| October 17, 2018

Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2018

I acknowledge the previous speaker for the work that he's been doing in that Seymour-Puckapunyal area through his parliamentary term, because of the enormity of the role that that area plays within our veterans community but also in our current serving community as well. Everybody who has been in the service at one stage or other would have spent some time at Puckapunyal, and anybody who has had anything to do with Vietnam would have taken the time to go off the Hume Highway and visit the amazing wall that has been built in the last few years. It's fantastic asset to the Vietnam veterans and their legacy.

I think I must have been about seven or eight when my cousin stood on the railway station at Euroa and headed off to Vietnam. I thought, when I saw the wall there, I'd go and find his name. I looked through the Army and the hundreds and hundreds of people who were in the Army and I couldn't find him, so I thought he must have been in the Air Force. I went and had a look at the Air Force, and I couldn't see his name there. I went to the Navy. I still couldn't find this John Drum anywhere. It wasn't until I actually got on the phone and said, 'Mate, they've left your name off the Vietnam wall,' that he said to me that he served in Malaysia, so he actually was in a different conflict altogether. If you talk to any of the Vietnam veterans, they know exactly where that wall is. They have all been there, they have taken their families there and they are incredibly proud of the way that community has acknowledged them.

This bill puts the veterans at the top of the list. We're looking at ways we can make it easier for them to show the commitment the government has to helping them with their needs later in life. This bill has been designed to help improve the outcomes not only for serving Australian Defence Force members but also for veterans and their families and will ensure that the essential services are available to veterans when they need them. The bill will extend claim avenues to include the Chief of the Defence Force. It's also going to resolve veterans' claims more quickly by strengthening the ability of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to obtain information from third parties where applicable and by expediting lump sum exemptions for veterans by simplifying DVA and Department of Human Services processes.

Schedule 1 of the bill amends the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 to enable the Chief of the Defence Force to make a claim for liability on behalf of a current serving Australian Defence Force member, where the member suffers a service injury or disease and agrees to the Chief of the Defence Force or his delegate making the claim. This amendment will provide an alternative way a claim for a liability may be made. At the moment, there is an obstacle to establishing the claim that a contributing incident actually happened as part of a claimant's ADF service, especially where a claim is first lodged many years after the injury. This measure is aimed at making it easier for incidents and injuries to be reported to DVA at the time of the injury. Receiving claims for conditions and injuries at the time of the injury will improve both the information DVA holds and its ability to analyse future trends and future needs in the conditions and service to follow, streamlining the claims process at a later date. Veterans will benefit by having future claims for diseases and conditions that manifest well after the service and those claims are going to be more easily accepted.

Schedule 2 of the bill will enable the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to obtain information in determining a claim for compensation under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988. Veterans can be adversely affected when information critical to their claim is not provided by third parties. These provisions in this bill are going to enable these veterans and their families to have easier access to that third-party data and that will also likely help with these compensation claims. DVA can currently request information from a third party using powers under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1988 and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004. They can do that now to assist with gathering material to determine claims. But these powers are going to be particularly useful when requesting information from third parties, potentially banks, where the claimant does not have easy access to that information. The privacy rights of individual DVA clients will not be impacted or altered in any way by this measure—that's also a very important part. This change is going to hopefully streamline the claims process, providing veterans with certainty about their entitlements much more quickly.

Schedule 3 is going to improve administrative practices in the Department of Veterans' Affairs concerning income support clients and the exempting of certain lump sum payments from the income test. Currently, some lump sums received by people on Commonwealth income support payments are exempted from the income test for income support payments. The Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 and the Social Security Act 1991 have identical provisions allowing for these exemptions. So, currently, for a lump sum to be exempt a determination has to be made by both departments separately in respect of these same exemptions. This amendment will streamline the administrative process, which means DVA can rely on the exemptions made under the Social Security Act rather than having to make a separate identical determination. The current practice of redrafting and registering identical lump-sum-exemption determinations is an unnecessary regulatory burden on DVA, and it is just good common-sense that we would have one test cater for both processes. This amendment is also likely to remove any risk that a gap in time would exist between the two areas.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan. It was an amazing experience to be thrown into the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program. It certainly was an eye-opener for myself and Justine Keay, who was also on that trip. When I was in the state parliament many years ago—well, not that many years ago—I had a term as Minister for Veterans' Affairs. The role of the state Minister for Veterans' Affairs is relatively narrow: effectively, we look after the memorial services and the memorials, and we also look after the commemorative events. Everything else within the DVA portfolio rests with the federal government.

