Tuesday, 30 November 2021
Veterans and their Families
I welcome the opportunity to reflect on the Minister for Veterans' Affairs annual statement and say to any veterans or Australian Defence Force personnel listening to our broadcast, thank you for your service, and thank you also to the families and the friends who've supported you in that service to our nation.
As the previous minister who was directly responsible for most of the reforms spoken about in the ministerial statement, I want to direct my comments today to the ongoing process of reform, and the optimistic and positive quest for change which defined my team's time in that role. At the outset, I want to make one simple point which is often lost in the public debate about military service and our veteran community. We have a well-led, world-class, highly respected, well-trained and incredibly capable Australian Defence Force. We should be proud of them.
Our capability edge is our people. Sure, we need to keep investing in the equipment to allow them to undertake their task, but it is their skills and the training they receive which sets them apart, whether it's during conflicts or peacekeeping missions or humanitarian aid and disaster relief, they are well prepared and well equipped to do the job they do on behalf of our nation. They are all volunteers; they choose to serve in uniform. In return, we owe them the best conditions of service we can provide, every effort to ensure their physical and mental wellbeing, and an opportunity to transition successfully to civilian life. Overwhelmingly, that is exactly what happens. They train well, they serve well, they transition well and they should be justifiably proud of their service, and ready to take on new challenges in their lives.
It is a job with inherent risks of death and injuries, and as the veterans' covenant states: 'For what they have done, this we will do.' As a grateful nation, we are obliged to support our veterans when they need it. That's why I started saying, 'Thank you for your service' three years ago. It's a reminder to us all. I started saying, 'Thank you for your service' at every public event—not to embarrass Australian Defence Force personnel or veterans but to remind those of us who haven't served about the risks that are taken on our behalf. You keep us safe in an ever-changing world. You are the first people we turn to when the job gets too big for local or state agencies. As a civilian, it's been an extraordinary privilege to see you training and deploying, both at home and abroad. Thank you for allowing me to spend time with you and witness the pride, the passion and the teamwork you exhibit every day.
If I have any advice for our Australian Defence Force personnel, it is simply this: start preparing for your transition to civilian life earlier in your careers. No-one stays in the Navy, the Army or the Air Force forever. Finding a new sense of purpose, a new mission, a new role in our society after your military service is critically important for your wellbeing. The risk of injury means your career could end prematurely and it's why the new joint Transition Taskforce is so important to get right. We have let people slip through the cracks. We have had service personnel who weren't properly supported during transition. We know in this place that we have to do better. That was my personal challenge as the former minister: to work in partnership with the Department of Veterans' Affairs, ex-service organisations and the community to do better every day.
On a small moment of personal indulgence, it was incredibly humbling to be contacted in my last week in the job by people who were publicly making the case for me to stay as minister. In reality, of course, they weren't asking for me to stay. They wanted the stability, and they were largely happy with the direction we were taking as a team and as a government. We changed lives. We saved lives. We had more to do, but that is the nature of politics in our country. I use the term 'we' quite deliberately. You achieve nothing in politics or in this place as an individual. There's an old African proverb, Deputy Speaker Wicks, which I'm sure you're aware of, which says, 'If you want go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together'. In my relationship with DVA and my own office staff, we worked incredibly well together.
Sadly, the feedback I've received from stakeholders in recent months is disappointing. The new ministerial office is not engaged with the ex-service community or the department in a constructive way, and that's to the detriment of our veterans and their families. I urge the new ministerial office to become team players. In my experience, I was extremely well supported by a loyal and capable staff, along with the outstanding leadership team at the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the ex-service community itself, who were all trying to work together to achieve positive changes. Of course, we had many differences from time to time, but I was in no doubt that the ex-service community was working constructively to try and make a difference.
The same can be said for the secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Liz Cosson. Liz brought her own years of military experience to every policy conversation, and she added her own unique passion, empathy and respect for our veterans community and their families. We would not have achieved any of the reforms outlined in the ministerial statement yesterday without Ms Cosson and her executive staff—without her helping my office to shape public policy and without her advocating so strongly, through the ERC process, for budget bids to succeed in order to secure additional resources for every veteran in this country.
In the same vein, I wouldn't have known what to even ask for if I hadn't sat down and listened to the department, peak bodies like the Ex-Service Organisation Round Table, the Repatriation Commissioner, the Veteran Family Advocate and the Defence Engagement Commissioner, learnt from the experience and judgement of the leaders of a wide range of veterans groups and their families and respected their opinions.
As a government, we have invested heavily in veterans employment and transition services, while boosting mental health care and developing a network of wellbeing centres. There's so much more to be done in this space. The new minister's office needs to work with MPs, on both sides of the House, and existing service providers and back in the organisations which are already making a difference on the ground.
On a separate note, our decision, as a government—with support from the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Treasurer—to include a question on veterans in the census will help us inform our future decisions on where our services need to be located. That data gathering is a breakthrough, and sharing that information with the states is vital. As a government, our introduction of the veterans recognition package and the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, along with the redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial, will help define how we respect and remember our service personnel in the future.
Importantly, the new Sufferings of War and Service public art installation will also help families dealing with the grief of having lost loved ones. I thank the people who worked with me so constructively on such a harrowing and emotionally charged issue. It will be an important piece of artwork, and I thank the Chief of Defence Force for agreeing to fund this work and for not forcing the families to fundraise from other sources.
I've reported several times before in this place that, as a renowned dog lover, the successful introduction of the Psychiatric Assistance Dog Program is one of my proudest achievements in that portfolio. I've met with veterans who have received a dog, and it has been a life-changing experience for them. We now need to broaden our minds in this place and look at other innovative treatments, things like equine therapy and art therapy. There was resistance at first to the dog program, but we overcame that, and I think being more innovative in future in how we deal with PTSD will be important for our veterans community.
Finally, the royal commission started this week, and it's a chance to unite our Defence and veterans community. It's important that we tell the good stories and the bad stories. It's important that we continue to learn from any mistakes. We must give our veterans and their families the hope and the confidence that support is available to them, that there are pathways to good health and that we are working in partnership in this place to achieve the best possible outcomes for them. It's so important that we don't feed into a vicious media cycle of despondency, desperation and helplessness. As a backbencher, I want to see this coalition government continue to maintain the momentum for reform and to build on all the good work we've done while the royal commission runs its course. I will continue to promote positive stories and messages of hope for our ADF personnel and our veterans, notwithstanding the very real challenges and the difficulties some may face. As a government and a grateful nation, we must support those who need our help, but at the same time we must promote the many achievements of our veteran community. On that note, I take the opportunity to thank the staff at the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I thank the staff and the volunteers of the ex-service organisations. I thank the families and the friends of serving men and women. And I thank all the people in this place who are working in a bipartisan and constructive way to make a difference. We really have come a long way together, but there's more to be done—together.