Wednesday, 25 October 2017
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I rise today to speak about the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017. This bill contains eight schedules, which deal with different elements of veterans legislation that seek to clarify, improve and streamline the operation of law and processes within the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Given the detail in the bill, it was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. The committee thoroughly examined the legislation, held public hearings and reported back to the parliament on 13 June 2017. I would like to thank the committee members and all those submitters on their work in reviewing this legislation.
As we understand it, schedule 1 seeks to amend the provisions under which the Veterans' Review Board operates by aligning certain provisions of the board with similar provisions to that of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. As members may be aware, the board is a statutory authority whose role 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, rehabilitation compensation and other benefits under both the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and the new Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment (Defence Force) Bill 2017.
The amendment in schedule 1 seeks to modernise and improve the operations of the board in a number of ways. Item 1 deals with the board's objectives. As it stands, the board's objectives are listed as providing a mechanism of review that is fair, just, economical, informal and quick. These amendments do align the VRB with the changes made to the AAT under the Tribunals Amalgamation Act 2015. It provides that, in carrying out its functions, the board must pursue the objective of providing a mechanism of review that is accessible, fair, just, economical, informal and quick, is proportionate to the importance and complexity of the matter and promotes public trust and confidence in the decision-making of the board. This section also imposes 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 possession which is relevant to the review that has not been lodged previously.
In addition, it provides the board with the power to vary or revoke a decision made under the alternative dispute resolutions process with the consent of the parties and where the board is satisfied that it is within its powers and otherwise appropriate to do so. The section also requires the Repatriation Commission and any person representing the commission in a review to use their best endeavours to assist the board in fulfilling its legislative objective in line with the expanded objective, which deals with the proportionality and public trust.
Finally, this section provides the principal member with the power to dismiss an application for a review of a decision if they are satisfied that the application is frivolous, vexatious, misconceived or lacking in substance, has no reasonable prospect of success or is otherwise an abuse of process. The final element which gives the principal member the power to dismiss an application has caused some angst within the veterans community for a number of reasons. The Veterans' Review Broad is a unique board that recognises the exceptional nature of military service. It provides an opportunity for veterans to be heard and, while rulings are legal, it is meant to operate in a less adversarial way. It is for this reason that veterans historically have been unable to be represented by lawyers at this point. As stated by the Returned and Services League of Australia in their submission to the Senate inquiry, the Veterans' Review Board has always been the first level of appeal. The veteran should always have his or her say and this should remain as such. In addition, the RSL argued that individuals should be able to present to the board, as it gives them the opportunity to be heard by three individuals in contrast to one DVA delegate.
There was also concern raised during the Senate committee process about the ability to delegate these powers, which the bill was silent on. Consequently, during the Senate committee process, the principal member of the board, Mr Doug Humphreys, provided written information to the committee to allay these concerns, stating that the power would rest wholly with the principal member. In his correspondence, Mr Humphreys also stated that there were few occasions where he would utilise this provision, claiming that, during the current principal member's tenure of seven years, there have been only three matters where it may have been appropriate to hold a preliminary hearing to consider whether the matter should be dismissed on these grounds. Given the small number of times that this would be utilised, Labor does not believe the benefits outweigh the significant concerns.
Labor believes that the Veterans' Review Board was always meant to be a chance where a veteran could be heard. It is meant to be a less adversarial process which accounts for the unique nature of military service. We do support the intention of the bill to align the principles of the VRB and the AAT and are supportive of the broader changes. While we respect that the principal member has outlined their process and how they will engage with an individual, we do not believe that this clause is fitting with regard to the overriding philosophy of the board. As such, Labor proposed—and communicated with the government on this—an amendment which would remove this section. However, it is my understanding that, in the third reading stage, the government will move this amendment, along with a number of other changes. We welcome this change. Labor made very, very clear that this is something that we believe, as a result of consultation with the community, needs to occur. I am very, very pleased that the government has taken that on board and will relieve us of having to move our amendment. We will support the amendment of the government.
Schedule 2 seeks to simplify the appointment process of individuals to the Specialist Medical Review Council, progress whole-of-government requirements for digital transformation, remove red tape in commencing reviews and provide reimbursement of certain travel expenses. The Specialist Medical Review Council is an independent statutory body that reviews the contents of the statements of principles or a decision of the Repatriation Medical Authority not to issue such a statement. The council consists of medical practitioners and medical scientists appointed as councillors by the minister and selected by the convenor of the council for a particular review on the basis of their expertise on the injury or the disease relevant to the statement of principles subject which is under review. Essentially, if someone believes there is an issue with a statement of principle, they will take it to the council for review. The council then appoints a panel which reviews the statement of principle. If they agree there is an issue, it is then returned to the RMA for review.
