Adjournment speech - Department of Veteran's Affairs

Since 1999 there have been more than 250 veteran suicides that we know about.  This alone is evidence of the Department of Veterans' Affairs' maladministration. The Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans' Association and I have been hosting rallies in the capital cities to strengthen our call for a royal commission into the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

On Sunday I was at the rally held in front of Parliament House in Melbourne and was approached by a veterans' advocate. This advocate pointed out that the major health and welfare issue damaging the young veteran community in Australia was an adversarial, incompetent and bureaucratic process within the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Their administrative processes are slow and ineffective and have created a growing gap between the treatment of veterans and the treatment of the civilian population. Veterans do not get the same time frames in claims processing, they do not get the same access to health care, and they certainly do not get the financial benefits that civilians who have been injured in the workplace would receive.

Advocates and veterans are always telling me that veterans often wait more than four times longer than the average civilian for claims to be processed. Because of this, our veterans, who have made an incredible sacrifice for our country, cannot rehabilitate properly or support their families effectively. Our veterans are more disadvantaged in terms of quality of life, disability and morbidity. Another advocate informed me this week that rehabilitation providers are being asked and contracted to make determinations outside of their professional ethical guidelines, that there is a significant lack of meaningful funding for relevant programs for families of veterans and that there is a high demand placed on smaller external service organisations due to community disgust about particular RSL leadership and their treatment of veterans, particularly female veterans.

I have heard of partners of veterans living in Townsville who are trying to step up and support both their veteran and the community but who are being scapegoated and vilified for doing so, and I have no doubt this attitude is nationwide. The veterans living in Townsville are outraged by the relocation of the DVA Townsville office to Aitkenvale Centrelink, alongside the large refugee settlement population who are from the same conflicts our younger cohort have just returned from. How insensitive to place damaged veterans in the vicinity of refugees from the same conflict! The government is placing the veterans under unnecessary emotional trauma when there is an alternative office in Kirwan that would be much more suitable.

My fight for fairer treatment and services for veterans is not about getting special, preferential treatment for them. I just want them to receive what anyone else would if they were injured in the workplace. That is what my private member's bill does. To ensure they immediately receive the medical attention necessary to rehabilitate the veteran and assimilate them back into civilian society, it automatically grants a gold card to anyone who has been in war or warlike circumstances.

We should not be sending our Australian Defence Force members overseas, because successive Australian governments have betrayed our veterans and have not been prepared to properly look after them when they return home injured. The Department of Veterans' Affairs is a brutal, ignorant, arrogant and dysfunctional government department whose behaviour and decision making needs to be scrutinised by a royal commission. Our veterans deserve a chance to put their hands on the Bible, tell the truth and explain how public servants, doctors and lawyers working for the Department of Veterans' Affairs have ruined their lives and, in some cases, contributed to their suicides.

The Australian public will be shocked when they learn of the scale of the deliberate cover-up of mistakes and the misconduct and abuse of office by employees, managers and other professionals associated with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. In my office, I have almost 400 files of veterans I assist with their battles with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I can tell you that dysfunction is embedded so deeply within the government agency that only a royal commission will begin to draw out the corruption, complacency and the ignorance of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Only a royal commission could begin a complete overhaul of the cultural process.

In the meantime, I would like to continue my name-and-shame campaign with regard to the dysfunction in the Department of Veterans' Affairs and share the story of Corporal Adam Hasluck. Adam joined the Army in 2003 and almost every day was exposed to TCDD, a chemical found in fossil fuels and diesel. This exposure was well over 1,000 hours while he was around armoured vehicles, especially during long periods of field training, his nine-month deployment to southern Iraq in 2005-06 and a six-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2007-08. During Adam's overseas deployments, he developed major depression due to how he was treated by fellow soldiers and PTSD from the traumatic events that he experienced and witnessed. While on the deployment to Afghanistan in February 2008, Adam noticed a lump the size of a grape in his left armpit. Adam sought advice from the medic in his patrol and was informed he should see a doctor immediately on his return to Australia.

Once back in Australia, Adam did talk to his unit regimental aid post and did see his doctor. The doctor simply felt the lump—no other testing whatsoever was ordered—and told Adam he had nothing to worry about, that it was a lipoma and to stop presenting to the unit regimental aid post. Over the next 3½ years, Adam was more and more concerned about the lump as it grew to the size of a cricket ball. Adam also experienced constant tiredness, a lot of lower back pain and his hair began to fall out in patches. Adam was diagnosed with alopecia, which is immune system related, in February 2011, but, despite constantly talking to his unit RAP about his concerns, Adam was again ignored. Adam's lump and other symptoms were ignored by the unit regimental aid post and medical staff. No testing was performed, but they decided they would not remove the lump because it was to them a cosmetic issue.

