Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise in support of the government's Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting a Unit Citation for Gallantry to my constituent, Geoffrey Eaton. Geoff was a private on the front lines during the battles for fire support bases Coral and Balmoral during the Vietnam War. Geoff did me the honour of requesting that I present him with the citation in lieu of his unit's commanding officer.
At the presentation, Geoff told me his story and described some of the harrowing experiences that he went through during those days in 1968. It is impossible for those of us who were not there to fully understand what this bill describes as 'the unique nature of military service and the sacrifice demanded of those who commit to defend our nation'. Geoff tried to describe a little about the effect that his service had on him, when he said:
I didn't talk of it for a long time. A lot of guys had a hard time coming back. I was pretty fortunate, I was looked after there. But later on it came back and bit me.
Geoff has been part of advocating for proper recognition of the actions and the experiences that his comrades went through at Coral and Balmoral. As he said at the presentation, the unit's recognition was 'a long time coming'. I was pleased to have the opportunity to thank Geoff for his service, and I hope that the citation will be of some comfort and pride to Geoff and to the other members of his unit and their families. Geoff's story was another moving reminder for me of how critical it is that we appropriately recognise and acknowledge our veterans' service. I believe that today's bill is another important step, both practical and symbolic, toward proper recognition for all of our former service men and women.
In August last year I held a Fisher veterans forum in my electorate at the Caloundra RSL. I invited Senator Jim Molan to take part in the forum. The veterans that we spoke with were passionate about the importance of service and the ADF. They were modest about their contributions and, most importantly, they were passionate about supporting one another. When it came to the help that they wanted from government, the message was loud and clear. Veterans want the support that we provide to be straightforward to access, and they want practical, pragmatic solutions. It is clear from this concise and well-designed bill that the government has heard that feedback. It has created a Veterans' Recognition Program that is indeed practical and straightforward. I want to thank the Minister for Veterans' Affairs for his efficient and committed work on this matter.
The bill before the House has two aspects. One sets out clearly in legislation the commitment that the Commonwealth government owes to veterans in return for their selfless service to our country. The second sets up the legislative framework for some of the government's simple and practical measures to aid in veterans' further recognition in the community. The first aspect, part 2, lays out the minimum that veterans can expect from our community in return for their service. The second aspect, part 3, sets up the means for our community to go further.
Service to our nation is, at the best of times, exacting and tough. It imposes great discipline, and even in peacetime exposes men and women to risks that are not faced in civilian life. Service in peacetime requires the sacrifice of time, of freedom, of comforts and of family. It can involve long stretches away from home, in unfamiliar and, in some places, hostile situations. As we have seen recently in the Queensland floods, it can require a willingness to go into situations which others are seeking to flee and to deal with the worst that nature can do to ordinary people. It is physically demanding, emotionally tough and psychologically stressful.
In times of conflict, on deployment, another layer of sacrifice—hard for civilians like me to imagine—is imposed on them. Few of us understand what it is to intentionally risk our lives. Few know how it feels to be vulnerable to armed attack or to watch close friends and colleagues be injured or even killed. Service men and women in conflict zones live with constant stress and privation from the luxuries of home. They can be required to deal with the worst of human suffering and to operate effectively in almost impossible situations. It is clear that these experiences, these sacrifices, are like nothing else in a person's life.
It is therefore right that the government recognises and acknowledges in this bill the uniqueness of that sacrifice. It is absolutely right that the government acknowledges that those who return from service of this kind may need special support with their health, with getting new employment and housing, and with enjoying some of the day-to-day activities in which we all take part.
We owe our service men and women a great debt. It is right that the government, with this bill, acknowledges that in fulfilling that debt it must provide the care and support that veterans need to participate in education or employment or to achieve economic wellbeing and sustainability. This represents, I believe, the government's acknowledgement of the least that we can do.
The second part of the bill provides the government with the ability to go further. By authorising the production of visible symbols of service, including the lapel pin and veterans card, which will form part of the coalition government's veterans recognition program, we will make it easier for individuals and organisations to provide extra acknowledgement in veterans' day-to-day lives. This may be as simple as a thankyou in the street or a seat given up on the train, but it might include discounts, concessions or other special offers made by businesses and organisations in the community.
