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.

 


Building and Construction Industry Bill (ABCC legislation) - 18-04-16

I rise to make known my views and my vote on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 and the Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 —or, as most Australians have come to know these bills, the ABCC legislation. It will not come as a shock to the Senate when I say that I will not support this legislation and that, as I have done in the past, I will be voting against it when the second reading vote is called. In the course of this speech, I will detail the reasons why I have decided to oppose this legislation.

Despite voting against this legislation in the past, in an expression of goodwill when Mr Turnbull first became Prime Minister, I wrote to him and met with him. I suggested that I could vote for the legislation if he was prepared to agree to a couple of small concessions—deregistration of the CFMEU and the establishment of a federal ICAC—which he dismissed. However, as the community debate about these bills continued, and I received more detailed briefings from different stakeholders—especially valuable were the submissions from the Law Council of Australia—it became obvious that this legislation has more holes in it than a target at a shooting range. I will turn to the information that I received from the Law Council of Australia shortly. However, it is important at the beginning of my contribution to this debate to note that the great majority of Australians, including Tasmanians, are confused or unsure about the ABCC legislation.

Most understand that this legislation is likely to be historic. There is a high probability that it will be defeated in this chamber and that this will lead to a double dissolution election on 2 July. I am not scared by the thought of a double-D election—my vote will never be influenced by threats of a double-D election from this Prime Minister. I will vote according to the merits or otherwise of this legislation in the best interests of Tasmanians. It is clear that the best interests of Tasmanians are served by strongly opposing this legislation. Indeed, the average Tasmanian has little concern for the ABCC bills. Average Tasmanians are trying to provide for their families; they are losing their jobs, or they are trying to find jobs for their children. They are trying to access affordable and timely health care in a state public health system that is broken and badly politically managed, and to keep warm over the winter while the threat of power cuts looms after the Liberals have yet again mismanaged another essential basic service in Tasmania. They are trying to save their trucking businesses after a bunch of out-of-touch government officials made a ruling that took away 90 per cent of their businesses in a matter of hours. This is what matters to Tasmanians right now. They do not have the time or energy to invest too much energy worrying about the Liberals' ABCC legislation and the PM's tricky political tactics. Indeed, most Tasmanians would be stunned to learn that this building legislation will not help them if a dodgy builder rips them off while building a house or renovating the family home, because this legislation deals with the commercial building sector, not the residential sector.

There are big problems within Australia's residential building industry. Dodgy builders, often those who have gone bankrupt many times, are allowed by state government building watchdogs to reinvent themselves, and to continue to trade and rip off mum-and-dad investors in our property markets. Of course, I am not forgetting the subbies and the tradesmen who are also taken down when a builder declares himself bankrupt one day, and then opens for business under another name, perhaps in a different state, a few weeks later. Those important issues are not dealt with in this legislation. We could be talking about the introduction of a national building licensing register to replace state-based arrangements and a limit of one licence per builder, with lifetime industry-wide bans imposed on those found guilty of construction-related fraud and tax evasion. Instead, we have this legislation which the Law Council of Australia—representing about 60,000 lawyers—has laughed at. This legislation has no justification. It is simply designed to bash the unions, to take away basic civil rights from ordinary citizens and blue-collar workers, and to give the Liberal Party of Australia a political advantage over everyone else, as they call an early double dissolution federal election.

I now turn to some of the details of this legislation. When considering the structure of the bill, Parliamentary Library research states that the bill contains nine chapters: chapter 1 contains preliminary material, including definitions which extend the scope of building and construction regulation, and chapter 2 establishes the ABCC and the position of the ABCC Commissioner—the Commissioner. Chapter 3 provides the minister with the power to issue a Building Code; chapter 4 establishes the Federal Safety Commissioner; chapter 5 deals with unlawful action, including a new offence of unlawful picketing; chapter 6 deals with coercion, discrimination and unenforceable agreements; and chapter 7 deals with the powers of the Commissioner and other authorised officers to obtain information. Chapter 8 deals with enforcement, and chapter 9 contains miscellaneous provisions, including provisions to do with handling of information, powers of the Commissioner, and the courts.

I had not realised just how badly written this legislation was until I met with the Law Council of Australia and had a number of consultations and briefings with them. For those who do not know about the profile, independence, credibility and purpose of the Law Council of Australia, it may be worthwhile to remind the Senate of a few important facts. The Law Council was established in 1933 and represents 16 Australian state and territory law societies, bar associations and Law Firms Australia, which are known collectively as Constituent Bodies. The Constituent Bodies are made up of all of the Australian states' law societies and most Australian bar associations, including the Law Society of Tasmania and The Tasmanian Bar. Their profile says that the Law Council effectively acts on behalf of more than 60,000 lawyers right across Australia. They exist to represent the legal profession at a national level, to speak on behalf of its Constituent Bodies on national issues, and to promote the administration of justice, access to justice and general improvement of the law. After consulting with the Law Council, it is clear to me that the ABCC will not lead to an improvement to Australian law. In fact, the opposite will happen. Should this legislation pass the Senate, the general rule of law will be weakened—and 60,000 lawyers agree with that statement.

There are a number of key difficulties that the Law Council has found with this legislation. Other bodies such as the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights have identified the same key concerns, which are: (1) the provisions of this bill only deal with corruption in the building and construction sectors and not more broadly across various industries; (2) it applies a different set of industrial relations rules that apply only to persons associated with the building and construction industry; (3) they provide new coercive powers with retrospective operation; (4) there is exclusion of judicial review of certain decisions without adequate justification and contrary to a recommendation by the former Administrative Review Council; (5) there are inappropriate delegations of legislative power; (6) there are insufficiently defined and overly broad discretionary powers; (7) it inappropriately reverses the onus of proof in certain circumstances; (8) it inappropriately permits entry onto premises without consent or warrant; (9) there is a lack of oversight in the process of authorising the use of extraordinary coercive information-gathering powers; (10) the prohibition on picketing and further restrictions on industrial actions has been found by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights to be incompatible with the right to freedom of association and the right to form and join trade unions; (11) the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner may exclude a particular legal practitioner from an examination if the commissioner concludes, on reasonable grounds and in good faith, that the representative either will or may prejudice the investigation.

