Monday, 18 June 2018
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018; Second Reading
It gives me great pleasure to speak in this debate and indicate that the Labor Party, as has been outlined by our shadow minister, will be supporting this bill. I want to comment favourably on the contributions that have been made by others. I want to make an observation. Here in this parliament we have a number of veterans, one of whom, the member for Eden-Monaro, is sitting beside me. We've just had a bit of a chat about the importance of making sure that we understand and comprehend the daily grind that many veterans face, that we have tools in place to address their needs and their families' needs and, most particularly, that we appreciate that there are many who, whilst serving, may not have exhibited the traits that ultimately leave their mark on them, particularly in terms of mental health.
It is really very, very important that we, as a parliament, recognise the challenges that many Defence Force personnel face not only during their service but, sadly, on transition and, for many, some years later. Because what's clear from all the work that's been done over many years now is that there are many people who will transition out of the Defence Force thinking they're as bulletproof as they were when they were in, only to find, over a period of time, that actually they're not. I'm reminded that there is evidence showing that around 30 per cent of people who have separated from the Defence Force remain unemployed after five years. That says a lot not only about the individuals but about our failure to comprehend their real needs.
The issue, though, in part, is: do we know who they are? One of the things that bedevils the Department of Veterans' Affairs and indeed the Department of Defence is keeping track of people who have transitioned out of the Defence Force and knowing that they're okay. Whilst there are unit organisations that try and keep people attached, often that doesn't work. People, for whatever reason, decide they've had enough—'I don't want to talk to any more uniforms, and you, Sir, can get to buggery.' Over time, some of them come to realise that that was not a good decision, but, more importantly, they may not have realised that it wasn't a good decision but now have an illness as a result of their service which they need to address. We, in this place, have an extreme responsibility to make sure that they get the help and assistance that they and their families need.
I commend this legislation because it deals with a number of areas, as has been outlined by others, in a way which will make life easier for some but certainly treat the ailments of others. That's what's really important. The suicide prevention trials are absolutely essential. Whilst we know that the suicide rate for people in service, in uniform, is less than it is for the general population, it's an open question as to what it really is postuniform over a period of years. We've got to get our heads around it. Just contemplate this: my good friend sitting next to me has served in a theatre of war. I'm not sure how many postings he had, but the point is he's been posted to a theatre of war. There are people who, over a short period of their lives, maybe five or 10 years, have been deployed seven, eight, nine or 10 times. Particularly for those who have served in the special forces, the issues are extreme. We've got to understand not only the difficulties that they've confronted whilst in service but also the compounding effects of their continuing service, potentially, on them as individuals and on their families. Once we start down that road, we'll have a far more open attitude. I think we already are accepting, but we need a far more open attitude to some of the difficulties that people are confronting. I think this legislation helps us in that regard, both for particular individuals and for their families.
I might just make the observation that we've got to be conscious that the day you go to Kapooka or to RMC and put on that uniform, you are effectively a client of DVA. We need to get people to realise that putting on the uniform means they are now a potential client—if you are not a client already, you should understand what DVA can do for you—and DVA, conversely, needs to make sure that the soldiers, sailors and air men and women understand what DVA can do for them. That's important whilst they're in uniform so that, when they leave the uniform behind, they can comprehend absolutely, understand and know where they can get assistance, should they require it.
I note that the member for Ryan is at the table. Sadly, she has been treated very shabbily by her own political party, but she is someone for whom I have the greatest respect and whose son I know. He is currently an officer in the Australian Army. I know the member for Ryan appreciates this, but I'm not sure everyone in this chamber—or in the Senate for that matter—does, and I know I didn't for a long time. I had a commitment to the Defence Force and a commitment to and an understanding of people who had served, because my own father and his father and uncles had all been part of the service, but getting integrally involved in the nature of the service gave me a comprehension that I hitherto didn't have. I know that the member for Ryan appreciates absolutely what this means for her and her family, and for her son's family. In two weeks time we'll be commemorating the famous victory of General Monash at Le Hamel 100 years ago. We need to understand that, each time, in 100 years of war—the First World War, the Boer War before it and subsequent wars—we, the Australian nation, are asking people like the member for Ryan's son to go and fire bullets on our behalf. We, as a consequence, have an obligation, and that obligation cannot be underestimated. I fear that there are still some—not amongst us, I hope—who underestimate that challenge.
I note that the support for our Defence Force and Defence Force personnel is, clearly, now strongly bipartisan. We may have different views about policy and about whether or not we should be engaged in particular circumstances. But one thing is beyond doubt, and that is our united support in a bipartisan way for Defence Force men and women and their families and for veterans. We need to comprehend that a young person who, at the age of 17 or 18, marches to Kapooka for their recruit training could potentially be a client of DVA for the rest of their life, as could their children. And, should they marry, we know that the highest number of people being cared for by Veterans' Affairs at the moment are spouses of Defence Force members who have passed away.
So it's a broad family we're talking about here. It's a community that we need to have more to do with. Those of us who have had the great fortune of interacting with veterans understand their commitment, obviously, but we also understand their needs. Sadly, at times, some people's needs aren't properly addressed or aren't recognised, and those people fall through the gaps. We have to appreciate that when we deal with these people, we have to be prepared to deal with them sensitively and make sure that their needs are properly addressed and met. If mistakes have been made, they've got to be fixed. My experience with the Department of Veterans' Affairs has been that, overwhelmingly, the commitment is to the veteran. The systems sometimes fail us, and we have got to make sure that we provide the support so the systems do not to fail us. I think that the measures in this piece of legislation will help in that regard in a very positive way.
I know my time's about up. I'll continue to speak until 1.30, because I don't want my colleague on the other side to get up on his pins and speak for 30 seconds and be told to sit down. It is important that we all recognise the value in this legislation. We do have differences from time to time. We have policy differences on some areas regarding veterans, but, generally speaking, when we know we can work together we do. I want to commend the government for initiating this legislation and the opposition for giving its support.
I'll just go back, if I may, to the 100th anniversary of Le Hamel. Once you've read some of this history, it's intriguing to understand why people do particular things and how gravely they do them. Most importantly, we need to understand the sacrifices made for us. Whether it was 100 years ago or today, those sacrifices are still being made.