House debates

Thursday, 31 May 2018


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

11:11 am

Photo of Amanda RishworthAmanda Rishworth (Kingston, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to rise and speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018. This bill contains several measures which will seek to improve the outcomes of those who have served in the Australian Defence Force and their loved ones. When an individual undertakes to serve their country, we in turn as a country make a commitment to them and their loved ones that we will support them post their time in the ADF. Labor will support the measures in this bill because it is a step towards recognising the obligation to care for those who have served our country.

In particular, Labor will support schedule 1, which recognises the importance of education and retraining post service, particularly for those whose service has had a greater impact on them. These changes will provide financial security to those who are on incapacity payments and are undertaking further study as part of their rehabilitation plan with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Currently, payments reduce to 75 per cent after 45 weeks. This measure will maintain these payments at 100 per cent while a veteran is undertaking approved full-time study. This support will mean that these individuals can focus on their education, without worrying about finance. This is particularly important, I believe, when we consider that the veterans which this measure is likely to help are veterans who have had no choice but to leave the ADF due to illness or injury. Veterans tell me that the process of transition can be very jarring, and this is even more acute for those who have been medically discharged. This support will make a difference for those individuals and assist them to retrain and find meaningful employment post service.

I have to emphasise that finding and maintaining employment after a veteran leaves the ADF is important for so many reasons. Employment is not just about providing financial security; it is also about providing structure, a sense of purpose and belonging—all things that are very strong for serving members in the ADF but can disappear once a member is forced to leave. However, a number of veterans have told me that they don't immediately find a meaningful career post their time in the ADF. Best estimates cite that the total unemployment rate for veterans is approximately 30 per cent. It means that, of the 5,500 veterans who leave each year, 1,600 are without employment. In addition, another 19 per cent of veterans are underemployed in jobs beneath their capabilities and those who are employed experience an average drop of 30 per cent of their salaries.

Veterans do bring a huge range of skills and experience, but these figures show that these skills and experience are not always valued by civil society. Indeed, they are lost in translation. It is for this reason that Labor has committed to a $121 million veterans employment program if we are to be elected, a plan that has real money on the table to assist those coming out of the ADF move into meaningful civilian employment. This is not about charity. It is about ensuring that the wealth of skills and experience that a veteran has is not lost in translation into civilian life.

There are four elements of our employment program which will bring about changes that will help veterans move into meaningful employment. Firstly, we will provide eligible businesses with a training grant of up to $5,000 in order to help veterans gain the unique skills and experience they might need to fill a civilian post. While businesses say they're open to employing veterans, there can be a specific short-term skills gap or lack of specific civilian experience which can act as a barrier to employment for an otherwise suitable veteran applicant. For example, a veteran may be one unit shy of a certificate or fail to meet the minimum two years prior experience, meaning they won't get through the job and person tick and flick process and will be immediately discounted before going to interview. These $5,000 grants are designed to overcome this barrier. In addition, Labor will work with the industry advisory committee to develop and provide proper resources to a national campaign that will highlight the many benefits and transferrable skills of those leaving the ADF and encourage businesses to employ a veteran. This will be real resources and real money that will support the industry advisory committee to do this.

Secondly, we will establish an employment and transition service, which will provide greater individualised and tailored support to transitioning veterans over a longer period of time. This support will provide one-on-one support and advice to transitioning ADF personnel, including a comprehensive skills audit of skills obtained during their service, that will ensure appropriate civilian recognition is obtained. It will also address other barriers to successful transition and employment, such as secure housing and psychosocial support. Importantly, this service will continue to be available to those leaving the ADF for a period of five years. Speaking with veterans, I know that oftentimes individuals leave the ADF with a clear career plan or goal in mind, but it may not always work out. Therefore, we are proposing that the service provide proactive contact and support for the first 12 months and continues to be available over five years.

Thirdly, our plan will reduce the length of service required to access the higher levels of support in the career training assistance scheme. Our plan brings the qualifying period for extra education and training assistance down from the current requirement of 12 years of service to five years, and the top level of assistance down from 18 years to 15 years. In addition, we plan to increase the amount of funding available to individuals to allow greater flexibility in the way transitioning members use the funding, such as obtaining multiple qualifications to achieve their career goal.

Lastly, we will work with states and territories and peak industry bodies to identify opportunities for greater automatic recognition for many skills. For example, in Queensland the Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre will recognise rank and length of service and automatically translate this into a university entrance rank, enabling a smoother process to access university for those leaving the ADF. This program enables those who perhaps hadn't considered further study before joining the forces, or entered the forces straight from school, an opportunity to engage in further study.

We believe the policy we are offering is very significant and certainly aligns itself with the change in schedule 1, which would provide greater financial security for those who may be undertaking study as part of their rehabilitation plan. But I must say that the policy that we've put on the table won't just be for those undertaking a rehabilitation plan; our employment policy will be open to every transitioning member of the ADF, and we believe this is a critically important piece of the puzzle. In terms of the schedule 1, which is in front of us today, I understand it is the intention that it will be available to those who are currently undertaking study as part of the rehabilitation plan, and it is expected to benefit approximately 150 people a year, providing them and their loved ones important financial security while they complete their study.

Schedule 2 of this bill will create a new suicide prevention pilot which will provide greater support to those who have been hospitalised after attempted suicide, have suicidal ideation or those that may have an increased risk of suicide because of mental health factors. I think the Senate inquiry that looked into this issue last year clearly identified that we must do more to assist those suffering poor mental health post their time in the ADF and those who have suicidal ideation. We must work to prevent suicide. We must work to prevent poor mental health. We must work to improve mental wellbeing in our ADF members.

We know from the recent Mental health prevalence and pathways to care report, which forms part of the Transition and Wellbeing Research Program, that just over 20 per cent of transitioning ADF members have experienced suicidal ideation, plans or attempts in the last 12 months. In addition, 28.9 per cent of those who had transitioned felt that their life was not worth living and 21.2 per cent had considered taking their own life. We view this in conjunction with the report by the Australia Institute of Health and Welfare which looked at the incidence of suicide in serving and ex-serving Australian Defence Force members. This report did find that ex-serving men, in particular—because that was the biggest sample size—have higher suicide rates than the general population. Of particular concern, the report identified that men who were no longer serving and were aged between 18 and 24 were twice as likely to die by suicide than men of the same age in the general population. In addition, men who were discharged involuntarily from the ADF were 2.4 times more likely to die than those who were discharged voluntarily. Those who were discharged for medical reasons were 3.6 times more likely to die by suicide than those who were discharged voluntarily. These statistics are deeply concerning. We need to do more to prevent these tragedies from occurring.

As a consequence, the government is undertaking a number of suicide prevention trials across Australia, and these have Labor's support. Two of these trials are being conducted by DVA and are a direct result of the recent Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel and a review of services available to veterans and members of the Australian Defence Force conducted by the Mental Health Commission. Labor is pleased to see the government implementing these recommendations from these important reports. The Senate inquiry, which Labor supported to establish, was particularly important in the process of enabling members of the ex-service community, veterans and their loved ones the opportunity to highlight issues they've experienced since leaving the ADF and how these have impacted on their health. The report made 24 recommendations in August. Since this time, Labor has been actively pursuing these recommendations with the government to ensure that they are implemented as soon as practical. We are pleased to see the latest suicide prevention pilot and encourage the government to maintain momentum to bring about the remaining reforms.

The Mental Health Commission also made a number of comments and recommendations in their review of services available to veterans and members of the Australian Defence Force. One of these involved implementing a better range of step-down services and support for veterans and current serving Defence personnel. The suicide prevention pilot aims to address this by providing services which take into account factors that may lead to suicide such as primary health, financial stress, housing and employment. It will provide intensive and assertive management services to support veterans after they've been discharged from hospital, which includes support to access other relevant government and non-government treatment services aiming to reduce the risk and improve outcomes of those involved. Labor is supportive of measures which seek to provide greater assistance to veterans, particularly those who are struggling post their time in the ADF. As such, we offer our full support to this measure.

Schedule 3 seeks to assist those who are recently widowed by providing them with additional time to make decisions about how they would like to receive compensation. It can be an extremely difficult and complicated time for individuals while they make a decision about their future after the death of a loved one. Currently, partners are given six months, and these changes will give them up to two years to make a decision on whether to receive compensation weekly or as a lump sum. We understand it was possible to extend the six-month deadline by applying to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission; however, that can be difficult, especially in a time of grief, and an extracomplicated process didn't seem necessary. This schedule will automatically set the decision period as two years. Should more time be required following this, there will still be the ability to apply to the commission. This issue has been raised by members of the ex-service community, and we are pleased to offer our support to this amendment.

