Wednesday, 16 August 2017
Firstly, I commend both the minister and the shadow minister for their speeches in the parliament just a day or so ago. Coming to this statement, as a former Minister for Veterans' Affairs, I was delighted to see the bipartisan fashion in which the matters which have been raised in both speeches are being addressed. I do notice that there are some initiatives which the shadow minister referred to, and I'll come to those shortly. I want to make some observations about aspects of both speeches, in particular concentrating on the transition out of the Defence Force to the civilian community for Defence Force personnel and also on issues to do with mental health. I note, in particular, the release yesterday of the report by the Senate inquiry on suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel and its recommendations.
I think it's worthwhile acknowledging for a moment some of the data which was introduced in the statement by the minister himself. This is pretty compelling information. On average—this is not new to me, but may be new to many—our ADF personnel serve around 8½ years, and each year about 5,200 will leave the ADF. This data is from the minister's speech. Over the last 12 months 1,400 members of the Defence Force separated for reasons not of their choosing. That's important because that means, effectively, that they were shown the door. Then there's the whole issue of who serves, how they've served and what age they are.
We know that the Department of Veterans' Affairs—again, this is important—supports over 291,000 veterans and their families. That number has come down over recent years simply because the Second World War veterans are dying, but there are many veterans' spouses who remain alive and they obviously become part of the veterans community for the purposes of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Over half of those people are veterans or currently serving members of the ADF, and around 48 per cent are women and around 82,000 are widows or widowers. That just gives you an idea of the magnitude of the work that the Department of Veterans' Affairs is required to do, and that of itself raises serious questions about how the department is able to be adaptable, flexible and provide the services that are required at the time for a range of people. Effectively, the department is looking after the children of veterans from birth, potentially, until their death. Once you march into Kapooka as a recruit, you are a potential veteran from the day you arrive, and you will be at some time point, whether you're a serving veteran or an ex-serving veteran, someone who will be in the frame for veterans services or veterans support till the day you die. That's important.
What I particularly want to talk about here, and it's a really complex issue, is suicide. This document, the minister's speech, raises this important question. An AIHW study commissioned by the government has told us that the suicide rate is 53 per cent for men serving full time in the ADF and 49 per cent for men in the Reserve, and that compared with the general population these suicide rates are lower. In all male ex-serving members, the rate of suicide is 13 per cent higher than the general population. However, men who have left the ADF between the ages of 18 and 24 have twice the risk compared to their peers. To me, that raises a really big red flag. As I said earlier, the average length of service is 8½ years. So, if you're recruiting people when they are 18 or 19, you can expect that most of them will be out of the Defence Force by their mid-20s. Those people who have had a career in defence are clearly covered by the data that I have just referred to about the lower rates of suicide, but there is a higher rate of suicide for young serving and ex-serving people—primarily men.
This is a really complex area, but it does raise the question about the transition space and how you actually look after people who are in their early to mid-20s who have decided they're leaving or have been told they have to leave the Defence Force. They depart the defence community and they may be lost to us in the sense that they don't have any attachment; they're not necessarily at that point of being clients of the Department of Veterans' Affairs but they may well be in the future. One of the problems which Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs are trying to address, I know, is how to follow these people who have left the Defence Force and how to help them transition to a space which is safe, comfortable and where they have got opportunity. That opportunity is really very important. I know from the work which has been done previously and is currently being done that this transition space is really challenging the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Both agencies know they have a shared responsibility, and that shared responsibility is very important. I support the views of both the minister and the shadow minister about ensuring the Department of Veterans' Affairs stays as an entity and is not subsumed by another agency, which was on the cards at some point and I know work has been done—nefarious work, I must say—in this space by the current government in terms of looking at that possibility. Nevertheless, it is not going to happen, and that's very important. It means that there should be an absolutely symbiotic relationship with the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs when it comes to dealing with veterans who may be serving as clients of the Department of Veterans' Affairs and people who leave the ADF out of uniform, who may not at that point be clients of the Department of Veterans' Affairs but who one day may be, or their families may well be.
The issue about these young people who are at twice the risk of suicide compared to their peers in the general community raises really a serious and very difficult question: how do you look after the interests of these people? How do you make sure that the transition period is long enough so that they don't just hand in their card and walk out the gate and that's it? There is a process they're required to go through when they're exiting, so we have a way to track what they're doing and look after their interests, should that be required. That means making sure they get access to other job opportunities, professional counselling and education opportunities—guaranteeing them a pathway beyond the gate.
Some of them will have chosen that pathway, but we do know that there are people in the Defence Force who've done eight, nine or 10 tours of active duty and we know from the figures that, whilst they're in uniform they're relatively safe but, once they leave, God knows what their state of mind might be in five or 10 years time, when they need assistance. So it is absolutely imperative to make sure we have a capacity to track those individuals when they leave, as they leave, and work with them together with the organisations in the broader defence community. One of the issues, of course, is the plethora of defence-based organisations assisting these veterans. There needs to be far more unity among them, so they share the responsibility. I know there are great organisations out there, such as Soldier On. The RSL needs to do a lot more. Frankly, over recent years, it has failed many younger veterans. We have to do a great deal more to guarantee that the transition space is properly addressed and that the mental health issues are properly addressed.
I commend the recommendations of the Senate inquiry which I referred to earlier. I say to members of parliament, some of whom may have no experience of veterans or the defence community, that we all have an obligation here. Let's make sure we fulfil that obligation and look after our men and women in uniform, when they leave the defence community, and their families. That's our primary obligation here in the parliament. (Time expired)
There are few events in the calendar of a federal member that are both significant and poignant, and veterans' commemorations are some of the best. With the sunrise of the Anzac ceremonies in Kiama, Gerringong, Garena Point, Huskisson or Batemans Bay, the sky is spectacular and made more vibrant and more meaningful by hearing 'The Last Post' and seeing our national flag lowered and then raised in honour of our veterans. We watch our ageing veterans and families with respect and awe as we sing Abide with Me in memory of those servicemen and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.
There is so much more that we're doing for veterans and their families and more we should be doing, and we recognise we can do things better. At the 2016 election, the coalition committed to give a ministerial statement on veterans and their families each year. The first ministerial statement of its kind on veterans and their families was delivered to parliament this week, and I speak in support. The government is committed to serving all defence personnel, veterans and their families. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs has held forums for veterans and their families to get firsthand feedback, including forums for female veterans and family forums.
In addition, there has been the first meeting of the state and territory veterans ministers to provide input on how we can work together across all levels of government on issues such as veteran homelessness. The government has introduced free and immediate treatment for all mental health conditions for any veteran, even those with just one day's full-time service. The minister has committed to a stand-alone Department of Veterans' Affairs, a department that focuses on the needs of the veteran first and a stronger voice for the veteran community.
Our Defence Force has around 58,000 serving personnel and, whether or not they serve overseas or in the barracks or bases around our nation, like HMAS Albatross or HMAS Creswell, they become veterans. In the Australian community, there are about 320,000 veterans who've been deployed. Many thousands will not have seen service outside of Australia. In Gilmore, we have around 4,000 DVA clients.
For some time we have recognised that there can be difficulties for our veterans moving from defence life to the general community. This transition has become a key focus of our government. We absolutely want to make sure that no-one falls through the gap between defence and civilian life. Currently, the Department of Veterans' Affairs supports about 291,000 Australians. Today, more than 203,000 of DVA's clients are more than 65 years old, and about 23,000 are under the age of 40. We're told that, in a typical nine-to-five day in a five-day week, DVA will process about 95 compensation or income support forms every hour, receive two letters or emails every minute and take a phone call every couple of seconds—though I suspect the emails and phone calls might be around the wrong way.
The administration costs of the department represent less than three cents for every dollar it spends. So that means that most of that money is actually going to our veterans. This year, DVA will provide over $11 billion in payments and services, including pensions, income support, compensation, healthcare, rehab, counselling services, transport, transition assistance, home care, housing, commemorations, education and grants funding. Of this, more than $6 billion will be spent on providing veterans and their families with income support and compensation. Around $5 billion will be spent on meeting the healthcare needs of our veterans and their families. DVA also allocates funds towards the construction and maintenance of memorials. Most importantly, there are provisions set aside to allow some uncapped amounts to be expended, especially in the area of mental health services.
The most recent budget delivers over $350 million of new money to give completely free mental health support and better services to veterans. It is the largest investment by the department in over a decade and will lead to reduced wait and claim times. No other government has invested, as we have, in veterans' mental health. The government is also expanding our non-liability healthcare program so that it will be available for any mental health condition, including phobias, adjustment disorder and bipolar disorder. I believe everyone in our community will welcome the significance of this program for veterans and their families.
Previous to our legislated changes, anyone who had served only one day in the full-time Australian Defence Force had to prove that their mental health condition was linked to their service. For those already suffering, the added stress and anxiety added to their condition rather than assisting them to a health pathway. They would have to wait to have their eligibility and claim approved from the department, which meant a time lag that would see their mental health deteriorate or them not receive the support that they desperately needed. And, as we all know, mental health is best treated as an early intervention.