With the proposed covenant, a uniquely Australian oath in its unpretentious simplicity, this bill also provides a means for all of us to buy into these same commitments. Alongside our government, alongside businesses and community groups, the covenant gives ordinary Australians the opportunity to give thanks and to acknowledge the debt we all owe to our service men and women.
I've sought in my own way, in my electorate of Fisher, to create more opportunities to acknowledge our veterans, and in the process I have encountered one of the very challenges that this bill will overcome. On 11 October last year, I held the first of what I hope will be an annual Sunshine Coast veterans day. I worked closely with Fisher icon Australia Zoo to provide free entry to the zoo for a day for all veterans and their partners. I received significant support from local RSLs, especially including the nearby Glasshouse Country RSL subbranch, and from local veterans organisation Wet Vets. Mates4Mates held their regular coffee catch-up at Australia Zoo, and, in total, hundreds of former service men and women visited the zoo to enjoy their unique wildlife experiences throughout the day. I'm grateful to Wes Mannion and Bill Ferguson of Australia Zoo and to Jamie Hope of Wet Vets for helping me organise the day. It was a wonderful experience, and I hope that we'll have many more such Sunshine Coast veterans days in my electorate in the years to come.
However, one of the challenges that Australia Zoo and I faced in organising the Sunshine Coast veterans day was appropriately identifying veterans. Without a universal identification card, it was difficult to create a clear and appropriate means of confirming their status. We had no desire to challenge veterans or to grill them on their service, nor did we want any confusion among the zoo's many ticket desk workers as to the eligibility for the scheme. In the end, it was necessary to trust to common sense and to the community's goodwill.
The provision in the bill before us today for a single, clearly marked veterans card will make this process significantly easier for everyone in future years. The veterans card, the veterans covenant and the lapel pin are simple, practical and timely measures that will enable our community and local businesses to get behind the recognition of veterans and to easily offer them the thanks that they deserve. I urge them to do just that.
Before I close, I want to acknowledge the work of my constituent Graeme Mickelberg and his son, the hardworking state member for Buderim, Brent Mickelberg. Graeme and Brent both served in the Australian Army and have been tireless proponents of greater recognition for veterans for many years. Brent has consistently highlighted the challenges of transition for recent veterans and has spoken movingly in the Queensland parliament about the post-traumatic stress disorder which made his own return to civilian life so difficult.
Graeme is a passionate man whose insistence and tenacious advocacy are impossible to ignore. After 40 years of service as an infantry officer at home and overseas, he is as knowledgeable as he is determined, and he deserves a great deal of credit for helping to bring about the bill before us today. As far back as May 2013, he wrote in the Sunshine Coast's Hinterland Times that Australia would be well served to consider:
… a military covenant that recognises the unique nature of military service and enhances the respect accorded to Defence Force members and veterans.
Since then, both Graeme and Brent have joined me in Canberra to meet with the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, and have been a very active part of supporting the development of this veterans' recognition program. I know that Graeme and Brent will be following today's debate very closely. I want to thank them for their hard work on behalf of veterans on the Sunshine Coast and all over Australia.
I also want to make a big shout-out to Win Fowles, another of my constituents and the vice-president of the Sunshine Coast Defence Force Welfare Association chapter. When I first became the federal member for Fisher, three years ago, Win was one of the first people I met with. He has taken me through many of the trials and tribulations that Defence Force veterans face on a daily basis. I know that Win has also been instrumentally involved in the creation of the military covenant.
On behalf of my colleagues and everyone here today, I'd like to honour all of those on the Sunshine Coast, and in fact all over Australia, who serve or have served in our nation's armed forces. We thank you for your service. We remember their families, who have lived with separation and often with fear of what may come. This bill contains not only a landmark acknowledgement on behalf of the government of Australia of our responsibility to honour that service but also practical steps to help our community to go further. In the words of the new Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant:
For what they have done, this we will do.
I commend the bill to the House.
I start my contribution to the debate on this bill by taking the opportunity, like the member before me, to acknowledge the veterans who live in my own community. We are obviously out at all sorts of events and occasions where we meet people in our community who are veterans of both military and peacekeeping activities—far fewer, obviously, from very early conflicts, but particularly ranging from Vietnam veterans to veterans of current, modern-day conflicts. We see them and their families out and about in our communities all the time. I think it is a significant and important thing, where we can, to take the opportunity to thank them for their service, both the service personnel and the families that support them. In that spirit, I want to indicate my support for the bill before the parliament today, the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019.