Schedule 4 extends the eligibility of the Long Tan Bursary to grandchildren of Vietnam veterans. The Long Tan Bursary was established to help eligible children of Vietnam veterans meet the cost of post-secondary education. Named in honour of the Battle of Long Tan, arguably the best-known battle fought by Australians during the Vietnam War, the bursary provides 37 recipients with $12,000 per year over three years to assist them to cover costs such as enrolment, course fees and textbooks. There is no doubt that these bursaries provide valued assistance to those recipients, and this change will enable a wider group of individuals to access assistance. Previous recipients have expressed how much the bursary has meant to them, including a recent recipient who talked about how the assistance went beyond financial, saying:

This bursary meant a lot to me. It wasn't just the financial assistance but knowing someone cared and was sharing the journey.

While eligibility will be extended to grandchildren, children of Vietnam veterans continue to be prioritised. All other eligibility criteria still apply. Labor supports this measure, which recognises the sacrifice of our brave men in Vietnam and, importantly, that the effects of war are passed down through the generations. Regular research shows that children, grandchildren and partners of Vietnam veterans have also been affected by their service. This is an important acknowledgement that war affects not only veterans but also their children and grandchildren.

Schedule 5 makes a provision to ensure that a submariner who has served in a special submarine operation between 1 January 1978 and 31 December 1992 is deemed to have operational service for time served on a submarine during this period. This will simplify the support available to these individuals who served during the period and have a claim with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. We are supportive of this measure, which will formally recognise the service that these individuals undertook.

Schedule 6 is designed to simplify the process for veterans applying for compensation under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. Under this act a claim for compensation is distinct from a claim for liability. While it is claimed concurrently in many cases, sometimes a member will make a liability claim without seeking compensation. During the liability process a client undertakes a needs assessment. Sometimes during this process veterans will indicate that they are seeking compensation as well. Under these changes the statement will automatically be viewed as an application.

I'm supportive of any process which improves the experience of veterans and saves them additional paperwork; however, I would like it noted publicly that I have raised some concerns about the needs assessment and have given feedback to the department directly from advocates and veterans who feel the needs assessment currently undertaken is not adequately understood by veterans and will affect their rehabilitation and potentially their compensation process. Advocates have told me they've experienced circumstances where a veteran is filling out the needs assessment on the Department of Veterans' Affairs website and hasn't understood that this is directly linked to their claim. Many of our veterans, very proud people who have pushed through despite their injuries, haven't understood that, if they say—this is one of the examples I've been given—they're able to mow the lawn, that could affect how their injury rehabilitation is viewed and what support they will get. Of course, that veteran who can mow the lawn doesn't mention on the needs assessment that when they do it they then end up in bed for the next two days because of the pain they actually experience.

I have raised the deep concerns that advocates have raised around the veterans' understanding of that lifestyle assessment, which is up front and one of the first things that they do. It needs to be clearly identified that this is part of the rehabilitation process and that what they say could well affect their claim down the track, the ability to have the department seen as liable, and the support and services that they get. This is really important because advocates have told me that, often when they go through a second time on that needs assessment and actually question the veteran, they find out that their needs are much higher than what were immediately identified. The advocates tell me that the trouble is that they can't go back and amend it, and then it becomes incredibly adversarial with them saying, 'They did say that they could mow the lawn, but they end up in significant pain and actually do need assistance in the long term.'

I'm pleased that I've had an undertaking by the Department of Veterans' Affairs that they will look into this and seriously consider better identifying the context in which the needs assessment is made, ensuring that the veteran understands that this is part of their claims process and it is important that they properly reflect their limitations so that they can get the best support necessary. I really think this is critically important. In saying this, my concerns around the lifestyle assessment and the needs assessment will not stop Labor supporting this schedule, because we need to make sure that people understand that they can make a compensation claim at any time.

The issues with the claims process in the Department of Veterans' Affairs have been canvassed significantly through the Senate inquiry and, indeed, in the forums that I've been holding around Australia. Overwhelmingly, the feedback I've received is that the process for putting in claims can be lengthy and overly complicated. I do acknowledge that the Department of Veterans' Affairs is working to try to minimise that, but there is a long way to go. As such, Labor is supportive of this schedule, which will be a small step in improving the ability of the veteran to claim in an expeditious manner.

Finally, in conclusion, I think this bill is a step in the right direction to provide greater assistance for veterans and to smooth the process. For this reason, Labor do offer our support. As I said at the beginning, we as policymakers have an obligation to ensure that the policies and processes of government continue to support an individual, particularly one who has served our country. Therefore, I commend the bill to the House.

11:33 am

Photo of Ted O'BrienTed O'Brien (Fairfax, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The debt Australia owes our military past, present and future is immeasurable. It is a debt we owe for our basic freedoms and our way of life. As capable and increasingly well-equipped as our Defence Force personnel most certainly are—drawn from a country of just 25 million people—the ADF cannot hope to comprehensively protect our freedoms or defend our democracy and interests all by themselves. Our commitment to play a role in foreign conflicts over the 117 year since Federation has generally been on the basis of carrying as large a share of those conflicts as we have been able to bear and often in alliance and concert with larger like-minded democracies. Our contribution, the contribution of our military, in that context, by any comparison, has been quite extraordinary. In World War I, from a population of just under five million, fewer people than now live in Sydney, 416,809— (Quorum formed)Can I say how unfortunate it is that the Labor Party has decided to interrupt a discussion where in fact we have a unity ticket, talking about the importance of those who have served this country. Indeed, the Department of Veterans' Affairs has around 300,000 former soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel on its books. Over 1,700 of these former servicemen and servicewomen live in my electorate of Fairfax on the Sunshine Coast, and I can't tell you how proud I am to represent them here in this House.

The numbers alone of those who have served tell us that there are few families in this country that do not have some form of connection with the enormity of the sacrifice of those who have served and especially those who saw conflict. Every serviceman or servicewoman from the Sudan all the way through has left family and friends at home. They've had parents or a partner, possibly brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins, and, of course, many of these people who have served had wives, or husbands, and children when they left for foreign lands with their mates to put themselves in harm's way and confront the reality of war. Millions of today's Australians, therefore, necessarily have a deep, close, organic connection with someone who committed themselves to military service on our behalf. Even for those who don't have such stark links, there is a strong recognition of service which simply underscores and highlights the obligation we have, as a community as well as a government, to all those who have served and will serve in the future.

The bill now before the House, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018, represents the latest refinement in what is, and no doubt will continue to be, an ongoing and essentially bipartisan effort to ensure that our federal government keeps up with its responsibilities and also with community expectations. The first reform contained in this bill enables an injured veteran who is studying full-time as part of an approved return-to-work rehabilitation program to be paid incapacity payments at 100 per cent of their normal weekly earnings over and above the current limit of 45 weeks. Under the existing scheme, these payments come back to 75 per cent of earnings after 45 weeks. This reform reflects a commitment to giving our veterans and their families more help in achieving a brighter future through study and the acquisition of new or improved skills.

The second element of this bill is a veteran suicide prevention pilot, a pilot that accounts for evidence that suicides are considerably more common among military service veterans than is the case for the general public, especially for younger veterans—those in the 18-to-24 age cohort—where suicides are virtually double the general rate. There will be stronger emphasis on a coordinated approach to helping veterans at risk of suicide, with an emphasis on effective support in areas of primary health, financial stress, housing and employment issues, which are key factors in elevating that risk.

The third change to current provisions extends the amount of time that a partner of a deceased veteran has in which to decide whether to receive the compensation payout to them as a weekly payment or as a lump sum. Currently set at six months, that period will be extended to two years, reflecting the fact that, for many partners, traumatised by their loss, six months to make that decision can be too short a time frame. They need more time, and a full two years provides just that.

The fourth element of this bill extends access to support for post-secondary education for Vietnam vets via the Long Tan Bursary, from the children of veterans with operational service in Vietnam to, now, their grandchildren as well. This is also a very welcome move.

The fifth reform in this bill is a very informative one, in that it illustrates very clearly that serving in what we may consider relatively peaceful times can be as hazardous as in those times which have confronted past generations during other conflicts. From the 1970s and at least until 1992, Australian submariners conducted, in some secrecy, intelligence-gathering patrols to our north and west on a regular basis, in places and in circumstances that meant that, if they were identified, there was a risk of confrontation. Submariners who served on those patrols are now recognised by this bill as having undertaken operational service. This recognition will expand their access to veteran entitlements and at levels above what has been available to date. The sixth aspect of this bill simplifies claims for compensation, allowing claims by veterans to be made orally as well as in writing.

These are welcome and worthy reforms to the treatment of our veterans, whether they are veterans of conflict or veterans of peacetime service. The debt we owe these great and unassuming Australians, both of this generation and of generations past, is beyond measure. In our folklore, in relation to military service, we have tended to isolate iconic moments for special recognition: Gallipoli, the Somme, Kokoda, Tobruk, Long Tan. They all involved unspeakable suffering, with displays of enormous courage and self-sacrifice. Such commitment to duty, service and country holds them worthy of the awe we have attributed to them as definitive campaigns.

