House debates

Thursday, 28 August 2014


Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading

11:30 am

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to contribute to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2014, although I am a little sad that it has taken us so long to actually get to the finality of where we are today, given that a review of the military compensation arrangements was announced first in April 2009 by my predecessor as the Minister for Veterans' Affairs Mr Griffin. What this bill does is amend the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 to enable the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to retrospectively apply the methodology for calculating permanent impairment compensation claims that have been the subject of claim but have initiated reconsideration by the commission, a review by the Veterans' Review Board and a review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

When the review was announced, it was to be undertaken by a steering committee, which was headed by the then secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Ian Campbell PSM. We initially released the report for further discussion in March 2011, and it was not until the 2012-13 budget that the government's response was made clear. I was privileged enough to be the Minister for Veterans' Affairs at the time, and announced on 8 May 2012 the government's response in the context of the budget for 2012-13. As part of the budget, the government had announced its response to the review of military compensation arrangements by committing $17.4 million to implement 96 of the 108 recommendations of the review. As I pointed out, at the time the majority of these changes were to be implemented from 1 July 2013 and they were to deliver improvements to the then current arrangements for compensation in health care, increased financial compensation for eligible members and families, and improved training for those who provide advice to veteran communities on entitlements.

The main initiatives that were to be introduced included a new method for calculating permanent impairment compensation across multiple acts or transitional claims under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004—otherwise known as the MRCA. All those who had claimed permanent impairment compensation under MRCA and been subject to the method of a permanent impairment across multiple acts, since the act commenced on 1 July 2004, were to be reassessed with the result that many would have been receiving increased compensation. At the time, around 6,000 former ADF members with chronic health conditions accepted under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1998, or SRCA, were subject to a needs assessment showing long-term treatment needs. They were to receive a white repatriation health card for specific conditions and supplementary payment for pharmaceuticals. There was to be earlier access to compensation with claims under permanent impairment compensation under the MRCA for multiple conditions receiving compensation, as each condition stabilised, rather than having to wait for all conditions to be stabilised.

The eligible young person periodic payment under the MRCA was to be increased to match the SRCA equivalent, and compensation payable for financial advice under MRCA to certain beneficiaries who had made a choice about how they wanted to receive their benefits was to be increased. There was to be greater flexibility for future wholly dependent partners in the way they receive compensation, with the option to convert part of the compensation to a lump sum payment.

This was quite a technical inquiry and the review did enormously good work, and I want to commend the reviewers for the work that they did and the recommendations that were made. In addition, at the time, we announced that we would improve processes for the delivery of benefits and services under the MRCA, including: a boost to the educational providers, clients and other representatives to ensure they remain informed about the full range of entitlements available through the Department of Veterans Affairs' for current serving Defence Force members, reservists and their families in the event of injuries or death; better information on rehabilitation transition from the ADF and compensation offsetting; more initiatives to improve the quality and timeliness of claims processing; better pathways to transition from ADF to civilian life; a new model for providing claims representation on complex claims; improved cooperation between Defence and DVA through an extra Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission member nominated by the Minster for Defence; and improved management of the relationship between DVA and Defence.

These were very important recommendations that I know at the time had bipartisan support. They were a way of knitting together more appropriately the entitlements of veterans who are wounded or otherwise injured during their service, and the Department of Defence, because—as the member for Bass, who is going to speak after me, will attest, I am sure—there have been in the past great difficulties in getting assessments done in a timely fashion and payments made in an appropriate way. This is changing and I am very pleased that it is.

Sadly, it was not until 2013 that the bill ultimately received the support it required during the processes of this parliament. I remember at the time having difficulty getting the matter addressed and put on the Notice Papernot in the Reps chamber but in the Senate—and it was important, I think, that ultimately we did achieve this outcome. I did make the point at the time that, during the review, 52 in-scope submissions were received, 12 meetings were held at ADF bases and nine meetings were held with members of the public; and, following the release of the review in March 2011, there was another opportunity for people to comment and a further 43 submissions were received. Ex-service organisations—as you would expect, Mr Deputy Speaker Porter—were also consulted and briefed on the arrangements.

Ultimately, and finally, the bill passed through the parliament, which I am very pleased about. It confirmed the government's allocation of $17.4 million over four years to implement 96 of the 108 recommendations, which included those matters I identified earlier. Sadly, though, as the Bills Digest informs us, when the commission commenced its review of the transitional permanent impairment calculations, in order to apply the new methodology apparently a technical barrier in the existing legislation was detected. This barrier, the digest tells us, had the effect of preventing the retrospective calculation of transitional permanent impairment compensation in certain circumstances. So, now the provisions of this bill will operate so that the commission is able to retrospectively apply the methodology for calculating permanent impairment compensation to claims that have been the subject of claimant-initiated reconsideration by the commission, a review by the board or a review by the AAT. But, finally, we get the legislation through this place in a way which will be able to be properly utilised, with retrospective payments being able to be made.

