House debates

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Ministerial Statements

Veterans and their Families

4:50 pm

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

Charles Province once wrote:

It is the Soldier, not the minister

Who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the Soldier, not the reporter

Who has given us freedom of press.

It is the Soldier, not the poet

Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer

Who has given us freedom to protest.

It is the Soldier, not the lawyer

Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the Soldier, not the politician

Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,

Who serves beneath the flag,

And whose coffin is draped by the flag,

Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

You could replace the word 'soldier' with 'somebody who serves in the Air Force'. You could replace the term 'soldier' with 'somebody who serves in the Navy'. We should be very proud of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Australian Navy and the Australian Army. I acknowledge the member for Solomon for his service in uniform. I acknowledge all those who have served.

For those who have served and who are now doing it tough, there is help available. Open Arms Veterans & Families Counselling service, 1800044066, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Safe Zone Support, 1800142072, is a free and anonymous counselling line for currently serving Australian Defence Force personnel, for veterans and for their families, and, when you call that number, it is up to the caller how much or how little personal information you share.

Recently on the ABC's Q&A program, Afghanistan veteran Daniel Keighran VC, who was given that honour after his efforts in the battle of Derapet on 24 August 2010, had this to say:

I was there for the men and women to the left and to the right of me on the ground. It's as simple as that. I went, they went. We served our country, the government of the day. I have no questions at all of why we went, or no issues for why we went across there. At the start of the program, you know, I said that I fought beside the Afghan National Army as well. For me, it was absolutely about human rights.

You know, those friends that I have, or had whilst I was in country, the Afghan National Army. You know, for me, it was about creating a better tomorrow for them. So, yes, there was a number of issues throughout. That's without a doubt. I'm, for one, who's been in combat and situations like that, that every step that you could take could be your last. I'm not going to sit here and question some of the decisions that were made, but let's be honest, mistakes were made.

Indeed, Daniel is right. I have the utmost respect for him. I have the utmost respect for all of those who served in that conflict, the longest conflict that Australian services have been engaged in. We lost 41 of our best and bravest.

I pay tribute to the former veterans affairs minister, the member for Gippsland, who we heard from earlier. I pay tribute to him because he listened, he cared, he had empathy, and I know that the service he gave veterans between 2018 and 2021 made a lot of difference for those veterans. I also pay tribute to his staff, as well as to Liz Cosson AM, CSC, the secretary of the department and a Major-General, no less. She was the first female Major-General in the Army when she was given that great honour in 2017. I know that her and her department, the Department of Veterans' Affairs, go out of their way—as they should—to do everything that they can for our veterans. No-one always gets it right and there are those who, sadly and unfortunately, slip through the cracks.

Many veterans in Australia are not in contact with DVA. As at June 2019 there were more than 290,000 Department of Veterans' Affairs beneficiaries in receipt of pensions, allowances and treatments or pharmaceuticals. This number includes about 184,000 veterans and 110,000 dependants. But many veterans in Australia are not in contact with DVA. In 2017 DVA estimated they had contact with one in three veterans who had served since Vietnam and one in five who had served since 1999. DVA estimated there were about 631,800 living Australian veterans who have ever served in the ADF either full time or in the Reserves, as at 30 June 2019. To that end, I was very pleased that a question about military service was included in the recent census. I thought that was very important and timely. Hopefully, that will enable some of those veterans who have not had contact with DVA—for whatever reason; whether it's their own choosing or perhaps something that went wrong with an initial DVA contact—to get the support and the assistance that they need, if they so desire.

I'm proud to hail from Wagga Wagga. It's the only inland regional city with all three military services represented: Army, Air Force and—even though we are many hundreds of kilometres from the nearest drop of seawater—Navy. I'm very proud of that fact. If you serve in the Air Force for any given length of time, you end up at Forest Hill. The 'home of the soldier' at Kapooka is the proud training base for all recruits, who do their initial 12-week training before they are sent to the far-flung corners of the nation—indeed, who knows what corner of the globe—to serve in the khaki, a tradition that stretches back to Gallipoli and even before that.

I am a former Minister for Veterans' Affairs and a former Minister for Defence Personnel. I am also a former Assistant Minister for Defence. I'm proud of those portfolios and of the work I was able to do in my limited time in those areas—work that was continued, enhanced and improved upon by the member for Gippsland. I listened carefully to the member for Solomon and to the former veterans' affairs minister when they talked about the current Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, which is sitting in Brisbane. It will be elsewhere in the nation too. I'm very pleased to say that it is coming to Wagga Wagga. I know that it is going to Townsville. It is important that it has the regional outreach, particularly in towns and centres where there is a high military presence—and an ex-military presence, because many military people actually retire to the places with which they are familiar. Whilst they are serving they form great friendships, they form great networks and they feel comfortable in those places.

The government established the royal commission on 8 July 2021. I know there will be some very sad stories coming out of that. I know there will be some evidence given and some personal tales told that will shock the nation. I would urge and encourage people who want to contribute to that process to do just that, either in person or via other means. But tell your story, tell us about your issues and your concerns, because we need change. We need reform, and this is one way that we will achieve just that.

Some $11.7 billion in federal funding supports more than 325,000 veterans and their families each year across the board, and the 2021-22 federal budget included an additional $702.6 million with a focus on wellness support, suicide prevention and ensuring the DVA is appropriately resourced, as it should be. Mistakes will be made, and that is why I urge and encourage those veterans to reach out to the department, even if they've had an experience that was perhaps not of their liking or as they wished in previous times. Please reach out, please ask for support if you need it, and if you have a contribution to make to the royal commission then please try to do just that, because we do need to change and it will only be from your evidence and those submissions that we can make the necessary changes. Finally, thank you for your service, to all veterans and all currently serving personnel.


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