House debates

Thursday, 31 May 2018


Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018; Second Reading

4:16 pm

Photo of Cathy O'TooleCathy O'Toole (Herbert, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is no secret in this place that I am immensely proud to represent the largest garrison city in the country. Our men and women have fought hard to protect our country, and I have always ensured, and will continue to ensure, that I fight hard for them in this place, because they deserve no less. What has been most important to me is that I demonstrate my support and that I work with the veterans and the ex-serving personnel community in my electorate.

In order to ensure that I do this, I started out working in a collaborative manner and formed the Townsville Defence Community Reference Group within the first month after being elected. The reference group comprises all of the ESOs; current serving ADF members, including RAAF members; family representatives; and other relevant stakeholders. The reference group has been integral in ensuring that our veterans get a strong and committed voice in this place to ensure that their voice is heard. I have spoken in this place on all veterans bills and spoken about the necessary changes that our current serving members, veterans and ex-serving personnel and their families require.

What has been most important about the work undertaken by the reference group is the fact that a trusting and collaborative environment has been created in less than two years. As a result, the support for the Townsville Defence community has gone full steam ahead. Together we fought for the suicide prevention trials to be led and developed from the ground up in my electorate of Herbert. That is why Townsville's suicide prevention trial is leading the nation. We drafted the terms of reference, we drafted the job description, we appointed and recommended the steering committee and the chair, and the reference group continues to feed into the development of the trial and the establishment of a veterans' hub.

Before being elected to parliament, I worked in the mental health community sector for 15 years. In that time I have given evidence to a Defence mental health Senate inquiry. I have met with veterans whose wounds from war are a lot deeper than those that can be physically seen. In my previous employment, I have stood up on a state and national stage to advocate for the voices of the so many people who are in the shadows and suffering alone in silence. This is my passion, and I bring these years of experience and advocacy into this place for our veterans.

The suicide prevention trial, now known in Townsville as Operation Compass, has been just one of the many channels where advocacy was needed in this place. I want to particularly recognise the hard work and commitment of retired Lieutenant General John Caligari, Ray Martin, Floss Foster and Padre Stephen Brooks for their strong leadership in the reference group.

Aside from mental health, the No. 1 issue raised with me by the Defence community is transitioning from Defence to civilian life. Townsville is a garrison city, and when I visit schools and speak with students there are many who aspire to be just like their mums and dads and join Defence after they leave school. It is their dream job, and there is no thought given to any other career prospects. When I speak with personnel who have transitioned, they reflect on the moments like these that they had when they were children. For these young people, there is no other career path, and when they come of age they join the Army or the RAAF. What they weren't foreseeing were the possibilities of injuries and that they could leave their dream job earlier than expected or planned. It is difficult to cope with the loss of your dream job, especially if it is due to an injury. People struggle to cope, and often they are also hit by huge financial impacts. There is the loss of benefits such as rental assistance, super and health care—from the security of a fortnightly pay cheque to, often, the insecurity of unemployment. This is particularly stressful on partners, who may be in a situation where their wages or salary are unable to make up the difference. These stresses grow and often lead to mental health issues.

Employment is the No. 1 issue that many ex-serving members and veterans face upon leaving the Defence Force. Further education and training is important, particularly when the individual has had no choice but to leave the ADF and needs to reorient his or her life. Unemployment is a serious issue for veterans, with best estimates citing that 30.2 per cent of those who leave the ADF fail to find employment. This means that, of the approximately 5,500 individual veterans who leave each year, roughly 1,600 fail to move into employment. Of those who do, 19 per cent are underemployed in jobs beneath their capabilities, and those who are employed experience a 30 per cent drop in average income from their ADF wages.

It is for this reason that Labor has committed $121 million to a veterans' employment program, which seeks to ensure that veterans are best prepared to move into meaningful employment and that employers are able to gain the many advantages of hiring these men and women with highly-developed skills. This has been welcomed by people in the Defence community of my electorate of Herbert. Part of our plan involves working with states and territories to expand the Queensland tertiary admissions scheme, which takes rank and length of service and translates it into an automatic entrance rank, allowing easier access to university. Education and reskilling can be an important part of the transition for those leaving the ADF, but for those who have left due to illness or injury, reorienting their lives is even more important. That is why this bill is important.

Schedule 1 recognises the importance of education and retraining for those whose service has had a greater impact on them. Under the changes proposed in schedule 1, individuals in receipt of an incapacity payment who are undertaking full-time study via a DVA approved rehabilitation plan will have their incapacity payments maintained at 100 per cent during their study. Currently the majority of these payments reduce to 75 per cent of their normal earnings after a period of 45 weeks. This change will provide financial security to both the veteran and their family while they are undertaking their study. Providing this support will ensure better outcomes for veterans and their families and assist veterans to move into meaningful employment post service. In addition, this measure will assist those who are currently undertaking full-time study as part of a DVA rehabilitation plan. They will also be entitled to have their payment paid at 100 per cent from the commencement of these amendments. It is anticipated that these changes will assist approximately 150 people per year. I fully support this amendment, as it will ensure that those who are on an incapacity payment can focus on their future without the stress and worry of how they will manage financially.

