Senate debates

Wednesday, 6 September 2017


Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment (Defence Force) Bill 2017; Second Reading

11:51 am

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak about the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment (Defence Force) Bill 2017. As senators may be aware, as it stands, pensions, compensation, rehabilitation, treatment and other benefits for veterans, members of the Defence Force and their families are provided for under three separate legislative acts. These are the Veterans Entitlement Act 1986, called the VEA; the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988, called SRCA; and the Military Rehabilitation Act 2004, called MRCA.

The VEA primarily provides benefits and entitlements for those who undertook service in wartime and certain operational deployments, as well as certain peacetime service between 7 December 1972 and 30 June 2004. For peacetime service eligibility, a member who had not completed a qualifying period of three years service prior to 7 April 1994 is not covered, unless they were medically discharged. British nuclear test defence service during the 1950s and 1960s in Australia is also covered when relevant criteria are met. If a veteran suffers an injury or disease arising out of, or aggravated by, a period of full-time service while they were covered under the VEA, they may be entitled to a disability pension and medical treatment. They may also be eligible for compensation under the SRCA for the same disability, with compensation offset against their pension.

The second piece of legislation, the SRCA, provides coverage for illness, injury and death suffered as a result of peacetime and peacekeeping service from 3 January 1949 to 30 June 2004 and for certain periods of operational service between 7 April 1994 and 30 June 2004. Coverage under SRCA is essentially linked to peacetime ADF service between 3 January 1949 and 30 June 2004, with no coverage of ADF service prior to 3 January 1949 or any period of operational service prior to 7 April 1994.

The final piece of legislation, MRCA, covers members who served on or after 1 July 2004. MRCA provides rehabilitation and compensation coverage for warlike, non-warlike and peacetime service. The SRCA and MRCA are more like modern workers compensation legislation and provide rehabilitation and compensation coverage for military service related to injuries, illness or death.

This legislation proposes to remove all the Defence Force elements from the SRCA and create an exact replica called the DRCA which will only apply to Defence Force members. The creation of this act will also bring all legislation relating to veterans affairs under the responsibility of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. As it stands, both the VEA and the MRCA are in the remit of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs; however, the SRCA, as it applies to the ADF, is part of a larger act which covers all employees of the Australian government. Consequently, this means that the act sits with the Minister for Employment. When the MRCA took effect, responsibility for determining and managing defence-related claims under the SRCA was given to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, the MRCC, by virtue of the addition of part 11 to the SRCA. Essentially, while the decisions about compensation and rehabilitation fall within the responsibility of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the legislation itself sits with a different minister. This new legislation is designed to fix this. In addition, the bill makes a number of minor language amendments to the DRCA and amends the SRCA to remove cover for members of the Defence Force and their dependants. The implementation of the DRCA will provide for a complete separation of the legislative framework for defence-related claims from the Comcare scheme under the SRCA and will provide the Minister for Veteran's Affairs with the responsibility of all three of the separate compensation acts that cover Defence Force members.

Given the complexity of the bill, Labor supported the referral of this legislation to the Senate Standing Committees on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to consider the detail of the bill. The committee received a number of submissions and held a public hearing to work through concerns of interested parties.

The DRCA should be viewed as a snapshot in time, an exact replica of the Defence Force elements of the SRCA, as of the day the DRCA is enacted. Given the complexity of the SRCA, which has been amended 68 times since its inception, there was a considerable amount of concentrated effort to ensure the DRCA was the exact replica of the legislation and nothing had been inadvertently omitted. An example of this work relates to the functions of Comcare in relation to rehabilitation and acting quickly to minimise the duration and the severity of injuries. This was also raised by Senator Lambie during the committee process. On reading the explanatory memorandum of the bill, it would appear that section 69, which deals with Comcare and claims, had not come across to the new bill. While this is technically correct, section 69 of the SRCA has not applied to veterans since the insertion of section 142 when the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission was created, which then became responsible for compensation claims and rehabilitation. Section 142 has been duplicated by the DRCA, and through a number of other sections in both the DRCA and the MRCA, the commitment to determining claims, which includes rehabilitation, quickly and accurately remains. We're satisfied that the element that currently applies to veterans is maintained under the DRCA. However, Labor encourages the government to consider making the pathway that leads to this conclusion clearer into the future.

