Tuesday, 4 December 2018
Could I take this opportunity to echo the remarks of colleagues on the passing of President Bush Sr. My first operational deployment was actually at the behest of President Bush when he, as my American colleagues would probably say, managed to round up an international posse to go into Somalia to put an end to the genocide and the horrendous loss of life that was going on in Somalia at the time. He was operating in the follow-on years from the first Gulf War, where there was a new optimism about the ability to harness international effort to resolve the world's problems. His leadership in that instance was also something I think we can reflect on positively.
I have enormous respect for this man, as a World War II veteran and in every other endeavour of his life. He was a great success in many ways. The only issue I would take is that I do have a personal view about how the first Gulf War was concluded. Having gone back and served in Iraq for a year, from 2003 to 2004, I think there were some issues that the whole coalition of the willing could have done better, but that's for another day. But I do really want to echo my respect for the President and his standard of politics that he set in the US.
In moving on to this ministerial statement by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, I would also like to indicate my respect for him, my electoral neighbour in Gippsland. He's also a friend, and I really do appreciate his goodwill and his endeavour in this space. He came into it at short notice, with changes of portfolio responsibilities, but I know his heart is in the right place in what he is attempting to do. There were a lot of good things in the statement that he gave in relation to the veterans space, and it is a good example of the spirit of bipartisanship that pervades this building in our respect for and endeavour to do better by our veterans. It's not always replicated in other areas. I would encourage the Minister for Defence to adopt a more bipartisan tone now he is the Minister for Defence. Often the statements that he makes in relation to the previous Labor government and funding are simply incorrect. I would ask him to think on that.
Today I mainly want to reflect on veterans' issues, particularly issues that were mentioned in the statement, such as the Invictus Games. I want to pay tribute to two of my veterans who were at the Invictus Games, a really fantastic initiative of Prince Harry, who himself is a veteran, of course. Ben Farinazzo suffered some really serious injuries as a result of his attempts to come to grips with his PTS. Ben really did us proud and came home with a bag of medals and gold from his powerlifting and indoor rowing. Ruth Hunt, from out at Googong, is a tremendous swimmer. She had life-threatening battles to overcome, and really did us proud with the swag of medals she picked up in the swimming. She went in a number of events and came home with the gold as well. I salute Ben and Ruth for representing not only our nation in uniform but also our region so well at the games.
I am glad to see that now we are also all on board with the idea of pursuing a military covenant. I raised that and hoped that the minister would come on board, and he did. Well done to the minister for doing that. In addition, there are lots of initiatives being pursued in the veterans employment space. I would ask the minister to perhaps take a look at the policy that the shadow minister has announced on the transition processes. I think more support is required in that transition process. It is really a critical issue for veterans and ex-service people moving into civilian life. I know how rough that road can be. Certainly some roads are easier than others, but the transition process needs support in the training sphere. It needs support in skilling up our people and helping to manage their careers in the early phases of separation from the ADF. So I would urge the minister to take a look at the package that we propose there.
I am also pleased that we were able to get the Senate inquiry into the malarial drugs issue, which is a matter of great concern to a lot of veterans. I was fortunate to have been under the doxycycline regime in all of the missions I went on and so didn't get affected by these later-generation malarial drugs. But there is an issue to be answered there, so I am really pleased that the Senate inquiry is pushing on with that.
A lot of veterans also raise with me—and with all of us many times, I know—the issue of bringing the CSC under the royal commission into the banks. Other superannuation organisations were, but they had a lot of issues they wanted to tease out in that. It didn't happen in the end, so I would urge the government to look at other ways to inquire into that issue. Veterans are seriously concerned about this, and we owe it to them to take that concern seriously and investigate it one way or another, even if it didn't come under the royal commission.
In meeting with wonderful veterans' advocates, like Richard Stone in my electorate and his colleague, Allan Anforth, they have raised with me serious issues about the quality of advocacy that's available to veterans in tackling the incredibly complex metrics of legislation and regimes that cover different types of service and situations. It really is a very difficult maze for a veteran to navigate. The acronyms MRCA, SRCA and DRCA sound like a weird comedy routine, but it's not funny for our veterans. The challenges of putting together those processes and entering the DVA regime are a bit of a nightmare at times. I would also like it if the suggestions that Richard and Allan have put forward on improving quality of advocacy could be looked at. Allan made submissions to the Senate inquiry on that issue. I would also urge that the Medicare rebate freeze be lifted, because a lot of doctors and veterans have been raising the effect of that on them, particularly in mental health services. That really does need to be looked at again.
