House debates

Monday, 21 October 2019


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

6:43 pm

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party, Deputy Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I present a revised explanatory memorandum to this bill, and I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to introduce the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019. This bill recognises the unique nature of military service, and acknowledges and gives thanks to veterans and their families for the sacrifices they have made while serving in the Australian Defence Force. The government shares the Australian people's appreciation of the contribution made to our nation by our military, those who have defended Australia and those prepared to defend it.

The welfare of veterans and their families remains a priority for this government. An annual statement to parliament on the government's ongoing commitment to veterans and their families has been delivered by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs each year since 2017, and I was privileged to deliver this year's statement just last week.

The introduction of this bill sees the realisation of an Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, where everyone can acknowledge, support and pay respect to all who have served or are currently serving in the Australian Army, Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Air Force, or Reserve. The Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant enables Australians from all walks of life to honour Australia's proud military history. The bill enshrines the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant in legislation, providing an opportunity for the nation to recognise the service and the sacrifice of all who have committed to defend the nation and those who continue to do so, and to pledge their commitment to support veterans and their families.

The government acknowledges through this bill the sacrifices made by veterans and their families, and the challenges they may experience during and after their military service. Also recognised and acknowledged is that veterans can require additional support to be provided in a way that is appropriate and sensitive to their individual circumstances.

In addition to the covenant, anyone with a single day of service will receive a veterans card and a lapel pin once released. The card and lapel pin will provide a visual method for the Australian community and businesses to recognise a veteran and for veterans to recognise one another. Importantly, the bill also includes a statement in relation to the beneficial nature of veterans legislation to provide further support to the principles of statutory interpretation that determinations are to be made fairly, justly, consistent with legislation and similar type claims, and in a timely manner so that the public may trust and have confidence in the determinations made.

I commend this bill.

6:46 pm

Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019, which has bipartisan support. This bill creates a new act which will provide a framework for government, business and community to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service, and support veterans and their families. Importantly, this bill establishes the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, which formalises or gives effect to the solemn pledge of a grateful nation to its veterans. It's an important development.

Many in this place would be aware that in September last year it was Labor who first announced that, if elected, we would establish a military covenant. Labor's proposed covenant would have covered both current and ex-serving personnel and their families, as we saw the need to recognise the commitment and sacrifice they make in serving our country by formalising Australia's commitment to provide them with the ongoing support they need. That is why Labor welcomes the government's adoption of a covenant through this bill. However, I must note that we would like to see the covenant extended to all Defence personnel, current and serving, as well as their families. It's unfortunate that what's before us today covers only those who have previously served, and their loved ones.

Another notable absence from this bill—but part of Labor's proposal at the last election—is an annual reporting in the form of a statement to parliament. We wanted this included to ensure that, whoever the government is, it is accountable for meeting its obligation to current and serving personnel. While we recognise that there is currently an annual statement to the parliament—indeed, the minister delivered the third such statement last week, and I gave a reply to it—that is purely a decision of government, a convention you have, not a statement to the parliament as part of legislation.

When this bill was first introduced in the 45th Parliament, we raised concerns about the omission of these elements. We therefore referred the bill to a Senate inquiry so that the veterans community had the opportunity to view and provide feedback on the government's proposed covenant. This was followed by providing additional comments on these issues as part of a Senate Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Legislation Committee inquiry report. It was Labor's view both then and now, and through thorough consultation with those who would be affected by the covenant, that this occur. Whilst it is regrettable and a missed opportunity that it does not include those currently serving, that doesn't diminish the overwhelming positives of this covenant. For this reason, Labor is willing to support the bill both in principle and in practice.

In order to not further hold up the passage of this legislation, we requested that the Senate committee conclude their inquiry by 22 March this year to enable both an examination of the legislation and the process to be completed in time to be reviewed by the Senate by early April this year. We believed that this was appropriate and would ensure there was time to review the legislation to enable the current and ex-serving community the opportunity to be involved in the process and not delay the passage of the bill. The committee indeed did report back on 22 March, recommending that the bill be passed without amendment. At the same time, Labor senators on the committee canvassed the issues of including current serving personnel and strengthening the reporting element, in additional comments to the report.

However, as it happened, while the bill was debated in April, there was not sufficient time for it to be passed in the House of Representatives in the final week before the election, and it lapsed, sadly. Given the Senate committee's recommendations and the broad support amongst veterans for the bill and the covenant itself, the delay in the bill's passage we found curious. But Labor is willing to be pragmatic and support the bill in its current form.

Our commitment to those who've served is formalised in this covenant, and it's vital we get it right. 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 placed on those who serve, the additional support they require post service and the Commonwealth's commitment to supporting veterans, reflecting the fact that veterans have complex needs and need special support. Furthermore, it acknowledges the demands placed on and the sacrifices made by families of veterans. This is an important component and one which has not always been acknowledged, and it should be.

