Monday, 18 June 2018
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018; Second Reading
As the member for Herbert, I believe it is my responsibility and duty to stand in this place to support veterans, ex-serving personnel and their families because they have given so selflessly of their lives to ensure that we live in the freedom that we do.
I support the measures outlined in the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018 because they make claim processes easier for veterans as long as they do not disadvantage veterans. I will always support measures that seek to improve the lives of veterans, ex-serving personnel and their families. These men and women, as I have said so many times in this place, have fought for the freedoms that we experience every day. I will fight to protect them in this place because they deserve absolutely no less. I say thank you to veterans for the work that they have done in the past and to those who are currently serving.
I rise in support of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018. I commend the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister for Defence Personnel and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC, who has worked on this bill, which is all about ensuring that our veterans and their families have access to the support and services they need.
Every year, I'm advised, more than 5,000 service men and women will leave active duty to move on to the next chapter in their lives. We as a community and as a government must do all that we can to support our veterans and their families when they do move to the next stage in their lives, because these veterans have given so much to our country and it is only right that we support those who have made such incredible sacrifices for our nation.
But it's not always easy. At a regular veterans' round table I host with local veteran organisations, I hear too often about many of the challenges that they face. These include finding work and navigating through the transition to meaningful employment after their service. At these round tables, I also hear about the challenges faced by veteran support organisations, such as the paperwork, the time-consuming application forms and, of course, the need to access supportive mental health services. These are major challenges and they are not always easy.
On a local level, we're able to help out with activities around Veterans' Health Week, where organisations across my electorate of Robertson host events in support of veterans' health. This year from 22 September to 30 September, organisations across the electorate will take part in Veterans' Health Week, with this year's theme focusing on nutrition. For ex-service organisations in my electorate, there's funding available to assist with events for Veterans' Health Week. Applications are now open and close on 29 June, so I would encourage ex-service organisations across my electorate to apply. If they would like to do so, visit the website: dva.gov.au.
At this point, I'd also like to pay tribute to the incredible veterans' community on the Central Coast, which supports local ex-service men and women year round. We are lucky to have a number of ex-service organisations supporting more than 2,000 veterans in our community. Our veterans' organisations are led by some incredible men and women. I'd like to acknowledge the extraordinary individuals that lead these organisations locally: Vietnam Veterans Peacekeepers & Peacemakers Association of Australia Central Coast sub-branch led by Stephen Karsai; the Gosford RSL Sub Branch, led by President Greg Mawson; Peter White from the Terrigal Wamberal RSL Sub Branch; Mal Roberts from Veterans Plus; Gosford's 311 Squadron of the Australian Air Force Cadets, led by Neal Rogers; Brisbane Waters Legacy, led by Max Davis and Peter Lawley; the Central Coast Interactive War Exhibit, led by Andrew Church; the president of the Davistown RSL Sub Branch, Paul Osborn; Maureen Bland from the Partners of Veterans Association Central Coast sub-branch; and the New South Wales National Servicemen's Association & Affiliates Inc., led by Alf Hill. Each and every one of these organisations and individuals does an incredible job of supporting our local veterans. Whether it be through commemorative services and activities, advocacy and support services or through social activities, I'm proud to say that our local organisations do outstanding work in supporting our ex-service men and women.
This legislation helps implement initiatives to ensure that these veterans on the Central Coast are supported and have access to essential services as they make the transition to civilian life. This bill also builds on and continues the significant work the government is undertaking to better support our veterans in other ways as well. For example, earlier this year, in the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No.1) Act 2018, this government introduced a suite of eight measures relating to veterans' payments, family support payments and a new mental health pilot program, as well as measures to strengthen and streamline existing measures designed to ensure our veterans are supported.
These measures, along with those introduced earlier in the year, are in response to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee report—The constant battle: suicide by veterans. Schedule 1 of the bill will mean that a veteran studying full time as part of a return-to-work plan will be able to receive 100 per cent of their incapacity payments, up from 75 per cent after 45 weeks. This means that each year around 150 veterans will have financial certainty as they transition back into the workforce.
Schedule 2 of the bill relates to the new Veteran Suicide Prevention Pilot. This pilot will trial a suicide prevention service designed to provide support for our ex-service men and women who are at risk of suicide as a result of mental health or other challenges. Initially, the pilot will be rolled out across nine hospitals in Brisbane for members of the Australian Defence Force with at least one day of full-time service.
Schedule 3 will provide an increase to the amount of time wholly dependent partners eligible for compensation have to decide the way in which they would like to receive their compensation. This is obviously an incredibly difficult time for those who have lost a loved one, and this schedule will mean that no decision needs to be made for two years. This change means that in an incredibly tough time widowed partners can focus on what matters and take their time to make important decisions about the financial future of their family.