There were a number of other technical concerns raised during this process. I would like to acknowledge the very diligent work of all parties involved, in particular Labor's terrific shadow minister in the other place, Amanda Rishworth, in identifying areas where the legislation appeared to have not been duplicated across in its entirety. Labor has worked through each of these concerns with stakeholders and the government and is confident that the issues raised have now been addressed. However, due to the complexity of the legislation, under advice from the Australian Government Solicitor a Henry VIII clause was added to provide a remedy for any unforeseen adverse consequences that could arise from the unique manner in which the DRCA was enacted. The government has been clear that the intention is not for the clause to be utilised. It is only there as a failsafe in case something has been overlooked in the process that would leave a particular veteran worse off.

Henry VIII clauses essentially enable a government to make regulations with the power to modify the act, which are then introduced to the parliament as disallowable instruments. In the DRCA, a condition has been added to the Henry VIII clause that requires any regulations made under this provision to act in a purely beneficial way, for the benefit of the veteran, to deal with any anomalies that may arise where there is retrospective application of the DRCA. This condition states:

Before the Governor-General makes regulations under subsection (1), the Minister must be satisfied that it is necessary or desirable to make the regulations to ensure that no person (except the Commonwealth) is disadvantaged by the enactment of this Act.

As such, it's clear that in the unlikely event of this clause being utilised it can only be when someone has been made worse off by the creation of the DRCA and only to the benefit of the individual, not of the government. This is a very important condition, and it is the reason that Labor is in a position to support the inclusion of this clause. In addition, it is important to note that any regulations brought in under this provision would be disallowable instruments and be brought before both houses of parliament and sit for 15 days of parliament before they come into operation. While this gives some assurances, concerns have been raised about notification of these instruments. Although they are disallowable instruments, this rests on interested parties becoming aware of the tabling of these documents.

Consequently, Labor senators recommend that section 121B be amended to include a consultative element. This amendment would essentially require the minister to be satisfied that appropriate consultation had been undertaken with relevant parties, including disclosure of the proposed regulations. The government has declined to accept this proposal, stating that the intention of the clause is to quickly provide relief to an individual who has been made worse off by the creation of the DRCA. The government argues that the inclusion of a requirement to consult would result in delaying the provision of relief to the individual. It is worth remembering that in the unlikely event that the clause is utilised there would be an individual veteran who has been made worse off for the creation of this bill, who has had to have this acknowledged by the department, and regulations drafted, approved and tabled. To delay them, the provision of the relief is unfair, particularly given in this circumstance. If the DRCA had not been created, there would have been no delay and they would have received the assistance immediately.

In the event that this clause is utilised, we call on the department to exhaust all avenues to ensure that anyone else who would benefit from the changes is made aware of the regulations. The government has agreed to do this, at Labor's request, and is committed to ensuring that everything possible will be done by the department to locate and contact any person who would be affected by a DRCA Henry VIII clause. Labor supports the inclusion of this clause, without the requirement to consult prior to making the regulations, for one reason only: to ensure that there is no delay correcting the issue that has come about due to the creation of the bill and is impacting a particular veteran.

Significant concerns were also raised in relation to the consultation conducted by the department in relation to this and other legislation during the committee process. While the government stated that the development of a standalone act for the ADF members and veterans was announced two years ago, with consultation continuing during this period predominantly with the ex-service round table, it conceded that the ex-service round table members were not able to view the bill until it was introduced into parliament last year. However, the president of the Australian Federation of Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex-Service Men and Women stated they considered the bill was not really brought to the Ex-Service Organisation Round Table's attention as being a piece of legislation which was due to be passed.

In addition, members of the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations highlighted that there is a lack of resources for the ex-service organisations to be able to assess and analyse legislation. Their representatives noted that their organisation and its partners are voluntary associations and as such have limited access to personal and financial resources. As members may be aware, there have been a number of Senate inquiries into veterans affairs in recent months, along with the high-profile Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel. This has stretched voluntary organisations' capacity to respond to and critically examine new legislation. This issue was raised by a number of submitters who were concerned with the speed at which this legislation appeared to be tabled and required feedback. While this legislation may have been broadly discussed some time ago, the evidence provided indicated that consultation was neither thorough enough nor wide enough to capture ESOs and other interested parties. As such, the committee concluded there was room for improvement in the way in which that DVA consults on changes to legislation and engages with veteran communities.

