By Eamon Hale
In January this year, DVA failed to adequately communicate changes to DVA’s Defence Force Income Support Allowance that put approximately 14,000 veterans temporarily out of pocket by up to $400 until they received the Centrelink top-up about a week later.
While the deficiency was temporary, DVA overlooked that many veterans, some of whom are vulnerable, rely on prompt payments just to simply survive. As it is, the money we are talking about is barely enough to cover the basics of daily life, let alone any small luxuries those veterans and their families might hope to enjoy. Not to mention the impact on carefully organised routines of shopping day and direct debit arrangements.
The anxiety this has caused has been grossly underestimated and frankly, widely ignored.
Imagine waking up on pension day to discover, that for no apparent reason, your entitlements have significantly decreased. Why have my payments been cut? Will this be permanent? How will I live? What have I done wrong?
For some of these veterans, the money failing to arrive brought fear and perceived persecution. For Terry*, a former soldier, finding his bank account $400 short exactly a week after he’d made a submission to the Royal Commission into Veteran and Defence suicide made him believe he was being punished by DVA for doing so.
He immediately hopeless as the fear of life without sufficient funds became a hit.
Pursuing the matter, AVN received this statement from Minister Andrew Gee, “It’s disappointing that this delay with the letters has occurred. It should not have happened. The Department has apologised for the anxiety this has caused and I want to assure our ex-servicemen and women and their families that no veteran will be worse off by this change in legislation. These reforms simplify the payment arrangements for around 14,000 veterans and their families and increase access to rent assistance for our most disabled veterans with 6,900 set to benefit. I encourage any veteran who has questions or any concerns to contact the Department of Veterans’ Affairs on 1800 838 372 where help is available.”
While no veteran will be left out of pocket by this change in the long term, in the short-term bewildered veterans were left for days with a sizable hole in their finances. For many, this was not a minor inconvenience and DVA should have done much more to prepare for this change and ensure veterans were properly informed and would not be caught short. That isn’t good enough.
Australian Veteran News took this issue seriously, as did a number of smaller Ex-Service Organisations and veteran oriented Facebook pages, such as “Royal Commission Into Serving / Veterans Suicides, DVA and Defence”. But there was one Ex-Service Organisation that was conspicuously silent on this - the RSL.
The organisation that exists for the purpose of advocating and representing veterans at State and National level said virtually nothing. There was no public representation to the Government or DVA, and virtually nothing was communicated to those affected.
It is perhaps ironic that on the day veteran pensioners found they’d been short changed, the 13th of January, RSL Australia released an update titled “RSL Australia, working for you”, detailing how it “tirelessly” works behind the scenes to “ensure great outcomes for all veterans”.
The question must be asked, if the RSL does not see this issue as worth commenting on, what will it comment on? If it is not unwilling to represent veterans on issues like this, what issues will it represent them on?
Recently in a meeting, I recently criticised RSL Victoria for its lack of public advocacy, or ‘big-A Advocacy’. The response of a senior member of the Victorian State Executive was, “the days of Bruce Ruxton are gone”. He also suggested that it was no longer the RSL’s role to stand on the steps of parliament and publicly advocate.
Well, I vehemently disagree.
Back to the future
I firmly believe that in 2022 we need energised, dynamic and passionate leaders within the RSL who will loudly and publicly call out the good and bad that confronts veterans in the 21st century. I also know that we have many people with those qualities within the RSL, but something is preventing them from being heard.
This urgently needs to change because veterans like Terry deserve to be represented and supported.
The RSL is simply not doing its job if it is not prepared to give stand up and fearlessly promote the interests of Australian veterans and their families.
In 1919, Gilbert Dyett was the 27-year-old National President of the RSL. A former Captain who served at Gallipoli, stood up to Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes so skilfully that he won a raft of concessions and entitlements that made Australian veterans the envy of the world.
102 years later, the RSL isn’t even prepared to speak out about the impact of bureaucratic incompetence that affects some of its most vulnerable members.
Bruce Ruxton died in 2011, leaving a legacy of dogged advocacy and service to Australian veterans and their families that remains an example of what can be achieved.
Bruce Ruxton was a fighter. He was hugely controversial, even in his time, but he was known for always being available to veterans was famous for his influence and his ability to seize the attention of Prime Ministers, Premiers, and bureaucrats alike.
Ruxton showed us how to do it, and now, if ever, is the time to rediscover our voice and make sure we are heard.
Eamon Hale is the Vice President of the Hawthorn RSL Sub-branch in Victoria, having served in the Australian Army as a cavalryman for 16 years. Eamon is a regular contributor to Australian Veteran News.
Connect with Eamon on twitter: @eamhale