However, we also must comprehensively recognise what our wider family of service personal means to us and acknowledge their roles, many now largely forgotten by the well-thumbed pages of history, in guarding and defending our nation. All those who offer themselves for service in our military, whether the past, the present or the future, are automatically worthy of our admiration and ongoing life-time support, because, as I have sought to highlight, their decisions to serve are taken in the full knowledge that they could be called upon at any time in our uncertain world to endure the crucible of war and risk their very lives for us, for our values, for our freedoms and for our way of life. They deserve and they have earned all the support and understanding that we can give them. For that reason, I'm happy to commend this bill to the House.

11:47 am

Photo of Gai BrodtmannGai Brodtmann (Canberra, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Cyber Security and Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the measures contained in the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-Centric Reforms No. 2) Bill. These measures are designed to improve outcomes for those who have proudly served our country, and their loved ones, who have supported them in their service, and to whom we all owe a debt as a nation. The bill builds on the great work that's been done by our shadow minister for veterans' affairs, the member for Kingston, and particularly on the work she has done on the veterans' employment policy, which she was, in part, instrumental in developing just recently. This is Labor's veterans' employment policy. It's a policy that has been developed in close consultation with the veterans' community.

Again, I commend the shadow minister for the work she's done in developing this policy, because it does meet a great need in the market—a significant need—because if the national unemployment rate was 30 per cent it would be a scandal. Yet that's the situation for our veterans. For veterans who leave for non-medical reasons, the unemployment rate is still double the national rate, at 11.2 per cent. Of those who are successful in finding employment, many will find themselves in a job that's beneath their capability and will be earning 30 per cent less than they did as a member of the ADF. The change proposed in schedule 1 addresses these alarming statistics. Fabulous work has been done by the shadow minister for veterans' affairs. This bill addresses some of the issues that are outstanding in the community, particularly with a range of veterans issues, in terms of mental health and others.

Earlier this year, in March, I joined the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, the shadow minister for defence personnel and the shadow assistant minister for defence industry and support to launch Labor's $121 million comprehensive veterans employment policy. It is a very comprehensive document and I encourage all Australians to take the time to have a look at it. Should Labor be elected at the next election, this policy will be very much front of mind for our, hopefully, Minister for Veterans' Affairs as we address the shocking statistic that we have a national unemployment rate of 30 per cent.

Our veterans, who have served our country so well, are returning to the community. They're returning, often from overseas and from conflict or challenging environments, and they're faced with this shocking unemployment rate. There is the fact that they're in jobs that are beneath their capability and also the fact that they're earning 30 per cent less than they did as a member of the ADF. It's simply unacceptable.

There are a number of schedules in this bill that I want to focus on today. First up is schedule 1. We're pleased to see the change for former members of the ADF proposed in schedule 1. The change proposes incapacity payments for former members of the ADF at 100 per cent of their normal weekly earnings, where they are studying full-time time as part of their approved DVA rehabilitation plan. This is an improvement, because the current arrangements step down to 75 per cent or higher, depending on weekly hours worked for normal earnings. This change will provide financial security to veterans and their families while they're studying. It means that they can focus on their study without worrying about financial matters. Given the fact that these proud men and women have served our nation, it's the least we can do.

I also want to speak about schedule 4, the Long Tan Bursary. I am the daughter-in-law of a late Vietnam veteran, and so I'm pleased to see the proposal in schedule 4 to extend the eligibility of the Long Tan Bursary, which is a $12,000 scholarship over three years to help with post-secondary-school education and training for the grandchildren of Vietnam veterans. This means that more young people will be able to access support to help continue with their study.

There's been a lot of discussion about the intergenerational stress that has come from the Vietnam War. As I said, I am the daughter-in-law of a late Vietnam veteran. My late mother-in-law always said that she got a different man back from the one that was sent to the war. This has an impact not just in terms of the partner of those who served but also on the children of those served, and that impact can be felt throughout the generations. I think that the fact that this bursary will continue throughout the generations is a welcome acknowledgement of the contribution that families have made, not just for the first generation of children of Vietnam vets or for the partners of Vietnam veterans but also for the grandchildren. The impact of war can be felt from one generation to another and I think that this bursary, being open to those grandchildren, is an acknowledgement of that—that the tragedy of war can continue throughout the decades and throughout the generations.

Today is the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging, which ended the Second Anglo-Boer War. At the time, Australia was six self-governing Crown colonies in the last stages of forming a federation. It was a time when Australians were serving alongside British, Canadians and New Zealanders as part of an imperial force which included the first servicewomen to fight overseas. I know that in terms of memorialising the Boer War, there are those who have been involved and have fought the fight for a very long time to get an acknowledgement of the contribution Australians made to that war. So I wanted to mention the fact that today is that significant anniversary of the Boer War and to acknowledge the contribution that was made by veterans.

Yes, we were not a nation as such, but we sent people from our six colonies. We sent thousands—23,000 Australians served in the Boer War—to a fight often forgotten, with 520 losing their lives and 1,400 sustaining serious injury. I think people tend to forget that contribution that we made, which is why I wanted to acknowledge today's date—a significant date for those who are involved in the memorialisation of the Boer War. On Sunday I attended a commemoration ceremony that is held every year by the National Boer War Association and others in the Canberra community down at St John's Reid. It's a beautiful ceremony. I usually speak at the event. The commemoration honours and continues to remember our commitment and our service and the service of those 23,000 Australians. It acknowledges those who made the ultimate sacrifice and also those 1,400 who sustained serious injury. It continues to remember those Australian and it remembers those brave men and women. What I find most touching about the service is it remembers two Canberrans, one of whom is buried at St John's in Reid and another who is memorialised in a plaque.

I just want to go back to the Boer War, given the significance of today in terms of the Boer War commemoration. As I said, this has been a war where many who have tried to memorialise it have been derided for doing that because it was before Australia actually became a nation and we were federated. The thing is that even though we weren't a nation, as such, it was noted by British commanders that Australians significantly valued for their horsemanship, their bush skills and their initiative. This formed a special type of Australian mounted infantry, which was to become the Australian Light Horse of the First World War. It was also the first time Australians and New Zealanders fought together, as we have our nations continued to do to this day.

At this event on Sunday, which as I said is one that I attend each year, we remembered those 23,000 Australians, those 520 who lost their lives and those 1,400 who sustained serious injury. We remembered the soldiers. Sixty of those who served in the Boer War were Australian women, including Sister Frances Emma 'Fanny' Hines, who was the first Australian woman to have lost her life in overseas service. She was said to have died of pneumonia at Bulawayo in August 1900, but eventually it was determined that her death was as a result of exhaustion.

A memorial inside St John's in Reid acknowledges William Bradshaw Galliard Smith, who was born in Canberra and died in the Battle of Bakenlaagte as a member of the 2nd Scottish Horse. He was the son of the Reverend Pierce Galliard Smith. Outside the church is the grave of Private William Frederick Young, who served with the 1st Regiment NSW Mounted Rifles. While serving, he contracted enteric fever and died as a result of the illness in Sydney on 4 October 1900. He, too, was bon in Canberra, the son and grandson of a prominent pioneer family. Last Sunday, we acknowledged the service of William Smith, and we also acknowledged and placed a wreath on the grave of Private Young.

I think that a lot of Australians don't consider Canberra to be a very new city. We are in fact more than 100 years old, in terms of the national capital and the naming of that. Canberra was a farming community and a very prosperous farming community, from what I can gather, before the whole nation's capital notion was brought about. It was a community that made its contribution to every war, including the Boer War.

Just in closing, I have spoken about the Boer War and spoken about the Vietnam War and honoured those veterans who served in both of those wars; but I do want to talk about a memorial and a remembrance that has captured my heart in many ways and that I encourage Australians to support. Pozieres is a small village in the Somme valley in France, and it was the scene of bitter and costly fighting for the 1st, 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions in mid-1916. The village was captured initially by the 1st Division on 23 July 1916, and the division clung to its gains despite almost continuous artillery fire and repeated German counterattacks, but it suffered heavily—very, very heavily. By the time it was relieved on 27 July, it had suffered 5,285 casualties. The 2nd Division took over from the 1st and mounted two further attacks. The first, on 29 July, was a costly failure. The second, on 2 August, resulted in the seizure of further German positions beyond the village. Again the Australians suffered heavily from bombardments, and they were relieved on 6 August having suffered 6,848 casualties. The 4th Division was next in line at Pozieres, and it too endured a massive artillery bombardment and defeated a German counterattack on 7 August. This was the last attempt by the Germans to retake Pozieres.

Given the number of Australians who made the ultimate sacrifice at Pozieres—the largest number of Australian casualties ever in a single day, I understand—I am disappointed that there is no proper memorial, in my view, at Pozieres. There's the windmill there, and when I was last there two years ago there was also a memorial to the animals that had been killed in war. But given the sacrifice of so many lives in such a hideous battle—and it was a hideous battle—I do believe that we need to better memorialise those who served and made the ultimate sacrifice, which is why I've been behind an initiative that's been driven with tireless commitment by Barry Gracey and Yvonne Gracey-Hall, who have been acknowledged for their service to that part of the world by the French with the Legion of Honour. They have got a scheme going to raise funds for a Pozieres Memorial Park under the Pozieres Remembered scheme. So I encourage Australians: if you do want to acknowledge the significant sacrifice that was made at Pozieres by all those thousands of Australians under horrendous conditions, please support Pozieres Remembered.