It is very important—and I have said this on previous occasions when I have had the great privilege to address this chamber—that we do in this country take seriously the needs and concerns of our veteran community and also the needs and concerns of our serving personnel. This is all part of the network of support that we provide for serving personnel and subsequently those who leave the Defence Force and their families when they most require it, and we have a long-term commitment to doing that.

As I have said on many occasions, once a person walks through the gates at Kapooka, they are potentially a client of DVA for the rest of their life. One of the things I was keen to see and am still keen to see is the DVA processes brought right into the recruitment centres, so that people understand they have this support mechanism in place to look after their interests both whilst they are serving and once they leave service. There are many serving personnel who are having their injuries recognised and are being compensated whilst they are in uniform and that is as it should be. We need to make sure that, as people leave the Defence Force, their needs are appropriately addressed and their families in particular are given the support that is required. Because of the nature of this bill, I am not going to politicise the discussion because I was going to talk about other measures which the government has taken which would be detrimental to the veterans community. I am concerned about that, but I will make those comments in another place. I think this bill is too important for that. Thank you.

11:41 am

Photo of Andrew NikolicAndrew Nikolic (Bass, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I associate myself with those latter words of the member for Lingiari, who points out quite reasonably that those who serve our country and are often very well supported within the defence organisation sometimes experience difficulties as they transition from that warm, soft, comfortable bosom of the defence environment to perhaps more bureaucratic processes in trying to get the support they need. I thank the member for Lingiari for those comments.

I also welcome the opportunity to address the House on the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2014, a bill I have a keen interest in. My interest is founded on over 30 years of service in the Australian Regular Army. Today, I wish in particular to speak to a number of themes which are either explicit or implicit to this important legislation. The first is the inherent rightness legislatively, ethically and morally of this policy; the second is to this bill's refined or improved agility and flexibility; and the third pertains to the bill mirroring to some degree equivalent supporting action that is being undertaken by our closest allies and partners in the area of military rehabilitation and compensation. I will speak first about the inherent rightness of this policy.

That this policy is inherently right for our defence community at this time is, in my view, unquestionable. As the House is keenly aware, Australia has recently concluded its longest ever operational conflict including combat operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. As someone who deployed on Australia's first commitment to Afghanistan in late 2001, I never anticipated that it would continue for some 12 years. Many of the veterans that I see today at Anzac Day and at other military commemorative events are increasingly wearing Afghanistan and Iraq campaign medals. Their comments to me attest to the point that I made in my introduction, that as they have left Defence and moved on to the next journey in their lives, they have at times found it difficult making the transition to sometimes bureaucratic structures in the Department of Veterans Affairs and getting the support that they need. This bill is particularly important in that regard.

What perhaps is most unique and also less widely appreciated about the recent engagements that I mention is the restricted professional demography of the combatants. In this war, all of the Australian casualties have been professional soldiers, as distinct from a mix of professionals and short-term conscripts from the wider Australian community. The latter case has been the norm in the majority of our nation's former wars and military engagements. This has meant that the full burden of the recent global war on terror has been borne by a relatively small professional army with nearly all veterans having been engaged in multiple operational tours. Indeed, some special forces soldiers from either the Special Air Service Regiment—in your home state of Western Australia, Mr Deputy Speaker—or the 2nd Commando Regiment have done as many as 10 separate tours. I have a personal connection to these people. My daughter, Captain Julia Nikolic, returned at the end of last year from her own second operational tour of Afghanistan.

In our nation's past wars most Australians knew a combat veteran personally; very often they were related to one. Now, however, very few Australians outside the closed community of the military know a veteran in the same way. Yes, they might support or admire the military institution per se, but this is very far from the same thing. This point about society's changing connection to the wars that Australia is engaged in became even clearer to me yesterday when I attended, in Launceston, the opening of a major exhibition at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, which was opened by our Governor-General, His Excellency Sir Peter Cosgrove. A notable feature of that exhibition was a display along the railing which had a listing of the towns in Tasmania showing those who had left those towns to fight in the Great War and a numerical indicator of those who had not returned—those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice. It brought home to me in a very personal way this point about how closely Australian wars have touched its population over time. This concentration of military demography has acted to isolate, in more recent times, much of Australia's wider community today from the grisly reality of war. Such separation cannot long endure.