The committee raised concerns about DVA's current consultation and engagement practices in relation to proposed legislative changes, noting that, while this is partly due to the limited resources of ESOs to examine legislation, ultimately it is up to the DVA to improve this relationship. This issue was regularly raised by veterans and is an area of deep concern. Consultation on these issues is vital not only for capturing the lived experiences of those working through the system but also for preventing unnecessary angst or concern. Effective engagement is fundamental and is an area which the department needs to address as soon as possible.

The committee also highlighted another issue, which has been raised with me a number of times—that is, the adversarial approach of DVA towards some veteran advocacy groups and lawyers acting on behalf of veterans. This adversarial culture in the department is something Labor sought to resolve by committing, prior to the election, to undertaking the first principles reviews of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. This review would be based on a set of agreed-upon first principles, would examine the department and would seek to rectify administrative, governance and process failings to ensure the department is able to meet existing and future challenges in a clear and efficient manner. Most importantly, this review would help to establish trust in DVA for the veterans and their representative organisations. It would ensure we have a system in place which works for the people who need it the most and puts our veterans first. The committee recommended that the Department of Veterans' Affairs conduct the review into its consultation and engagement practices, in order to receive informed critical feedback on proposed legislative amendments, rapidly respond to concerns raised by the veteran community and increase the understanding in the veteran community of proposed legislative changes. We understand the government has accepted this recommendation and has undertaken to review the DVA's consultation processes.

This inquiry, along with a recently completed inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel, has clearly highlighted that there is a disconnect between the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the ex-service community. The Senate committee process also highlighted the anxiety veterans, interested parties and the ex-service community feel about future changes to the SRCA, particularly with regard to the alignment of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. It is generally acknowledged that legislation in this space is complex, with each act operating slightly differently. There is the desire in the ex-service community to see this process made easier for veterans and their advocates to administer. This desire is equally measured by concern that, with the harmonisation of the provisions, the lowest common denominator will become the standard.

DVA indicated there will be appropriate consultation with the veteran and defence communities on any areas of potential alignment between DRCA and the MRCA. While the assurance is welcome, this consultation as undertaken continues to raise questions. Broad consultation is important to ensure that veterans and their advocates are aware of proposed changes and are able to provide detailed feedback. Labor senators continue to hold concerns about the future alignment of legislation and urge the minister to clarify the details of the proposed forms to provide certainty to ADF members and veterans. We concur with this request. Labor is supportive of changes which make it easier for veterans to navigate the system, however not at the expense of the entitlements and support structures. Given assurances that no veterans would be worse off for these changes, Labor offers our support to the legislation.

12:10 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

In 2015, the Greens—myself—initiated the first Senate inquiry into veterans' mental health, which I understand Senator Lambie and others in this chamber also participated in. That inquiry went over nearly nine months and went all around the country. We heard some evidence and put in place some recommendations. I am glad there has been an additional Senate inquiry into veteran suicide.

Senator Lambie interjecting

I'll take that interjection. It is a sad fact that a number of recommendations of numerous Senate inquiries haven't been taken up, including this one. This one is particularly acute and very sensitive. I am glad that Senator Lambie hasn't allowed the Senate to take its foot off the proverbial throat of DVA and let these issues go unresolved, and I am glad that we have some good legislation here in front of us today. I know from that inquiry and from hearing evidence all around the country, and I also know from my father, who is a Vietnam veteran, and my godfather and many of their circle of friends and the advocates that I know well in Tasmania who work at the RSL and work with DVA, that this area is very sensitive. It is extremely complex, but it's also very sensitive. That makes it a potential powder keg if we don't get it right.

