Wednesday, 6 September 2017
Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment (Defence Force) Bill 2017; Second Reading
My amendments to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment (Defence Force) Bill 2017, simply known as the DRCA, will fix the shortcomings of this bill that have not been replicated from the SRCA. The same functions which have been used by Comcare since 1998 with respect to the SRCA and which are currently binding upon the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission would be restored through this amendment. Those functions provide for minimising the duration and severity of injuries to employees by arranging quick rehabilitation. This was noted in the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee's report, specifically in my additional comments, which concur in part and dissent in part to the committee's report. Those additional comments may serve as an explanatory memorandum to my amendment.
Labor incorrectly believes that, with the inclusion of this clause, quick rehabilitation that now exists in the SRCA would cause a conflict between the different aims of rehabilitation, which could result in lesser protections for veterans. It believes that that provision has not been used since 2004. How legislating quick rehabilitation which now exists in the SRCA could lessen protections to veterans defies logical reasoning. This is a cop-out by the Labor Party. The expanded aim of rehabilitation which Labor relies upon is misplaced. Labor states that the aim of rehabilitation is to:
… maximise the potential to restore a person who has an impairment, or an incapacity for service or work, as a result of an injury or disease to at least the same physical and psychological state, and at least the same social, vocational and educational status, as he or she had before the injury or disease.
That means that a veteran's claim will be determined quickly. That is not my view. There is no provision in the DRCA bill which requires the arrangement of quick rehabilitation. It is a furphy. The failure to incorporate a provision for the arrangement of quick rehabilitation may cause delays in the arrangement of rehabilitation and serve to harm the veteran.
One only needs to look at Minister Tehan's ministerial statement on veterans and their families. Turning to page 7, it shows that determinations on certain claims have gone from waiting 129 days under the MRCA and 112 days under the SRCA to 156 days under the MRCA and 148 days under the SRCA. That is unacceptable. Are veterans expected to have an increased wait for the arrangements of rehabilitation given the omission of the 'quick rehabilitation' language in the DRCA?
In relation to the Henry VIII clause in the DRCA, my amendment drops it from the bill altogether. Without my amendment, this bill effectively handballs parliament's legislative function to that of the executive branch of the government. It gives a government unfettered power to make regulation modifying the operation of the act itself. That would be absolutely unprecedented in the history of Australian veterans entitlement law—absolutely unprecedented!
Labor's reliance upon the High Court's decision in ADCO Constructions Pty Ltd v Goudappel  HCA 18 to support a Henry VIII clause is absolutely misplaced. Section 121(b) in the DRCA regulation-making power provides that the regulations themselves may modify the operation of any part of the act itself. In the ADCO Constructions case, that regulation-making power was limited to making regulations not inconsistent with the act itself. Further, in the ADCO Constructions case, this limited Henry VIII clause was used for the purpose of providing a flexible means of making adjustments to the savings and transitional provisions of an act of parliament as noted by Justice Gageler. It is, therefore, different and should not under any circumstances be relied upon.
The government's power grab in incorporating a Henry VIII clause comes on the heels of the recently tabled Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee report entitled The constant battle: suicide by veterans, which noted concerns about the inadequacy of staff training and recommended a review of its training. The committee recommended a Productivity Commission study be completed within 18 months on Australia's veterans legislative framework. In the committee's support for such a review, it unanimously and in a rare bipartisan manner rejected the Department of Veterans' Affairs saying that there is no easy way to untangle the current legislative complexities. Rather, the committee concluded:
It is time for a comprehensive rethink of how the current system operates and will operate into the future.
Labor, in its response given by Richard Marles MP to the second reading speech in the House of Representatives, failed to consider the Senate FADT references committee report into veteran suicide and the systematic problems raised in the bipartisan report. Rather, it hopes, on a wing and a prayer, that the government's intention to just use it as a 'fail-safe' in case something has been overlooked in the process, which would have left a veteran worse off, will work. That's right—they're hoping on a wing and a prayer that a veteran may not be worse off. One only has to look to the 180-page Senate FADT references committee report on veteran suicide to draw the logical conclusion—although logic around here is in very short supply—that this government's intentions don't always match their actions.
