Wednesday, 15 November 2017
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017; Second Reading
Before I begin speaking on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017: I know that, if Senator Lambie had been here today, she would have wanted to speak on this issue. I just want to put on the record my best wishes for her in the future. Obviously she's had to deal with some very difficult circumstances, and I wish her all the very best.
Labor is supporting the changes, which will clarify, improve or streamline the operation of the law and the processes within the department. The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017 contains eight schedules which deal with a variety of different elements within the legislation. Given the detail of the bill, I will focus my comments on the schedule which has generated the largest amount of discussion and concern, which is schedule 1, and then step through a brief overview of each of the remaining schedules.
Schedule 1 seeks to amend the provisions under which the Veterans' Review Board operates by aligning certain provisions with similar provisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The amendments in schedule 1 will modernise and improve the operations of the board to do a number of things. Firstly, they ensure that, in carrying out its functions, the board will 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. Secondly, they 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 that is relevant to the review and that has not been lodged previously. Thirdly, they 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. And, finally, they require the Repatriation Commission and any person representing the commission in a review to use their best endeavours to assist the board in fulfilling their legislative objectives.
In addition, this schedule had included an element which gave the principal member of the Veterans' Review Board the ability to dismiss an application for 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. This element caused significant angst in the veterans community and, as a result of Labor's intervention—I might mention at this point the very good work that Labor's shadow minister Amanda Rishworth has undertaken in this area. You may know, Mr Acting Deputy President, she has recently been promoted to the shadow cabinet, which is obviously a great recognition of her work and ability not just in this area of policy but also in a more general sense. She replaces another terrific South Australian shadow minister and former minister, Kate Ellis, who, as we know, is leaving at the next election but has done a power of work on behalf of her community in Adelaide.
As I said, as a result of Labor's intervention, the government removed this particular element of the schedule in the House of Representatives. Labor believes that the VRB was designed to be a less adversarial process than the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. This is the veterans' opportunity to be heard and Labor held significant concerns about the insertion of these provisions. In addition, during the FADT committee process, the principal member advised that there were only three circumstances in the past seven years where he would have utilised this power. Given the small number of times this clause would have been utilised, Labor felt a strong case wasn't made for its inclusion at the expense of veterans' ability to present their cases to the board. As a result, the government removed this element in a series of amendments. Labor welcomed this amendment, which recognised and upheld the unique nature of the Veterans' Review Board.
I would like to go to schedule 2 of the new legislation. It also makes several amendments that enable the convener of the SMRC to give written directions about the manner for lodging requests for reviews or applications, enabling the SMRC to adopt electronic lodgement of request 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 provisions and payments of benefits under the MRCA and the SRCA/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 include rehabilitation that can be provided by the Repatriation Commission or the MRCC under the VEA, MRCA and SRCA/DRCA or the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act 2006. Labor is supportive of extending agreements to cover all veterans' affairs legislation to ensure that veterans are covered under the relevant legislation framework, whether that is VEA, SRCA/DRCA or 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. Labor supports measures that assist veterans to move into and retain employment.
Schedule 5 amends the MRCA and SRCA/DRCA to facilitate information sharing between the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, the MRCC, and the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation, CSC, with respect to certain service related compensation claims. As it stands, due to information-sharing provisions, after someone is medically discharged they go to Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation to organise payments, where they undergo a second medical, and when they go to DVA for assistance they undergo a third medical. These amendments seek to enable information sharing between the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation and DVA to reduce some of the rework. These amendments are designed to enable the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation to access relevant claims information held by DVA where that access would assist CSC in the performance of its functions and the exercise of its powers. Access to the department's claims information, particularly relevant medical and rehabilitation information, would assist the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation to make speedier superannuation benefits assessments, which in turn assists the department to determine a person's entitlement to incapacity payments. A common complaint of veterans and advocates relates to the complicated and lengthy claims process for people seeking assistance from the department. Labor supports changes which will improve this process, as long as adequate safeguards are in place to protect veterans' privacy.
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, employers 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.
Schedule 7 will amend the legislation to exempt certain legislative instruments from subsection 14(2) of the Legislation Act 2003. It will enable these legislative instruments to incorporate material contained in other non-disallowable instruments or other non-legislative writings as in force from time to time. The current requirement to amend the 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 with 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 part of the instrument. As such, any change to the documents can't be recognised unless the changed versions are incorporated into the legislative instrument by an amendment or a replaced instrument. This process can cause significant 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 the new equipment will be delayed as the legislative instrument—in this case, the treatment principles—that incorporates the document under which the application may be provided would need to be amended to refer to the changed date of the policy document.
Schedule 8, the final schedule, will repeal redundant and spent provisions administered in the Veterans' Affairs portfolio concerning benefits that are no longer payable under the portfolio acts. This was originally proposed as part of the Omnibus Repeal Day (Spring 2015) Bill 2015, which lapsed with the end of the parliament in April 2016. 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 amendments seek to remove the following: 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 for 2008; and the education tax refund payment of 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 the eligibility to receive the payment on the basis that they were eligible for an underlying payment during the relevant period the repeal legislation was in force.
I think 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. Labor is supportive of these changes. Given the amendments the government moved in the House of Representatives at Labor's urging, we offer our support to this bill.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics, after six agonising minutes, has just announced that Australia has voted 'yes' for same-sex marriage, at 61.6 per cent. No offence to veterans but this is the first time a statistician has stopped the nation; it was announced literally seconds before I popped up, so I just wanted to get that off my chest.
The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017 will be supported by the Greens. It makes a series of minor changes to the veterans compensation law across several acts. According to the minister, it implements several small but necessary amendments to veterans legislation to clarify, improve or streamline the operation of the law. We all accept in here that the veterans' entitlements system is a mess. All sides of politics agree that the entitlement system, including access to compensation, needs to be fixed. This existing compensation and rehabilitation legislation is a burden on veterans, advocates and even the Department of Veterans' Affairs itself.
I initiated an inquiry a couple of years ago into veterans' suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder—and you, Acting Deputy President Gallacher, may well have been there for that, as was Senator Fawcett. We went around the country taking evidence. Some of it was absolutely heartbreaking stuff. We heard that when our Defence personnel leave the ADF or the Department of Defence and go out into the world, they feel like they fall off a cliff, especially those who may be suffering trauma and haven't necessarily registered that. And there are good reasons why a number of both serving Defence personnel and ex-Defence personnel don't talk about this issue: there's a stigma attached to mental health issues associated with their time in the Defence department and their service. And it's not always those who have been frontline troops and have seen action; often, post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues that lead to suicide come from other aspects of defence such as training exercises. No two people's symptoms are the same. We heard that Defence personnel often feel like they fall off a cliff when they go into civilian life. They often feel dislocated. They're suffering and often don't speak out on it. So just getting them to speak is an absolutely critical thing.
What was absolutely 100 per cent clear to the committee was that attempting to navigate the veterans' entitlement system was a key part of the problem, and that we needed to do whatever we could to make it a lot easier to access advice, to get advocates to work for them and to get the right kind of help that they need. Sometimes compensation isn't necessarily the solution to a problem if you're a veteran and you're suffering mental health illnesses or physical disabilities; there are other things that are quite important to veterans as well.
We've also heard recent evidence in another suicide inquiry—the recent inquiry into veterans' suicide that Senator Lambie came to the Greens to enlist our help on. Senator Lambie participated in my inquiry as well. We heard more evidence from countless witnesses that the current system is contributing to mental health problems and suicide amongst the Defence and veterans community. For example, we heard evidence from Colonel David Jamison, formerly from the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations. He told the committee:
… we believe a significant factor contributing to the problem lies in the legislative framework on which support to veterans is based.
… … …
It is abundantly clear from social media groups that veterans from the more recent conflicts feel alienated and see the system as biased against them.
The problems for veterans aren't just limited to compensation, as I mentioned. We heard, during the inquiry into the digital readiness bill earlier this year, that veterans face unreasonably long wait periods to be reimbursed for the costs of any claims. On top of this, rates of entitlement are inconsistent and arbitrary, and the application and assessment processes are labyrinth and circuitous. For many veterans the bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans' Affairs is a barrier to getting what they believe they're entitled to. They see the system as combative and hostile, but whether that is or is not the case is not necessarily the issue here; it's the very firm perception amongst many of the witnesses that the inquiry heard that this is the case.
It's incumbent on all political parties of all colours to work together with the veterans community to create a better system for those who do serve our country. Many of the issues that we uncovered in the Greens-initiated Senate inquiry into PTSD and suicide are also very common issues with first responders—with police—and with other professions in this country.
What will the Greens do? In response to this mess—and it's been like this for a large number of years—we've consistently said we would like to undertake a root-and-branch review of the veterans' entitlement system. I know Senator Lambie went much further by calling for a royal commission. She kept her call up for a royal commission into the Department of Veterans' Affairs while she was here. We believe a root-and-branch review is absolutely essential. We have had many, many reviews over a number of years now, and the direct feedback that I've had from the veterans community is: no more reviews, just get on with it. Just get on with, for example, the many recommendations that have been made by numerous Senate inquiries over time. Get on with it and fix the system. Certainly, from the inquiry that I was involved in that the Greens initiated, there are a large number of recommendations that we're continuing to monitor and that still haven't been implemented, even though they have been recommended by all political parties in the Senate.