So I think it is important to point out that this bill today is a response to the overwhelming complexity of the veterans' entitlement system. It will replicate the existing Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988, which applies to all ADF members and veterans with service prior to 1 July 2004, so that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs has full control of the act that currently sits with the Minister for Employment. As it currently stands, as Senator Farrell pointed out, there are three acts which govern pensions, compensation, rehabilitation treatment and other benefits for veterans, ADF members and their families. These are the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986, or VEA; the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, commonly known as SRCA; and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, commonly known as MRCA. These acts cover different types of service in different periods of time, and often veterans and ADF personnel are subject to multiple acts. May I say, also from my experience, that this probably biased them towards using one or two legal firms who specialise in this area and know these areas very well. While they do a very important job, I think it's quite important that we still move to simplify the legislation so that it's clearer for all stakeholders.

According to the government this bill will pave the way for reforms that are intended to make life easier for those seeking access to entitlements. It will also allow the minister to recognise the unique nature of military service that may not be appropriate for civilians under the act. In creating this bill, the government has included section 121B, also known as the Henry VIII clause, which will ensure that no person is worse off under the act.

Let me address a few reasons the veterans' entitlement system is a mess. It is a Byzantine system that is currently very difficult for veterans to use. I think the fact that it's a mess is something that all sides of politics agree on. The overlapping legislation governing compensation and rehabilitation is a burden on veterans, on their advocates, many of them volunteers, and even on the Department of Veterans' Affairs itself and, by default, the Department of Defence, which also liaises with the veterans' affairs department on a number of these very sensitive, important issues.

Veterans face a complex system where, for example, injuries suffered by the same person at different points in time or during different types of service may be covered by different compensation legislation. During the recent inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel, Colonel David Jamison from the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations told the committee:

… we believe a significant factor contributing to the problem lies in the legislative framework on which support to veterans is based. The three rehabilitation and compensation schemes result in a very complicated system that sets up an adversarial claims process and a bureaucratic structure that many see as complicated and unfriendly towards veterans seeking support.

I will underline that word 'adversarial', because nearly all of the evidence I've heard in my five years in this place, including three years covering this portfolio, is that it is adversarial. Certainly Senator Lambie has been a very vocal proponent of solving that problem.

It is abundantly clear from social media groups and from talks with veterans of more recent conflicts that they feel alienated and see the system as biased against them. The veteran suicide inquiry also raised concerns about the statements of principles which are used to determine whether or not a person is eligible for compensation. Witnesses testified that many veterans believe these statements of principles are not up to date, are not flexible, are too complex for non-expert people to use with ease and are designed to hinder rather than assist veterans.

The case of Army veteran Jesse Bird is a tragic illustration of the impacts our current compensation system has on those seeking assistance. Many in this chamber would have read that Jesse took his own life just a few months ago, weeks after losing a claim for permanent impairment he had been pursuing for years. He served in Afghanistan, where he had been shot at and exposed to bomb blasts from IEDs. He had a close friend, Private Benjamin Ranaudo, who was killed by one of these blasts. On his return to Australia, Jesse suffered from PTSD, associated anxiety and depression and was unable to hold down a job. Although the DVA accepted his conditions were caused by his military service, it said his condition was not unstable or severe enough to warrant permanent impairment. I understand the minister has met with the Bird family recently and that the department is conducting an inquiry into Jesse's case and his death. We must make sure that Jesse's situation doesn't arise again.

The problems with veterans aren't just limited to compensation. We heard during the inquiry into the digital readiness bill earlier this year that veterans face unreasonably long wait periods to be reimbursed the costs of any claims. On top of this, rates of entitlement are inconsistent and arbitrary. Application and assessment processes are a crazy maze. For many veterans, the bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans' Affairs is a barrier to getting what they are entitled to. All parties—and I think this is actually one issue that does bring together all political sides in this place—should be working together with the veteran community to create a better system for those who serve Australia.

The Greens in response to this mess have consistently said we would undertake a root-and-branch review of the veterans' entitlements system. This review would determine whether current entitlements are sufficient and whether current eligibility criteria are fair, including access to health cards, disability pensions, housing and superannuation arrangements. We have been pushing this since my predecessor Penny Wright from South Australia had the veterans portfolio. My former colleague Senator Ludlam did some great work around nuclear veterans and worked with Senator Lambie on getting them access to the gold card.

