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Hotline – November 2020

In this edition:

A Padre reflects – Today we stand bewildered, but we will rise again

Gary Stone OAM, The Veterans’ Padre, President Veterans Care Association Inc., and DFWA Member

Like many of the hundreds of thousands of living veterans in Australia, with more than 120,000 of them in South East Queensland, I have spent the last few days struggling with a diverse range of emotions, from shock to disgust, to anger and grief, as we have become more aware of alleged criminal behaviour by rogue operators within the Special Air Service Regiment and an apparent culture of silence and misplaced loyalty that perpetuated this.

I am mindful that there are multiple dimensions to the issues raised and I have listened to many people who have made a wide range of criticisms. Listening without judging, discerning the real facts, and reflecting on our values is more important now than coming to hasty conclusions on minimal information.

As I have prayerfully reflected on an appropriate response, I had an image reminiscent of the disciples of Jesus standing before the crucifixion in bewilderment. How could this have possibly happened, and where do we go from here?

This sad and sorry story has a long way to play out yet, but I would just hope that our wider community will understand that for us veterans this alleged behaviour is so utterly reprehensible, so inconsistent with our values and indeed incomprehensible. We have been formed, and served, as peacemakers, using lethal force where necessary, but displaying courage, integrity, and compassion, even when it involved significant sacrifice, suffering and loss. What is positive is that many operators have courageously come forward with evidence of unacceptable behaviour and matters of concern are now going to be investigated thoroughly by the AFP.

It is perplexing that men who are alleged to have perpetrated or collaborated in crimes had earlier been considered by selectors, to be among our best people. No doubt some of them will be identified as having shown great physical bravery in other actions. But under sustained stress without close supervision and accountability, with ongoing unrelenting operational demands , and without a clear hope and vision for how this mission could be completed, they have appeared to cross a line of morally acceptable behaviour to take the law into their own hands.

Perhaps of more concern than the initial incidents, are the allegations of coverups, lies and coercion of junior soldiers in violation of our core values, displaying a lack of integrity and moral courage. Given that trials will involve the word of one soldier against another, it would certainly be redemptive if those who were guilty, showed the courage to now tell the truth.

Justice is necessary for both alleged perpetrators and those that have accused them. Consolation and support are needed for many innocent and not so innocent victims of what is truly an evil turn of events. Accountability of everyone in the chains of command involving criminal activity needs to be scrutinised.

With my younger son Paul still serving in the military, I take some consolation that the broader culture of our military is manifestly good and sound, with solid professional development, great transparency, and highly visible accountability. There clearly seems to have been a fundamental weakness in that a small section of our community was trusted to be able to operate independently, secretly and with limited accountability. Even before legal proceedings have started the military system has moved to ensure that this will not happen again.

Meanwhile the veteran community will need be doing our best to tend to the wounded, ill, and injured that have resulted from our military having been on continuous sustained operations for the last 20 years. But we cannot do it on our own. More veterans have taken their lives in recent weeks. Sadly, more will no doubt succumb to shame and guilt over the coming months. We need the whole community to support us in this journey and understanding and compassion will help. Honesty, restorative justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation could also help facilitate this.

Lessons need to be acknowledged, governance improved, and corrective action thoroughly implemented.

Our country is still served by many good and Godly servicemen and women. Like Jesus we may have experienced betrayal, we will need time to process our emotions, but we will rise again.

DVA – An Open Letter to the ADF and Veteran Community

Darren Chester, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel
Liz Cosson, Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs

Anyone who has spent time with serving or ex-serving members of the Australian Defence Force knows what remarkable men and women we have protecting our nation.

Joining the Navy, Army or RAAF, means living a life that offers both great rewards and great challenges. It also means you are willing to risk your life for your country and Australia will always be eternally grateful for the courage, service and sacrifice of these brave men and women.

Yesterday the Chief of the Defence Force released the findings of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) Afghanistan Inquiry. The Government has put in place mechanisms to deal with these findings and it is important that we let that process take its course.

However, that does not take away from the fact that the process may take a toll on the veteran community. The release of the findings may cause concern or anxiety to those serving, to our veterans or their families.