As veterans, some of whom are irrevocably damaged by war, re-enter the mainstream civil community, the effects of their experience may emerge slowly and perhaps even tragically over time. Like the elusive commodity which is 'truth', eventually the effects and related effects of combat, particularly close combat, will emerge in some. Inevitably, some in the civil community will also be affected by this in the future. Regrettably, this is not a prediction. It is a practically anticipated reality. All of our close allies are facing or will soon face the same dilemma in the foreseeable future. Of course this amendment bill will in no way counter or avert this. That train has already long left the station. But, it will do much which is positive and constructive to support those who are affected both directly and indirectly. It may aid their recovery or ameliorate some of the effects and ongoing trauma of their incapacitation, mental anguish or trauma. All of this is important and will remain so long into the future. As an aside, this is but another reminder of what war does to people and what we potentially set in place when we decide to place them in harm's way. We, the members of this parliament, share this immense burden of responsibility. My comments reflect both the potential horror of some aspects of military service and the inherent importance and rightness of this legislation as so essential in its wake.

Let me now speak about how this legislation allows us to become more agile and flexible into the future. This legislation will make future Commonwealth policy in the area of military rehabilitation and compensation more agile and flexible. In particular, the following eight separate features or elements of this amendment bill are thought by the coalition to be especially noteworthy and laudable.

First, the adoption of a new methodology implemented from 1 July 2013—as the previous speaker pointed out—to calculate the amount of permanent impairment compensation that is payable under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act or the MRCA. Second, the application of this new methodology to persons who have an injury or disease already accepted under the Veterans' Entitlements Act or the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

Third, appropriate assessment of compensation payable under the MRCA is to include conditions accepted under the VEA or the SRCA to ensure that any compensation paid is assessed on a whole of person basis; fourth, the identification of select parts of this compensation as transitional permanent impairment compensation; fifth, application of the principle of retrospectivity to apply the new methodology resulting from the review of military compensation arrangements in circumstances that are prevented by current legislation; sixth, flexibility to increase the amount of MRCA for some recipients. It should be noted that the retrospective recalculation is being undertaken on the basis that no person would ever be disadvantaged. Seventh, maintenance of current levels of entitlement in the rare event that the new calculation would result in a lesser amount of MRCA; and, finally, removal via parliamentary amendment of former technical barriers that prevent the retrospective recalculation of transitional permanent impairment compensation in certain circumstances. Each and all of these steps will act to improve the practical lives and futures of those who serve or who have served. Indirectly, it will also proffer significant benefit to affected defence families and partners of defence members.

I note that the general thrust of this amendment bill mirrors the concerted efforts which are currently being made by our close allies to support their respective defence and veteran communities. This includes constructive and positive government initiatives in the United States, Britain and Canada—all of which suffered grievously in recent operations in both or either Iraq and Afghanistan. Regrettably, such support has not always been forthcoming in Australia. The inconsistent treatment of defence personnel after the Great War with the ill-conceived soldier settlement scheme and the later national indifference and neglect which occasioned the return of Australian soldiers from Vietnam are but two cases in point.

Blessedly, bipartisan government support of those who serve Australia and her national interests, both at home and abroad, has assisted immeasurably in more recent times. The government is committed to continue to honour the sacrifices of those who serve and to match this intention and commitment with practical action and concrete legislation such as this.

To conclude, on many levels this legislation is the right policy for Australia at this time. It comes not long after the conclusion of our nation's longest ever military engagement and at a juncture when, for perhaps the first time, the full range, longevity and extent of the effects of combat on the whole human being are being recognised and openly discussed as never before. While policy itself can never make up for the loss of life or capacity, it can nevertheless do much materially for those affected by war or military service. This includes both surviving and injured combatants as well as the families and dependents of those killed in the honourable service of our nation. It also includes those whose full injuries are anticipated to emerge or worsen at a future time. This is the hidden or 'iceberg' effect of war, where much of the human damage is hidden below a veneer of individual or collective equanimity.

Finally, though it is comparatively rare in this House, I would like to publicly thank all members in it, regardless of political persuasion or affiliation, for the spirit of bipartisan support and cooperation which has occasioned the approach and debates surrounding current defence personnel and family related issues, including financial entitlements. It is on this note that I have much pleasure in commending the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2014 to the House.

11:54 am

Photo of Jane PrenticeJane Prentice (Ryan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2014, having only recently visited the soldier recovery centre at Gallipoli Barracks at Enoggera in my electorate.

When a soldier is wounded in service to our country, we have a duty and a responsibility to do all we can to, sometimes literally, get that soldier back on their feet. The rehabilitation centre at Gallipoli Barracks is achieving some outstanding results, having recently invested in cutting-edge equipment and facilities optimised to assist recovering soldiers. The RSL has also funded an education room specially built for a wide range of disability access and use. With my colleague the member for Brisbane, I had the opportunity to talk with some of the soldiers currently participating in the program. Overall, they were impressed with the upgrades to the centre and the support the Gallipoli Barracks and the ADF were providing.