The intention of the bill is to provide a framework for government, business and the community to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service and to support veterans and their families. I believe a very important part of the bill is to establish the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. As members in this chamber would be aware, the concept of a covenant was announced by our side of the parliament, by Labor, in September last year. Our proposed military covenant would cover both current and ex-serving personnel and their families, recognising the immense commitment that they make in serving our country and formalising our nation's commitment to look after those who have sacrificed for the nation.
We're pleased that the government has adopted the covenant via this bill. That being said, we note that the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant as proposed in the bill only covers those who have served and their loved ones. We feel that, by leaving out those currently serving, the government is missing a significant element. Whilst it's obviously important that we acknowledge those who have served, we believe that's only part of the picture. Labor's military covenant includes an annual reporting mechanism in the form of a statement to the parliament on how the government is meeting its obligations to current and ex-serving personnel. Sadly, that's also absent in the bill today. So we have some concerns about the omission of those two elements. In that spirit, we have referred the legislation to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. The intention of that is to ensure that members of the ex-serving community have been consulted and are comfortable with the provisions.
Having made the point about those two particular aspects, we were very acutely aware of how much or how little sitting time the parliament had before a likely election, so we requested that the committee return their bill quickly. It reported back on 22 March, recommending that the bill be passed. So, on that basis, we will not be moving any amendments to the legislation; however, we do continue to believe there is merit in including current serving members and strengthening the legislation by including a report-back element.
In addition to the introduction of a covenant, the 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 that they require post service and the Commonwealth's commitment to supporting veterans. We wholeheartedly support this recommendation and this recognition and our ongoing obligation to support those who put their lives on hold for service to our country. As an extension of this general recognition, the bill also includes an overarching statement in relation to the beneficial nature of Veterans' Affairs portfolio legislation, making it clear that the veterans' affairs legislation has a beneficial purpose and should be interpreted accordingly. This section will provide that the Commonwealth be committed to decision-makers interpreting legislation in a way that benefits veterans and their families, where that interpretation is consistent with the purpose of the provision, while the intent of this section is to state that where a provision in the acts and instruments under these acts can be interpreted beneficially it should be.
Of course, not all provisions in the acts and instruments are intended to be beneficial in nature—for example, the recovery of debts to the Commonwealth and provisions protecting the Commonwealth from fraud. Departmental training will be developed to ensure decision-makers understand and appropriately apply the beneficial legislation to support the intent of this clause. In addition, a paragraph will also be inserted that will provide that claims decisions will be made within a time that's proportionate to the complexity of the matter, acknowledging the variety of complex client claims and that there will be differences in time lines. One of the most common complaints about the Department of Veterans' Affairs is the lengthy and complex claims process, so any commitment to time lines will be welcomed by the veteran and ex-serving community.
Finally, this bill before us provides recognition to veterans and their families in the form of a lapel pin, cards and other artefacts. Fundamentally, the bill seeks to provide greater recognition for veterans by government, and it acknowledges the unique nature of military service and the obligation to those who have served. Labor's commitment to those who have served or who serve is rock solid, and, as such, we welcome changes which increase recognition for veterans and their loved ones. Of course, we await the outcome of the Senate inquiry with interest; however, we support the principle of this bill and the acknowledgement of those who have served that it encapsulates.
I have to say that, after the budget last night, I had hoped that the government would give more explanation of the fact that the budget has made a $171.6 million cut to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I think people will, quite rightly, be wanting to know how that will impact on veterans and ex-service personnel. Within the context of the bill before us, I put the question: should there be an explanation of what the implications of that cut are?
