Dear members and friends,
The passing of HM Queen Elizabeth II should give us all cause to pause and be thankful for the example of stability, compassion and the love she has given us throughout her reign. A truely remarkable lady and monarch through this turbulent period in the world’s history.
Royal Commission Interim Report
The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide presented its interim report to the Governor-General on 11 August 2022. The Government tabled the report in Parliament the same day.
The report made thirteen urgent recommendations. Key areas addressed in the recommendations:
Australia’s veteran compensation and rehabilitation legislative system is so complicated that it adversely affects the mental health of some veterans – both serving and ex-serving ADF members – and can be a contributing factor to suicidality. The report recommends that the Australian Government should, without delay, implement legislative reforms to simplify and harmonise the veteran entitlement system.
Claims processing at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs
The claims system is complex and difficult to navigate and that veterans wait for long periods of time to receive a decision about their claims – sometimes more than 300 days. As of 31 May 2022, DVA had 41,799 claims in its backlog – claims waiting to be allocated to a decision-maker. The backlog should not be allowed to continue.
The report recommends:
- The Australian Government and DVA should eliminate the backlog by 31 March 2024.
- The Australian Government should resource DVA to implement a program of work aimed at improving the administration of the DVA claims system.
- DVA should report to the Government on its future funding needs, and the Government should use this advice to inform the departmental funding it provides to DVA.
- The Australian Government should remove the application of the Average Staffing Level cap policy on DVA – a policy which has limited the number of Australian Public Service staff DVA could employ.
Protections to engage with the Royal Commission
The report expresses concern about inadequate legal protections for persons who may want to engage with the Commission. These include, but are not limited to, serving members who intend to stay in the ADF and have concerns about the impact their disclosure of sensitive information may have on their career. In addition, some serving and ex-serving ADF members may consider themselves constrained from telling us their lived experiences due, for example, to those experiences occurring on operationally sensitive activities.
The report recommends that the Australian Government design legislative amendments that provide protections for these cohorts to allow the Commission to receive information potentially vital to the fulfillment of its terms of reference.
You can access the report here.
Veteran Superannuation Invalidity Benefits Taxation
Regular readers will be aware that the Government is introducing legislation to “ensure no veteran pays higher income tax because of the Federal Court decision in Commissioner of Taxation v Douglas. A draft bill, Treasury Laws Amendment (Measures for a later sitting) Bill 2022: Taxation of Military Superannuation Benefits, and associated draft explanatory material, have been released for public consultation.
The proposed legislation does the following:
- For those who have been positively affected by Douglas – nothing. All beneficial tax treatment and ancillary benefits (e.g., low-income health care cards, and family tax benefit) that they receive because of Douglas will continue.
- For those who have been negatively affected by Douglas – a tax offset is calculated so that they only pay the amount of tax they would if Douglas was not applied.
- For partners and children of deceased members who benefited from Douglas – they will receive the same beneficial treatment of the survivor benefit as the deceased member did.
However, the proposed legislation limits the benefit of Douglas to DFRDB and MSBS invalidity benefits that commenced on or after 20 September 2007. It locks out those disabled veterans whose pensions commenced before that date, as well as those disabled veterans receiving ADF Cover pensions, from ever receiving the same beneficial treatment.
DFWA is of the view that all veteran superannuation invalidity benefits should receive the same beneficial tax treatment provided by Douglas, regardless of which scheme or when payments commenced.
The National President of DFWA met with Minister Keogh and his staff on 3 August 2022 to object to this aspect of the proposed legislation. The President has subsequently met with Defence Head of People Capability, Major General Stothart, and members of the Shadow Ministry on this matter.
DFWA’s submission to Treasury regarding the proposed legislation similarly reflects this position.
DFWA has also released a media statement on this matter here.
You can follow the full history of this matter here.
Lack of accurate information from CSC
The Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation (CSC), which administers the veteran superannuation schemes, publishes factsheets on important topics such as taxation. The current CSC factsheet on MSBS Invalidity Benefit Taxation makes no mention of the impact of Douglas. This is despite the factsheet being updated since the Douglas decision.
This is a key source of information for scheme members and informs their decisions. It is particularly important to those members considering switching from MSBS to ADF Super / Cover, such as those members re-joining the Defence Force, perhaps on a continuous full-time service (CFTS) contract.
Around one in five ADF members who discharge each year do so on medical grounds. Invalidity benefits provided by superannuation schemes are an important consideration, and the information that is provided to members who are considering changing schemes needs to be correct. The tax consequences are serious and for life.
