House debates

Wednesday, 3 April 2019


Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019; Second Reading

5:57 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Now that this parliament is witnessing perhaps the final days of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, it's timely to look back over the past three years that I've been here and reflect on what has been achieved and on the opportunities that have been lost. We have seen the cuts and chaos of this hopelessly divided coalition government continue apace whilst, at the same time, we've seen a united Labor Party under Bill Shorten's leadership holding the government to account and putting forward policies which we are putting to the electorate. We've put many of them to the electorate already and will obviously put more to the electorate between now and election day.

Our policies demonstrate that Labor is united and ready to govern. It's been a privilege to be part of Bill Shorten's team as we've worked together over the term of this parliament. When I first spoke in this House as the new member for Solomon at that time, I said that I would do all I could to represent the serving military personnel and veterans and their families who are my constituents in Darwin and Palmerston. I'm particularly proud to have been working with the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, the member for Kingston, knowing that I had the backing of the leader and the shadow minister. That enabled me to commit to, at the end of last year, a veterans and service men and women centre. I'm now very pleased to be able to say that Labor is committed to building the Scott Palmer service and veterans' support hub in Darwin. As some honourable members may remember, we are going to name the hub for Darwin soldier Private Scott Palmer, who died in Afghanistan in 2010. I'll return to this great initiative later in my speech, after consideration of this bill.

As its name says, this bill, the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019, recognises and supports veterans and their families, so Labor supports it. The bill will allow government, business and the community to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service and to support veterans and their families. The most critical element of this bill is the introduction of the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. The covenant will provide an opportunity for Australians and the business community to recognise veterans, and their families, and the service and sacrifice they have made as members of the Australian Defence Force.

I think it's worth reading the proposed covenant into the record:

We, the people of Australia, respect and give thanks to all who have served in our defence force and their families.

We acknowledge the unique nature of military service and the sacrifice demanded of all who commit to defend our nation.

We undertake to preserve the memory and deeds of all who have served and promise to welcome, embrace, and support all military veterans as respected and valued members of our community.

For what they have done, this we will do.

In September last year, Labor announced its support for a military covenant as a set of words which acknowledges the obligation we have to support both those who have served and those who continue to serve. It was to cover both current and ex-serving personnel and their families, recognising the immense commitment they make in serving our country and formalising our nation's commitment to care for those who have sacrificed for our nation. This announcement was strongly supported by the ex-serving community, who recognise the need to cover both those in the ADF and those who have left, and their loved ones. However, the proposed Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant in this bill does not cover those currently serving.

In addition, Labor has proposed a reporting element be legislated to require an annual statement to the House in relation to veterans and their loved ones. This statement would detail how we are meeting our obligations to those who have served and their families. This bill does not include such a statement. We were concerned about these omissions and we referred this bill to a Senate inquiry to give veterans a chance to view the wording, provide input and be comfortable with the proposed language. The Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade reported on 22 March and recommended that the bill be passed. While we will not be moving any amendments to the bill, we continue to believe that current serving members should be included in the covenant and that a reporting element should be included.

In addition to the covenant, the bill also inserts a general recognition clause which will, amongst other things, allow the Commonwealth to provide general recognition for veterans, given their military service, and the families who support them. The bill also includes an overarching statement in relation to the beneficial nature of Veterans' Affairs portfolio legislation, making it clear the Veterans' Affairs portfolio legislation—the VEA, the DRCA and the MRCA—has a beneficial purpose and should be interpreted accordingly.

Labor is pleased to see that, by this bill, the government will adopt the covenant. As I've said, the proposed covenant in the bill only covers those who have served and their loved ones. By leaving out those currently serving, the government is missing a significant element. Words are important. Symbols are also important, and recognition of our serving personnel, our veterans and their families is very important indeed. But actions are also needed, and that is why, as I previewed earlier, a Shorten federal Labor government has committed to establishing the Scott Palmer Service and Veteran's Support Hub in Darwin. Labor will build this service centre to support current and ex-serving defence personnel and first responders and their families. As I mentioned, it will be named for Scott Palmer, a commando and the son of Ray and Pam Palmer. Scotty was the only born and bred Territorian who was killed in Afghanistan serving our country.

The Northern Territory lacks a dedicated service centre to support current and ex-serving Defence personnel and first responders and their families. At present, members have to deal with complex issues and a range of services, often at a very stressful time and often without support. Often, they do not receive the services they need and deserve. In saying that, I take nothing away from the services of the Department of Veterans' Affairs or Open Arms, formerly known as the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service. They do a great job but, outside of those organisations, we still need support. There are ex-service community organisations in Darwin but they're not well resourced. What we need is a hub such as there is in almost every other jurisdiction in the country.

The Scott Palmer Service and Veterans' Support Hub will be a one-stop shop for available services. It will link members and their families to a broader community of support services. It will bring people with similar experiences and needs together. It will provide opportunities for guest lectures, information sharing, community group presentations, music, art, fundraising, volunteering and socialising. It will indeed be a connector. We know that one of the big drivers of mental ill health and people taking that awful decision to attempt to end their lives by their own hands is often feeling disconnected. What this hub will do is connect. This proposal is the result of thorough consultation with veterans and ex-service organisations in the Northern Territory. It is long overdue and will bring tangible benefits for our veterans in Darwin, Palmerston, the Top End and the wider Northern Territory.

I've recently become aware of other initiatives supporting veterans and first responders, and I want to mention them quickly. I have met with Integra Service Dogs, who match veterans and first responders who are suffering from post-traumatic stress with a service dog. They then work with the new owner to train the dog through a skills based program. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress are reduced as new owners take on the responsibility of caring for and training their dog. Integra told me one story of a veteran who had not left the house for 12 years until his service dog gave him the confidence to go out again into the community. This is another reminder that we need to continue to look at ways we can assist our returned service personnel and those on the frontline of our emergency services, and this is another example of a referral pathway that the hub will bring into existence.

Currently, working with the ESOs and a Stronger Communities grant, we have given funds to the Darwin RSL to set up an interim drop-in centre. It is beside the RAAF base in Darwin. It's called Billeroy House. It used to be a community centre until it was defunded. It used to be a place where families could go and spend time together. What we're doing now with the Darwin RSL is reopening it as a drop-in centre. People can go there if they need a chat, and they'll be chatting to someone who understands service experience and can help with referrals to GPs, allied service professionals, Open Arms and also advocates who can help them with their paperwork to get their claims recognised through DVA.

I return to the specifics of the bill before us. It seeks to provide greater recognition for veterans by government and acknowledges the unique nature of military service and our obligation to those who have served. Labor's commitment to those who serve or have served is rock solid. As such, we welcome changes which increase recognition for veterans and their loved ones, such as this covenant.