In summary this legislation allows for: new coercive powers with retrospective operation, exclusion of judicial review without proper justification, inappropriate delegations of legislative power, insufficiently defined and overly broad discretionary powers, inappropriate reversal of the onus of proof in certain circumstances, a lack of oversight in the process of authorising the use of extraordinary coercive information-gathering powers, incompatibility with the right to freedom of association and the right to form and join trade unions, and exclusion of a particular legal practitioner from an examination. These are the reasons why the Law Council of Australia, an independent, credible expert legislative body representing 60,000 Australian lawyers, effectively says that this is bad, poorly written legislation. These are the reasons why this legislation should not be passed.

During the last sitting of this parliament I had a meeting lasting about 45 minutes with Minister Cash and her legal adviser and raised these Law Council concerns. We also talked about section 62, which takes away the right to silence for an Australian citizen who appears before the commission. Section 62 allows the government to charge an Australian citizen and have that citizen imprisoned for 6 months should that citizen choose to say nothing and exercise a right to silence during an official interview. It is found on page 49 of the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill and reads:

62 Offence for failing to comply with examination notice

A person commits an offence if:

(a) the person has been given an examination notice; and

(b) the person fails:

(i) to give information or produce a document in accordance with the notice; or

(ii) to attend to answer questions in accordance with the notice; or

(iii) to take an oath or make an affirmation, when required to do so under subsection 61(5); or

(iv) to answer questions relevant to the investigation while attending as required by the examination notice.

Penalty: Imprisonment for 6 months.

A couple of things came out of our discussion with the minister with reference to section 62. Firstly, as it stands written, we are not sure if the imprisonment for six months for exercising a right to silence is a mandatory, minimum or maximum period of time. It is bad enough that this extreme legislation is being entrusted to public servants with doubts over their qualifications, but to have a question mark over whether is it a minimum, maximum or mandatory sentence is careless and an example of very poor legislative drafting.

The minister tried to calm my office's fears about removing a basic civil liberty from Australian citizens—that is, their right to silence—by informing me that the government had arranged for an indemnity from prosecution for any crime should someone be forced to incriminate themselves during those extreme interrogations. When asked about the sorts of crimes that this indemnity covered, the minister was forced to admit that even if someone had committed a murder and confessed to that crime during an ABCC official interview they would receive an indemnity—as long as the murder was related to the building industry, because if you have committed a murder that is not related to the building industry and confess during an interview covered by the provision of the ABCC legislation then you do not qualify for an indemnity.

This response raised eyebrows with the Law Council. Firstly, it is ridiculous that this parliament is being asked to legislate to give you an indemnity to murder should you confess during an interview. That gem came from the minister's own mouth in my office. Secondly, it is completely bizarre that the minister and her legal adviser can suggest that one type of murder qualifies for an indemnity while another murder simply does not. According to the minister, if you bury the body under cement and say the murder was related to the building industry, then you have indemnity. But if you buried the body in the woods and the murder was carried out because of a non-building related activity, you do not get an indemnity from prosecution. That was the point where it became clear that this legislation was, quite simply, drafted by a roomful of monkeys and a typewriter.

It is very bad and poorly drafted and has scant regard for the rule of law and basic democratic rights in this country. The Law Council of Australia confirmed my opinion after a subsequent meeting to discuss the minister's briefing. I admit that there was a period when, in good faith, I would have passed this legislation had the government met certain conditions: the deregistration of the CFMEU, a viewing of the royal commission secret reports and the establishment of a federal ICAC.

As my research and consultation on the ABCC progressed over the months, my trust in Commissioner Heydon was shattered when it became blindingly obvious that he had lied to the people of Australia about the so-called grave threats he had discovered to the power and authority of the Australian state. I am in a unique position to pass judgement on Commissioner Heydon's secret reports and findings. Unlike most Australians and politicians, I have read Commissioner Heydon's secret reports. It is fiction and it is a lie. There are no grave threats to the Australian state. If there were, ASIO would have been all over the Heydon royal commission like a bloody rash. They would have been over it and they would have known about it. When I questioned ASIO at estimates about Heydon's secret reports, no copy had been referred to them nor had ASIO even thought of asking for a copy of the secret reports. A royal commissioner who agreed to participate in a Liberal Party fundraiser lied to the parliament and the Australian people about the seriousness of the threat to the Australian state through his investigations into union and other corruption. This is the debate in which the question 'Why?' must be asked.

According to Parliamentary Library research I recently commissioned, over a five-year period from 2010-11 to the present day the four big banks—the Commonwealth, NAB, Westpac and ANZ—have donated $2.56 million to the Liberal and National parties. That is why you will not see a banker lose their right to silence or prove their innocence if they are accused of an offence or crime in the finance industry. But if this legislation passes you will see blue-collar workers lose their right to silence and the right to a presumption of innocence while bankers are treated separately. Indeed this law is so bad that citizens accused of murder and rape will have more rights than a construction worker if summoned under the ABCC legislation.

On 26 August 1789 the representatives of the French people organised as a national assembly—believing that the ignorance, neglect or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments. They set forth a solemn declaration detailing the natural, unalienable and sacred rights of man. This declaration has had a profound effect on the formation of modern Western democracies and their rule of law. Article 6 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen states in part with relation to the law:

It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948, states in article 7:

All are equal before the law and are entitled … to equal protection of the law.

If this ABCC legislation passes, bankers have more legal rights than blue-collar construction workers. This principle of equality before the law is one of the main foundations Australia was built on. It is one of the reasons we fought wars against dictatorships and totalitarian countries. Liberals love quoting a glib and misleading catch phrase when trying to sell this legislation: 'Oh, we need a tough cop on the beat.' Well that cop had better treat blue-collar workers the same as bankers—that is why we need to tackle corruption with a federal ICAC.

I strongly oppose the ABCC legislation and in Tasmania's best interests will vote against it at this second reading stage.


Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016

I rise to contribute to the debate on the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill 2016. Everyone agrees that the Senate voting system needs to be reformed. I do not argue that point, but I am happy to go to a double-D election on the changes in this bill. My private polling is showing the same results as the Liberals' polling, which means that, in Tasmania alone, we could pick up three and perhaps four Senate seats in a double-D election.