In the time left to me I want to acknowledge some locals who have spent decades upon decades at the front line supporting returning personnel, and that, of course, is our wonderful Returned and Services Leagues across the country. In the past few months I have had the immense honour to attend two centenary anniversary events of local RSLs. Firstly, the Wollongong RSL turned 100. We had a great lunch, organised by their executive. I want to acknowledge their president, Peter Poulton AM, who has been the president since 1997, Joe Davidson, who has been honorary secretary since 2008, Derek Howard, who has been honorary treasurer since 2010, vice-president welfare, Noel Jackson, and vice-president social, Darren Wheeler. This RSL was founded in 1915, but its charter was issued on 19 February 1919. The sub-branch is now located at the City Diggers club and they have current membership of 141. They're very busy in our community. Just during 2018, for example, they made 33 visits to ailing and sick members in hospitals, nursing homes and private homes, attended to 38 welfare and pension requests for assistance, conducted eight RSL funerals for deceased veterans and amassed volunteer hours totalling 2,432 in attending to those duties. They are now responsible for the Illawarra district Anzac Day commemoration march. The honorary secretary arranges and MCs the Anzac Day dawn service, VP day, Remembrance Day and Anzac Day in Schools program. This is a really important and appreciated function for our young people in our schools. I've been to some of them and have seen how much they value that work. The sub-branch receives strong support from Bravo Company 4/3 RNSWR, based at Gwynneville. I acknowledge Captain Nick Kenter OC and Navy personnel from the Australian Hydrographic Office. I particularly acknowledge Commodore Fiona Freeman OC, based in Wollongong. Bravo Company provides personnel for cenotaph commemorative services and catafalque parties. Both arms support our Anzac Day activities. We are often able to arrange for a RAN ship to be berthed in Port Kembla for Anzac Day, providing one is available. The sub-branch sponsors patrol vessel HMAS Wollongong, based in Cairns, and 2nd Commando Regiment, when on deployment overseas. It was fabulous to come together to celebrate their 100th anniversary. I thank them very much for the honour of joining them. It has been my commitment to continue to work with them.
I also attended the centenary of the Woonona Bulli RSL, another fabulous local organisation. I want to acknowledge their executive: the president, Michael Paris; vice-presidents Garry May and Peter Pioro; honorary secretary, Phillip Williams; honorary treasurer, Leslie Ledwidge; welfare and pensions, Peter Pioro; welfare and assets, Peter Bailey; and patrons Kevin Whitehead and Peter Bailey. We had a fabulous lunch with the Woonona Bulli RSL, which not only celebrated the achievements that they have made over 100 years but also reflected a very strong future for the RSL. Mr Craig Blanch, the curator in the Military Heraldry and Technology section of the Australian War Memorial, was a guest speaker. He has curated the permanent exhibition of the Long Tan Cross at the memorial. We also heard from the RSL vice-president, Mr Ray James. They were two of the very welcome guest speakers on the day.
The centenary committee had three sub-branch members putting all the work into it, and what a fantastic job they did: Garry May AM, Michael Paris and Peter Pioro. It was lovely Uncle Richard Archibald and his nephew Peter were there. They conducted a welcome to country and played the didgeridoo. They are on a quest to have Aboriginal service men and women rightfully acknowledged at memorial services across Australia. That is a great initiative, and I certainly acknowledge the Australian War Memorial's work in that space, as well. In that respect, I want to acknowledge all of our Indigenous Australians who are ex-serving personnel. The memorial club—the actual club—provided three members of their staff: Marcela Kohazy, Vanessa Borg and General Manager Michael Brennan. The committee was also helped along the way by various members of the sub-branch.
There was a significant number of official guests—and I was very honoured to be one of them—including, as I mentioned, Mr Ray James, the Vice-President of New South Wales RSL, and his wife, Pauline; Craig Blanch, a senior curator at the War Memorial; Cath Filan, chairperson of the WBRSL memorial club, and Michael Brennan, the general manager of the club, along with Mrs Natalee Brennan. Among the guests were executive members from the Wollongong, Corrimal, Coledale, Albion Park, Warilla, Dapto-Port Kembla and South Hurstville sub-branches, so it was wonderful to see all the sub-branches around the area come together and join with the Woonona Bulli RSL in celebrating this occasion.
Also present, I want to acknowledge, was Mrs Edna Wheatley. Edna is the widow of VC winner Kevin 'Dasher' Wheatley. Edna is a local resident and attends the auxiliary coffee mornings with other windows of our veterans. There is a fantastic display at the club telling the story of Dasher Wheatley, and I've been very pleased that I've been able to get some grants for the club to add to the wonderful exhibition that they have there.