Our message is simple – we are not here to judge; we are here to help.

Our defence forces have a long history of serving this nation with distinction and honour, and we are there for you. To anyone who is serving, has served, or who is close to a serving or ex-serving member, please remember:

  • You should be immensely proud of your service, or your loved one’s service, and there is overwhelming respect from the broader Australian community for your service and sacrifice.
  • If you need help dealing with the findings, reach out and get the specialist support you need. Support is readily available through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and is routinely used by thousands of serving personnel and veterans every year.
  • Families, particularly children and teenagers, could also be affected by the impact of the Inquiry and there is support available for them as well.

Support Services – Important Phone Numbers and Contacts

For all current ADF members and their families, the Defence all-hours Support Line is a confidential telephone and online service and is available on 1800 628 036.

All current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families can access Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling. It is a national mental health service that provides 24-hour free and confidential counselling. Importantly the Open Arms website provides a range of self-help resources and wellbeing tools. Visit the Open Arms Website or phone 1800 011 046.

In addition, Safe Zone Support is an anonymous counselling service that has been established to support veterans and their families impacted by the IGADF Inquiry. Safe Zone Support is manned by specialist counsellors who have an understanding of military culture and experience and can be accessed at: Safe Zone Support or 1800 142 072.

Family of veterans or service personnel, who are concerned about the impact the Inquiry may have on a loved one, can call DVA to seek guidance on the support available. If you are unsure what support is available please contact DVA on 1800 VETERAN (1800 838 372).

Information about support services can also be found on the DVA website.

If you know someone in need, please pass on this important message – DVA is there to help.

The Defence qualities of loyalty, resilience, teamwork, leadership, personal integrity, sacrifice and respect for themselves and others, remain and Australia thanks you for your service.

We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press… It is not we who silence the press. It is the press who silences us.

Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.

G.K. Chesterton, Author ‘Father Brown’ TV Series

How the American GI Bill of Rights Came Into Being

Patrick Baker, published in US Task and Purpose

Eighty-eight years ago, thousands of U.S. military veterans gathered their belongings and began a long march across the country to Washington, D.C. Once there, they pitched their canvas tents in neatly ordered rows and dug in for a long fight.

By the summer of 1932, what began as a small movement in Portland, Oregon had burgeoned into a national demonstration, bringing together a socially, economically, and racially diverse coalition under a single banner. Each participant was bound by a shared experience: When their country called them to arms, they answered.

Numbering as many as 25,000-strong, with families and children in tow, they called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, but colloquially, became known as the Bonus Army. These World War I veterans, like many demonstrators before and since, gathered to demand that the government keep its word. In their case, it was the early payment of a bonus they had been promised following victory in the First World War.

Through the Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924, the funds were set to be doled out in 1945. Originally the bonuses were to be paid immediately, but for budgetary reasons, they were delayed by two decades. Five years after the bill was passed, the Great Depression hit, and by 1932, the financial crisis had reached its peak. Amidst the economic fallout, the promise of deferred payments amounted to a shrivelled carrot dangling from the end of a very long stick. In the ensuing years, the march of the Bonus Army spurred sweeping changes in how the federal government supported and cared for its service members once the fighting had ended, and in July 1944, Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill of Rights into law, providing education and housing benefits as an immediate reward for honourable military service.

Update – Taxation of Invalidity Benefits Paid by Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation (DFRDB and MSBS)

We have previously provided progress reports on the legal challenge made by Veterans against the taxation of the Class A and B Invalidity Benefits paid to Veterans medically discharged from the ADF. The three veterans won their cases at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal early 2020. The Commissioner of Taxation appealed that decision to the Full Bench of the Federal Court with a Hearing date of 12 and 13 November. This was reported in Camaraderie Vol 51 No 3 (Nov/Dec 2020). Now read on …..