In the review, in particular, we want to focus on current entitlements—about whether they're sufficient and whether the current eligibility criteria are fair for veterans, including access to health cards, disability pensions, housing and superannuation arrangements. One of the key issues the inquiry into veteran PTSD and suicide looked at was veteran homelessness. Back then there was a lot of buck-passing—that this is an issue for the states—but the Senate recommended that this is something the federal government should step into. There are a lot of veterans who are suffering from relationship breakdown, alcohol and drug abuse and mental health issues who are sleeping rough. I also acknowledge, in relation to the access to health cards, the great work of my previous colleague in this place, Senator Ludlam, who, although he was the first to resign on the basis of a section 44 constitutional issue, also did great work for veterans over a large number of years, as did Senator Lambie, including being a key instigator in getting the nuclear-testing veterans, finally, after nearly 20 years of fighting, access to their gold card.
We need to get on with recommendations that redesign the entitlements process to make it more legible and accessible, and we recommend an overhaul of the delivery of support services. Complaints about DVA are still on the rise, after all these inquiries, which is an indicator that the system is still failing our veterans. The review of service delivery should consider assigning each veteran a liaison officer—in fact, this was one of the recommendations of the Senate inquiry into PTSD and veteran suicide and homelessness—to act as a single point of contact to help navigate the system. I know advocates do a good job in some respects, and I've spoken to advocates, including in my home town of Launceston, who work with veterans, but, nevertheless, I understand that that still is not a formal policy yet. We support the veterans suicide inquiry's recommendation that the government make a reference to the Productivity Commission to simplify the legislative framework of compensation and rehabilitation for service members and veterans, and we are pleased that the government has accepted this recommendation.
So we'll be supporting this bill today, but, in the meantime, the Greens have been working with all parties to incrementally improve the system, most recently with the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment (Defence Force) Bill 2016, and now with this omnibus bill. We are pleased that the government has taken on board the legitimate concerns of stakeholders, the Greens and the crossbench, and removed the provision which would have allowed the principal member of the Veterans' Review Board the power to dismiss applications for review if they are deemed frivolous, vexatious, lacking in substance or as having no reasonable prospect of success. As the RSL put it:
To allow one member to decide on the prospect of success of an Appeal is likely to reduce the belief of veterans that they have access to justice in the way they do now.
In conclusion, the Greens are fully supportive of positive steps to make life easier for veterans. We support reform to simplify and clarify different legislation for ADF members and veterans, whilst also respecting the complexity of this system and the unintended consequences of not thinking through changes properly and thoroughly. Many of the times that I've looked at different changes in legislation before us, I've been inundated by a number of stakeholders getting in touch with my office, making me and my staff aware of just how complicated this system is. There are a number of people with expertise in this area who have been dealing with veterans for many years, and we always endeavour to listen to as many stakeholders as possible.
I come from a family of veterans. My father is a Vietnam veteran. My godfather is a Vietnam veteran. Most of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers were war veterans as well. I appreciate the importance of helping our veterans and our ex-serving personnel. As a Green, I always say in this chamber, whenever we talk about veterans issues, that my party, being a party of humanity and justice, wants to see everybody treated with fairness and equality. But, in relation to the price that defence veterans pay for service, especially going into conflict zones, often on behalf of an executive government that makes a decision to send them into conflict zones—whether we're talking about the Great War or the Second World War or the Vietnam War or recent conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq; and, of course, we've recently deployed ADF personnel to places like the Philippines and participated in war games off South Korea—we need to be aware that the price that these veterans pay sometimes is not just the loss of their lives, or their limbs, or other physical injuries. Often they pay a much more complex price, such as mental health issues and ongoing issues around post-traumatic stress disorder.
So I think it's really important to say that there often is a hidden cost for Defence service, and, as I mentioned earlier, it doesn't just come from active service; it can come from training and the high-stress environment that ADF personnel find themselves in. Of course, Senator Fawcett, who's in the chamber here, and I share many things in common, but one thing is that we've both been through military college. I have a number of friends who are still in the services, and I believe this is a very serious issue. So the Greens are happy to support this legislation. We look forward to further discussions about how we can improve the entitlement systems for veterans.
I already said some words about Senator Lambie yesterday, but I just want to reiterate that, although we often disagreed on some pretty major things—for example, issues around climate change, asylum seekers coming to this country et cetera—I have to pay her full respect in that she came to parliament on a very active ticket, and that was to try and change the Defence veterans entitlement system. She campaigned for that 100 per cent, and I believe that one of the reasons we're processing this bill today—and other legislation—is that she made this an issue politically. That is to her credit, and that is an important part of her legacy.
I too rise to make some comments on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill of 2017. I would just like to start off by acknowledging the work of the ex-service organisations who come out, time and again, to committee processes within the parliament to represent the interests of their members, those being those people who have served and also their families. As Senator Whish-Wilson said, the price that is paid by service men and women is not just the time away from home, the threat they face or the physical injuries but also the mental scars that some bear and particularly the impact on families.
It is a huge task that DVA has, but it is one that no side of politics ever should shirk—or, I believe, ever has shirked—from seeking to get right. The fact that it is not perfect isn't a reflection of the fact that anyone here doesn't care; it's a reflection of the scale of the task and the changing environment. Whilst there are both processes and other things that we can improve, I just want to acknowledge that, from the ESOs to people in this place and even to DVA and in fact, I particularly say, to Mr Simon Lewis, who is the current secretary, there is an awful lot of goodwill from people who want to put in place processes and mechanisms to make sure that people who have served this nation, when they come back, receive the support that they need. However, it is not yet 100 per cent. Perhaps it never will be, but that is no reason for us to ever give up seeking to make it as good as we possibly can.
This bill is just the next step in trying to find those processes. It has been through the committee process. I recognise, Mr Acting Deputy President Gallacher, that you are the deputy chair of the legislation committee that considered this, along with me and Senator Whish-Wilson and others, and we did hear from a range of people who had different views on the bill at hand. So I will just run through some of the key points in the bill and then talk a little bit about some of the concerns that were raised during the committee process and about where the government's got to on that. Then I will talk a little more broadly on the task that I think is facing DVA and this Australian parliament as we seek to support those who have served, those who are serving, those in transition, and those who have served some time ago.
Schedule 1 of the omnibus bill looks to amend the Veterans' Entitlements Act, and it's seeking to modernise and align the Veterans' Review Board's operations with those of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. That follows the amendments that were made to the Tribunals Amalgamation Act in 2015. They also support an alternative dispute resolution process, and recent amendments to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004, which provide for a single appeal path for reconsidering decisions.
Schedule 2 would amend the provisions of the Veterans' Entitlement Act 1986 concerning the Specialist Medical Review Council to improve the operation of the SMRC and streamline some of the SMRC's administrative arrangements and better reflect the manner in which its functions and processes have evolved over time. The proposed amendments would simplify the nomination appointment process for councillors, enable online lodgement of claims, streamline the notice of investigation requirements and give the SMRC an ability to pay the travel costs of applicants who appear before an oral hearing of the SMRC.
In schedule 3, the proposed amendments would enable international agreements to be made that would cover allied veterans and Defence Force members with the type of service for which benefits and payments, including rehabilitation, can be provided by the Repatriation Commission or the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission under the relevant acts. Currently, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs can only enter into arrangements with the governments of countries that are or have been dominions of the Crown. These amendments would enable the Minister for Veterans' Affairs to enter into arrangements with a broader range of countries, which reflects the broader range of commitments that Australia has and the places where the men and women of the ADF have served.
In schedule 4, the amendments are intended to clarify that vocational rehabilitation assistance under an employer incentive scheme in the form of wage incentive payments are within the scope of the enabling provisions of the relevant legislation. Proposed amendments in schedule 5 would amend the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 and 151A(1) of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988 to add the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation as 'a person to whom the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission may provide information for the purposes allowed under the legislation'. And the proposed amendments would implement a recommendation by the 2011 review of military compensation arrangements intended to improve the information-sharing framework for incapacity and superannuation benefits between the DVA and CSC, and thereby reduce the time taken to process claims by DVA and CSC, which would better support injured former ADF members.
In addition, enabling the CSC to use medical information reports held by the MRCC to determine superannuation claims would also avoid the need to send ADF members for further medical assessment where DVA already holds the relevant medical evidence that could be used by the CSC to determine superannuation benefits. This also means that ADF members would be spared from the sometimes traumatic retelling of their stories. This is particularly significant for ADF members who suffer psychological conditions, including those that have arisen as a result of physical or psychological abuse. Through this Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, as well as the work done by the joint standing committee, which I currently chair, we have heard constant stories by ADF members about some of the inefficiencies in the system that do mean they need to engage with multiple agencies and retell their story multiple times. For those who have suffered injuries, such as blast injuries that caused a brain injury or those who are suffering from mental health problems, they can be very difficult experiences, so anything we can do to minimise that would be well and truly welcome.
During the committee hearings we heard from a range of witnesses who broadly supported the intent of the bill, although when it came to schedules 1 and 5 there were a number of concerns raised by people. The committee did hear evidence from the principal member of the Veterans' Review Board and from officers of the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation and DVA in response to the concerns. I personally was satisfied, as was the committee in its report, that the concerns that had been raised by members of the ESOs and other submitters to the committee had been adequately addressed by the principal member of the VRB, which was Mr Humphreys. The committee notes—and we agreed with—Mr Humphreys's evidence that there be no delegation of the proposed dismissal power. We felt that was an important step in providing assurance to people who were concerned about how that ability to dismiss claims that were seen as vexatious or frivolous may be dealt with.
In schedule 5, privacy concerns were raised, but we have been encouraged by the rapid response of the government and DVA to work by commissioning an independent privacy impact assessment from the Australian Government Solicitor. These measures mean that we will be putting in place the kinds of processes to protect the privacy of people to address the concerns on the one hand, while on the other hand providing the framework and the authority to share information that will go some way to reducing the need to retell stories and the delays in processing claims. One of the key things that have been raised over many years across a range of committees is the impact that delays in processing claims have on veterans and their families.