It was not until Adam complained that the lump under his armpit was interfering with physical fitness activities and his work life that the lump was removed and tested in October 2011. Once the pathology came back on the sample from Adam's armpit, it was found not to be a lipoma but Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was cancer and, because of the refusal to remove the lump for so-called cosmetic reasons, the cancer had spread from Adam's armpit to his throat, tonsils and neck. Adam was unable to have radiation treatment and chemotherapy because of this, which would have resulted in less treatment time and less dosage of toxic chemotherapy to the areas due to how widespread it was. Instead, Adam had to have six full cycles—12 doses—of intense chemotherapy, which has given him a lot of medical problems and has ruined his immune system. Adam, as a result, now suffers from chronic fatigue, chronic joint, nerve and muscle pain, PTSD, major depression and anxiety. Adams' lungs have collapsed and he has no immune system, which means he constantly gets pneumonia and, of course, cancer.

Adam can no longer do the job he put his whole adult life into and loved. He struggles with day-to-day life, physically and mentally, and basic things like crowded places, shops and large gatherings are too much for him. Adam has been robbed of the ability to be able to play with his children for any period of time due to pain, exhaustion and shortness of breath. To add insult to injury, Adam has fought for medical care because the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the heads of Defence refuse to take liability for the cancer developed from the exposure to TCDD. The medical conditions I have already stated and the resulting heart issues all stem from a lack of appropriate medical care despite many requests over multiple years.

Adam told me that he has no problem with his commanding officer or his peers, but Adam rightly feels the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the heads of Defence have failed him. If Adam had had access to an automatic gold card, he would have had access to the best medical care Australia can provide. If only the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the heads of Defence had compassion for those who love their job and have worked for years to protect our nation and many others instead of constantly trying to cover up their mistakes and maladministration.

While I have been a member of the Senate committee investigating many complaints by current and former members of the Australian Defence Force undertaking overseas deployments—in particular Afghanistan—the recurring theme has been the reluctance of serving members to disclose psychological problems whilst serving for fear of being singled out by the Australian Defence Force and being medically discharged. The impact of these problems is not only on their service but their families. There is the breakdown of the Australian Defence Force system to properly treat personnel and provide them with adequate or even any transitional management and the obvious failings of Department of Veterans' Affairs regarding transitional management, administration and payment of compensation claims. With respect to the Department of Veterans' Affairs, what is clear is the absolute breakdown of the system to provide timely decision-making. The compensation scheme created in 2004 is extremely complex, involving up to three pieces of legislation, and the DVA system offsets or pays veterans less for new injuries, even though they arise from different periods of service and involve an entirely  different body part. For example, the Department of Veterans' Affairs reduced a lump sum claim for PTSD from service in Afghanistan because of a lump sum claim for a knee injury that occurred many years ago.

The ongoing calls for a royal commission into the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the findings by the Senate committee regarding the failure of the Department of Veterans' Affairs make the need for a royal commission into the Department of Veterans' Affairs an absolute priority. In particular, consideration should be given as to why there have been so many recommendations and reviews into the Department of Veterans' Affairs due to failures. When there are positive recommendations to assist veterans and their families, the recommendations are absolutely ignored or denied by the Department of Veterans' Affairs and government.

There needs to be consideration as to why the review system of the Veterans' Review Board, the VRB, following adverse Department of Veterans' Affairs decisions, takes so long. It relies on ex-service advocates who are not adequately funded and resourced to deal with the complex legislation, and the review system is driven by lawyers who work within or are appointed by the Department of Veterans' Affairs to sit in on the hearings at the Veterans' Review Board. The president of the Veterans' Review Board is an Army legal officer who, in his spare time, gets paid to review adverse decisions before the Veterans' Review Board, yet veterans cannot be legally represented through the Veterans' Review Board process when they appear before him.

Of significant concern when sitting as a Senate committee member was not only hearing the stories of these veterans and external service organisations about the Department of Veterans' Affairs but reading the submission by KCI Lawyers and the case study presented by Lance Corporal D. For those who may not be aware of Lance Corporal D, he is a former member of 1 Commando Regiment, having served for 20 years in the Army reserves and being deployed overseas to East Timor and to Afghanistan on two occasions. Whilst undertaking operational duties in Afghanistan on 12 February 2009, he was required to take decisive action when under attack that, unfortunately, resulted in the tragic death of five Afghanistan civilians. The event was deeply regretted by all involved; however, there appeared to be no doubt that Lance Corporal D acted appropriately and in accordance with Australian Defence Force training, tactics and procedures. However, Lance Corporal D was charged with five counts of manslaughter by the Australian Defence Force Director of Military Prosecutions.