Under the 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 without assessing or recommending candidates. In addition, when making appointments, the minister must have regard to the branches of science or the expertise as necessary to decide review matters and must appoint not fewer 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 council's ability to perform its functions. It's our understanding that under the amendments the requirements which fix the number of councillors with experience at each branch of medical science will be repealed.
While the minister is still required to have regard to the branches for the expertise needed to decide matters referred to the council, they will have greater discretion as to the number of councillors needed. While it makes sense to have a standing membership from which to draw councillors, there are not necessarily always at least two members from each area of expertise, particularly when it relates to uncommon specialities. This section also includes a requirement that at least one councillor must have at least five years experience in the field of epidemiology, the branch of medicine which deals with the study of the distribution and determinants of disease in populations, and with investigation into the sources and causes of infectious disease.
The review process, as it stands, also requires the council to advertise the date of its first meeting with respect to a particular review. This is described as unnecessary and prescriptive, given the practicalities of arranging a meeting with specialists with busy schedules. Changes to this section will still require notice published in the Gazette at least 28 days before the first meeting of councillors.
Schedule 2 also seeks to provide financial assistance for individual representatives of organisations for any necessary attendance to accompany individuals or representatives to attend a council to make an oral submission. It will make several amendments which enable the convenor of the council to give written directions about the manner of lodging requests for reviews or applications, enabling the council to adopt electronic lodgement of requests for reviews rather than requiring a hard copy form as required by the Veterans' Entitlements Act.
In the light of the ongoing Digital Transformation Agenda, it is appropriate that the council should have the capacity to develop online forms and lodgements. This will streamline the processes and reduce unnecessary red tape. The government assures us that these amendments will not change the threshold for the specialists who are appointed to the panel; rather, the amendments focus on streamlining the process of appointing specialists to the panel, providing financial assistance and reducing red tape. Given these assurances, Labor is supportive of these amendments.
Schedule 3 relates to the international agreements and gives the minister power to make agreements with foreign governments to cover the provision of benefits and payments for the benefits under the MRCA and DRCA. This amendment is required as under the current arrangements the minister can only enter into the agreement for the provision of benefits and treatment, including rehabilitation, that are comparable to those provided under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. Current and former ADF members now have coverage under other veterans' entitlements portfolio acts in addition to the Veterans' Entitlements Act and, as such, there is a need for arrangements which refer to benefits and payments, including rehabilitation, that are provided by the Repatriation Commission or the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission under the VEA, the MRCA, the DRCA or the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act. This is a logical extension of the current arrangements that ensures that all veterans' legislation is covered. I understand there will be an amendment to the title of this and that, rather than calling it 'agreements', it will be 'arrangements', and we will support that amendment by the government.
Schedule 4 legislates the employer incentive scheme payments, which are made to employers in the form of wage subsidies to encourage them to engage an injured veteran who has found it difficult to compete in a tight labour market. The department provides vocational rehabilitation to eligible serving and former Defence Force members, reservists and cadets following service related injury or disease. Vocational rehabilitation delivers assistance to members to help them achieve sustainable employment where possible and return them to the workforce at at least the level of their pre-injury employment. These services include assessment, guidance or counselling, functional capacity assessment, work experience, vocational training and jobseeking assistance. It also may involve incentive payments to employers to facilitate civilian employment of veterans. While the department has been able to facilitate these payments under existing provisions, this amendment will strengthen and clarify the legislation around these payments.
Labor is supportive of measures which assist veterans to move to and retain employment. Vocational rehabilitation plays an important role in assisting eligible veterans with finding or retaining employment. It can assist with transition from military to civilian employment for members of the ADF and peacekeeping forces who may experience difficulty in obtaining or holding civilian employment.
Schedule 5 amends the MRCA and the DRCA to facilitate information sharing between the MRCC and the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation with respect to certain service related compensation claims. These amendments will implement a recommendation by the Review of Military Compensation Arrangements which was intended to improve the information-sharing framework for incapacity and superannuation benefits between the MRCC and the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation. While the MRCC is authorised to request information from the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation to assist with the calculation of incapacity payments, there is no express provision to allow the MRCC to provide information to the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation to assist with their assessment of superannuation benefits. As such, at present all requests to the MRCC for information from the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation are undertaken in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 1982, which is a cumbersome and time-consuming process accounting for approximately 20 per cent of all FOI requests received by the department on behalf of the MRCC.