The review would also recommend a redesign of the entitlements process to make it more legible and accessible and recommend an overhaul of the delivery of support services. Complaints about DVA are still on the rise, which is an indicator that the system is still failing. The review of service delivery should consider assigning each veteran a liaison officer, which was one of the recommendations of the first Senate inquiry into veterans' mental health, to act as a single point of contact to navigate the system. As Senator Lambie mentioned earlier, the recommendations of that inquiry were well over 12 months ago and it is disappointing that that simple solution still hasn't been implemented. The Greens also support recommendations of the inquiry into veterans' suicides that the government make a reference to the Productivity Commission to simplify the legislative framework of compensation and rehabilitation for service members and veterans.

Given the well-founded concerns about the current compensation system, the Greens will support this bill. We want things made easier for veterans. We support laying the groundwork for a simpler set of military compensation and rehabilitation arrangements. However, we don't want simplification to come if it means outcomes of the lowest common denominator for veterans. We want to make sure that in making the legislative schemes more accessible for veterans no veteran or ADF member will be worse off. For this reason we support the government's inclusion of the so-called Henry VIII clause, which was added to make sure that if there were any adverse consequences for a veteran from the passage of this bill the situation could be remedied. The clause will allow the government to make regulations, as a disallowable instrument, to modify the act introduced to parliament.

The minister has clearly stated that he does not intend for the clause to be used. It was introduced as a back-up on the off-chance that a veteran finds himself or herself disadvantaged. The government has enshrined in this bill that the Henry VIII clause can only be used to advantage veterans. Section 121B (2) states:

Before the Governor-General makes regulations under 23 subsection (1), the Minister must be satisfied that it is necessary or desirable to make the regulations to ensure that no person (except 1 the Commonwealth) is disadvantaged by the enactment of this Act.

We acknowledge that some veterans and their representative organisations have raised concerns that changes to the act will pass through disallowable instruments without adequate consultation. I understand that Senator Lambie shares these concerns and will move an amendment to section 121B. However, the Greens believe that the protections enshrined in the act will protect veterans from an erosion of their entitlements. We are also keen to make sure that there is no undue delay to any veteran who finds himself or herself worse off and the insertion of additional consultation requirements around each disallowable instrument may cause undue distress to individual veterans.

During the inquiry into this bill there were a number of serious concerns raised regarding the Department of Veterans' Affairs' lack of consultation. For example, even though the government indicated that discussion with the community about this bill began two years ago, Ex-Service Organisation Round Table members were not able to view the bill until it was introduced to parliament late last year. This meant that veterans' legitimate queries around losing access to Comcare and favourable precedents set by previous legal decisions were not addressed and were allowed to fester. It also contributed to concerns that the government will try to whittle down entitlements, by stealth, in the future. We hope the government has learnt from this experience and will conduct exhaustive consultation if and when it plans to align aspects of this bill with the MRCA. The Greens will certainly be working to make sure the principle of 'no veterans disadvantaged' is maintained and I am confident that each senator in this chamber will do the same.

In conclusion, the Greens are supportive of the positive steps to make life easier for veterans. We support reform to simplify and harmonise different legislation and claims processes for ADF members and veterans. We acknowledge concerns raised regarding the inclusion of the Henry VIII clause, but the legislation clearly states that this clause is designed to ensure that no veteran is worse off—rather than being a sneaky attempt to erode entitlements. We will, therefore, support the bill and look forward to further discussions on how we can improve the entitlement system for veterans.

The Greens, like every political party and everyone in this chamber, want to support veterans. It is essential because of the service they have provided to our country and because we have always wanted to highlight the issues of veterans, be they physical, mental or otherwise. It is a cost of service, a cost of military conflict and, ultimately, a cost of war. While we are sending our Australian personnel—our children, our uncles, our wives, our partners—off to overseas deployments, Australians must understand that the costs of those deployments go beyond military spending or unfortunate physical injuries or, sadly, deaths and casualties. When veterans, soldiers or other ADF personnel come back from their service, are discharged and go through these systems, the costs are compounded by a system that doesn't work. That cost has, sadly, been reflected in high suicide rates and more cases of mental illnesses. Australians need to understand that, if these issues aren't dealt with properly, this adds to the cost of service, and it's a reflection of the cost that war and conflict has on our nation.