12:02 pm

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As we consider the bill before us today, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018, and in particular its first two schedules, we should be reminded of the challenge which these important measures aim to address. My electorate of Fisher is fortunate enough to be home to a great many ex-service men and women. Our healthy lifestyle and environment, our welcoming and friendly community and our vibrant RSL clubs make the coast a perfect place to enjoy civilian life. Estimates of the number of veterans on the Sunshine Coast vary, but in 2016 RSL Queensland assessed the figure at more than 15,000.

Sadly, however, even on the Sunshine Coast, life after service for those who have risked their lives in the defence of our nation can be extremely challenging. For anyone, such a dramatic change of circumstances, from the rigours of a highly structured military life to the casual independence of the civilian world, would be difficult to assimilate. I recognise the service you've given this country, Mr Deputy Speaker Hastie, and I'm sure that the debate that you'll hear this afternoon will ring true for you. For all of us, any life transition of that magnitude, from leaving home to changing state, can lead to an increased risk of poor mental health. For many service men and women, however, this transition is made all the more difficult by their experiences in the ADF. For those who have served this country in uniform, who've spent long and worrying periods away from their families or who've seen the painful impacts that conflict can have on innocent civilians, the effects can be devastating.

The Turnbull government has been exceptionally alive to the issue of veterans' mental health and has commissioned a series of reports which have demonstrated the true scale of the challenge. The government's Transition and Wellbeing Research Program study Mental health prevalence, released this year, showed how widespread poor mental health is among our veterans. Forty-six point four per cent of transitioned ADF members were estimated to have experienced a mental disorder in the past 12 months alone. Of those, more than a third had experienced an anxiety disorder, with nearly one in five suffering from PTSD. Others suffered from depression and substance dependency. Almost three-quarters were estimated in the report to have suffered from a mental disorder at some point in their life. This accords with previous government research which showed that in 2013, of the 148,000 veterans with service related disabilities being supported by the Department of Veterans' Affairs, 46,400—almost a third—were living with an accepted mental health disorder. The Mental health prevalence report also showed the stark contrast between veterans and the wider population. Reporting of high or very high psychological distress among transition members of the ADF, at 33.1 per cent, is nearly three times higher than in the wider Australian community. Sadly, in just past the 12 months, 28.9 per cent of transitioned ADF—more than a quarter—had felt that their life was not worth living.

The government's second report this year, Incidence of suicide in serving and ex-serving Australian Defence Force personnel, has found that, in far too many cases, this feeling has the worst possible consequences. The report found that in the 14 years between 2001 to 2015 there were 325 deaths by suicide among people who'd served in the ADF for at least one day since 2001. It should—and will be—a distressing statistic for all of our constituents: 325 men and women who volunteered to serve and to protect us all have since come to feel that they have no option but to take their own lives. Unfortunately, in reality, there were no doubt more, as data is not available for those who served before 2001.

When explored in more detailed, the statistics reveal once again that the transition to civilian life is where we can make the biggest difference. Men currently serving in the ADF or in the Reserves have a significantly lower suicide rate than men in the general population—I say 'men' because this study only dealt with men, because there were no actual statistics of women having committed suicide. Benefitting from the company of their fellow servicemen and servicewomen, and with the excellent work the ADF undertakes to support its soldiers through unimaginably stressful experiences, current personnel are 53 per cent less likely to die by suicide than their peers. However, among male veterans, the suicide rate was 14 per cent higher than for the equivalent general population. As I've said before, the day that a man leaves the armed forces his likelihood of death by suicide rises from 53 per cent lower than others his age to 14 per cent higher. If he is aged 18-24, he becomes twice as likely as his peers to die by his own hand after he discharges.

These figures have stayed stable since 2007, but the Mental health prevalence report shows that there are many more veterans potentially at risk. In the past 12 months, 21.2 per cent of transitioned members of the ADF had considered taking their own lives, and eight per cent had even made a specific plan to do so. It is this vital challenge that the first two schedules of this bill will help to address. The positive impact of the measures included in schedule 2 are clear. The Veteran Suicide Prevention Pilot will aim to support 100 ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen over the next two years. They pilot will work, in particular, with ex-ADF personnel who've been hospitalised following a suicide attempt, have considered suicide, or who are at increased risk of suicide as a result of ongoing mental health disorders. I'm particularly pleased to see that this pilot will take place in nine hospitals in Brisbane. I'm hopeful that, if these pilots are successful, we may see similar projects rolled out throughout South-East Queensland and in my own region of the Sunshine Coast in particular.

The impact of schedule 1 will be less direct but, I believe, just as effective. In the ADF servicemen and women have a mission; they have a sense of purpose and a rightful position of respect in our community. For too many when they leave the ADF, overnight these life-affirming— (Quorum formed) It is extremely disturbing that the Labor Party want to play petty party political games on an issue that is so important to this country and so important in relation to veterans. Very disappointing. Anyway, as I was saying, for too many when they leave the ADF, overnight these life-affirming benefits depart with the uniform. One day a young man or woman might be flying, driving or sailing multimillion-dollar or, in fact, multibillion-dollar equipment; however, upon discharge many struggle to get meaningful work. This contrast is one of the biggest factors leading to poor mental health among recently transitioned personnel.

The Turnbull government is already doing a great deal to make this transition more successful. I spoke about many of these measures at length during debate on the first veteran-centric reforms bill in February, so I'll not repeat the full list. Most recently, we've sought to change regulations so that the Department of Defence can inform the DVA directly and immediately when a serving member has become a veteran, and ensure that every service man and woman will be guaranteed access to the personal documentation that they need in civilian life before they are discharged. We have also invested $2.7 million in the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program to help businesses understand the unique skills and attitudes ADF members have developed during their service. I look forward to seeing this currently modest initiative expand and develop in the not too distant future.

However, if we want to make a dramatic difference to the mental health of our former service men and women, I believe that education, and in particular tertiary education, is the answer. For those who are not leaving the ADF for a job or to start a business, entry into a degree or a vocational education course immediately gives veterans a new mission to accomplish and an organised path to tread. Once they reach that new goal and graduate, they will have significantly improved employment prospects. And, as we all know, the best form of welfare is a job.

As I've discussed in very positive meetings with the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, ultimately I believe we should work towards what I call an assisted tertiary education for ADF veterans program, an ATEV. ATEV would support all eligible veterans to undertake a four-year university degree or vocational education course paid for by the Commonwealth. It would be Australia's equivalent of the famous US GI bill, which, for more than 50 years, has been paying for American veterans to go to university and which has seen 453,000 degrees earned since 9/11. Eventually, not only would such a program be a meaningful reward for service and a powerful recruiting tool; it could also dramatically improve mental health outcomes and reduce the need for more government support. I'll continue to advocate for an ATEV in the future. However, in the immediate term, there are actually already veterans who are benefitting from this kind of support, and schedule 1 of this bill will ensure that those veterans can make the most of the opportunity.

Currently, if a veteran is unable to work or has a reduced capacity to work as a result of an injury or illness which is related to their service, they are eligible to receive incapacity payments from the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Where relevant, these individuals are placed into a rehabilitation plan to help them to increase their capability to return to paid employment. For some, this rehabilitation plan includes payment from the DVA to complete— (Time expired)

Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave not granted.

12:17 pm

Photo of Christian PorterChristian Porter (Pearce, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That, under standing order 1, Mr Wallace be granted an extension of time for seven and a half minutes.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the member for Fisher be given an extension of time for 7½ minutes.

12:29 pm

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is extremely unfortunate that those opposite continue to play petty party political games on an issue that is so important to Australia, and that is the care of our veterans. Shame on you! Shame on you! I thank this side of the House for encouraging and supporting me in an extension of time to talk on this important issue.

As I was saying, currently, if a veteran is unable to work or has a reduced capacity to work as a result of an injury or illness which is related to their service, they are eligible to receive incapacity payments from the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Where relevant, these individuals are placed into a rehabilitation plan to help them to increase their capability to return to paid employment. For some, this rehabilitation plan includes payment from the DVA to complete a tertiary education course to help with their transition to a new, now more suitable career. However, at present, veterans' incapacity payments step down to 75 per cent of their normal earnings after a period of 45 weeks in receipt of the payment. Tertiary education courses, Mr Deputy Speaker, as you well know, often take substantially longer than 45 weeks to complete. As such, some veterans who are studying full time can face a large decrease in their income while their courses are still ongoing. This can be stressful in itself, especially where veterans have a family to support, but it also risks a higher rate of non-completion of these Commonwealth-supported courses.