Last year, this government provided a new approach: free and immediate treatment for depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse and substance abuse, without the need to prove the condition was service-related. In this budget, the government has gone even further. Now we will commit to provide this immediate response for all conditions. It will mean that, from now on, veterans and defence personnel can get free and immediate treatment without the burden of proof and without the need for a bureaucratic barrier. Most importantly, this policy is uncapped. If it's needed, it will be done.
The Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service saves lives, and we know it's critical. The government understands that partners, families and former partners are all part of the ex-service community and that they too can be affected by the military service. In recognition, the budget provided extra funding so that partners, dependants, immediate family and divorced or separated parents for children up to 18 could also access that help.
During the last 12 months, the government has received a report from the National Mental Health Commission on services provided to defence personnel and veterans, and a preliminary report on suicide rates from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Suicide prevention is a complex issue, and, as the reports have shown, there is no simple solution. It requires a multifaceted response. So $9.8 million is to be provided to pilot new approaches to suicide prevention and to improve the care and support available for the veterans. Some of our veterans are most vulnerable when they leave the health care of a hospital. So the mental health clinical managing pilot is designed to actually assist them.
Another aspect of listening to veterans' forums and hearing their ideas to make positive change is their suggestion about the need to reform the department's processes and systems. I don't think they were alone in trying to get this change happening. It's been a stumbling block for some time. As part of the veteran-centric reform, the government has committed the significant amount of $166.6 million towards making DVA a 21st century department with 21st century service. Claim wait times will be greatly reduced by this investment, and it is something that is long overdue.
The amazing skills that our defence personnel gain as they work and serve diligently for our nation are not always recognised in the civilian world. This leaves the veteran facing a bleak future. They're smart and well trained, but the essential recognition is not available. The government is further supporting veterans' employment opportunities through funding that has been allocated to the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program, which we hope will address this difference between their qualifications and those in the community. As many of you would be aware, this initiative is aimed at raising awareness with employers in both the private and public sectors of the enormous value and unique experience that veterans possess. This is a truly significant step in the right direction, although we all know there is still a way to go to achieve greater results than we currently achieve.
An additional $19.6 million over two years has been set aside to support domestic and international commemorative activities—for Anzac services just past and, for the future, on Remembrance Day on 11 November. One other little known extra budget measure for veterans includes $18 million as part of the government's Energy for the Future Package so that more than 235,000 DVA clients will be able to access a one-off payment for energy bills. Indeed, all 4,180 DVA clients in the Gilmore electorate will benefit from this investment and also from change to the DVA system, because that has been a problem. The time taken to transition records or prove locations of overseas service when, in the past, records were still paper and could have been lost was indeed upsetting for many.
Each of the volunteer welfare officers who work so hard in each of our RSL sub-branches will welcome the change, as it will make an incredible difference to the way they deliver their service. I am still yearning to find a space for my motorcycle veterans to have as a refuge and counselling hub—a centre for companionship and support, a place to call their own—so they can help their own. We in the civilian world cannot ever relate to their experiences. We can sympathise and we can listen, but if events like the unexpected click of a door lock can send them into a response of attack wariness and then PTSD symptoms set in because it sounds like the click before a rifle is fired, then we have a long way to go to make them feel totally supported. We should explore every possible avenue to assist them. We have made great inroads and terrific advances in computing, but we cannot sit on our laurels. We must continue to work together at all times. Our veterans and families deserve it.
There is no higher calling than military service, no higher calling than being prepared to defend your nation and no higher calling than being prepared to put your life on the line for your country, for your values, for your beliefs and for your democracy. That is what members of the Australian Defence Force do each and every day, and that is what our veterans have done. That's why we need to provide them with respect, we need to honour them and we need to support them not just when they're in uniform but also when they're transitioning out of uniform and once they have left the ADF.
Since being Member for Canberra, I have met many broken ADF men and women. They have served their nation in Iraq, they have served their nation in Afghanistan, they have served their nation in Vietnam, and they are broken; they're lost in a civilian world. They see their military service as a calling that defined their very being, and they are lost out in a civilian world. They took their calling very seriously. They felt deeply honoured to serve their nation through the Australian Defence Force, and they feel deeply let down. They feel that the ADF, Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs let them down when they weren't able to continue to serve their nation. It is a very confronting issue for them. Their aspiration, usually since they were small children, was to serve their nation through the Navy, Army or Air Force. That's all they wanted to do. They went through cadets and then they went on to ADFA, or to training somewhere, and they went throughout the nation in their particular service. Their calling, from when they were small children, was to serve their nation in the Navy, the Army or the Air Force, with many of them following traditions—it was an intergenerational calling.
You can imagine how betrayed and bewildered they are when they unfortunately incur some injury during their service and they are basically commissioned out of service. It is a huge challenge for our veterans to be able to survive and thrive in civilian life. We've heard so many stories over the course of this debate about the physical impacts on them. Many of them have been broken physically during the course of their experience and service to the nation, but many of them have also been broken mentally. That's why it's very important that we, as a nation, take their challenges seriously and take their issues seriously. My late father-in-law was a Vietnam vet and I'm married to an Army brat. My late mother-in-law said that she got a very different man back from the Vietnam War.
The impact of the Vietnam War has only been realised in the last 10 years. We should be learning from the lessons of forgetting about the impact of war and what that did to Vietnam vets. We should be learning from their treatment and ensuring that we do not repeat what happened to those Vietnam vets. There are people who have served not just in Afghanistan and Iraq but also on peacekeeping missions in the Pacific, Africa and elsewhere. We must ensure that lessons are learnt from the treatment of Vietnam vets so we do not make the same mistakes again.
All of us in this chamber would have had experiences and conversations with veterans, both men and women, who unfortunately have experienced a repeat of the experiences our Vietnam vets went through. I know of veterans who have been fighting for the right to study. This is just as part of their transitioning-out process. Vietnam veterans who have significant mental health and physical health issues are fighting for the right to have a hearing aid or are fighting for the right to have decent rehabilitation treatment. We cannot do this to our veterans.
We are talking about significant numbers. Currently, the Department of Veterans' Affairs supports around 291,000 Australians, and just over half of those people are veterans or currently serving members of the ADF. Around 48 per cent of them are women. Around 82,000 are widows or widowers and around 2½ thousand are children of veterans. On average, our ADF personnel will serve for around 8½ years, and each year around 5,200 will leave. That's 5,200 new veterans every year who require respect, who require the right to be honoured for their service and who require adequate support to transition from life in the defence force to civilian life. It's vitally important.
Numerous studies have been done on this issue. In 2013, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade looked into the care of Australian Defence Force personnel who were injured on operations. It was noted the rehabilitation programs and the return-to-work programs could be improved. A particularly major point of that review was the lack of seamlessness between Defence and DVA. The review was conducted in 2012-13. We are still dogged with the same problem of lack of seamlessness. Essentially, as vets move from being serving members to veterans, they are lost in translation, in terms of the move to new systems. That has to end, particularly in 2017 with the range of systems that we have in place now. It has to stop. We have to provide greater transition support to these veterans and greater support through the systems—acknowledging that they exist and that they're being moved from one part of Defence to another part of Defence.
Yesterday, the Senate inquiry's report into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel was released. The inquiry received 443 submissions. Many of those submissions expressed their frustration at a number of processes, which I have just highlighted, including the transition from ADF to civilian life, and how this can be compacted with complicated processes within the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Labor will work through the evidence provided to the Senate inquiry, carefully consider the recommendations and continue to work with ex-service communities, the government and the parliament to address the critical policy gaps when it comes to providing better support for our veterans and our ex-service personnel.
In speaking about our veterans, I do not want to overlook the significant contribution of families of veterans—like my late mother-in-law and like my husband's family—and their support not just during their life in the ADF but also, importantly, when they're making the transition out of the ADF into civilian life. It can be very, very tough, particularly if your husband, wife or partner has come back from Iraq or Afghanistan a different person—as was the case for my late father-in-law when he came back from Vietnam. It can be very, very challenging for a relationship, particularly for partners and children. So we need to pay as much attention to the families as we do to the veteran, because it's the families that are left behind when the person has served. They've done the hard yards.
There are a range of challenges in terms of supporting families in a modern Australia, in 2017, and ensuring that those who are working are not having their careers in any way ruined, because their partner is serving in the Australian Defence Force—and we see that time and time again. We need to have a very close look at the support that we're providing to families—not just the families of current ADF members but also of veterans. That's why I welcome the shadow minister for veterans' affairs proposal, Labor's proposal, to develop a family engagement and support strategy for the families of our defence personnel and veterans.