However, the point that many senators are missing in this debate is that these changes could be illegal and in breach of the Australian Constitution and will result in a successful High Court challenge, which will create more political chaos and dysfunction. According to Australia's leading election expert and foremost academic, Malcolm Mackerras, as this legislation stands written, its changes are most likely illegal and in breach of our Australian Constitution. Malcolm Mackerras gave importance evidence to the Senate committee inquiry that examined this legislation—evidence which the government, the Greens and some of our media completely ignored, and I am struggling to understand why. Essentially, Mr Malcolm Mackerras says that our Constitution will be breached and held in contempt if this legislation passes.

I watched Mr Mackerras's give evidence to the Senate committee and then I was lucky enough to meet for a second time personally with Mr Malcolm Mackerras yesterday, when he said:

1. We must bring Senate voting back to the Constitution. However, the Government's legislation (Commonwealth Electoral Amendment) is breathtaking in its contempt for the Constitution.

2. The Government's proposed Senate voting directions on its ballot paper are dishonest.

3. The Government and Greens are not on the high moral ground when it comes to their proposed Senate voting changes.

4. ABC election commentator Anthony Green is wrong. His propaganda is pandering to the powerful.

Mr Malcolm Mackerras's opinion cannot be easily dismissed by the Liberal and Green members of this Senate, who have clearly demonstrated they are in a desperate rush to pass this legislation. The Greens and the Libs want us to ignore Mr Mackerras's expert opinion because he speaks the truth. I will remind the Senate of some of Mr Mackerras's expertise. This information is drawn from the internet, but it has been confirmed by other sources, including Mr Mackerras.

Mr Mackerras is now a visiting fellow in the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University, Canberra Campus. Previously he was an associate professor in political science with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, in 1999. Mackerras's first published study of Australian politics was The Australian Senate 1965-1967: Who Held Control? He followed this with The 1968 Federal Redistribution, published in 1969. His first major work was Australian General Elections, published in 1972, in which he pioneered the concept of the two-party majority and the two-party swing and introduced 'the pendulum'—a table of federal electorates in order of two-party majority, which is now commonly known as the Mackerras pendulum. He followed this with a series of books before each federal election, such as Elections 1975, Elections 1980, The Mackerras 1990 Federal Election Guide and The Malcolm Mackerras 1993 Federal Election Guide.

It is clear that Mr Mackerras, an Order of Australia recipient, is an independent voice of reason and an electoral expert who should not be ignored. Indeed, in his early political days he was a member of the Liberal Party, so when he says that 'the government's proposed Senate voting directions on its ballot paper are dishonest'; that 'the government's legislation (Commonwealth Electoral Amendment) is breathtaking in its contempt for the constitution'; the government and Greens are not on the high moral ground when it comes to their proposed Senate voting changes'; that the 'The ABC election commentator Anthony Green is wrong', and that 'his propaganda is pandering to the powerful', it is time to pause and listen, and to show some respect. If we fail to listen carefully to independent, wise words then this government and their Greens partners will be responsible for leading us into an expensive constitutional political mess. This mess is avoidable, and it will undermine confidence in Australian business and weaken the job security of ordinary Australian workers.

What a sad day this is for over three million Australian voters when the Liberals, Nationals and Greens go into a room, lock the door and emerge with this constitutionally flawed, secret little deal which they will rush through this Senate. If they were genuine about true Senate reform they would have sat down with the majority of the political representatives of the Australian people and our electoral experts like Mr Mackerras and devised a consensus plan that would have been an improvement on the current system—not come up with a plan that will lead to more economic and political uncertainty and will become a lawyers-fest once it finds its way to the High Court five minutes after the Governor-General signs it into law.

Mr Mackerras reminded us that the Greens cannot occupy the high political moral ground and that they cannot be trusted. Tasmanians know just how reckless, harmful and untrustworthy the Greens have been, and how reckless and dangerous some of their policies are. To remind the Senate of the Greens' lack of judgement and policy failures, you will recall that in July last year I released figures obtained by the independent Parliamentary Library research and business owners, which showed that over the last decade the Greens' opposition to development in Tasmania has caused at least a loss of $5½ billion worth of business and 5½ thousand jobs. The Greens have strangled Tasmania's economy for 10 years. They are responsible for our state suffering the highest unemployment rate in Australia. How can you trust the Greens with the important and fundamental change to our democracy after a decade of mindless, unprincipled knee-jerk development objections totalling $5½ billion in Tasmania?

The Senate committee hearing I took part in last year was further proof that the Greens do not act in our state's best interests. They are coming after our half-a-billion-dollar-a-year salmon and trout industries and the thousands of direct and indirect jobs attached to Tasmania's aquaculture business. I have not even tried to calculate the financial and social cost of businesses which over the years watched the Greens chaos and found that investing in Tasmania was just too hard, so they left and took their money elsewhere. If those businesses were included in the research, the figures could easily rise to more than $10 million and 10,000 jobs that would have been lost to Tasmania over a decade, and I wonder why—through the Chair—Senator Abetz has an issue with doing deals with the Greens. He would know, being a Tasmanian. The party has done the deal with the Liberal Party to change our electoral laws and to game our electoral laws. They are directly responsible for Tasmania's youth unemployment rate, which is the highest in Australia, and for all the terrible social problems—the drugs, the crime, the suicides—that come with a dangerous, hopeless unemployment crisis.

I feel very sorry about the children of asylum seekers who are forced behind barbed wire fences, but at the same time, I also feel sorry for the tens of thousands of Tasmanian children who have had productive, prosperous working futures stolen from them by poor judgement and extreme Green policies. The Tasmanian children who are victims of the Greens' political policies may not be behind barbed wire, but they are living on the streets or in housing commission homes with no hope of a good job in either mining, forestry, industry or heavy manufacturing for the future. Tasmanians know that the Greens have a long history of acting irresponsibly and recklessly. They even used taxpayers' money to travel overseas and sabotage our economy and kill real jobs in our forest industry, so it should not come as a surprise that they are acting irresponsibly and recklessly with regard to our democracy.