The investment by government into the IT infrastructure is a critical part of this whole exercise and a package with broadly bipartisan support. We are moving to a point where we are reskilling people within DVA to have a more focused approach on the veteran, looking more for that case managed approach, where there are complex needs, to reduce the need to deal with different people on multiple occasions, so there is a point of contact to work with a veteran and their family to carry a case forward. That has been an important step, because we have heard some of the stories about the multiple handling of claims but also, in some cases, about the lack of understanding or empathy on the part of someone in DVA for what a veteran has been through. Even the terminology or words used to describe what has occurred in their service history haven't been understood, and poor decisions have been made in the past. I'm assured, by speaking with Mr Lewis about the type of training that is being provided to staff within DVA, that we are getting on top of that.
The commitment to the investment in the IT infrastructure, though, is critical to continue, not only to give effect to some of the legislative framework being proposed in this omnibus bill but also in practical terms where, for many years, there have been delays because of the handling of paper files that have physically had to move between locations within DVA, even including interstate, which has led to loss of information in the worst cases and delays in many cases. The concept of moving to a digital platform will enable the processing in a far more timely manner, the lack of replication of input from the veteran, and increasingly the ability for a veteran to interface with DVA and the claims process in a digital form so that, hopefully, you can get to the point where we achieve with DVA what we see in the commercial marketplace, where essentially you can log a claim on your smartphone and within certain parameters have it approved and payments go into accounts almost immediately, as opposed to a long, drawn-out process which often puts people who may already be under financial stress in a situation of waiting long periods of time for reimbursement for costs that they have incurred. It's particularly important with regard to that cost base to note that, while we have provided no-claim, free and immediate medical treatment, all of the associated costs of accessing that treatment also need to be expedited to support the veteran.
The last part of the broader package of what the government is providing is to work with the ESOs. One of the frequent comments that have been made to me by ESOs is that, whilst there has been the best funding in the past to provide training to support the advocates within the ESOs, it's an ageing workforce. The people who are doing it have been doing it on a largely voluntary basis for many years. In many cases, ESOs have struggled to recruit new people to replace those who are perhaps getting to the point where they need to pull back from that activity.
In the whole concept of how we provide that support to our veteran community, particularly when the consequences of the success of a claim are quite critical to the financial future of a veteran and their family, providing a mechanism to select and then train and support advocates is important. Personally—and I've put this forward in inquiries—I believe there is a real case for these people to in some cases move to a salaried position funded by Veterans' Affairs. These people, particularly if they come from a service background, should perhaps get training—legal training or training in areas such as financial planning—so that they can provide detailed, informed advice to veterans who have complex cases. There is some work occurring—it started off with an audit last year of the full range of ESOs—to understand who is out there and who is doing what. I think a framework where we equip those people with a level of training and competence to provide agreed levels of service but where we also have people who are available to provide specialist help for more complex cases is what we need to look at as we move into the future.
Whilst we have around 58,000 people currently serving, the reality is that DVA currently supports around 290,000 Australians. So there are a lot of people who rely on the efficacy of the systems and the training of the people within DVA. Of those 290,000, some 82,000 are widows or widowers and around 2,500 are children of veterans. More than 203,000 of DVA's clients are over 65. They rely on the system functioning well. But the focus of this bill and a lot of the current work is the cohort who are transitioning out of Defence and into the civilian workforce. After 23 years in Defence, I transitioned out of Defence into a different career. I've been blessed. I've never had to reach back to Veterans' Affairs. And, for many people, that transition is seamless and they move on to fulfilling careers without ever having to reach back. But that's not the case for all people. So, for those who need it, the support needs to be there and it needs to be effective. So this omnibus bill is trying to wrap up a number of measures within DVA. It is enabling legislation for the way the review and appeal processes work so that we get quicker claims to the benefit of the veteran. For that reason, I will be supporting the bill.
I'm pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017. This bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in October by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Mr Dan Tehan. The shadow minister for Veterans' Affairs, Ms Amanda Rishworth, in her second reading speech, indicated the opposition's support for the bill. This bill was considered in detail by the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which reported its views in June. There has also been a process of consultation with representatives of the veteran community, and the bill has their support. The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee has also done substantial work this year in the area of Veterans' Affairs, and I think all members of that committee have worked in a consensus manner in order to improve the quality of veterans' lives.
I do want to echo Senator Farrell's comments about former Senator Lambie. A lot of the reform work in Veterans' Affairs has been pushed forward because of former Senator Lambie's drive and passion in this area and her willingness to share personal experiences. Not everyone would have been as brave as she has been on a number of occasions. Yesterday, when I was listening to the speeches paying tribute to former Senator Lambie, I was struck by the similarities between those speeches and the last part of the poem 'Ulysses' by Alfred Tennyson, which ends:
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
And that does remind me of former Senator Lambie.
Ms Rishworth, the opposition spokesperson on veterans' affairs, acknowledged that the government has developed the bill in a bipartisan way. She acknowledged, in particular, that the government had agreed to her request to withdraw one of the proposed amendments which some veterans feared would reduce their right of appeal to the Veterans' Review Board against decisions made by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. That was done in order to ensure bipartisan support for the bill. It doesn't happen often in this parliament and I think it's worthy of note. In turn, Mr Tehan thanked Ms Rishworth for the opposition's cooperation in framing the bill. I note also that the member for Eden-Monaro, Dr Mike Kelly, formerly Colonel Mike Kelly—a very influential voice in this parliament on all matters to do with the Defence Force and veterans' affairs—has commended the minister for his zeal in acting in the interests of veterans. There are not many ministers in the Turnbull government who are currently being praised by the opposition! I fear I might get Mr Tehan into trouble if I add to that chorus of praise, so I will just say that I agree with both Mr Tehan and Ms Rishworth that, as far as possible, veterans' affairs legislation should be dealt with in a nonpartisan way, and that the process by which this bill has been developed is a good example of how that process can and should work more often. It reflects well on both the minister and the shadow minister, and on this parliament.
I want to take this opportunity of congratulating Ms Rishworth on her promotion to the shadow cabinet. She is a very capable and hardworking member, and she has a passionate commitment to the issues for which she is responsible, which are early childhood education and development, veterans' affairs and Defence personnel. I'm sure she will be a success in this role and as a minister after the next election.
Since this bill has bipartisan support, I don't intend discussing its provisions in any depth. It has eight sections, each of which amends various pieces of legislation, including the Veterans' Entitlements Act, the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and the proposed Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act. Most of the amendments are fairly minor and technical or serve to remove obsolete provisions. Both the minister and the shadow minister have described the proposed amendments in detail, and I don't think it would be a particularly good use of the Senate's time for me to repeat what they have said. Instead, I would like to discuss what I've learnt about our Defence Force personnel and the veterans' community since I became a senator a short year ago last week, and, particularly, since I've had the opportunity recently of travelling to the Middle East operations area as part of the Defence Force's parliamentary program.
There are currently about 350,000 Defence veterans in Australia, most of whom have been deployed overseas at some point in their service. They range from World War II veterans in their 90s to young, recently-discharged veterans of ADF deployments in Iraq, East Timor, the Solomons and Afghanistan. But the majority are over 60, including more than 60,000 Vietnam veterans who are now approaching 70. The number of veterans is not going to decrease in the foreseeable future. There are currently 58,000 full-time or part-time members of the ADF, nearly all of whom have been deployed or will be deployed overseas, who will, in due course, become veterans. About 5,200 personnel leave the ADF every year, and that number will increase. We have had commitments in the Middle East and the Gulf since 1990, and I expect they are going to continue for some time. Other trouble spots will inevitably arise—I think we've seen that recently in Marawi City—and we will be asking our ADF personnel to make further commitments. I can see a time where consideration may need to be given to increasing the size of our Defence Force as the world in general and our region in particular become more uncertain places. That, in turn, will increase the number of Defence veterans in the longer run.
As well as to veterans themselves, we have a commitment to veterans' families past and present. There are still, for example, a substantial number of World War II widows, now mostly over 80, who are receiving pensions and other forms of support. The spouses and children of more recent veterans also receive various forms of support. This makes it all the more important that we maintain our commitments to the wellbeing of our Defence personnel, our Defence veterans and our Defence families as strongly as they maintain their commitment to our security and that of our friends and allies.
This commitment, of course, does not come cheap, and nor should it. The overall Veterans' Affairs budget is over $11 billion a year. That includes pensions, income support, compensation, health care, rehabilitation, counselling services, transport, employment assistance, home care, housing, commemorations, education and grants funding. More than half of it, over $6 billion, will be spent on income support and compensation for veterans and their dependants. Around $5 billion is spent on health care. I might point out that only three per cent is spent on administering the department itself. Spending on veterans is rising both per capita and in absolute terms. This is because veterans are living longer and because medical technology is becoming more sophisticated and sometimes more expensive. We should also note that these benefits are uncapped. If the number of veterans increases more rapidly than expected because we have new defence commitments overseas, or if the medical needs of veterans become more expensive because of advances in medical technology, then the Veterans' Affairs budget will rise accordingly. That has been a long-term commitment of all Australian governments since World War I, and I think we would all agree in this chamber, in the other place and in the general Australian community that it should be maintained.
Since the Vietnam War and the traumatic effects that service in Vietnam had on many of those who served there, we have become much more aware of the mental health needs of veterans. Senator Fawcett outlined some of those considerations in his contribution. From virtually nothing in the 1960s, we now spend nearly $250 million a year on mental health services for ADF members, Defence veterans and their families. This includes services provided by doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, as well as online information and support services. It includes the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service, which provides free and confidential counselling and support to ADF members, veterans and families at 26 centres around Australia. VVCS serves more than 27,000 people every year.
