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Transcript of interview with Steven Austin: ABC Radio Brisbane Drive: 5 July 2019: veterans' affairs; Productivity Commission report on compensation and rehabilitation for veterans

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SUBJECTS: Veterans’ Affairs, Productivity Commission report on compensation and rehabilitation for veterans

STEVE AUSTIN: Shayne Neumann, the ALP Member for Blair here in Queensland. He’s also the Shadow Spokesperson for Veterans’ Affairs. Shayne Neumann, do you support, does Labor support the recommendations made by the Productivity Commission?

SHAYNE NEUMANN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR VETERANS' AFFAIRS AND DEFENCE PERSONNEL: We welcome the report. There are many of those recommendations which we think would make for some good outcomes if the Government picked them up. And I would agree with John, I think the transition, can I just say, from military service to civilian life is absolutely critical, whether it’s employment recognition, qualification acceptance, or indeed identification of mental health and suicidality issues, to get people to the point where they recalibrate themselves into civilian life. John was referring a few minutes ago to the number of people who stay in careers. I mean, the report we’ve seen released yesterday said seven years on average for Navy and Army and ten years of service for the Air Force. So that’s a fairly lengthy period of time in a job. If your listeners would say, I’m going to serve ten years in this role that’s a pretty long stint.

AUSTIN: There have been multiple reviews. Last year the Australian Health and Welfare Association did a report on veterans that highlighted major medical, physical and mental health problems with veterans. Seemed to underpin and echo exactly what this Productivity Commission report has found. Why has so little, I can think of a dozen major issues with veterans that are not being resolved when it comes to returned service men and women. Why is that?

NEUMANN: Well I think you need the political will to do it. I think we need to get on with the job and take action. And this report has some very strong recommendations. It’s findings that the system is complicated, difficult to navigate, inequitable and poorly administered, programs are out of date. All of these things have been identified. So this provides a pathway, I think, in terms of many of the recommendations. And picking up those other reports, that you were alluding to before, to take action now. I think it’s really critical to take urgent national action. I mean, the high number of veteran suicides, for example, is a national shame. It’s a personal tragedy for the families and the individuals concerned. We’ve got to take action now. We owe these individuals a duty of care. We owe their families a duty of care. We’ve got to do everything we can as a community to deal with these issues.

AUSTIN: I understand that when the sad story of young Jesse Bird, who took his life some time back, he was found with DVA paperwork in front of him. In other words, the nightmare of trying to navigate your way once you return. I’ve spoken with many service personnel who’ve told me they’d much prefer fighting an enemy that can kill them than dealing with DVA. They’re quite serious. They’re not being flippant. They’re quite serious about that. The nightmare of having to deal with the department when they return from service, for some of them, has been so overwhelming, leading to a tragic outcome.

NEUMANN: Well that’s true. And in fact some of your listeners would be horrified to know there are three pieces of legislation - the VEA, what’s commonly called the DRCA Act, the MRCA Act. Different eligibility requirements, different claims processes, different appeals processes. Veterans with multiple impairments can have different impairments covered by different Acts. We think, according to the report here, about 30,000 veterans are covered by more than one Act. Imagine the bureaucratic nightmare. “Insurmountable” is what one of the submitters said to the Productivity Commission. Insurmountable obstacles to actually overcome. So I’ve heard that too, whether it be in Perth recently, or Townsville, or in Brisbane. I’ve heard the same story again and again. We need to change the culture in the department. It needs a veteran-centric approach. And I think it’s really critical we take steps now.

AUSTIN: At the moment veterans tell me it seems to have a Treasury-centric approach, not a people-centric approach. Can you confirm that?

NEUMANN: Well I think there’s been a culture in the past. Now, the veteran-centric approach that they’re adopting, they say was brought in about 2016. There is some evidence there’s been a decrease in time for claimants to be dealt with. But it’s not enough. It’s not good enough. Any Federal Member of Parliament who deals with their constituents who are veterans will hear the story again and again of the problems with navigating the system, with the

problems of dealing with a culture that wants to decline pretty well straight away their application, initially, and only to find it successful on appeal. If you’re preparing a case for court you don’t want people to feel they’re in a trial by litigation situation. These are people who need to be assisted with advocates all the way through the process. And we need to think about how we can help them and provide the support they need to navigate the process and do it in a more expeditious and, can I just say, kind way, as well.

AUSTIN: 24 past 5. This is ABC Radio Brisbane. We’re talking about the report released yesterday by the Productivity Commission that’s been absolutely scathing of the Federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs that deals with the men and women who serve their country and then find they have an enemy back home that they didn’t expect. Shayne Neumann is my guest. He’s the ALP Member for Blair here in Queensland. He’s also the Shadow Spokesperson for Veterans’ Affairs. The veteran clawback issue is still an ongoing fight trying, where veterans are trying to the get the Commonwealth superannuation fund,Comsuper, to adhere to their own Act in the disability versus pension entitlements issue of veterans. Doesn’t seem to have really been dealt with by this. But are you aware of that fight? What are you doing about this veteran clawback issue?

NEUMANN: There is a review in relation to the whole issue of commutation of superannuation that’s being undertaken by the Government at the moment. It’d be good if it was out as soon as possible and completed as soon as possible. This particular report doesn’t deal with this directly and fully. This is more, I think, can I just say, a whole-of-government governance approach, and a looking at how the Department operates and how it interfaces with veterans generally, rather than a look at historically what might have happened and what veterans believe has happened in relation to their commutation and superannuation.

AUSTIN: So is there any mood, I mean it would need something like cross-party support on something like this, on fixing this up. Otherwise, it’s going to be more of the same for veterans and it’s going to be more suicides, more family tragedies. Spouses. When you talk to spouses they just about burst into tears about this stuff, about the hell it creates in their life. You know, they’re worried about their loved one when they’re overseas on duty. And they burst into tears when their loved one comes back home because it gets worse dealing with the system. There has to be some culture or sentiment in Canberra, look this is a massive problem but we have to tackle it.

NEUMANN: Yes. In Question Time yesterday, Steve, I got up and associated the Labor Opposition with the comments made by the Minister in relation to tackling these issues, offering bipartisan support. We, of course, are an Opposition and we will offer constructive advice and criticism. But we will offer

as much bipartisan support as you could possibly imagine. These are serious, serious issues and we take our responsibility to offer bipartisan support very seriously as well. The other point I was going to make in relation to that was the families you mentioned and their support. Labor took to the last election a policy that we would have a family engagement and support strategy developed. That’s something that’s missing and I think it’s needed. The Government has picked up Labor’s position in relation to veterans’ recovery centres. We’ve got more and more young veterans coming back from peacekeeping, on the frontline, experiencing horrors unimaginable to the average Australian, and support for their families that experience it. They see it all the time. So we need to think about how we engage with families better and we need to think about the fact that our veterans are now becoming younger because they’re being engaged in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, the Solomons, East Timor. And this is a fairly new thing that we haven’t had for the last few decades because of the most recent, ongoing and recurrent and frequent forms of war and warlike service that Australia’s been engaged in.

AUSTIN: Thanks for your time.

NEUMANN: Good to be with you.

AUSTIN: Shayne Neumann is the ALP Member for Blair here in Queensland. He’s the Shadow Spokesperson for Veterans’ Affairs.