Apart from this legislation, in recent times the Greens have once again demonstrated why they cannot be trusted and that they have become extreme with their call to decriminalise ice. Coming from a doctor who has taken an oath to do no harm, his statement that we should decriminalise ice has absolutely stunned me. It demonstrates that his judgement is flawed and that he would say anything and do any deal, no matter what the damage to the state or national interest, to get more votes. Without going into all the statistics, from personal experience, I know how deadly and dangerous ice is. One hit can hook; one pill can kill. And zero tolerance, early intervention, involuntary detox, more rehab and the $300 million that you people have promised over there—if you want to pass it out, that would be great—is the only answer to the ice crisis and to tackling it head on.

I have no doubt that this legislation will be passed, and I am proud to be a part of the parliamentary fight against it. However, I am directing my energy into ensuring that the people of Tasmania who want to strengthen their independent voice in this Senate and get more for their state have good candidates to choose from.

While the JLN's No. 1 Senate candidate, Steve Martin, may not be a name recognised in all Australian households just yet, in Tasmania Steve is very well-known and has made a fine reputation as a popular, independent mayor and a respected community leader. Steve topped the polls in the 2009 local government elections, becoming a Devonport alderman. He was elected Devonport mayor in 2011 and was overwhelmingly re-elected as an alderman and as Devonport mayor in 2014.

Steve has mentored young Tasmanians for nearly 23 years, and has just recently celebrated 20 years of community work. Steve and his wife Susanne have also successfully owned and operated two small Tasmanian businesses. So Steve knows that if the Liberal federal and state governments do not take drastic measures to reduce the costs of travel and freight, both north and south across our state border—and treat Bass Strait as part of the National Highway—then our economy and prospects for job growth will always suffer.

Steve understands that I was able to use my Senate influence to force the federal government to increase the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme by an extra $200 million, and he wants to help me ensure that in the future that money directly lowers the cost of goods, freight and living for Tasmanian families and businesses.

For the past eight years Steve has led the effort to entice the Australian Masters Games to Tasmania and was successful in attracting the games for 2017. That will bring $12 million worth of economic benefit to the state of Tasmania.

Steve entered the political arena in 2003, lobbying for the retention of health services in the north-west, specifically at the Mersey Community Hospital. Together we will fight not only for a better public health service for Tasmania's north-west but for the whole of our state.

If the JLN holds the balance of power in the Senate, we will make it very difficult for the federal government, whether Liberal or Labor, to cut a billion dollars of funding over the next eight years from our public health system and to attack Medicare.

Like all good community leaders, Steve has also devoted a lot of his time to improving educational opportunities for all residents, not just in Devonport but on the north-west coast of Tasmania. For three years he has also been working very hard towards evolving the city of Devonport into a learning community, a place to live and a place to learn. He has said:

Life-long learning will assist us to further enhance our abilities and potential, so that we as a community, region and state can be sustainably resourced and flexible enough to attract and benefit from any and all opportunities that may present. This means jobs and a future.

We have far too many kids absent for far too many days from our schools. Their life potential is under threat. We need to understand why this is happening, where the kids actually are and to better resource our schools to improve and ensure attendance. Better equipping our kids with life tools at an early age is also exceedingly important. Our kids need to gain the ability to not only understand but also be able to cope with and make good decisions about any issue that may confront them.

The JLN also have Rob Waterman, who has spent 30 years in the private sector and the not-for-profit and government health and criminal justice sectors. Rob is currently the CEO of Rural Health Tasmania. If elected to the Senate, Rob would push for a stronger commitment to early intervention and preventative health funding. Rob's experience in the community services industry and in research shows that an early intervention and preventive approach is seven times less expensive than treatment. Over the long term, it reduces health spending and provides a stronger economy. Rob would also continue to fight to reduce unemployment, reduce addiction and domestic violence, and ensure education is more affordable and accessible in rural and regional Australia.

The Liberal government and the Greens think they are being smart by making a deal on this legislation, but it only shows how desperate they are to win this election. What we really have is a deal being done between the party that wants to decriminalise ice and the party that wants to increase the GST, because each thinks it will politically benefit from those changes.

This bill will only cost more for the taxpayer and create uncertainty for the community and business. The Liberals are deliberately picking industrial fights in the construction and maritime sectors. For the short term, they want to bring our economy to its knees, so that there will be a background of economic chaos and industrial unrest in the lead-up to the federal election in order to justify the inconvenience and expense of a double-D election on the Australian voter—every single one of them. The Liberal government will argue the crossbench has caused chaos and the change in laws and a double-D election are necessary to create order once again. When the history books are written, however, the facts will show that it was the Independent crossbench senators who protected the pensioners, the uni students, the farmers, the diggers, the unemployed, the single parents and the veterans from the Liberal/National horror budget of 2014, and guaranteed community consultation.

An absolute majority in the favour of Liberals will not bring order to the legislative process; it will bring back policies such as Work Choices, policies that benefit the big end of town rather than making decisions in the best interests of the nation. The government's argument of a rogue crossbench or a hostile Senate is severely exaggerated and does not hold up in the face of statistics that show the Senate has so far passed just over 73 per cent of the government's legislation. These changes to Senate voting and the threat of a double-D election is nothing but a distraction from the real issues.

My state is still in the midst of a public health crisis and an energy crisis due to the mismanagement of collective state governments. King Island is faced with shipping issues, youth unemployment rates are sky high, jobs are hard to find in Tasmania and the economy is so sluggish that businesses are shedding jobs. That is the truth that is going on in Tasmania. But in parliament this week, the last sitting week, the only thing the Senate is debating seems to be the Senate voting reforms. If the Prime Minister does indeed call a double dissolution on 11 May then that is five sitting weeks that are sidelined for an election campaign. That is five weeks where the government is not performing its function of legislating to move the nation forward.

In the time I have been a Tasmanian senator, I have not had one person come into my office and ask for a change to the Senate voting system. And I have had thousands and thousands of emails to my office and not one Australian has come to me and told me of their concerns about voting reform in this country. My constituents want positive changes and improvements to our health, education, social services, veterans' affairs and military pay systems.