As I said, these families—these men, women and children—are the unsung heroes of our defence forces. A number of reviews have highlighted that there is currently a lack of emphasis on the critical role that they play in the life of current and serving members. Developing a family strategy also acknowledges the importance of families in the rehabilitation of ADF members and veterans. We owe it to our ADF members and to our veterans to acknowledge, honour and respect their service, and we do that by providing them with the appropriate support.
The first thing I would like to do is identify with the member for Canberra, who obviously speaks not only from her personal experience but also from the heart with regard to veterans. Canberra would be a place and an electorate where these issues are at the forefront, rather than at the minimal. It is the same in places like Townsville, Cairns and right around our country. The member for Canberra described the family experience of a returned soldier from the Vietnam War, and I would say to the member for Canberra that this family experience would be shared right across the country, but they made it. They made it through.
On Sunday, I'll be immersing myself in veterans on Long Tan day at Longwarry North hall. The hall was given to the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Gippsland Chapter, and they have a very, very big event where riders come from all over the state, and especially all over Gippsland, to be part of the commemorations for Long Tan day. Denny will be there as will 'T Rat' and 'Buzz' Kennedy—a long-time associate of mine. Most recently, I sat down with a Vietnam vet—and I am not naming any names—who, to all intents and purposes, on the occasions I have met him, has been an entirely articulate, friendly, warm and engaging gentleman. He was affable. He was kind and supportive of his fellow man. He said, 'I want to have a cup of coffee with you.' I said, 'Fine.'
We went up to Neerim South and we sat down and had a cup of coffee in a little coffee shop there. He explained to me the truth of his life and how it had worked out, from the time he'd left the Defence Force as a Vietnam vet to this day—the marriage break-ups, the business turnarounds, his life with a new partner and the way she managed him and he managed his life. It turned out that I was old enough to be connected to his father. I remembered his father very well, but I hadn't connected the two people. As he told me his story, that this facade that was him in life—as we saw him, as the community saw him, as his friends saw him, as the people saw him—was just that, a facade. Underneath that, he was living a completely different life, unknown to the broader community. His story as a Vietnam vet is not unusual. What we've got to give them is some hope in their lives, some control of their lives and a sense of belonging, which they had in the Defence Force. The relationships they formed in the Defence Force are removed from them. I am really no expert in this field. I am a local member only, simply dealing with issues that are raised with me, as far as veterans affairs go, and we do our very, very best to accommodate them.
As I stand here today and hear the bipartisan nature of this address and the care about our veterans and their families from the member for Lingiari, a former Minister for Veterans' Affairs, I am reminded that, when I first came to this place in 1990, Robert Ray was the defence minister and the late Con Sciacca was the excellent Minister for Veterans' Affairs. His offsider, who I became quite close to because of the veterans affairs issues that I was dealing with all the time, was a fellow named Greg Rudd. I had never put together the fact that the Greg Rudd that I knew, who worked for Con Sciacca, was the then Prime Minister's brother. It was not until the former Speaker pulled me aside at a function one time and said, 'Look at that profile and then look at that profile.' I hadn't known that, and we had been friends for a long time. That friendship was borne out of Con Sciacca and Greg Rudd, who was prepared to work with every member of parliament in this place to get an outcome on behalf of veterans.
It was the same with Robert Ray. I remember going to Robert's Ray's office and being quite in awe. I was a new member of parliament and I had to go and see a minister over a land issue in my electorate with the Defence Force. I was five minutes late. I walked in and he said, 'It is absolutely correct to be five minutes late in this place; it gives everybody a few minutes to pull themselves together before a meeting.' He put me at ease straight away. Like all the ministers that come into this place to do their best, Robert Ray—Senator Robert Ray at that time—just said, 'Yes, we can resolve this issue, and here's the way we're going to go about it.' We worked closely with one another to resolve an issue that was important to a community that was directly related to Defence. That's what members do. I am blessed that I have a fellow named Bill Westhead, who's a former serving officer, who is directly interested in all of the issues surrounding this debate, as a branch member of my party. Any time we meet, he is prepared to raise issues with me. I have heard many ministers talk about this.
This is an excellent statement by the minister about veterans affairs and their families, and the way the government is going about addressing their issues. One of the problems that we always have when somebody has their own personal issues is marrying them with the services we provide, getting them to cross that bridge. We say, 'This is what the government have done. These are the services we have got there for you.' We then get the person to acknowledge there is a problem and enter into the service that we provide. We have Vietnam vets, welfare associations, RSL welfare and a myriad of organisations that try to bridge that gap, and that gap is quite often getting people, men and women, to have an advocate to help them cross the bridge to the services that we provide. Getting people who have issues to cross the bridge to say, 'I acknowledge I need help,' has been an ongoing difficulty for every government that I have ever seen in this nation, be it state, federal or local. I can only encourage veterans and their families. If there is an issue, there is a phone line, there is a welfare agency and there is somebody who actually cares about you to give back your hope, to give back your control and to say that you belong to our community, equally, as anybody.
I stand in this place where Bruce Scott, the former member for Maranoa, had such an influence in changing the ambience of this chamber. Bruce was a highly regarded veterans affairs minister. People have known through the times that all veterans affairs ministers have a real heart for veterans as individuals. They really do. They go out of their way. Every one of the veterans affairs ministers I have seen over the years has been honourable in this place and—as does Dan Tehan—done a marvellous job. We support what you do as ministers. We support you in your endeavours on their behalf and we plead with those people who are in need to take a look at the services provided and enter in. Please, cross that bridge.
I am privileged to have in my electorate one of the oldest RAAF bases in the country, RAAF Richmond, as well as RAAF Base Glenbrook, home to Headquarters Air Command. That means that many of the 2,000 men and women who work at these bases also live in my electorate. I have the same number of returned service personnel living in Macquarie, so that means we have thousands of people who are being or have been asked to risk their lives now or in the past in service of their country. They either are or will be veterans.
Last Sunday in the Blue Mountains, my community honoured not only those who served in the Vietnam War but also those who currently serve at our annual Vietnam Veterans Day march. I would like to congratulate and thank the Blue Mountains Vietnam Veterans Association for the work they do as well as the local RSL sub-branches for the support they give. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Day Parade and Service commemorates the Battle of Long Tan, one of the most significant engagements by Australian forces during the Vietnam War on 18 August 1966. Each year in Springwood on the closest Sunday before that date, Vietnam veterans gather for a commemorative service and wreath laying. It is one of the largest events of its kind in New South Wales and it is always a very moving event. This year War Memorial director, Brendon Nelson, spoke about the reception Vietnam veterans received on their return to Australia, which we all know was much less than anything that anyone serving at behest of their country should experience.
Mr Nelson shared the story of one of our locals: Katoomba resident Bob Bowtell, who died of asphyxiation in a tunnel complex close to what we then knew as Saigon and whose body was recently repatriated to Australia. It was a sad story and one of the real tragedies of that particular encounter. But only a year earlier, I heard the story not just of Bob but also of one of the men who survived and, in fact, had tried to rescue Bob Bowtell. He told us his mental health had suffered as a direct result of those efforts and of his Vietnam experience. That's the reality of what our community was honouring at the Vietnam Veterans Day march. It was a gathering of hundreds of people, and they all believed that respecting the sacrifices that our defence personnel have made and continue to make is one of the best things that we can do as community to honour what they've done.
I think our community recognises, either from personal experience or from the experience of family and friends, that there can be a very heavy price to pay for serving your country. It isn't just the physical wounds but also the mental ones that truly baffle families, which is why we welcome the government's introduction of the recent expansion of non-liability health care. We have offered our support to the government and want to make sure that people are aware of this program and that it is available to everyone who has served even one day in the ADF.
Those in my electorate are probably more aware than some in other communities of the cost to people's mental health, partly because we have one of the leading veterans' treatment hospitals, St John of God, in North Richmond. This facility has specialist expertise in PTSD, alcohol and drug treatments. It takes a holistic approach.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 11:46 to 11:55
As I was saying, when I spent time at St John of God a few weeks ago, I had the chance to admire the artwork that patients do as part of their treatment. In fact, a lacquered tray now has pride of place in my Parliament House office on the coffee table. It's a reminder of the work that veterans sometimes need to do so that they can feel that they can fit back into society. I really praise the work St John of God does.
We were there for a service to honour veterans. Guest speaker Paul Field, who is also known as the manager of the Wiggles, has turned his hand to capturing the stories of veterans and others who've experienced PTSD in a new book called Gimme Shelter, which is a collection of interviews. I think the deeply personal stories that he shared really do bring to light the struggle that people have, whether it's as a Black Hawk helicopter crash survivor or as witness to a friend's death in an explosion in Afghanistan. Certainly, for the veterans and their families who were at St John of God, the experiences of rebuilding a life after serving in the armed forces were very close to home.