12:25 pm

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to have this opportunity to speak on the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment (Defence Force) Bill. I should begin by saying that the opposition will not be opposing this bill. When the bill was debated in the House of Representatives last month, the shadow minister for defence, Mr Richard Marles, said:

Given their assurances—

By the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Mr Dan Tehan—

that no veterans will be worse off for these changes, Labor offer our support to this legislation.

This reflects Labor's view, which I certainly share, that, wherever possible, legislation affecting our national defence, the members of our Defence Forces or our Defence veterans should be considered on a bipartisan basis. It was in that spirit that the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Labor supported that reference and took part in the committee's review of the bill, which addressed some of the concerns raised by some members of the veterans community about the first iteration of the bill. We are pleased that the current version has remedied some of those concerns.

Pensions, compensation, rehabilitation, treatment and other benefits for members of the Defence Force, their families and ADF veterans are currently provided under three separate acts—the Veterans' Entitlements Act, the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. The bill before the Senate will create the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act, to be known as the DRC Act, which will be a re-enacted version of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act of 1988—the SRC Act. This new act will apply only to members of the Defence Force and their dependants. As a consequence of that change, the bill will also amend the SRC Act to remove cover for members of the Defence Force and their dependants from that act. The bill also amends a number of other acts to bring them into alignment with the changes made by the bill.

The purpose of the bill is to create a Defence-specific act which applies only to members of the Defence Force and their dependants. It will place all current veterans legislation under the control of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. We think it is entirely reasonable that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs should be responsible for all matters regarding veterans. This bill will apply in relation to injury, disease, death and loss or damage sustained through employment in the Defence Force when that occurred before the commencement of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act on 1 July 2004. Defence Force members and veterans with conditions linked to service from 1 July 2004 onwards will continue to be covered by the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act.

In his second reading speech in November last year, Mr Tehan assured the Defence and veteran communities that eligibility and benefits under the standalone act would be the same as those currently available to serving and former ADF members under the existing SRCA and that there were no other changes to benefits or entitlements. Mr Tehan described the bill as:

… a foundational step towards broader reform being undertaken by the Department of Veterans' Affairs to significantly improve services for veterans and their families …

I certainly hope that is true.

It's been evident for some time that there is widespread dissatisfaction amongst Defence veterans about the operation of the Department of Veterans' Affairs and, particularly, its adversarial attitude to claims made by veterans and their families. This was really brought home to me through my participation in the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee's inquiry into suicide by veterans and former Defence personnel, which I spoke about in the chamber last month. Like other committee members, I was shocked to hear Defence veterans say that they would rather fight the Taliban than the Department of Veterans' Affairs. It's very difficult to get specific figures about the number of claims for post-traumatic stress disorder and others, for example, alcohol dependency, but DVA has accepted 1,590 claims for PTSD and 543 claims for alcohol dependence abuse from veterans of the Afghan war. There's no figure on the accepted number of claims which include permanent impairment.

I want to go to some of the statements that came up post the Senate committee's report. The chair of that committee, Senator Gallacher, said:

Modern veterans were more likely to die from suicide and self-harm than overseas operations service.

He also was quoted as saying:

Unfortunately, the effort to address suicide in the veteran community is likely to be a struggle that has no end point.

Speaking on ABC Radio, the defence minister, Senator Payne, said that the government was making significant progress. I think everyone in this chamber would agree with her statement about veterans—we know that they are overwhelmingly well-skilled, highly talented, extraordinarily strong, contributing Australians. And we want to make sure we can support them in their engagement for whatever future they choose.

I want to talk to you about an organisation called VOTSA. VOTSA stands for Veterans off the Streets Association. It provides crisis accommodation. On their website, they have a quote from Argentinian writer Jose Narovsky, who said:

In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.