Australia provides veterans with free mental health services. All veterans have access to full cover for five of the most common mental health conditions: post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse and substance abuse. They don't have to prove that these conditions were caused by their service. As soon as they contact the department, these mental health needs are met without questions being asked. It's an expensive commitment but, I think, a necessary one. Despite all of this good work, there's obviously still a mental health challenge facing both veterans and the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I know that both the minister and the shadow minister are aware of this ongoing challenge, and I hope we will see bipartisan support for more measures to tackle it. Whether in opposition or in government, I will continue to draw attention to some of these issues.
This has been a fairly wide ranging debate. Since the bill itself has bipartisan support and is not controversial, I'd now like to range a little bit further afield. Since 2014, we have been marking a series of centenary events to commemorate Australia's involvement in the First World War. The most recent of these have been the events in Israel to mark the centenary of the Battle of Beersheba. These commemorative events were attended by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and other parliamentary colleagues, including Mr Michael Danby and Mr Mark Dreyfus. They were welcomed in Beersheba by the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Netanyahu. Many descendants of the Australians and New Zealanders who fought at Beersheba were also present.
The Battle of Beersheba on the last day of October in 1917 was one of the turning points of the First World War and, as it turned out, of 20th century history. The charge of the ANZAC Mounted Division at Beersheba was the decisive moment in the Allied victory over the Ottoman army in Palestine and Syria and is also regarded as the last great cavalry charge in military history. The division was made up of three brigades of Australian Light Horse and one brigade of New Zealand Mounted Rifles, supported by British Horse Artillery. It was commanded by General Sir Harry Chauvel, known as 'Light Horse Harry', one of the most highly regarded commanders in Australian military history.
It's not a coincidence that the Anzac victory at Beersheba was followed in a few days by the Balfour Declaration, in which the British government declared its support for 'the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people'. The Battle of Beersheba made it obvious that the whole of Ottoman Syria, of which Palestine was then a part, would soon fall into Allied hands, and a decision had to be made about the conflicting claims to the territory.
The territory through which the Anzacs advanced after Beersheba, including Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho and finally Jerusalem, was the heart of the historic homeland of the Jewish people, the ancient kingdom of Judea. Many of the ANZAC soldiers had been raised on the Scriptures and knew these places well. They knew that they were the first Christian army to enter the Holy Land since the Crusades, more than 800 years before. They felt they were making history, and they were right. By driving the Ottomans out of Palestine, the Anzacs made a great, if for the most part unintentional, contribution to the establishment of what eventually became the State of Israel. That's why Beersheba, in 1917 a dusty desert town with barely 1,000 inhabitants, is today an Israeli city of 200,000 people.
The battle at Beersheba established an enduring link between Australia and New Zealand on the one hand and the Jewish community of Palestine and later the state of Israel on the other. When the Ottoman Empire declared war on Britain, France and Russia in 1914, most of the Jewish population found themselves enemy aliens in the eyes of the Ottoman state. Some fled to British-controlled Egypt, but many more were deported to remote parts of the Ottoman Empire, deprived of their property, conscripted into the Ottoman army and subjected to various forms of oppression. So they naturally welcomed the ANZAC forces as their liberators, and many of them provided supplies and other services to the Allied armies. A network of Jewish agents also provided the Allies with valuable intelligence about the movements of the Ottoman armies. The best known of these were four siblings, Sarah, Rivka, Aaron and Alexander Aaronsohn, who ran the spy ring known as NILI, the largest Allied espionage network in the Middle East, with a network of about 40 spies.
The links between Australia and the Jews of Palestine who later became Israelis have remained strong. During World War II, Australian forces found themselves again in Palestine, by then under British control. In 1941, they used it as their base for the invasion of Syria and Lebanon, which were controlled by Vichy French forces allied with Nazi Germany. Many local Jews worked for the Australian forces in various capacities. One of those was the young Moshe Dayan, who acquired his famous eye patch as a result of an injury he sustained while serving as a guide for the Australian forces as they advanced northward into Lebanon.
So long as the ANZAC veterans of Beersheba remained alive, they made regular visits to Israel for various anniversary commemorations. Now of course they are all gone, but their descendants continue to honour the event. The centenary of the battle has served to refresh the links between Australia, New Zealand and Israel. At the ceremony on 31 October last, Mr Netanyahu paid a warm tribute to the role of the Anzacs in liberating the Jews of Palestine from Ottoman rule and paving the way for the establishment of the state of Israel.
Today the visitor to Beersheba sees many memorials to the battle and the role of the Anzacs in that campaign. There is a Commonwealth military cemetery where more than a thousand graves of Australian, New Zealand and British servicemen offer silent testimony to the sacrifices made by the Allied forces a century ago. There is of course also a Turkish memorial to the Ottoman soldiers who bravely defended their positions even as the Ottoman Empire was itself collapsing. There is also a striking statue of an Australian Light Horse trooper riding a horse, which is shown leaping over an obstacle. Not many visitors realise that the face of the trooper is that of the late Major General 'Digger' James, a Korea and Vietnam veteran who was later National President of the RSL and who took a close interest in the development of the ANZAC memorial site at Beersheba. The statue is part of a large Australian Soldier Park which was initiated and partly paid for by the Pratt Foundation and other Australian benefactors. It was opened in 2008 by the then Governor-General, retired Major General Michael Jeffery, and the then President of Israel, the late Shimon Peres. The park includes a number of memorials and recreational facilities for local children.
I might mention here that the Australian Soldier Park is one of the many excellent projects of the Pratt Foundation, which has donated more than $30 million to around 350 Israeli projects focusing on children with disabilities, yeshiva students, Jewish and Arab school students, the Batsheva Dance Company, the Jewish National Fund, Ben-Gurion University and adults with special needs. This is, of course, a foundation established by the late Richard Pratt, who was a great benefactor and philanthropist both here in Australia and in Israel.
The commemorative events at Beersheba are part of the four-year-long process of marking the centenary of World War I, which was initiated by the previous Labor government and has been continued by this current government. The highlight of this process was of course the centenary of the Gallipoli landings in April 2015. Thanks to this process, I think that most Australians now know that our involvement in World War I was much more extensive than the Gallipoli campaign. The process will conclude with the centenary of the armistice on 11 November next year.
Relative to our population, World War I was Australia's most costly war. A total of 420,000 Australians served in it, out of a population of barely four million, and 60,000 Australians lost their lives. Another 130,000 were wounded. On a per capita basis, this was one of the highest casualty rates among the Allied armies, which is a testimony to the courage of the Australian soldier. It also testifies to the fact that the Australians were frequently used as frontline assault forces as at Beersheba and also later in the great battles of 1918 on the western front when Australian forces, led by Sir John Monash, played a key role in breaking the German lines and bringing the war to an end. Sir John Monash was, in the view of most historians, the greatest military commander Australia has ever produced. He was also Jewish, and has a town, Kfar Monash, named after him in Israel. I'm not aware of any other town outside of Australia which is named after an Australian.
Although all the veterans of World War I are now gone, certainly they are not forgotten. They have left behind a military tradition which subsequent generations of Australian service men and women have upheld and further developed. But just as importantly—here I will come back to the subjects of the bill we are debating—it was they, the veterans of World War I, who established the long tradition of vigorous advocacy on behalf of veterans which has continued to today. The RSL was founded in 1916 to represent the servicemen, many of them wounded and sick, who were coming back to Australia from the Gallipoli campaign. In September 1917, the Repatriation Department was established, and in 1976 it became the Department of Veterans' Affairs, which was established to oversee the return and demobilisation of the Australian Imperial Force to Australia and for the provision of services to its veterans, particularly those who were disabled— (Time expired)
There is no greater constitutional responsibility for any federal government or any federal MP, including those of us in this chamber today, than the defence and the security of our nation, and also the support for all of those who have served in uniform on behalf of all of us. In Australia, we therefore owe our sincere and immense gratitude and respect for the service made by all members of the ADF in all conflicts.
Today I rise to commend the government and the minister on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017, which recognises the importance of the service of our current serving ADF members and also veterans. I would acknowledge that this does have bipartisan support, and for that I thank those of the opposition. I would also like to thank Senator Kitching for her comments on the Battle of Beersheba. I had the pleasure and the honour of attending that ceremony and also strategic dialogues after it, and I will address those particular incidents, episodes and celebrations later on in this place.
While some might say that these amendments are relatively modest and minor, it certainly does not mean that their benefit and outcome are modest or minor. They are part of a much longer term journey to reform the way in which we support our veterans. This omnibus bill provides amendments that are absolutely necessary to assist our veterans and afford them the dignity, respect, recognition and support they so rightly deserve. As Australians, we must all recognise not only the service of our veterans but also the challenges they and their families and friends endure and suffer as a consequence of their service. Every veteran who has served our nation has their own personal story. Some are told and remembered through families; others are captured in history and in documentation. But what is not always remembered is that their stories and experience are also the shared experience of their families, who have, in effect, served alongside them.
Australians are rightly proud of the service of ADF members. I, like other members of this chamber and of the other place, have served in the Australian Defence Force, and I remain just as proud of that service and the service of all others in uniform as I was the day that I enlisted. However, what I would like to do now is share with you the story of one particular person, a family member, and record his story in this place. Unlike many others, who don't have access to the stories of family members who served in the past, I do have that access. I would like to share with you the story of my grandfather Alfred George Reynolds. My grandfather was a brave and courageous man who, like many others of his generation in World War I, selflessly volunteered and signed up to serve his country so that today we could have the freedoms and opportunities that we do, those of living in a society of free speech and other democratic freedoms.
