Thursday, 18 June 2020
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I'm very pleased to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting The Wellbeing of Veterans and their Families) Bill 2020. I just want to thank the member for Oxley for his contribution and for his ongoing care of veterans and service people who live in his electorate and more broadly. He takes a real interest by getting out there during the ADF parliamentary programs to see what our amazing women and men are doing in the ADF in defence of our nation and our interests.
I'll just cover the legislation briefly and then make some observations. The legislation contains three measures, as we've heard, which are all aimed at better meeting the needs of veterans and their families. The first implements the PM's commitment to appoint the Veteran Family Advocate, announced on 5 February this year, whilst the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention was being announced. This new position recognises the critical role families play in supporting the health and wellbeing of the veteran community. When I'm speaking to veterans, they often say the only thing that's keeping them going, if they're experiencing difficulties, is their families—the love and support of their families. And those families need support. The Veteran Family Advocate will engage with these families, with a strong focus on mental health and suicide prevention.
I know, as a veteran and as the son of a veteran who was the son of a veteran, families do play a critical role. Every time I get to speak with people in my community, which is often, whether they be veterans, current serving personnel, finished serving personnel or families, I hear there is a real need for more support. That's why this role, I think, is very important. The day-to-day role of the advocate will include examining issues relating to veterans' and families' policy, benefits, entitlements and health outcomes.
We on this side as the federal opposition trust the individual advocate and their support will have all the necessary independence to represent the views of veterans and their families to DVA and to also influence policymaking in a real way.
We, the federal opposition, do have serious concerns about the government's related proposal, and I spoke about that earlier this week. The National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention may have been a recommendation of a full royal commission. I think it may very well have been. But I do wonder whether it may be a bit premature to establish the Veteran Family Advocate before the national commissioner. I do wonder that. But I do sincerely hope for the best. I hope that the individuals chosen for those roles are well experienced and have lived experience, because that will help them be the best possible representative that they can be.
I echo the amendment of my colleague, Matt Keogh, the member for Burt, which notes the government's 'stubborn refusal to enact a full royal commission into veteran suicide and its insistence instead on establishing a national commissioner'. I have been on the record many, many times as saying that it is, I think, the majority of veterans' views that a royal commission is required. As I said, I think this permanent national commissioner may very well have been a recommendation of a royal commission—but more on that in a minute.
The second measure in the bill will help to make the transition and journey from being an ADF member to being part of the civilian workforce smoother. It will include developing skills for transition to civilian life, such as equipping veterans to interview effectively when they're going for jobs as well as coaching them to adapt to the way of life and to work on civvy street. The third and final measure will ensure that all veteran gold card holders are treated equitably, as we would all hope for. Together, these amendments should deliver better outcomes for veterans and their families and Labor supports them.
But let's not forget the important context for why we are passing these measures today. The government's announcement in February came after widespread calls from veterans, the media and Labor for a royal commission into veteran suicide. There was a huge tide of public support for a royal commission into veteran suicide that became a core political issue late last year. It is that movement, that tide of public support, to which we owe these improvements today. So I want to thank all those who pushed for a royal commission—and they continue to push—because they have the best interests of veterans and their families at heart. I ask them to maintain the rage.
Throughout COVID-19 and the bushfires, the petition begun by Julie-Ann Finney, who lost her son tragically to suicide, like so many other mothers and fathers have, has only continued to grow. It's currently an impressive size of 342,505 petitioners. It's probably gone up more today. That's equivalent to 2½ Darwins or to 10 Gladstones. It's bigger than Geelong and Newcastle. It is an incredible achievement. But of course Julie-Ann simply provided a method by which the Australian people, patriots of this nation, could say there has been too much of young women and men, Australian patriots, taking their own lives, dying by suicide, and we need to make it stop. That huge number of people who have taken the time to sign that petition also says that this is an issue of central importance to the lives of veterans, their families and their communities around Australia. I think it says that we should not relent in our commitment to treating veteran suicide as a national scourge and that we need to drive down these shocking figures as a matter of urgent priority. And I say that that is a bipartisan commitment. I know that those opposite—the member for Herbert, the member for Canning and others—have lost mates, as I have. They don't want to see any more veteran suicides. But I guess we differ in the focus on doing everything we can, and a royal commission with a fixed start and end date would enable so many voices to be heard. That would give us recommendations and it would fix these issues.
Some say that we already know what to do. I think there is a lot more that we can learn if we listen, and, as I said, the national commissioner may very likely have been one of the recommendations, and we would have had a lot better result. It was probably the No. 1 issue on the public's mind coming into Christmas—and we remember that then the fires started—but it's important for us all to remember that it's not just about what's in the news cycle today, this week or next month. The news cycle will move on, but nothing will move on for a lot of veterans until the support they need is delivered. The federal government has a huge role to play in that, and I can assure them that veterans and their families are still very passionate about this issue. They want to see that everything possible is being done. We know that there are still veterans dying by suicide, so we need to do as much as we can as soon as we can.
We acknowledge that the family advocate and the national commissioner are steps in the right direction, and we understand that the national commissioner will be established through legislation to be introduced later this year. Whilst acknowledging all of that, Labor continues to call for a royal commission into veteran suicides because it is the best way to deal with this issue. We can walk and chew gum at the same time; we can continue the work to make DVA more user friendly, to have better coordination between ex-service organisations and to give more support to families. We can continue to do these things whilst a royal commission is held. As I said, it's important to recognise that the national commissioner could very well have been, and in all likelihood would have been, a recommendation through a holistic royal commission which had a clear start and end date.
This bill is intended to deliver better support for veterans and families in transition, particularly through the creation of the Veteran Family Advocate and more support for veterans' employment. These are all very important things. I want to acknowledge the work of the member for Kingston previously, and now the member for Blair, in keeping a focus on family engagement and support strategies. I will continue to work with them, to make sure that these services are delivered, and are delivered on the ground through veterans recovery and wellbeing centres. Prior to the last election, as honourable members would remember, Labor committed to rolling out seven such veterans centres across Australia, in Perth, Townsville, Ipswich, Adelaide, Wodonga, Nowra and in my electorate of Solomon—Darwin and Palmerston, in the Greater Darwin area, the northern capital of Australia. Of course, Labor was happy that the coalition embraced our policy with its own promise of veterans wellbeing centres. Unfortunately, more than a year on from the election, progress on centres differ and some are well behind schedule.
I remind the minister that during the election campaign he and the Prime Minister announced that the Darwin centre would be completed in 2020, which is why I would like to take this opportunity to update the House on the progress towards a wellbeing centre in Darwin. Mates4Mates, a great ex-service organisation, is going through the process of establishing a business case with the Northern Territory government. It is exciting to hear about the services that they will be providing. I do acknowledge that things have slowed down a bit with COVID-19, in terms of what can be done on the ground and travel and so forth. I acknowledge all of that. But I just ask the minister and the department and everyone involved to move as quickly as possible to establish that wellbeing centre in my electorate. I also note that the ex-service organisation Soldier On are recruiting for a Darwin based staff member to run a Pathways program. The RSL will also be rolling out an employment program in partnership with Mates4Mates. I have asked and I will continue to ask these national ex-service organisations to coordinate their efforts to ensure the best possible service delivery to the veterans of the Northern Territory. It's great to have some movement in this regard. I just want to acknowledge Billeroy House, an initiative of Darwin RSL, who had a morning tea yesterday for veterans and their families. To the team at Billeroy House: thanks for everything you're doing there.