Wednesday, 25 October 2017
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I'm going to talk about you in a minute, so be careful! There are a couple of things that I think are important in this Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017, though. The member for Kingston made this point towards the end of her speech, and I know she thinks this to be the case—and I know it to be the case. It's about the way in which there is strong bipartisan support for this legislation and the way in which the minister has been dealing with the opposition and the way in which opposition has been working with the minister to try to secure better outcomes for veterans, by and large, across the country. Now, there will be differences from time to time, but it's important that we accept our obligations as legislators to try to get the best possible outcomes that we can without politicising the process for our veterans. There are a couple of areas within this parliament where that seems to be happening and others where it's not.
If you'll forgive me, I just want to make the point that bipartisanship in trying to represent the interests of veterans in this place and to make changes which suit their needs is very important, and it's being done in a constructive way. I know that, in the context of the recent suicide report, we've heard both from the government and the opposition, through the minister and through the member for Kingston, and they have both made vital contributions to that discussion, but again showing very little difference, in terms of the final outcome and the desired outcome, from this parliament, represented by them as the spokespersons for both the government and the opposition, to get the best possible outcome for veterans. That, to me, is what this is about. I have to say that, in my own experience as a minister in this space, that was also the case when we were in government. And I expect it to be the case into the future, because we don't want the veterans community wondering why it is that we're playing politics around their interests and their concerns.
I have that same relationship in many ways with the member for Hasluck, in dealing with Indigenous health issues. We meet regularly. We discuss issues. We won't always agree, but we have a common interest in making sure that we try, as a parliament, to get the best possible outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and in other areas. We, Senator Dodson from Western Australia and I, are attempting to work collaboratively with Minister Scullion in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs space. That's somewhat more difficult, because it's a bit more of a contested space. But the bottom line is: there's a genuine desire to try to work in a bipartisan way.
I just want to contrast that, if I may, with the way in which we've seen the member for Stirling, as the Minister for Justice, operate in this parliament over the last two days and the very divisive nature of the way in which he has addressed this place. We don't need it. It's an insult to the parliament. It's an insult to the community and to all Australians who listen to this place. They expect us to do better. As to the responses that the minister made in question time yesterday, I think the member for Kennedy described, in a contribution in this parliament today, the member for Stirling as the worst minister he'd seen in 44 years in politics. I've never seen a contribution like that which was made by the member for Stirling in response to a question yesterday. And today we just had a debate which resulted in the opposition, with the support of the Independents and the crossbenchers, opposing the government on important measures relating to the justice portfolio. We've seen the government, through the Prime Minister and the member for Stirling, yesterday and today, try and insult the intelligence of the Australian community by saying that the Australian opposition, through the Leader of the Opposition and other members, were not supportive of the Australian Federal Police. That is just plain wrong. It debases this parliament for the Prime Minister to make those sorts of insulting remarks about the Leader of the Opposition and other Labor people—the opposition generally—by saying that, somehow or other, we do not support the work of the Australian Federal Police. That is not accurate, it's not correct and it shouldn't be done. In fact, we should be using the exemplar of the minister who is sitting at the table and his shadow who is sitting at the table to say: 'We can work cooperatively in this space, and let's sit down and do it. We don't need to be divided over issues of such great national importance as the role of the Federal Police in this country.'
It's very, very important, in my view, that we try and seek to do things in a cooperative way in this place. I know it's a contested space. I know that, in the way in which this parliament operates, oppositions oppose and governments try and kick the guts out of the opposition. That's all well and good. But it's not appropriate in areas of public policy of the greatest concern to the Australian community. We should be trying to resolve our issues in an appropriate way. We don't do that by denigrating one another and we don't do it, in my view, by insulting the intelligence of the Australian community and saying that the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten, and his shadow ministerial team and the Labor backbench are somehow or other not supportive of the Australian Federal Police. That is just plain wrong. I know that any Australians who might be listening to this debate would say they agree that this should not be the case.