On 1 November 1914, Alfred George Reynolds was one of the young soldiers who departed Albany in the first convoy. He was a 3rd Australian Field Ambulance medic who, against all the odds, served not only throughout Gallipoli but all throughout the Western Front, at Fromelles, the Somme, Pozieres, Ypres and Amiens. One can't imagine the horror that he and his mates went through, year after year. Unlike so many of his friends over those four years, he returned alive. While he may have returned home in reasonably good health, mentally he had changed. He was terribly scarred. My grandfather, throughout his life, rarely talked about his experiences, and he neither valued nor kept reminders of the war. My dad, as a young boy, was often totally bewildered by my grandfather's behaviour. He could not understand his rages, his moods and his depression, because he could not possibly understand what my grandfather had been through on the Western Front and at Gallipoli. Like many others, after the war my grandfather didn't talk about it; he just got on with life as best he could. He raised his six children and continued to do many things in his life, including, I must say, becoming a Labor MP in the WA state parliament. In Western Australia he went on, as I said, to do many things. He had been a wool classer, and he was a wheat and sheep farmer in Mukinbudin, in the Western Australian sheep belt. He was an accountant in Albany and even, as I said, a Labor politician. Nonetheless, throughout his life my grandfather maintained a selfless sense of sacrifice and service to his country.
His story is like so many of those shared now in the Anzac Centre in Albany. But the story that is untold, the story of each of these veterans, is that of the impact their service in our name has had on the rest of their lives and the lives of their families. None of us can truly understand or appreciate what our returned servicemen and servicewomen experience on operations and in war. That is a right that is reserved solely for those who have served in war and in operations. Like my grandfather and like those veterans subsequently, many do return changed. They find it difficult to reintegrate back into society and into their families. And, tragically, between 2001 and 2005 there were 325 suicides amongst people who had served in the ADF since 2001. Alarmingly, this represents a figure of 23 veteran suicides a year, which is incredibly sad and impacts on all in this chamber.
We as a government, working with those on all sides of this chamber, must do what we can do and always support our service men and women and their families, regardless of whether they are veterans or currently serving, to ensure that we provide them at all stages of their career with the appropriate levels of individualised support. Currently the Department of Veterans' Affairs supports about 291,000 Australians. Just over half of this figure are veterans or current serving members of the ADF. The department provides more than $11 billion annually. Around $6.2 billion is spent on income support and compensation, and around $5 billion is provided to veterans for health care and other rehabilitation services.
I know this government understands and recognises the immense gratitude we all have for our current serving ADF members and for our veterans. It has provided an additional $350 million for veterans in this year's budget. There is an additional $58.6 million in funding for much-needed and very welcome mental health initiatives. In addition to this, this government has provided $38 million in the 2016-17 budget to cover PTSD, anxiety, depression, alcohol and substance abuse and other mental illnesses which have resulted from service. This bill, and the additional funding, will mean that anyone who has served full time in the ADF can access free treatment for any mental health condition. That is such an important development, and it is wonderful to see that it has bipartisan support. This is a huge leap forward in the provision of mental health support and the ongoing destigmatisation of this issue. Not only can anybody who's served full time in the ADF access this free treatment, but it is fully funded and also uncapped.
As I have said, we can't comprehend the circumstances that our men and women face on operations, and never can we truly financially compensate them for what they and their families have given and sacrificed for our nation. But what we can do is to strive to continue to provide better and more targeted services and support. So, in addition, $166.6 million has also been dedicated to implement the first stage of the Veteran Centric Reform program, which will ensure, one would hope, that the department's transformational journey continues to provide the absolute best possible and tailored services to support our veterans.
We are all indebted to our current ADF members and returned service men and women for their sacrifice and their dedication. This is why the bill, while perhaps modest in size, is certainly not modest in impact. I'd like to go through some of the reforms that are introduced in this legislation. First of all, schedule 1 amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act to modernise and improve the operation by aligning provisions with similar provisions in the AAT Act. It sounds a bit bureaucratic, but, for those navigating the system themselves, it's a very important change. Schedule 2 modernises and streamlines the Veterans' Entitlements Act to improve the specialist Medical Review Council by simplifying the appointment processes for councillors and also progressing whole-of-government requirements for digital transformation. It removes red tape in commencing reviews and provides for reimbursement of certain travel expenses. I'm sure everybody in this chamber engages regularly with veterans, so we know that the simplification of a bewilderingly and unnecessarily complex process is another very welcome step forward.
Schedule 3 of the bill ensures that arrangements with foreign governments can be made to ensure that benefits and payments can be made to our veterans—another relatively minor but very important change for veterans. Schedule 4 strengthens the foundation for providing rehabilitation assistance and support to current ADF members and veterans. Schedule 5 allows for the facilitation of information sharing to assist with the efficiency of compensation claims—a procedural amendment but, for those of you who know veterans who struggle with this system and this process, another welcome streamlining of the process. Schedule 5 also ensures that those veterans who are entitled for discounted pharmaceuticals are afforded with access to these services, giving them greater access to pharmaceuticals than they currently have—an overwhelmingly good thing.
Schedule 6 inserts minor procedural amendments to allow for the delegation of ministerial powers and functions—an administrative process but, again, one designed to speed up the process and make it easier for veterans. Schedules 7 and 8 will implement minor technical amendments and remove from the respective acts several parts that are no longer relevant. These schedules will provide extra clarity and a little more certainty for veterans. Again, while technical in nature, this is all about making the acts easier to read, getting rid of things that should no longer be in them and making it easier for veterans, their families and their advocates to access the services and support they are entitled to receive.
The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee was until recently chaired by my great friend and colleague from Western Australia the now retired Senator Chris Back. He had a great passion for, and interest in, veterans' support and veterans' entitlements. He was a great advocate for veterans and acknowledged their service. In particular, he was an advocate for getting rid of really dumb red tape that made their lives even more challenging. So the then Senator Back inquired into this omnibus bill and the committee recommended that the Senate pass this bill. I'd like to share with you some of the things that Senator Back, as chair, and the committee observed in relation to this bill. Unsurprisingly, the committee found that witnesses were supportive of the bill's intent to improve services and supported this extra support to veterans. This is how the report concluded:
While the committee acknowledges submitters' concerns regarding Schedules 1 and 5 of the bill, it has been reassured by evidence received from the Principal Member of the Veterans' Review Board, and from officers of the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation and the Department of Veterans' Affairs in response to those concerns.
The committee indicated in its report that many of the concerns raised by witnesses had been sufficiently and adequately addressed and explained that any misunderstanding of the applications of sections introduced in this bill were nullified. Further to this, those opposite, in their additional comments, have also stated that the majority of concerns in relation to this bill had been addressed.
This is a bill that needs to be passed in the Senate. It reflects, and is indicative and respectful of, our men and women whose selfless sacrifice, determination and service allows us to have the freedoms that we enjoy here today. As I've said, none of us can truly understand what our returned service men and women have experienced in war. And I know from my own personal family experience that we can never truly understand the impact it has on their immediate and extended family and friends. Therefore, it is incumbent on all of us in this place, as all of us acknowledge here, to keep meeting the ongoing challenge to update the legislation to make sure that our veterans—of all ages, of all generations and of all conflicts—are provided with all possible support we can provide them. I commend the government and the minister on this omnibus bill and support its passage. I also thank those opposite for their engagement and support on this important bill.
I too rise this morning to put some remarks on the record with regard to this important piece of legislation, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017. As always when it comes to legislation and matters that involve our veterans, I'm very mindful to acknowledge the wisdom that has been shared with me by many veterans over the course of my years involved in parliamentary life in particular. That's one of the things that people don't see and which is often not reported about the work that we do: the incredible trust that people place in us in giving us their stories, the acts of hope that they engage in when they speak about the challenges that they face, and the power of individual stories to help us understand the real, practical and structural challenges that face many Australians.
When I think about veterans, I think about many of the people that I've encountered, but I think about one in particular, who was a student of mine. I've known this boy since he was in my year 7 English class. I've been at parent-teacher nights with his mother, who is a worker in the local health profession near where I live. I've seen him grow throughout his life. I saw him on his 16th and 17th birthday years, as he joined the Reserves, and the pride he had in that. I was very privileged and felt very honoured when he came back after he signed up to show me himself in uniform. Over the course of the years, I've engaged with this young man about his life in service, seen him rise to the challenges of opportunities that he has been given, and seen remarkable achievement. He was very proud to be an Australian soldier. He was very proud of the work that he was doing.
But, like many of those who have served our nation across the generations, he is now a veteran. He's not a token veteran, which I think too many Australians have captured in our memory—that on the 11th of the 11th and 25 April we attend, look at people, see the uniforms and do what's right in honouring those veterans on those days. We're good at acknowledging that. But veterans are young men and young women with families. Veterans are people who live all the days between 25 April and 11 November, and all the days between 11 November and 25 April when it comes around again. They have to manage their lives and families, and their families have to manage and interact with them.
Not every person who serves in our armed forces leaves with a deficit, and I really want to put that on the record today. Being a part of the armed forces is a life-enabling and enhancing experience for very many Australians, but, sadly, some people leave our forces in not-very-good shape, and right now we are facing significant challenges of inadequate response, not just for the broad community but particularly for our veterans' community, as to their access to the health services that they need and the counselling that they're excluded from because the rate the government currently pays for veterans to access mental health services is so inadequate that ordinary civilians are getting treatment from local psychologists over the top of our veterans. That's a reality they're confronting. Another reality they're confronting is an inability to get their cases managed properly through the Department of Veterans' Affairs, in transition—as they move out of the military and into the care of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. This problem is made very clear to us as representatives, over and over. That's why, even though this bill will not resolve all of the issues confronting our veterans, it is a significant step in addressing some of the things that are wrong and that need to be attended to.