Schedule 2 changes this incapacity payments regime such that eligible veterans participating in a DVA rehabilitation plan and studying full time as part of their plan will receive incapacity payments at 100 per cent of their normal earnings without the step-down at 45 weeks. This will directly benefit around 150 veterans per year, but the flow-on effects in completed courses, improved employment prospects and mental health outcomes will be significant. I look forward to finding out what lies ahead for the veterans who complete courses under this bill when enacted. I'm also excited to see what possibilities their successors will suggest for broadened access to Commonwealth-supported tertiary education for veterans.

As a nation, we owe it to our veterans to see them not as broken men and women but as remarkable, highly skilled individuals who have served our nation with distinction and who can offer private industry and public life a great deal. That is what I saw when I visited the ADF in Afghanistan last year with the ADF Parliamentary Program, and it is what I have seen with the young veteran Justin Sehmish, who has been working in my own office. It is what will inspire me to continue to work with the minister to find ways to improve veterans' prospects in civilian life throughout my time as a parliamentarian. This bill before us is an important step in the right direction, and I commend it to the House.

12:33 pm

Photo of Emma HusarEmma Husar (Lindsay, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mateship, a fair go, courage and sacrifice are the hallmark traits of the members of the Australian Defence Force, who day after day dedicate their lives to service and to the care and defence of our country. I saw this firsthand in my deployment last year to the Middle East. The men and women who have stood on the front line to defend our nation have seen sacrifice and, in some cases, made the ultimate sacrifice. Like most people in this place, I'm grateful and thankful for the work they do. However, we need to do more to ensure that, as they return to their families, their communities and their homes, we deliver the best possible service and care. We owe it to our veterans to provide the best possible support.

Returning and settling back in at home, for some veterans, can be more confronting than the war itself. We know that when they return home unemployment is a serious issue, with our best estimates citing that about 30 per cent of those who leave the ADF find it difficult to get employment. This means that, of the approximately 5,500 veterans who leave each year, roughly 1,600 individuals fail to find and move into employment. Of those who do, about 19 per cent are underemployed or employed in jobs that are beneath their capabilities. On average, those who are employed experience an average drop of about 30 per cent in their income.

This bill contains several measures which seek to improve the outcomes for those who have served our country and for their loved ones. We're supportive of this bill. We always look for ways that we can improve outcomes for veterans and smooth transition processes for when they do return home.

Education and reskilling can be a vital aspect of the transition period for those who are leaving the ADF. The proposed changes ensure that those who are on incapacity payments and who are undertaking full-time study will have their payments maintained and have the ability to focus on their future without worrying about whether or not at the end of the day they will have money left over to survive on. 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, which we all know is important, to veterans and their families while they undertake study. Education and reskilling are vital tools for anybody. However, when you're reorientating after a war or service, or an injury or illness, it can be even more important. Labor is supportive of this measure, which is anticipated to benefit approximately 150 per year and cost $10.8 million over the forward estimates.

For some, their service may have had a greater impact on them and their circumstances. We have a duty of care to ensure that they and their families receive the necessary supports they need to live full and productive lives. The National Mental Health Commission presented its findings from the review into suicide and self-harm prevention services to the inquiry undertaken by the Senate. Some respondents to the review said it was positive regarding their experience. However, the commission stated:

However, qualitatively, we also heard a broad range of poor experiences of services and general feelings of cynicism, distrust, frustration, abandonment and loss. For many, these are the realities of what being in the military brings and the sacrifice that is asked of them and their families in service of their country.

When we send men and the women into war, we don't want them coming back feeling a sense of cynicism, distrust, frustration, abandonment and loss. We owe it to all of them to do all we can to ensure that these are not their experiences.

The commission also stated:

Concerted and continued attention is needed to ensure efforts are effective in preventing suicide and self-harm amongst Australia’s current and former serving personnel and their families.

Data shows that suicide rates are lower among current serving ADF members than in the general population but higher for former serving ADF members, particularly those below 30 years of age. On this side of the House, we believe—and I think, generally, on the other side as well—that one suicide is one too many.

Currently, just under 60,000 Australians are serving in our Defence Force as at July 2015. The estimated number of living veterans is 316,000—not a huge number in comparison with the size of our country—and, currently, the Department of Veterans' Affairs supports approximately 221,000. In my electorate of Lindsay there are just under a thousand veterans receiving assistance through the department, administered by the RSL in Penrith and also in St Marys. They do a wonderful job supporting our veterans. Five hundred and two veterans are receiving a disability pension out of those 916 in my electorate, and there are 306 war widow pensioners in my community.

My community has spoken about this, and those who have served and their families. They want that support in the difficult transition period when they return. This was also my experience when I was in the Middle East last year. Our current serving members were asking me to ask the government to ensure that when they arrived back home they were supported and given the help they needed.

We're committed to supporting our current and ex-service personnel and their families. We're committed to this because we don't want to see members of the ADF who have sacrificed so much already falling through the cracks. We should be doing everything we can to support our veterans and those who are vulnerable in our communities, not giving an $80 billion tax break to big businesses. Our veterans have been through enough already and this is just a slap in the face. They have done everything that we have asked of them, and more in most cases. I have seen firsthand the difficult and stressful work of defence personnel, and that is why it is the responsibility of all of us here to develop and support infrastructure and networks that will help veterans in the difficult transition period when they arrive home.

I had the opportunity to spend a long time with the troops, visiting four bases during my trip to Afghanistan last year as part of the ADFPP. It was a time that, when I look back on it, caused me great anxiety, a little bit of stress, sleeplessness and some involuntary reactions while I was away. I can only imagine what that's like to endure through six and nine-month deployments at a time. When I was there, the men and women who were serving wanted to know that their contribution was valued and also what the support services looked like post deployment. Most of them are grateful to be there and serving their country. They are honoured. They feel it is a privilege. Across all four bases that I visited, there is a heightened sense of anxiety around the uncertainty of what it will mean for each of them when they return home. It's not a concern that any of us should take lightly. The difficulties veterans face when they return home and the scars they carry from the trauma they have experienced are not to be underestimated. We know that this trauma can lead to suicide. Veterans often suffer from mental ill-health once they return home.

Between 2001 and 2015, 325 veterans took their own lives. The Senate report entitled The constant battle: suicide by veterans made 24 recommendations. The report tells the story of veteran Jesse, who had been diagnosed with PTSD and other mental health conditions. Jesse had been endeavouring to seek assistance from the Department of Veterans' Affairs for 18 months and did not receive any support from the DVA or Centrelink. This financial and emotional strain, coupled with the false hope that his voice would be heard, was described by Jesse's former partner, Connie, as absolutely crippling. Tragically, Jesse took his own life. There are so many veterans like Jesse, who return home to their families with a range of different mental illnesses and/or injuries. They return home with the hope of being supported by their government but, ultimately, they are not.

Labor have offered our support to the government to ensure that the recommendations made by the Senate committee report do not gather dust on a shelf, as we so often see with these reports. We believe in greater support for all veterans and their families, especially those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. It dismays me to know that men and women who have served our nation and who have suffered such deep mental and emotional trauma are without support from government and go on to take their own lives. We need to act know. Veterans need real and meaningful change.

Schedule 2 of this bill will create a new suicide prevention pilot, which we welcome. It will provide greater support to those who have been hospitalised after an attempted suicide, those who experience suicide ideation or those who may be at increased risk of suicide because of their mental health or other factors. This is one of three current suicide prevention trials aimed at providing targeted support for our veterans. The first trial will be based in Townsville and delivered by the North Queensland Primary Healthcare Network.. The second trial is a Coordinated Veterans' Care model, which is aimed at mental health support for veterans in rural and regional areas. The two suicide prevention trials are being coordinated by the Department of Veterans' Affairs and are a result of both the National Mental Health Commission's review of services available to veterans and members of the ADF and recommendations made during the Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel, which was completed last year. I thank all the members in the Senate who were part of that committee. Labor supported the establishment of the Senate inquiry, and we are pleased to see these recommendations being progressively implemented. We implore the government to maintain the same momentum.

The third trial will use this coordinated approach and place the GP at the hub of working with veterans and facilities. 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 for the participants. Labor offers its full support to the establishment of the trial and looks forward to seeing the results of this trial and the others that are currently underway.

Schedule 3 of this bill will amend the amount of time from six months to two years for wholly-dependent partners to make a decision about whether to receive their compensation as a weekly payment or convert it wholly or partly into a lump sum payment. This is a logical and compassionate change, and we offer our full support for it. Schedule 4 amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act in order to extend the eligibility of the Long Tan Bursary to grandchildren of Vietnam veterans. We are supportive of this measure, which ensures that more young people are able to access this support. Schedule 5 amends the VEA to create a deeming provision to ensure that a submariner who served on a special submarine operation between 1 January 1978 and 31 December 1992 is deemed to have operational service for any period they served on a submarine during this period. Labor is supportive of this measure which recognises the service that these individuals undertook.

The final schedule simplifies the process for veterans applying for compensation under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, or MRCA, during a needs assessment. Currently, this requires the individual to put in a separate application. Under these changes, a verbal indication by a veteran that they are seeking compensation under the act will be considered an application. Labor is supportive of measures which make the claim process easier for veterans, as long as they don't disadvantage veterans.