The RSL was built in 1919, obviously to support those returning from war at that time, and it has continued to support people through many conflicts and peacekeeping activities. In 1919, women, unsurprisingly, led the way, through the women's auxiliary and the Regimental Girls, greeting soldiers as they return from war. They were led by Mrs Katherine Herring, who was the founder of the Regimental Girls. That was a core element of the RSL branch's activities—welcoming back veterans.
I want to acknowledge all of those who supported the club. The Woonona-Bulli ambulance division of the St John Ambulance Brigade in 1923 raised money running soup kitchens and so forth; the Diggers Rest Home, since 1959—all of these local activities supported our veterans, upholding that value that we pay honour and respect to them. I thank the House.
I also rise in support of the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. In response to some of the comments made by the member for Cunningham in relation to some concerns about the budget, I do wish to assure the House and the member that this government is absolutely committed to putting veterans first and to putting veterans' families first—which is why we continue to invest in improving the system of care and support available to the veteran community. This year's budget includes a total investment of more than $11½ billion in services and support relied upon by more than 280,000 veterans and their families—an increase of more than $300 million from last year. And we are continuing to fund the largest reform in the Department of Veterans' Affairs' history. This is making it easier and faster for veterans to access the services that they need, when and where they need them.
Veterans play an important part in Australia's national identity, for the service that they have given in defending our nation and putting their lives on the line for their loved ones—their wives and husbands, sons and daughters, family and friends—in defence of our nation. Since early 2018, the government has been working closely with the ex-service organisations to draft a defence covenant, to allow the Australian community to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service and to support veterans and their families. This bill gives Australian veterans the respect and appreciation they deserve from their fellow country men and women, which is one part of the government's recognition package, to recognise and identify veterans in our local communities. This bill will grant veterans in our community exclusive rights and privileges, through acknowledging the distinctive nature of Australia's armed forces in past and current conflicts and assisting ex-service personnel and their families across the country.
The bill contains two key and practical initiatives by which we, as Australians, will be able to recognise our veterans for their commitment to defending our nation. The first aspect of the bill is outlined in schedule 1, which is aptly entitled the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. The covenant finishes with an oath: 'For what they have done, this we will do.' This oath signifies the contribution our veterans have made to the communities and the lifestyle that we live today as well as allowing those who take the oath to reflect on how we can work towards a better Australia for today's generation and also for tomorrow's. This bill envisages that the oath be taken at commemorative ceremonies such Remembrance Day and at other times during the year when we can recognise the achievements and sacrifices of those who have defended our nation and their families.
The other major feature of the bill is the government's introduction of the Veterans' Recognition Program. The program will include the issuing of a veterans' card, a newly-designed veterans' lapel or reservist pin and a print-out of the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. The bill will not change existing entitlements for those who currently receive the Department of Veterans' Affairs gold or white heath cards and orange pharmaceutical card but provides a significant declaration of the Australian government's intention to apply a construction to Veterans' Affairs legislation which is to the benefit of Australian veterans and their families. The veterans' card will be available to anyone who has served in the Australian Army, Navy or Air Force for one day of continuous full-time service. Some reservists will be eligible to receive a veterans' card, although those who are not will receive a reservists' lapel pin.
The government is making it easy for those who currently use the DVA gold or white card to receive the program, where the veterans' card will simply be a redesign and be reissued along with a lapel pin and copy of the covenant to recipients in the coming months. Veterans who currently do not have a DVA health card but are currently eligible will be able to apply through My Service on the DVA website.
The government is currently also in discussion with various business and community organisations about a variety of concessions for veterans, with a list of participating businesses and their discounts and concessions to be made available to the public shortly. There are thousands of veterans in my electorate of Robertson, all of whom will be able to receive the government's recognition package over the next few months. This will provide significant concessions and benefits for local veterans. I look forward to working with local businesses and RSLs in providing support and recognition for our ex service men and women.
As this bill describes, the government is supporting the family members of veterans through the recognition package. This will benefit members of Brisbane Water Legacy, located at Port Frederick in my electorate of Robertson. I would like to acknowledge the significant distribution that Legacy makes to the lives of 1,400 widows in our local community. In particular, I would like to thank the Brisbane Water Legacy board of directors, including the President, Max Davis; the Vice-President and deputy chairman, John George; the Finance Director, Tony Morton; and the CEO and company Secretary, Peter Lawley. The facilities and welfare programs they are able to provide means veterans, widows and their families are provided with comfort and support when they need it most. I hope to continue to work alongside them as this government delivers this package in recognition of their sacrifice for their country.
