Wednesday, 25 October 2017
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I am sure that it is no news to anyone in this place how passionate I am about veterans, ex-service personnel and current and serving ADF members and their families. When I consider any piece of legislation that comes before this parliament, I always consider not only how it will impact on our community in general but also how it will impact on Townsville's strong defence population. I have, and always will, support necessary legislative changes that will improve the lives of Townsville's veterans, ex-service personnel and their families. This bill, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017, is a fine example of bipartisanship.
It is very important that all legislation is inclusive of all citizens in the community. For example, health legislation and education legislation needs to reflect an understanding of the uniqueness of the veteran community, to ensure that we do not enact legislation that has a negative impact. Our veterans, ex-service personnel and families have given selflessly of themselves to ensure that we enjoy the freedom that we have in this country today. For that, we owe them access to the services and supports that they require.
One of the most common issues regularly raised with me by the Townsville veteran community is the need to improve the processes of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The changes in this bill will clarify, improve and/or streamline the implementation of the law and processes within the department. Thorough examination of this bill has occurred in the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to ensure that changes are implemented as intended and that veterans are no worse off as a result of enacting these measures.
Schedule 1 seeks to amend the provisions under which the Veterans' Review Board operates by aligning certain provisions with similar provisions to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The Veterans' Review Board is a statutory authority whose role it is to provide independent merits review of decisions about disability pensions, war widow and war widower pensions and attendant allowances under the Veterans' Entitlements Act, and rehabilitation, compensation and other benefits under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004.
The amendments in schedule 1 will modernise and improve the operations of the board to ensure the board is carrying out its functions. It will pursue the objective of providing a mechanism of review that is accessible, fair, just, economical, informal and quick and is proportionate to the importance and complexity of the matter and promotes public trust and confidence in the decision-making of the board. It will impose an ongoing obligation on both the claimant and the Department of Veterans' Affairs during the period until the board has determined the matter to lodge with the board a copy of any document that is in their possession, is relevant to the review and has not been lodged previously. It will provide the board with the power to vary or revoke a decision made under the alternative dispute resolution processes with the consent of the parties and where the board is satisfied that it is within its powers and otherwise appropriate to do so. It will require the Repatriation Commission and anyone representing the commission in a review to use their best endeavours to insist that the board fulfil their legislative objectives and will provide the principal member with the power to dismiss an application for review of a decision if they are satisfied that the application is frivolous, vexatious, misconceived, lacking in substance, without reasonable prospect of success or otherwise an abuse of process. The government has advised that these amendments will align with the board's objectives and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal objectives.
This final element of the schedule, which gives the principal member of the Veterans' Review Board the ability to dismiss an application for review, has caused some angst in the ex-service community. The Veterans' Review Board is designed to be a less adversarial process than the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and does allow veterans to be represented by lawyers at this stage. This is the veterans' opportunity to be heard, and Labor holds concerns about the insertion of these provisions. In addition, during the FADT committee process the principal member advised that there have been only three circumstances in the past seven years where he or she would have used this power. We understand that, following the Labor opposition urging the government, they are now moving an amendment which removes this section. We welcome this change, which recognises the unique nature of the Veterans' Review Board.
Schedule 2 simplifies the appointment process for individuals on the Specialist Medical Review Council, progresses whole-of-government requirements for digital transformation, removes red tape in commencing reviews and provides for reimbursement of certain travel expenses. The Specialist Medical Review Council is an independent statutory body that reviews the contents of statements of principles or a decision of the Repatriation Medical Authority not to issue such a statement.
Essentially, the process is as follows: if someone believes there is an issue with an SOP, they take it to the SMRC for review. The SMRC then appoints a panel to review the SOP. If the SMRC agrees there is an issue, it is then turned over to the RMA for review. The SMRC consists of medical practitioners and medical scientists appointed as councillors by the minister and selected by the convenor of the SMRC for a particular review, involving three to five members on the basis of their expertise in the injury or disease relevant to the SOP subject of review. Under current arrangements, the minister must select members for the panel from a list or lists of nominations submitted by colleges or other bodies of medical practitioners or scientists. In practice, colleges forward the names of candidates who have responded to advertisements but do not assess or recommend candidates. In making appointments, the minister must have regard to the branches of science where expertise is necessary to decide review matters and must appoint not less than two councillors with experience in each branch.
Given these requirements, the process of appointing members takes around three months or longer. This affects the SMRC's ability to perform its functions. We have been advised that these amendments will not change the threshold for the specialists who are appointed to the panel. The amendments focus on streamlining the process of appointing specialists to the SMRC, which in its current form is described as labour intensive. In addition, these amendments provide financial incentives for individuals, representatives of organisations and any necessary attendants accompanying those individuals or representatives attending the SMRC hearing to make an oral submission.