I want to finish by speaking briefly about veterans and their loved ones. I'm a veteran who's a son of a veteran who's a son of a veteran. Often the families go through the trauma that is relived by the service member. The member for North Sydney gave a 90-second speech before question time and acknowledged Daphne Dunn. Daphne was the last surviving widow of a VC winner. Daphne, at 99, passed away this week. She had an extraordinary life. But wives and husbands, spouses, of serving members often have a very difficult time as their loved ones deal with the results of the member's service, and that needs to be recognised. In many ways, they're veterans themselves as part of the war, the conflict or the peacekeeping operation. The overseas service comes home to Australia. Even in training, there can be deaths. Those numbers are minimal, but there can be serious injuries. We need to continue to look after members and their families as best as we possibly can. I know that both sides of this House want to support veterans, their families and serving members as best as we can.

I note that there has been some talk about a reduction in funding for DVA. I hope this will not result in any decrease in services. I look forward to the minister explaining that. I have heard rumours that the Department of Veterans' Affairs may be moved under Centrelink. That's causing quite some distress in the veterans community. I look forward to the minister categorically ruling that out. We do need to provide the best possible service to the people who have served our country. We need to make sure that occurs, and I'm sure that we will do that in government.

6:12 pm

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. The bill creates a new act which will provide a framework for government, business and the community to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service and to support veterans and, importantly, their families. This bill establishes the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. Labor doesn't just announce policies on the eve of an election; we've been announcing policies for years, and this is one of them. Labor announced the establishment of a military covenant in September last year in response to the need and the calls from our community. A military covenant is a very explicit promise. It's a set of words signed by both the Prime Minister of the day and the Chief of the Defence Force, promising that we will look after our defence personnel, both those serving and our veterans after they have left the Defence Force. That is what we on this side of the House require. We ask an enormous amount of our defence personnel and their families. We deploy them to serve in often dangerous and hostile environments away from their support network. We post entire families to other parts of the country, or the world, for years at a time, forcing them to pack up their lives and rebuild again, again and again. When an individual serves in the ADF, their family serves with them. That is why the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant also recognises the immense commitment from defence families, because their dedication is often the backbone to members of the Defence Force. I would like to reiterate the words of my colleague the member for Solomon who paid tribute to families of the defence forces and thank him for his service and his family's service in support of our nation and for the things that he has done. Good on you, Luke. You are a good bloke. Thank you.

As the federal member for Paterson, I am committed to honouring and serving those who have served Australia through our defence forces. The RAAF Base Williamtown is in the epicentre of my electorate. It is the workplace for thousands of my constituents and their families, and this number is made larger by the Singleton Army Base which sits nearby in the member for Hunter's electorate. It's not uncommon to see a mum in her RAAF uniform at the coffee shop or a dad with his zoom bag picking up the kids from school. Yes, pilots pick up their kids from school. The RAAF base and its crew, past and present, are important parts of my community.

Another important part of my community is the veterans' services that support the defence personnel and their families when they have finished serving. National services like the Returned Services Leagues and Legacy have a strong presence in my electorate, and their dedication to the community really is remarkable. There are at least 11 RSL sub-branches doing incredible work for our veterans all over my electorate, and I'm often fortunate enough to attend events with them or for them. I really look forward every year to catching up them on Anzac Day. It is truly a fantastic event in our community. Organisations such as the Port Stephens Veterans and Citizens Aged Care and the Women's Veterans Network Newcastle and Hunter Valley are also important support networks for Australians who have sacrificed so much for the peace and prosperity of our nation.

Recently, I was pleased to present Saluting their Service certificates to a group of veterans. It was a wonderful morning. What I thought would be a fairly simple little ceremony in my Raymond Terrace office turned into something that was truly moving. I presented Saluting their Service certificates to David Paix, from Raymond Terrace sub-branch; Mervyn Hesketh, from Louth Park; Colin Cliff, from Raymond Terrace; John Hill, from Kurri Kurri sub-branch; Eric Keygan OAM, from Kurri-Kurri sub-branch; Murray Dodds, from Kurri-Kurri sub-branch; John Farmer, from Anna Bay; Richard Kidd, from Telarah; Allan Nicholson, from Anna Bay; Geoff Beiger, from Kurri-Kurri sub-branch; Anthony Mulquiney, from Rutherford; and Neville Jelfs, from Salt Ash. The look in those men's eyes when I gave them their certificate told me so much. They were so incredibly grateful and honoured to receive it. It was really just a simple act on my behalf, but they were so appreciative. As I thanked them from the bottom of my heart for their service, I will never forget the look that they gave me, as if to say, 'It is so lovely to have this recognition'. I commend those responsible for the Saluting their Service awards and I thank the government for organising that, because it has been a great thing.

Veterans' services are an important part of my community. I say to those people who are working really hard in this space that I know that it can be incredibly difficult at times. Sometimes people come home changed and, sadly, sometimes broken—never to be mended again. Many of those services work very hard.

The member for Eden-Monaro sits before me in the House. He is another veteran who has served their country. Good on you, Mike. You're a good bloke too. We've got plenty of them.

Labor is pleased to see the government adopt the covenant, via this bill. That being said, we note that the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant only covers those who have served and their loved ones. By leaving out those currently serving, the government is missing a significant element. While it is important we acknowledge those who have served, we believe this is only part of the picture. Labor's military covenant included annual reporting, in the form of a statement to the parliament—a powerful statement—on how the government is meeting its obligations to current personnel and ex-serving personnel. This is a way to bring all of us to account about what we are actually doing in government to meet the needs of these people who have given so much and who currently give so much to us. It is a shame that those currently serving are not covered off by this bill. I hope that changes.

This is an important part of our policy. The government of the day must be held accountable to this measure. This means that they should report to parliament on an annual basis about how they are looking after veterans, how they are reducing unemployment figures for veterans, and what they are doing in reducing mental health issues and addressing issues of suicide amongst our veterans. I can't help but think of that quote: 'Politicians start things that soldiers must finish.' Well, we owe it to these people to stand and be accountable every year in this House. These are the things that would have to be reported to parliament on an annual basis to make sure that we're living up to part of our promise that we will look after the Defence Force, those currently serving and the veterans who have served us so well.

Despite Labor's concerns about the missing pieces to this bill, we understand how important it is to make a start, so we're not getting in the way of that start. We want it to happen. Labor will not be moving any amendments to the legislation. However, we continue to believe there is merit in including current serving members and strengthening the legislation by including a reporting-back element.

