Two events in the last week juxtaposed enlightened commemorative rhetoric and complaints about bureaucracy. The rhetoric came from the prime minister on 26 February, opening the new Soldier On Robert Poate Reintegration and Recovery Centre in Canberra.
It is critical [said the prime minister] that we do not ever forget that we best honour the veterans of 1916 by caring for the veterans of 2016. That’s how we honour that ANZAC memory best, most powerfully. The grandsons and the great-grandsons and the great-granddaughters of the Diggers of 100 years ago, they are the veterans we care for today and we do that very well as we, when we support Soldier On and I’d encourage everybody, everyone who’s watching this here today or elsewhere, to consider supporting Soldier On. It is a great charity and it’s worthy of private and indeed of course public support.
The first sentence above soon became a Tweet from the prime minister to his 561 000 followers. Around 60 replies to his Tweet included a number critical of DVA. ‘If we paid more attention to our living former military rather than the fallen our nation would be doing well’, said Robert Anderson, though there was no ‘typical’ response to the prime minister’s remark.
Meanwhile, however, the Working Group for a Royal Commission into the Department of Veterans’ Affairs were organising a demonstration outside Parliament House in Canberra on 2 March. The group complained of adversarial, incompetent and tardy administration by DVA and pointed to the increasing instances of suicides, homelessness and family issues among veterans of recent conflicts. At the time of writing, the group had 10 461 signatures (target 15 000) on a petition through change.org and 1336 likes on its Facebook page. During 2 March it met Minister Dan Tehan, Shadow Minister David Feeney and Senator Jacquie Lambie.
The group’s petition says:
Our Veterans need a Royal Commission into the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Due to the gross mismanagement of the Department of Veterans Affairs, times delays, removal of treatment paths and adversarial practises, DVA is now causing increased numbers of homeless Veterans, increased suicides and family breakdowns.
Our Veterans that have served our country post Jul 2004 are now covered by a new act, which is being administrated in a more adversarial approach than work cover. Those 120,000 Operational Veterans who have served post Dec 1975 can be covered by up to 3 differing legislations which quite often work against each other to lower the treatment options and compensation eligibility.
The Honest History website has contained much criticism about commemorative expenditure, most recently in relation to the Sir John Monash Interpretive Centre at Villers-Bretonneux. It is a pity that the new prime minister did not take an opportunity to stop that boastful boondoggle when he first came to the job; that would have been putting rhetoric firmly into practice. ‘The Sir John Monash 1918 Commemorative Fund for the Families of Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans’ would have been a long-winded title but an appropriate alternative use for the $100 million being spent digging holes and hooking up high-tech wizardry in Picardy.
Honest History’s criticism of Veterans’ Affairs spending priorities may previously have helped provoke a response in the portfolio: portfolio spokespersons during 2015 began to point to the relatively small proportion of the portfolio budget that went on commemoration. The then Minister was so keen to get this message across that he put the decimal point in the wrong place, understating the proportion by ten times, before finally settling on roughly one per cent out of a budget of $12 billion.
Quibbling about proportions is not the point, however: the $340 million of Commonwealth money going on commemoration, administered compassionately, competently, and in a timely manner, would obviously make a difference to the lives of the people who demonstrated in front of Parliament House and other recent veterans. Whatever opinions are held about the wars this country fights (and the peacekeeping exercises we participate in) the men and women who fight them deserve better than what they seem to be getting now. (If we are wrong, there is a comments panel directly below.)
Finally, some of the delivery problems complained of by DVA clients seem to be related to DVA’s outdated systems. These were covered in our extensive consideration of whether the former Minister would be too busy with three jobs to do the Anzac centenary-veterans’ work properly. The systems are still a problem; the new Minister still has three jobs.
4 March 2016