Wednesday, 6 September 2017
Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment (Defence Force) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I had hoped to hear from Senator Bernardi and Senator Burston in this second reading debate, but, absent of their contributions, taking time at the moment might allow them to get to the chamber if they've been delayed. I wanted to follow Senator Lambie's contribution by focusing on a couple of areas in the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment (Defence Force) Bill 2017. I think Senator Farrell, in the second reading contribution on behalf of the Labor Party, has covered the breadth of the provisions in the bill. But, particularly following Senator Lambie, I think it is helpful to revisit a couple of areas.
I am concerned to hear Senator Lambie highlight issues such as having been blacklisted as an advocate, because I think the contribution that she makes to this parliament for veterans is significant, very useful and helpful, and we should continue to listen to her experience, her advice and her advocacy. I understand what she said in terms of frustration with the process, the outcome and the intention of the amendments she is proposing. Unfortunately, I haven't been as intimately involved in the parliament's consideration of these issues to be able to reflect on the assurances that the government may have provided in relation to a range of concerns raised by both her and the Labor Party in terms of how these provisions might be applied. But I do understand her frustration with intention not necessarily equalling action in implementing provisions around veterans and, indeed, her frustrations, as with many, with attempts to modernise an enormous bureaucracy in terms of how it treats our veterans with the respect that they deserve. I experienced that myself with my father's time as a veteran after many years of service in the Australian Air Force. In Senator Lambie's case, I think she gives us all a very refreshing example of how the provision of veterans affairs hasn't necessarily been modernised to the extent that it should be. It's a very important reminder for all of us.
I know that Senator Farrell will be here to deal with Labor's position on Senator Lambie's amendments, but there are other elements of this bill that I wanted to highlight. I started looking at this when I was listening to Senator Kakoschke-Moore talking about the MRCA, the SRCA, the DRCA and how people can even be lost in the acronyms of it all! I think it's helpful to remind us that this legislation proposes to remove all the Defence Force elements from the SRCA and create an exact replica called the DRCA, which will apply only to Defence Force members. There can be some advantages and disadvantages of that. This is why I think the Senate committee took the time to ensure that things weren't inadvertently overlooked from the existing arrangements.
From work I've done over many years in other occupational rehabilitation areas, I can give credence to Senator Lambie's point about ensuring timely rehabilitation. If that's an area where veterans affairs is still well behind the game, that's quite concerning to hear. I would hope that, through this parliamentary discussion, and through her continued advocacy as well, the Department of Veterans' Affairs will continue to be held to account to lift its game in that area. Any suggestion that our veterans are not receiving the timely rehabilitation that is necessary to help them return to the best health possible is, I think, as Senator Lambie said quite passionately, just not good enough. There is the general hope that consolidating the management of these areas to apply only to Defence Force members will assist that process.
In reading about this bill, I think the creation of this act to bring all legislation relating to veterans affairs under the responsibilities of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs is a good one. Obviously how effectively that occurs might depend on who the Minister for Veterans' Affairs is at the time, and I think Senator Lambie and I would both agree that as much pressure as possible should be put on the Prime Minister of the day not only to meet what commitments the government have previously made but to ensure that the person with responsibility for veterans affairs meets the rest of the criteria you were referring to, Senator Lambie, from the report—that the minister is capable of having an understanding of the circumstances around veterans and is capable of ensuring, with some passion and dedication, that the standards that apply to their circumstances are the best that they possibly can be.
I was concerned to see that, to date, some of these areas have been mixed between the Minister for Employment and the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. We only need to look at the types of debates we saw today and yesterday about what was, once upon a time, a bipartisan agreement that enterprise bargaining was a good thing for our country, for industrial arrangements into the future and for ongoing productivity. That's now a contest for partisan debate. I would hate to see the culture that's developed in employment policy, particularly workplace relations type policy, infect the policy discussion about veterans affairs. I would hate to see our political milieu deteriorate into veterans becoming the same fodder as we have seen in the discussions about employees and the role of unions in contemporary Australian society, because that could only make things worse.
I see some advantages, obviously, of consolidating all of the arrangements to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and keeping it away from that policy space, but I would like to take this opportunity to revisit Senator Lambie's focus on the importance of early intervention in rehabilitation. It's too easy, in a land where we're dealing with legislation with complex acronyms and the like, to forget the fundamental principle: we know that in rehabilitation, occupational rehabilitation particularly, early intervention is the most significant factor. If you can't intervene early, if you allow bureaucracy and rules and classifications and egos and defence hierarchy and all of that to contaminate that fundamental principle of early intervention, then Senator Lambie's quite right to highlight—and, indeed, very passionate in doing so—that it's the dignity of our veterans that we are compromising.
I know some of these issues have been discussed amongst the committee and between the minister and the shadow minister, and I hope assurances in relation to those issues have reached a satisfactory point. But I don't think it hurts for someone other than Senator Lambie to say that, if our arrangements aren't meeting that fundamental criterion of early intervention in the rehabilitation of our veterans, we are compromising the dignity of our veterans.
Senator Lambie says that she's concerned that we're relying on a wing and a prayer, that that fail-safe isn't here, and refers to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee inquiry into veterans' suicide. Senator Lambie highlighted that that committee recommended a review by the Productivity Commission. Now, I wonder sometimes whether the Productivity Commission is necessarily the most appropriate body to conduct such reviews. I do understand Senator Lambie's concern that a review per se hasn't occurred, before proceeding with this consolidation. My confidence in a review like that being conducted by the Productivity Commission is a bit mixed. They've done some good work—for instance, in relation to paid parental leave. That report challenged my preconceptions about the quality of a report that the Productivity Commission could produce. But, whether today they are now in the best position to pick up the concerns that Senator Lambie and the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee had, I think, is an open question.
I would hope, absent the Productivity Commission, that the government had indeed addressed in some detail the recommendations of the references committee report because all of those issues that Senator Lambie raises have merit and need to be addressed. At the end of the day, she may not be satisfied with precisely how those issues have been addressed—and I'm sure, in the committee stage, Senator Farrell will discuss her particular amendment. I don't think it harms this consideration to highlight that her point about early intervention and timely rehabilitation is a fundamental principle that we in this parliament, on a bipartisan basis, should be guaranteeing, for the dignity of our veterans.