However, there is always more that can be done. Rehabilitation is a slow process and ensuring the correct level of medical support—provided continuously, and with flexible arrangements all the way through the process—is vital for a successful recovery. Following my visit to the barracks, I have been in communication with the Minister for Defence, who assured me that the government is determined to ensure that our soldiers—the men and women who have fought for our country—receive the best possible support.

Today, this bill is taking steps in the right direction to ensure that this is achieved. The purpose of this bill is to enable the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to retrospectively apply the methodology for calculating permanent impairment compensation to claims that have been the subject of claimant initiated reconsideration by the commission, a review but the Veterans' Review Board or a review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

This bill is quite technical in nature. However, it is also very significant, as it will affect many of our patrons on a daily basis. Permanent impairment compensation payments and non-economic loss payments are paid to compensate for pain, suffering, functional loss or dysfunction and the effects of injury or disease on lifestyle. When the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act was enacted, it was necessary to determine how persons whose injuries has already been accepted under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 or the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 would be treated.

In April 2009 the then Minister for Veterans' Affairs announced that there would be a review of the military compensation arrangement to ensure:

… the Government is providing appropriate support and compensation to Australia’s veterans and ex-service personnel.

The review was conducted by a steering committee chaired by the secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Mr Ian Campbell PSM. The review report was released in March 2011.

The review found the military compensation system to be fundamentally sound, but noted that certain improvements could be made—particularly to permanent impairment compensation. The review noted that the assessment of permanent impairment under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act was based on whole-person impairment methodology—that is, where multiple-service-related conditions exist, the impairment resulting from all service related conditions is not simply added but must be combined by applying a combined values formula which ensures compensation cannot exceed 100 per cent of the whole person.

The review examined the date provisions came into effect for permanent impairment compensation. Weekly permanent impairment compensation under the act became payable at the time of the review from the date the claim of liability was lodged or the date that the claimant's conditions were found to have become permanent and stable, whichever was the later. The review found inequalities for claimants with multiple conditions where the conditions became stable at different points in time and recommended that permanent compensation become payable on the basis of each individually accepted condition, rather than on the basis of all accepted conditions.

The government's response to the review was announced in May 2012. Consistent with the recommendation of the review the government made amendments to allow for permanent impairment compensation payments for a service injury or disease to be made on the basis of each accepted condition, rather than all accepted conditions together, and to incorporate lifestyle factors into the calculation of the amount payable. In addition, the Military Compensation Review Act contained transitional provisions to allow for certain transitional impairment calculations made from 1 July 2004 to 30 June 2013 to be recalculated under the new methodology. Importantly, past payments were to be adjusted retrospectively only if the recalculated amount would result in a benefit to the recipient. In that case, the serviceman or woman would be paid the difference between the amount originally paid and the new amount.

However, a technical barrier in the existing legislation was detected when the commission commenced its review of transitional permanent impairment calculations in order to apply the new methodology. The barrier had the effect of preventing the retrospective recalculation of transitional permanent impairment compensation in certain circumstances. The provisions in this bill operate so that the commission is able to retrospectively apply the methodology for calculating permanent impairment compensation to claims that had been the subject of claimant initiated reconsideration by the commission, a review by the board or a review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The amendments in this bill will result in beneficial or neutral outcomes only. Compensation is to be increased if it is found to be less than should be. However, if after review the commission is satisfied that the amount of compensation should not be increased, the commission may make a determination confirming the amount of compensation. Despite this assurance, the effect of the amendments is that the decision of the commission will be an original decision which can be reconsidered or reviewed as above.

This is just one step the government is taking to improve the lives of the Australian Defence Force men and women undergoing rehabilitation or living with a permanent impairment. I commend this bill to the House.

12:01 pm

Photo of Nickolas VarvarisNickolas Varvaris (Barton, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am proud to be speaking in favour of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2014, a measure which fine-tunes the legislation governing military compensation so it can best serve our returned service community. The amendment will allow the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to retrospectively apply the new compensation methodology implemented last year to certain people receiving transitional permanent impairment compensation. The bill ensures that the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission can retrospectively calculate the rate of compensation due to a claimant who had initiated reviews or reconsiderations of compensation with the MRCC, the Veterans' Review Board or the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. This will ensure that compensation is paid on a whole of person basis and that compensation now and into the future will be equitable across all arms of military service and all forms of compensation schemes. This is a good measure focused on ensuring equity and fairness for the returned service community. It will mean that assessing for compensation under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act would take into account conditions which are already accepted under the Veterans' Entitlements Act or the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

An imperative component of this bill is the fact that no recipient will be worse off because of the retrospective application of this new methodology. In fact, service men and women will be better off overall because of the way compensation will be applied. That factor of this bill alone should inspire support. Where the rate of compensation can increase due to the calculation it will do so, and where the rate of compensation decreases according to the new methodology it will remain at its previous higher amount.