This proposed change has not been driven by the people; it is driven by the self-interest that is motivating the Liberals and the Greens. We should be discussing the government's plan to cut $650 million from Medicare bulk-billing. That is the issue which everyone who contacts my office is concerned with today; or the threat of foreign investment, which is driving up the cost of living for Australians and threatening Australian jobs. What about the threat of corruption on our society within government departmental ranks, business, unions and finance sectors? These are issues worthy of our time and debate. Nevertheless, the double-D has been set in motion by a Greens party eager for a ministry. The deal has been settled and we can be sure that they will be preferencing each other in Tasmania. There is no doubt about that.


MPI: Climate Change

Senator LAMBIE (Tasmania) (18:39): I note that in the past Prime Minister Turnbull has supported an ETS, an Emissions Trading Scheme. I rise to contribute to this matter of public importance, which focuses on Prime Minister Turnbull's failure to take action consistent with his words on climate change. In doing so I take this opportunity to speak about the JLN's policy on a carbon tax and an ETS.

I acknowledge that climate change is real. I also acknowledge that ice core sampling by scientists in the Antarctic shows that over the last 600,000 years the average world temperature has changed and has been much higher than today's average temperature, and it has also been much colder. I note that most scientific climate projections indicate that Australian citizens, by ourselves, have no hope of stopping world climate change—no matter what measures we take. Whether it is a carbon tax, which is a fixed charge on energy, or an ETS, which is a floating price on energy use, it is clear that a government making Australian pensioners, businesses and families pay more for their energy will never stop world climate change. It will only increase the cost of living for our families and kill off Australian jobs and businesses, and for no return. Therefore, the JLN opposes the introduction of a carbon tax or ETS until our major trading partners introduce similar taxes for their energy use.

In the meantime Australia must prepare for world climate change by boosting the numbers and resources available to our emergency services, our military, our medical professionals and our farmers. We must always make political decisions which protect our energy, water, food, national security and Australian workers' job security. In the meantime, while Australia waits for the world agreement on carbon tax or an ETS, the JLN strongly supports the following two measures, which are assured to quickly lower carbon emissions while keeping power prices low and while guaranteeing reliability of supply. The first is the doubling of baseload renewable energy in the form of hydroelectricity. The second is a community debate, followed by a national referendum, on the introduction of nuclear power generation. There is a danger in using renewable electricity, which does not have the ability to deliver baseload power 24/7, which is not affected by the availability of wind or sunlight. And that danger is a very high energy cost for all Australians.

Germany, which relies for 12.33 per cent of its energy on renewable sources, according to Parliamentary Library research, has average household electricity prices at US37.26c, or A50.67c per kilowatt hour, which is almost double that of Australia's electricity prices already.


MPI: Turnbull's failure to present a tax plan

Senator LAMBIE: There is a myth—that the Liberals are good managers of public funds — which I would like to question by stating the facts.

The Howard Liberal government made a grand total of $59.8 billion from public asset sales: $4.4 billion from airports, $48.6 billion from Telstra and $6.8 billion from Commonwealth Bank.

Senator Ian Macdonald: Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I draw you to the standing order which requires that senators shall not read their speeches.

Senator Cameron: On the point of order: Senator Macdonald has been around here long enough to know that that is an absolute nonsense proposal he has put forward. Senator Lambie has been on her feet for I think 15 seconds, and I just think it is absolutely outrageous to put that proposal up.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Williams ): I am going to rule it as okay for Senator Lambie to continue. I have been here for some time now and I have seen many, many senators refer to notes in front of them. Continue, Senator Lambie.

Senator LAMBIE: The Liberals under Mr Howard and Mr Abbott sold $59.8 billion of public assets and paid back $57 billion of Labor debt, leaving us with $108 billion of outstanding bonds and unfunded public service super.

How much revenue would have been raised to today had we not sold those public assets? In the last six months, the Turnbull Liberal government has failed to present a tax plan to the Australian people, and that failure has added to the chaos and confusion that the Abbott Liberal government first created for this parliament.

The Liberals like to spread the propaganda that it is the other crossbenchers and I who have made this Senate chaotic and unworkable.

In the Senate I have voted for and passed almost 75 per cent of the Liberals' legislation. That is worth $32 billion. With my votes I have protected Australia's poor from $30 billion of Liberals' cuts.

The Liberals sacked a Prime Minister and have caused chaos. Everyone knows that the Liberals will increase the GST and tax Australia's poor if they are re-elected as the government.

I have identified an extra $94 billion over 10 years for our budget if only the government had the courage to tax the super-rich.

Australia could have a super-rich death tax, a capital gains tax and a financial transactions tax. Just those three new taxes would raise an extra $94 billion over the next decade by targeting the super-rich.

The Liberals try to make us pay more to visit our doctors with their GP co-payments to repair our budget.

In the Senate I helped stop that attack on Medicare, and I will do it again and again because the Liberals now want to make Australian women pay more for cancer checks by forcing $650 million of cuts to bulk-billing.


Donations to Political Parties

The political donation system has been corrupted. It is designed to hide donations so the public are not aware of who is influencing government policy. This is why I am concerned about overseas political donations—they are in direct conflict with national sovereignty. The system is not in the national interest, and it is not in the public's interest. It is, however, in the interest of some politicians' retirement policy.

China's donations to the major political parties are well documented and are a grave threat to the power and authority of the nation. I am not alone in my concern regarding our dealings with a country that does not respect our democratic values, that has widespread corruption and that lacks transparency. China's political donations have already influenced our decisions on the China free trade agreement—an agreement that undermines our national and job security.

What has been proposed here is an improvement, but the gold standard is real time disclosure. My network reports donations on my website as we receive them—that is true transparency.

Question agreed to.

 


MPI: Election of Senators

The committee hearing this morning into the Senate voting system was a bombshell. Recognised experts provided a valuable opportunity to learn more about our complicated Senate voting system and the Liberals' and Greens' radical electoral changes. I was very impressed by the testimony of Mr Malcolm Mackerras. He took a principled stand and said the Senate voting system has been and will be unconstitutional. Mr Mackerras referred to our Constitution as an authority, saying our voting system must be candidate based, not party based. He kindly drew our attention to section 7 of the Constitution to support his claim. It states:

The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting, until the Parliament otherwise provides, as one electorate.