It is vital that veterans have access to the health services they deserve. Not everyone will want to be in a hospital situation, but it's so important that primary health care is readily available. That's why the government's indexation freeze on the DVA repatriation medical schedule is troubling. That fee schedule has remained stagnant. The feedback we're getting is that it's acting as a disincentive for some medical specialists to provide treatment for veterans. We would really like to see that addressed.
In the time that I have left, I want to share some of the insights that I had during my week-long stay at RAAF Base Amberley recently as part of the Defence parliamentary program. I certainly walked away with a deeper understanding of the commitment people make in signing up to be part of the armed forces. I think there are some lessons there about how we move forward about transitioning people back into civilian society.
I had the opportunity, during my week, to meet the incredible individuals who make up the Air Force, from the ground defence team, the medics and the firefighters through to pilots and aircrew flying the C-17A Globemasters, the KC-30s, F/A-18 Hornets and the Super Hornets. I think what impressed me most about being part of it was the culture of training that permeates every aspect of the base—certainly how I experienced it. It was repeated time and time again, whether I was in a simulator flying a plane, or being walked through the fire services facilities. As a trainer with 25 years experience, I was really impressed with the high-quality adult education that was being imparted.
While the machines are really impressive and the equipment's great, it was the conversations that had the most impact. The reasons that people gave me for being in the RAAF were obviously many and varied. What everyone talked about, though, was the impact that it has on their family and friends. Whether it's their mum and dad, whether it's their siblings or whether it's their partner and their children, families clearly pay a very high price for their member's service. They have long times apart and they have little control over where they live. While that is something that they choose when they go forward, I think there are then consequences from that when people transition back into society as veterans.
Certainly, the RAAF base at Amberley gave me an idea of the sense of community that is created. I can only imagine what it's like to suddenly not have that community around you: to one day be in the ADF and the next day to be a veteran. There doesn't seem to be the cross-over that we need between those two services. I can only imagine what it's like to suddenly find you need to sign in to go back onto base to see friends and be a part of something, because you have lost your access. All of those things, I imagine, are very confronting.
That's why I am pleased Labor has already committed to the National Mental Health Commission's recommendations around family engagement and support. We need to work with families to identify how we can smooth this transition. This was highlighted even more last night when I was able to meet Mark Wales, a former SAS member and famous for his role on Survivor. Last night, in this place, he talked about transition and the challenges. He highlighted the role that education plays in that transition.
Another conversation I had was about how challenging it can be to get an education while you're still serving in the Defence Force, yet that education is absolutely vital for your transition into civilian society. They're the areas I would really like to see all of us, both sides, put attention into. We will certainly be very keen to identify the things that will make life just a little bit easier. As parliamentarians we make decisions that greatly impact people's lives and their families, and we should take that responsibility for their futures seriously.
I would like, firstly, to thank the Minister for Veterans' Affairs for his outstanding work and commitment to this area. We certainly owe so much to our veterans. I'm very proud to be part of the first government to make a formal ministerial statement on veterans and their families—the first of what will become annual statements to ensure transparency on services and the sector more broadly. This was a commitment that we took to the federal election last year.
The recognition of the unique needs of veterans and the requirement of ongoing support is a key objective of the direction that the government is taking, and it is one that is not only critical but also owed to our veterans. The first female veterans forum and the first veterans families forum that were held in the last 12 months make it clear that this government recognises that our veterans are now a much more diverse group of individuals and that the impacts of service extend beyond the veterans themselves. Unfortunately, the veterans affairs sector has been long and often invisible in the conversations around mental health and in the societal conversations about homelessness. Consistent with the fortitude that our troops display throughout their service, many of our veterans have suffered in silence.
Our government has committed to a stand-alone Department of Veterans' Affairs: a department that focuses on the needs of the veteran first and a stronger voice for the veterans community. A key focus of this government is on how these men and women transition out of the Australian Defence Force and the resources and services that are there to meet them when they do. Some 5,200 ADF personnel leave the forces every year after an average of around 8½ years of service. The number of servicemen and servicewomen who leave the ADF involuntarily has doubled from the figure that it was 10 years ago. We know that some veterans have fallen through the gap between defence and civilian life, and we are committed to doing all that we can to narrow, and eventually close, that gap.
Many of us will never fully comprehend the impact that service and the various reasons for leaving the ADF will leave on our veterans. The Department of Veterans' Affairs, for example, typically receives two letters or emails every minute, a phone call every couple of seconds and processes around 95 compensation or income-support forms every hour. The department currently supports about 291,000 Australians, with 82,000 of them being widows or widowers and around 2,500 of them being children of veterans.
We know that these support networks need to be wide-reaching. I was very pleased to meet with the fantastic people of the Australian Kookaburra Kids Foundation, when they visited parliament just a few month ago, joined by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs as well as the Treasurer and others.
The resources to address the needs of veterans and their families are certainly increasing, and the minister's commitment to meet the needs of veterans with whatever funding is required, I know, will be welcomed by the veterans community Australia-wide as well as in my electorate of Dunkley. But I have also heard firsthand from constituents of the demands on the system. A gentleman with whom I regularly interact in my electorate of Dunkley has highlighted the exact gap that I mentioned previously—the impact of his service, training and reintegration experience back to civilian life. He has a number of needs that are being addressed by the department's compensation system. I have spoken to the minister personally about this gentleman and I was struck by the minister's dedication to addressing any shortcomings, which I believe is symptomatic of the Turnbull coalition government. The ongoing support is not only recognised but also being progressively addressed by budgetary measures and frequent investment by the government. We still have a lot more work to do but I know the minister is wholly and fully dedicated to this task.
An additional $350 million was committed in this year's budget to support veterans. This brings the estimated budgetary spend of the department to $11.3 billion. Much of this will provide essential services for communities such as Frankston south in my electorate, where Vasey RSL Care provide incredible support to the Dunkley ex-service community, or indeed Mornington Peninsula Legacy at Mount Eliza House, who also do a fantastic job. More widely, the RSL aged-care community do a fantastic job caring for our older veteran community and return the dedication and commitment that our veterans displayed during their service, and the mateship and care for friends and neighbours. Additional focus, though, is still needed for the younger generations of veterans. Around 23,000 clients of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, both men and women, are under the age of 40. It is vital that support is provided to those impacted by the effects of service, young or old, male or female, or veteran partner or child. The Turnbull coalition government will be there alongside them providing the services we owe our veterans and I welcome the bipartisan support towards this.
Listening to how we can improve our support and ensure that no veteran or their family falls through the gap is essential. As the minister said, 'If there is a need, it will be met.' I was reminded of this continual need of our veterans when this last weekend I attended and laid a wreath at the Frankston and district Vietnam veterans sub-branch Remembrance Day service on Sunday. This service recognised the service of our Vietnam veterans and their needs, particularly after their service was shamefully not properly recognised upon their return from conflict. We can only continue working to make up for this, as the Australian government and the Frankston and district Vietnam veterans sub-branch and many other similar organisations across Australia are working to make sure that this is the case and that the government is held to account. At this recent service on Sunday, it was also great to have there fellow Australian South Vietnamese veterans, who fought arm in arm with our Australian veterans during the conflict. This fighting arm-in-arm across nations really recognises the fact that this is shared conflict and that there are shared needs of our veterans. I am honoured to work with the minister to support the veterans of Dunkley and across Australia to remove barriers in accessing treatment and support, and being a voice for all Dunkley ex-service men and women.
I just want to start by echoing the comments of the member for McMillan, Mr Broadbent, when he was saying that we support the minister. Of course we support the minister. He's got an extremely important job to do, but that doesn't mean that this issue always has to be bipartisan in nature when it comes to improving policy. Some advice, I guess, I would give to the minister is to remind him that he's not a press secretary for the Department of Veterans' Affairs; that's not his job. His job is to look at ways, after consulting with the whole veteran community, to improve the way we care for our veterans in this country. It is to challenge the department about their processes. It is to work to improve that culture and the connectivity of that organisation. Of course, the people in that department do great work, but there is much work to be done. The problem is significant, and to fix the problem we need a comprehensive veterans support system across the nation. It's not all the job of DVA, it's not all the job of the ex-service organisations and it's not all the job of community organisations. We all have a responsibility in this area.
I won't talk too much about the evidence that's been presented to the various inquiries except to say that we need to be very clear about what the problem is. One of the strongest indicators of the problem is that suicide rate of ex-serving men in particular is more than twice as high as that for those serving full time or in the Reserve. We have heard other speakers go to this issue of transition from Defence back into the community. So those men in particular who have left Defence and are in that transition period are twice as likely to die by suicide. Also the suicide rate for those who were discharged involuntarily is 2.4 times as high as that for those discharged for voluntary reasons. Involuntary discharge could be medical discharge.
They are the veterans and ex-service people who are coming into contact with the department. They are four times more likely to die by suicide. So there are significant problems in this process, and we shouldn't put it mostly down to an IT system. Whilst I welcome the changes that have been looked at for the IT system, connectivity in general and culture are much more important issues that we need to fix.
