Tuesday, 1 December 2015
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015; Consideration of Senate Message
I rise to express Labor's support for schedules 1 and 3 of the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015, to provide a bit of background and to describe in brief what has transpired in the Senate. Labor also supports the government's proposed amendments that are now before the House. These amendments would ensure that schedule 2 of this bill does not proceed at this point in time. The government's decision with respect to schedule 2—that is, to not proceed at this time—meant that the opposition did not move its amendments in the Senate. In fact, last night there was agreement on all sides of the Senate that this was the proper approach to take at this time.
Schedule 1 of this bill effects changes that will enhance the Veterans' Vocational Rehabilitation Scheme, the VVRS, under the Veterans' Entitlements Act, and that schedule was not a matter of controversy in the Senate or indeed in the House. Schedule 3 of the bill expands the war graves regulation-making power under the Defence Act 1903, and I am sure every member of this House will recall that this was in order to facilitate the repatriation of remains from Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia. Of course, again, that was not a controversial matter. As a consequence, schedule 2, which I will come to in a moment, which was a matter of some controversy, has been excised so that the parliament is able to pass the legislation around those two issues—the VVRS and the Terendak repatriation—so that that work can continue while legislators here and in the Senate continue to consider the best approach with respect to schedule 2.
Schedule 2 of the bill is that part of the bill intended to streamline the appeals process into a single pathway for veterans seeking reconsideration or review of an original determination made under Chapter 8 of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. This is a matter, I might say, that is a little technical and involves issues of great importance to the veterans community and beyond; it is a matter that has been subject to some debate. Originally when this bill came before the parliament, these matters were opposed by Labor and the crossbenchers in the Senate. The new Minister for Veterans' Affairs, to his great credit, engaged in discussions with the opposition and proposed certain amendments, which I would characterise as having brought the debate significantly forward, though we have not yet concluded that debate. The conversation between the government and the opposition will continue into 2016 with a view to reaching agreement between all parties about how we can achieve a fair and equitable, single appeals pathway for veterans.
A little bit of background is necessary here: the notion that there should be a single appeals pathway was originally ventilated in the review of military compensation arrangements report of 2011. That report was accepted by the former Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the hon. Warren Snowdon, in May 2012. That report and its resolve to create a single appeals pathway is thus one that is shared by both sides of the House. The devil is always is in the detail, and that is detail which the opposition and the government will continue to discuss in 2016. I am optimistic that we may achieve a result to bring before this House. But in the interim the government's amendments—so that we can proceed with schedules 1 and 3—are welcomed and we look forward to fruitful negotiations in 2016 about the remainder of the bill.
I thank the member for Batman, the shadow minister for Veterans' Affairs. This bill comes back to the House for concurrence following amendment in the Senate and the agreement of the two major parties.
On 7 September this year the Senate referred schedule 2 of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015 to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee for inquiry and report. That report was finalised on 25 September. The government has noted the report of the committee, and its recommendations, and thanks the Senate for its work on the inquiry.
Schedule 2 of this particular bill proposes a single appeal pathway, consisting of a claimant's initial right of review to the Veterans' Review Board, with a second tier review to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The shadow minister is quite right to say that this came out of the former government's 2011 MRCA review. It is widely agreed by all areas of the ex-service community that a single appeal pathway is needed.
The amendments proposed by the government and endorsed by the Senate remove this schedule from the bill to allow for further negotiations to occur to enable final agreement on schedule 2 to be reached. I am confident we will do that in the Autumn session next year. However, to ensure that the other schedules of the bill can move forward, we have removed schedule 2 from the bill.
Schedule 3 authorises the exhumation of the remains of those dependants of service personnel that are buried in the Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia. I should note that allowing this schedule to pass enables the exhumation to take place. Ultimately, of course, it will be up to the families to decide whether they wish to repatriate their deceased family member. This is an important measure as part of the government's commitment to offer repatriation to all those Australian service personnel and their dependants that are buried at Terendak. I thank the opposition and the shadow minister for his regard in this matter, and I commend the amendments to the House.