There are also issues about commemoration raised in the statement. I was really pleased to represent the Leader of the Opposition on 23 November at the 70th anniversary of the Royal Australian Regiment. There were some wonderful old soldiers from the regiment present on that day. It was a very rare trooping of all of the colours—a special moment that anybody who has served will appreciate. It's such a rare event to have all the colours trooped at the same time. It was wonderful to have so many tremendous veterans and heroes of our nation who served in the regiment there that day. There were people like Michael Jeffery—really wonderful people who went on to do other service for our nation, as he did as Governor-General.
Also, on the weekend I was at the annual Legacy Christmas lunch at the Roos Club in Queanbeyan. I want to pay special tribute to Jack Sealey, one of our few surviving World War II veterans these days, who had his 94th birthday and managed to be promoted to Senior Legatee within the organisation. I pay tribute to the work of Legacy in our area under the stewardship of Suzanne McInnes. The crew put on a great lunch. It was really a celebration of the wonderful work they've done throughout the year. The Legatees are all outstanding members of our community and are doing wonderful work with their awards and with the Legacy cause.
Similarly, we had the RSL Christmas lunch on Sunday. Matt Helm—who's been president for, as some people joked, 'longer than Vladimir Putin'—picked up the reins and really carried forward the cause for veterans, for continuing support for the ADF and for investment in security. He is doing a wonderful job. It was a great gathering in the proud tradition of the veterans we have in our region and their families who support them. I really thank all of the crew at the RSL not only for the wonderful lunch they put on that day but also for all of the work they've done throughout year.
It was my privilege to meet, not long ago, with the Partners of Veterans Association of Australia, here in the ACT. We do focus a lot on the veterans, as we should, but some of the burdens of the families are not properly understood. That is where we have to be honest and confront some of the issues that can emerge from service, like domestic violence, self-medication, alcohol abuse and that sort of thing. These women have been through a hell of a lot in many ways. We do have to take seriously the issues that emerge from domestic violence, with safe accommodation and safe housing for them. That is an issue they raised with me. It was a great privilege to meet with them and to be more apprised of some of the nuts-and-bolts issues that the partners of our veterans are facing. I really hope that their voices are heard by the opposition and by the government in the years ahead because we have a whole new generation coming through now. The issue of suicide has obviously come up in the context of Senate inquiries into mental health. I look forward to the further Productivity Commission work that's being done in that mental health space, but we have a long road to go. We have an unacceptable level of suicide of that generation of veterans—my generation—that must be seriously addressed. I commend the statement and commend the work of the shadow minister as well in this space.
Veterans are one of the single most deserving groups within Australia today for it is their service that affords our country the democracy and freedom that we all so often take for granted. I rise to acknowledge and support the minister's statement on the coalition government's commitment to Australian veterans. To commemorate, pay homage, preserve and protect the very lives and memories of our veterans signifies the gratitude we must all pay them. In this year, the 100th anniversary of Armistice, Australians must not be oblivious to the ultimate sacrifice made by fellow country men and women for whom duty and service are of paramount importance.
Like other members in this place, I have many relatives, past and present, involved in the ADF. My father was a World War II veteran and also a prisoner of war. My son is a current serving member and my great-grandfather was Australia's longest serving Minister for Defence. With this family involvement, I know all too well the pressures on veterans, their families and the communities in which they live. I'm proud to be part of a government which is caring for Australia's defence personnel.
With 58,000 Australians serving in our defence forces for an average of 8½ years, service men and women spend a significant portion of their career in service. On leaving, many veterans still have a working life ahead of them and a full contribution that they want to make in society. Assisting them to transition from defence to civilian life is a major adjustment. However, we must ensure that no-one falls through the cracks. With 320,000 veterans with deployment service in the Australian community, it should be clear to everyone that they deserve respect and dignity for their service, no matter whether it was in conflict or in peacetime.