In my electorate, I have a special service group dedicated to simply helping people and veterans access DVA. These are volunteers who have been through and seen war-like service themselves, volunteering to ensure that their mates get the help that they require. Better support for veterans and their families is just one small step to help ease the trauma that they experienced. The local organisations in my electorate that work hard to represent veterans and serving personnel advocate tirelessly for the support of veterans. I'd like to make mention of the National Servicemen's Association, in particular the Penrith City Nasho's, of whom I am a patron: Patron Jim Aitken, Patron Ross Sinclair, President John Taylor, and Honorary Treasurer Reverend Harry May, who is also a volunteer at many other of my community organisations. I'd like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank the Nasho's for all for the work that they do in our community. In thanking that group, I'd also like to add my thanks to the City of Penrith RSL sub-Branch: President Mick McConnell; Vice-President Brian Cartwright, who is a newly elected Penrith City councillor; Honorary Treasurer Gary Scott; and Honorary Secretary Mick Visinko. I also thank the St Mary's RSL sub-Branch: President Ron Blakely and Secretary Tony Fryer.

These local organisations and services in Lindsay provide critical support and assistance to our Defence personnel, veterans and their families—both current and former. They spend a lot of time in our electorate making sure that veterans and all current and past serving members are remembered through services like Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. I stand with all veterans and servicemen and servicewomen in this country, and I am proud to stand with all of the support organisations in my community in their advocacy for our veterans, and will continue to do so every day that I hold office.

12:46 pm

Photo of Nola MarinoNola Marino (Forrest, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the service of all of our veterans and Defence Force members and those who are serving today. I make it a priority to go along to the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program as often as I can. I acknowledge the crew of HMAS Warramunga, who are currently serving in the gulf. The crew have seized over $1 billion worth of illegal drugs since deploying to the western Indian Ocean, and I acknowledge this work. I was there only last year with the ship's crew prior to their deployment.

Over 1.5 million Australians have served Australia in wartime, and 102,000 men and women paid the ultimate price. One of those was my mother's husband, Jack Leonard. Mum was a war widow from World War II, and I know firsthand just what that meant to my mother and my two sisters. It was George Washington who said:

The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.

We know that Australia has one of the most comprehensive systems of veterans care in the world, and it's a system that has adapted. In 1916, when the RSL came into being, the world was still in the grip of World War I. Australia had seen 416,809 Australians take part. We lost over 60,000. Again, following World War II, there was an influx of a different generation of veterans and there were new ways needed to assist them on their return.

Today, our modern veterans from very modern conflicts have different requirements and different needs for assistance compared to the veterans from either of the two world wars. This is very important to the government, and this bill goes a long way to placing the veterans and their needs at the centre of the support. This is critical to the Turnbull government. I commend the minister for all of the work in this space. We're introducing new initiatives to deliver a range of services to veterans and their families to put them first in the services and supports they're receiving. This continues from the 2016 budget and the eight measures we introduced under the veterans' affairs legislation and Veteran Centric Reform.

We know that the best type of support for our ex-servicemen and women is the economic independence that comes with having a job, which is why we continue to promote employment for veterans by ensuring that the business community actually understands, recognises and values the benefits of employing a veteran. The member for Canning would understand this very well—the qualities that he can bring to so many different roles, including this one in the parliament, and I thank him for his service.

Veterans bring skills of leadership, of discipline, of team work and of patriotism and that would benefit any business in Australia and overseas. We want to encourage and support our veterans to get back into the workforce and assist them financially while they're studying, so that they can concentrate on reskilling and re-educating themselves into a different role. For veterans participating in a rehabilitation plan and in approved full-time study, their incapacity payment won't be reduced after the 45 weeks. More than 5,000 men and women leave the services each year and this measure will make a real difference to how they actually manage the transition back into civilian life and work, particularly through, perhaps, a full-time study approach.

One of the tragic aspects of dealing with veterans issues is, of course, the high level of suicide rates. I have heard, especially when I do the Defence Force programs, many accounts from our recent veterans—those within my own electorate and elsewhere—about recent veterans or mates who have taken their own lives. In this bill, we will provide a new veteran suicide prevention pilot, and it is a pilot. Reducing suicide, particularly amongst veterans, is a key priority for the government. This pilot will provide mental health support for veterans who have been hospitalised after attempted suicide or who may be at increased risk because of their mental health or other factors. The government is determined to provide intensive services to ensure that veterans are accessing the treatment they so badly need. The pilot will provide intensive support for up to 100 veterans who have complex mental health challenges, and many of them are complex. The evaluation will be important and will provide a key platform for future policy directions. That could well lead to greater improved support and mental health services, which is what we want to see. It will literally save the lives of veterans suffering from mental health issues.

The bill will also make it easier for the partners of veterans who have lost their lives, those who have made that ultimate sacrifice. Changes to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 will actually give partners more time to choose whether to receive the compensation payable for their partner's death as a weekly payment, or a lump sum or a combination of both—whatever works best for them. The proposed amendments will give partners, during what is the worst time for them, two years rather than the current six months to decide how they would like to receive their compensation. Speaking of my mum, all those years ago, back in 1943, what did she receive? I talk about the evolution of our support. Well, she received, per fortnight, 122 shillings in a war widow's pension, 35 shillings for my sister Pam and 25 shillings for my sister Judy. Legacy, that wonderful Australian voluntary organisation established in 1923 by ex-servicemen, which cares for the dependents of deceased Australian servicemen, sent my sisters Pam and Judy birthday and Christmas cards and gifts each year until they were 16. You can imagine in those years just how much this meant.

When we talk about sacrifice, my mother's husband left on my sister Pam's third birthday. My sister Judy was only a tiny little tot and she actually couldn't even remember her dad at all. So, when we talk about the practical support and services that we offer to veterans' families, I can only say that nothing is too much. I know what my own family has been through.

Another of the measures in this bill would extend the Long Tan Bursary to the grandchildren of Australian veterans who have seen operational service in Vietnam. It's part of the Veterans' Children Education Scheme. Many years ago, DVA decided to support both veterans of the Vietnam conflict and also their families. Currently, the Long Tan Bursary scheme is limited to eligible children of an Australian Vietnam vet. We're proposing to extend that eligibility so that eligible grandchildren of an Australian Vietnam vet who has seen operational service may apply. Children will remain eligible and bursaries will be given first priority during that assessment process. The intent of it is to honour the original intent of the scheme. The Long Tan Bursary enables successful applicants to undertake post-secondary education. We, as members of parliament, go into schools and we see these Long Tan bursaries often awarded.

During the Cold War, Australian submariners would undertake long patrols. One of the other changes we're making in this bill is about this service. This service often meant months at sea and no ability to discuss their operations. The level of secrecy in these patrols was absolutely intense. This bill will deem submariner service on a submarine between 1 January 1978 and December 1992 as operational service where they served on a special operation during that period. The deeming provision will enable all submarine service during this period by persons who have served on a submarine on special operations to be treated as operational service. That will ensure the classified nature of information about special operations does not hinder or stop access by these personnel to the benefits and entitlements available to those within operational service.

I know that one of my predecessors in the role of chief whip, Alex Somlyay, pursued recognition of this type of service as operational service in his time in this House and pursued access to benefits for submarine veterans. I acknowledge Alex and his historic service to this House. This measure will provide the benefits that Alex Somlyay so strongly fought for.

One of the common complaints from veterans is often the complexity of dealing with the processes of DVA. It is something we, as members of parliament, hear about. It can take time and be frustrating. But we've listened and acted. Measures in this bill will enable veterans with coverage under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 to lodge a claim for compensation orally. Those who wish to do so will continue to be able to make a written claim. But these measures mean that a client will be asked, during a needs assessment telephone call, whether they want to make a claim for compensation, and their oral statement will be treated as a valid claim under the act. This is really demonstrating that the government has listened to the concerns and the frustrations of veterans and their families and is absolutely committed to putting them first. These measures follow on to so many of our previous measures.

I really want to go back to what families actually have to go through. I've spoken in this place previously and I've looked at what my mother and sisters went through all those years ago, and I can only say that the measures in this bill can't change what's happened but can help to make the situation easier to manage. I know, from reading my mum's diary, that when she got notification of her husband's death it was a very hot day in Brunswick, a little community. She was out on the family dairy farm. She said the girl from the post office rode her bike out in that hot sun, because the way you were told was by telegram. She received that telegram. She said that message was really quite anticipated, but she didn't want it. It still came. It was very difficult for her and for those two little girls, my sisters, but she got on the train. She didn't want Jack's mum to hear in the same way she had, by way of a telegram, so she went to tell her personally. I want to acknowledge the widows and widowers in what they've had to go through and the way they've had to deal with so many practical issues when they've lost a loved one in a conflict zone. It took my mother until she was 75, when she went to a 2nd/28th reunion and actually met the men who'd served with Jack and knew how he'd spent his last days and how he'd died and where he was buried. And I can only say in this place: that was the first time that she'd received any closure.

