By Kate Banville
Federal Labor has flagged a major overhaul of the government department in-charge of veterans’ welfare and compensation.
Speaking to Australian Veteran News, the shadow minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel, Shayne Neumann, has unveiled a series of commitments that Labor will take to the next election, due in 2022, including plans to restructure the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA).
DVA’s website states: “The Department aims to process claims within 75 days. However, it may take longer if you have a complex case.”
Veterans have complained that it can take up to 18 months for claims to be processed, Mr Neumann said while in Townsville.
“It's simply unacceptable,” Mr Neumann says. “The government's not even achieving its own targets.”
The Productivity Commission report released to the government in June 2019, A Better Way to Support Veterans, stated that “despite recent improvements to the system, the current veterans' compensation and rehabilitation system requires fundamental reform”.
Mr Neumann says DVA is not fit for purpose and indicated that Labor would draw on recommendations in the report to form policy leading up to the next election.
In a wide-ranging interview with AVN, Mr Neumann touched on several issues of concern to the veteran community.
He revealed that a Labor government would consider reversing the Morrison government’s “average staffing cap” which mandates that a department can only employ the same number of public servants as it had in 2007.
This is a particular issue for DVA, which has a labour-hire staffing rate of 42 per cent. Over 50 per cent of processing staff is labour-hire.
Addressing concerns about the adversarial nature of the DVA claims system and the heavy reliance on advocates to gain successful outcomes for veterans, Mr Neumann says all functions of the process should be reviewed.
Despite the growing number of ex-service organisations (ESO), Mr Neumann does not consider it necessary to make changes to legislative frameworks. Instead, he believes there should be a greater focus on governance.
“My view on the ESOs is that we need to administer [them] with rigour, good governance, transparency [and] accountability,” he says.
Other “high priority” issues for a Labor government include addressing mental health issues, particularly surrounding suicide, for veterans and Australian Defence Force members; education and employment opportunities post military service; the merging of compensation legislation; and addressing claims surrounding anti-malaria drugs historically used by Defence personnel.
Another area for improvement cited by Mr Neumann is the transition experience for veterans, which has already seen some movement towards reform with the creation of the Joint Transition Authority in October 2020 in response to Recommendation 7.1 from the Productivity Commission’s report.
Mr Neumann says Labor was not consulted prior to the announcement and describes it as “interesting” that the new authority sits within the Department of Defence rather than DVA, despite this being the recommendation from the Productivity Commission report.
“At the moment, the government has really just announced a joint transitional authority. They've allocated some money in the budget [and] they're trying to work out how they're going to do it,” Mr Neumann told AVN.
“It's disappointing the government hasn't really got it up and running…It's really in its infancy and I just want to see how it goes.”
Mr Neumann has also stepped up calls for the Morrison government to establish a royal commission into veteran suicides.
Following the successful passage of a motion in both houses of Parliament in March calling on the government to establish a royal commission, Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicated that he was prepared to do so – having previously opposed a royal commission – but no announcement has been made since then.
“All the government needs to do is the right thing, for the Prime Minister to put aside his pride, his stubbornness and obstinacy and call the royal commission,” Mr Neumann says.
“If he does that, there will be bipartisan support in this space and we will work with the government.”
Mr Neumann believes the respective roles of ESOs, advocates and the DVA should be included in the terms of reference for a royal commission.
The Dept of Veterans Affairs, and its Minister responsible for the portfolio, Darren Chester has been contacted for comment.
Kate Banville is a Townsville-based journalist. A seven-year Army veteran, she has been a defence reporter for the Townsville Bulletin and has also worked at WIN News in Townsville and ABC Gold Coast. Connect with her on Twitter: @katebanville