House debates

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Bills

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

12:51 pm

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this important bill, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and their Families) Bill 2020, today and to speak about the second reading amendment moved by the shadow minister.

I thank the member for Kennedy for his remarks. I am in awe of his commitment to veterans across our state and our country, and I thank him for his very informed remarks. As the son of a World War II veteran, I can echo what he said in the debate. When my father came back from war there wasn't a lot of support for veterans. Veterans were either deemed to have shell shock on their service record or they were given housing opportunities, with no real support.

In preparation for today's debate, and through the National Archives, this week I received my father's Royal Australian Naval Reserve Record of Mobilised Service. On 27 October 1941, official No. B3388, Dick, Allan Baxter, of Brisbane signed up to the Royal Australian Navy. On that record it listed his dates of service, on a two-page, yellow, torn document that clearly is still in existence. He was discharged on 1 April 1946, and the statement of service was forwarded to the ex-servicemen on 25 May 1946.

The reason I've read that into the record is that it was really the clear demonstration that when people left the Navy or the services, a lot of the time they were left to fend for themselves. Growing up, and later in life—it was only really when I was a teenager—that my father would talk about the war. He never attended RSL meetings and never attended Anzac Days. He was a very proud veteran and a very proud patriot, but he never acknowledged, or didn't want to talk about, the war. I think our country has come so far, when every single member of this parliament now works closely with their veterans and RSLs. This wasn't always the case. Everyone has a different story about their service in the ADF. I myself haven't served, but I'm proud to work alongside so many RSL sub-branches in the Oxley electorate to not only learn from but understand their experiences. I talk about their sacrifice. I talk about the tremendous effort they've given to our country. I want to speak on this bill today to acknowledge the fact of not just how far we have come with our veterans in this country but how far we still have to go.

I know the good work of RSL sub-branches across Australia, including those in the south-west of Brisbane and the suburbs of Ipswich that I proudly represent in this parliament: the Centenary Suburbs Sub Branch, the Darra & District Sub Branch, the Forest Lake Sub Branch, the Goodna Sub Branch, the Redbank Sub Branch and the Redbank Plains Sub Branch. I commend each and every one of the sub-branches for its hard work. The presidents and committee members of all of them should be applauded for their advocacy for veterans in our community and beyond.

I've had a number of roundtables with the Hon. Amanda Rishworth, the former shadow minister, and with the member for Blair, Shayne Neumann, my neighbour, who is now the shadow minister. I pay tribute to the work that they have done and the dignified way in which they have stood up for veterans in this country and their advocacy with respect to what needs to happen for the veteran community.

We know the bill today introduces three important measures that will provide better and more appropriate support for our veterans: it will implement the government's commitment to create the Veteran Family Advocate, it will provide changes to support veterans' transition from the Australian Defence Force to civilian employment, and it will ensure all recipients of the Department of Veterans' Affairs gold cards are treated equally in terms of their benefits. As I said in my opening remarks, it's vital that we look after the men and women who've looked after us. Whilst Labor does support the bill, I want to take this opportunity to raise my voice in the parliament about ongoing concerns within the ADF and the wider Australian community about suicide among serving and ex-serving ADF personnel and, in particular, about ex-serving ADF personnel who face increased risk of suicide.

Regardless of the role or capacity in which any veteran served our country, it has been a unique and critical role in the joint effort to protect Australia, its peoples and our freedoms. This bill recognises this by implementing the government's commitment, announced on 5 February this year, to create the Veteran Family Advocate. It also provides changes to support the transition from Australia Defence Force service to civilian employment and, as I said, it sorts out the issues for gold card recipients.

Earlier this year, the government announced two roles: the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, which will be complemented by the Veteran Family Advocate. I note that, while the government intends to bring forward legislation to establish the national commissioner later this year, and while this bill will establish the Veteran Family Advocate as a new commissioner to work as part of the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, Labor has had serious concerns about the government's related proposal of a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. We would prefer a royal commission into veteran suicide. From a procedural point of view, we believe it's a bit premature to establish the Veteran Family Advocate position ahead of that of the national commissioner.

This has been an important issue for the Leader of the Opposition, supported by every single member of the Labor team. They have been working alongside a number of groups, and, on the issue of a royal commission, I want to acknowledge, in particular, the work of my friend the member for Solomon, Luke Gosling OAM. I acknowledge his service in this House, because we know this powerful issue must be addressed.

