House debates

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Bills

Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020; Second Reading

12:02 pm

Photo of Fiona PhillipsFiona Phillips (Gilmore, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I'm glad to rise today to support the wellbeing of local veterans and their families across the New South Wales South Coast. We have a strong defence presence in my electorate of Gilmore, so it is no surprise that veterans and their families are an important part of our community. We need to make sure we are doing absolutely everything we can to help and support local veterans, and that is why I am supporting the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020 today.

During the 2019 election, Labor promised a veteran family engagement and support strategy. We recognised the critical importance of urgently addressing the rates of veteran suicide in our community and making sure that those who leave our defence forces get the help and support they deserve. Defence families are the unsung heroes of the Australian Defence Force. Families of serving and veteran military personnel face a unique set of challenges; there is no doubt about that. These can be even more challenging as they leave the Defence Force and try to reintegrate back into civilian life. We need to make sure that those who support our serving and veteran ADF members are receiving the help they need.

I am pleased that this bill will create a commissioner to represent the perspectives of families of veterans on the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. The Veteran Family Advocate will give a voice to veterans' families and highlight the important role they play in veteran and family health and wellbeing. It will make sure families inform veteran policy and the administration of veterans' entitlements. The Veteran Family Advocate will work with veterans' families to build our understanding of risk and protective factors as veterans transition from the Defence Force. Veteran suicide is a scourge among our community and it requires urgent and immediate attention. It is absolutely critical that every part of the veteran support system is focused on veterans' mental health and suicide prevention, and I hope that the advocate provides the strong voice veterans' families need.

There are a number of organisations on the New South Wales South Coast that are working hard to support local veterans and their families. One of the best things about our beautiful coast is, no doubt, the ocean. We have hundreds of beaches in my electorate, so I guess it should be no surprise that some clever-thinking locals have put surfing and therapy together to improve the mental health and wellbeing of local veterans. The Australia-first initiative Defence Surf Therapy is thanks to local Gerroa veteran Glenn Kolomeitz and former professional surfer and owner of the Gerringong Surf School, Rusty Moran. The program was launched last year to show that non-pharmacological treatments can be effective at reducing stress and managing mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder. It is innovative programs like this that we need to be focussing on as we look for new ways to manage a long recognised problem. That is why I was absolutely thrilled to see this program receive $280,000 in federal funding under the Supporting Younger Veterans grants program. The Nowra based Keith Payne VC Veterans Benefit Group will manage the governance of a 12-month pilot for this program, and it is hard to imagine a better place to run a surfing program like this than the beautiful Seven Mile Beach at Gerroa. Over 10 weeks, up to 70 veterans will be taught how to surf by Rusty and his team.

But, of course, the program is about so much more than surfing. Veterans can meet and connect with each other. They will learn how to practice mindfulness and they will be supported in their journey back into civilian life. The program is based on a similar one from the United States and will also see psychology services offered, with follow-up six and 12 months later. The overall benefits of a program like this are far greater than the two-hour surf lesson. By finding different ways of dealing with the mental health concerns of our veterans, we help them to re-engage in our community. As Rusty Moran said:

If we can help veterans learn practices to clear their mind of negative thoughts, they can be more present off the board then hopefully they can incorporate it into their civilian life routine.

As with mental health responses in the broader community, we need to find ways of helping and supporting people without just turning to medication. We know that can have all kinds of wider repercussions. This is the type of program that can be developed if we stop talking at veterans and their families and start listening to their ideas. It is wonderful to see the broader veteran community getting behind this fantastic initiative. Thank you to Rusty Moran and Glenn Kolomeitz as well as to Rick Meehan and Fred Campbell from Keith Payne VC Veterans Benefit Group for your work putting this program together.

Rick and Fred are also wonderful advocates of our local veteran community. They are a passionate pair who have spent years working to improve veterans' lives. They are the driving forces behind the successful Shoalhaven Digger Day, another great day of celebration and connection for our local veterans. It's a traditional rugby match with more than a little friendly competition between long-time rivals Shoalhaven and Kiama. It's just one of a host of fantastic local celebrations and, as Rick says, 'A time to reflect on what our veterans have done for our country in all past wars and conflicts.' They also run the Operation Walk to Talk group on Friday mornings in Harry Sawkins Park in Nowra, another great initiative aimed at improving the mental health and wellbeing of local veterans.

Our RSL sub-branches play an important role in supporting our veteran community. Run by passionate volunteers, they are making a real difference in the lives of local veterans. For example, take the Sussex Inlet RSL Club sub-branch. Volunteers from the sub-branch are regularly visiting veterans in hospitals and nursing homes, providing company and mateship to those who are often in very lonely situations. I was proud to support these volunteers recently by providing $4,000 to the Sussex Inlet RSL Club sub-branch for training and fuel reimbursements under the volunteer grants program. A few months ago, I also had the pleasure of dropping into the Moruya RSL sub-branch meeting at the lovely RSL memorial hall. All of the local members are always welcoming, and I was happy to have the opportunity to check in with them. I hope to be back there soon.

