From the Honest History vault: Anachronism in Canberra as Department of Veterans’ Affairs survives machinery of government changes

Update 12 February 2020: Darren Chester MP remains as Minister, though now in Cabinet and with the title of ‘Veterans’ Affairs’ again, rather than ‘Veterans’, as he had been since May.

The Prime Minister has announced machinery of government changes following the Thodey Review. The number of departments is to be reduced from 19 to 14, with some notable combinations, including a Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, which covers even more functions than Labor’s Department of Transport and Communications did in the 1980s. (DITRDC, if such it is to be – try to make an acronym out of that – has regional development and the arts, which were not in the old DoTaC.)

‘There will be no changes to ministerial portfolios as part of the reshuffle’, says the Canberra Times story. We’ll see. Meanwhile, the machinery changes come into force in February.

Update 6 December 2019: new Administrative Arrangements Order, setting out Matters dealt with by each Department and Legislation administered by Ministers.

Surviving remarkably is the separate Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Yet, DVA has a talent for keeping on keeping on, in the face of adversity and of logic. Its supporters know how to rattle things in Canberra. The Productivity Commission not long ago recommended that DVA be scrapped and we saw what happened to that idea.

Having a separate DVA makes very little sense: its benefits functions (relatively small in dollar terms compared with Commonwealth benefits as a whole) could be parked anywhere there is a sensitively administered computer (though not one that runs robots); its programs for veterans in areas such as transition from the Defence Force to civilian employment and mental health could go to the departments that administer like functions (Employment, Health); its commemoration and education work could go to Education or perhaps the War Memorial. The problems that have beset, seemingly for decades, the administration of benefits and programs for veterans might thus be solved. Or they might not.

A few years ago, at the time of another end of year machinery change, we put together this paper covering similar issues. (Machinery of government issues are always much the same, no matter how often the pieces are juggled. As Tacitus, or perhaps Petronius, famously said, ‘every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised’.) Much of the paper is still relevant and we post it for mature consideration by all interested readers.

When we posted the paper previously, the minister at the time, Stuart Robert, tweeted that he was quite capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. He has provided further evidence of his ministerial capacity in a number of roles since then.

In our paper, we said this among other things:

There are … – 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.

David Stephens

5 December 2019 updated


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