to meaningful employment'. The word 'meaningful' has been taken out. This is basically saying a man can sit there and lick stamps. If you return someone to employment regardless, you are taking away his quality of life and his ability to actually function in the community, have a purpose in his life and do whatever he can to raise his life to the best possible standard. That may be walking along with a blind person or having a cup of coffee with someone, because that is what their capability is. It does not mean putting them in a handicapped work environment. That one word, 'meaningful', is enough to ruin that whole legislation, and that legislation is being pushed through whilst this inquiry is going through at the moment. It got pushed through with changes to take away treatment paths once before. Defence had equal treatment paths to those of a public servant. Now, our treatment paths are capped treatment paths provided by a White Card, and the DVA is relying on the generosity of our medical practitioners to make up the gap and to pay the difference from their own practice to cover the medical treatment. That is wrong.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Mr Quinn, I want to clarify some remarks that you made in your opening statement about coming here today. You mentioned that you paid for it yourself and that you had had some contact with the department. Can you put those pieces together for me.

Mr Quinn : I will put this into perspective. I have been stepped down from every position in my association over what are, to the best of my knowledge, false allegations. I was the Victorian president of our association and I was the national vice-president.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Were you stood down by somebody else, or did you make the choice to step down?

Mr Humphreys : I stepped down because if I had stayed in those positions the funding for our advocates to be to represent the veterans would have been removed. I have stepped away gracefully for that purpose, until my name is cleared. The department, again, is taking its time to put this process through of clearing my name. Veterans do not get treated very well when they get arrested. If you get arrested as a veteran, instead of having two police turn up you have seven police turn up. The same happens when you have a warrant done. We are very disadvantaged when it comes to the handling of veterans. That is why veterans will not call CATT teams. That is why they will not call the crisis helpline. We get very heavy-handed treatment; that is why we have a network outside VVCS—because we do not want to see our mates in this sort of mess.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Did you feel as though you were being pressured not to come here today.

Mr Quinn : The phone call came from our national president, after he had spoken to Mr Craig Orme. Mr Orme had asked the national president why Rod and I were representing the peacekeepers here today, and where the funding had come from. To me, I felt that was a veiled threat that if the funding came out of our organisation we would miss out on best funding and not be able to represent the veterans. That is how I took that statement. Rod and I have been fully funded by bank account to be here today.

Mr Thompson : To be honest, I would have sold a kidney to be here today. We feel intimidated. This is the problem: we are lone voices standing up. We are a small organisation. The RSL has a unique, some say unnatural, relationship with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. We have stood up and highlighted constantly these problems. We have taken to social media to do it because the department will not listen to us. They say there is a complaints process. There is not a complaints process; it is a black hole. Normally, you would assume that if a complaint has been lodged that you would then be contacted for further evidence, or, if you had lodged on behalf of someone, you would assume that that person would be contacted. But that is not the way the department deals with complaints. They summarily dismiss them. They will talk to the delegate and ask if they said this or did that. 'Oh, no, of course not.' We all expect that every public servant is as honest as the day is long, which unfortunately is not true. But there is no proper investigation of any of these claims.

In fact, we had an AAT case go through where the department used a forged letter from the Defence Signals Directorate, the DSD. It was identified as a forgery at the AAT and thrown out, but it had an impact on psychological reports that were already written and the veteran's case was lost. We reported this to the department and they engaged Clayton Utz, a law firm synonymous with corporate clean-up, to do a supposedly independent review. I do not know how they got all the information, because the case was under section 35 at the AAT. This is the extent the department goes to when you make a complaint and you probably have a fairly good grounds. They will go to any lengths to cover it up. The complainant is never informed of the outcome of their complaint, and they are very rarely contacted to give any further evidence or to speak, which I think is exceptionally unfair. This is supposedly a complaints process of the department.

We are now using social media, because it is the only time we get an answer from the department, or we go to the Commonwealth Ombudsman. In fact, we have quite a number of complaints and I believe the Commonwealth Ombudsman is pretty stacked up at the moment with complaints about the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Senator LAMBIE: I think it needs to be put on record that when I contact the Department of Veterans' Affairs and I have got the same people—they lose it and they come to me and they are in dire straits. They wait 28 days and on the 28th day they give me an answer. That is what the minister does. That is what we are up against.

CHAIR: Thank you for your appearance here today and for answering our questions.