So many of our Defence Force men and women end their lives away from here, on a different shore. And what they do, in providing service not just to our nation but to those in so many other countries, is extraordinary. I met the Menin Gate buglers. I said to one, 'It's an extraordinary contribution you make, voluntarily playing our last post 30,000 times,' and he said: 'You listen to me. In this country, what we know is everything we are and everything we have is because of your Australians' blood on our soil.' He said, 'The least we can do is play your last post.' That says it all. I acknowledge the extraordinary bravery and courage of all of our Defence Force men and women.

1:00 pm

Photo of Ross HartRoss Hart (Bass, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Forrest for her deeply personal reflections upon this legislation. It's very important that we note the personal sacrifice and how it affects families when we consider legislation like this.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on this legislation. This bill, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018, will be fully supported by Labor. We have a continuing responsibility to those who have served and to their families, as we've heard. That responsibility arises from the fact that our Australian Defence Force personnel are required, as part of serving our country, to take risks, make sacrifices and commit their lives—indeed, their very wellbeing—to the Defence Force. Those service men and women put their lives on hold to undertake service for this country.

The measures contained in this legislation are further acknowledgement of our obligations to our ex-service personnel. These measures—in particular, the measures which are aimed at providing increased support for those for whom service has had a greater impact upon them—seek to further ensure that we recognise our continuing obligation. And I emphasise the words 'continuing obligation'.

The bill comprises six schedules. It puts into legislative effect announcements made in both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 budgets. Schedule 1 addresses former ADF members who are currently receiving incapacity payments at 100 per cent of their normal weekly earnings. The payments that they receive are compensation paid for a loss of normal earnings suffered as a result of a service-related physical and/or mental health condition. Currently, incapacity payments step down to 75 per cent or higher, depending upon weekly hours worked, of normal earnings after a period of 45 weeks. This is a standard workers compensation provision. This amendment will benefit those who are participating in a DVA-funded rehabilitation plan who are undertaking either vocational or tertiary study, thereby providing much-needed financial security to the veteran and their family while they are studying. It will ensure that they may focus on their study and not be concerned about financial matters. This is a good measure. It encourages rehabilitation and re-engagement with study. The intention is that a person who has commenced a rehabilitation plan or their full-time studies as part of an approved rehabilitation plan before the amendments commenced will be entitled to have their incapacity payments paid at 100 per cent from the commencement of these amendments until 1 July 2022.

There'll also be an instrument-making power which will enable the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to determine the circumstances in which a person is undertaking full-time study. This is designed to ensure that breaks such as semester breaks don't result in a step-down of payments, and that other analogous issues are addressed. For example, this will include when a person is undertaking the equivalent of full-time study, which will be 75 per cent of a full-time study load, or, as I've said previously, when they are on a semester break. The measure will assist, as we've heard previously, approximately 150 people per year and will cost $10.8 million over the forward estimates.

Further education and training, of course, are both important, particularly where the individual has had no choice but to leave the Australian Defence Force and thereby needs to focus on civilian life, which is, of course, in itself a very significant life change. Labor believes that providing this support will ensure greater outcomes for veterans and their families and will assist in moving veterans into meaningful employment post service.

I've spoken in this place previously about programs, including locally developed programs within my electorate of Bass which focus upon the reintegration of veterans in our communities. Veterans' unemployment is and remains a serious issue, an issue which must be addressed through investment in people. Best estimates cite that 30.2 per cent of those who leave the ADF fail to find employment. This means that, of the approximately 5,500 veterans who leave each year, roughly 1,600 individuals failed to move into employment. Of those who do find employment, 19 per cent are underemployed or in jobs which are beneath their capabilities. On average, those who are employed experience an average 30 per cent drop in income from their ADF wages. This means that education is an imperative, not just an aspiration.

It is for this reason that Labor is committed to a $121 million Veterans' Employment Program which seeks to ensure that veterans are best prepared to move into meaningful employment and employers are able to gain the many advantages of hiring these highly skilled and highly dedicated individuals. Education and reskilling is important for all who leave the ADF but, for those who've left due to injury and/or illness, reintegration and reorientation of their lives is even more important. This amendment will ensure that those who are on an incapacity payment can focus on their future without worrying about finances.

Schedule 2 creates a suicide prevention pilot. I've spoken previously in this place on a number of occasions about the high rate of suicide among our ex-ADF personnel. More must be done to address the feelings of dislocation, disorientation and loss which result from losing connection with the ADF. It is shameful that so many of our ex-ADF servicemen and servicewomen are in a position where suicide is, to them, the only viable option. We quite appropriately recognise the service of those who have been killed overseas. We mourn their loss and commemorate them and their sacrifice. But there are many more who have been lost to suicide, and we are only now just seeking to pick up our response to this issue.

The suicide prevention pilot will private greater support for those who've been hospitalised after attempted suicide or suicidal ideation or those who've been assessed at increased risk of suicide because of their mental health or other factors. The first of these trials as part of the Department of Health initiative is based in Townsville working with the Northern Queensland Primary Health Network. The legislative basis for the second trial passed the parliament earlier this year and created a coordinated veterans' care model which is aimed at mental health support for veterans in rural and regional areas. The third trial again uses the coordinated approach and places the GP at the hub, working with veterans and facilities.

In my electorate of Bass, the ADF welfare team run by the Launceston RSL is an example of what can be done at a practical level in providing non-clinical support for veterans at risk. Nevertheless, clinical responses are essential to ensure that people remain safe and well. The pilot will provide a coordinated support to ensure veterans are accessing treatment and social support to reduce the risk of suicide and enhance the quality of life for participants. The trial will provide intensive and assertive management services to support a veteran after they have been discharged from hospital, including support to access other relevant government and non-governmental treatment and services, aiming to reduce the risk and improve outcomes for those involved. The National Mental Health Commission recommended step-down services which take into account factors that may lead to suicide, such as primary health, financial stress, housing and employment. Labor supports the trial. Labor is pleased to see the recommendations of the Senate inquiry being progressively implemented. I urge government to maintain the momentum to address this real and present issue.

Schedule 3 provides for compensation for a member's death. The amendments proposed would extend the time in which wholly dependent partners have to make a decision about whether to receive their compensation as a weekly payment or for their compensation to be wholly or partly converted into a lump sum payment from six months to two years. Currently, partners have six months to decide whether they would like to receive their compensation as a weekly payment or convert the whole or part of the payment into a lump sum. Where the commissioner is satisfied that there are special circumstances to justify an extension of time in which to make a choice, a longer period than six months may be granted. However, it does require them to write to the commission to request that.

These changes will ensure that partners in a very difficult period—some would say the most difficult period—have sufficient time to make a decision about whether to receive their compensation as a weekly payment or to convert it. Again, this is a case of this parliament recognising that more needs to be done to focus upon veterans and, of course, their families, rather than insisting upon bureaucratic processes. There is more that can and should be done to improve the processes that our veterans and their families deal with in either compensation or pension claims. This is a case of the issue being raised at the department's legislation workshop, but it has also arisen in other consultations with the ex-service community.

Schedule 4, as we have heard previously, amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act in order to extend the eligibility of the Long Tan Bursary scheme to grandchildren of Vietnam veterans. This bursary offers 37 scholarships of up to $12,000 over three years to children of Vietnam veterans to assist with post-secondary school education and training. Whilst criteria for these applications will not change, this amendment will enable more individuals to apply for support to help students continuing their study. Priority will still be given to supporting those children of Vietnam veterans. Labor supports the measure, which ensures that more young people are able to access appropriate supports.

Schedule 5 creates a deeming provision with respect to the service of certain submariners. This ensures that a submariner who has served on a submarine on a special submarine operation between 1 January 1978 to 31 December 1992 is deemed to have operational service. This simplifies the support available to those individuals who have served during this period who may have a claim with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Labor supports the measure which recognises the service that these individuals have undertaken.

The final schedule simplifies the procedure for veterans to apply for compensation under the MRCA during a needs assessment. This will enable a claim for compensation to be made during a needs assessment, notwithstanding that it is undertaken verbally over the telephone. Veterans will still be entitled to make a claim in writing should they wish to do so. Labor is very supportive of measures which make the claim process easier for veterans, as long as no-one is being disadvantaged. There have been some concerns expressed about information provided by an applicant during a needs assessment subsequently being used to determine compensation claims. There is concern within the veteran community that information provided during what is now going to be an informal process might be used to decline the severity of claims further down the track. Labor has raised this issue based upon feedback from the veteran community and have requested that the government will ensure it was clear to those applying what their answers would be utilised for.

Subsequently, the government has advised that needs assessments are not to be used by the Department of Veterans' Affairs to determine compensation but instead are to be used to identify forms of support and assistance the veteran might be eligible for. That is for all who would benefit from this provision. Pleasingly, the government, to its credit, has taken this feedback onboard and will be providing further clarification to veterans applying online. This assessment will not be used to calculate compensation rates. These assurances provided by the government enabled Labor to support this measure which assists in making the complicated claims process easier for veterans and their families.