These amendments, we are informed, will provide a stronger foundation for the MRCC to provide the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation with the information needed to make an assessment of the superannuation benefit. Requests from the CSC to the MRCC for claims information are increasingly being received for the purpose of conducting superannuation investigations through the useful and relevant medical and rehabilitation information held by the MRCC. Enabling the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation to use information held by the MRCC will also avoid the need to send Defence Force members for further medical assessment where the MRCC already holds the relevant information which could be used by the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation to determine benefits. Apart from saving time and effort, this would also prevent Defence Force members from having to explain their circumstances to different medical professionals. This is particularly important in the cases of members who are suffering from psychological conditions, including those which have arisen from physical or psychological abuse. This will prevent any retraumatisation as a result of having to ongoingly explain their circumstances.
I must note that this section has caused some concern within the veterans community through the Senate inquiry process. Senators raised a number of privacy concerns with the committee, noting there is some confusion within the Defence community as to what type of information is being shared. Many of the submitters called for a privacy impact assessment to be conducted on schedule 5 of the bill, and I understand the government has completed this process.
Labor is supportive of the measures listed in schedule 5 to help veterans reverse the process and to reduce the unnecessary work. It is important, I think, that we note that the time taken to process claims by DVA has been a longstanding issue with many veterans. Veterans and their loved ones have regularly expressed to me the frustration of having to tell their story again and again. This amendment seeks to address this, and that is why we're supportive of it. However, I do understand these privacy concerns and certainly have supported the calls to conduct a privacy impact assessment. I am pleased that the government has done that.
Schedule 6 seeks to amend the MRCA to provide the minister with the power to delegate his or her powers and functions to the members of the MRCC, employees of the department or persons engaged or appointed under the Public Service Act 1999. This is a provision which exists under the other act, the VEA, but it appears to have been omitted from the development process of the MRCA in 2004. This omission has prevented the implementation of some of the administrative reforms to achieve efficiencies across the department as part of the government's commitment to reduce red tape. Examples that have been provided of the type of determinations which might be delegated include determination of an interest rate payable on a lump sum payment of permanent impairment compensation; minor determinations concerning reimbursement of travel expenses; requirements for medical examinations; and the types of payments that may be deducted from payments of weekly compensation. Delegating authority for minor matters to appropriate employees will enable quicker decision-making in relation to small issues and reduce unnecessary red tape. The department have assured Labor that delegation levels would be set at either band 1 or band 2 or at the chief operating officer level only, to ensure that the employee has the appropriate skill set to be approving these decisions. On that condition, Labor will support this amendment.
Schedule 7 will amend the legislation to exempt certain legislative instruments from section 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 in force from time to time.
The current requirement to amend the Veterans' Affairs portfolio legislative instruments to incorporate changes in non-disallowable instruments has caused significant administrative issues for the department. These changes will essentially allow materials to be updated with new references to information without lodging each individual instrument into the parliament. Many of the legislative instruments include references to external documents which are incorporated by reference into instruments that are legally regarded as being parts of the instrument. As such, any change to such documents can't be recognised unless the changed versions are incorporated into the legislative instrument by an amendment or a replaced instrument. This can cause significant administrative issues and unnecessary delays.
An example of this can be seen in relation to the availability of new rehabilitation appliances. The availability of the new equipment will be delayed, as the legislative instrument in the case of the Treatment Principles, which incorporates the document under which the appliance may be provided, would need to be amended to refer to the changed date of the policy document. As we can see, that's quite an ordeal, and for that reason Labor will be supporting this amendment.
The final schedule deals with the repeal of redundant and spent provisions administered in the Veterans' Affairs portfolio concerning benefits that are no longer payable, and it makes consequential amendments in relation to the repeal. This was originally proposed as part of the Omnibus Repeal Day (Spring 2015) Bill 2015, which lapsed with the end of parliament in April 2016. The proposed amendments seek to remove the following spent provisions: the clean energy advance during a period before 1 July 2012; parts providing for one-off payments to older Australians in 2006, 2007 and 2008; the Economic Security Strategy payment from 2008; and the educational tax refund payment in 2012.
However, a provision has been inserted that will ensure that, in a circumstance where a person is found to have been eligible for one of the payments due to a retrospective assessment of the pension, they will still be able to access the spent provision. The Veterans' Affairs portfolio is supportive of these changes, and therefore we are also and think that this is an appropriate way to go.