When it comes to leadership, we have to look at the priorities that we have. The department and ex-service organisations, like the RSL, have different priorities, whether they be ceremonial or providing advocates to help veterans with their claims. I say again that what we need is a comprehensive veterans support system. We are committed to family engagement. The shadow minister has outlined that we are committed to a family engagement support strategy. That will seek to address the current lack of engagement. It also speaks to the importance of families to our veterans. It's incredibly important.
In terms of providing support to veterans in my electorate, I have held a forum for veterans to get issues off their chests and to get some more coordination between ESOs. I have been supporting events. One coming up involves Soldier On, but there have been many other events run by veterans to increase awareness, understanding and support.
I think it's important that we all understand the perspectives. One that I'll give you is of a wife who is totally on egg shells around her partner. If they go out anywhere, she can see the rising anxiety in her husband. She has talked me through the effect it has on their life and their interaction with the claims system through DVA. It has caused a lot of anxiety. So it has real effects on the families of these veterans, and we need to be more aware of that.
Another family member of a veteran I have been speaking to, a father, has lost contact with his son. The son has returned from a very difficult period of service in Afghanistan and has gone off the reservation and doesn't talk to them much. The anxiety in that family is that they are losing their son, who is having difficulties with the system. It is literally destroying families, so we must be focused on the families and on working with those families.
Why does this happen? Having come from the military, I have some understanding of the pressures on veterans. When you're in the military, you have a set of values as a scaffold around you to support you. Also, to do your job, you have that identity and purpose of serving your country. When you transition out into the community, that scaffolding all of a sudden largely falls away and people find themselves floating and not able to integrate back into society. If there's one thing we need to do, it is to make sure that our people, once we get them into Defence and they have trained well, remain connected in the community because this will allow the transition to work more effectively. I would encourage everyone who has the ability to enact change for more connectivity between Defence members and the community to do so.
I just want to acknowledge the individuals who work with veterans, because they've definitely got their heart and soul in the job. We just need to improve the culture, we need to improve connectivity, and we need to improve coordination between ex-service organisations. I think there are about 2,780 ex-service organisations in Australia currently and about 3,400-plus charity organisations with veterans nominated as their beneficiaries. We need to become more efficient in using those resources, but I do want to acknowledge all those who are doing such innovative work. There's been a boom in the number of ESOs because they're seen by younger veterans in particular as more agile, innovative and responsive organisations.
In Darwin we have made some changes in the ESO community. The Northern Territory branch of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia is actually looking at dropping the word 'Vietnam' from their name. They'll vote on that soon. That is a direct pitch to young veterans. It says: 'You are welcome in our organisation. You are part of our organisation.' I commend the branch for doing that. The minister mentioned a united veterans voice. I think there's some merit in some sort of peak body, but a lot more care and trust will be required, particularly with younger veterans, to build confidence in some of the larger organisations before that can become reality.
I just want to finish by commending the shadow minister for talking about the value of our people in her speech the other day. We should be hearing a lot more about that. That is the point that I'd like to finish on. The value of our veterans to our community cannot be understated. What I personally want to say to veterans out there in our country is: we see you, we hear you and we respect you; you are very much valued by the country that you love and have served.
I want to take this opportunity to make some brief remarks in response to the ministerial statement on veterans and their families. Firstly, I'd like to congratulate the government on bringing forth this first ministerial statement. Particularly, I would like to congratulate the minister responsible, Dan Tehan, for being such a strong and direct advocate for veterans in this country. Working with the department, he has provided support and assistance, particularly by bringing these issues to the attention not just of the government but of the parliament. In the spirit of the bipartisan nature of the speeches that have preceded mine, I'd like to commend the minister for taking this initiative. I'd like to commend the minister not just on this initiative in isolation but for taking the opportunity to bring many veterans around the country together to have a dialogue about the challenges that they face into the future and, particularly, for making sure that it is not just veterans who have traditionally had their voices heard who are being recognised but also, increasingly, veterans who perhaps have been overlooked or who have not had the attention that they deserve.
There have, of course, been a significant number of forums around the country, but the opportunity for the first female veterans forum in particular, I think, is something that speaks volumes about the government and the integrity of the minister in bringing these issues to national attention. I think we all do the nation a service by hearing the voices of all veterans in the process.
This government's commitment to supporting veterans is beyond question. Not only do we have a stand-alone department; there has been a very specific and deliberate attempt by the government to make sure we put veterans first. This is not a department that exists for the purpose of serving bureaucrats; it is here to make sure the men and women who made sacrifices in the interests of preserving and defending our country, and the lives and defence of others, are given proper recognition and support, particularly when there are legacy consequences associated with this.
With this statement, there's a very clear commitment to the importance of having a stand-alone Department of Veterans' Affairs not only to give a voice to those objectives but, more than that, to recognise that the department focuses not only on the needs of veterans first but also, increasingly, on being a strong voice for veterans. This is particularly important for those veterans who are reaching a vulnerable stage in life and may need additional support and assistance as they no longer may be able to stand up and speak with the conviction they once had—and this government is very mindful of that. Obviously, we have a broader ageing population but, when you know so many veterans are now ageing, ensuring we provide and assist them in that vulnerable stage of life is going to become more critical. I hope that those opposite have joined in the spirit of bipartisanship of this motion to say so.
As I'm sure many members do, we regularly engage with members across our electorate. I'm fortunate every year of course, around Anzac Day, to work directly with our good friends at the Hampton RSL, the Highett RSL and those who continue to support what was once operating in a stand-alone function, the Beaumauris RSL. Hampton RSL runs a wonderful service on the morning of Anzac Day, but they also run a service in the lead-up to Anzac Day, bringing together schoolchildren to educate them about the sacrifice many Australians before them have made to preserve our freedom and our way of life. Beaumauris RSL regularly runs a service on the weekend before Anzac Day, particularly with the march from the shops towards the oval and the civic centre, to make sure that people in the Beaumauris community, in which there are many veterans, have an opportunity to honour that sacrifice and service of our veterans. Highett RSL also has a dawn service on Anzac Day.
I'm very encouraged by the increasing awareness of many schools in the electorate to find ways to honour those service men and women who have sacrificed in the past for our great nation. I mentioned before that Hampton RSL brings together many local schools, particularly across Brighton, Hampton, Sandringham and Black Rock to participate. Even Gardenvale Primary School is hosting it own service in the days leading up to Anzac Day, bringing together local veterans—particularly veterans from the Second World War—to come and talk to children about the challenges they faced, so that the Anzac legacy doesn't become diminished. A full spectrum of services are held across the Goldstein electorate each year which we fully respect and appreciate.
I come back to the objective of the government, which is to very much focus on how to support and assist people who have experienced the consequences of conflict and made that sacrifice for our country. We on this side of the Chamber are very proud that this budget has delivered over $350 million of new money to give completely free mental health support and better services to veterans. Last year, I participated in a service here in the federal parliament paying recognition to those people who have taken their lives as a consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder, and I know that many members opposite share a commitment in addressing and tackling these issues. That's why this largest investment ever by the department into supporting mental health services is so important.
No government has made such an investment in the past and we're all proud to say that we're continuing to support that, particularly because the government is providing the new approach of free and immediate treatment for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse and substance abuse without the need to prove the condition was service related. It's the capacity to support people to make sure that, at all stages of life, they get the serious assistance they may need. It is most important to make sure that the service is uncapped so those people who need it will get it. If there is a need, it will be funded and veterans should take advantage of it.
Finally, the government is providing further support for veterans' employment opportunities through funding to support the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program. As many people would be aware, this initiative is aimed at raising awareness with employers, in both the private and the public sectors, of the enormous value and the unique experience that veterans possess. That's what's going to become more critical over time. I think most Australians are familiar with veterans from the First and Second World Wars, but, as we see more and more people from conflict in the Korean War and the Vietnam War and the conflicts that have occurred in the Middle East, it's a new stage of honouring our service men and women and their service to our country as veterans. That's going to become critical as we become more aware of the challenges that occur, particularly the mental health consequences of conflict.
I spoke to a local constituent from Caulfield South recently, Janice Kefford, who raised with me some of her concerns around the challenges being faced by veterans. Importantly, it is not just veterans but their families by extension, because we all know that, with mental health conditions, something that impacts an individual can often extend to their families and their community as well. She was particularly concerned about the fact that there was an issue around epigenetics and whether there is proper research into the transmission of trauma—from people who experience post-traumatic stress disorder or mental health conditions that are directly related to conflict—to other family members, particularly children. I made a commitment to her that I would raise it in this place.
When it comes down to supporting our veterans, we must always be prepared to challenge ourselves and our government about whether we're prepared to do enough and whether there are new avenues that we need to take to make sure we give support and assistance to the people who have put their lives on the line and have taken time in service and defence of this country. As scientific research and the human condition evolves, I think we all in this place know that we have to continue to honour their legacy and support them. So, to every veteran in the Goldstein electorate and across this great nation, all we can do is say thank you so much for your service. This parliament has your back and this government has your back, and that's why we're proud to stand with you today.