The Department of Veterans' Affairs will provide more than $11 billion in payments and services this year alone, including pensions, income support, compensation, health care, rehabilitation, counselling services—the list continues. I place on record my thanks to DVA, which I know offers an invaluable service, and my office can attest to their efficiency and effectiveness. Australia's veterans come from all walks of life, all ages and all races. No matter their background or their qualifications, they all share one value: the defence and preservation of Australia's freedom, democracy and safety. For this we must all be truly and eternally grateful.
The work of the many veterans organisations throughout Australia is truly heartwarming. I would like to take this opportunity to place on record my admiration for the efforts of an organisation well known to many here, Wounded Heroes. Wounded Heroes Association is a national community organisation that was established in 2008 to provide first-response support services for deployed personnel, the wounded and their families. As an emergency crisis provider, Wounded Heroes offers short-term emergency relief payments to individuals and their families. This can mean turning the electricity back on or filling the fridge with food if the family is going through a challenging time. We all know that too often life behind closed doors is very different for many Australians suffering from physical and/or mental health issues. No closer to the truth could this be than for our veterans, who often bear the anguish and torment of deployments. These are not easy fixes, nor in many cases are they ever fixed, but as a government and society we can lessen the burden faced by our veteran community.
I believe that we must also assist those who stand behind and support our veterans—their families and their children. The coalition recently announced that we will invest $7.6 million in the Kookaburra Kids defence program to boost their targeted support for children of ex-serving Defence Force members who are experiencing mental health issues due to their service. The Kookaburra Kids defence program was first supported by our government with a $2.1 million injection of funds in a pilot program in New South Wales, the ACT, Queensland and the Northern Territory for 569 children. This extra investment will see the program expand into Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia for 1,750 children. Any support that we can provide to Defence families, especially their children, is definitely a move in the right direction.
Through my contact with the CEO of Wounded Heroes, Mr Martin Shaw, I have been told that a lot of emergency response goes to sufferers of PTSD. PTSD does not rest solely with the wounded hero. It also affects smaller heroes, the children, who so often bear the brunt of postdeployment issues. As the sole partner of Exercise Stone Pillow, a sleep-out that highlights the challenges faced by veterans and their families, Wounded Heroes sees firsthand the ease with which veterans fall prey to the physical and mental anguish of their service to our country. The unfortunate realisation is that for many homeless veterans their days are not so jovial and their existence is bleak. But, with the support of organisations like Wounded Heroes and Exercise Stone Pillow, a glimmer of hope can be seen.
These days, support never seems to be too far away for our veterans; however, more needs to be done so that no-one falls through the cracks. I have mentioned before in the parliament the role our RSLs play in supporting returned service men and women. Gaythorne RSL, Sherwood-Indooroopilly RSL, Kenmore-Moggill RSL, Toowong RSL and The Gap RSL represent the RSL's presence in my electorate of Ryan; however, countless other organisations across Australia demonstrate the immense pride amongst the Defence family. These organisations help provide support through their financial assistance to the defence community. They provide a local place of remembrance and significant importance to those who have served as well as to the newer generations.
As a country, we should never forget those who came before us and fought to give us the Australia we know today. Public commemorations serve as an enduring reminder of the service of our brave Defence men and women, but we should remember their service irrespective of whether it is Anzac Day or Remembrance Day. The lost lives of sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, friends and neighbours who selflessly volunteered to defend the safety and democracy of our great nation will always be immortalised.
Politics aside, I encourage all Australians to pay their respects to all three arms of the Australian Defence Force. These veterans past and present are our veterans, Australia's veterans, and heroes all. This Chamber must always remain indebted to the veterans in our communities and their families, some of whom stand among us in this building.
I rise to speak on the annual statement to parliament on veterans and their families. All Australians owe an enormous debt to our veterans and to their families, who shoulder so much of the burden. We're such a lucky country in so many ways. We're lucky that we live in a country, a nation, where we don't regularly see our defence forces on our suburban streets—or, if you do see an Army vehicle driving down your street, you actually feel proud rather than concerned, as is the case in some countries. We're lucky that we don't see heavily armed Defence personnel routinely patrolling our streets—as I've seen in some other countries—just so we can go about our daily lives safely. We're very lucky, but obviously it's not all about luck. We live so freely in this nation because of the brave and fearless men and women who have served this country and who are still serving this country. It is because they stand ready to defend our freedoms that we have our freedom. Australia owes them so much, but the least we can do for them is to ensure that, when they return from service, we look after them in every way that we can.