This government proudly backs increases in the level of support afforded to those who have paid the ultimate price and their families. It is fitting that the no-disadvantage condition applies to the implementation of this amendment. The veterans of this country deserve a fair go and they deserve our support and appreciation. They certainly deserve generous provision and compensation when, in the line of duty, an individual suffers permanent impairment. After all, the sacrifices ex-service men and women have given their country and all of us, their fellow citizens, are unable to be exaggerated. We absolutely must ensure that the social security framework supporting returned service men and women and injured veterans is consistently maintained and rises in line with the cost of living.

It is worth noting that this year marks 10 years since the establishment of the MRCA, a means of assessing compensation which encompasses the whole of military service and will equip the government for the future in terms of adequately caring for our service men and women. The establishment of schemes such as this is, pleasingly, accepted by the wider community. The review into military compensation of 2011 confirmed that there is a public understanding of the fact that military compensation is a special and separate form of social security which pays heed to the unique challenges and value of military service. In the report it was noted:

The existence of statutory compensation legislation designed specifically to meet the needs of military service appears to be implicitly accepted.

Compensating those who have given their all for their country should be one of the first and foremost uncontroversial activities of government. The coalition has always prided itself on maintaining a strong relationship with the Australian veteran community.

Now that our team is in government, we are striving to follow in the footsteps of successive Australian governments who have made it their priority to provide compensation and support to ex-service men and women since the First World War. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the deeper reasons that fair military compensation is such a priority to this government.

It goes without saying that engagement in war is a costly, stark and confronting task. It takes immense moral courage and physical endurance. The sheer number of Australians who have laid their lives on the line for their country and been injured in the process mentally or physically demands in turn that their country remembers and supports them. The mental and physical burdens of service have a ripple effect to the family and friends of those who return. It is up to us in government to look for opportunities to advance the care and treatment of these returned personnel.

In drafting these amendments, the government has done just that, finding a way to fine tune the legislation to maximise equity and care. The high risk, high demand nature of the work that our military personnel do both onshore and offshore in times of peace and in war requires a level of commitment not just to the job but to the country which cannot be compared to civilian service. The requirement to be deployable, to put one's life on the line and to adhere to strict and serious codes of service demands a total commitment to the role. As it should be, this commitment is met with deep appreciation on the part of the Australian people, but is also often met with significant injuries and personal challenges. When our service men and women meet with these challenges, because they have given so much, we as the Australian government and the Australian people must go out of our way to carry those who have carried the interests of our nation.

More than 26,000 Australian men and women have served in Afghanistan, some 17,500 served in Iraq, and those figures represent the tens of thousands of lives which have been marked and changed by military service. Often, lives are transformed in a way that is not visible to the eye. Mental health is a major issue, with regards to our returning service men and women. Post traumatic stress disorder is a serious risk to those who have served in combat roles in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, although the support services and prevention programs within the Australian military are particularly effective.

The Australian Defence Force has reported that 22 per cent of the ADF population, or one in five, experiences a mental disorder. This figure is far too high and demands that we be more vigilant as a community against the often unspoken and all the more ravaging effects of war—those that begin after the conflict has ended. As our Prime Minister said in July of this year, those who serve must know that their country will not ask them to bear the emotional wounds of war alone.

Furthermore, as the Minister for Veterans Affairs, the Hon. Michael Ronaldson said when he wrote to the veterans in winter of this year, the 2014 budget places the mental health needs of veterans and their families at the forefront of the government's commitment to the veteran community. Indeed, I welcome the rise in military pensions and the recent establishment earlier this year of the Prime Ministerial Advisory Council on Veterans' Mental Health. Councils such as these strengthen and inform the approaches that government take to the mental ravages of war in alliance with the work that the Department of Veterans Affairs is already doing.

The DVA services over 310,000 veterans, dependents and their families. As of May this year, there were 1,428 DVA clients in my electorate of Barton, many of whom are vulnerable dependants. Almost 50 are recipients of the MRC compensation, the subject of these amendments, and this bill assures me that the government is doing right by those veterans and ex-service personnel who live in my electorate and are dependent on rehabilitative care.