On Friday, 18 August we will acknowledge the end of the Vietnam conflict. I would like to pay my respects to the Defence personnel who lost their lives in this conflict. I acknowledge their families who also pay the ultimate price of losing so many loved ones. I also acknowledge the Vietnam vets in my community in the electorate of Herbert. My electorate of Herbert is home to one of the largest populations of veterans, ex-service personnel and their families in Australia. Townsville is also home to the largest defence presence in the country. We welcome and value Defence personnel and their families to our community because they significantly contribute to both the social and the economic fabric of our great city. I am proud to stand in this place and fight for support for veterans, ex-service personnel and their families in my electorate of Herbert and across the nation.
I believe the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, said it best when he said:
... as a nation we have been better at honouring the memory of our dead, than offering decent support for the living.
I was also privileged to hear the Hon. Jeff Kennett's very passionate address on 11 November last year at the War Memorial, where he clearly stated the devastating reality of mental ill-health in the veteran and ex-service personnel communities. I would be the first to acknowledge that we have a long way to go in supporting veterans and ex-service personnel when they return from overseas deployments or are transitioning from the defence forces to civilian life. Because Townsville is home to the largest defence presence in the country, and also due to our glorious weather and relaxed lifestyle, many personnel choose to retire in our community. Defence personnel, veterans, ex-service personnel and their families make up about 20 per cent of our population. Townsville is home to approximately 5,000 DVA clients, as well as up to 9,000 family members. However, these figures do not include the potentially thousands of veterans who are not registered with DVA but reside in Townsville with their families.
In recognising that our veterans, ex-service personnel, their families and the broader defence community play a vital role in the Townsville community, I established the Townsville Defence Community Reference Group. This high-level and committed group was established to ensure that federal government policy reflects the needs of our defence community. Since setting up the Townsville Defence Community Reference Group last year, we have had many successes. We have successfully lobbied for changes to the National Mental Health Commission review panel to include a young veteran and family representative. We have successfully lobbied for community consultation to occur in Townsville with the relevant ministers, and late last year Minister Ley and Minister Tehan hosted a forum in Townsville. We successfully lobbied for the National Mental Health Commission review panel to come and consult with the Townsville defence community, and a private meeting was held with the Townsville Defence Community Reference Group as well as a public hearing.
The reference group has been very active in working collaboratively with the Northern Queensland Primary Health Network in initiating the veteran suicide prevention trial, with the following activities undertaken in January and February this year. We drafted the terms of reference for the steering committee, nominated members from the reference group to participate on the steering committee, selected the chair of the steering committee—who reports to the reference group on progress—drafted the project officer's job description and participated on the interview panel for the recruitment of the project officer. The veteran suicide prevention trial is the most advanced in the country, and this is due to the grassroots collaboration and hard work done by the members of the Townsville Defence Community Reference Group.
Supporting veterans, ex-service personnel and their families should not be embroiled in politics, especially considering that we are talking about people who have given courageously and selflessly to ensure that we enjoy the freedom that Australia offers to each and every citizen. Labor will always encourage and support measures designed to ensure that existing programs have a strong focus on mental health needs for veterans, ex-service personnel and their families.
Before being elected to this place, I was CEO of two community-managed mental health organisations operating in north and west Queensland. I worked in the mental health sector for 15 years, and, during that time, I gave evidence at a number of Senate committee hearings. The evidence I provided related to how well-established government policy could ensure the development of contemporary mental health services and supports. Mental ill health affects one in five people in any 12-month period.
The impact of mental ill health does not discriminate, and we see this in the defence population. To date, there have been 57 suicides that we know of in the veteran and ex-serving personnel communities across this country, and that is simply unacceptable. Stigma is one of the greatest barriers to people seeking help, and the only way to address this significant barrier is to develop a strong, contemporary, national stigma reduction campaign.
Veterans and ex-service personnel living with mental ill health and distress are not the only ones bearing the impact of this dreadful health condition. It also has a significant impact on family and friends. As a result of mental ill health, many veterans and ex-service personnel are also not engaged in meaningful work. They are often homeless, living in poverty and experiencing family breakdown. This is simply unacceptable when we consider that these people have put their lives on the line to serve our country. Our veterans, ex-service personnel and their families deserve nothing less than world-class, contemporary physical and mental healthcare support.
The Leader of the Opposition was in Townsville at the end of the 2016, where he hosted a town hall meeting. At the meeting, Bill Shorten was asked by a veteran if he would fight for veterans. The Leader of the Opposition did not hesitate to declare his support for veterans and ex-service personnel, and that is just what Labor has done. Bill Shorten has kept his commitment with the announcement of federal Labor's policy for veterans and their families. A Shorten Labor government will develop a family engagement and support strategy for defence personnel, veterans and ex-service personnel to provide greater support to our military families.
ADF families play a vital role in supporting our current veterans and ex-serving ADF men and women. These men, women and their children are the unsung heroes of our defence forces. Greater support for our military families is greater support for our serving and ex-serving personnel. Developing a family engagement and support strategy will enable us to identify where we can provide greater support to military families, those who matter most to our ADF personnel, veterans and ex-service personnel—their wives, husbands, sons and daughters.
Labor's announcement would implement a key recommendation of the National Mental Health Commission's review of services available to veterans and current serving members of the Australian Defence Force in relation to the prevention of self-harm and suicide—to develop a strategy that will provide greater support and resources for military families. Labor's commitment to develop a family engagement support strategy in government would, importantly, be co-designed with Defence, veterans and ex-serving families and communities, and focus on the known stress points for families, including transition of defence members into civilian life.
The National Mental Health Commission's review highlighted that there is currently a lack of emphasis on the critical role that family plays in the lives of current and former serving members. Families play an especially unique role in military life and service, making many sacrifices. Our ADF personnel, veterans and ex-service personnel look to their families for support while they are serving and while they are transitioning to the challenges of civilian life. There is no doubt that families also play a critical role in providing support for our serving and ex-serving personnel suffering from mental health issues. Developing a family strategy acknowledges the important role that families play in the rehabilitation of ADF members and veterans from physical and mental health injuries and illnesses. Families can be the greatest support when dealing with life-challenging events that occur throughout and after military service.
When it comes to our current and ex-service defence personnel, Labor will always prioritise the role military families play, and our commitment to developing a family strategy will ensure that they are not forgotten. As I said, supporting veterans and their families should not become embroiled in politics, especially considering we are talking about the people who have fought and given their lives to ensure we can live in the freedom that we do. Just as our veterans and ex-service personnel stood up and fought for us, it is now our turn to stand up and fight for them and their families.
To be a member of the Australian Defence Force is to dedicate yourself to service and to dedicate your life to the ultimate act of courage. Our Defence Force personnel have a rich and defining place in what it is to be Australian. Mateship, a fair go, courage and sacrifice are all hallmarks of these very special people. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their work but, more than that—more than the thanks, the back slaps, the high fives and wearing our Anzac Day badges—as they return to civilian life, we owe them and their families the best possible service and care. From the representations I receive and from the discussions I have had in my community and on my recent visit to Afghanistan, which I'll touch on in a moment, the Department of Veterans' Affairs is the integral piece of the transitional assistance our defence personnel need.
I note that, in his statement yesterday, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs quoted some very interesting figures. Currently, there are 58,000 Australians serving in our defence forces and an estimated 320,000 veterans who have been deployed. The Department of Veterans' Affairs supports approximately 291,000 people, with more than 203,000 being over the age of 65 and around 23,000 under the age of 40. I would be interested to know whether this younger age bracket is growing—and I suspect it is. I recognise the Department of Veterans' Affairs has a very broad spectrum of age brackets and issues, both historically and contemporarily.
It is with great concern that I read about the satisfaction survey results in the minister's statement and the 10 per cent decline. The satisfaction survey figures show a steady decline from 93 per cent in 2010 to 83 per cent in 2016. That is a substantial change in the department's ability to perform its role. Of note, the survey results show that it is the younger veterans who are undergoing transition from service life who are the least satisfied clients of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The survey found that only 49 per cent of veterans under the age of 45 were satisfied and that a startling 31 per cent were dissatisfied. I'm not here to lecture on the whys and wherefores of this dissatisfaction; however, I am deeply concerned that our younger veterans feel so dislocated in such an important part of their transition.
The survey also found that current Defence Force personnel transitioning had trouble accessing support. Forty-five per cent said the main services they had trouble accessing were physical health, mental health, financial support and employment services. This was echoed by my colleague here and was echoed in my discussions with Mr Mark Wales, who is a former SAS soldier and a Survivor contestant. He was in the House last night, and I took the opportunity to talk with him about his problems in returning from six years in the SAS and, before that, on deployment, which were accessing employment services. They were incredibly costly, and he'd been out of the loop, as he put it, for many years.