These are just some of the reasons why Labor wholeheartedly supports this recognition and the ongoing obligation to those who put their lives on hold in service of our country—and to their families, I might add. As an extension of this general recognition, the bill includes an overarching statement in relation to the beneficial nature of the Veterans' Affairs portfolio legislation, making it clear that the legislation has a beneficial purpose and should be interpreted accordingly. In this section we'll note that the Commonwealth has committed to ensuring that those who make decisions involving veterans interpret legislation in a way that benefits them and their families, where that interpretation is consistent with the purpose of the provision. I think that's a good legislative reform.

This bill will provide for departmental training and a guide to ensure that decision-makers understand and appropriately apply the beneficial legislation to support the intent of this clause, and I'm sure veterans communities around the country would appreciate that. In addition, a paragraph will also be inserted that provides that claims decisions will be made within a time that is proportionate to the complexity of the matter, acknowledging the variety of complex client claims and that there will be differences in timeliness. One of the most common complaints about the Department of Veterans' Affairs is the lengthy and complex claim process. So any commitment to timeliness will be welcomed by the veteran and ex-serving communities.

Finally, this bill will provide recognition to veterans and their families in the form of lapel pins, veterans cards and other artefacts. Labor is broadly supportive of these kinds of symbolic forms of veteran recognition through items such as cards and pins. To the extent that the veterans card would be accompanied by a discount scheme, it was hoped that it would deliver tangible benefits as well. The government has completely botched the rollout, and veterans have been waiting for almost a year now for the card and the discount scheme and would have been struggling to get even basic information on what businesses were involved and the discounts available.

Since the card was announced nearly a year ago, the only public commitment was made by Virgin Australia, who offered priority boarding. This was derided by many in the veterans community as a tokenistic gesture, and the offer was withdrawn. It's also unclear how the veterans cards will interact with other existing veterans discount schemes. Since that time, there have been no public commitments from businesses in relation to the card. There is widespread frustration among veterans over the delay, and cynicism about whether this is just a cheap stunt from the government. We hear that interest in the lapel pins has been fairly low. As to the veterans card, first it was going to be different from the DVA health cards, and then we found out it was actually to be rebadged and reissued as the DVA white card, at the cost of $11.1 million. It has been a complete mess from the start.

So we hope that the government will address the implementation issues and that more information will become available about the veterans discount card and the practical benefits it would deliver. We also hope the government briefs the opposition and the veterans communities about that. Given that these measures were first announced almost a year ago and the bill is only now coming before this chamber, we ask just how serious the government was to introduce them if they announced this about 12 months ago.

The strong feedback from veterans has been that these sorts of initiatives must be backed up by substance such as better veteran support services. While symbolic recognition is important, Labor too wants to see tangible support of veterans, including things like a more efficient military compensation and rehabilitation scheme, better access to health care, mental health and suicide prevention programs, more effective civilian transition through training, employment programs and family assistance, just to name a few. That's why Labor supported the amendments to the bill made by Senator Lambie in the Senate as a good example about practical recognition and we will be supporting them here in this place.

These amendments will ensure that the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission and the Department of Veterans' Affairs commit to a 90-day time limit on determination for claims under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004, commonly known as the MRCA. While Labor notes concerns about legislative time frames for the processing of claims in general, we believe an aspirational target of 90 days for MRCA determinations is reasonable, realistic and achievable. This is because it would simply reflect what's happening already in terms of significant progress that's been made when it comes to assessing rehabilitation and compensation claims as a result of DVA's veteran-centric reform project.

We have seen the average wait time for compensation claims in the MRCA come down in recent years below 90 days. For example, in response to a Labor question on notice in the last additional estimates, DVA advised that in 2017-18, the median time taken to process permanent impairment claims under the MRCA was now 78 days, the median time to process incapacity claims was 34 days and the median time to process liability claims was 72 days, all of which are obviously less than 90 days. That said, more recently, there have been reports that DVA is struggling to deal with a spike in claims through the online claims portal MyService and claims processing times have blown out.

We know DVA, like many agencies, has been hard hit by the ongoing funding reductions due to the efficiency dividend, which is affecting service delivery, and the department has pointed to the need for more staff to meet the needs of its clients. The government needs to make sure the department is properly resourced so it can do its job and meet the expectation of veterans. Any improvements or commitments to addressing the timeliness of claims will be welcome by Labor and by veterans' communities.

We on this side hope these amendments will further incentivise the government and the department to resolve these claims that continue to blow out. In addition, we would have preferred that any legislative time frames be applied in a holistic way to all relevant veterans' legislations, not just to one act, not just to MRCA. However, Labor wants to be pragmatic and we think it is a useful first step and, in that time, time frame should be considered in context of the Veterans Entitlement Act and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act, known as DRCA.