Besides the FADT references committee report into veteran suicide, the Australian National Audit Office has flagged a potential performance audit into the efficiency of veterans service delivery by the Department of Veterans' Affairs as part of its annual audit works for 2017-18. In fact, the FADT references committee recommended that such an audit by the ANAO start as soon as possible. The Senate signing off on granting the Department of Veterans' Affairs unfettered powers in a Henry VIII clause flies in the face of the FADT references committee report into veteran suicide. It gives more power to the institution when questions are being asked over how it is using its power. That's a mistake, and it's a mistake my amendment fixes.
The committee's report lays bare a culture, a very deep culture, of systematic problems within the Department of Veterans' Affairs. It lays bare how the legislation governing veterans affairs has been slapped together with blu tack and held together with bandaids. Slipping a Henry VIII clause into the DRCA under these conditions is such bad policy. It is very, very bad policy from an unprincipled government which takes veterans and their sacrifices for granted.
This bill should be put on the shelf and await a Productivity Commission review, as requested by the committee in its bipartisan report into veterans affairs. Let me my remind my Senate colleagues of the following recommendations:
The committee recommends, that in the context of recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare findings concerning veterans at risk of suicide, the Australian Government:
• develop and implement specific suicide prevention programs targeted at those veterans identified in at-risk groups; and
• expand the DVA Reconnects Project to proactively contact veterans in these identified at-risk groups.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government commission an independent study into the mental health impacts of compensation claim assessment processes on veterans engaging with the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation. The results of this research should be utilised to improve compensation claim processes.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government establish a National Veteran Suicide Register to be maintained by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government review the enhancement of veteran-specific online training programs intended for mental health professionals. In particular:
• requirements for providers to undertake training;
• the introduction of incentives for undertaking online training and demonstrating outcomes in clinical practice.
The committee recommends that Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs align arrangements for the provision of professional mental health care.
Here it is—
The committee recommends that the Australian Government make a reference to the Productivity Commission to simplify the legislative framework of compensation and rehabilitation for service members and veterans. In particular, this review should examine the utilisation of Statements of Principle in the determination of compensation claims. The report of this systemic review should be completed within 18 months and tabled in the Parliament.
The question needs to be asked, and I will be asking it: why would you be doing any legislative changes right now? Why aren't you adopting these recommendations? This is what is going to make the difference—not coming in when we have put all these recommendations in, not adopting them, nearly three weeks after we tabled the report.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government continue to support the 'Veteran Centric Reform' program within the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
The committee recommends that, while the Veteran Centric Reform program is being implemented, the Australian Government continue to fund measures to:
• alleviate pressure on claims processing staff and to reduce the backlog of claims; and
• increase case coordination staff to assist clients with complex needs.
The committee recommends that the Department of Veterans' Affairs conduct a review of its training program to ensure relevant staff:
• have an understanding of the realities of military service—
If you can get to that point you're starting off well—
• have an understanding of health issues of veterans;
• have appropriate communication skills—
That would incorporate not blacklisting advocates and myself—
to engage with clients with mental health conditions; and
• have sufficient training to interpret medical assessment and reports—
which, quite clearly, they do not.
5.105 The committee recommends that the Department of Veterans' Affairs review its use of medico-legal firms—
because it's taking out veterans—
in relation to the assessment of the conditions of veterans. In particular, this review should confirm:
• assessments undertaken are appropriate to the conditions considered—
For those people who don't understand that, that means when you have PTSD and they want to send you to a doctor that's checking out your need, that's medicolegal and you probably shouldn't be there. They're the sort of mistakes that the Department of Veterans' Affairs continually makes—short-changing the veterans.
• that the medical professionals used have undertaken training on treating veterans and can demonstrate their expertise working amongst this client group; and
• the need for independent medical assessments where information is already available from the veteran's own doctor or treating specialist.
You may want to start there, because nothing annoys a veteran more than, when they've had a treating specialist or GP for 10 years, you send them to a medico legal, and everything that doctor or specialist has been doing for them in the past is wiped out in a 15-minute appointment. There's no fairness in that.
The committee recommends the Department of Veterans' Affairs expand its online engagement with younger veterans through social media to raise awareness regarding available support services.