Despite the best intentions of the Chief of Army at that time, Lieutenant General Gillespie, and others within the ADF hierarchy that Lance Corporal D would be 'thoroughly supported throughout the legal process', he received anything but support and assistance both while and after the charges were laid. Firstly, the charges were thrown out as, clearly, the circumstances indicated that he should not have been liable for manslaughter given that he and his mates were the subject of an attack whilst undertaking a compound clearance operation in Afghanistan. Secondly, whilst his period of service was extended so he would remain a full-time Army member, this was done so that the Australian Defence Force could prosecute him. Once the prosecution case was thrown out, there was no attempt to medically screen and consider a medical discharge given that he was clearly suffering from a psychological condition due to everything he had gone through. Essentially, he was thrown out of full-time Army and back into civvy street, where he could try to undertake work, and he attempted a return to his Army Reserve service. However, his Army Reserve duties were restricted because Defence did accept at that point that he had a psychological condition not only due to the unfortunate deaths-in-combat related circumstances but also due to the degrading approach to the event by the Australian Defence Force's Director of Military Prosecutions, who charged him with manslaughter. The so-called support and help from the Australian Defence Force hierarchy— what do you know!—was nowhere to be seen.

Lance Corporal D's challenges only got worse because he lodged a claim for compensation with the Department of Veterans' Affairs in February 2014 for his psychological condition given the difficulties he had in undertaking any civilian work and the restrictions placed on him by the Australian Defence Force to undertake reserve service. There would be no further deployments for him, unlike for his mates from 1 Commando Regiment, as he would always be known as 'that guy', despite the manslaughter charges being thrown out.

The Department of Veterans' Affairs did not provide any support or assistance, even when they accepted the psychological condition in June 2014, and in fact worsened his situation by requesting all relevant documentation in support of the request for incapacity payments. The best he could get was a $6.20 fortnightly payment for medical treatment. The Department of Veterans' Affairs repeatedly received requests, sent to the Department of Veterans' Affairs deputy commissioner in Victoria, via his lawyer from mid-2014 and throughout 2015 for incapacity payments, highlighting his extreme financial hardship and tragic circumstances that led to him not being able work. When DVA finally acknowledged the request for incapacity payments, it referred to a medical report that suggested Lance Corporal D had two separate diagnosable psychiatric conditions, although they had only accepted one condition—even considering that the other arose directly from his operational service in Afghanistan, the subsequent botched prosecution and his difficulties to obtain and maintain employment together with Army Reserve service. Rather than actually making a decision with respect to giving him income support, the Department of Veterans' Affairs told him he had to lodge another compensation claim for the other medical condition, which he reluctantly did in February 2016. Now the Department of Veterans' Affairs accepts liability for two psychological conditions arising from the same set of circumstances involving his Afghanistan service and maintains the delay and denial of income support.

Throughout this time, the Department of Veterans' Affairs have been well aware of the difficulties for Lance Corporal D to undertake any work and his medical discharge from the Army Reserve. They are aware of his ongoing psychiatric condition and that he is experiencing extreme financial hardship. The charitable support and assistance of Jeff Jackson from the Victorian RSL to pay his credit card has been his only means of paying for the basic costs of living, such as food, electricity, water, gas, phone bills and so on, and stopped him from living on the streets. Thank God he is not another veteran from Afghanistan who is living on the streets. That has been due to the RSL when it should be DVA, who are funded and staffed to, first and foremost, look after our veterans. Lance Corporal D's treatment within the ADF, following his discharge from his full-time service, and the fact that the Department of Veterans' Affairs are yet to pay one dollar—not one dollar—of income support for his not being able to work, despite the requests since June 2014, nearly two years ago, highlight the failures by the system and the department, who are supposedly there to support those who have served in our name and on our behalf.

Many of the files in my office read like these two examples—and, like I said, there are nearly 400 of them sitting there. The Department of Veterans' Affairs is causing more deaths for our Australians than war. It is devastating families and treating veterans as if they are leeches, when all the veteran wants is acknowledgement of their service via medical treatment. I again call on the government to establish a royal commission into the Department of Veterans' Affairs and to pass my private member's bill for an automatic gold card.

We will always honour the dead, but I tell you what: I will, like many others, continue to fight like hell for the living. I ask all those out there—and I know there are people listening out there tonight: there is Anzac Day coming up; I am asking you to wear the gold ribbon and show your support for an automatic gold card for those who have war or war-like service so they can get the immediate medical attention that they need, so that they will not be like these and the other 400 people sitting in my office waiting for the medical treatment that both governments of this chamber have failed to give them in the past.

You have a perfect opportunity to run into the next election and to take this automatic gold card for war or warlike service and give the men and women who have served this country the break that they need. If you do not want any more suicides riding on your own back, then—for goodness sake!—give them the automatic gold card. I tell you what: between that and royal commissions, it is the only thing that is going to stop these suicides.