The Hearing before Justices J. Davies, J. Thawley and J. Griffiths lasted only one day, before adjourning. It was conducted via teleconferencing. Members of the public wanting to observe had to apply before start time and were then permitted to join, under strict rules (no video picture, microphones on “mute” and no recording.) As a lay observer, a couple of things stood out for me:

  • No new arguments were presented by either side. However, Justice Thawley wondered why the ATO did not make an argument referring to a particular provision in the Income Tax (Transitional Provisions) Act 1997. ATO counsel (Mr Looney) immediately sought extra time to make just such a submission. Justice Griffiths agreed two days to make the two-page submission not the seven days requested by the ATO. Then giving a couple of further days for the Veterans’ legal team to respond. He indicated, he did not want any further delays and was after a quick decision.
  • Justice Griffiths asked the ATO counsel what the fiscal consequences would be, as they were test cases and impacts would extend beyond the three veterans. ATO counsel advised, after consulting with the ATO, that the consequences would be very significant to the revenue. That is, it would cost the government an incredibly significant amount. The Veterans’ counsel (Phil Hack) , later in the Hearing mentioned “with the greatest respect” that if there were adverse fiscal consequences, they were irrelevant to their Honours’ considerations and that if it has adverse fiscal consequences it is a matter for the ATO to deal with.

What happens next?

Decisions. The Bench should deliver their decisions by end of first quarter 2021. However, given the shortness of oral argument using only one of the Hearing days allocated and the Judges’ comments, decisions may be handed down earlier than that. Decisions may not be clear-cut as in Veterans win all aspects or ATO win all aspects of the cases.

From the AAT Hearings, even if the ATO Appeal is successful, both parties agreed that the Commissioner of Taxation has to address two things in any case. “… in the event the appeals [by the ATO] are allowed, and the decisions of the AAT set aside, each matter will need to be remitted to the Commissioner for reassessment on the basis that,

  • the respondents’ invalidity payments satisfy the requirements of being a disability superannuation benefit which would result in a different tax rate applying to the invalidity payments than reflected in the amended notices of assessment in dispute in all proceedings,
  • the Commissioner needs to give effect to the Tribunal’s conclusion in paragraph 116(c) of the decision in Douglas & Commissioner of Taxation [2020] AATA 494. That is “the amount of $95,546 that was deducted from the arears payable to Mr Douglas must be excluded from his assessable income for the 2015 income year.” [Fixing up CSC mistake which resulted in Wayne Douglas being overtaxed.]

Further Appeal. As indicated previously, the Federal Court decisions can be appealed further to the High Court of Australia by either party.

Legislation Change. The government also has the option of changing the legislation to “correct” any mistakes in the current legislation if they do not like the Court’s interpretation of the legislation. (DFWA is watching this area carefully).

DFWA Called to Give Evidence at Senate Committee Hearing

John Lowis, President DFWA Queensland Branch

On 17 Nov, both Kel Ryan (National President) and I gave evidence at the Senate Inquiry related to the legislation introducing the National Commissioner [NC] for the Prevention of Defence and Veteran Suicide. Both DFWA National and DFWAQ had made written submissions to the Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade [DFAT] Legislation Committee which is responsible for reporting back to the Senate prior to voting on the Bills. Apart from DFWA, the only other ESO called to give evidence at the Hearing were the Royal Australian Regiment Corporation and the Hawthorn RSL Sub-Branch (Vic).

The DFWAQ submission sought three main things:

  • While suicides and suspected suicides could be investigated by the NC, the legislation was very vague about including investigation of attempted suicide, even when the veteran concerned submitted evidence. We sought changes to the legislation to make it clear that attempted suicide was in scope. It could not delve into what caused the attempt and factors involved in the attempt failing – surely valuable information when the inquiry is about prevention of suicide.
  • Historically, federally initiated Royal Commissions (RC) requiring state co-operation involved the state preparing complimentary Letters Patent or Terms of Reference so that the Commissioner had appropriate powers in the state over involved agencies. For example, this was the case for RC on child abuse and aboriginal deaths in custody. The NC legislation has none of those powers. Further, only agencies providing services specifically for Veterans or ADF members can be examined. This meant those services provided for all Australians, were excluded. This would include, services related to homelessness, Life line, Beyond Blue, first responders and emergency services, state provided services such as welfare, family and social services, substance abuse support, incarceration, policing, etc. and any role the agencies played leading up to the suicide or after the attempt for attempted suicide. It is wrong to assume none of these services are ever involved in Veteran suicide or prevention in case of attempted suicide. We thought excluding examination of these was wrong and needed fixing.
  • We also believed that the NC should be able to make recommendations for the mental health and well-being of a Veteran’s family, not just for Veterans. Family support is a key enabler for rehabilitation and support of Veterans at risk, and any support to the families involved in this support should be promoted. Families falling apart is stressful for all concerned and certainly does not help the Veteran. Open Arms for example is now available for family support. DVA has advised in an earlier Inquiry that children of Veterans suffering from Mental Health issues were twice as likely to have mental health issues and suicidal/self-harm thoughts than the norm.