This bill is supported by Labor—and I acknowledge the remarks of Senator Reynolds with regard to that matter—because we believe the changes that are here before us for consideration today will clarify and improve or streamline the operation of the law and the processes within the Department of Veterans' Affairs. It's a really important thing that, if you're not in very good physical shape or mental shape and you're a veteran, you shouldn't have to fight a system. The system should be serving you, as a person. This is the problem, writ large, that I keep confronting over and over in the conversations that I have with veterans. One veteran put it to me very articulately when he said, 'If I operated as a serving member of the forces with the standard of lack of care that I receive when I seek assistance from the department and its agencies, I wouldn't have been serving in the forces for very long.' We're talking about young men and women who've met incredibly high standards of professional life within the forces. They've served. They've excelled. I think it's fair for them to expect that the treatment, as they leave the forces, be commensurate with the quality of service and standard that they employed in their own service life. It's that mismatch that offends them so much.
This bill addresses some of those concerns in a practical way, but directing people to do particular things doesn't always achieve the cultural shift that I think is required to meet the expectations of our veterans currently. The remarks that I make in support of this legislation are somewhat coloured by an uncertainty that the department and those who are employed within the department, who are doing the day-to-day interactions with our veterans, may not reach the standard that this legislation is seeking to achieve. I think we need to be mindful of that. I want to put that on the record today, because there needs to be a shift in standard and a shift in culture, of which this is just one small part.
During the debate of this bill in the lower house we saw the government adopt Labor amendments to schedule 1, to remove the ability of veterans' applications to the Veterans' Review Board to be dismissed on terms considered to be frivolous, to be vexatious or to have no reasonable prospect of success. I'm pleased to say that the government did backflip on that, and that was a good decision. We have to protect the unique nature of the Veterans' Review Board. It is, and it has to remain, a place where veterans can appeal decisions that have been made by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. From my conversations with veterans, I know that this is a very significant safeguard for our veterans. It has to continue to provide a place for them to seek protection when an arbitrary decision has been made. It needs to be open to critique, and that's what this will do.
Again, Labor welcomes the government's adoption of our amendment to schedule 1 to ensure that every veteran continues to have the opportunity to be heard in those circumstances. Schedule 1 is an important part of this legislation. I might make a few more remarks with regard to that. The board currently has some legacy matters to deal with that make it difficult for it to do its job, so schedule 1 is going to modernise and improve the operations of the board. It will ensure that, while it's carrying out its functions, it will be able to pursue these particular objectives of providing a mechanism that is accessible to veterans and that is fair, just, economical, informal and quick; providing a review place that's proportionate to the importance and complexity of the matter; and promoting public trust and confidence in the decision-making of the board.
These are all very important issues, and I do want to speak briefly to the issues of 'fair, just, economic, informal and quick'. One of the concerns that has been raised with me very frequently is the challenge for veterans who live at a distance from the city—the cost of trying to get to these meetings that they're called to, including meetings where they're called on to go and see a specialist. They can be waiting for a very long period of time, as part of a process of claim, to be called in to have their case reviewed in some way. I experienced the anxiety just by sitting in a room with these men, who were telling me about waiting for months and months and months for something to happen, and then how finally they'd get a call to say that, within 24 hours, they'd have to show up, and, if they missed their appointment, their whole access to the basic living dollars that come to their account was going to be constantly compromised. That is one of the reflections that I want to make on the culture—that the differentiation of power between those who are making decisions and those who are obliged to comply with directions seems incredibly unjust and disrespectful to our veterans community. So I hope that, with schedule 1, in claiming that the board is going to make this fair, just and economical, we talk about not just the economics of the board's capacity to do its job but the economic impact of making it possible for our veterans, with a reasonable notification period and with reasonable resources, to actually get to the hearings that they need to attend.
I'd like to touch on another schedule, schedule 5. This is a very important one to our veterans because it amends the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988 to facilitate information sharing between the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, the MRCC, and the other body that is critical to ensuring that our veterans get their fair and adequate payment for living, the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation. That's a very important communication gap that has existed, but is vital with respect to certain service-related compensation claims.
As it stands—prior to this legislation being introduced and hopefully passing through this place today—due to the information-sharing provisions, if somebody is medically discharged from the forces and they undergo a medical, when they go to the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation to organise payments they have to undergo a second medical. When they go to the Department of Veterans' Affairs for assistance, they then undergo a third medical. This goes to the point that I was making about the system driving unhelpful, costly and personally impacting behaviours onto the veterans. The system is demanding that the people serve it, instead of the system serving the people, particularly our veterans—who, I remind you, we must honour daily, not just on those occasions of remembrance on 25 April and 11 November.
The amendments within this bill seek to enable information sharing between the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation and the Department of Veterans' Affairs. That is going to be important in reducing some of the reworking, and the trauma of having to go through multiple recounts of one's story, and multiple and unnecessarily expensive referrals through a range of doctors. The amendments are designed to enable the CSC to get the relevant claims information that's held by the Department of Veterans' Affairs, where that access is going to assist the CSC in the performance of its functions and powers. Access to the department's claims information, particularly relevant medical and rehab information, would not just assist the veterans but also assist the CSC to make speedier superannuation benefits assessments. That, in turn, would assist the department to determine a person's entitlement to incapacity payments.
And there we have what's at the heart of this. It's one thing for us to talk about honouring our veterans; it's another thing to make sure that they have the wherewithal to live. Those who have mental health challenges or physical disabilities as a result of their service are entitled to live with a degree of comfort and a degree of mental ease that their payments are safe and secure and that they're just and reasonable. That is not the case for too many veterans. It simply is not the case. I sincerely hope that the changes that are foreshadowed here in this piece of legislation translate into that action—change that will enhance the lives of our veterans.
One of the challenges is not just the sharing of information but the length of time that it takes for these processes to be undertaken. I'm sure that I'm not the only parliamentarian in here today who will speak on behalf of the veterans, who are just sick of it. Some of the stories that I've heard about files involve part of a file kept in one state and another part of the file kept in another. In this day and age we haven't got the real NBN, but we've got enough capacity for information to shift around. People can scan documents and email. The challenges that have been faced over the years by veterans whose files have gone missing or who have had to wait for months as things have disappeared, as people have left things on their desk and gone on leave and no-one's taken over their case load, are real, practical challenges that need a response. And again I say that this legislation is a pointer to the change that needs to be undertaken. But this legislation needs to be taken seriously, not just as a minor change to practice but as an indicator of a significant change to practical realities that improve the lives of our veterans.
I also want to discuss this specific schedule from a mental health perspective, in my role here as the shadow assistant minister to the member for Franklin, Julie Collins. We are giving voice to Labor's concerns about adequate funding for mental health services in the broader community. We have a particular duty to respond to mental health challenges in the veterans community. The Department of Veterans' Affairs, during the Senate inquiry into this bill, emphasised that the changes that are expected as a result of the implementation of this bill should improve access to care and support. They noted that these should be of particular benefit to those with mental health conditions.
It was argued that the changes would ultimately be of most benefit to recipients by enabling quicker determinations. We know a couple of things about why speed is very important in terms of people getting a response to their illness, because we know that the longer we leave people in a situation where they feel particularly unwell the longer that victimhood status can continue and identity becomes fixed around unwellness rather than helping people quickly get the care and support that they need. Whether that's for somatic, physical health or mental health, people need to be able to access those services in a timely way, in a time close to when their injury occurs, so that they can have the best possible chance of getting well and returning to full participation in their family, in their community, in their workplace and in the broader community—perhaps even here into this place.
We know that the 2010 ADF Mental Health Prevalence and Wellbeing Study was the first major mental health audit that had happened in the ADF. We had nearly half the ADF members participate in the study, so it was a pretty good sample size, and it found that, of those who responded, half of the ADF population had experienced a mental health disorder in their lifetime. That sounds alarming, but I really want to put it into context. For the general population, that's pretty normal. We actually experience mental illness in the general population at a roughly similar rate. At any one time, one in five Australians might be experiencing mental ill health. The study noted that this is due to a range of stress factors caused by the nature of their work. The study found that the most common mental disorders in the ADF were anxiety disorders, with the most prevalent anxiety disorder being post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sadly, I'm going to run out of time to speak about the challenges of suicide ideation and access to services, but I hope that I've made it clear in my remarks that Labor does support this legislation. But the legislation is only an indicator of significant change that needs to be undertaken, and veterans certainly will be very much the focus of my mental health efforts in the coming period.
I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017, and it is a privilege to do so. I would like to acknowledge the contribution of my colleague across the chamber and my colleague from Western Australia Senator Reynolds who has obviously had a lot more time in this place and have a lot more detailed knowledge of some of these issues than perhaps I do at this relatively early stage of my career. It is incumbent upon the government and the nation, when dealing with the very important issue of defence, to take a broad view of that issue, and part of the way we defend our community and defend our nation is by making sure we treat our veterans with respect and give them the processes and supports they need post their time in the service of our nation.
I would like to begin today by relating a story. It's a great honour, when you serve in this place, that you get the opportunity to represent veterans and their families and to represent the government at events where veterans and their families are honoured. I had just such an opportunity relatively early on in my career. My wife received an email from a former colleague of hers, and the email contained a very long, somewhat convoluted chain of events that led me to helping a poppy get placed on the wall of remembrance at the War Memorial.