But I want to go back to the legislation. I know that the minister, working with the Department of Veterans' Affairs and with the opposition, through the member for Kingston, has come to a conclusion about eight schedules in this piece of legislation. We have heard from the shadow minister and the minister that they have agreed to amend schedule 1 to recognise the issues which were raised by the veterans community about a particular aspect of that schedule—and that is as it should be. And we know that the veterans community are exercised by the fact that they want to make sure that their interests are properly protected and advanced within this legislation. The proposals to dismiss the prospect of reviews, in schedule 1—an application dismissed as frivolous, vexatious, misconceived or lacking in substance, or which has no reasonable prospect of success or is otherwise an abuse of the process of the board—were of concern to the stakeholders. I'm indebted to the work of the Parliamentary Library and their excellent Bills Digest, which enumerates some of the concerns which were expressed about this particular part of the legislation by representatives of the veterans community.
And I think it's worthwhile pointing out that in accepting that there was no need for that amendment, which was proposed originally by the government, the government has actually responded positively to the concerns that have been expressed by the veterans community and by the member for Kingston—and that's a very good thing. Whilst a number of points of concern were raised, there is no question in my view that the amendments as proposed will have the result that's required and make the legislation better.
I'm not going to go through—as the shadow minister has done already—each of the schedules of this legislation. That will serve no particular purpose other than to bore those who are listening—because they have already heard it. I did ask in a flippant way whether I should just use the opposition spokesperson's speech—because it did, as the government has done, outline the detail of the legislation. But I do want to go more generally to the issue of how we have a responsibility to make sure, in a changing environment, that we do all we possibly can to support our veterans.
It was a salutary lesson the other day when I sat and listened to the minister talk about the suicides. The fact is that, when in uniform, the suicide rate for Australian serving men and women is a lot less than it is in the general population; but, for that group of young Australians under the age of 24 who are veterans, it's a lot higher. I think the average length of service—the minister can correct me—for Australian serving personnel is around 7½ to eight years. We know that there are people who serve until they're 60. Congratulations to them, and we thank them very much for their wonderful service. But the young Australians who join the Defence Force when they're 17, 18 or 19 and leave the Defence Force in their mid-20s are the most at risk. And one of the issues which has been of concern not only to the minister but to the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the defence organisations is that we lose track of people once they leave—and that's for a whole range of reasons. It's really difficult. You can't compel people who leave the uniform to remain in touch.
You can't compel people who separate from the Defence Force to retain contact with their unit. We can't compel them to be members of a representative organisation like the RSL or some other organisation. We just can't. There are some who leave dispirited, and perhaps with a whole range of issues around authority as a result of their service, and they don't want anything to do with the uniform—they just don't want anything to do with it. Yet, potentially, they are the ones most in need. Our aspiration must be, somehow or another, to be able to track those people so that there is someone watching out for them.
That is extremely difficult. It's not something that the minister or the department can manufacture. I think it's something that organisations supporting veterans may have better access to, because it really means people going out and looking. If you've got mates while you're in the Defence Force, let's hope you keep those mates after it. I know in my father's case—he was a serving member in the Second World War—that he kept very close contact with his unit right until his death. That was great, but it doesn't happen often enough for some young people.
When people do cry out for help we've got to do what we can immediately. If there are people who, say, have a claim against the Commonwealth because of their service, we need to expedite the process for their claim to be heard, to make sure their claim is properly represented and to make sure their voice is properly heard so that their claim is met as quickly as possible—as this legislation is designed to do. If we don't, then we may end up in a situation where someone might do something which we would not want them to do. That is really very important.
I know that the department is challenged by this all the time, because it's not something that's easily overcome. But I do know, and I want to commend the minister and ask him to tell his department, how much we do appreciate the work they do. We might have differences about some of the decisions made about staffing, VAN officer and those sort of things but, ultimately, the people I've met in the Department of Veterans' Affairs are very highly motivated towards attending to the veterans' needs and veterans' families' needs.
As I've said continually in this place, we should make sure that anyone who walks through the doors of Kapooka understands from the day they walk in that they they're a potential client of the Department of Veterans' Affairs until the day they die. If they can accept that proposition as early as that, they'll see it as normal, once they leave, to have an association with the department. I would say—and this is a message which I know shouldn't rest with the minister—that we need to make sure there's never ever again another thought about having the Department of Veterans' Affairs absorbed into another agency. That should never happen. I don't think it will happen. It certainly won't happen under a Labor government. I know there have been some who have posited that proposal over the years, but let's make sure it's rejected whenever it's put.