Currently, the director of that organisation, Ms Hudson, who came to see me a couple of weeks ago, is trying to be granted a lease over an unoccupied former aged-care facility in Euroa in north-east Victoria. She's having a lot of difficult. They have very few funds. What they do have is from donations. The fact that we have organisations that are trying to provide crisis accommodation because there are veterans living on the streets is ridiculous. I have sent a letter to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, both Commonwealth and Victoria, and I would hope that they will support Ms Hudson in her endeavours. But we shouldn't be reliant on the goodwill of organisations. It should actually be something that the Commonwealth itself looks after and that the department itself has regard to.

Going back to the committee report, much of the evidence that we heard related to veterans' experiences with the department. The committee made recommendations concerning the streamlining of the administration of the department, reducing the backlog of clients and increasing the capability and training of staff at the department to deal with mental-health conditions and complex health concerns. The committee members will be very interested to hear from the minister about how he plans to go about implementing the recommendations of the committee's report. I hope that the reforms in this bill will serve to make that process easier by streamlining the administration of Defence benefits and bringing all matters relating to Defence veterans under the control of the minister.

We should understand that these problems are going to get worse over the coming decades. There are 30,000 veterans of World War II who are still alive, and they are all in advanced years. Our Vietnam veterans, numbering more than 60,000, are now entering their 70s and the demands they make on the Department of Veterans' Affairs will increase. We also have to remember that, as a result of our deployments in the Gulf, Iraq, East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan, over 50,000 Australians have seen active service overseas since 2000. Since some of these commitments are ongoing and since there are likely to be more Defence deployments over the coming years, the number of Defence veterans will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. We should not assume that because these veterans are still relatively young that they will not be making demands on our system of veterans' benefits, nor should we be limiting the benefits simply because of the number of deployments and the number of Australian service men and women who have served our country. As Senator Whish-Wilson said, if we're going to send people overseas, if we're going to have them serve to defend, then we must be responsible and return that favour and defend them.

Our committee was made very aware of the serious mental health issues faced by many younger veterans, and Senator Whish-Wilson raised the case of Jesse Bird—I do understand the Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans' Affairs has recently met with his family. Unresolved mental health issues are among the main causes of suicide for younger veterans. The committee's inquiry concluded that there needed to be some major reforms to the department and the way it operates if it is to be made fit for purpose, as it faces these new challenges.

Last month, I described the committee's recommendations in my speech on the inquiry into veteran and ex-service personnel suicide rates, but I will mention some of them again now. They are relevant to this debate because the main purpose of this bill, as I understand it, is to bring all veterans affairs issues under the control of the minister, and to rationalise and streamline the administration of veterans benefits. It should make it easier for the minister to implement the committee's recommendations.

Firstly, we recommended that the government continue to support and to fund the veteran-centric reform program in the department. We recommended targeted programs addressing issues in the transition of defence members to civilian life, and more appropriate interactions with mental health service providers for veterans with mental health conditions. We recommended that the government commission an independent study into the mental health impacts of Veterans' Affairs claims processes and that all transitioning defence members should be provided with a DVA white card—this was a major point of contention in the evidence the committee heard—to facilitate access to health care, to provide identification as a veteran and to aid in data collection. The committee was concerned to learn that we don't even know how many defence veterans there are in Australia, because of inadequate data collection. We did hear at estimates recently that the department is undergoing some changes to its IT system, so we'll ask again at upcoming estimates how that's proceeding.

In relation to the transition to civilian life, we recommended that there be an option in the Career Transition Assistance Scheme that would allow veterans to undertake a period of work experience with an outside employer. We recommended that the Australian Public Service Commission conduct a review into mechanisms to support the public sector employment of veterans. Again, there are some organisations that are conducting this work, but this is only because people have chosen to get together and do it. Janine Kirk, who is the chair of the Prince's Trust, runs a program with RMIT in Melbourne, where veterans can go and do some study at RMIT and then they are placed with employers. But this shouldn't be an ad hoc approach—this should be a systemic approach to help veterans gain employment and transition properly and safely and healthily to civilian life. We also recommended that the government improve access to support services by supporting the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service to create and maintain a public database of support services.