The system should be changed, but something this important should not be rushed.

The current system has evolved into one which Antony Green describes as 'a herding process to force voters to vote above the line'. But the new system proposed by the Liberals and Greens is, as Mr Mackerras said, 'breathtaking in its contempt for the Australian Constitution'. He called it a party-list system, because it can be gamed in favour of the big parties by running a just-vote-1 campaign. The Liberals want to change our voting system and then game our voting system by running a just-vote-1 campaign—they are quiet over there, aren't they?—and the Greens are the Liberals' enablers.

The Liberals are deliberately picking industrial fights in the construction and maritime sectors. In the short term they will bring our economy to its knees so that there will be a background of economic chaos and industrial unrest in the lead-up to the federal election in order to justify the inconvenience and expense of a double-D election on the Australian voter—every single one of them. Do you know what? You people should be ashamed of yourselves.

 

 


QWN - Defence Procurement

Defence Procurement

Senator LAMBIE (Tasmania) (14:36): My question without notice is to the Minister for Defence, Senator Payne. I refer the minister to her government's $450 billion defence white paper and the fact that Tasmania's businesses have been ignored for two decades when it comes to the fair awarding of defence contracts. I also refer the minister to comments made by Tasmanian businessman Michael Grainger, of Liferaft Systems Australia, who says:

It is ironic that we are dealing with the major defence forces around the world but not our own country

When it comes to the fair awarding of defence contracts, does the minister agree that it is the weak representation by Liberal members of this parliament for 20 years and being taken for granted that has guaranteed Tasmanian businesses, including those associated with Land 400, will continue to be ignored for another 20 years? How are you going over there Senator Abetz?

 Senator PAYNE (New South Wales—Minister for Defence) (14:37): I thank Senator Lambie for her question. It will not surprise Senator Lambie to know that I do not agree with the premise of her question and her observations in relation to my extremely valued Senate colleagues. The exact idea behind the Defence Industry Policy Statement, which will be a bible, if you like, for those who are engaged in the defence industry across Australia—in particular for leading Tasmanian businesses, a number of which have already been drawn to my attention by our parliamentary colleagues from Tasmania—is that they will be able to work within the 2016 Defence Industry Policy Statement, which sets a new paradigm for the relationship between Defence and industry across Australia, in regional areas and around the nation, for small, medium and large enterprises.

There are over 3,000 defence related industries in Australia. A number of those are located in Tasmania. A number of those are referred to in the 2016 Defence Industry Policy Statement. I look forward to working with all members of the parliament who represent Tasmania to make the most of those relationships and to maximise the possible contribution of those industries to engagement with Defence.

 Senator LAMBIE (Tasmania) (14:38): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I refer the minister to her reply. Does the minister agree that the only chance for Tasmanian defence businesses to receive a fair share of her government's $450 billion defence budget is if Tasmania becomes a marginal electorate for major parties and is represented in the Senate by Independents?

Senator PAYNE (New South Wales—Minister for Defence) (14:39): No, I do not agree with Senator Lambie.

 Senator LAMBIE (Tasmania) (14:39): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. I refer the Defence minister to her government's $450 billion defence white paper, Tasmania's record youth unemployment rate and Australia's trade skills shortage. Does the minister agree that, should her government have the vision to re- establish the defence apprenticeship and trade training programs as part of voluntary youth national service, then those training positions would offer hope to our unemployed youth while strengthening the defence of our nation?

 Senator PAYNE (New South Wales—Minister for Defence) (14:39): Senator Lambie and I are not as one on the question of national service, but there are certainly some aspects of that question with which I strongly agree, which is to say—and I have discussed this matter with the Minister for Education—there are going to be enormous opportunities for training and for growth in the working environment for people who wish to engage in defence industries. One of the important parts that is referred to the 2016 Defence Industry Policy Statement

—in fact, Senator Sinodinos just referred to it in his response to Senator Edwards's question—is in relation to the Centre for Defence Industry Capability. It will have a significant role in working with primes and medium and small enterprise in the defence space to bring all of that together. I look forward to working with companies

like the two companies in Tasmania that are referred to in the 2016 Defence Industry Policy Statement, Taylor Bros and Delta Hydraulics, in making sure that they are well placed to participate in defence industry into the future as we ensure the strength of our defence industry going forward.


25th Anniversary of the first Gulf War

Twenty-five years ago Australia deployed 1,800 defence personnel to the first Gulf War to assist the US and several other countries push Iraq out of Kuwait. There were 146 casualties from the coalition, but Australia was fortunate enough not to lose one digger in this particular war. In the public gallery watching this debate today is a group of veterans from the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans Association, one of whom, Rod Thompson, is an Australian Gulf War veteran who served on HMAS Adelaide. Thank you all for your service.

 

Tomorrow these veterans will join with hundreds of their fellow veterans—brothers and sisters—to rally on the lawns in front of Parliament House at 10am. They will protest at the dysfunctional way they are being treated by this government's Department of Veterans' Affairs. They will protest at the lack of respect shown by the Prime Minister and other senior government politicians. I urge all senators who are supportive to join the veterans and hear what they have to say. They have been ignored for far too long. They will suffer in silence no longer. Too many of them have taken their own lives. So it is time that the Canberra politicians and media listened.

 

The 1,800 Australians who participated in the Gulf War faced a more devastating battle with their minds and bodies after the Gulf War. A Monash University study, the Australian Gulf War Veterans' Health Study 2003, has shown that Gulf War veterans suffered increasing psychological conditions in the years following the Gulf War—and not just PTSD either. The study showed the Australians deployed to the Gulf War were also suffering from anxiety disorders, depression and increasing problems with drinking as well.

 

This information is not new to the government. The Department of Veterans' Affairs had this report—and, for that matter, the follow-up report—but sought 'independent' review from an 'independent' epidemiologist of their choosing. And these health problems are not exclusive to the first Gulf War. I do not need a university to tell me that war or warlike service can cause crippling psychological damage on top of physical damage.

