Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015


 

Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital Territory) (10:57): I rise today to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015. I am pleased to be able to speak to this bill today because it is another opportunity for this parliament to do the right thing by those who have served our country.

 

 

The unique nature of military service is such that it is important that we are always looking at ways that we can better provide support to those who have been prepared to give all for our nation. While this bill deals with a number of seemingly minor amendments, they each go some way to making sure our veterans get a good deal. This government has done a number of things to support our veterans already in this term. The 2015 budget continues to deliver on the government's acknowledgement and understanding of the unique nature of service and delivers more than $12 billion in services for veterans' affairs, including $6.5 billion for pensions and $5.5 billion for health care. We delivered our longstanding commitment to provide fair indexation for military superannuants. We restored $1 million per year in funding for advocacy and welfare work through the Building Excellence in Support and Training program. We have prioritised early intervention to ensure early treatment for conditions to minimise their long-term impact on veterans and their families. We have expanded services provided by the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service to more veterans and their families. We have also improved access to treatment for certain mental health conditions such as PTSD, anxiety and depression, including making it easier to seek treatment without the need to lodge a claim. We are now launching a dedicated website and Facebook page for the VVCS and expanding e-health services for veterans and service providers. This government is also working with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners to improve materials available to GPs to better identify service-related conditions.

 

We are broadening DVA's reach on social media through dedicated YouTube channels and Facebook pages, as well as releasing short videos focussing on the services provided by DVA to veterans and their families. We are reducing the time taken to process compensation claims and have reduced permanent impairment claim processing times by more than 40 days since coming to office—more work is needed to drive further improvements. We are writing to ADF personnel when they discharge to advise them of the services and support available to them from DVA. Finally, we are beginning a pilot veterans' employment rehabilitation program, which will encourage wounded, ill and injured personnel to find a pathway back to work as part of their rehabilitation. More broadly, we have shown our commitment to honouring those who have served through the $600,000 Veteran and Community Grants program and nearly $300,000 for the Saluting Their Service grants program. We have seen in this centenary of ANZAC many schools around the country paying tribute to our service men and women, and some of these schools were recognised through the Anzac Day Schools' Awards. I was pleased to visit a couple of Canberra schools, such as Good Shepherd in Amaroo and Merici College in Braddon—both won national awards in the Anzac Day Schools' Awards. All of these measures that have been listed reflect our commitment to ensuring we give due honour to those who have served us. This bill today, while plainly very different from these community initiatives, continues that commitment so that we can create a culture where we look after our veterans.

 

The bill will give effect to several Veterans' Affairs 2015 budget measures. The bill will create a single appeal path under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004, it will enhance the operation of the Veterans' Vocational Rehabilitation Scheme under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 and it will expand the regulation making power under the Defence Act 1903 to include the provision and maintenance of a grave of a service dependant interred in the Terendak Military Cemetery.

 

The Veterans' Vocational Rehabilitation Scheme is a voluntary vocational rehabilitation scheme for people eligible under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. This scheme helps veterans who need rehabilitation because of injury—either physical or psychological—and need to find and keep work. It is about making sure that we give people who have served our country the opportunity to make a new career, to earn a living and to be a full part of society. This bill will increase the range of services available under the Veterans' Vocational Rehabilitation Scheme to include psychosocial and medical management services.

 

This bill also removes disincentives to participation in the scheme through a more favourable adjustment of pension payments for those who are in receipt of above general rate pensions such as the special rate or TPI. The more favourable adjustment of pension payments means that intermediate rate recipients who participate in the VVRS will not receive less disability pension than an intermediate rate recipient who does not participate in the VVRS. It means that special rate disability pension recipients who participate in the VVRS and who undertake less than 20 hours paid work per week will not receive less pension than an intermediate rate recipient who does not participate in the VVRS, and a more reasonable pension reduction regime will follow any prolonged absence from the workforce and will avoid disadvantage to participants who start the VVRS but experience lengthy absences from the workforce. An amount equivalent to the permissible earnings for special and intermediate rate recipients will be disregarded for VVRS participants when determining whether the person's reduced daily pension amount should be increased and will give them the same benefit from permissible earnings as is received by a non-participant of the VVRS. This measure is technical in nature, but it will make a difference to many veterans who want to still make a contribution through work but have found it tough because of their injuries. It is important that we help them get a foothold in the workplace and that is what this measure is designed to do.