Schedule 4 will extend the Long Tan Bursary eligibility so that grandchildren of Vietnam veterans will now be able to receive a Long Tan Bursary. Schedule 5 will mean that a submariner's service between 1 July 1978 and 31 December 1992 will now be deemed 'operational', addressing some of the challenges associated with their making injury claims. In schedule 6, changes to the way in which veterans are able to make compensation claims are set to streamline the process. Veterans covered under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 will now be able to make claims for compensation verbally as well as in writing.
I'd like to focus on schedule 2 for a moment—the new Veteran Suicide Prevention Pilot. Mental health and suicide continues to be an incredibly serious issue in our community, particularly for ex-service men and women. It is an issue I take seriously. It is an issue that is raised with me almost every week by a member of our veteran community on the Central Coast. I am very pleased to see that this government is taking this issue seriously as well. We will establish a new veterans' suicide prevention pilot to deliver intensive and assertive management services to veterans following an attempted suicide or those at significant risk of suicide. This pilot is about linking non-government and government support services to support vulnerable veterans and their families. It will be offered at nine public and private hospitals in Brisbane. I look forward to following this pilot closely, with the hope that the program will be able to be accessed by veterans in my electorate in the near future. This is an issue that has previously been raised not only with me individually but also at roundtable discussions that I hold with veterans, and I know it is something our ex-service organisations on the Central Coast are very passionate about seeing addressed.
Trek 4 Vets is just one of those organisations that are committed to improving the lives of veterans across the nation. It was started a few years ago by Dean Luland and Andrew Papadopoulos. Trek 4 Vets is a non-profit organisation raising awareness and promoting suicide awareness within our community. Dean enlisted as a combat engineer with the Australian Defence Force back in 2006 and served for eight years until he was discharged in 2011. Since returning to civilian life, Dean has dedicated his life to raising awareness and supporting other returned service men and women. One of the incredible initiatives that has been run by Trek 4 Vets is their Midnight2Dawn March. The march starts at just before midnight on the night before Anzac Day, with trekkers assembled at the campground at Putty Beach in my electorate. The group then hikes for 20 kilometres through the Bouddi National Park, finishing about five hours later at Terrigal Beach just in time for the Anzac Day dawn service hosted by the Terrigal Wamberal RSL Sub Branch. The march is a chance for hikers, and indeed our whole community, to remember those who have served our nation and those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Unfortunately, the walk wasn't able to take place this year. But I am advised that the Midnight2Dawn March will be back in 2019, with the aim of eventually having groups marching right across the nation.
To those in my electorate who have served our country so well, and to everyone in my community: if you are struggling, or someone you know is struggling, I urge you to reach out to one of the support services that are available. You can contact the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service on 1800011046, the Australian Defence Force support line on 1800628036 or Lifeline on 131114.
Finally, I would like to place on record my thanks and appreciation of all service men and women—those who have returned, those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and those who are currently serving. Our nation owes you a debt of gratitude and we thank you for your service. I support this bill and I will continue to work with local ex-service organisations and the member for Gippsland to ensure our veterans have access to all the support they need. I commend this bill to the House.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in this debate and indicate that the Labor Party, as has been outlined by our shadow minister, will be supporting this bill. I want to comment favourably on the contributions that have been made by others. I want to make an observation. Here in this parliament we have a number of veterans, one of whom, the member for Eden-Monaro, is sitting beside me. We've just had a bit of a chat about the importance of making sure that we understand and comprehend the daily grind that many veterans face, that we have tools in place to address their needs and their families' needs and, most particularly, that we appreciate that there are many who, whilst serving, may not have exhibited the traits that ultimately leave their mark on them, particularly in terms of mental health.
It is really very, very important that we, as a parliament, recognise the challenges that many Defence Force personnel face not only during their service but, sadly, on transition and, for many, some years later. Because what's clear from all the work that's been done over many years now is that there are many people who will transition out of the Defence Force thinking they're as bulletproof as they were when they were in, only to find, over a period of time, that actually they're not. I'm reminded that there is evidence showing that around 30 per cent of people who have separated from the Defence Force remain unemployed after five years. That says a lot not only about the individuals but about our failure to comprehend their real needs.
The issue, though, in part, is: do we know who they are? One of the things that bedevils the Department of Veterans' Affairs and indeed the Department of Defence is keeping track of people who have transitioned out of the Defence Force and knowing that they're okay. Whilst there are unit organisations that try and keep people attached, often that doesn't work. People, for whatever reason, decide they've had enough—'I don't want to talk to any more uniforms, and you, Sir, can get to buggery.' Over time, some of them come to realise that that was not a good decision, but, more importantly, they may not have realised that it wasn't a good decision but now have an illness as a result of their service which they need to address. We, in this place, have an extreme responsibility to make sure that they get the help and assistance that they and their families need.