In closing, I will just reaffirm that there is very much a consensus in this place, across the parliament, as to how we should be looking after our veteran community. It is, as I have said previously, to the credit of the government that it's able to listen to concerns that are raised by Labor and its shadow minister where those concerns appear to interact with the effectiveness of the proposed amendments.

As I said earlier, the issue of veterans' suicide is a real and present concern, so it's very pleasing to see the third suicide prevention trial rolling out. It is vitally important that we not just stand still but that we continue moving to implement the recommendations of the Senate committee that's investigated veteran suicide in particular. We owe an ongoing obligation to the people who have served on behalf of the Australian Defence Force. That obligation is not discharged by people standing in this place and simply offering reassurances. We will be tested by what we actually do and by what we actually provide on the ground. With that, I'll close my contribution.

1:15 pm

Photo of Damian DrumDamian Drum (Murray, National Party, Assistant Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

It is great that we're now able to stand in this parliament as one and look for future ways that we can improve the lot of our veterans, and make sure that we have a greater affinity with the issues and problems that are faced by our returned servicemen.

This bill, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018, has six schedules, which I will get to shortly. What each of these schedules do is to highlight their plight and that we need to be doing as much we possibly can to look after our returned servicemen. The seat of Murray has some 903 veterans who live and prosper there, to varying degrees of success. As I've said before, many of our returned servicemen have returned in fantastic condition and are not affected at all by their service. But at the other end we have people who have struggled to resume civilian life and there's everybody in-between as well—those who have some good days and some bad days. We need to be able to cater for the whole spectrum of our returned servicemen.

I've had a great opportunity to work with Bob Wilkie from the RSL in Shepparton, and I commend him for the work that he does, and also Peter and Margaret Martin for the work that they do in helping the veterans around the Echuca-Moama region. And I want to thank the former Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Dan Tehan, for the just under $7,000 that he provided for the Echuca-Moama Veterans Support Centre with the Building Excellence in Support and Training grant they received around July last year. It certainly made a big difference. I would also like to acknowledge Ken Jones from the Vietnam Veterans' Association's Echuca branch and the work that they're doing in trying to eliminate the many suicides that we have been witnessing with our returned servicemen.

As the former Minister for Veterans' Affairs in Victoria, I got the opportunity to have firsthand experience with the RSL and the cohort that we're talking about today, our returned servicemen. In that instance, we put together a range of programs. One that comes to mind was a five-unit facility in Richmond, where we invested a couple of million dollars, along with the RSL. We listened to the RSL about where the need was. We asked where the demand was that wasn't being met by government, or where the demand was that the RSL were unable to meet. At that stage, they were saying it was in medium- to short-term accommodation. This could be for individuals who were struggling to get on with their family or who were struggling to get on with their living experience, maybe taking them out of that experience for a little while and putting them into a unit in Richmond where they had a whole raft of services available to them. But it was also to have some accommodation services there for small families, so that a veteran needing the support of his wife and children could have that while also getting the additional services that he needed to cope with some of the issues he was going through. We were able to build that facility, which today is making and will continue to make a significant difference for those servicemen suffering from the pressures of fitting in with civilian life.

We also need to be cognisant that it is not just about the returned servicemen supposedly affected by PTSD or suffering all forms of trauma. We can be in the company of returned servicemen that have come back totally normal, unaffected by the conflicts they've been involved in overseas, but we have to understand that they have spent the last maybe 10 to 15 years in a very structured and strict, command and control environment, dislocated from their family in many instances. When that comes to an end, and all of a sudden these people are put into less formal workplaces where the language around who's doing what and who's responsible for certain jobs is very casual, it becomes tough, because they have been used to a totally different dynamic within their work environment. We need to offer these people support, and that's why schedule 1 is critical, because of its ability to assist with the training. Training is such an important part of it, and I'm so glad that it has been put into this bill. We need to offer these skills to these people in the most affordable and diligent way we possibly can.

In this role as a member of federal parliament I've also had the opportunity to meet a chap by the name of Barry Gracey, who is doing a whole raft of work commemorating the sacrifice at Pozieres. Whilst it is not affected by this bill, I acknowledge this recognition of the sacrifice our returned servicemen made and have been making ever since the First World War. Pozieres sometimes tends to be forgotten, because it wasn't a glamorous, fantastic win for this nation. We lost over 7,000 men at Pozieres, and over half of them are still lying in the battlefields where they fell, because by the time we had the opportunity to retrieve their bodies, effectively there was nothing left. I would like to acknowledge that on the other side of the world right now Barry Gracey is trying to build a rose garden to commemorate the great sacrifice of the our First World War veterans in the Somme region.

We can now look back at those stories that we grew up with about people like Uncle Sam—who sat on the veranda when he came back, because he was suffering from shell shock; we weren't quite sure what the problem with him was, but he turned to the bottle—and know they were suffering from PTSD. They were suffering all kinds of things but at the time were more or less shunned and pushed aside. We looked after them, but we didn't really know what was going on. Now we have such a better understanding, we need to put in place the services to match our much clearer understanding of what these people are going through.

This leads me to Kristy Jefferis and her husband, Shane, friends of ours from our time living in Bendigo. Kristy is very direct and would often—sometimes on the phone; sometimes coming to see me directly—say: 'My husband and I are sick of catching up with our friends at funerals. There are just too many. We have another funeral to go to next week. We went to one two weeks ago.' Shane had seven years in the 5RAR in Darwin. As a government we have to do more. I acknowledge Kristy, Shane and their group, because they're living this every day. The difficulty faced by many of our veterans is something this bill is trying to work its way through.

Schedule 1 deals with the capacity of a veteran whose payments step down to 75 per cent after 45 weeks in receipt of incapacity payment. That's going to change now. While they are studying full time, they will receive 100 per cent of their normal earnings. These payments will not be reduced after 45 weeks, provided that they are studying full time. This is something that we think is going to create further incentive for our returned soldiers to continue to study, to continue to retrain and to ensure that they are better equipped to move into full-time, meaningful employment that's going to give them the excitement that they need to face the challenges into the future.

Schedule 2 deals very clearly with the Mental Health Clinical Management veteran suicide prevention pilot, which is going to be held in the Brisbane region. Nine hospitals, both public and private, are going to run this pilot. It's expected to support over 100 ex-serving ADF members over two years. This is going to give us, hopefully, the data that we need so that we can make sure that we can reduce suicide among the veterans. Certainly the budget allocation in the 2017-18 budget is going to provide funding for this pilot program to support these vulnerable veterans, and this is something that we think is absolutely critical. Whilst this is going to happen in the metropolitan area of Brisbane, we are hoping that the data that we receive from this pilot will enable this program and like programs to be rolled out right across Australia.

Schedule 3 is for compensation for members' death for wholly dependent partners. At the moment, wholly dependent partners have to make a decision as to what they're going to do with their supposed pension within a six-month period. As we can well imagine, for people going through the trauma of losing a partner who himself or herself may have had a whole raft of issues in relation to their service, we need to give these fully dependent partners the opportunity to get on with their lives in the best and most supportive way possible and give them the time that they need to work out what's best for them financially, whether that is to continue to receive the full pension, to take a part pension and a part lump sum, or to take the full lump sum and do away with the pension. This is something that can only be achieved over a period of time. At present, we're expecting dependents to make this decision within six months. What we're doing with schedule 3 is rolling that out to a two-year time frame. Hopefully that will assist with that work as well.

Schedule 4 has to do with the Long Tan Bursary, which is 37 positions that were made available for the children of Vietnam veterans. Obviously we're in a situation now where most of our Vietnam veterans are in their 70s or older. Their children are well and truly past university stage. This bill will not increase the amount of bursaries but will simply enable eligibility for those bursaries to proceed down the chain to grandchildren. Again, it's a commonsense approach to what we best do with the Long Tan Bursary, and that is something that I think will be well received by a raft of grandchildren. They'll be very appreciative of the opportunity to take up these bursaries. That will come into effect by 1 August 2019.

As also mentioned, schedule 5 will bring into line those people that served on submarine special operations between 1 January 1978 and 31 December 1992. There are around 900 submariners that will benefit from this change, and they will also become eligible for the support that is available under this bill. Again, this will take effect from the day after royal assent.

The final area here is claims for compensation. Currently, the legislation requires that these claims be put in in writing, whereas the bill will enable these claims to be done both orally and in writing. Again, it is predominantly allowing people to lodge these claims over the phone, something that again is commonsensical and will make it easier for veterans in isolated areas or people who may not be au fait with technology. It will give them the opportunity to simply make the phone call, lodge their claim and—

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member. The debate is to be interrupted now in accordance with standing order 43. You have a little bit of time left on the clock, so the debate will resume at a later hour and you'll be given leave to continue to speak when the debate is resumed. If you'd like to reclaim your 45 seconds then, Member for Murray, you're welcome to.