 

The things the government expects these people to do are inhuman—fair enough, that is what they sign up for. But what they do not sign up for is being kicked to the kerb and put through the bureaucratic wringer. Veterans do not sign up to poor treatment by the government. They fight—sometimes to the death—to receive the necessary health care they require. A government needs to step up to its responsibility and make sure the people it is training to deal with the extreme circumstances that are likely to arise during war have the best physical and mental health care available to cope with those extreme situations when they leave the Defence Force.

 

So why haven't the government and the Department of Veterans' Affairs implemented changes surrounding the results of the Monash University's Australian Gulf War Veterans' Health Study 2003? When you reflect on the fact that the total number of Australians who died in combat overseas for the last 15 years is approximately 49 and the total number of Australian former diggers who have committed suicide is 241 the enormity and weight of the tragedy sinks in. It causes in me a terrible dread. That is obviously not a feeling shared by the major parties, who voted against my private members bill which would have granted an automatic gold card to diggers, peacekeepers and peacemakers who had been in a war or warlike conditions.

 

Making access to a gold card a tick and flick exercise would allow the most vulnerable and often damaged people to bypass a traumatic and further damaging administrative process and immediately receive the relevant medical care they need. An automatic gold card does not just benefit the digger who receives it. It also reduces the administrative burden for the Department of Veterans' Affairs and alleviates the rate of homelessness and suicide, which translates to a greater number of people being healthy enough to contribute to society and the tax base.

 

These deaths are avoidable. The bureaucratic fight with the Department of Veterans' Affairs to obtain the benefits and services of a health gold card is responsible for killing our veterans and carving a trail of destruction through their families and friends. You people in here have still not learnt anything from the way you treated our Vietnam veterans and their families and the impact it has had on them.

 

 

Last week, for political gain, the coalition government and Labor voted down my legislation. While Labor opposed my legislation for the automatic issue of a gold card to veterans, I can report that today I have had an encouraging meeting with the Labor shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Mr Feeney. After listening to members of the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans Association he has a much better appreciation of the minimal costs of implementing this system.

 

I am double checking the costings I received from the PBO and its view that the cost will be less than half of what the government is trying to say it will be—with the added benefit that it will save lives. What cost do you put on the life of a veteran—$100 million, $1 billion, $2 billion, $10 billion? Anytime you work that out, please let me know.

 

I am also working on a private members bill which will provide retraining for diggers leaving the Australian Defence Force after a number of years of warlike service. The 'Diggers' Bill' will provide a smooth transition for diggers from the Defence Force to civilian life. It will be modelled on America's famous GI Bill, which helped build America and properly rewarded veterans for their service to their country. Put simply, the GI bill provided free university education for their former warriors. Why can't we do the same for our veterans?

 

The Defence Force is all many of our diggers know. Without education and a transition pathway many will not have transferrable skills and many of them will not know where they can get help. The 'Diggers' Bill' will make sure that their potential is captured and utilised in the civilian world. If every one of our diggers is retrained and placed in the workforce again, our rate of homelessness drops and their sense of purpose is maintained, which will decrease the rate of suicide. It will also broaden the tax base, as the 'Diggers' Bill' will see a rise in work place participation and again reduce the administrative burden that is on the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

 

So I say to the government: if you are not prepared to look after the men and women of Australia's military— who have pledged undying loyalty to Australia, trained for war, followed politicians' orders, bled, sacrificed and protected our world famous Anzac legend—then don't bloody well send them in the first place!

 

My network supports fair pensions indexation for veterans and former ADF members, including those who have been physically and psychologically wounded or harmed. ADF members who are totally and permanently injured should be treated fairly and respectfully. We will introduce legislation that will protect the purchasing power of all former ADF members by linking their pensions and entitlements to the rising cost of average Australian weekly wages.

 

The JLN has introduced and had passed by the Senate legislation which guarantees fair pay and pay rises for all members of the ADF and a wage rise safety net by linking our diggers' pay increases to the increases given to Australian politicians or to the CPI—whichever is higher. That bill now sits in the lower house of the parliament awaiting debate. Bring that on any time you like. The only person who has the power to bring that debate on is Prime Minister Turnbull, who has been under a bit of pressure this week.

 

As I have outlined, there are many positive policies that this government can implement to improve the lot of our veterans. However, to immediately help those who are still serving in the ADF the Prime Minister can authorise the debate of my private member's bill in the lower house. I would love it if the government members voted for it, but I am not holding my breath. But all I ask is that for tomorrow we get a commitment to just have a debate. I would like to know the names of the politicians who would vote against a bill that links their pay to the pay of our diggers.

 

In closing, I ask that all people who support our veterans and their call for the automatic issue of a gold card wear a gold ribbon tomorrow to show their support. Today, I also put it out there that I will be issuing those gold ribbons for Anzac Day. One way or another, these people will receive the physical and psychological treatment that they have earned. As a matter of fact, you people in there did a deal with them. Part of our service for signing up in the first place was that you were to look after us if we were hurt or injured. You have failed to get the job done. In this parliament, the major parties have failed to get the job done. That is why we have had over 250 suicides—and still counting. I can tell you now that you might as well double that number, because they are only the ones that we know of.

 

Question agreed to.


Questions Without Notice: Medicare cuts

My question without notice is to Senator Nash, the Minister representing the Minister for Health. I refer the National Party assistant health minister to the government's proposed $650 million cuts to Medicare bulk-billing rates.

I note that respected Tasmanian health professionals like scientist Richard Hanlon have warned that the effect on patients will be quite significant because it will discourage patients from going to their doctors, patients may pay up to a $30 co-payment and it has the potential to stop patients from testing for chronic diseases like diabetes and undertaking pap smears for women's cancers. It will remove a 10-year focus on primary health care so that hospitals in the future will become inundated, and cancers and diabetes will not be seen until it is too late.

Can the assistant minister produce studies or modelling which prove Tasmanian medical scientist Richard Hanlon is wrong?