In addition to the introduction of a covenant, this bill inserts a general recognition clause that acknowledges the unique nature of military service, the demands we place on those who serve, the additional support they may require post-service and the Commonwealth's commitment to supporting veterans. Labor wholeheartedly supports this recognition and our ongoing obligation to supporting those who have put their lives on hold in service to our country. This bill seeks to provide greater recognition for veterans by government and acknowledges the unique nature of military service and our obligations to people who have served.

Labor's commitment to those who serve or have served is rock solid. As such, we welcome changes, with increased recognition for veterans and their loved ones. Labor is the only party that will look after our veterans. Our dedicated shadow minister, the member for Kingston, has worked tirelessly on this portfolio. She has put forward terrific policies. I've personally welcomed her to my electorate of Paterson. She has sat down and met with veterans, really heard their stories and has taken them away and come back with action in the form of a covenant and this bill. I again pay tribute to and give my thanks to the member for Kingston, who has worked tirelessly on this. A Shorten Labor government will commit $121 million over four years to address veterans unemployment. A Shorten Labor government will establish the Western Front Fellowship, located at the Sir John Monash Centre in Villers-Bretonneux.

In response to continuing concerns of members of the ex-serving community, Labor established a Senate inquiry into the use of antimalarials in the ADF. The inquiry is currently taking evidence and is due to report back at the end of November. Labor has backed in the calls of the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations and the National Returned and Services League of Australia for the royal commission into banking, superannuation and financial services industries to include the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation.

This bill is so incredibly important to our nation and my community. I feel proud to stand here and commend it to the House. I look forward to it progressing but also to it being improved, if we were to take government.

6:23 pm

Photo of Mike KellyMike Kelly (Eden-Monaro, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence Industry and Support) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to commend my colleague on her speech, which preceded mine. Obviously, she has taken very much to heart the interests of her constituents. She has an electorate that embraces a critically important base for the Australian Defence Force, with a dedicated team who are serving there now, introducing the Joint Strike Fighter capability. The member has been extremely vigorous and forceful in representing the interests of her constituents to the Defence portfolio team in the Labor Party. She has been like a dog with a bone on not only their issues and interests but also those of the broader community, particularly on the longstanding PFAS issue. We all look forward to hopefully bringing that to a satisfactory conclusion for all involved. I want to commend the member on her advocacy, her passion and her commitment to those interests.

I've also been fortunate to follow my good friend and colleague the member for Solomon with his own extremely fine record of service. He has delivered on his commitment to represent the interests of veterans in this place. There has been no more forceful advocate in our party room in that respect. I know he will continue that great work. I think the people of Solomon should be proud of sending a person like the member to this chamber and to our party. He is doing them proud. He is an extremely fine representative for the electorate of Solomon, which I know also has a hugely significant component of the Australian Defence Force.

I've lived through the process of moving the army up there in the so-called APIN program—the Army Presence in the North. It has made a huge difference to the community and the economy up there. It has been very, very warmly embraced by the community. It has also has dealt with a lot of issues over time, as we've had returning veterans from a period when the operational tempo was intense. That has brought to light a lot of the problems and the issues that we've been seeking to address and, I have to say, there's been a lot of goodwill on both sides of the chamber to try and get this to point.

I think we've had a little bit of a problem with consistency in the portfolio, through no fault of any of the ministers that have served. But I do hope that, after the election, whoever wins—

Honourable Member:

An honourable member interjecting

Photo of Mike KellyMike Kelly (Eden-Monaro, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence Industry and Support) Share this | | Hansard source

I know the current minister is very keen to continue in the role, but I do hope that after the election, whoever wins, there is consistency in the ministry that gives us a chance to really build that deep bipartisan cooperation across the chamber on the further issues that we need to resolve. There are things that have emerged from the Senate inquiry into mental health issues in Defence that we really need to pursue, follow-up and implement carefully.

I'm very pleased to see, in particular, this bill brought forward by the minister in relation to the covenant. It was an issue that was first brought to me by members of the Defence Force Welfare Association when we were first in opposition. I can see no reason why we shouldn't be going down this road. It had been done in the UK with no budgetary problems or consequences, or in any other legal or liability respect. In some ways, you could sum up the commitment in the simple words of President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address in 1865. Modifying that for what should be gender-neutral terms these days, he said that the purpose of government should be 'to care for those who shall have borne the battle and for those left behind'—in effect, the widows, orphans and spouses they left behind. That sums it up quite pithily, but there is a degree to which we needed to spell that out. Perhaps it was worthy to have a review to include serving members, because I understand there are whole legislative regimes around them, but what we're looking at here is a value statement, a value proposition, and for completeness we do need to address that in the statement. We won't be moving any amendments, of course, but we do think that there is merit in that.

I think what we're asking here is important, the general recognition of these members who have served and who are serving. I've spoken before about the fact that it is not just the operational context that has created lots of these legacy issues for our veterans in terms of not only the physical wounds of what they might be doing but also those mental scars. The day-to-day service that a member renders also contains hugely significant risks. I don't know how many times I've been involved in looking into incidents where we've lost members for one reason or another.

We had a grenade range practise once where there was an unfortunate incident where a private had crimped in the diamond crimp in his grenade pin, which then forces you to exert a certain amount of pressure to pull the pin on the grenade. This had been a little bit of a practice of trying to do this to speed up the process of throwing grenades. It was an exercise on a range. Unfortunately, a pin came loose from his grenade, setting off two other grenades in his pouch. Literally, the member was blown to pieces—leg on the wire et cetera. Those who were there had to witness that and clean it up. That is just one example of countless incidents where the risks involved in training to be a member of the Defence Force are something you will not find in any other walk of life. So it is important to consider the whole service of a member in relation to the things we should acknowledge, understand and thank them for. So I look forward to perhaps refining this as time goes by. Nothing is ever completely perfect. Even that statement by President Lincoln was the subject of issues that were raised recently. That was about changing that gender biased language that was in the original quotation. So there is always a need to look back at what we do, what we express and what we legislate.

I would also ask the minister to maybe look into and perhaps address the issue that seems to be apparent from the budget of a $171.6 million cut to DVA. We'd like to get some further comments on that. We need to understand where this issue is happening and what the implications are of that. One thing I am proud about in Labor's period in government is that we took spending on veterans to a record level—$12.5 billion—and that has never been matched either before or since. I was proud of that.

But, of course, putting money into veterans' issues is not the whole answer. It is about the quality of the response as well. There are so many things that are quite simple that in fact have massive consequences. One of those is the process of equipping our soldiers, sailors and airmen. I was really proud to have been part of the discussion and then the formation of a policy which we've labelled the soldiers choice program that addresses the issue that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to equipping a soldier, sailor or airman. The consequences of not getting right the basic footwear for a soldier or the configuration of individual load-carrying equipment can be enormous. The costs that are caused by providing the medical treatment and solution to longstanding problems that are caused by ill-fitting boots and ill-fitting load-carrying equipment are enormous.