I am proud of the programs that exist for service men and women and for the veterans in my electorate of Barton. The people of Barton have a strong level of respect and reverence for the service carried out on the behalf of Australians by defence personnel. This is reflected in the strong turnouts we always see at Anzac Day services and remembrance occasions. The electorate is serviced by many fantastic programs which ease the challenges of returning to civilian life, dealing with service-related injuries or mourning the loss of a loved one. Australian service men and women have done an incredible job in the establishment of returned service leagues, community building initiatives and mental health programs. Veterans have founded their own services like the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service, a service founded by returned Vietnam veterans. The expansion of the service on 1 July this year to include those who have served in border protection, disaster zones and training accidents is a welcome advance in our care for those who have served in a variety of roles.

The Veterans' Home Care program, the mental health focused program At Ease, RSL clubs, the Arncliffe Men's Shed and the DVA run Wolli Club at Earlwood-Bardwell Park RSL are just some examples of the ways that government, the veterans community and countless volunteers come together in my electorate to give back. I always hear positive things from constituents about the Department of Veterans' Affairs and its support programs. While doorknocking, I have met military widows and families in my electorate who attest to the fact that the DVA takes meticulous care of them and shows a very human side.

The returned services community deserve to be recognised, and they deserve a space to tell their stories. Experts suggests that being given an opportunity to tell of the experience of war is important in the healing process. The Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, believes that initiatives such as the memorial and the Centenary of Anzac afford veterans the opportunity to make sense of their experiences and gain closure.

I am looking forward to the commemoration of the Centenary of Anzac unfolding next year as we anticipate the rollout of the local grants program in my electorate of Barton. Establishing an electorate committee to review the applications to the Anzac Centenary Local Grants Program was a rewarding experience. The committee was honoured by the inclusion of Major General Raymond J Sharp AO, RFD, ED, a former commander of the 2nd Infantry Division. His participation in the committee reminded me that many of those who have given their all for their country are still serving their country in countless ways in the returned veterans community, especially in the education of the next generation.

The Australian community of veterans is a proud and strong one but one that faces significant struggles and burdens. These challenges should give the government and every Australian citizen cause to strive harder to provide ex-service personnel with the strong level of support and gratitude which they deserve. The wounds of war, both visible and invisible, are unimaginable to those who have never served in times of conflict. With the draw-down from Afghanistan in particular, human complexity, conflict with insurgency and serious levels of physical strain have taken a drastic toll on many. Chris May, a soldier deployed to Afghanistan at the age of 19, put it this way in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald:

It's a different world when you come back … You see everyone getting hyped up over reality TV or the State of Origin. People don't really appreciate the bigger problems of the world. In 12 months everyone will have forgotten about Afghanistan, and what then? All the guys know that's what's going to happen. Things will go back to the way they were before, and people will forget that we were ever there.

Preventing a young returned serviceman from feeling forgotten and disconnected, and rehabilitating him from his wounds, visible and invisible, is a true test of our identity as a nation with the utmost respect for its diggers. When the pride and fervour of Anzac Day or the Centenary of Anzac is over, we in government must ensure that no digger is left behind and that no family member is left without support. One way to ensure those things is to keep our compensation schemes in top-notch condition and to keep them as equitable and sound as possible. By consistently finetuning the legislative framework, we can ensure that as a government we are giving the returned services community the level of support that they deserve and require. As such, I commend this bill to the chamber.

12:13 pm

Photo of Ewen JonesEwen Jones (Herbert, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to speak on the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2014. This bill enables the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, or the MRCC, to apply a new formula to retrospectively calculate compensation to former members of the ADF. It also applies enhanced compensation arrangements as applicable. A new methodology was implemented from 1 July 2013. This came about after a review of the military compensation arrangements. The new methodology applies to persons who have an injury or a disease already accepted under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. No veteran will be disadvantaged by the passage of this amendment bill. It is important that we say very clearly that no veteran will be disadvantaged.

The history around this is that, prior to the last election, the government expressed concern about the application of the old formula and its impact on compensation payments to veterans with eligibility under multiple acts.

The coalition has committed to providing support to veterans' orphans and DVA students, and will also support the Veterans' Children Education Scheme. It continues the hard work of the government in legislating better pay and conditions for our veterans and follows on from the DFRDB and DFRB legislation in June. Can I make a personal vote of thanks here in relation to Senator Michael Ronaldson, who has been our veterans' affairs spokesperson since I was elected in 2010 and is now the minister. His efforts here—his efforts inside government, inside opposition—to ensure that we deliver for our veterans should never be underestimated. He is a good man, he has a good team and he works very, very hard. I am pleased to be part of that team.