In closing, Australian veterans deserve recognition for all they have done in defending not only the land on which we live but the values we stand for as Australians. This bill will be part of our government's commitment to those who have served Australia gallantly and the families they have supported along the way. This government is absolutely committed to putting veterans and their families first, which is why we continue to invest in improving the system of care and support available to the veteran community. I commend the bill to the House.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It has been a pleasure to be in the parliament with you. You have been a credit to the parliament and the people you represent, and I wish you all the best in your future endeavours. I hope to maybe catch up with you for a beer if we can find time in the future.
I rise to speak on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. This 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 support veterans and their families—something all sides of parliament would support. Importantly, this bill establishes the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. In September last year, the Australian Labor Party, under our leader Bill Shorten, announced the establishment of a military covenant, and I commend the many who were involved in that process including the member for Corio and the shadow minister at the table, the member for Lingiari.
Our proposed military covenant would cover both current and ex-serving personnel and their families, recognising the immense commitment they make to serve their country and formalising our nation's commitment to look after those who have sacrificed for their nation. And that is something that every new politician would recognise when they come to Parliament House and stand at the steps and turn around and look down Anzac Parade towards the War Memorial. The designers knew we should always have that ultimate sacrifice and the danger we put our military in in our mind when making our political decisions. So Labor is pleased to see the Morrison government adopt the covenant via this bill.
That said, we do note that the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant covers only those who have served—past tense—and their loved ones. By leaving out the currently serving members, the Morrison government is missing a significant element. While it's important that we acknowledge those who have served, we believe that this is only part of the picture. In addition, Labor's military covenant included annual reporting in the form of a statement to the parliament on how the government of the day is meeting its obligations to current and ex-serving personnel. Sadly, this is also absent in the bill before the House today. The Labor Party has some concerns about the omission of these two elements. Why forget those soldiers, sailors and airmen who are wearing uniform today? In relation to the other element that's missing, why be scared of publicly stating whether the government of the day is meeting the KPIs that it has set itself? As such, Labor referred the legislation to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to ensure that members of the ex-serving community had been consulted and were comfortable with the provisions of the legislation brought into the chamber today.
That said, Labor is acutely aware that there are perhaps not many more sitting days before we will be in the middle of an election campaign. Being pragmatic, we therefore requested the committee return its report before we resumed sitting. That committee reported on 22 March and recommended that the bill be passed. Therefore, Labor will not be moving any amendments to the legislation. However, we continue to believe there is merit in including current serving members and in strengthening the legislation by including a reporting back element. There's a saying in business: 'If it's not measurable, it doesn't exist.' In addition to the introduction of a covenant, this bill inserts a general recognition clause which 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 these veterans. This is why we have a different military justice system: there is a different expectation in the military in terms of things like honour, service, commitment, bravery and sacrifice—concepts that there is not always an oversupply of in this building perhaps, and perhaps in every other workforce.
In addition to the introduction of a covenant, this bill inserts a general recognition clause which acknowledges the unique nature of military service. Labor wholeheartedly supports this recognition and our ongoing obligation to support those who have put their lives on hold in service to our 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, making it clear that the Veterans' Affairs legislation has a beneficial purpose and should be interpreted accordingly. This is a clear message to those dry economists and cold-hearted bean counters, who might perhaps be working at the Productivity Commission. I mean no disrespect to them—they do good work—but I question some of their recent analysis when it comes to veterans and the special place they have in Australian society.
This section will provide that the Commonwealth is committed to decision-makers interpreting legislation in a way that benefits veterans and their families where that interpretation is consistent with the purpose of the provision. The intent of this section is to state that, where a provision in the acts and instruments under these acts can be interpreted beneficially, it should be. Of course, not all provisions in these acts and instruments are intended to be beneficial in nature. Obviously, if the Commonwealth is coming after a person to recover debts, that's not particularly beneficial for the person owing the debt, but it is beneficial for the Commonwealth. That also applies to provisions protecting the Commonwealth from fraud and the like. Departmental training will be developed to ensure decision-makers understand and appropriately apply the beneficial legislation to support the intent of this clause.