I have been fortunate to have benefited from the observations and advice of Peter Marshall of the Crossfire company. He has an operation in my electorate. He's often used by Defence to help fix broken soldiers who may be going through ADFA or RMC and have been rendered unfit because of ill-fitting boots and equipment. What he does is basically bespoke a solution for an injured soldier. He also has countless people coming to him with the long-term consequences becoming apparent of bad decisions made in equipping these soldiers earlier on in their careers.

I must say I was very sympathetic to this because in my venerable years now, at the age of 59—it's 59; let me get the record very straight on that!—a lot of things are coming home to roost for me from 20 years in the Army and numerous deployments and playing service rugby as well on top of that. I now have issues with early-onset osteoarthritis. It is affecting pretty much every joint in my body these days. I have a situation in my shoulder with a tendon that is hanging on by a thread. I'm really not interested in having surgery. I don't have time for that. But all of this involves physiotherapy and remedial action. I thought, 'I will have a crack at looking into how you get into the DVA system to get some of these issues supported through podiatry and forms of clothing that might help, such as shoes et cetera.' Looking at that process, it is horrendous. The biggest problem that our veterans face is getting through that portal. The paperwork that's involved is incredible. For something like osteoarthritis, in effect you have to put in a separate application for every joint—the whole process, with doctors' reports, X-rays and the association with your service for your toe, your ankle, your knee and your shoulder. Every single joint has to have a completely separate process. I wasn't aware of that. I'm grateful that I did have a crack at this to see exactly what was involved. I think we need to review that. If a veteran meets the criteria of a certain amount of activity that you can establish—in terms of running around in boots, up and down hills, with backpacks in their service, what they've done in their service and what sort of service they performed, even when they're back in Australia—and there is a generic acceptance it's highly likely that any osteoarthritis issue they're facing in their body is as a consequence of that, that would make life a hell of a lot easier for our veterans in that space. I think that's worth looking at.

The Veterans' Choice Program is a great way forward as a preventive measure. It will enable soldiers, sailors and airmen to get the appropriately fitted boots, and we're also looking at solutions in terms of greater choice of packs as well—individual load-carrying equipment—to see what we can do in that space. We'll enter into consultation if we come into government. I encourage the current government to look at that as well, and we can maybe talk about that as a bipartisan commitment.

I'm really pleased with the measure in relation to the issue of the transition of veterans to civilian life. I've commented before about how difficult that can be for many soldiers, sailors and airmen. It's a complete culture change, a whole different lifestyle. Various members in this chamber who have had that experience will understand that completely. I'm joined by the new Deputy Speaker, who has been through that himself in this political space. This ain't nothing like Defence, that's for sure! I was just saying to the minister that I only regret leaving the Army every five minutes! Certainly, having watched the shenanigans in politics over the last few years, with the leadership stuff that's gone on on both sides, it's not something that you experience in Defence. That's one example, but we take that on the chin—that's what we signed up for. But there are a lot of veterans out there who don't get the same sense of esprit de corps, teamwork, mutual support and the ethos that goes with being in the Defence Force. Even with the language that you use, you find yourself feeling a bit like an alien.

This transition policy is fantastic. It really takes seriously the job of owning our transitioning members through a few years after they leave the service. This will enable them to not only be supported and have somewhere to go but to also have the training that's necessary to achieve that transition. When you've got many small and medium enterprises who can't afford to pay for that kind of training, they need support to make sure that they're getting the best out of a member. We need employers to also understand the value proposition a former defence member brings to their enterprise. There is the instilled leadership and the training throughout a career that a defence member gets. How do you deal with people who are working for you or are serving in your unit under your command? Even if you're not in that command relationship, you also get to learn the principles of how to work in a team and your individual responsibility. The Defence Force is also fantastic at encouraging initiative, at least in the Australian Army, Navy and Air Force. I think this is a great step forward. I thank the minister for bringing this forward. We have a bit more work to do, but I'm really happy to support this.

6:38 pm

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

I am very proud to stand in this place as the representative of the defence personnel in the largest garrison city in this country. I'd like to start with an example of how incredibly fortunate the people of Herbert are to have such a strong defence presence in our community. As people would be aware, Townsville recently suffered the worst natural disaster in our recorded history. We saw more than 22,000 homes impacted by an extreme weather event and many businesses suffered damages and losses.

On Sunday 3 February, the Ross River Dam reached 244 per cent, and the Townsville Local Disaster Management Group advised the community that the Ross River Dam gates would automatically open at 43 metres. The Townsville Local Disaster Management Group worked with local experts and experts in Brisbane to manage this extreme weather event as best as possible. However, on Sunday, 3 February, at approximately 8 pm, the Ross River Dam opened, releasing 2,000 cubic metres of water per second.

Prior to opening the dam gates, the Townsville defence personnel, emergency services and SES were out knocking on doors in the anticipated flood-affected areas, suggesting to people that they may be wise to evacuate or move to higher ground. My husband and I received a knock on our door to evacuate, and we took the advice of our defence personnel and left. The Townsville Local Disaster Management Group sent out numerous texts to residents throughout the days of torrential rain, issuing regular warnings of what was coming.

I have lived in Townsville all of my life, and I have never witnessed or experienced anything like the magnitude of this extreme weather event. The mood in our city as we prepared for the impending flood on Sunday evening, 3 February, was indescribable. People were anxious about leaving their homes and their pets, and I know I certainly was. On the night of 3 February, the emergency radios and call lines were ringing off the hook as so many residents were inundated by water and needed to be rescued. The ADF, police, ambulance, firefighters and the SES answered those calls in the most selfless manner. Not only did they answer the calls that evening, but for days after and throughout the clean-up process.

Veterans and ex-serving members were also out helping stranded people, some in their own boats, assisting with the many rescues and putting their own lives at risk. Team Rubicon was on the ground in Townsville. This created an organised and effective space for veterans and ex-serving members to continue their service throughout the immediate disaster response. Many of these men and women from the serving ADF had left their own homes and their families to support the community, and many of them, when they got home, found their places had been flooded and their families had to be moved. Townsville, as I said, is the largest garrison city in the nation, and it is also home to thousands of veterans and their families. I can assure you, the Townsville clean-up would not have happened so quickly and efficiently if it had not been for the outstanding work of the ADF, veterans and ex-serving members; Townsville would not be in the shape it is today, in terms of the clean-up and the progress to recovery.