Senator Nash: I am not aware of the comments that the senator referred to at the end of her question, so I cannot respond directly to those. I am assuming that the senator is referring to changes to the bulk-billing incentive payment for pathology and diagnostic imagining. I think it is very important for the Senate to note that since 2009 half a billion dollars, around $500 million, has been spent on this particular program; indeed, $99 million in the last year. The purpose of the payment was to increase bulk-billing rates—that was the purpose of the payment for those who were not aware. What we have seen, as I said, is $99 million just in the last year and roughly the same amount each and every year since 2009, and the bulk-billing rate has gone from 86.3 per cent to 87.6 per cent over that period of time. It has increased by 1.3 per cent. So the purpose of the funding through this program, to increase the rate, simply has not had the desired effect that was the intention of the funding to be paid in the first instance. Let me also be very clear: rebates have not changed for people undertaking these items. The incentives were being paid directly to the pathologists, to the diagnostic imagers—

The PRESIDENT: Pause the clock. Senator Lambie.

Senator Lambie: Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I simply asked whether any future modelling had been done to see whether women's cancer checks will be at risk, and how much it is going to cost the country in the long run. I want to know whether modelling has been done and produced. If it has, may I have a copy of that modelling, please.

The PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Lambie. You did have a little bit more to your question in relation to the comments which the minister addressed up-front, saying that she was not aware of those comments or that particular research. Minister, I will draw your attention to the comments just made by Senator Lambie. You have 14 seconds in which to answer.

Senator Nash: Thank you, Mr President. I am happy to take that on notice and seek advice from the health minister. I have been trying to assist the chamber with some facts around this, given there has been a lot scaremongering on this issue.

Senator Lambie: Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I again refer to the Liberal-Nationals cuts to women's cancer tests. I note that the report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare indicates that people in rural disadvantaged areas are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer than those in metropolitan areas. Will the National Party assistant minister explain why she has betrayed Australian country women by supporting this cruel Liberal policy?

Senator Nash: Firstly, I will correct two things from the senator: one, I have not betrayed anybody, least of all rural and regional Australia. I also correct the senator: there have been no cuts referred to the payments, as the senator said. The changes have been to the payments that are made directly to the providers. We need to be very, very clear that there have been no cuts to the rebate. Again, I draw the attention of those opposite to the fact that this was a program designed to increase the rates of bulk-billing in this sector and it has increased only 1.3 per cent since 2009.

Senator Lambie: Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. I again refer to the Liberal-Nationals $650 million cuts to women's cancer tests. I note that the same midyear economic report released in December showed Australia had set aside nearly $650 million to resettle Syrian refugees over the next four years. Can the minister explain whether the cuts to Medicare and women's cancer tests were agreed to so that Australia could afford to resettle Syrian refugees?

Senator Nash: I indicate to the senator that portfolio decisions around funding are taken within portfolios. I would have no indication whatsoever of the assertion that the senator has put forward about trading across portfolios for a funding issue. This is an issue that has been espoused very strongly by those on the other side of the chamber and, quite frankly, there has been a significant degree of scaremongering. On this side of the chamber, we make no apologies for making sensible, balanced decisions about budgetary measures that require an outcome. We will continue to do that for the benefit of all Australians.

Take note of answers:

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Rural Health (Senator Nash) to a question without notice asked by Senator Lambie today relating to proposed changes to bulk billing incentives.

Today the National Party's Senator Nash tried to defend the indefensible. Her party, a party that is supposed to look after the interests of rural and regional Australia, has agreed to be an accomplice to a Liberal policy which is guaranteed, over time, to increase the number of women who will die from preventable diseases like cervical cancer and diabetes. A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare states: 'The number of deaths has decreased significantly, with 72 per cent of women diagnosed surviving cervical cancer. Ninety per cent of cervical cancers are preventable with early detection.'

The reason we have this good news is that over the last 10 years Australia has had a clear focus on primary health care and preventative health checks, which has saved our nation lives and money. This $650 million cut to Medicare if allowed to go unchallenged by this Senate will undermine our focus on preventable health care by dramatically increasing the costs of cancer tests like Pap smears. The costs savings the government trumps in the short term will pale into insignificance when compared with the additional costs incurred in the long term when women, our grandchildren, begin once again to lose their lives unnecessarily and too soon to preventable diseases like cervical and other cancers. Why aren't we making decisions for our grandchildren?

I warn this government that I will take whatever action is necessary in the Senate, including voting against all government legislation, to ensure that cancer and other health checks remain affordable for all Australians. I will do everything in my power to stop cancer health checks like Pap smears from costing an extra $30, as predicted by the Royal College of Pathologists. The average Australian is sick of this Liberal government fiddling with bulk-billing rates for vital medical checks like women's Pap smears. It is time for the Liberals to stop their sneaky attacks on Medicare and their sly attempts to kill it off. It is time the Nationals grew a backbone and stood up to this cruelty to women.

Local Burnie businesswoman Kahli Deegan has told me she wants the Australian PM to stop messing around with our bulk-billing rates. She wants the government to make it easier, not harder, for young women like her to have cancer checks. Respected health professionals like Tasmanian scientist Richard Hanlon have warned that the effect on patients will be quite significant because it will discourage them from going to their doctors, patients may pay up to $30 extra in co-payments and it has the potential to stop patients from testing for chronic diseases like diabetes and cancers with Pap smears. We have had a focus on primary health care for 10 years or more and now we are removing that so hospitals will become inundated, cancers will not be seen until it is too late and diabetes will not be seen until it is too late either. It will have a huge cost on the health system and a huge cost on the hospital system in particular, the public system. Pathology is about as efficient as it can possibly get. We believe there is very little fat left to cut off the bone. That will mean it will be passed on to the customer. Any fool can see that reducing Australia's investment in primary health care is going to cost us more in the long run.

I commissioned a Parliamentary Library study and asked: can these cuts be disallowed by the Senate? The answer is:

Yes. The relevant regulations are a disallowable legislative instrument. The process for disallowance is explained in this Senate Brief. Broadly once the regulations are registered and tabled in parliament a Senator has 15 sitting days to give notice of a motion to disallow the instrument in whole or in part.

So I make this promise to Tasmanians, especially Tasmanian women: I will use my vote to disallow any Liberal government regulation that attacks our Medicare bulk-billing system. I look forward to working with my fellow crossbench senators, the Greens and Labor to stop this insane attack on one of the best universal healthcare systems in the world.

Question agreed to.