A lady from Western Australia, Betty Havercroft, wrote a letter to The Canberra Times on 10 October, looking for someone in Canberra who could place a poppy on the Roll of Honour in memory of her relative, James Herman Breuer, who was killed in action at Passchendaele on 12 October 1917. Betty Havercroft wanted the poppy to be placed on the Roll of Honour on the 100th anniversary of James Breuer's death at Passchendaele. This letter appeared in The Canberra Times and it was seen, as I said, by a friend of my wife's. She had been researching her own family history and, as a bit of a coincidence, she found out that her grandfather had actually served with James Breuer and they'd trained together at a camp in Western Australia called Blackboy Hill. In fact, they'd lived not too far from each other at that time as well.
The next coincidence in the chain was that they had both served under a cousin of mine in the First World War, Major Edmund Drake-Brockman. Major Edmund Drake-Brockman was part of the training camp on Blackboy Hill and they were all part of the 11th Battalion that embarked for Egypt and landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. A subsequent series of events took them to the Western Front in July 1917, and then we see the vagaries of war. My wife's friend's grandfather made it back to Australia after he served, lived a long and healthy life and died at the age of 86, whereas a very young James Breuer died on the fields of Passchendaele on 12 October 1917.
So it came full circle, with Mrs Betty Havercroft looking for someone it place a poppy on the Roll of Honour. I was in Western Australia at the time, but I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could reach out to people I knew in Canberra to do that for her. It shows the depth of support for veterans and veterans' families that when a good friend of mine, Philippa Campbell, went to the Roll of Honour to place the poppy on the wall, she found that a number of others had already been there to do it. In fact, something like 12 people from Canberra or from around Australia had actually seen Betty Havercroft's letter in The Canberra Times and had gone to the Roll of Honour and placed poppies in the wall in memory of James Breur on the 100th anniversary of his death.
As members of this place, we get the extraordinary opportunity to meet with our defence forces, to meet with veterans and to represent the government at various events where veterans and their families are honoured. In the short time I've been in this place, I've had a chance to attend the BAE shipyards at Henderson with the Prime Minister, where we had a chance to inspect the ships up on the hardstand and talk about the investment in the Nulka anti-ship missile defence program and to talk with serving personnel—civilian as well as military—as the upgrades to those ships were taking place. Last week I had the honour of visiting HMAS Stirling with the defence minister, Minister Payne, to turn a sod on a $367 million investment in the redevelopment of Stirling naval base. Local contracts have already been awarded there and we've seen $37 million going into local businesses. I got the chance to speak with serving military personnel and civilians working on those projects. We do have an extraordinary opportunity to look to the future defence of our nation, and part of that, as I said, is ensuring that we treat our veterans with respect, giving them the systems and processes and support they need to be part of our society post their time of service.
The omnibus bill, which I'm very glad to see has cross-party support, modernises and aligns the Veterans' Review Board's operations with those of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, following the amendments made by the Tribunals Amalgamation Act 2015. I will second the comments made by Senator O'Neill that the processes we put in place for our veterans have to be quick, informal and accessible. They have to give people the opportunity to have their case heard in a way that allows them the maximum opportunity to have their voice heard whilst at the same time ensuring that a proper process is followed. The amendments also support the alternative dispute resolution process. Again, this is about giving people a chance to have their perspective heard in a perhaps less formal way than would otherwise be the case. It also supports the recent amendments to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004, which provide for a single appeal path for reconsidering decisions.
Schedule 2 amends the provisions of the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 concerning the Specialist Medical Review Council, improving the operations of the council, streamlining its administrative arrangements and better reflecting the manner in which its functions and processes have evolved over time. Again, this is about making sure the administrative arrangements for those support services we place around our veterans are the best, simplest and most comprehensive they can be. The proposed amendments would simplify the nomination of appointment process for counsellors, enable online lodgement of claims, streamline the notice of investigation requirements and give the SMRC the ability to pay the travel costs of applicants who appear before an oral hearing of the council. Again, we need to keep modernising our systems as technologies improve and as we are able to move what has traditionally been a very paper based system into the modern era, and as we get the ability to move those documents around much more quickly. We also need to give the Specialist Medical Review Council the ability to allow applicants who feel that they need to appear in person before the council the ability to do so.
The proposed amendments to schedule 3 of the omnibus bill would enable international agreements to be made that would 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 Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission under the relevant acts. Currently the Minister for Veterans' Affairs can only enter into arrangements with the governments of countries that are or have been dominions of the Crown. These amendments would enable the Minister for Veterans' Affairs to enter into arrangements with a broader range of countries. Obviously the arrangements that have been in place reflect our history and reflect the history of our service in past wars, but times have changed and the nature of the Australian population has changed. This is a very sensible amendment, which enables the minister to look to arrangements that will better serve everyone who falls under these categories within Australia.
The proposed amendments in schedule 4 are intended to clarify that vocational rehabilitation assistance under an employer incentive scheme in the form of wage incentive payments is within the scope of the enabling provisions of the relevant legislation. Schedule 5 amends the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988 to add the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation as a person to whom the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission may provide information for purposes allowed under the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation's legislation. Again, this is a minor technical amendment that smooths the flow of information between relevant parties dealing with veterans' affairs. The proposed amendments implement a recommendation by the 2011 Review of Military Compensation Arrangements, intended to improve the information-sharing framework for incapacity and superannuation benefits between DVA and CSC and, therefore, reduce the time taken to process claims by DVA and CSC, better supporting injured former ADF members. Anything we can do to speed up processing times for people in these circumstances is obviously something we should all support.
In addition, enabling the CSC to use medical information and reports held by the MRCC to determine superannuation claims would also avoid the need to send ADF members for further medical assessment where DVA already holds relevant medical evidence that could be used by the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation to determine superannuation benefits. Once again, why would we want to send our veterans to require additional assessments by new medical personnel when those assessments have already been carried out to the satisfaction of the Department of Veterans' Affairs? We don't want to retraumatise our veterans. We don't want them to have to retell their stories, particularly when we are dealing with people, as we've heard from my colleagues, with significant issues like post-traumatic stress disorder or other similar psychological conditions, including people who have potentially been victims of physical or psychological abuse.
There is also the ability to dismiss frivolous and vexatious claims. My understanding is that this was requested by the shadow veterans' affairs minister, and it's something that the government has looked at and agreed to. These amendments clarify that the decision to dismiss claims for reasons of being frivolous or vexatious is a non-delegable decision and lies with the principal member of the Veterans' Review Board. The principal member will have the ability to dismiss an application for review where he or she is satisfied that the application is frivolous, vexatious, misconceived or lacking substance, or is otherwise an abuse of process.
In commending the bill to the Senate, I would raise again that one of the most important duties we have in this place is looking to the defence of our nation and that looking to the defence of our nation means that we must look to the adequate support of our veterans. Whilst these amendments are largely technical in nature, they do make important changes to ensure that the processes that our veterans face are the smoothest, simplest and easiest to access that they can be. I'm sure there is more work to do in this space, and I'm sure there are additional issues that will need to be considered over time, but this is a good bill and it does and will help our veterans. I commend the bill.
I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017. The bill contains eight schedules which deal with different elements of veterans legislation that would implement amendments to clarify, improve and streamline the operation of the law. Schedule 1 of the bill seeks to amend the provisions under which the Veterans' Review Board, or VRB, operates, in an effort to modernise the VRB in line with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal following amendments made to the tribunal with the passage of the Tribunals Amalgamation Act 2015. An example of this alignment is new section 133A, which deals with the board's objectives. The proposed amendments provide that:
In carrying out its functions, the Board must pursue the objective of providing a mechanism of review that:
(a) is accessible; and
(b) is fair, just, economical, informal and quick; and
(c) is proportionate to the importance and complexity of the matter; and
(d) promotes public trust and confidence in the decision-making of the Board.
Schedule 1 also provides the board with the power to vary or revoke a decision made under the alternative dispute resolution 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. It 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 proportionality and public trust.
Schedule 1 had originally contained provisions which would have given the principal member of the VRB the power to dismiss an application for a review of a decision if they were 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. This was of great concern to me, the veterans community and many submitters to the Senate inquiry into the bill. Mr Brian Briggs of Slater and Gordon Lawyers opined that to introduce these dismissal powers to the VRB 'would increase the risk that genuine claims could be erroneously dismissed', given that even the AAT had wrongly dismissed genuine claims in the past. The principal member of the VRB, Mr Doug Humphreys, conceded in writing that during his tenure of seven years there had only been three matters where it may have been appropriate to hold a preliminary hearing to consider whether or not the matter should be dismissed on this ground if the VRB were so empowered. In the report The constant battle: suicide by veterans, the TPI Federation observed that DVA has acknowledged that there are less than 1.5 per cent of claims made by veterans that are disingenuous.
The single appeal pathway was a measure contained in the Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill 2016, which had the effect of removing the option for internal reconsideration by the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. I did not support the measure at the time and argued that the previous pathway for review provided veterans with the flexibility to choose the review that best suited their circumstances. But, unfortunately, the opposition did support the measure, which became law. The practical effect of removing the MRCC internal review pathway was to deny veterans a quicker system of review which entitled veterans to legal representation through the entire appeal process. The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee inquiry into suicides of veterans reaffirmed my concerns with the new VRB process. The committee was concerned about whether the practice of preventing veterans from bringing their lawyers to the VRB is appropriate in all cases. A number of examples were provided where vulnerable veterans felt underrepresented or unable to fairly engage with VRB proceedings. The committee acknowledged that it is imperative that veterans should be able to achieve the fairest hearing possible.