The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017 seeks to streamline the operation of the law and to improve processes for veterans. Labor is supportive of the changes, which will improve the process for veterans. However, as stated, we do believe that we need to remove one section of schedule 1. As I've said, it's my understanding that the government will move that amendment, and we certainly welcome them paying careful consideration to Labor's views. We certainly welcome the government doing that and look forward to continuing to work in a bipartisan way. I think that this legislation not only has bipartisan support but now accurately reflects the views of the veterans community. Overall, it will be welcomed by the veterans community as a sensible piece of legislation and one that we have worked together to land perfectly.
But I do want to say, whilst you're here, congratulations on being elevated into the shadow cabinet. It is great recognition of your good work and of your good work to come as a minister in a future government. So, well done to you.
I'm going to talk about you in a minute, so be careful! There are a couple of things that I think are important in this Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017, though. The member for Kingston made this point towards the end of her speech, and I know she thinks this to be the case—and I know it to be the case. It's about the way in which there is strong bipartisan support for this legislation and the way in which the minister has been dealing with the opposition and the way in which opposition has been working with the minister to try to secure better outcomes for veterans, by and large, across the country. Now, there will be differences from time to time, but it's important that we accept our obligations as legislators to try to get the best possible outcomes that we can without politicising the process for our veterans. There are a couple of areas within this parliament where that seems to be happening and others where it's not.
If you'll forgive me, I just want to make the point that bipartisanship in trying to represent the interests of veterans in this place and to make changes which suit their needs is very important, and it's being done in a constructive way. I know that, in the context of the recent suicide report, we've heard both from the government and the opposition, through the minister and through the member for Kingston, and they have both made vital contributions to that discussion, but again showing very little difference, in terms of the final outcome and the desired outcome, from this parliament, represented by them as the spokespersons for both the government and the opposition, to get the best possible outcome for veterans. That, to me, is what this is about. I have to say that, in my own experience as a minister in this space, that was also the case when we were in government. And I expect it to be the case into the future, because we don't want the veterans community wondering why it is that we're playing politics around their interests and their concerns.
I have that same relationship in many ways with the member for Hasluck, in dealing with Indigenous health issues. We meet regularly. We discuss issues. We won't always agree, but we have a common interest in making sure that we try, as a parliament, to get the best possible outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and in other areas. We, Senator Dodson from Western Australia and I, are attempting to work collaboratively with Minister Scullion in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs space. That's somewhat more difficult, because it's a bit more of a contested space. But the bottom line is: there's a genuine desire to try to work in a bipartisan way.
I just want to contrast that, if I may, with the way in which we've seen the member for Stirling, as the Minister for Justice, operate in this parliament over the last two days and the very divisive nature of the way in which he has addressed this place. We don't need it. It's an insult to the parliament. It's an insult to the community and to all Australians who listen to this place. They expect us to do better. As to the responses that the minister made in question time yesterday, I think the member for Kennedy described, in a contribution in this parliament today, the member for Stirling as the worst minister he'd seen in 44 years in politics. I've never seen a contribution like that which was made by the member for Stirling in response to a question yesterday. And today we just had a debate which resulted in the opposition, with the support of the Independents and the crossbenchers, opposing the government on important measures relating to the justice portfolio. We've seen the government, through the Prime Minister and the member for Stirling, yesterday and today, try and insult the intelligence of the Australian community by saying that the Australian opposition, through the Leader of the Opposition and other members, were not supportive of the Australian Federal Police. That is just plain wrong. It debases this parliament for the Prime Minister to make those sorts of insulting remarks about the Leader of the Opposition and other Labor people—the opposition generally—by saying that, somehow or other, we do not support the work of the Australian Federal Police. That is not accurate, it's not correct and it shouldn't be done. In fact, we should be using the exemplar of the minister who is sitting at the table and his shadow who is sitting at the table to say: 'We can work cooperatively in this space, and let's sit down and do it. We don't need to be divided over issues of such great national importance as the role of the Federal Police in this country.'
It's very, very important, in my view, that we try and seek to do things in a cooperative way in this place. I know it's a contested space. I know that, in the way in which this parliament operates, oppositions oppose and governments try and kick the guts out of the opposition. That's all well and good. But it's not appropriate in areas of public policy of the greatest concern to the Australian community. We should be trying to resolve our issues in an appropriate way. We don't do that by denigrating one another and we don't do it, in my view, by insulting the intelligence of the Australian community and saying that the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten, and his shadow ministerial team and the Labor backbench are somehow or other not supportive of the Australian Federal Police. That is just plain wrong. I know that any Australians who might be listening to this debate would say they agree that this should not be the case.