Schedule 2 will also make several amendments which enable the convenor of the SMRC to give written directions about the manner for lodging requests for review for applications, enabling the SMRC to adopt electronic lodgements of requests for reviews rather than requiring a hard copy form as required by the VEA.
Schedule 3 relates to international agreements and gives the Minister for Veterans' Affairs the power to make agreements with foreign governments to cover the provision of benefits and payments under the MRCA, SRCA and DRCA. As it stands, existing agreements concern only those payments which are payable under the VEA. The new section will now cover allied veterans and Defence Force members with service of the type for which benefits and payments, including rehabilitation, can be provided by the Repatriation Commission or the MRCC under the VEA, MRCA, SRCA, DRCA or the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act 2006. It is so important that all veterans are covered, and I support extending agreements to cover all veterans' affairs legislation to ensure that veterans are covered under the relevant legislative framework, whether that is the VEA, the SRCA, the DRCA or the MRCA.
Schedule 4 legislates the Employer Incentive Scheme payments. These payments are made to employers in the form of wage subsidies to encourage them to engage injured veterans who have found it difficult to compete in a tight labour market. While the department has been able to facilitate these payments, this will strengthen the legislative foundation of the payments. One of the concerns I hear, especially from young veterans, is about the issue of employment. Work is so very important for people to feel they are contributing. Having a job is a reason to get out of bed. That is why I am completely committed to supporting measures that will assist veterans to move into and retain employment.
Schedule 5 amends the MRCA and the SRCA/DRCA to facilitate information sharing between the Military Rehabilitation Compensation Commission and the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation with regard to certain service-related compensation claims. As it stands, due to information-sharing provisions, if someone is medically discharged, they undergo a medical. When they go to the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation to organise payments, they undergo a second medical. And when they go to the DVA for assistance, they undergo a third medical. These amendments seek to enable information sharing between the CSC and the DVA, reducing some of the rework.
These amendments are designed to enable the CSC to access relevant claims information held by DVA, where that access would assist the CSC in the performance of its functions and powers. Access to the department's claims information, particularly to relevant medical and rehabilitation information, would assist CSC to make speedier superannuation benefit assessments, which, in turn, would assist the department to determine a person's entitlement to incapacity payments. A common complaint from veterans and advocates relates to the complicated and lengthy claims process for people seeking assistance from the department. I want to make this point very clear: there must be adequate safeguards in place to ensure that veterans' privacy is protected regarding any changes in this legislation.
Schedule 6 seeks to amend the MRCA to provide the Minister for Veterans' Affairs with the power to delegate his or her powers and functions to members of the MRCC, employees of the department, or persons engaged or appointed under the Public Service Act 1999. This function already exists under the VEA but was overlooked during the development of the MRCA. It makes sense that they be the same.
Schedule 7 will amend the legislation to exempt certain legislative instruments from subsection 14(2) of the Legislation Act 2003, and enable these legislative instruments to incorporate material contained in other non-disallowable legislative instruments or other non-legislative writings as are in force from time to time. The current requirement to amend Veterans' Affairs portfolio legislative instruments to incorporate changes in non-disallowable instruments causes significant administrative issues for the department. These changes will essentially allow material to be updated with new reference information without lodging each individual instrument into the parliament. The current process can cause administrative issues and unnecessary delays. An example of this can be seen in relation to the availability of a new rehabilitation appliance. The availability of new equipment will be delayed as the legislative instrument—in this case, the treatment principles that incorporate the document that the applicant may be provided—would need to be amended to refer to the changed date of the policy document. The amendments in schedule 7 will improve the administration of the acts, but not have any impact on the provision of benefits under the acts.
Schedule 8 will repeal redundant and spent provisions administered in the Veterans' Affairs portfolio concerning benefits that are no longer payable under portfolio acts. This schedule will remove references to payments which are no longer able to be accessed by individuals, in order to simplify veterans legislation and make it more accessible for individuals wishing to interpret the current provisions. The proposed amendment seeks to remove the following: the clean energy advance during a period before July 2012; parts providing for a one-off payment to older Australians in 2006, 2007 and 2008; the economic security strategy payment from 2008; and the educational tax refund payment in 2012.
In some circumstances, a person may be found to have been eligible for one of the payments because of a retrospective assessment of pension. Following the repeal, such a person will retain eligibility to receive the payment on the basis that they were eligible for the underlying payment during the relevant period that the repealed legislation was still in force. I am with Labor that we hold concerns about enabling the principal member of the VRB to dismiss claims and have yet to be convinced of the necessity of these provisions. Overall, though, I am supportive of any changes that streamline processes in the department that will assist our veterans and make processes a lot easier for them and less stressful for their families.