In addition, a paragraph will be inserted that will provide that claims decisions will be made within a time that is proportionate to the complexity of the matter. That said, I have certainly had constituents sitting in front of me who have had complex claims that involve old military records that may be missing—lost or misplaced—or misunderstood, so there is always going to be a difference in time lines. But, as any MP who has represented their constituents would know, justice delayed can be justice denied, and that concept can also apply to low-level administrative decisions, which can have big implications for veterans and their families.
One of the most common complaints about the Department of Veterans' Affairs is the lengthy and complex claims process. We have seen many white hairs handed out to people at RSLs around the country as they support their members to go through that process. So a commitment to timeliness will be welcomed by the veteran and ex-serving community, I'm sure.
Finally, this bill will also provide recognition to veterans and their families in the form of lapel pins, cards and other such items. Fundamentally, this bill seeks to provide greater recognition for veterans by the government and acknowledges the unique nature of military service and our obligation to those who have served—and, as I said, it should extend to those who are serving. Labor's commitment to those who serve or have served is rock-solid and, as such, we welcome changes that increase recognition for veterans and their loved ones.
It is important that this parliament and all Australians recognise the unique nature of military service. We know that it is challenging. We know that it causes extra stress. We should not be complacent about our defence forces and those who are called to serve—the soldiers, sailors and airmen. We need to look after them while they're serving and obviously we need to look after them—and all those associated with their service—when they return.
I'd like to particularly mention our Returned and Services League, and its many associated entities, and the great work it does in supporting both current and ex-serving members of the Australian Defence Force and their families. I've got five RSL clubs in my electorate of Moreton: the Sherwood-Indooroopilly, Salisbury, Stephens, Sunnybank and Yeronga-Dutton Park branches. There are a few other returned service associations as well. I've spent quite a bit of time with the men and women associated with these clubs over the years, especially in the lead-up to the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings and a couple of other community projects that I've been proud to be connected with.
The RSL has a proud tradition of helping, going back over 100 years. It has been one of our most respected national organisations ever since it was founded, back in 1916. As well as supporting and serving our ex-service men and women, the modern RSL also promotes a secure, stable and progressive Australia. We are indebted to the RSL for the services it continues to provide, not only directly to the returned service men and women but indirectly through the great community work that it does—not just a quiet listening ear but also that helping hand.
In particular, I'm going to mention my Sunnybank RSL and the great work that they do with their local community, which has seen an influx of Chinese Australians, a Chinese diaspora, over the years. As the make-up of the community changed, they decided to create a memorial for all the people of Chinese heritage who have served Australia in past wars—soldiers such as Billy Sing and Caleb Shang, who fought in World War I and sometimes had to lie about their citizenship to actually put on their soldiers uniform, and Jack Wong Sue, who served for Australia in World War II. That's just to name a few brave service personnel. Often these people were shot at and put in harm's way but, when they returned, weren't even able to vote in the country they called home. These are great stories of courage and bravery from the Chinese Australian diaspora, and they've been commemorated by this memorial at Sunnybank.
I've told the story in this chamber before, but I'll tell it again because it's important that we always remind those who try to divide that we have never, ever had a monocultural Australia. We've always had people from a variety of different nations who have come together to form this modern Australia. Private Billy Sing was a sniper with the 5th Australian Light Horse Regiment. He was a kangaroo shooter from Northern Queensland originally. He went over to Gallipoli and is conservatively credited by military historians with killing more than 150 people at Gallipoli. He was known to his fellow soldiers as 'The Assassin'. He was known throughout the world, in fact. He was quite a celebrity at the time and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous gallantry, as a sniper, at Anzac. To this day, the Australian Army snipers recognise the skill of Billy Sing.
So we built a physical memorial, and there's also one on the north side of Brisbane at the Nundah Cemetery. It was a labour of love for people of Chinese-Australian heritage in my community, and it has contributed to stronger links between that community and the local RSL—recognising that things have changed. It is a great physical reminder, but there is also an ongoing bursary. The diversity, cooperation, understanding and friendship that exists on Brisbane's Southside goes a long way to recognising some of the slights and racism that existed 100 years ago, when people were allowed to fight and die for their country but were not able to own land if they were not seen to be British—or Australian, I suppose, but British was actually the law of the land. Why? Simply because they looked Chinese. So, whilst this is just a physical memorial, the ongoing bursaries—connecting with local school students, where they enter an essay competition and tell their own family story—are recognised every year on Anzac Day, and there is a cash prize.
