House of Representatives

Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2017

Second Reading Speech

Mr Tehan (Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Cyber Security and Minister for Defence Personnel)

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to present the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2017 (Budget Measures Bill.)

The Budget Measures Bill would implement three of the Government's 2017 Budget announcements for the veteran community.

As the Prime Minister has said, we best honour the diggers of a century ago by supporting the servicemen and women, the veterans and their families of today. This budget will do just that.

The Government has invested an additional $350 million in this year's budget to support veterans. I am very pleased to say that there was a strong focus on two issues that are raised regularly by veterans: mental health support and reform of the Department's processes and systems.

The Government is expanding our program of free and immediate mental health support to current and former Australian Defence Force Members. This treatment is currently available for five specified mental health conditions.

The Government is expanding our Non-Liability Health Care programme so that it will be available for any mental health condition, including phobias, adjustment disorder and bi-polar disorder.

It is important that this House notes the significance of this programme for veterans and their families.

Just over twelve months ago, anyone who has served one day in the full-time Australian Defence Forces had to prove that any mental health condition was linked to their service.

Already suffering from these conditions, they would have to wait to have their eligibility and claim approved from the Department. It meant wait times which would see their mental health either deteriorate or not receive support that they desperately needed.

Last year, this Government provided a new approach - free and immediate treatment for depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse and substance abuse without the need to prove the condition was service related.

In this budget, the Government has gone even further. Now, we will commit to provide this for all mental health conditions.

It will mean that from now on, veterans and defence personnel can get free and immediate treatment without a burden of proof and without the need for a bureaucratic barrier.

This Government has delivered this barrier-free support for the first time in Australia because we know that the earlier intervention and support is provided, the better the outcome for the individual.

Most importantly, this policy is completely uncapped. If there is a need, it will be funded.

As part of our veterans' mental health initiatives, the Government is also expanding eligibility for the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS).

VVCS is a vital service that saves lives. The Government understands that partners, families and former partners of our veterans are an important part of the ex-service community and that they too are affected by military service.

In recognition of this, the Budget provides extra funding so that any partner, dependant or immediate family member will have access to VVCS, and former partners of ADF personnel will also be able to access VVCS up to five years after a couple separates, or while co-parenting a child under the age of 18.

In addition to this, this Budget begins the Government's response to the complex problem of veteran and defence suicide.

The Government has received a report from the National Mental Health Commission on services provided to defence personnel and veterans and a preliminary report on suicide rates from the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare.

Suicide prevention is a complex issue and as the reports have shown, there is no simple solution. It requires a multi-faceted response.

This Budget will provide $9.8 million to pilot new approaches to suicide prevention and improve care and support available to veterans.

We know that some of our most vulnerable veterans are those who have just been discharged from hospital care.

The Mental Health Clinical Management Pilot will assess the benefits of providing intensive clinical management immediately after hospital discharge to help meet a veteran's complex mental health and social needs.

The second part to this Budget for veterans is the investment it will make in improving the services and systems of the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

As part of the Veteran Centric Reform, the Government has committed $166.6 million towards making DVA a 21st century Department with a 21st century service.

This includes a significant investment in the upgrading of the Department's computer systems and processes. We can only have a better service from DVA if they have the tools to do the job. Claims and wait times will be cut by this investment, something that is long overdue.

Finally, the Government is further supporting veterans' employment opportunities through funding to support the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Programme. As many of you would be aware, this initiative is aimed at raising awareness with employers, both in the private and public sectors, of the enormous value and unique experience that veterans possess.

These measures will not require legislative change.

In regards to the Budget initiatives contained in this Bill, I am pleased to advise of three measures that will be effective from the 1st of July as long as this Bill passes.

Schedule 1 - improved health care for Australian participants of the British Nuclear Tests and Australian veterans of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force

Schedule 1 of the Budget Measures Bill would amend the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act 2006 to provide Australian British Nuclear Test Participants already covered under that Act and civilians present at a nuclear test area during a relevant period, as well as Australian veterans of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force with full medical treatment and support.

Participation in the British and Commonwealth Occupation Forces marked the first time that Australians were involved in the military occupation of a sovereign nation which it had defeated in war. The primary objective of BCOF was to enforce the terms of the unconditional surrender that had ended the war.

BCOF was required to maintain military control and to supervise the demilitarisation and disposal of the remnants of Japan's war-making capacity. Warlike materials were destroyed and other military equipment was converted for civilian use under the supervision of BCOF personnel.

The entire BCOF force totalled 45,000, from Britain, India, New Zealand, and Australia. For two-thirds of the period of occupation the Commonwealth was represented solely by Australians, and throughout its existence, BCOF was always commanded by an Australian officer.

In recognition of the possible exposure to ionising radiation experienced by both Australian veterans of BCOF and the BNT veterans, the Government has decided to provide a Gold Card to these veterans which will enable them to access medical treatment for all conditions.

This programme will also provide health care coverage for pastoralists, indigenous people and other civilians determined to be within the same vicinity as the participants of the British Nuclear Tests.

From 1 July 2017, it is expected that 2,800 people will be able to access this expansion of services.

The Government has committed $133.1 million over the forward estimates to this measure.

Schedule 2 - Work test for intermediate or special rate of pension

The amendments in this Schedule would amend the current outdated work history restrictions for Special and Intermediate Rates of Disability Pension provided in the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 to better reflect modern working arrangements.

The Special Rate of pension was designed for severely disabled veterans of a relatively young age who could never go back to work and could never hope to support themselves or their families or put away money for their retirement. The Intermediate Rate of pension was designed for veterans who, due to a service-related disability, can only work part-time or intermittently because of the disability.

The eligibility criteria for the Special Rate of Disability Pension is provided in the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. In addition to the standard requirements for Special Rate Pension, a veteran over 65 must satisfy a work test. Applicants must demonstrate an intention to work beyond the normal retirement age of 65, and be unable to work as a result of their war-caused injury or disease.

The changes would remove the current requirement for claimants to have worked for 10 years with the same employer, and for self-employed clients to have worked a minimum of 10 years in the same profession, trade, vocation or calling.

In the modern workforce, these expectations are unrealistic and the Government recognises this.

Instead, the work history requirement for Special and Intermediate Rates of Disability Pension would just require a period of 10 continuous years of work in any field or vocation, with potentially multiple employers prior to applying for the Special or Intermediate Rates of Disability Pension.

Schedule 3 - Rehabilitation programs

Schedule 3 of the Budget Measures Bill would insert instrument making powers into the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988 (SRCA) and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 (MRCA), enabling the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to determine a class of persons eligible to participate in an early access to rehabilitation pilot programme.

Currently, veterans and ADF members with eligibility under the SRCA or the MRCA have to wait until their initial liability claim is accepted before they can access rehabilitation services. Assessing a claim typically takes around four months, and for complex cases it can take even longer.

Early access to rehabilitation facilitates participation in economic activities with all of the ensuing benefits of work and recovery, assists in minimising the ongoing effects of injury and illness and promotes recovery and wellbeing.

A six month pilot programme providing early access to rehabilitation assessments to a group of 100 participants will be undertaken in the 2017-18 financial year.

If a person's liability claim is subsequently rejected, Government funding for the early access to rehabilitation pilot programme would cease. In those circumstances, the person's rehabilitation programme would be transitioned from a government provider to a community-based provider. The Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission would not seek to recover the costs of the rehabilitation services provided to the person.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate the Government's support to our veteran community. These are only some of the measures that the Government will deliver for veterans and their families in this budget.

It is a budget that will honour those who have served by looking after our current and former serving men and women.

I commend this Bill.

Debate adjourned.