The recent extreme weather event has clearly demonstrated to the people of Townsville that the serving ADF, veterans, ex-serving members and their families are committed to our community, and I want to thank each member and veteran for their dedication and assistance in our time of need. I know that, for some of you, it meant putting your own personal flooding issues on hold whilst you helped in the community, as I have said. These selfless actions are yet another reason why I am proud and honoured to represent the current and former ADF community in Herbert.

I have spoken in this place on every single defence or veterans bill, because our currently serving veterans, ex-serving personnel and their families deserve the strongest representation from a member who stands up for them in this place. I stand here again today, as I have done many times before, to support a bill that supports our defence personnel. Our veterans, ex-serving men and women, and their families have always put the needs of our nation first. They have fought for our country, and now it is time for us to fight for them, for their needs to be met.

I rise today to speak on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. The bill creates a new act which will provide a framework for government, business and the community to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service and to support veterans, ex-serving personnel and their families. More importantly, the bill establishes the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. Whilst I welcome the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, I don't believe it goes far enough and I ask why it has taken the government so long to enact this bill, particularly when Labor announced our commitment almost six months ago.

On 5 September 2018, federal Labor announced that we would establish Australia's first military covenant if elected. The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Amanda Rishworth, and Labor's candidate for Dawson, Belinda Hassan, and I met with local veterans, ESOs and currently serving defence personnel in Townsville to announce our commitment. Labor has listened to the calls from the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations and other ex-serving organisations that have been working towards this for many years. The difference is that Labor is completely committed to recognising both our current and ex-serving Defence members, veterans and their families. Labor's military covenant would cover both current and ex-serving personnel and their families, recognising the enormous commitment they make to serve this great nation. Labor's commitment formalises our nation's commitment to look after those who have sacrificed their lives so that we can live in the freedoms that we experience in this great nation. Labor's military covenant will include annual reporting, ensuring accountability in the form of a statement to the parliament on how government is meeting its obligation to current and ex-serving personnel.

Whilst I stand with Labor and I'm pleased to see the government adopt a covenant via this bill, I am a little disheartened that the bill has omitted the service of our current serving men and women. As I mentioned at the beginning of this speech, we have witnessed the extraordinary efforts of our ADF in recent weeks in my community. In Townsville, we continually see the hard work and dedication of our current members and their loved ones, not only through disasters but through their community engagement from both a social and an economic perspective. I do believe these men and women deserve to be recognised as well. Leaving out current serving members is not fair and thus government is missing a significant part of the ADF family. Whilst it is critically important that we acknowledge those who served, we cannot afford to tell only part of the story. I am concerned that, by omitting the service of our current ADF members and the lack of accountability by way of annual reporting to parliament, this is more about the government offering symbolic words rather than meaningful and genuine support.

To be very clear, Labor fully supports the introduction of a covenant which formalises our commitment to those who have served and those who continue to serve, including their families. It is critical that this bill genuinely reflects the needs of all our current and ex-serving members, veterans and their families. Whilst governments have failed before us, we now have the opportunity to get this right. There is far too much at stake here, and our current and ex-serving men and women, veterans and their families deserve to have their voices included in this legislation. The covenant is a solemn oath to those who have served or continue to serve, and we cannot get this wrong. I encourage all interested parties to participate in this process and provide their feedback. The covenant is above politics, and our personal party views need to be put aside in the interests of our current and ex-serving Defence community and their families.

I have met with many families and veterans and ex-serving personnel. One of the most common complaints I hear about is the lengthy and complex claims process associated with the Department of Veterans' Affairs, which I believe has just taken a $171.6 million cut. I'm certain any commitment to timeliness would be welcomed by the veteran and ex-serving community, particularly in Townsville.

I will always stand in this place and support greater recognition for our Defence community by government. Labor's commitment to those who are serving or have served is rock solid and, as such, we welcome changes that will increase recognition for veterans and their loved ones. We await the outcome of the Senate inquiry with interest; however, I support the principle of this bill, which is acknowledgement of those who have served and their families. Thank you.

6:48 pm

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As I rise to speak on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill, reflecting on veterans' affairs issues, I'll just note that I'm proud to follow the previous member for Bruce in this chamber, who served for 23 years and, for some years, held ministerial rank as the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel, amongst other things. He was an outstanding Minister for Veterans' Affairs—he used to tell us that—but he was also much loved, as I know for a fact, around the RSLs in the community, not just here but nationally, because of the work that he put in—the very detailed and intense work that he put in—in his tenure of that portfolio. He was much loved by those opposite, too, as I've been told—often more than his own side!

I'm not a person who has ever served in the Defence Force. In taking over from Alan Griffin, one of the lessons which was drummed into me by him when I was a staffer from 1995 to 2000—many a year ago; last century, even!—was that you had to treat everyone nicely. It was a marginal seat; I think the margin was 0.7 per cent. It was the only seat we won from the Liberal Party in 1996. It was not an easy feat, so you had to be nice to everyone. There was a special chewing out, castigation, that you would receive if ever he caught you not giving the gold standard service to any veteran or anyone from an RSL who rang up. However they voted, however angry or grumpy or happy they may have been, there was a recognition right from the start with Alan that veterans deserved special treatment and recognition and understanding.

I acknowledge Deputy Speaker Hastie, who's well-known for his service, and the member for Eden-Monaro, who is also well-known for his service, by most people. I do think there was a low point last year when the member for Hume seemed to have forgotten that he'd served and accused him of being a friend of terrorists. That was when we had a little low point in public debate around the encryption bill, but apart from that I think the service that both of you have given to your country in your time in the Defence Force has been well recognised.

This bill, in terms of recognising service, does two main things: the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant and the more general recognition clause, which provides a normative statement in legislation around general recognition of the service of veterans. I'll turn my remarks in due course to the beneficial clause in there, which is an interesting tweak or use of the legislative clause. I'm a bit of a public administration nerd, having at times been involved, in former lives, in drafting legislation in different portfolios. It did strike me that this is a genuinely interesting, useful and innovative approach to legislative interpretation. There may be other portfolios where such an approach could be used beneficially.

In saying that I've never served—and acknowledging the service of Deputy Speaker Hastie and the member for Eden-Monaro—as a member of parliament you do have some obligation to spend a bit of time each year with the Australian Defence Force for a number of reasons. The work that they do and the capability that they provide to the nation is an important part of our national architecture. Those of us in this place with any kind of interest in our defence, foreign affairs or internationalisation need to understand that. But I think there's a moral imperative on all of us here to put a human face to the people who have served and who are currently serving, because, at the rawest, state sponsored violence or war is the greatest failure of politics. When we stuff up our jobs, when we do the absolute worst in this place or elsewhere around the world so that there's a failure of politics, then it's the women and men of the Australian Defence Force and their brethren elsewhere in the world who are the first to put their lives on the line in the name of duty.