Royal Commission vs National Commissioner

There has been quite a bit of debate over a RC into Veteran suicide. Quite properly, there has been internal DFWA debate at State and National Executive level as well to understand the issues. As with anything, there are always arguments for and arguments against, advantages and disadvantage of a particular course of action. DFWA has stated publicly its opposition to a RC based largely on the notion that Veteran suicide was part of a national problem affecting some groups more than others and should be examined in that light. A RC would require a huge amount of resources and would create further delays in implementing outstanding recommended changes from previous reports. We have had 13 or so related reports and reviews over last few years, making many recommendations. Currently, most of the Productivity Commission recommendations (made in Jul 2019) still have not been addressed by the government. Essentially the time for further investigating and reporting was over. It was time for action. Those favouring a RC argue that there have been lots of previous reports but still the suicides occur, and the problems identified in earlier reports still do not get fixed. Only a RC can investigate properly and address why changes required are not occurring.

What’s Next?

The current NC legislation has to get through the Senate. The Opposition has stated it favours a RC but will await the outcome of the Senate Committee report. The Government does not have a majority in the Senate and will require support of the ALP or cross-benchers to get the NC legislation through. Crossbenchers like Jacqui Lambie oppose the legislation and want a RC.

As food for thought, the following is an extract from the Senate Committee Hearing.

Senator LAMBIE: Mr Plunkett. You were involved in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Mr Plunkett: Yes, that is so.

Senator LAMBIE: Can you give us an overview of how many cases the royal commission considered, how long it took and what resources were required to run that?

Mr Plunkett: I was counsel assisting the Queensland chapter for that royal commission. It was established in October 1987 and went through to 1991—in effect, four years. It looked into 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody and it had six commissioners: former judges and Queen’s Counsel. Each commissioner had a team of barristers and solicitors, research staff and others who assisted them in the inquiry. If it took four years to do 99 deaths, effectively we were doing 25 deaths a year. I understand the interim commissioner has been burdened with the task of looking at something like 500 deaths.

If it went into the detail required, as we did for the Aboriginal deaths in custody—and I see no reason why it shouldn’t go into the detail for former ADF members who many have suicided—it would take the interim commissioner something like 20 years to complete her task.

Senator LAMBIE: It will need to be really heavily resourced, obviously.

Mr Plunkett: The royal commission was very heavily resourced. The most surprising thing that I discovered was that in relation to an individual Aboriginal person who’d died in custody in Queensland, even in remote communities there was a plethora of official documentation concerning their life. I don’t mean police reports, I mean pharmaceutical benefits, social work material, official government records. The actual paper task in each death was an enormous undertaking and, of course, it also involved speaking sensitively to the next of kin, who were grieving about those deaths. The undertaking in that royal commission, as it is in any inquest, is an enormous logistical exercise.

The RC into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was 1987 to 1991.

Productivity Commission – Update

The Productivity Commission provided 69 recommendations to government. The Government is slowly working through them. Many of them DFWA agreed to either partially or fully.

Some of the important ones are:

  • The government will be rejecting the recommended changes to the gold card
  • The government will create a Joint Transition Authority within Defence. The authority will consist of Defence, DVA and COMSUPER. Strange as it may seem ESO contribution will be ‘as required’.
  • The Government will not be levying a premium of Defence to pay for veterans’ affairs.

A copy of the Minister for Veteran’s Affairs media release can be found here.