To that end I welcome the government's agreed response to recommendation 24 of The constant battle: suicide by veterans report, which proposed that the Australian government establish an independent review of the representation of veterans before the VRB. The recommendation proposes that the review should assess whether the rights of vulnerable veterans are being adequately protected and whether further support mechanisms for veterans appearing before the VRB are required. Our veterans deserve a fair, just and timely system to address their claims. Given the small number of times that the proposed power would be utilised, I do not believe the government has made its case for the inclusion of the summary dismissal powers in the bill. We do, however, support the intention of the bill to align the principles of the VRB and the AAT, and are supportive of these broader changes. The government has, to its credit, subsequently removed these provisions for summary dismissal from the bill, following amendments which passed the lower house last month. I thank the government for listening to my concerns and the concerns of relevant stakeholders by removing the summary dismissal power.
Schedule 2 of the bill 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 for certain travel expenses. The SMRC exists as an independent statutory body which reviews the contents of statements of principles or a decision of the Repatriation Medical Authority not to issue such a statement. The current appointment process of panel members to the SMRC takes around three months or longer and is overly prescriptive and time consuming. This affects the ability of the SMRC to perform its functions. The government has advised that these amendments will not change the threshold for specialists appointed to the panel; rather, the amendments will focus on streamlining the process of appointing specialists to the SMRC and are supported by the Nick Xenophon Team.
The amendments in schedule 2 will also provide payment of travel expenses for individuals, representatives of organisations and any necessary attendants accompanying a person attending the SMRC to make an oral submission. Schedule 2 also makes amendments which enable the convener of the SMRC to provide written directions about the manner for lodging requests for review for applications and to facilitate the electronic lodgement of documents in light of the government's digital transformation agenda. The Nick Xenophon Team supports these amendments in an effort to streamline processes and procedures at the SMRC.
Schedule 3 of the bill relates to the making of international arrangements. In particular, the proposed amendments will allow the minister to enter into agreements with a broader range of foreign countries than is currently allowed in order to establish reciprocal arrangements for veterans' affairs, the effect of which is that the minister can enter into agreements with any foreign country that makes provision for reciprocal payments or treatment and rehabilitation in relation to classes of persons specified in the agreement.
Another issue is that currently existing agreements are concerned with only those benefits payable under the VEA. Proposed amendments in schedule 3 will mean that coverage of allied veterans and Defence Force members with service of the type for which benefits and payments can be provided by the Repatriation Commission or the MRCC will extend to all acts pertaining to them: the VEA, the MRCA, the DRCA or the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act 2006. The Nick Xenophon Team supports these amendments. Currently, Australia has entered into formal agreements with New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and we look forward to seeing similar arrangements with other nations to expand the coverage of our benefits to our veterans living overseas.
Schedule 4 provides additional measures in connection with the employer incentive scheme payments. These payments are made to employers in the form of wage subsidies to encourage employers to hire injured veterans who have found it difficult to transition to civilian life and competing in tough labour markets. The department provides vocational rehabilitation to eligible serving and former Defence Force members, reservists and cadets following service related injury or disease. The assistance may also involve incentive payments to employers to facilitate civilian employment of veterans. The proposed amendments to the MRCA, the VEA and the DRCA will strengthen the legislative foundation for the payments to employers. These measures are supported by the Nick Xenophon Team because they will assist injured veterans to move forward and transition from defence service. Vocational rehabilitation can play a key role in assisting eligible veterans to find and retain employment. We know that for veterans, working can strengthen self-esteem, increase socialisation and improve physical and mental health.
Whilst I appreciate that there are checks and balances in place to ensure that the EIS achieves its stated aims, I remain concerned that employers may take advantage of vulnerable injured veterans. To that end, I have negotiated with the government to provide for an independent review of the scheme two years after its commencement. This will ensure that it is working to achieve its aims of employing injured veterans and giving them a genuine and lasting opportunity to engage with paid employment and the wider community. I understand that the minister will refer to this in the summing up of the bill.
Schedule 5 amends the MRCA and the DRCA to facilitate information sharing between the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission and the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation for the purposes allowed under the CSC's legislation. The proposed amendments would implement a recommendation by the 2011 Review of Military Compensation Arrangements intended to improve the information-sharing framework for incapacity and superannuation benefits between DVA and CSC, therefore reducing the time taken to process claims by DVA and CSC, which would better support injured veterans.
Currently, there is no express provision to allow the CSC to request information from the MRCC, but the MRCC can request information from the CSC. The bill aims to assist the CSC to make more timely superannuation decisions by allowing access to MRCC claims information where necessary. Requests for information from the CSC to the MRCC are made in accordance with the Privacy Act 1988. By enabling the CSC to use medical information and reports held by the MRCC to determine superannuation claims, it may avoid the need to send applications for further medical assessment where the MRCC already holds relevant medical evidence that could be used by the CSC to determine superannuation benefits. This amendment is highly significant to Defence Force members and veterans, as they would be spared from any retraumatisation from having to retell their stories, which have arisen in many cases from physical or psychological abuse.
I do note that this section has caused some concern with the veteran community, who raised a number of privacy concerns during the Senate inquiry into the bill. Many submitters encouraged the department to promote greater transparency by undertaking a privacy impact assessment of schedule 5 of the bill. This has been undertaken, and the PIA report by the Australian Government Solicitor was published on 22 June this year and has been uploaded on DVA's website. This information sharing is designed to assist the CSC to undertake its usual function. It is very different to the public interest disclosure provisions of the digital readiness act, which I did not support, which envisaged the secretary being able to make public disclosure of personal information about a veteran.
The provisions in schedule 6 relate to the power of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs to delegate any of his or her functions under the MRCA. In the original drafting of the bill, the delegation of the minister's power extended to a commissioner of the MRCC or any public servant appointed or engaged under the relevant act. Whilst I acknowledge that this broad delegation of power exists under the VEA, it raised concerns with the Scrutiny of Bills Committee about why it was necessary to allow the minister's powers and functions to be delegated to any APS employee at any level. The minister acknowledged these concerns and moved amendments which passed the lower house, which now limit the delegation power so that the minister would only be able to delegate any of his or her functions or powers to an SES employee or acting SES employee in the department. Limiting the delegation power to the Senior Executive Service is reasonable, strikes the right balance and is supported by the Nick Xenophon Team.
Schedule 7 of this bill will amend the legislation to exempt certain legislative instruments from section 14(2) of the Legislation Act 2003 and enable those 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 and lengthy delays for the department. For example, Veterans' Affairs treatment principles are a legislative instrument. The treatment principles set out the arrangements under which the Repatriation Commission can issue guidelines for the provision of treatment, including hospital services, to veterans. An external document associated with the treatment principles includes a schedule of rehabilitation appliances that are approved for use when providing services to veterans. When a new technology becomes available, this list must be updated. Currently, every time an external document is updated, the legislative instrument is attached to it and must be amended. In the case of treatment principles, this can cause a delay of up to six months in new products being made available to the veteran community. The schedule allows certain legislative instruments to be automatically updated to incorporate changes to external documents. All of the incorporated documents will be made available online by the department and readily accessible. This schedule is also supported by the Nick Xenophon Team.
Finally, the amendments in schedule 8 will repeal redundant and spent provisions administered in the Veterans' Affairs portfolio concerning benefits that are no longer payable under portfolio acts and also makes consequential amendments in relation to their repeal. The measures proposed in schedule 8 are being made to simplify veterans' legislation and make it more accessible for individuals wishing to interpret the current provisions. I support this bill and I thank the minister's office for dealing with my concerns in a professional and considered manner.
On 19 October, I moved a motion calling on the government to implement the recommendations made in the report Theconstant battle: suicide by veterans. The government has since responded to the report and accepted all of the recommendations. I thank the government for its timely response and for acknowledging the importance of the inquiry, which I had the privilege to be part of. I look forward to the implementation of the recommendations and the positive impact they will have on the lives and health of our Defence Force members and veterans.
I'd like to thank the senators who have contributed to the debate on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill. The bill comprises nine schedules that would implement several small but necessary amendments to veterans' legislation to clarify, improve or streamline the operation of the law. In particular, the proposed amendments in schedule 4 are intended to enable the operation of the Employer Incentive Scheme, creating a pathway to jobs for veterans. I note that, in addressing some senators' concerns, the department will undertake an independent evaluation of the Employer Incentive Scheme after it has been in operation for two years. It is expected that two years should provide sufficient time to determine the effectiveness of the scheme and to determine if any adjustment is required to improve the scheme's outcomes. The evaluation will be in addition to business-as-usual program management activities.
The proposed amendments in schedule 5 would amend subsection 409(2) of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 and subsection 151A(1) of the Safety Rehabilitation Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988 to add the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation, the CSC, as a person to whom the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, the MRCC, may provide information for purposes allowed under CSC's legislation. This is an important measure for veterans as it allows the department to share relevant information with other agencies in order to alleviate the bureaucracy of the claims process. The proposed amendments would implement a recommendation by the 2011 review of military compensation arrangements intended to improve the information-sharing framework for incapacity and superannuation benefits between DVA and CSC and, therefore, reduce the time taken to process claims by DVA and CSC, which would better support injured former ADF members. In addition, enabling the CSC to use medical information and reports held by the MRCC to determine superannuation claims would also avoid the need to send ADF members for further medical assessment where DVA already holds relevant medical evidence that could be used by the CSC to determine superannuation benefits. ADF members would be spared from any retraumatisation from having to retell their stories. This is particularly significant for ADF members who suffer psychological conditions, including those that have arisen as a result of physical or psychological abuse.
Another important measure in the bill ensures that a holder of a pensioner concession card will have access to discounted pharmaceuticals restored. This is part of a decision by government to restore the pensioner concession card to these veterans.
These are just some of the small but significant ways that this bill will provide for veterans and their families. I again thank senators for their contributions to the debate and I commend this bill to the Senate.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.