I also want to point out that the success of the Chinese war memorial has flowed elsewhere and has inspired commemorations and contributions from other communities. Now we've seen the Indian community come together with a project to erect a memorial for the Australian-Indian service men and women who have contributed to Australian war efforts in the past and who continue to do so. The Indian-Australian community and the Chinese-Australian community are helping to tell those stories of their service personnel. There will be bursaries associated with that. It is important that we show this permanent respect for those brave Australians who put on military uniforms. Sadly, military service personnel are not always shown the respect that they need. We've got a bit more work to do there, but we do have a modern military that looks more and more like modern Australia. I've mentioned the Sunnybank RSL in particular and I commend Hugh Polson, the president, and all of his team for the great work they've done working with Chinese-Australians and Indian-Australians and the service men and women who are part of that organisation.
Returning to the bill currently before the House, I do look to put on the record clearly that the Labor Party does support this bill, but I do say that the acknowledgement of those who have served and their families is something that both sides of the chamber will always support. I'm happy to commend this bill to the House.
While many important reforms take time, and no responsible legislation should ever be rushed without detailed, thoughtful consideration, the concept of an Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant has been discussed and has enjoyed the support of key stakeholders and peak representative bodies for quite some time. The Liberal National Party in Queensland, of which I am a proud member, has a strong and, indeed, long record of ably and consistently advocating for the interests of veterans in my home state. I recall that I, together with my LNP parliamentary colleagues, both state and federal, voted unanimously in favour of an Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant at our party's annual convention on no fewer than two separate occasions over the last five years.
An Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant is organic Liberal National Party policy. This is a genuine grassroots reform, comprehensively endorsed by party members. It is a reform that enjoys not only the support of veterans but also support from the wider community, especially in Queensland, where you are likely to see more 'Thank you for your service' stickers on the backs of cars, trucks and utes than anywhere else in Australia. The combined voices of key veterans groups, Liberal National Party members and many right across the wider community have been speaking out on this issue—all asking for special recognition for our veterans and their families.
At times, the champions of this cause must have felt frustrated and may have thought that nobody was listening. Well, Deputy Speaker, I can tell you who was listening to that groundswell, that persistent agitation on the issue: the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and, more significantly, the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister took prompt action to make an Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant a priority, leading to a joint media statement with the minister on 27 November last year, where the Prime Minister announced that this Liberal-National government would develop a covenant to be enacted in legislation to recognise the unique nature of military service and to better support veterans and their families.
Despite the usual reckless and unfounded scaremongering from the Labor Party, this Liberal-National government is absolutely committed to putting veterans and their families first, which is why in this federal budget we have invested more than $11.5 billion in the services and support mechanisms that are relied upon by more than 280,000 veterans and their families. This is a real increase in funding of more than $300 million on last year. This government is focused on making it easier and faster for veterans to access the services they need and deserve when and where they need them. The veteran recognition program and the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant are part of that commitment. The Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant will provide a lasting opportunity for all Australians, and especially the business community, to recognise the service of all veterans who have served, even so much as one day, as members of the Australian Defence Force. This bill is part of a long-anticipated recognition package for veterans and their families. The purpose of the bill is to permanently acknowledge and formally thank veterans and their families for the unique commitment and sacrifice they have made, and in many cases continue to make, in the service of Australia, defending those precious freedoms we so value as a nation.
As part of the joint media statement last year by the Prime Minister and minister, entitled 'Recognising and respecting our veterans', it was announced that a unique veteran card, replacing the DVA health card, together with a special lapel pin would be introduced. The intention of these mechanisms is to ensure that we as a community are providing due recognition to those who are prepared to stand and defend our nation.
I want to finish, if I may, by paying tribute to the many people who have fought to see this change made. I wish to acknowledge the tireless advocacy over many years of Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Graeme Mickelberg of the Sunshine Coast, together with Mr John Lowis and Mr Wynn Fowles of the Defence Force Welfare Association. These people never gave up on an Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant to better acknowledge and protect the needs of veterans and their families. With this in mind, I commend the bill to the House.