 

The second measure in this bill relates to the appeal path for people who are unhappy with a decision made by the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. We have a strong and independent commission that makes judgements on what a veteran is eligible for in relation to rehabilitation and compensation. But, it is only fair that veterans have an opportunity to appeal if they believe they have not had a fair go. This measure will allow veterans to first make an appeal to the Veterans' Review Board and then, as the next course of action, appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. This clarifies arrangements that resulted in dual appeal paths being put in place by default—when the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission was established, there was no agreement on the best way forward for appeals. This has created confusion for people who make appeals and has created all manner of red tape. Veterans' organisations have strongly endorsed this measure, so that there is clarity in the system and our veterans who need help will get it.

 

Current legislative provisions enable the Director of the Office of Australian War Graves to repatriate deceased Australian military personnel from their place of interment and reinter those remains. There is no legislative provision to enable the repatriation of dependants. Consistent with the Prime Minister's announcement of 25 May 2015 that the ability of families of veterans and dependants of Australian Defence Force personnel buried at the Terendak Military Cemetery to elect to repatriate their loved ones remains, this amendment clarifies the power in the Defence Act 1903 to give the Director of OAWG the legal authority to repatriate all those buried at Terendak, subject to the wishes of the family. This is another small but very important amendment that gives families an opportunity for closure. As the Prime Minister said in his address to the parliament on 25 May this year, 50 years ago, the first contingent of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment departed for South Vietnam. Eventually, almost 60,000 Australians, from the Army, Air Force and Navy. Five hundred and twenty-one of them are listed on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial. Of those 521, all but 25 were brought home to rest in Australia. Since that war, the Australian government has always made the effort to bring our fallen home to rest here on our shores. As the Prime Minister said:

 

We can never restore those who have died in the service of their country. But we can and we should offer solace and support to the families left behind.

 

Of the 25 we have not brought home, 24 lie in Terendak cemetery in Malaysia. They rest in a peaceful area, in graves which have been well tended with respect by the Malaysian government. I add my voice to those of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Veterans' Affairs in thanking the government and people of Malaysia for caring for the site. The site is not easily accessible, and it has been tough for families to visit their loved ones.

 

This bill makes sure we treat those fallen soldiers just as we treat our soldiers of today, allowing families to bring their loved ones home to rest. It is up to the families of course, and their decision must be respected. But, for families who wish to take up this option, the government will bring home their loved one with full military honours, we will assist with re-burying them at a site of the family's choosing and we will bear all the costs along the way. This is the right thing to do for these men and women who served to their last breath. Importantly, I note, this offer extends to those who are interred at Terendak who are service dependants. This is, again, a small thing for the government to do. But here are 24 families who now have the chance, if they wish, to bring their loved one home. It is an important way that we can honour our fallen, and I particularly commend this measure to the Senate.

 

Once again, I emphasise how important it is for us to do all we can to support those who have served our country in the armed forces. We need to always be looking at the system to offer all the support we can to give our veterans every chance to flourish. This bill deals with three small technical amendments, but they are amendments that will make a real difference to the lives of our ex-service men and women.

 

The coalition have already delivered for our veterans. We have delivered fairer indexation for military superannuants, we have delivered more than $12 billion in services and we are continuing to ensure that the legacy of our service men and women is passed on to the next generation through our school and community projects. These are all important works and I am proud to be part of the government delivering on these programs.

 

This bill will broaden the operations of the Veterans' Vocational Rehabilitation Scheme, it simplifies and strengthens the appeals process under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004, and it gives the families of those fallen soldiers still buried in Terendak the opportunity to bring their loved ones home. These are all important measures and I am glad to support them. I commend the bill to the Senate.