Maybe they should try using that, rather than trying to make them remove it off Facebook.
The committee recommends that the reference to the Productivity Commission should also include examination of the following areas in the Veterans' Affairs portfolio:
That in itself will keep you busy for a couple of years, I can assure you. You have a bit of cleaning up to do over there.
The committee recommends that the Australian National Audit Office commence the proposed performance audit of the 'Efficiency of veterans' service delivery by the Department of Veterans' Affairs' as soon as possible.
Nearly three weeks you've had these recommendations. You still haven't started any of this. What it goes to show me is you actually don't give a stuff about a veteran. All you're doing is talking the talk, but you'll be damned if you walk the walk.
The committee recommends that Transition Taskforce examine and address:
You might actually want to start there at the transition, let's be honest. Defence may want to make sure they're transitioned properly before you pass them to DVA. Here's a better idea: why don't you leave them on Defence's manning list and watch how quick they'll get the medical attention that they need. Get some of those commanders off their rear end, start standing up for their troops, start being real leaders in military, hey?
The committee recommends that the Department of Veterans' Affairs develop a two-track transition program for serving members leaving the ADF. Those identified as being in 'at risk' groups or requiring additional assistance due to their circumstances should be able to access intensive transition services. These intensive transition services should include additional support:
I know this is very strange for you people over there, but it's pretty easy: it's called early intervention. You know what? It will save billions of dollars over a period of time if you get onto these illnesses and help these men and women who have served their country a lot earlier, instead of using the 'delay, deny, die' method that Veterans' Affairs consistently uses.
The committee recommends the Australian Government issue all ADF members transitioning into civilian life with a DVA White Card—
No matter what condition they have.
The committee recommends that the Career Transition Assistance Scheme include an option for veterans to undertake a period of work experience with an outside employer.
The committee recommends that the Australian Public Service Commission conduct a review into mechanisms to further support veteran employment in the Australian Public Service and the public sector.
It's shameful you don't even have a quota for that. You're not even serious, really, are you?
The committee recommends that the Department of Veterans' Affairs review the support for partners of veterans to identify further avenues for assistance. This review should include services such as information and advice, counselling, peer support and options for family respite care to support partners of veterans—
Because while you're destroying their lives, you're destroying the lives of their kids, their wives, their families and those around them. That's the impact. That's the result that Veterans' Affairs is dishing out to them.
The committee recommends:
The committee recommends the Australian Government fund a trial program that would provide assistance animals for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) stemming from their military service in order to gather research to support the eventual funding of animals for veterans—
Quite frankly, you don't need a trial program: it's already proven; it's already working. Veterans' Affairs knows that—they just don't want to pay a little bit of extra money to make a veteran better. Whatever helps a veteran to get better, DVA will be right against it. That's what they do.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government provide funding to support the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service:
•create and maintain a public database of services available to veterans; and
•provide an information service to assist veterans and families connect and access appropriate services provided by ex-service organisations and others.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government establish a Bureau of Veterans' Advocates to represent veterans, commission legal representation where required, train advocates for veterans and be responsible for advocate insurance issues.
This was promised by the current PM. We're still waiting.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government establish an independent review of the representation of veterans before the Veterans' Review Board. This review should assess whether the rights of vulnerable veterans are being adequately protected and whether further support mechanisms for veterans appearing before the Veterans' Review Board are required.
Now let's go back to recommendation 6, which is:
The committee recommends that the Australian Government make a reference to the Productivity Commission to simplify the legislative framework of compensation and rehabilitation for service members and veterans. In particular, this review should examine the utilisation of Statements of Principle …
So I ask once again: why would this chamber, less than a month after the references committee made that recommendation—the government has yet to issue a formal response—vote to enact new veterans legislation without any regard to a Productivity Commission report or review? This does not make any sense to me and the veterans community at large. It puts another bandaid on veterans legislation without waiting for a systematic review of it.
If this government is so hell-bent on pushing this bill through, then my amendments to DRCA are reasonable and protect veterans in what has been a chaotic legislative framework year in, year out. Quite frankly, I can assure you: the veterans, their community, their families and their friends have had an absolute gutful. (Time expired)