There will be no financial impact from this bill, and funding was provided in the 2012-13 financial year. The changes proposed in this legislation will enable veterans with such multiple eligibility to be no further disadvantaged in the calculation of their compensation pensions. When you are dealing with veterans and ADF personnel, as we do in our electorate offices on a regular basis, and in places like Townsville, which has a significant veteran population, it is a major part of our role as MPs to work between the soldier, sailor or airman and the department. There are so many cracks in the system. What this government is trying to do is not so much eliminate the cracks but just make them as small as humanly possible. The system will never be perfect. What we are trying to do is make sure that as few people are falling through the cracks as possible. Where the application of this new methodology would result in a lower amount of compensation, the existing amount of compensation will apply until a new assessment results in a higher amount of compensation. Once again, it is recognising the nature of service.

We have over 4,000 DVA clients located in Townsville, in the Townsville area, who have served in the ADF from the Second World War through to the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are proudly home to the 3rd Brigade who, this weekend, celebrates its centenary. In 1914 the 3rd Brigade was formed, and Brigadier Roger Noble will be leading all sorts of things, including the keys to the city, for the 3rd Brigade this weekend. There is an eight-page lift-out in today's Townsville Bulletin celebrating the centenary of the 3rd Brigade as we move into what will be four years of tremendous commemoration in relation to our military history.

Being in a Defence Force city, my office has had a great relationship with the local DVA office and the hard work the staff of the DVA do for the ADF community. When Senator Ronaldson was in Townsville last, he made a special effort to get into the DVA to meet the staff and to personally thank them for the work that they do. We always find—my office always finds—that we get a great result and quick communication when we are approached about an issue and the DVA gets involved. This government is also funding an expansion—just as an observation—of the Chinook and the MRH90 helicopter bases and facilities for the 5th Aviation Regiment and the RAAF Base Townsville.

I attended the Legacy ball, or the Defence ball, in Townsville last weekend, supporting local Defence families in need of help from Legacy. I think one of the great things in this country is Legacy and our Legatees. When you are talking about Afghanistan, and you are talking about the nature of service now—there was probably time during the eighties and nineties when we were thinking that maybe it had had its day—Legacy has a very, very real role to play, and a growing role. Major General Stuart Smith is a Legatee. One of our greatest—one of our best—soldiers in this country is a Legatee. He lost his father in Vietnam, and he would not be the man he is today without Legacy. His mum would never have been able to provide for them without the help of Legacy. So I was very pleased to go along—I am not the world's best auctioneer, but by jingo I am the cheapest—and help them out for the evening.

So the 3rd Brigade is celebrating its centenary this year. Townsville has a strong and proud military history. The support this government gives our veterans is something that we should all be proud of. More than service in war, I think what we have to understand is the nature of service. And Townsville is home to the 3rd Brigade, which is primarily a redeployable organisation. They are an infantry based organisation, and when you think about a pack that a soldier will carry, it weighs about 48 kilos. Deputy Speaker Porter, I do not think you are 48 kilos. Soldiers are in and out of trucks. It is unnatural to carry that much weight while jumping out of trucks and jumping out of helicopters. It puts pressure on all parts around the body. The nature of the industry and the nature of injury is completely and utterly unnatural. My nephew has been accepted into the ADF and he wants to join the Army. When he was talking to me about it I said, 'Anything but infantry, Mate, anything but infantry. You've got to make sure that, when you turn 40, you still have knees, ankles and a back which can be relied on.'

Being a defence city, we do have lots of rivalry. The Army is so big in Townsville. My friend the member for Bass will understand when you talk about stars in the ADF that the Navy navigate by them, the Army sleeps under them, and the RAAF uses them to rate the hotels in which they are going to stay. There is all of that sort of rivalry. At the Defence Ball the other night it was out in force.

Our ADF personnel are looked after. Do we give them everything they want? No. And those of us who have been in this game understand what it is like to deal with veterans when they feel they have been hard done by. Sometimes you cannot fulfil their demands. The first duty of a government is to secure our borders. We ask people to serve and we must do the right thing by those people who do serve. We are coming into four years of commemoration of World War I, Korea and Vietnam. Townsville will be front and centre with the 50th anniversary of Long Tan in 2016. And there were recent fields of conflict—for example, Somalia—when the nature of the relationship between Townsville and the ADF changed overnight. They went from being 'Ajs'—or Army jerks—to being 'our boys'. It is a relationship that our city, our mayor Jenny Hill and the current commander, Brigadier Roger Noble—and previous brigadiers and previous mayors—have worked so hard to foster, to make Townsville a great ADF town. There was Rwanda, Timor-Leste and the war on terror.

I said just recently the nature of war and the nature of the enemy we face is vastly different from that of World War I, and so is the nature of the care we must provide. I never served—Australia would be in a lot of trouble if I were on the front line somewhere—but I do understand what it takes to be a member of the ADF. They must be that 'type A' personality. Is our system perfect and are we perfect at delivering it? Of course not. Are we improving? Of course we are. At every opportunity, every time we deploy and every time we come back, the ADF, DVA and the government try their absolute best to find where the issues are and what can be done differently.