Regarding the substance, we welcome the announcement of the advocate as a stand-alone measure; we just want to make sure that the advocate is appropriately resourced and is able to do its job. These commissions are responsible for supporting the administration of veterans legislation and providing advice to the minister and government in relation to these acts. They will be responsible for directly engaging with the families of veterans to help shape policy, improve the design of all veterans programs and services, including mental health support and services.

I hear the stories of veterans and their families. I'm very proud to represent a number of ADF serving personnel, with a large amount of Defence Force housing located in the Oxley electorate, in the suburbs of Forest Lake, Springfield and Springfield Lakes, heading out towards Amberley Air Force base. I've met with the various veterans groups, such as the RSL sub-branches, and also with a number of local serving personnel whom I was able to visit personally when I was privileged enough to travel to the Middle East on a special trip last year to visit Operation Okra. As we know, a number of members of parliament have taken the opportunity to join the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program, which gives that rare insight into the sometimes dangerous but important work that our service men and women are undertaking. Currently there are around 2,000 ADF personnel deployed in the Middle East region.

On my trip to the Middle East last year I was joined by a number of colleagues: the member for Fisher, from Queensland, and also Senator Kimberley Kitching, a senator from Victoria. I was particularly honoured to meet with local residents who were serving there and to hear about their concerns and issues. All of them had one common message to me: 'If you get the opportunity, make sure you speak for us.' And that's what I intend to do for as long as I serve in this place. On the trip I was honoured to meet everyday Australians, who are also mums and dads, who have chosen to fight for the peace and freedom of our country. As a result, I wanted to speak on this bill today, to look at all the measures we can put in place to help, to prevent mental health issues and of course to ensure suicide prevention. One suicide is too many.

The veteran family advocate will have the necessary independence to represent the views of veteran families to the DVA and, I would hope, influence policymaking outcomes. It's critical to their role. Many veterans have complained about the lack of assistance they receive when they transition out of the ADF. I'm really hopeful and confident that the advocate will go and sit with the families, hear their stories, listen to the advice and be able to better shape veteran policy in ways that will reduce the risks of personnel issues and leave surrounding the ADF. Labor believes that the advocate will make the voice of veterans' families louder and stronger—a voice that will be heard and one that will shape policies and decision-making to promote better mental health outcomes for our veterans.

Many Defence and veteran families have also told me they simply don't feel that they're being heard when it comes to support and assistance. So I really hope that this is another opportunity for the government to hear the pleas—and the cries, in some cases—to establish a genuine independent royal commission into Defence personnel and veterans suicide. And I'm very sad to report to the House that from 2001 to 2017 there were 419 suicides among Reserves and both serving and ex-serving ADF personnel. That's why I was really pleased that going into the last election we took in a strategy around better engagement by the DVA with military and veteran families and identifying improvements to family support. Moreover, last year's Productivity Commission report on the veteran support system recommended better family engagement and support by agencies. In the lead-up to the 2019 election campaign I stood in front of veterans groups and RSLs who were very concerned about some of the recommendations that were coming through and how a future-focused Department of Veterans' Affairs would be shaped.

We all want to support veterans to the best of our ability. Every member of this House wants that, and I hope this new position will achieve better outcomes for our veterans and their families. Schedule 2 of the bill facilitates flexibility in the way programs can be designed to assist the transition from the ADF to the civilian workforce. Once established through regulations, the program will provide eligible veterans with both pre- and post-employment assistance. It's a really critical element for veterans, when they are transitioning, to have clear pathways, equal opportunities into the workforce, career advice, coaching, assistance, skills transition, resume and interview preparation and one-on-one peer support so that they understand the styles of communication in civilian employment, which clearly can be different from the important work that they have undertaken.

Schedule 3 of the bill rectifies the unintended omission that has meant that the energy supplement has not been payable to some DVA gold card holders because they are covered under a different piece of legislation. It's not a huge amount of money, but for veterans, particularly for seniors, who rely on that support and particularly with these rising costs, where we're seeing the cost of living go through the roof, and with uncertain times in the economy, heading in towards recession, every little dollar counts. I'm really pleased that, although it's only a minor change, it's an important change for a number of people who had fallen through those cracks. I thank the government for taking action on that.

I thank the shadow minister Shayne Neumann for his advocacy. He worked constructively with the government. I think this area of public policy is one where we can work together and is one where we should work together to ensure that those brave men and women who have served our country—and I thank each and every one of them for their service—see this parliament standing shoulder to shoulder together to ensure not only their voices are heard but their issues are addressed . Together we can show better respect and more support for our ADF personnel and veterans.

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