I heard the member for Eden-Monaro acknowledge that it's about recognising not just the sacrifices in the line of active duty but also the sacrifices that are made through the constant training, capability building and maintenance and the fact that much of that work is also dangerous in that people—including people in the ESA—risk their lives simply through the nature of some of the training that is done. So, for all those reasons, it is appropriate that we provide greater recognition as a nation to the service that is provided.

I'll make a couple of remarks on the bill. It does create a framework for the government, but not just for the government; importantly, it's for the business and the community to recognise and acknowledge this unique nature of military service and to support veterans and their families. The Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant is one way that the government has put forward to do that and we're pleased to support it. Those interested in this space would be aware that Labor actually announced the establishment of a military covenant as one of our policies in September last year. There is an important difference between the government's proposal and our proposal. The government's proposal is focused on veterans, whereas our proposal was that such a military covenant should cover both currently serving and ex-service personnel and their families, recognising the commitment which has been made in that way to their country.

I'm pleased to see the government has adopted the covenant, but it's a little bit like the tax cuts, isn't it? Finally, 12 months late to the party, they couldn't quite copy the policy properly. They get a seven out of 10 over there for copying our covenant idea, but we think it would be an improvement and that there is merit in the approach we've put forward to include current serving personnel. 'Copycat from Ballarat' as people in Victoria would know is one of those childhood refrains that get sung, but every time we say it the member for Ballarat rounds on us. She doesn't approve of it. She's not here, but she's probably listening somewhere. By leaving out those currently serving, we believe the government is missing a significant element and an opportunity to do something which is better. It's only part of the picture that they're covering.

Importantly, it wasn't just the normative statement through the covenant that Labor was proposing but a form of accountability through annual reporting in a formal statement to the parliament on how a government of the day is meeting its obligations to current and ex-serving personnel. So, whilst the government have word-associated the name 'covenant' and copied it a bit, they didn't get the point of what we were saying in our policy. We would encourage the next parliament—as I don't think we are going to get to this by tomorrow—to give further thought to the points that we were making in the policy that we put forward because, whilst we are supporting this and it's a welcome start, we think it can be improved upon. We referred it to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade because we thought that it was important that there be a formal process of consultation to allow people in the community, including members of the ex-serving community, to be consulted and be comfortable with the provisions.

In the interests of time so that this does get passed we won't be moving amendments to the legislation. There is still a lot of business before the House. It's funny that in February the government were in here reading bill after bill while they were desperate to not actually have the parliament sit. That was a little curious. There is not a lot of time left in the parliament, so we won't be moving amendments to the legislation despite the fact that we maintain our view that there is merit in including the current serving members and strengthening the legislation by including a report-back element.

I just want to make a few further remarks on the general recognition clause which I touched on before. That clause is there to recognise the unique, special nature of military service and the demands we place on those who serve the Commonwealth's commitment to supporting veterans, acknowledging that there is additional service and support that they may require after they finish their time in the defence forces. So Labor does wholeheartedly support the ongoing recognition and, indeed, recognition in legislative form, as has been proposed to this ongoing obligation as a nation to support those who have put their lives on hold, disrupted their families and sacrificed so much in service to our country.

So, as I was noting before, an interesting extension of this general recognition clause wording in the bill is this overarching statement about the 'beneficial' nature of the veterans' affairs legislation in that portfolio. The purpose of this is to make it clear to the decision-maker. By 'decision-maker' we on this side of the parliament mean human beings sitting in the Department of Veterans' Affairs looking at the paperwork in front of them and trying to make a judgement as to whether someone's claim or request for support meets the requirements of the legislation. That's an important duty that public servants perform. I say 'on this side of the parliament' because one of the problems which we have been enormously critical of this government about has been the fake staffing cap on the Public Service that has not affected the Department of Veterans' Affairs, to be fair, as endemically as many other areas of government but which has seen enormous waste in overheads for contractors and consultants and a growth in the use of temporary casual labour hire workers who do not save money. They decrease the quality of the service in the assessment process. I think it is an important innovation whether an application is being assessed by a skilled permanent Public Service expert on the legislation or a more temporary labour hire contractor under the government's privatisation-by-stealth agenda, which is really what the staffing cap is. Let's be honest: it's privatisation by stealth, forcing government departments, if they are to get their outputs delivered and perform the public services which they are funded for, to privatise, outsource and bring in labour hire workers. For both those cohorts of people making these decisions, I think the clause proposed around the beneficial nature of the portfolio legislation is worthy of support and remark because it may be something which members in future years in different contexts may see as appropriate to put in other portfolios and guide decision-makers towards interpreting legislation in a way which benefits in a positive way those for whom the legislation has been enacted.

The intention of the section is to say that where the provision of an act or the instruments under an act can be interpreted beneficially, then it should be so interpreted. Of course, that is not to undercut specific obligations or deny the fact that in some circumstances a claim simply won't meet the requirements of the legislation and has to be rejected, or that in cases of serious error or incorrect information the debts will be raised and they need to be dealt with appropriately. Of course it's not meant to undercut those other obligations. Departmental training, I understand, will be developed so that decision-makers making these decisions and being guided by this new beneficial intent clause can understand the purpose of it and appropriately apply the legislation to support the intent of the clause.

As I said, one of the most common complaints I receive about the Department of Veterans' Affairs is the sheer time it takes for things to be decided. It's a lengthy and very complex claims process. We on this side of the House believe that a reason for that is excessive staff cuts. It's no great comfort, of course, to people in the veteran community to say, 'It could be worse; you could be trying to deal with Centrelink, or you could be trying to deal with the National Disability Insurance Agency'—which seems to have almost no permanent staff and thousands of labour hire contractors. I do acknowledge that the situation is not as bad as the majority of other agencies in the government, but it's still not acceptable that things take so long. So any commitment to timeliness will be welcomed by the veteran and ex-serving community. In that regard, the paragraph proposed to be inserted which will seek to provide that claims decisions should be made within a time that's proportionate to the complexity—of course we would all understand that complex things take longer but simple things should be able to be done quickly—will be of comfort.

In my remaining minute I'll just read the covenant for the record. I was curious while watching some of the speeches on the television. I thought: what is the covenant? The wording is simple. It's four sentences:

We, the people of Australia, respect and give thanks to those who have served in our defence force and their families.

We acknowledge the unique nature of military service and the sacrifice demanded of the men and women who commit to defend our nation.

We undertake to ensure that all those who are serving in the ADF and who have served are not disadvantaged as a result of their military service.

We undertake to preserve the memory and deeds of all those who have served and promise to welcome, embrace, and support all military veterans as respected and valued members of our community.