Sixty-one per cent of the claimants under 45 in the survey indicated that the time taken to process their claim failed to meet their expectations. For people in that age group it's about trust. As the member for Solomon, my colleague and ADF member for 13 years, has already said, trust is so important at that critical stage in dealing with what can be very confronting issues that the veterans and their families are facing. If veterans and veterans' groups can't get decisions out of the department, we really need to fix the issue. As Bill Shorten said, we are better at honouring our dead than caring for our living. That is a very important reflection that we make.
I note that my colleague, the Hon. Amanda Rishworth, has highlighted that Labor has supported the additional funding to fix Veterans' Affairs' longstanding IT issues. Unfortunately, this government doesn't have a good track record with IT, and I fear that veterans are not being heard adequately. I question how an IT solution might be the most effective way of addressing those issues I mentioned before like mental health, financial support and employment. It is the human side and not a computer that needs to be worked on. We owe it to our veterans to provide support and care. The wellbeing of personnel and their families to have their issues dealt with compassionately and correctly the first time should not be reliant on an IT system. Our veterans have been through enough. They have done everything that our country has asked of them and, mostly, above and beyond that. So to give them the run-around and the third degree in having their matters processed is entirely unacceptable.
Having seen firsthand the defence personnel on my deployment to Afghanistan, I know their transition to civilian life should be much more secure. These people are well trained, they're well organised and they're highly skilled. They are great assets to all types of businesses and to our community in general. But this doesn't mean they don't need our help. Many of these veterans, with all of the positive attributes they bring to the table, do have a period of readjustment. They do have to deal with what happened while they were serving at the nation's request. We need to have a strong and positive safety net for them.
I had the opportunity to spend some time visiting four bases on my recent tour in Afghanistan in July this year and, above all, the troops want to know that their contributions are valued. I am committed to ensuring that our service women and men are supported not only during their service but also while they're integrating back into civilian life. If I were to take the commentary of all of the people that I met while I was away, 99.99 per cent of them would point to the concerns they have coming back in. They talk about the amount of money that is put into training them to shoot, to build weapons and to care for their soldiers and their personnel while they're on the battlefield, but everywhere I went across all four bases—and there is a heightened sense of anxiety and absolutely a topic of discussion—Veterans' Affairs and their return to Australia was the No. 1 issue. In fact, I met a veteran who was injured coming out of a helicopter. He had a substantive issue and his claim was actually rejected by DVA. He was working at that time and he was absolutely affected by this injury, so much so that he had to change his job, but still DVA rejected his claim.
This week I have the great privilege of hosting Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Bell here in Parliament House as part of the exchange placement with the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program. Aaron is also here with me now, and I welcome him here into this chamber. With the memories of my recent trip in mind, it's been a great opportunity to share my experience and insight into a very different world to mine. I think Aaron has enjoyed the experience and, in fact, he helped me write this speech today. I don't think you could make it more crystal clear in a place like this than having it come from the mouth of someone who is actually serving. I am proud to have the opportunity to host Lieutenant Colonel Bell and I hope to learn as much as possible during this exchange, as much as he is learning from me.
On that recent trip to Afghanistan, the troops said they miss home and the things that remind them of home. Even for someone who only spent 10 days there, I can tell you, the trip had a massive impact on me: the heat and the conditions; the time delay in calling friends and family back home; and also the fact you can't just pick up the phone and have a normal conversation with someone back home who says, 'Hey, what did you do today?' 'I was out on the frontline.' Anything operational cannot be shared over the phone, so in your phone calls back home—and I was subject to this calling my own family—you can't say what you have been doing. I couldn't say much, so the conversation was pretty boring, and we pretty much talked about the weather. So it is very, very difficult to maintain any sense of normality, even for me just being there 10 days.
I want to take this opportunity, though, to shout out to my community. We are organising some care packages to go over to the women and the men that I met—Anzac biscuits, Tim Tams and Vegemite are always going to go down a treat. Letters of support from schoolchildren are something they really enjoy reading. Letters from mums and dads are always well received. I will take any donations delivered to my office of games, books and other activities that, in an operational environment that is sometimes 45 degrees, these men and women can enjoy sitting around in an air-conditioned room.
I look forward to joining my local veterans this Friday to commemorate the end of the Vietnam War. I also note that Legacy Week 2017 will be commencing on 27 August. Legacy cares for around 80,000 veterans' dependants ranging in age from less than 12 months to 109 years of age. It is groups such as Legacy that provide valuable support to families during tough times. I am aware there are a range of other organisations and services that provide support and assistance to current defence personnel, such as Soldier On. I wish to place on record Legacy's fine work, and I encourage everybody to support Legacy by purchasing a badge.
I would like to acknowledge the Penrith RSL sub-branch, St Mary's sub-branch, the 'Nashos'—of which I am a proud patron—the wives of the Vietnam vets, the Australian Light Horse Association, which are all operational in supporting each other and others in my electorate. I look forward to meeting with more defence personnel and having the Hon. Amanda Rishworth come in November to meet with the ex-service community. We'll ensure that we always work to achieve the best possible outcomes for veterans and their families.
I am pleased that the government is honouring its responsibility to our ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen, and that leaders from both sides of the House are working together in support of our veterans and their families. As the federal member for Paterson, I'm committed to honouring and serving those who have served Australia through our defence forces.
The Williamtown RAAF base is at the epicentre of my electorate, and the Singleton army base is in the neighbouring electorate of Hunter. Mothers, fathers and children are part of the serving and ex-serving defence community. We ask an enormous amount of our defence personnel and their families. We deploy them to serve in often dangerous and hostile environments away from their support network. We post entire families to other parts of the country for years at a time, forcing them to pack up their lives and rebuild again and again. When an individual serves in the ADF, their family serves too. This can take a catastrophic toll on individuals, on marriages, on families, on children. Add to that, the devastating and all-too frequent complications of physical or mental injury and you may have a recipe for disaster.
I have been in regular communication with a returned servicewoman named Rachel, who has been working to rebuild her life following seven years in the Royal Australian Air Force. Rachel saw active service as part of the International Coalition Against Terrorism under Operation Slipper in Afghanistan. On her return to Australia, she experienced severe post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic depressive disorders. She said:
I couldn't even leave the house, answer the phone, hold a conversation with anyone. My daughter, who is now 13 years, was the mother in our relationship and she looked after me and the house.
Rachel's marriage broke down. She battled daily with anxiety, fear, self-doubt, hatred, flashbacks, night terrors and nightmares. 'I was literally a prisoner of my own head,' she told me. She almost lost her life. Her weight ballooned to 119 kilograms. She battled cancer and had a stress-induced stroke. Rachel lost her family. Her brother decided she was using PTSD as an excuse not to heal, and he decided he could no longer be a part of her life. This caused strained relationships with the rest of her family, and she lost them, too.
Throughout this journey, Rachel's one rock was her daughter. It was this little girl's love that lit the path to recovery. Rachel recalled to me, just a few weeks ago, one of her most vivid gems, which she said came to her during one of her meltdowns: 'In a daze of sleep, my little girl looked at me and said, "If you make enough good memories, Mummy, the bad ones won't seem that bad anymore."' What a pearl of wisdom. It brings me undone every time. I wonder how different Rachel's story would have been if she, her then husband, her siblings, her parents and her daughter had felt better supported by the government and the Department of Veterans' Affairs?
While I acknowledge the vital role that DVA plays in providing assistance to our veterans, I have heard time and time again from many veterans, not just Rachel, that exchanges with DVA are often traumatic in and of themselves. Some describe their interactions as combative. Rachel is convinced that she was perceived as damaged goods. While I applaud the fact that the government has chosen to review the processes of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the funding allocation is nowhere near adequate. Broad reviews and reforms are necessary to provide our veterans with the support they need and, most importantly, to ensure that they feel that their service and sacrifice has not been forgotten—that they aren't damaged goods that are just thrown onto the scrap heap of ex-service.
Labor committed, prior to the last election, to undertake a first-principles review of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. This holistic review was set to target administrative governance and process failings. Recently, Labor committed, if elected, to develop a family engagement and support strategy for defence personnel and veterans. We all know there is no quick fix here. These failings have been years in the making. They really do need to be looked at very closely under a microscope. It is important to bring about systematic changes if we are best to support our veterans and their families. The transition from active service to civilian life is one that we must do better.
In the last fortnight, I spent a week at RAAF Base Williamtown as a member of the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program. During that time, I had the opportunity to see all major facets of the base. I slept and ate on the base. I often had the pleasure, if you want to call it that, of doing physical training sessions with some of the fittest people I've ever encountered in my life—and still managed to have a little smile on my face at the end of it, even though there was a part of me that was literally dying. I was briefed, commensurate to my security clearance, on all facets of that base. I just want to say: RAAF Base Williamtown is the greatest source of pride that I have in my electorate. It's also a source of enormous pain because of the PFAS contamination, and I've spoken about that a lot in this parliament.