But I want to go back to the legislation. I know that the minister, working with the Department of Veterans' Affairs and with the opposition, through the member for Kingston, has come to a conclusion about eight schedules in this piece of legislation. We have heard from the shadow minister and the minister that they have agreed to amend schedule 1 to recognise the issues which were raised by the veterans community about a particular aspect of that schedule—and that is as it should be. And we know that the veterans community are exercised by the fact that they want to make sure that their interests are properly protected and advanced within this legislation. The proposals to dismiss the prospect of reviews, in schedule 1—an application dismissed as frivolous, vexatious, misconceived or lacking in substance, or which has no reasonable prospect of success or is otherwise an abuse of the process of the board—were of concern to the stakeholders. I'm indebted to the work of the Parliamentary Library and their excellent Bills Digest, which enumerates some of the concerns which were expressed about this particular part of the legislation by representatives of the veterans community.
And I think it's worthwhile pointing out that in accepting that there was no need for that amendment, which was proposed originally by the government, the government has actually responded positively to the concerns that have been expressed by the veterans community and by the member for Kingston—and that's a very good thing. Whilst a number of points of concern were raised, there is no question in my view that the amendments as proposed will have the result that's required and make the legislation better.
I'm not going to go through—as the shadow minister has done already—each of the schedules of this legislation. That will serve no particular purpose other than to bore those who are listening—because they have already heard it. I did ask in a flippant way whether I should just use the opposition spokesperson's speech—because it did, as the government has done, outline the detail of the legislation. But I do want to go more generally to the issue of how we have a responsibility to make sure, in a changing environment, that we do all we possibly can to support our veterans.
It was a salutary lesson the other day when I sat and listened to the minister talk about the suicides. The fact is that, when in uniform, the suicide rate for Australian serving men and women is a lot less than it is in the general population; but, for that group of young Australians under the age of 24 who are veterans, it's a lot higher. I think the average length of service—the minister can correct me—for Australian serving personnel is around 7½ to eight years. We know that there are people who serve until they're 60. Congratulations to them, and we thank them very much for their wonderful service. But the young Australians who join the Defence Force when they're 17, 18 or 19 and leave the Defence Force in their mid-20s are the most at risk. And one of the issues which has been of concern not only to the minister but to the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the defence organisations is that we lose track of people once they leave—and that's for a whole range of reasons. It's really difficult. You can't compel people who leave the uniform to remain in touch.
You can't compel people who separate from the Defence Force to retain contact with their unit. We can't compel them to be members of a representative organisation like the RSL or some other organisation. We just can't. There are some who leave dispirited, and perhaps with a whole range of issues around authority as a result of their service, and they don't want anything to do with the uniform—they just don't want anything to do with it. Yet, potentially, they are the ones most in need. Our aspiration must be, somehow or another, to be able to track those people so that there is someone watching out for them.
That is extremely difficult. It's not something that the minister or the department can manufacture. I think it's something that organisations supporting veterans may have better access to, because it really means people going out and looking. If you've got mates while you're in the Defence Force, let's hope you keep those mates after it. I know in my father's case—he was a serving member in the Second World War—that he kept very close contact with his unit right until his death. That was great, but it doesn't happen often enough for some young people.
When people do cry out for help we've got to do what we can immediately. If there are people who, say, have a claim against the Commonwealth because of their service, we need to expedite the process for their claim to be heard, to make sure their claim is properly represented and to make sure their voice is properly heard so that their claim is met as quickly as possible—as this legislation is designed to do. If we don't, then we may end up in a situation where someone might do something which we would not want them to do. That is really very important.
I know that the department is challenged by this all the time, because it's not something that's easily overcome. But I do know, and I want to commend the minister and ask him to tell his department, how much we do appreciate the work they do. We might have differences about some of the decisions made about staffing, VAN officer and those sort of things but, ultimately, the people I've met in the Department of Veterans' Affairs are very highly motivated towards attending to the veterans' needs and veterans' families' needs.
As I've said continually in this place, we should make sure that anyone who walks through the doors of Kapooka understands from the day they walk in that they they're a potential client of the Department of Veterans' Affairs until the day they die. If they can accept that proposition as early as that, they'll see it as normal, once they leave, to have an association with the department. I would say—and this is a message which I know shouldn't rest with the minister—that we need to make sure there's never ever again another thought about having the Department of Veterans' Affairs absorbed into another agency. That should never happen. I don't think it will happen. It certainly won't happen under a Labor government. I know there have been some who have posited that proposal over the years, but let's make sure it's rejected whenever it's put.
I echo the sentiments expressed by the member for Lingiari about the spirit of cooperation and bipartisanship that infects the area of Veterans' Affairs. Unlike the unfortunate circumstances this afternoon with respect to equally important legislation dealing with gun trafficking, this minister understands that it's really important to develop and encourage a spirit of bipartisanship—particularly around this vitally important area of veterans' affairs.