For what they have done, this we will do.

It's a neat, simple form of words. In closing, I again state Labor's view that this legislation is an imperfect copy of the proposal we put forward, which we believe would have been better, which would have recognised current serving defence personnel and not just the ex-serving community and their families, and which would have provided an important accountability mechanism through requiring the government of the day, via the minister, to come into this place and make a statement to the parliament about how the government is going with regard to their obligations to enforce the covenant and support veterans in the way they so deserve.

7:03 pm

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

One of those unusual but deeply satisfying situations we have when we are here talking about veterans' affairs is that we are often in furious agreement about the objectives that we have for this group of people who have served our country. It's very pleasing to be able to support this bill. However, as has been pointed out by previous speakers, there are other things we would have liked to have seen in a piece of legislation which is called the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. Let me go through a few of the elements of that.

Of course we're very supportive of the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, which recognises the special contribution that members of the Defence Force have made and that their families have made in serving this country. But it is disappointing to see that this covenant, which is copied from Labor but doesn't pick up all the elements that Labor would like to see, only talks about those who have served and veterans—people who are no longer serving personnel. We would very much have liked to have seen serving personnel included in this covenant in much the same way they are in similar sorts of legislation in places such as the United Kingdom. By leaving out those who are currently serving, it really is missing a very significant group of people—those who have not yet thought about what it is to have left Defence but who will face the consequences of the decisions we make. So I really want to put on record my disappointment about that.

I also think that what we're missing really crucially is that element of reporting. It is all very well to have a piece of legislation that sets out certain objectives but, unless those objectives are reported on, it is going to be very hard to measure the effectiveness of what we are talking about today. It would not have been difficult to include that in this legislation, and I don't understand why it's not there. The other thing we're very aware of is that it is really important to get this legislation through in the life of this parliament, imperfect as it is. I thank the government for having brought it forward and I'm grateful that we can support it.

Other issues that have come up that fit within it are probably things that my former Defence personnel will be wondering about—just what will this mean in practical terms? I note that it will mean that veterans and their families will have a lapel pin, cards and other paraphernalia that goes with it. But what has come through to me in conversations with veterans is that what they're really looking for is respect and recognition that for a period of their life—sometimes a short period of time and sometimes a longer period of time—their whole world revolved around their work as a member of the Defence Force. And not only did their whole world revolve around it; so did the lives of their families—their parents, their partner or their children. And their focus shifted. From what they tell me, it was not until they left the Defence Force that they realised the impact that it had. I'm sure, Deputy Speaker, you will have your own deep thinking around those aspects.

So one of the things I did recently was meet with my RSL members, my Vietnam Veterans Association members, the families of past-serving personnel, war widows, serving members and families of serving members to have a conversation about other things that are being talked about—not just about the department and how it serves them, not just about the policies we have in place, but a broad and wide-ranging conversation around, in particular, some of the recommendations of the Productivity Commission in its draft report 'A better way to support veterans'. That conversation leads me to feel very strongly that, as we move forward, in turning a covenant into something practical which will play out in the policies we will bring in, we must be very careful about changing the structure that we have.

I'm sure that people will be aware that one of the recommendations of the Productivity Commission was to establish a single ministry for Defence personnel and veterans. But when I spoke to veterans about this they were very much against the idea; it is not something that any of them want to see; the concept of a single ministry was rejected out of hand. I look forward to seeing the government's response and sharing our view that it is not something that should happen. They also don't want to see veterans' affairs politicised. They respect that we in this place work collaboratively on veterans' issues, and they want to see that bipartisanship. As one participant said, 'Veterans are proud that the importance of service is recognised. Australia is one of the only countries with an independent department to serve veterans and widows. The government should be committed to maintaining a standalone department for veterans.' That is just extraordinary to hear, even though in the same breath you hear concerns about some of the treatment that people get from the department. But the very fact that it exists is incredibly important.

Of course, the way the department implements the legislation that they are provided with has raised some concerns. One of the very telling comments during my conversations was that it would be great to know that people who work in that department either themselves had an experience of working in the Defence Force or had at least been exposed to it. I described to them our Defence Force Parliamentary Program and how that exposes those of us who haven't served to just a taste of some of the commitment and the skills development that happens for serving personnel.

I think the Productivity Commission's report was a really useful discussion point on a number of things. One concern was raised around the language used when talking about providing services to veterans, following their service. What concerned people was the phrase 'workers compensation and contemporary social insurance schemes'. There was a real pushback around comparing the services that you provide for veterans—the health services, the employment services, the family services—to an insurance and workers compensation scheme. Veterans felt that this language demonstrated a failure to understand the distinct nature of the Defence Force and the service and sacrifices that are made by personnel and their families.

When we move forward with a covenant, when we use it as a guiding force to implement policy, when we use it to make decisions about how we bring in improved health services, improved mental health services and improved transition services, we need to be very mindful of the language that we use to ensure that it is continuing to differentiate between what people who have never served have gone through and what those who have served have gone through. I think the individual comments certainly indicate that they have concerns that, more recently, people are feeling that when they work with the department, when they go to the Department of Veterans' Affairs to have a matter seen, they have been treated a bit in the manner of an insurance claimant or a workers compensation claimant. I think that is a very wrong approach to have. I would hope that, universally, we would consider that we are providing a service rather than processing a claim.

There is another point that came up during my discussions recently. These discussions were held both in the Blue Mountains and in the Hawkesbury, representing quite a range of people—I had people from the RAAF, from the Navy and from the Army. Their view was that the current system is administratively complex in dealing with veterans' affairs and they would like to see it simplified. But they really valued the guidance and advice of advocates in navigating the system and wanted to see them supported. The Veterans' Affairs case managers, the ones who have built up a wealth of experience, were also highly valued. And, not surprisingly, veterans were adamant that existing services to war windows must be maintained.

I think the most difficult conversations we had were around wellbeing, including mental health. There were certainly concerns about changes to access to physio and other wellbeing and rehabilitation services. But, when it came to mental health and the recommendations from the Productivity Commission, veterans were also unanimous in saying that we need a greater focus on supporting people's mental health. That tied in very closely to transitions and transitioning from the service to civilian life. Any of us who know anything about mental health know that often triggers are when you're changing something. I speak of this as a mother, watching what the triggers are to see signs of a crisis. It is often change, whether that's changing from school to uni or from uni to work. All those things trigger it. So we should know how carefully we need to support people in managing a transition to civilian life.

There is definitely support for the idea of Defence devoting much more attention to this area. However, the concern was about the concept of locating that service entirely within the Department of Defence. That idea was rejected, and it was felt that, in fact, the responsibility for transitioning people needed to be something that sat across both a defence department and a veterans' affairs department. That makes a lot of sense in terms of helping people move from one service to their post-service life as a civilian.