It's also painful when ex-serving personnel come to my office, as they did when Amanda Rishworth, our shadow minister for veterans' affairs, came and held a roundtable. They sat and spoke with Amanda and me and said: 'These are the difficulties. The day the gate shuts on you, when you leave the force, when you stop serving, you're out. You can't go back in. It literally and metaphorically shuts behind you.' We've got to do that better. We have to allow these highly trained, intelligent, loyal people the opportunity to continue to feel valued. I think that's one of the big psychological things. I note that my friend and colleague the member for Solomon sits in the Chamber today as an ex-serviceman, along with Mike Kelly, who has also done terrific work in this parliament, and others. We've got these people.
To me, it's about their psychology. They're people who, first and foremost, sign up and step up to say, 'I want to serve my country.' Then they train, and they are trained by some of the great trainers. The training at RAAF Williamtown and the way that base is set up is just incredible. There are so many complex problems that must be solved on a minute-by-minute basis to keep the whole thing functioning properly. We train them and then we post or deploy them overseas to do incredibly difficult work in incredibly stressful environments—but they do operate like well-oiled machines. They are trained very well.
But what happens when the machine comes back and it is a bit dinged up and a bit broken? We talk about capability and we talk about platforms. 'Platforms' is a wonderful defence word for fantastic aircraft. Capability is not just about those platforms and all of the things that go into making a wonderful military operation and defending our country; it's also about the people. They are by far our strongest capability, and we need to be doing all we can to not only look after them while they are in the uniform but also care for them and give them purpose when they return—when they say, 'My service is done,' for whatever reason.
It doesn't matter if it is TPI or whether they are voluntarily saying, 'I've done my bit and now I'm going to go and do something else with my life,' we should be saying: 'Thank you. We value you. Good on you. What else would you like to do with us? Would you like to come back in another capacity and help us in another way?—which often people do—Would you like to come back on to the base and use our gym? Would you like to use the computers to perhaps help you reformulate your life?' Other defence forces across the planet do this. They allow people to come back and still be part of that defence family.
We need to do it better. We must do it better. If we are going to continue to have this cutting-edge, excellent military and defence organisation in Australia, we really have to seriously look at how we support our veterans, how the Department of Veterans' Affairs works in this country and how we look after people not only whilst they are serving but also when their days of service are over.
I am very pleased to be able to participate in this discussion with so many great contributions by members on either side and, in particular, it is great to have my friend and colleague the member for Solomon here and to listen to the member for Paterson, who I know really takes these issues to heart. We've heard a lot of reflections on our electorates from those of us who have a significant defence personnel or veterans presence, and Eden-Monaro has a very solid representation in that respect. There are about 3,182 DVA clients and of course their families in our region. We have about 587 ADF personnel who are actually employed in Eden-Monaro, with the headquarters, JOC, in our backyard. But we have many, many more members than that who are actually living in Eden-Monaro, in, effectively, the dormitory suburbs around Jerrabomberra, Queanbeyan and Bungendore.
It's a solid defence region, with fine traditions of service. The areas you visit in Tumut and Tumbarumba, for example, have the highest voluntary participation rates in the nation. Over there you will see the Union Jack Memorial. It is really interesting because it is not a monument to the flag. There used to be a town there called Union Jack, and that town doesn't exist anymore. If you look at that memorial you'll see the names of every fighting-age male from that town who was killed in the First World War. As a result of that loss, the town disappeared and the surviving families drifted away to other locations. So 12,000 kilometres from the war there's a town that was destroyed by it. In all of our country towns you see those cenotaphs—you walk past them every day—that have our family names on them. It is something that country people, in particular, reflect on a great deal.
I have talked before in this place about my own family experiences. Every generation has served—going back to the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Afghan war, the First World War, the Second World War and my own service. I grew up with my grandfathers, my aunts, my uncles and my father where this culture of service was something I couldn't ignore—and I obviously wanted to follow in those footsteps. But I also learned of the downsides that veterans experience. Some of them did it particularly tough. I have always reflected on the service of my grandfather on my father's side. He was a sergeant in the 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion and served in the Middle East and in Java. He was eventually captured by the Japanese and ended up on the Burma-Thai railway. None of us can ever really imagine what those veterans went through. He barely survived. He was evacuated out by air in September of '45. He was emaciated and on his last legs but was resuscitated and brought around in Heidelberg, at the veterans' hospital there, and fortunately was with us until 1984. He was a very resilient chap who had a lot of tales to tell as well of surviving the Depression. He cut off one of his fingers to get compensation so he could feed the family. We can only try to imagine the things that this generation lived through and the sacrifices they made for us. I still have my grandfather's loincloth from the Burma-Thai railway. It is the most treasured thing and useful thing I have in my possession. Whenever I think I'm doing it tough or I've had a hard day at the office here, I pull that out and say, 'Harden up, sunshine!'
We talk about the veterans and it's right that we do, and I know my colleague the member for Solomon knows that we are also talking about the ex-service people and the current serving people. Unfortunately, we lose quite a lot of people just in training in the ADF. In my time there were quite a few and I remember some very vividly, such as the range practice tragedies. I remember one situation where the grenades went off in the pouch of one of our diggers, and effectively body parts were strewn all over the grenade practice range. You can imagine how traumatic that was for the people involved in those circumstances. So we have a day-to-day issue of managing the stress of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. Even just your training and serving wears you down. I know I live on a daily diet of Panadol Osteo and Mobic. I know my friend the member for Solomon tends to have a little bit of a limp in his walk as well these days. A lot of care is required to look after the people who have gone through that experience, quite happily in the service of their nation.
We've reflected on that difference in culture, and it is such a significant jump. We have that team atmosphere and ethos, and the really important shared experience aspect of that, where it's so easy to talk to each other and decompress with each other. It is also an entirely different language to the civilian world. One of the things that really confronted me when I first got out was that I would say things or use expressions that nobody had heard of before. So I felt a little alienated in that respect. It is something we do have to work towards. I've got a lot of constituents coming to me now who are really struggling. We have talked about this DVA experience and there are particular issues around the entry-point experience. We have to do a better job of that. It's so confronting. It is so adversarial and there's so much paperwork, and there are so many hoops to jump through that they really struggle to meet the threshold tests. Quite often they feel better in how they are being treated by the department once they've met those threshold tests, but there is still a lot of improvement to do there.
I'm really pleased that when we were in government we were able to take spending on veterans affairs to a record level of $12.5 billion. We haven't managed to hit that target since then. I think we do need to make that commitment. As much as we've said that we're going to have a two per cent target for overall Defence spending, we need to understand the commitment that we need to maintain in this space. These younger veterans coming to me now are having some real cross-bureaucracy issues as well. Things like the confusion that we've had over superannuation and compensation payments, and the taxation arrangements have caused quite a bit of grief and anxiety in relation to advice and counteradvice that they have received. One really distressed veteran came to see me about how certain circumstances for him had counted against his wife's access to things. The financial circumstances that they are in are having a big impact on their lives. We have to do a better job of untangling these bureaucratic silos and the advice these veterans are getting.
As the member for Solomon has pointed out, it is the responsibility of everyone in the community to reach out and deal with some of these issues and to provide that shoulder to cry on and that support. We often talk about how it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes a village to do a lot of things. We have to have villages take responsibility for each other across the spectrum, and that includes people like our ambos and police officers, who often experience similar things.
I'm glad we're committed to the first principles review to see what we can do to streamline and make DVA even better. I'm glad that we've moved away from any talk of getting rid of the department, as was certainly floated in my predecessor's paper that he published when he was head of ACCI. We were really worried about that. I'm really worried, though, about the automation of services. A lot of veterans who are talking to me are really upset that they don't have a human to go to and that we're trying to force too much online. Human Services really should have humans in it. The trick is in the title there. There is a lot of stress and anxiety out there, even in the general community, about being forced to do all of this stuff online at the same time as we're losing personnel. That is one of the issues in DVA—the personnel issue.
It is an issue even for the minister. His heart is definitely in this job, and I support him 100 per cent, but, as the Australian Defence Association's Neil James has pointed out, we've had fewer people in this portfolio than ever in our history. Dan is being asked to do too much. His portfolio responsibilities cover too much of a breadth. We need a dedicated veterans affairs minister. I salute 100 per cent the combination of that with defence personnel issues. We do have to create that seamless management of personnel through their lives effectively. That really takes a full-time minister to do. So, on behalf of the minister, I urge the government to really look at that again and look at how they structure the executive.
What we do need to do is make sure that we take notice of what the Senate inquiry has handed down overnight and look to create that whole seamless management regime. We need to put a better effort into career managing and transitioning members, as we've heard. We need formal mechanisms to do that and real substance behind it. I salute the comments that have been made in this debate. I urge the government to work with us further on this matter.