South Australia’s major veterans’ groups have banded together to oppose a push to abolish the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in a major shake-up of compensation for ex-service personnel.
The national Productivity Commission is currently reviewing veterans’ support programs and entitlements after an inquiry was set in train by then-Treasurer Scott Morrison in March last year.
A draft report published in December flagged the biggest shake-up of veterans’ affairs since World War Two, including the abolition of the current agency, to be replaced with an all-encompassing Ministry for Defence Personnel and Veterans, with a new Veteran Services Commission to administer the support system.
That was met with alarm by the broader veterans community, with eight separate SA groups this week submitting a blanket rejection of the report’s major recommendations.
A joint submission posted on the Productivity Commission’s website is signed off by RSL-SA, along with the local branches of the Vietnam Veterans’ Association, Vietnam Veterans’ Federation, RAAF Association, National Servicemen’s Association, National Malaya-Borneo Veterans’ Association, the Korea Veterans’ Association and the Military Brotherhood Motorcycle Club.
“We believe South Australian veterans are more cohesive than those interstate… however, we face a different set of challenges [including] the geographic isolation of many veterans and the paucity of significant regional centres capable of supporting service delivery,” the submission states.
“We can see no merit in the Productivity Commission’s recommendations to abolish the Department of Veterans Affairs, replace its veteran support functions with a Veteran Services Commission and transfer its commemoration and war graves functions to the Australian War Memorial.
“The vast majority of veterans in SA regard themselves as exceptionally well served by the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
The submission argues the proposed new Veteran Services Commission within the Defence portfolio is “unworkable and will inevitably lead to an irreconcilable conflict of interest, funds allocation and activities”.
The groups expressed “concern” that Morrison’s terms of reference “forced the Productivity Commission to focus on investigating workers compensation schemes” when “there is no other occupational workgroup group in Australia in which the Prime Minister makes the decision to send employees into combat”.
“It is our strong view that military service is service for our country, and any comparison with other compensation schemes is irrelevant,” the submission argues.
“We are of the view that it is hard to see if the [Commission] fully understands the unique position of SA and the challenges facing veterans in this state when it comes to the delivery of services.”
The groups say that “in spite of the best attempts of the Productivity Commission to identify with the role and function of members of the Australian Defence Force… we query its understanding of the totality of veteran service, its unique nature – particularly the difference between Active or Peacekeeping Service and Peacetime Service – and the difficulties associated with re-integration into mainstream community life after service”.
“There is simply no equivalent to service in the Defence of our country,” the submission argues.
“We feel that the report has a preoccupation with budgetary savings, a desire to ascertain costs and to be able to forecast them with certainty… budgetary savings should not be allowed to direct the thrust of the review at the cost of the wellbeing and health of veterans.”
The groups also opposed interim recommendations to limit the veterans’ ‘Gold Card’ entitlement.
The Commission found the system was an incentive for ex-service personnel to exacerbate illness in order to be eligible, but insisted “no veteran or dependent of a deceased veteran who currently receives a benefit or entitlement will be worse off”.
“Gold Cards exist because the Federal Government closed the Repatriation General Hospitals and the creation of the Gold Card system was the most appropriate way to continue to provide treatment to eligible beneficiaries,” the SA groups write.
They also railed against moves to “water down” the functions and operation of the Veterans Review Board in favour of a more adversarial panel – which one contributor warns could be detrimental to the mental health of veterans seeking a hearing.
Dr Robert Black, a 46-year veteran of the Air Force Reserve and a Senior Visiting Specialist of the Daw Park Repat for 23 years, notes: “How they believe that’s beneficial to veterans, I can’t imagine.”
Black made an individual submission to the inquiry before its interim report, and worked on the joint submission.
He questioned the Commission members’ qualifications to review veterans’ affairs.
“The question is why would the Productivity Commission be given the task of writing this report, and maybe the answer is because the task was given to it by the then-Treasurer… that’s really what’s being interpreted by a lot of the ex-service people – that its aim is to see the whole issue funded,” he said.
“Have you ever heard of a modern workers’ compensation system that’s beneficial for the worker? I think what it’s referring to is that ‘better’ schemes are fully funded [and] they’re attempting to fund the future costs of what happens to veterans with their service.
“It’s asking people who go out there and fight for us not to engage in anything that could be costly – that’s an absurd conflict of interest, to have Defence asked to fund the future cost of the [compensation] scheme.”
The Commission wants to see liability assessments shift to a single standard of proof for all types of service, another measure local veterans reject.
“Many people would say it’s ridiculous to compare [peace-time or newly-enlisted personnel] with somebody returned from World War Two, who had bombs dropping on them and bullets fired at them – it’s not the same class of veteran and nor would the Australian population believe that they should have equal benefits,” Black said.
Having become PM since instigating the review, Morrison was lukewarm when the interim report was published late last year, saying: “The Productivity Commission will make recommendations from time to time but what is most important to me is that veterans get the support, the benefits, and the respect that they deserve.”
“Any decisions taken by our government will have that as its top priority,” he told reporters at the time.
SA is home to around 8.4 per cent of the Australian veteran population.
The inquiry will hold a hearing in Adelaide on Monday at which the SA groups will give evidence.
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