I don't think any of those things are radical or asking too much. The former airmen, Navy personnel, members of the Army, their families, their mums, and the serving personnel who came and shared their ideas with me are asking for something that is very reasonable and something that fits really neatly with this covenant that we are here today supporting. For me, it comes down to respect. It has been such a privilege to experience some of the activities that happen at places like Amberley and on my own bases, Richmond RAAF Base and Glenbrook, and get some insight into the incredible work that's done—the strategy that's thought through, the planning that's done and the exercises that take place—and to know that every one of those people I have spent time with has somebody on the outside who has supported them to be able to do that job of serving Australia.

As I say, I'm very pleased to see that this covenant is in place. I would hope that we can build on this—that this parliament doesn't do something that just has a full stop after it, but that it forms a basis on which we can build not just the services but also the broader community recognition of what happens inside our Defence Force. I think that's our next step. We get to see it. We are so privileged that we get to go inside and see what's involved. But there are millions of people who really don't have a lot of ideas about what happens, and I think there are some opportunities there. I particularly think about the small businesses in my community, who have access to really incredibly trained people but don't necessarily see the opportunities that are there.

I hope, over the next few years, to be able to continue working to build relationships between our civilian community and the many, many RAAF personnel—I have Army as well on my RAAF base at Richmond—and to build those connections so that the real skill, expertise and amazing values that are instilled in our service personnel can be transitioned and translated into the wider civilian world.

7:18 pm

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

I am very pleased to be able to take the opportunity this evening to speak on the Australian Veterans Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. As we've heard in some of the contributions this evening, this bill will create a new act which will provide an important framework for government, business and the community to really recognise and acknowledge the very unique nature of military service and support for veterans and their families.

Importantly, as we've heard, this bill establishes the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. As members in this House would well be aware, Labor announced the establishment of a military covenant in September last year. So this is clearly something that has our support, although I note that Labor's military covenant—and this is an important distinction—would have covered both current and ex-serving personnel and their families, recognising the immense commitment they make to our country and formalising our nation's commitment to look after those that have sacrificed for our nation. Labor is very pleased to see that the government is adopting the covenant via this bill. It is certainly welcome news from our side of the parliament.

I note that there has been some debate around the coverage of this covenant. We would like to expand it. The decision to include both current and ex-serving personnel in the Labor version of the covenant came from the evidence that was brought before the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which had an inquiry into this legislation. There were some important observations made by the Labor senators during that inquiry. These comments that I'm about to pass on come from the additional comments of the Labor senators there. It was our wish to acknowledge the importance of families in the lives of both current and ex-serving members. That was a reoccurring theme throughout the submissions that were made to the inquiry. We knew that, when an individual serves in the Australian Defence Force, in many ways the entire family serves with them. We recognise the role that families play in recognising the unique nature of military service and the sacrifices made by those who serve.

I know, as the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, just how true that word is. I, to this day, live with the ramifications of my father serving in the Australian Army. He wasn't a national serviceman; he was a regular Army sergeant. It is very difficult for many of us to get our heads and our hearts around the unique service that ADF personnel provide, but I, like any family member, am acutely aware of the lifelong implications of that service. There are many, many good things to be praised in terms of that service to the country, but, certainly as a family member, my personal experience is that there is often a very high price to pay for that, and the whole family pays for it. In my view and Labor's view, it is absolutely essential that we acknowledge the ongoing support that is required for both current and ex-serving personnel, and indeed all the families that are providing wraparound supports for those men and women for life.

Labor senators, as I said, continued to prosecute the argument of considering the benefits of including current serving members within the covenant. I understand it is the case that the United Kingdom's Armed Force Covenant includes current serving members. It was noted, certainly by the Defence Force Welfare Association, the peak body representing current serving members, that that would be their preference, too. They were one of the only submitters to the inquiry that were able to represent current serving members. We forget that those current members are so often gagged in participating in these debates that have so much of an impact on their lives and conditions both now in the workplace and in the future. It was certainly the current serving members and the chief advocate who articulated a need for this military covenant to apply to the existing members.

Finally, I note that Labor senators noted the comments made by the Secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs in relation to reporting, who stated that the minister provides an annual statement regarding the efficacy and benefits of the covenant. But it was Labor senators' and members' view that there would be benefit in considering ways to strengthen this reporting element, including a legislative requirement to report to this parliament rather than an obligation to report through an annual reporting system. I think both of those suggestions have great merit and are very worthy of this House considering and supporting. Certainly, rather than the annual reporting, if we had a form of statement to this parliament, I think it would hold this place to account. It is so easy for our annual reports to slide by and not really be as effective as they might otherwise be. I think governments need to be held to account in terms of their obligations to current and ex-serving personnel and whether they're meeting the standards that we set in this House and in the other place. That level of accountability is absent from this bill, and I'm sad to say I think this bill is much weaker for it.

As I said, Labor has some concerns about the omission of these two elements—the lack of rigorous reporting to the parliament and the exclusion of current serving members. That's why we referred it across to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, to ensure that members of the ex-serving community had an opportunity to be consulted and were comfortable with the provisions in the bill. That being said, Labor is acutely aware that we are on the eve of an election. We are not naive about just how little time this parliament has to deal with this bill now. We do not wish to be holding up the good aspects of this bill by any means. We've got the report from the committee, and we're not in a position to move amendments to this bill without endangering its passage here. But we continue to believe that there is great merit in including current serving members in this bill and in strengthening the legislation by including a reporting-back element to this parliament. They are really two very key and essential things that would lend a lot more gravity to this bill.

In addition to the introduction of the covenant, this bill inserts a general recognition clause which acknowledges the unique nature of military service, the demands that we place on those who serve, the additional support they may require postservice and the Commonwealth's commitment to supporting veterans. Labor wholeheartedly supports this recognition—I wish to be very clear about that—and our ongoing obligation to supporting those who have put their lives on hold in order to serve this country. As an extension of this general recognition, the bill also includes an overarching statement in relation to the beneficial nature of the Veterans' Affairs portfolio legislation.

I would like to pick up on a comment made by my colleague the member for Macquarie earlier on about the rejection from the veterans community around any proposal to smash Defence and Veterans' Affairs into one portfolio. Likewise, the relocation of DVA officers and services is welcome, as long as they're not, again, forced to be merging in with Centrelink or other government services. It's critical that we take the mental health and wellbeing of our service men and women seriously—both current and ex-serving personnel. I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to speak on this bill. I lend Labor's support—albeit not as strong as we might like—to the bill and I commend the bill to the House.