I'm always very pleased to speak on legislation affecting our veterans community, like this Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017. I was very fortunate during my legal career to have represented veterans, commencing with veterans of the Second World War and then succeeding generations, in connection with pension claims. I have been able to gain an insight into that community, particularly those who sought to battle on and delayed making any claim for support from the taxpayer.
I fondly recall many veterans who recounted the fact that they tried to get on with their lives, despite in some cases having severe trauma which should have been the subject of an earlier claim. These veterans often found it difficult to make a late claim for TPI, for example, because of their willingness to put up with many conditions until pain or incapacity proved insurmountable.
It was and is a privilege to represent all of those veterans, each with their own unique stories of service, hardship, mateship and, of course, their postservice lives. If there was a common thread through all of these claims—whether it was a seaman who served in the Second World War in HMAS Shropshire and was exposed to high levels of radiation, someone who served in North Africa and washed his kit in petrol, or someone who damaged his knees, unsurprisingly, in parachute training—it was the volume of service and medical material that had to be trawled through in order to build a case for the veteran's claim. Often my involvement, for very practical reasons, only commenced once the matter had been unsuccessful before the Veterans' Review Board, the VRB. In many cases, delay in the resolution of a meritorious claim would have been avoided if some person with suitable knowledge and training had been in a position to review the material, advise as to the evidence and instruct medical experts as to what reports may have been required.
The object of veterans' affairs legislation is beneficial. In other words, the legislation should be construed in favour of the applicant veteran. The system should work in a manner which facilitates the resolution of claims in a manner which is fair, just, economical, informal and quick. My experience and the feedback I've received from veterans support groups would suggest that more work would need to be done to achieve that object. Labor is supportive of changes which will clarify, improve or streamline the operation of the laws and processes within the department. This is something that I strongly believe in and something which should also be subject to a process of continuous improvement.
The bill contains eight schedules which deal with a variety of different elements within the legislation. The bill was considered by the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Labor supported the referral to enable a thorough examination of the legislation. The overriding consideration is to ensure that the legislation operates as intended and that veterans are no worse off as a result of these changes. Our obligation—that is, the obligation of this place—to those who have served on behalf of our nation is to ensure that we do not, through changes that we make in this place, place them at any additional disadvantage.
Schedule 1 within the legislation seeks to amend the provisions which govern the Veterans' Review Board. This is designed to ensure that these provisions are aligned with similar provisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The VRB is a statutory authority. It's designed to provide independent merits review of decisions in connection with disability pensions, war widows and war widow pensions, a tenant allowance under the Veterans' Entitlements Act and, of course, the rehabilitation, compensation and other benefits under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. The amendments are designed to ensure that the operations of the board are modernised and improved to ensure accessibility, fairness, justice, economy, informality and speedy resolution. The operation of the board should be proportionate to the importance and complexity of an individual matter and, generally speaking, the operation of the board should promote public trust and confidence in the decision-making of the board.
As a legal practitioner, I know that independent merits review is a vitally important aspect of ensuring that, in the administration of complex systems of pensions entitlement, the applicant is able to have a decision reviewed without involving the expense of a legal practitioner in a complex formal process. One of the central aspects of merits review is access to proper material to found a decision. The legislation imposes an ongoing obligation upon both the applicant claimant and the Department of Veterans' Affairs to lodge with the board a copy of any document in their possession which is relevant to the review and has not been lodged previously.
It is notable that the Repatriation Commission and any person representing the commission in a review are required to use their best endeavours to assist the board in fulfilling the board's legislative objectives of accessibility, fairness, justice, economy, informality and speed of resolution. I must note that, whilst my experience in my dealings with representatives of the Repatriation Commission was almost without exception positive, there are and have been concerns expressed by the veterans community that the department and the commission often take a position towards the claimant applicant which is adversarial in nature. The formal introduction of an obligation to use best endeavours to assist the board in fulfilling those objectives is a positive step.
Schedule 1 also introduces provisions which would entitle the principal member to dismiss an application if they are satisfied that the application is frivolous, is vexatious, is misconceived, is lacking in substance, has no reasonable prospect of success or is otherwise an abuse of process. On balance, the provision of this express power is claimed by the minister to be appropriate, although it's unlikely there'll be many occasions in which it would be appropriate to dismiss an application without proceeding to a final hearing. I thank the minister for his ability to remove this particular clause from the legislation. As I said earlier, the spirit of bipartisanship with respect to this area of public policy is most important.