I was also thrilled when the Eurobodalla Vietnam veterans received $5,332 under Building Excellence in Support and Training grants. This will help provide compensation and welfare assistance to the defence and veteran community on the far South Coast—more wonderful news for local veterans. I know it will make a real difference to local communities and families. Last year I joined with the Eurobodalla Vietnam veterans to commemorate Vietnam Veterans Day. The service was a fitting tribute to those brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. I was proud to join with them to honour people for their service.

It would be remiss of me to talk about the importance of ADF families without mentioning the amazing Shoalhaven Defence Families Association. The New South Wales South Coast is of course home to HMAS Albatross and HMAS Creswell, two vital Australian Navy assets, but they are also vital assets to the Shoalhaven community. The Shoalhaven Defence Families Association was created to support the families of our local serving personnel—those unsung heroes I spoke about earlier. Their aim is to bring fun, friendship and support to defence and civilian families in the Shoalhaven and surrounding areas. This includes activities like playgroups, craft groups, courses and training as well as the community centre Kookaburra Retreat. The Kookaburra Retreat has a strong focus on supporting families that are facing the particular challenges that come with the defence way of life. It gives families of serving personnel a social outlet and lets them build connections with people who understand exactly what they are going through. The value of that cannot be overstated. Thank you to all the members of the Shoalhaven Defence Families Association for everything you do to support our defence families.

Schedule 2 of the bill also helps to facilitate flexibility in the way programs can be designed to assist the transition from the ADF to the civilian workforce. Eligible veterans will be given both pre and post employment assistance, including career advice, coaching, assistance with skill translation, resume and interview preparation and coaching to adapt to the structure and style of communication in civilian employment. We need to make sure that there is enough support for our recently transitioned Defence Force members so that they can gain and keep meaningful employment. We know that this, in itself, makes a distinguishable difference to mental health and overall wellbeing outcomes both in and out of the defence industry. I am pleased to support these improvements to workplace support for our veterans.

We need to do more to support our veterans as they transition into civilian life. It is a challenging and confusing time and too many people have told me they just didn't know where to go. That is why, before the last election, Labor committed to seven veteran wellbeing centres across the country, including one in Nowra. These centres will enable services to be delivered on the ground. They'll be a one-stop shop providing support for local veterans. This is something our veteran community, including the South Coast Veterans Motorcycle Club, lobbied hard for.

RSL New South Wales has been selected as the local partner and delivery agency for the $5 million centre, with former Navy commodore and president of the RSL Central Southern District Council, Lee Cordner AM, overseeing the steering committee. However, we are waiting for crucial details on funding and implementation approaches to be announced. We still don't know, as yet, where the site will be, but it was said that it would be completed in 2020. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, planning on other centres around the country is far more advanced than the Nowra centre. Our country areas are missing out again. The government need to get on with it. Local veterans have been waiting for this too long already. They deserve better.

The last change in this bill, to schedule 3, will mean all gold card holders will now be able to access the energy supplement to help them with their energy costs, a move I know will be welcomed by those caught up in an unintended omission from the current legislation. I will always support efforts to make sure our veterans are treated fairly and consistently, and I am glad to see this change being made today.

I have long been advocating for and supporting reform that improves the lives of our local veterans. When I was a candidate during 2018, I held a veterans forum, along with the member for Kingston, the then shadow minister for defence personnel and veterans' affairs, to hear firsthand from our veterans about what policy changes were needed to better support our veteran family. At that forum, we discussed support for veterans transitioning to a civilian life, through training and workplace support. We also discussed the need to improve support for our wonderful ADF families. I have already mentioned Labor's Family Engagement and Support Strategy, but it was a critically important commitment to so many in our community.

This bill seeks to address these issues, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about how we can further support local defence and veterans' families, but these ideas need to come direct from veterans themselves. I would like to take the opportunity to make special mention of my former colleague, Mike Kelly. A veteran himself, Mike was a true advocate for the Eden-Monaro veteran community. He was a major contributor to Labor's policy agenda on veterans' issues in the lead-up to the last election. Mike understood the challenges facing our veterans in gaining employment outside of the Defence Force and in managing their mental health. I was proud to stand with Mike in advocating for improvements like those included in this bill today. I know he will continue to play an important role in the local community, even after his retirement from this place. I wish him all the best.

I will keep listening to our veterans and advocating for the policy improvements they need. These ideas must always come from the ground up. I hope that this bill will provide that strong voice for veterans' families, to promote better mental health outcomes as part of the regular policy and decision-making process. I have heard from too many veterans about the lack of support provided as they left the Defence Force, and from too many families who have told me that they felt they were going it alone. I hope this bill will help to achieve better outcomes for veterans and their families. I would like to thank each and every member of our veteran community for their efforts to serve and protect our country. Thank you to all our unsung defence heroes, and the families and friends of our Australian defence forces, who are there every day, dealing with the unique challenges they face. And thank you to everyone in our broader community for working so hard to protect and support our defence family. I commend the bill to the House.

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