I'm very proud that Labor has announced that, if elected, a Shorten Labor government would commit to developing a military covenant to ensure that our serving men and women can be in no doubt that we value their service and remain committed to looking after them. A similar covenant exists in the United Kingdom. Labor proposes that the military covenant be signed by the Chief of the Defence Force and the Prime Minister and that, importantly, it would be accompanied by legislation that would mandate regular reporting to the parliament on how we are meeting our commitment to our veterans. This will build on Labor's previous commitment of $121 million to assist veterans in finding and maintaining employment after service. So many of those incredible skills are not being utilised by our civilian workforce.
It is particularly important that we assist veterans to transition from military life. Employment after service is an important part of that transition. That transition to civilian life sometimes can be difficult not only for veterans but also for their families. Gaining employment provides structure, engagement with the community and a sense of purpose, as well as, of course, ongoing financial security. Veterans have particular skills that can be valuable to civilian industries. All of the parliamentarians who have participated in the parliamentary placement program would have seen that across the three services—throughout Australia and throughout the world, in fact.
Military life, to summarise it, is characterised by regimentation; a severe military disciplinary code, which has a greater onus than for normal civilians; long and irregular working hours; and, for some ADF personnel, long hours of unrelenting boredom and then minutes of fear that can actually live with people for the rest of their lives. They must maintain a high standard of physical fitness and have frequent relocations and separation from family. Politicians in Canberra are mostly fly-in fly-out workers, but we have no idea of what it's like to be away from your family for six months at a time or the strains that come with that and that go onto your partner. It is a tough life, but the ADF does provide unique training and skills. They are skills that are often not immediately identified in civilian employment but, with specific support, can translate to a valuable employment skill base. It is vitally important that our veterans are given the support they need to realise their potential in post-service employment.
I recently had the honour of representing the shadow minister for defence at some farewell parades for troops deploying on operations—recently, as part of the Task Group Taji 8 at Gallipoli Barracks. On such parades, the enormity of the sacrifice our troops make is evident, particularly when you see the pride of their partners and families who are present. The troops are farewelled to serve this nation in all other parts of the world and, often, to put themselves in harm's way on behalf of other nations and other people. I pray that they will all be returned safely to their families.
Recently I visited the Australian War Memorial, with many other parliamentary colleagues, before Remembrance Day on 11 November to see the 62,000 handcrafted poppies spread on the memorial grounds, sadly representing all of those Australian lives that were lost in the First World War. It was a sombre reminder of the sacrifice our veterans have made for us for over a century and are continuing to make right now. This was especially poignant in this year of the Centenary of Armistice. It is 100 years since the guns finally fell silent on the western front after those years of brutal warfare. It is important that we always remember the sacrifice made by those brave Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen—the ones who did not return home.
One of those soldiers was my great-uncle, Private James Alphonsus Morrissy, who died in Belgium on 20 September 1917 at the age of 23. Jim Morrissy came from Deuchar near Allora up near Toowoomba. He was a private in the 9th Australian Infantry Battalion of the Australian Army. I recently attended a last post ceremony for my great-uncle Jim at the Australian War Memorial, which was an incredibly moving service not only for me but also for members of my family—and the public for that matter—who were able to attend. I'll mention in particular my Auntie Pat and my cousins Joey and Catherine, who were there, all of whom are members of the RAAF. My great-uncle's death at the young age of 23, like that of many of those young, brave soldiers who did not return, had an enormous impact on his family back at home. Seeing the letters from his mum, my great-great-grandmother, is still heart-wrenching today. Today I acknowledge the families of all of our current service troops who, no doubt, worry every day about their loved ones who are serving in faraway lands, particularly at times like Christmas, when so many families get together. They're not able to because they're off serving this nation.
As a nation, we must value the service of our troops and make sure we support their families both during and after their service. Looking after our veterans and their families should be a covenant that our parliament formally commits to. I won't forget.