The National President of DFWA has written to Damien Hill, CEO of CSC, highlighting the importance of correct information being made available to MSBS members. The letter highlighted similarities to incorrect information being provided to DFRDB recipients regarding the nature of commutation.
Defence Community Dogs (DCD) Assistance Program
Several years ago, the Defence Bank Foundation via the DCD program implemented a process which has far reaching benefits for the greater Defence Community. That was when DFWA (NSW) first became involved in the hope that sponsorship of Dogs would become a regular and routine program. Now it’s fair to say that COVID-19 has impacted the delivery of dogs to veterans in several ways, but let’s focus on the ‘pawsitives’!
This Defence Bank Foundation DCD initiative involves acquiring and training dogs to become (more than just) Assistance animals for Defence members who are suffering from PTSD. The process revolves around several key elements:
- The Defence Bank Foundation raises seed-funding to enable Dogs to be trained at the Bathurst Correctional Centre’s Honour House by selected Inmates due to be released back into the Community
- Selected dogs are re-homed from Dog Shelters such as ‘Lab Rescue’ to undergo their own form of rehabilitation or re-training by the Inmates to capitalise on their temperament, intelligence, and trainability
- Over a period of 6-10 months Correctional Centre Inmate Trainers train the dogs to a standard well beyond that of a ‘Companion Dog’ so that they become more attuned to their Handler’s needs
- At the end of the training period, Veterans are invited to Bathurst to undergo their own training course (over a week) and have a dog ‘matched’ to them based on their specific needs
- A key outcome being that the Defence Member gains the advantages of a trained assistance dog that remains with them to meet their needs
- That the Inmate trainers receiving tuition in specialised dog-training are then released into the Community with formal qualifications because of their working with the dogs over periods up to 10 months
This then gives a Win-Win-Win outcome – The dogs having been re-purposed and given a new lease on life, the inmates having graduated with formal qualifications thereby assisting them to re-assimilate into community life, while the Veteran has a new approach to life with a valuable companion to assist them in dealing with their PTSD challenges, for negligible cost, apart from those costs associated in having a family pet.
The cost of the training scheme is now around $12,000 per dog over a 6-10 month period, which also includes Veterinary support and assistance with the provision of food.
The involvement of DFWA (NSW) has resulted in the sponsorship of two dogs, Winnie who was paired with an Air Force member in Tasmania, and Jessie who partnered with an Air Force member from Adelaide. The dogs remain with the Veteran as companions.
More recently, DFWA (NSW and ACT) agreed to partner with the RAAF Association (NSW Branch) to co-sponsor two additional dogs in the hope that such an initiative will become an enduring project to bring together Veterans with the challenges of PTSD and animals with a renewed sense of purpose for a satisfying life ahead! When Ex-Service Organisations collaborate, the entire community wins!
Mixing up date of onset and date of diagnosis – the Boys Case
An update to the Boys Case.
DFWA has previously reported on an appeal under the Veterans Entitlement Act by veteran, Mr Boys. During the appeal the Repatriation Commission argued that the onset of Boys’ cervical spondylosis was the date he had medical imaging done. This mixes up diagnosis with clinical onset and is contrary to both legal precedent and DVA policy. You can read more here.
DFWA wrote to the Liz Cosson, Secretary DVA, expressing our concerns about the broader implications of this case, particularly about the Repatriation Commission running litigation that is counter to its own policy and precedential case law, and whether the Commission acted as a model litigant. Members of the DFWA National Executive also raised this directly with the Secretary during a recent forum.
The Secretary advised:
DVA continues to consider the legal and policy ramifications of the Boys decision. DVA will continue to work with the RMA in relation to the affected SOPs.
Since the Boys decision, DVA Policy and Legal Services have been collaborating more closely on the approach to matters pending appeal.Liz Cosson, Secretary Department of Veterans’ Affairs
DFWA will continue to take an interest in the conduct of litigation by the Repatriation Commission.
On a positive note, the Repatriation Commission decided to accept liability for Mr Boys’ cervical spondylosis.
Upcoming Royal Commission Hearings
The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide block 7 hearings will be held in Darwin between Tuesday 18 October and Thursday 27 October 2022. Hearings will be conducted at the Hilton Darwin.
Anyone wishing to make a submission to the Commission can do so on the Commission’s website. The Commission will accept submissions until 13 October 2023.
More information is available on the Royal Commission website.