Let me tell you about my uncle. He wouldn’t mind, even if he were alive. One day he signed a piece of paper, and received a free trip to a lot of exotic places, such as Greece, Crete, Egypt, and North Africa. He also got a free trip home which, he cheerfully used to add, had never been guaranteed.
Several decades later, when he was closer in age to eighty than seventy, he happened to muse to a friend at the R.S.L., “It’s a bit of a nuisance. My hearing’s getting worse, and I’ll have to get a new hearing aid. They’re so darned expensive.”
“Don’t worry!” said his friend. “Repat [that is, the Department of Veterans' Affairs] will provide it” – and he got him to sign another piece of paper. Then, in no time at all, so it seemed, he found himself in receipt, not only of a new hearing aid, but also of a 40% disability pension.
All this rather puzzled him, so, knowing I was an employee of Veterans’ Affairs, he broached the subject on his next visit. “What I can’t understand,” he said, “was how I got that pension. I never applied for it.”
“Oh yes, you did,” I replied. “That form you filled out was headed: ‘Claim for Pension and Treatment for a War-Caused Condition’.”
“But it wasn’t war-caused,” he replied. “It was due to plain old age.”
“Well,” I explained, “the Department would have taken the view that if you hadn’t heard all those guns, you wouldn’t have reached the current level of hearing loss for perhaps another five years.”
He looked dumbfounded. “Well, that is quite amazing,” he said.
"And that," said I, "is the difference between Social Security [now Centrelink] and Veterans' Affairs. Social Security is designed so that any lying parasite can rip off the system. Veterans' Affairs is designed so that even honest people can rip off the system."
And that’s about it. I could tell you innumerable anecdotes about the claims I have processed. Take, for example, the old man who lodged a claim for “eyes” because he suffered from cataracts and glaucoma – which are major problems, I agree, but not obviously connected to any military service. It never occurred to him to ask how many men of his age group suffer from these diseases, or what sort of conditions cause them. Rather, he automatically assumed they may must have resulted from his service in the Pacific Islands forty years before. When I telephoned him for more details, the following conversation ensured:
“Well, there were the batteries.”
“Yes, I had to fill the batteries for the trucks, and the fumes from the acid made my eyes water.”
“Then there were the centipedes.”
“Yes, you know what a centipede is? Well, in the Islands they were about a foot long. Sometimes you would lift a stone, and there they were. You couldn’t avoid them.”
By now my mind was starting to boggle, but I had to ask the obvious question: “So, how would they affect your eyes?”
“Well, they’d spray some sort of vapour at you, and it’d get in your eyes.”
Good grief! I thought. Where do people get these ideas?
All right, he probably left school at fourteen. The younger generation should be a bit better educated or more savvy. Or are they? A much younger soldier – I think he was even too young to have gone to Vietnam – lodged a claim for about a dozen non-specific symptoms – such as aches and pains, chronic constipation and diarrhoea (!), and general fatigue. In fact, they had caused him to give up his favourite recreation of marathon kayak racing. He could no longer do it without aching all over and feeling exhausted.
Primitive savages believe that disease and death are not natural, but must be the result of witchcraft. We, on the other hand, have educated several generations of Australians to believe that anything which happens to a veteran cannot be natural, but must have been caused by the war. The result is that people are lodging endless claims for every condition conceivable and, what is worse, they are being accepted on the basis of legal fictions.
Most people, if they consider the matter at all, probably assume that the Department of Veterans' Affairs is involved in compensating former diggers maimed or sick from their experiences in war. This is not true. Mostly it is involved in handing out pensions and treatment for conditions which have very little, if anything, to do with any war service. Genuine war-caused diseases and deaths account for only about a tenth of the pensions being granted.
The assumption that a man “must have” been physically damaged by the stresses of war is perhaps a natural one, but it is facile. The medical effects of war are well established, and it depends on the theatre, and the serviceman’s role in it. The Second World War is probably better known than later wars, and so will be used as an example. If a man served in the air war over Germany, he had one chance in two of being shot down and killed. Nevertheless, if he survived, although his nerves may well have been affected, he would probably be physically healthy, because flying in a plane, even into acute danger, is not physically demanding work. On the other hand, if he had been a footslogger in the New Guinea campaign, he would have had a much better chance of survival, but he would have exposed his body to much greater stress, strain, and opportunity for infection. Even so, if any medical consequences were to occur, it would most likely be within the next twenty years. At the other end of the spectrum, being in the ground crew of the air force, especially in the last half of the war, when we were on the offensive, would simply be the equivalent of a civilian occupation.
I myself had been employed by the Department for thirty years, initially as a menial handing out entitlement cards, then as a delegate, handing out pensions, and finally as an advocate before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, arguing against pensions being handed out. In that time, I have watched the system grow into a monster, fed by good intentions, ivory tower judges, and a lack of political courage by the people who matter. Today, the benefits provided uniquely by Veterans’ Affairs, exclusive of any duplication by other departments, amount to two billion dollars per year, most of it unwarranted.
To understand the situation, it is important to understand the veteran community, and neither idealize nor demonize them. In my career, I have dealt with people who would pass unnoticed in the street, but who once took part in deeds of extraordinary fortitude and courage. There were others whose lives had been genuinely tragic, with little blame attached to either themselves or the war. A few had been shirkers who, despite having been farthest from the front lines, were at the head of the queue when the benefits were being handed out. War sweeps up a cross section of society: the high and the low, the clever and the stupid, the saint and the sinner. Some are the salt of the earth and some are the scum of the earth – although the second group is probably underrepresented, due to their successful attempts at avoiding war service. Mostly, however, they are ordinary people who were once caught up in extraordinary situations.
Objectively, I doubt if the proportion of rogues and rip-off merchants among them is greater than in the general community – probably only a couple of percent. Of course, if you are a Claims Assessor in the Department, that means you always have one or two of them on your books. They are a constant galling irritation, because their lies are as transparent as they are difficult to disprove, but that is not the real problem. It is not that the system is open to abuse, but rather, that the law is an ass, and allows perfectly honest people to rip off the system without even knowing it.
Conversely, the staff of Veterans’Affairs are neither fools, nor hard hearted bureaucrats. The Department contains the usual amount of dead wood present in every big organisation, but by and large, they are ordinary people trying to do a difficult job under pressure, and preferably getting it right the first time.
Also, you will find little discussion of party politics in this book. There is bipartisan support for most measures. Both Labor and the Coalition know that the situation is out of hand, but is too politically dangerous to touch. In the meantime, Veterans’ Affairs is one department which can more or less run itself. It is under the authority of a junior Minister, usually appointed to that position to see if he or she can handle weightier portfolios.
Veterans’ administration is long overdue for criticism and reform. Back in 1969, a book by a Department doctor, and war veteran, John Whiting, entitled, Be In It, Mate! hit the stands and circulated among the denizens of the R.S.L. As they read of widespread rorting and chicanery in the manipulation of pension claims, they nodded their heads and agreed they knew many people who fitted the bill. Some enquiries are initiated in the upper echelons of the Department but, ultimately, nothing much was done. Forty years later, this book can be considered a sequel to Be In It, Mate!, but not even Dr Whiting could have imagined what was going to happen next.
But before we learn what went wrong, it is important to understand how the system is supposed to work. This will be covered in the following chapter. In the meantime, however, may I suggest you click on the button at the top of the page marked "Acronyms". It will stand you in good stead for the remainder of the story.
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