I know that on this side of the House, and certainly as conceded by the minister, we would be concerned if any power were used to deny an applicant an opportunity to put their case, even if their case appeared to have low prospects of success. It is understandable, of course, that our veterans community would be concerned about the introduction into legislation of any such power, but as a legal practitioner I understand and respect that courts have under their inherent jurisdiction a power to dismiss in these circumstances. Obviously, as a statutory tribunal, the Veterans' Review Board cannot exercise any inherent review powers, so these powers, if they were to be appropriate, must be conferred expressly.
This is obviously a balancing exercise. Lawyers are not permitted to appear before the Veterans' Review Board; the procedure is supposed to be informal. A case may not have been assembled with the assistance of a person with knowledge of procedure, as I have indicated earlier. It is important that the documents are reviewed and organised so that the Veterans' Review Board gets to consider the best possible case. As has been conceded, the veteran deserves an opportunity to be heard. It is always my preference for the applicant to have the opportunity to present their case.
Schedule 2 of the bill simplifies the appointment process for those who are to be appointed to the Specialist Medical Review Council. It progresses the whole-of-government requirements for digital transformation, removing red tape and 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 principle or a decision of the Repatriation Medical Authority not to issue a statement of principle. As a person who has practised in this area, I know that the existence of statements of principle provided some measure of certainty with respect to veterans' claims. Prior to the introduction of the statements of principle, aspects of the law required the establishment of a reasonable hypothesis linking service with a particular claimed condition. The statements of principle effectively codified reasonable hypotheses so as to assist in the resolution of claims.
It is obviously in the interest of justice for the statements of principle to have authority as to the matters that they cover. The people that determine the statements of principle should be appropriately qualified and possess appropriate expertise. Under the current arrangements, the minister must select members for the panel from a list of nominations submitted by colleges or other bodies of medical practitioners or scientists. However, that is not the way the process has worked in practice. In practice, the colleges have forwarded the names of candidates who have responded to advertisements, without assessing or recommending candidates. The minister, in making appointment, must have regard to the branches of science where expertise is necessary to decide review matters and must appoint no less than two councillors with experience in each branch. Obviously, given these requirements, the process of appointing members takes time—around three months or longer. This can affect the ability of the review council to perform its functions. These amendments, as proposed by the minister, are designed to streamline and facilitate the operation of the council.
Schedule 3 of the bill relates to international agreements and gives the minister the power to make agreements with foreign governments to cover the provision of benefits and payment of benefits under the MRCA, the SRCA and the DRCA. The current legislation only provides for existing agreements under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. The new provisions will cover allied veterans and Defence Force members with entitlements under whichever regulation gives them their entitlement. Labor supports the extension of agreements to cover all veterans' affairs legislation to ensure that veterans are covered under the relevant legislative framework irrespective of formal entitlement.
Schedule 4 deals with employer incentive scheme payments. These payments provide for wage subsidies which are payable to employers to encourage them to employ injured veterans who may be finding it difficult to compete in the labour market. That is particularly the case where we have a labour market where there is high unemployment. These amendments are commendable and strengthen the legislative foundation for the payments. Labor is supportive of measures which assist veterans to integrate into the community, to move on and to retain employment.
Schedule 5 introduces some important provisions to facilitate information sharing between the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission and the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation, in respect to certain service-related compensation claims. Under the existing legislation, due to information-sharing provisions—indeed, restrictions—when somebody is medically discharged they will undergo a medical, but when they go to the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation to organise those payments they may be required to undertake a second medical and, in turn, when they go to the DVA for assistance, they'll be required to undertake yet a further medical. These amendments are appropriate to enable information sharing between these bodies, reducing some of the intrusive medical examinations required. Access to the department's claims information, particularly relevant medical and rehabilitation information, enables the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation to make speedier superannuation benefits assessments and, in turn, will assist the department to determine a person's entitlement to incapacity payments. A common theme of my former practice as an advocate in this area was the necessity to organise multiple medical examinations. This is extremely frustrating for a veteran, particularly where there is a sense that the deck is stacked against the applicant.
I support this bill—of course, subject to the concerns that were expressed by Labor, with respect to the power, which was initially contained in this bill, to dismiss certain claims. It's very pleasing, therefore, that the minister has agreed to amend the bill to remove those provisions. Our veterans deserve a fair, just, economical, informal and quick system to address their claims. We welcome this change, which recognises the unique nature of the Veterans' Review Board. The measures within this bill are designed to address that object. I commend the legislation to the House.
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.