As the previous speaker was saying, PTSD is a very real issue. I have said it before, when people came back from the Boer War and from the First World War we called it 'shell-shock' and we cured it by sending them to the pub. If they did not survive that, we sent them to the fringes of society. In my town, we deal with PTSD every day. We must understand that it is a severe injury. People are wounded when you come home with PTSD and we must face it not just as individuals, not just as families but as entire communities, as an entire country. People in the Defence Force, in this vocation, are under a lot of pressure. We have to understand the nature of that pressure and how to deal with it, knowing that it affects people differently. There is no straight answer to PTSD, and people in uniform like straight answers, don't they? In Townsville, we have to make sure we are prepared for what is to come. People will face these issues and we must be prepared to work with them when they are dealing with them.

I like these amendments. I think they are good for us. Senator Ronaldson, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, is doing a great job for us in this space, showing that this government is making a genuine effort and genuinely cares about our relationship with the ADF. I commend the bill to the House. I thank the House.

Ms SCOTT (Lindsay) (12:24): Today, I rise in support of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2014. It is always a good day when I get the opportunity to rise in this place in support of our esteemed and noble veterans. I would also like to acknowledge the presence of my very good friend, the member for Bass, our resident brigadier here in the parliament. When we look at the service of our veterans, in the Lindsay community alone, the Department of Veterans' Affairs identifies 1,041 veterans. This is not to mention the servicemen and women and the ex-servicemen and women who live within the Lindsay electorate. We have a RAAF base at Orchard Hills. We have a reserve base at Penrith. To the north of the electorate, we have Richmond RAAF base and, to the west, we also have the Lapstone RAAF base. We have a large Defence community. We need to honour our servicemen and women. These are the people that have defended and still defend our country.

The people of Lindsay have such a long and proud heritage when it comes to our Defence forces. We have served in the Boer War. We have ridden off and formed the Light Horse. We have been on the Western Front. We have been to Borneo, Korea, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Iraq and Afghanistan. Our troops from our Lindsay electorate have been peacekeepers on every continent of this globe. As a community, we are proud of their service and, as a nation, we are forever in debt to their sacrifices. I would like to commend the work of Lisa Power and Ian Paterson from the Penrith Press for the wonderful commemoration honouring the local diggers of World War I.

This amendment provides a fairer system of compensation review to those 1,041 veterans who make Lindsay their home. When a soldier serves our country, we have a responsibility to all that we can rehabilitate that soldier and ensure they receive the best possible support. Recently, I had the privilege of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia at St Mary's Outpost, the Train. I had a wonderful day meeting with Greg Cant and Sam Vecchio.

As the member for Lindsay, I was proud to present the Train with $25,302. This funding is provided under the Building Excellence in Support and Training grants, the BEST grants program, which assist largely with the voluntary ESO workforce to help the veterans and Defence communities access Department of Veterans' Affairs entitlements and services. Each month 20 volunteer welfare officers at the VVAA St Mary's make 400 visits to hospitals right across our community. Greg Cant, the president of the VVAA St Mary's Outpost, said this funding would contribute to local support programs and initiatives. He went on to say:

This funding will allow the VVAA St Mary's to continue to build and grow our network and support more seniors and veterans across St Mary's. We have a dedicated team of volunteers who work tirelessly to support our local veterans community, and I am pleased to receive this federal government grant to ensure we can continue the great work into the future.

Greg also took me for a walk through the Train. He showed me some of the rooms that they have available, where they sit down with veterans and talk to them. They talk to them about some of the PTSD issues that the gentlemen are having. Greg talked about his own experience: he was painting a wall and one of the guys just came up to him and patted him on the back. He did not understand at the time how his own mental health had actually declined but, in doing so, his mates were there to support him.

That is what the Train is there for: to support all the men in St Mary's, all the veterans that come through. The Vietnam guys who for so long have felt forgotten—that is what the Train does. That is what this money does. This money is to build the camaraderie, keep that digger spirit alive that we see so much within the St Mary's Train men.

Today we are going to amend the Military Rehabilitation Compensation Act, which has been in operation for 10 years. The act commenced on 1 July 2004 and was the first compensation legislation designed to cover the whole spectrum of military service. It safeguards by applying a new methodology to maintain or increase transitional, permanent impairment compensation payable. This new provision enables the commission to review the transitional permanent impairment compensation and to retrospectively apply the new methodology to maintain or increase compensation. These amendments will result in a beneficial or neutral-only outcome. No person would be disadvantaged by the retrospective application of the new methodology.

Debate adjourned.