I commend this legislation because it deals with a number of areas, as has been outlined by others, in a way which will make life easier for some but certainly treat the ailments of others. That's what's really important. The suicide prevention trials are absolutely essential. Whilst we know that the suicide rate for people in service, in uniform, is less than it is for the general population, it's an open question as to what it really is postuniform over a period of years. We've got to get our heads around it. Just contemplate this: my good friend sitting next to me has served in a theatre of war. I'm not sure how many postings he had, but the point is he's been posted to a theatre of war. There are people who, over a short period of their lives, maybe five or 10 years, have been deployed seven, eight, nine or 10 times. Particularly for those who have served in the special forces, the issues are extreme. We've got to understand not only the difficulties that they've confronted whilst in service but also the compounding effects of their continuing service, potentially, on them as individuals and on their families. Once we start down that road, we'll have a far more open attitude. I think we already are accepting, but we need a far more open attitude to some of the difficulties that people are confronting. I think this legislation helps us in that regard, both for particular individuals and for their families.
I might just make the observation that we've got to be conscious that the day you go to Kapooka or to RMC and put on that uniform, you are effectively a client of DVA. We need to get people to realise that putting on the uniform means they are now a potential client—if you are not a client already, you should understand what DVA can do for you—and DVA, conversely, needs to make sure that the soldiers, sailors and air men and women understand what DVA can do for them. That's important whilst they're in uniform so that, when they leave the uniform behind, they can comprehend absolutely, understand and know where they can get assistance, should they require it.
I note that the member for Ryan is at the table. Sadly, she has been treated very shabbily by her own political party, but she is someone for whom I have the greatest respect and whose son I know. He is currently an officer in the Australian Army. I know the member for Ryan appreciates this, but I'm not sure everyone in this chamber—or in the Senate for that matter—does, and I know I didn't for a long time. I had a commitment to the Defence Force and a commitment to and an understanding of people who had served, because my own father and his father and uncles had all been part of the service, but getting integrally involved in the nature of the service gave me a comprehension that I hitherto didn't have. I know that the member for Ryan appreciates absolutely what this means for her and her family, and for her son's family. In two weeks time we'll be commemorating the famous victory of General Monash at Le Hamel 100 years ago. We need to understand that, each time, in 100 years of war—the First World War, the Boer War before it and subsequent wars—we, the Australian nation, are asking people like the member for Ryan's son to go and fire bullets on our behalf. We, as a consequence, have an obligation, and that obligation cannot be underestimated. I fear that there are still some—not amongst us, I hope—who underestimate that challenge.
I note that the support for our Defence Force and Defence Force personnel is, clearly, now strongly bipartisan. We may have different views about policy and about whether or not we should be engaged in particular circumstances. But one thing is beyond doubt, and that is our united support in a bipartisan way for Defence Force men and women and their families and for veterans. We need to comprehend that a young person who, at the age of 17 or 18, marches to Kapooka for their recruit training could potentially be a client of DVA for the rest of their life, as could their children. And, should they marry, we know that the highest number of people being cared for by Veterans' Affairs at the moment are spouses of Defence Force members who have passed away.
So it's a broad family we're talking about here. It's a community that we need to have more to do with. Those of us who have had the great fortune of interacting with veterans understand their commitment, obviously, but we also understand their needs. Sadly, at times, some people's needs aren't properly addressed or aren't recognised, and those people fall through the gaps. We have to appreciate that when we deal with these people, we have to be prepared to deal with them sensitively and make sure that their needs are properly addressed and met. If mistakes have been made, they've got to be fixed. My experience with the Department of Veterans' Affairs has been that, overwhelmingly, the commitment is to the veteran. The systems sometimes fail us, and we have got to make sure that we provide the support so the systems do not to fail us. I think that the measures in this piece of legislation will help in that regard in a very positive way.
I know my time's about up. I'll continue to speak until 1.30, because I don't want my colleague on the other side to get up on his pins and speak for 30 seconds and be told to sit down. It is important that we all recognise the value in this legislation. We do have differences from time to time. We have policy differences on some areas regarding veterans, but, generally speaking, when we know we can work together we do. I want to commend the government for initiating this legislation and the opposition for giving its support.
I'll just go back, if I may, to the 100th anniversary of Le Hamel. Once you've read some of this history, it's intriguing to understand why people do particular things and how gravely they do them. Most importantly, we need to understand the sacrifices made for us. Whether it was 100 years ago or today, those sacrifices are still being made.