But, in this state role, I was able to work closely with the RSL in looking at some of the projects they were desperate to fund. We were able to partner with the RSL to build a special facility for veterans struggling in the medium to short term—anywhere from two or three weeks when they would need to come to Melbourne to escape their current environment. That might mean coming as an individual, coming to the city and into the apartments we built. We built those in the Richmond area, near the banks of the Yarra River, to enable these returned soldiers—these veterans—to receive the treatment they needed. We even built one apartment that was able to cater for an entire family in the event that a veteran would best be served in this recovery period by having their family with them.

It gave me and those in the RSL a great insight into the types of different services that all our veterans require from time to time. No one veteran is the same. People often refer to all of our veterans in one category, but there couldn't be anything further from the truth; and it's irrespective of where they served. For instance, many of our Vietnam veterans who went overseas came back and didn't miss a beat. They didn't miss a day of work and haven't had an issue with their relationships. And we have people who have had their whole lives turned upside down by their experiences in Vietnam. The trauma that they've brought home with them, the trauma that they experienced in Vietnam, has impacted on nearly every aspect of their lives. And we have everywhere between those two extremes.

We must be very cognisant of the fact that there is no specific military veteran who can actually be pigeonholed into one category of having any type of issue: PTSD, depression or anxiety. Everybody is entirely different, every case is totally different and every case needs to be treated for those different variations. That is why, effectively, this bill is going to create that opportunity for these claims to be less impactful and to be processed in a quicker manner.

I also want to touch quickly on what I was able to experience last week. Many of our amazing currently serving members of the ADF are married, with family back home. I don't know why I'm saying this, but I was staggered by the calibre of the troops. Never before have I been put into a cohort of such intelligent, respectful, humble, well-trained and great-conditioned people who were able to have such incredible strength and resilience. The heat at the airbase where we stayed in the Middle East is around 40 to 42 degrees each day. When we mentioned how hot it was, they said, 'No, at the moment it's quite nice.' Two months ago, it was in the low fifties and their shoes were starting to stick to the roads as they were doing their daily drills. Their ability to be so disciplined and their ability to apply themselves to given tasks was quite staggering, and yet they were amazingly open and humble troops.

They certainly have an enormous role over there on our behalf and we need to be incredibly respectful of them. It gives me, and it should give everybody in the House, the sense that we are doing our role to make it easier for them, because they're doing their role for us now over there. When they come back and they need help, we should be able to look them in the eye and say, 'We're doing everything we can to put in place a process that will give you the support and the resources you need so that you can live the rest of your life to the absolute maximum of your capabilities.' As I said earlier, all those abilities are going to be completely different.

We should look after our veterans for no other reason than their ability to consume all of the acronyms that they do. When you spend any time in the ADF, you learn a different language. They have acronym after acronym. It's a different language that people in the defence forces understand. Each of the forces is a little bit different in relation to their acronyms. The Navy is different to the Air Force, which is different to the Army. The first thing you realise is that they all speak a different language and, the sooner you understand the acronym soup that they serve up each day, the easier you will understand what everyone is saying about you!

I also want to touch on a dear friend of mine, Barry Gracey. Barry is President of the Pozieres Remembrance Association. He is trying to push the impact that Pozieres had on our society and on our war history. We tend to commemorate the Western Front by Villers-Bretonneux and the Sir John Monash Centre that we built over there, which is fantastic, but at Pozieres we lost over 7,000 young Australians. Four thousand of them were so badly blown up that we weren't able to retrieve their bodies to put into the war graves; they still lie in the fields of Pozieres. I think 23 July should be well and truly established as Pozieres Day here in Australia. We need to look after the township of Pozieres the best way we can.

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