It really is a privilege to follow the member for Herbert in speaking to the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017. She is a fantastic advocate for her community up in Townsville and, like me, she really appreciates the work that our veterans have done in serving our country. I'm incredibly proud to rise today in solidarity with our veterans, who have already given so much to our nation. It is only fair that we, as their representatives, do whatever we can to support them. Whether it is supporting them to return to the workforce, helping them to live with a disability that they may now suffer from or even just helping them with the transition back to civilian life, it is important that we do what we can to support them. They deserve our support.
That is why I will continue to do what I can, and make sure the government does what it can, to provide Australia's veterans with the support they need in that transition to finding work or helping them in their community. I have been doing what I can already in my own electorate. I have been standing up for our veterans. Whether they live on Bribie Island, at Beachmere, in Caboolture, Morayfield, Narangba, Burpengary or Kallangur—we have wonderful communities of veterans throughout the electorate of Longman—I will always fight for our veterans and always support them. And, of course, I will always support legislation that helps them. I think it is fair to say that neither I nor Labor will ever stand in the way of good and sensible legislation.
I am standing here today agreeing to support the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill. By no means is this is a huge overhaul; the majority of the bill streamlines processes and makes things easier for veterans, which is what is fair, reasonable and should be expected. Most of all, for most of it, it is sensible and it is practical. I would like to speak on a number of the schedules to the bill. Schedule 1 will modernise and improve the operations of the Veterans' Review Board. This is a change that I welcome.
The Veterans' Review Board is a statutory authority whose role is to provide independent merits review of decisions about pensions and allowances under the Veterans' Entitlements Act as well as rehabilitation, compensation and other benefits under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004. The Veterans' Review Board is a body that serves a highly important function, so any changes that can be made to ensure it operates as effectively and efficiently as possible will always be welcomed by me on behalf of the veterans in my community. If these amendments ensure that the board pursues an objective of providing a mechanism of review that is fair, a mechanism that is accessible and just, a mechanism that is economical, informal and quick, a mechanism that helps to promote public trust and confidence in the decision-making of the board, then of course I will support these measures, as will my Labor colleagues.
These are sensible amendments, which is why I'm happy to support them, although I must point out it's no surprise to find that there was a proposal made by the government that apparently was suggested by the principal member of the Veterans' Review Board. I must commend the government for actually listening to suggestions. We all know that the only way for a government to formulate good policy is to listen and take heed of suggestions and to listen to those people who are affected, whether they be stakeholders or other organisations, or veterans or other people who live in the community. It is not possible to truly govern without listening to those who you represent, hearing what their needs and concerns are and listening to possible solutions or suggestions. It is just like hearing, I suppose, how many members of the ex-service community have expressed concerns with section 6 of schedule 1 of this bill.
I will go to section 6. It is understandable that this element has caused some angst in the community, as it gives the principal member of the Veterans' Review Board the ability to dismiss an application for review. Section 6 of schedule 1 of this bill effectively suppresses the voice of veterans who wish to stand up and represent themselves. The Veterans' Review Board is designed to be a less adversarial process than the AAT, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. It is supposed to be less stressful, less painful and more accommodating to the needs of ex-service men and women. Lawyers won't be involved at this stage, which is welcome. This will be an opportunity for veterans to be heard, but I believe that making it so easy for the principal member of the board to dismiss an application for review puts this schedule at odds with the very principle of the process. It is not just me who thinks this—so do the Returned and Services League and my colleagues on this side of the House, in the Labor Party. Labor had prepared to seek amendments to this bill to remove that section in its entirety. We have been pressuring the government to do just the same.
Again, going against character today, I'm pleased to hear that the government has finally listened. I commend the government—twice in one speech!
Mr Byrne interjecting—
No, we won't. But when it is sensible, when it helps veterans in our community and right across Australia, of course we will commend and support the government on finally doing their job properly. We have been calling on them to listen to the RSL and other ex-service men and women for some time now, so it is fantastic that they have finally listened.
Schedule 4 stands out to me to be a very good move, one that I am happy to support and one that I think really will support and help the veterans in my community. Schedule 4 legislates Employer Incentive Scheme payments. These payments are effectively wage subsidies made to employers to encourage them to engage an injured veteran. I think this is important, and I really do welcome this. I have quite a lot of young veterans living in communities around Narangba and this is welcome for both the veterans and their families. We all know what the job market is like at the moment. It is a scant job market, a job market that is growing worse at an alarming rate. We as policymakers have a responsibility to do whatever we can to assist those who have served our country to find work post-service.
Some months ago, I hosted a visit by the shadow minister for defence, the honourable member for Corio, Mr Richard Marles, in my electorate of Longman. Along with the honourable member, we visited Remembrance House in Burpengary and spent quite a few hours sitting around the table talking to and listening to a group of returned service men and women.