Schedule 2 will create a new suicide prevention pilot, which will provide greater support to those who have been hospitalised after an attempted suicide or those who may be at an increased risk of suicide because of their suicidal ideation, mental health or other factors. This is one of three current suicide prevention trials aimed at providing target support for veterans. The first of these, as I mentioned before, is Operation Compass, a Department of Health initiative based in my electorate, working in collaboration with the Northern Queensland Primary Health Network. The legislative basis for the second trial passed the parliament earlier this year and created the Coordinated Veterans' Care Program, which is aimed at mental health support for veterans in rural and regional areas. The third trial uses this coordinated approach and places the GP at the hub, working with veterans and their families. The pilot will provide coordinated support to ensure veterans are accessing treatment and social support to reduce the risk of suicide and enhance the quality of life of the participants. It will provide intensive and assertive management services to support a veteran after they have been discharged from hospital, which includes support to access other relevant government and nongovernment treatment and services, aiming to reduce risks and improve outcomes for those involved.

The changes in schedule 3 are logical, as they will provide greater support to those recently widowed. Schedule 3 will amend the amount of time wholly-dependent partners have to make a decision about whether to receive their compensation as a weekly payment or convert it wholly or partly to a lump sum, from six months to two years. Partners of deceased members who have been granted compensation following a member's death under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act are eligible to receive weekly payments for life, or may convert 25 per cent, 50 per cent, 75 per cent or 100 per cent of this weekly amount to its lifetime equivalent as a lump sum. Currently, as I've said, partners have six months to decide whether they would like to receive their compensation as a weekly payment or to convert the whole or part of that payment to a lump sum. While there is the ability for the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to make an extension of time, this requires an application in writing to seek that additional time. This amendment will ensure that those individuals in these difficult circumstances have sufficient time to make this very important decision. The commission will also be able to extend this beyond two years, where they deem it appropriate, subject to an application. This might be appropriate in circumstances where there are complicated family law issues to be resolved.

Schedule 4 amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act in order to extend eligibility for the Long Tan Bursary to grandchildren of Vietnam veterans. The Long Tan Bursary offers 37 scholarships of up to $12,000 over three years to children of Vietnam veterans, to assist with post-secondary education and training. I have many proud Vietnam veterans in my community, and I am sure that they, along with their families, will be very happy about and supportive of this amendment.

In speaking with ESOs and veterans' advocates, the complexity of the processes and the issues around the information provided during the needs assessment have been raised regularly. Veterans have raised concerns about the needs assessment being used to determine compensation claims. According to these veterans, in their experience, information provided during this assessment has been used to decline claims as to severity further down the track. This is, in part, due to the questions, and the answers provided by the veterans. For example, the assessment will ask if a veteran can still do yard work. The veteran may reply that he or she can—without detailing that, following this activity, they experience several days of restricted or no movement. According to advocates, this admission is then referred to, down the track, as the veteran being able to undertake the activity, which is simply not the case.

Labor has led the charge regarding this issue. Labor has raised this issue with the government and requested that they ensure it was clear to those applying that the impact of their answers may be taken into account. After this push by Labor, the government advised that the needs assessments are not used by DVA to determine compensation, but are, instead, used to identify forms of support and assistance that the veteran may be eligible for or benefit from. Examples of this may be household assistance or rehabilitation. The government have taken this feedback on board and will be providing further clarification to veterans applying online that this assessment will not be used to calculate compensation rates. These assurances enable me to support this measure, which seeks to make the complicated claims process easier for veterans and their loved ones.

The final schedule simplifies the processes for veterans applying for compensation under the MRCA during a needs assessment. Under the MRCA, a claim for composition is distinct from a claim for liability. In many cases, compensation is claimed concurrently with liability by a member or former member, indicating on the liability claim form that they are seeking compensation. However, in some cases, a claim for liability will be made without an application for compensation. During this process, a needs assessment will be carried out. These are often conducted over the phone and, during this call, a member or former member will sometimes state that they would like to seek some form of compensation under the MRCA. Currently, this requires the individual to put a separate application in. Under these changes, indicating verbally that the veteran is seeking compensation under the act is considered an application. I fully support these measures, which make the claims process easier for veterans, as long as they don't disadvantage veterans.

I will support the measures that seek to improve the lives of our veterans and their families, because they deserve nothing less. Veterans have fought to protect our country, to give us the freedoms that we enjoy, and I will fight for them every day in this place.