In the longer term, the committee recommended that the legal and administrative complexity of the legislative framework be addressed through a review by the Productivity Commission, with a view to simplifying the system. I acknowledge that this bill goes some way towards meeting the obvious need to rationalise the administration of veterans affairs, which is one reason why we on this side are supporting it, but a wider review of the way the system operates is still warranted. The committee also recommended that a bureau of veterans advocates be established, modelled on the Bureau of Pensions Advocates in Canada, to advocate on behalf of veterans in their interactions with the department. The minister should use the greater control given to him by this bill to carry out these recommendations in the Senate committee's report. I will be looking to him for a commitment to do that.

One of the things we learnt about in the course of our inquiry was the fragmented state of the veteran community. The days when the RSL could speak for all veterans and had a close relationship with the minister and with the department are long gone. There are now a variety of voices speaking on behalf of defence members, defence families, and defence veterans, and not always in a coordinated way. This has made the process of consultation with defence and veteran communities more difficult. Senator Farrell also spoke about the adversarial nature of some of the interactions, and I will go to that a little later, but a mechanism such as a bureau of veterans advocates would make it easier for the department to know what the various groups of veterans in the community want and need.

This problem was identified when this bill was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. The committee identified a number of concerns in relation to the way in which consultation is undertaken by the department. The committee's report expressed concern about the department's:

… current consultation and engagement practices in relation to proposed legislative changes.

They suggested this might be due in part to:

… limited resources available to ex-service organisations to assess legislative proposals and provide informed feedback.

The committee did express concern about the department's:

… adversarial relationship with some veterans' advocates … and lawyers acting on behalf of veterans.

The committee stated that in their view the department should be:

… seeking out and actively engaging with those persons who are best informed and capable of providing analysis of proposed legislation.

The committee acknowledged the difficulties involved in consultation with a variety of veteran advocacy groups, but also said that the department needed to take responsibility for improving its relationship with the veteran community.

This adversarial culture in the department was something that Labor sought to resolve by committing, prior to the election, to undertaking a first principles review of Veterans' Affairs. This review would be based on a set of agreed-upon first principles, would examine the department and would seek to rectify administrative, governance and process failings to ensure the department is able to meet existing and future challenges in a clear and efficient manner. Most importantly, this review would help to re-establish trust in DVA for the veterans and their representative organisations. It would ensure that we have a system in place which works for the people who need it the most and puts our veterans first. It also brings to mind that Commonwealth departments and agencies are subject to model litigant rules. I wonder whether that has been fully explored. The committee therefore recommended that the department conduct a review and receive feedback. I hope the minister takes on board these recommendations, which arose from a bipartisan committee process.

Finally, I want to say something about section 121B of the bill, the so-called 'Henry VIII' clause. Senator Whish-Wilson has outlined his party's position, but I understand and foreshadow that Senator Lambie will be moving some amendments. Both as a lawyer and as a parliamentarian, I have serious concerns about the use of this mechanism. A 'Henry VIII' clause allows a minister to make a regulation which would retroactively change the bill that parliament has passed. I won't go into the history of Henry VIII's changing of acts of parliament. The government has assured us that retrospective legislation under new section 121B is intended to operate:

… in a purely beneficial way to deal with any anomalies that may arise where there is a retrospective application of the DRC Act which will need to refer to the earlier version of the SRC Act that applied at the time for which eligibility is being determined.

The section seeks to limit the use of this power of retrospective regulation. It says:

The Minister must seek only to make the regulations to protect the entitlements of those covered by the DRC Act and to ensure that "no person is disadvantaged by the enactment of this Act".

We are further assured that:

This clause is expressly for the benefit of those persons covered by the DRC Act and is not to be read to provide any advantage to the Commonwealth.

Again, it does make me think of the model litigant rules. I am aware that the High Court in ADCO Constructions Pty Ltd v Goudappel[2014] unanimously upheld the validity of a similar clause inserted into the New South Wales Workers Compensation Act, so I don't dispute that the government has the power to legislate in this way.

I am also aware that the parliament has the power to disallow any regulation made under this section. The parliament has consistently rejected the idea of retrospective legislation, and I think that is a position that we should stick to. Our legal system is, after all, based on precedent. With that caveat, I repeat that the opposition supports this bill. I hope that it will go some way towards meeting the many concerns that veterans have raised about the functioning of our system.

Debate interrupted.