Thursday, 18 June 2020
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I'd like to start by acknowledging all the men and women around the nation who have worn the uniform or continue to wear the uniform in service to this nation, and I acknowledge their families, who are the backbone of the defence community. I would like to acknowledge every member in this House who has served their nation in the ADF—the member for Canning, the member for Solomon, the member for Stirling, the member for Braddon and the member for Leichhardt and, of course, the senators in the other place who have served this nation and continue to serve this nation.
Improving the wellbeing of veterans and their families should not just be words. It should be enshrined in all of us here, every day, to better support the people that have fought for our freedoms, our democracy and our way of life—the people that we put in harm's way to ensure that we can sleep safely and soundly at night. It's important that we acknowledge not just our ADF men and women but also their families. Their families are often forgotten about or left behind, not included in discussions and not included in policy development. I think it's such a step forward for everyone in this place to support the Veteran Family Advocate, because the Veteran Family Advocate is the person who links into the families—to the wives, to the husbands, to the spouses and to the children—to better inform government and ex-service organisations on policy, on the way we should go forward and on the way that best supports the family. That's because we know what can happen with family breakdown.
Our Defence men and women veterans have a higher-than-average rate of suicide—higher than for the general public. That's not good enough. We who sit in this place should never accept that. We who sit in this place, who pass laws, who speak on bills and who thank people for their service, must use more than words. We must go into action and not use words for political point-scoring. There is always healthy debate about what we should and shouldn't be doing in the veterans' community. That's debate that I would encourage. But it should be debate where we all want to go in the same direction, not just for point-scoring.
The Veteran Family Advocate will complement the national commissioner, which is a rolling commission into veteran suicides. The family advocate will set out, influence and develop policy within the Department of Veteran's Affairs. The advocate will also link in with ex-service organisations around the country and their members of parliament at the state and federal levels. We know that having this family advocate, as well as the families' committees that have been set up through the Department of Veteran's Affairs, is in the best interests of the nation and definitely in the best interests of family members, still-serving family members or former-serving family members.
We know that meaningful engagement and meaningful employment that are things that are encouraged within the veterans' space. We know that, through illness or injury, not everyone can work once they've left the ADF. But it is something to have that engagement and that meaning in your life, where you wake up in the morning with something to do or somewhere to be employed. To balance injury, illness, engagement and employment is a challenge, but this family advocate will help with that balance. I could have been a statistic easily—easily. Friends of mine are statistics—friends of mine that we discuss in here. This is something that we must do together. We have to do it together.
I know that the former Minister for Defence, Joel Fitzgibbon, agrees. I know he does. And I know that everyone on the other side and on the crossbench agree. But sometimes—and I'm going to use a word that I'm allowed to use—it does make me somewhat upset when we see the knives come out on something so important. I know that it doesn't have to happen and I know that sometimes it happens unintentionally, but when it happens it doesn't affect us in here; it affects the families, the spouses, the wives, the husbands, the kids, the still-serving and the former-serving people. They see us in here using them as a political football. We mustn't do that; we must work together. Debate, yes, but work together for the betterment of the veteran community and their families.
I'd like to see our veterans included with ex-service organisations. And, where there isn't an ex-service organisation, how can we find one there? How can we link people in, whether in person, or via social media or other platforms? It's that linkage, that connection, that we need. And for families, it's the same thing; having that connection with other families. It's talking to them and finding out what works in their house—what works at home and what works when they've been deployed, or are deployed or were deployed? How are the kids tracking? These are things that we need to discuss and these are things which we need to foster and encourage.
Whilst this is a bill that we're talking about in parliament, the role of government is to create a healthy environment in which the communities that we speak on, the veteran community and their families, can grow and prosper—to deliver for them. It should be veteran-led, families-led, not government-led. Having veteran employment awards that recognise industry and different organisations that employ veterans and their families is a great step in the right direction, because, whilst not every veteran comes out of the military well, we're not all broken. Some of us are, and that's okay. We still can have employment and engagement, and so can our families. We need to foster the non-broken narrative that plagues Australia when we talk about veterans, because of the high number of suicides, because of the high number of people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness or can be mentally unwell—just like everyone else. Everyone else goes through the same dramas, just in a different and unique way. I say to employers, to industry and to political parties: having veterans involved will only benefit you.
Having the support wraparound that a veteran family advocate will provide will be essential. We'll be able to amend, to change, to refocus what we discuss. We do not need to be telling people what they want. We must be asking, 'What do you need?' It should be led by the veterans and veterans' families, not led by government. I know that, in the case of the families and other people who have been bereaved by suicide, it hurts every person here, every day, having to talk about how we 'should' be working together or how we 'should' do this or how this 'could' work. The time for talk is over. The time for action needs to be now, because suicide, mental illness and suicide prevention are the responsibility of everyone who sits in this place. We need to be a part of creating, developing and working with the families to be a part of solutions—to be solutions-oriented, not waiting for something terrible to happen. Having more than 400 suicides in less than a 20-year period is simply not good enough. It should not be accepted by any member of parliament. The community does not accept it; therefore, we should be doing more to combat it.
I want to finish by saying that a veteran family advocate is long overdue. A veteran family advocate should have no political ties. It should be independent and sit in the middle, as I'm sure it will, and work with every person and with ex-service organisations—a big team, a great team, that goes out and speaks with families, children, members, ex-service organisations, people in this place, everyone. Families, veterans and still-serving members of the ADF should never be used for point-scoring or for adversarial action. They should be used to create and promote better policy and a better agenda so that we can best support them.