Could Veterans’ Affairs portfolio changes follow departure of Minister?

Stuart Robert MP, the Minister for Human Services, Veterans’ Affairs and Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of Anzac is leaving the Ministry. While the departure of the Minister arises from matters unconnected with his current three jobs, it is worth considering whether his departure may bring with it machinery of government changes affecting the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio, including the Australian War Memorial. The expected reshuffle of portfolios could facilitate this.

Honest History’s dealings (mostly indirect) with Minister Robert have been summarised in this post. Early in December we posted a well-researched article on whether the Minister would be able to handle his three jobs. Rather than engaging with the issues raised, the Minister responded via Twitter late on a Friday evening that this was a ‘rubbish question’. He went on, ‘Of course I can walk and chew gum at the same time’.

Fairfax Media reprinted a version of our article which asked whether we were seeing ‘the beginning of the end for Veterans’ Affairs’. Below we reprint the paragraphs from our website article which touch on machinery matters.

Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio?

Giving Mr Robert the Human Services job with its potentially heavy workload may be an indication of the attitude of the new prime minister to the relative importance of the Veterans’ Affairs job, including the commemorative aspects of it which have justified that minister having the additional ‘centenary of Anzac’ handle since 2011. The prime minister may, for example, think that, after the peak of commemorative activity during 2015, the intensity will necessarily diminish, requiring minimal ministerial attention.

Giving the Veterans’ Affairs minister another, potentially much larger role, may even foreshadow that Veterans’ Affairs has a limited future as a stand-alone operation. It is more than five decades since the then Minister for Repatriation Reg Swartz agreed that calling him ‘the Minister for the RSL’ was ‘a reasonable description’. But the RSL is a far less powerful organisation today than it was in 1963; rather than the RSL link, the staying power of Veterans’ Affairs officers is surely the main factor keeping DVA going today as a separate entity. (New Minister Robert has already blurred departmental boundaries by proposing ‘shared services’ between Human Services and DVA for matters including accounts payable and grants processing.)

There are, on the other hand – and have been for many years – bureaucrats in the Departments of Health, Human Services and Social Services who would willingly take over pieces of DVA. There are also bureaucrats in the Department of Education who might like to take on DVA’s successful education funding model and extend it to other areas. Commonwealth funding of education in military history has long been an anomaly when compared with its funding of other strands of history education.

That would leave the commemoration functions of the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio to be redistributed. Defence does some commemoration work already and could do more. It could also take on the Office of Australian War Graves, since it has a role in creating the need for them. Under the same logic, the Australian War Memorial (staff around 300), in some respects the jewel in the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio crown, could go to Defence also. Alternatively, the Memorial could return to an arts portfolio, where it was thirty years ago. The portfolio location of the War Memorial ultimately depends on whether the government of the day sees it as part of the defence establishment (current and former) or as a cultural institution.

While Honest History is particularly interested in commemoration, the great bulk of the budget of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs goes on matters other than commemoration. (The War Memorial is separate from the department.) DVA has roughly 2000 staff delivering around $12 billion in benefits annually to around 320 000 clients. The Department of Human Services, on the other hand, has 34 000 staff disbursing $165 billion in benefits and its clients are all of us. Most of DVA could be swallowed up by DHS and barely touch the sides. And DVA’s information technology infrastructure is ‘antiquated’, according to its secretary, Simon Lewis, speaking to the Senate Estimates Committee earlier this week. Battening onto DHS’s computers might be a good move.

David Stephens

12 February 2016

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