'Zero' budget funds to fix compo delays

·3-min read

Former veterans affairs minister Andrew Gee has told a royal commission the Morrison government had initially allocated "zero" funding in its March budget towards fixing a massive 60,000 backlog of compensation claims by current and former defence members.

Mr Gee, who at the time threatened to resign unless $96 million was found to fix the problem, told the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide he stood by his claim the waiting times were "a national disgrace".

Giving evidence on the second day of the inquiry's public hearing in Townsville, Mr Gee said he had been surprised and disappointed his government had failed to recognise veterans' welfare as a national priority.

The inquiry heard a report by outside consultants McKinsey had found the rate of claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs had been doubling every year since 2018, and at least 190 additional staff were needed to manage the backlog.

Mr Gee said after taking on the portfolio in July 2021, waiting times had "just kept building and building".

Previous attempts to "triage" claims or set targets, he said, had also been doomed without the funding and reforms needed to support them.

"What good are the targets anyway because you are not going to get within a bulls roar of them?" Mr Gee said.

Most critical of all, he said, was the lack of experienced, skilled public servants to manage the claims, with up to half of department claims staff employed on temporary labour hire contracts.

"My issue with this is we are dealing with veterans," Mr Gee said.

"My fear would be without that guidance and expertise there could be a very tragic outcome... especially when you've got staff who don't have the training to deal with it."

He told the inquiry when he discovered there was no funding in the March budget, the department was offered $22.8 million to pay for an additional 90 temporary staff, well below what was needed.

The frustration of trying to manage the crisis with a $73.2 million shortfall had finally prompted him to go public with his threat to resign.

"Decisions are made in budget processes ... in, you know, offices in Canberra or Sydney or wherever, and to some people it is just a line item in the budget... that will keep him quiet," Mr Gee said.

"The point I was trying to make is that these are people's lives that we are dealing with... We should be doing our level best to help given what we ask the men and women of the ADF to do."

Mr Gee told the inquiry he believed the provision of services and supports for veterans should not be siloed under the defence and veterans affairs departments, but extended to a whole of government approach at both federal and state levels.

He said this could include initiatives like "GI" university scholarships for veterans, and keeping track of former defence members who end up homeless or in prison due to health issues as a result of their service.

He said all Commonwealth ministers and departments were already legally obliged to look after the wellbeing of veterans under the Australian Veteran Recognition Act.

"The idea (of the Act) is to put veterans front and centre in the consciousness of the nation," he said.

"My feeling is that not all ministers know about it and certainly don't think that there are any obligations under it."

The hearing continues on Wednesday.

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