The rationale for considering legislative time frames is that there is now extensive evidence and research showing the military compensation scheme is having an adverse impact on the mental health and wellbeing of veterans and, in some cases, contributing to veteran suicide and mental health issues. A 2018 Phoenix Australia report, the 2019 review of this report and other literature by Professor Alex Collie, commissioned by DVA, have highlighted that aspect of the system such as delays in claims processing can have serious effects on applicants. As I said earlier, one of the most common complaints about DVA is the lengthy and complex claims process. While the bill already contains a general commitment to timeliness, we believe these amendments could help further mitigate the psychological impact of these processes. In addition, military compensation lawyers have pointed out Australia's military compensation system is one of the few systems that doesn't include time frames for responding to claims or for making decisions. Defence personnel in the UK, US, Canada and New Zealand are all protected by decision-making time limits. In addition, every state and territory in Australia has time frames for decision-making under civil workers' compensation schemes. The recent Productivity Commission inquiry into compensation and rehabilitation of veterans recommended the system be redesigned based on the best practice features of contemporary workers' compensation and social insurance schemes. To that end, a 90-day time frame for determination would go some way to bringing MRCA decisions in line with best practices in schemes in other jurisdictions. Such a time frame would be complemented by an allowance for extensions to be granted in certain circumstances.

In summary: Labor is willing to support the amendments to this bill. Like Senator Lambie we want to improve the timeliness of compensation claims. In closing I thank all those in the veterans communities who provided feedback to us on our side of the chamber, lobbied for recognition for the military covenant, participated in the Senate inquiry into the bill and continue to advocate for veterans each and every day. Going forward it would be good to consider the ways we can strengthen legislation through regular reporting to parliament and inclusion of current serving ADF members and their families. However, we support the principles of the bill and acknowledge the support of those who served and their loved ones. Labor's commitment to those who serve or have served is rock solid, and we welcome the changes brought by this legislation that increase recognition for veterans and their loved ones. Fundamentally this bill seeks to provide greater recognition for veterans by government and acknowledges the unique nature of military service and obligation of those that served. In conclusion, this recognition is very important. It's a message from parliament on behalf of the Australian community that we honour and thank veterans for their service and we recognise the sacrifice that they and their families have made for our country. I commend the bill to the House.

7:01 pm

Photo of Peter KhalilPeter Khalil (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to speak in support of the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill and acknowledge the work of the member for Blair and the minister in what I think is an admirable, bipartisan approach to such an important area of policy—that is, the recognition, support and honouring of our veterans who have served our country in so many ways over the decades. We should always, as many of the previous speakers have pointed out, strive to remember and recognise the sacrifice and service of our armed personnel and of their family members. Labor supports any efforts the government makes to recognise and to support veterans. Labor did announce plans to create the first covenant for defence personnel in September last year and we are very pleased to see the government taking up this idea through this bill.

Mr Chester interjecting

Thank you, Minister. We would like to have seen people currently serving in our defence forces included, but the government has decided not to include them. Nonetheless, the bill has the broad support of the veterans community, and Labor supports the bill on this basis.

We talk a lot about the decision a person makes to join the Australian Defence Force, a decision that is about sacrifice and love of country—in many respects a difficult one, because of the pressure that's placed not just on that person who has made the choice but also on their family. Although people did not always have the choice to join, we as a society should always respect, recognise, and remember that choice made by so many thousands of Australians. I think that recognition and remembrance of service comes in part because of the personal connections so many Australians have with men and women who've served. We have seen this amazing phenomenon of our Anzac Day celebrations growing over the decades and becoming more and more popular, particularly with younger people. Perhaps it is that personal connection, wanting to remember the service of a great-grandfather who fought and died in World War I, a grandfather in World War II or an uncle in Vietnam.

I think of my uncle, who served in the Australian Army driving the Leopard tanks at Puckapunyal, and my grandfather, who was an Egyptian auxiliary for the British in Montgomery's Eight Army in North Africa during World War II. He used to tell me snatches of stories about that service. He reckons that he singlehandedly, with just his rifle, took prisoner a whole unit of Italian artillery. I was too young to tell whether he was having me on. He noted that the enemy Italian units he took prisoner just wanted to get out of the hot desert and to the relative comfort of a British POW camp in Cairo. I wish now that I had asked him more questions about that period, so that I could remember more and better. Now he has passed away and that opportunity no longer exists.

So it's a bit personal, obviously, to many of us who have relatives who have served, but I think it's more than personal. Bills like this one come from our acknowledgement as a nation of something more than just the personal. Obviously, deep in our hearts, deep inside the marrow of our bones, Australians know, through the history of our nation, the service of two million men and women in uniform and the ultimate sacrifice of 102,000 Diggers, that that is pretty much why we enjoy the freedoms of Australian democracy. I think we know that; we understand that. Our Diggers today are deployed in some of the far-flung places that so many of our Diggers are buried, such as among the rocky hills and deserts of the Middle East. Today, as did our forebears, they defend our nation, they protect our way of life and they defend our democracy, ensuring we can continue to enjoy the freedoms that we have. That is why Australians want to recognise and commemorate their sacrifice and their service.

This covenant is another way that we will remember them. I've always stood in solemn respect—and I'm sure all of my colleagues here would have done so—at least intellectually understanding the history of that sacrifice. However, it never really hit me, at least emotionally, until an Anzac Day dawn service I attended when I was in Iraq in 2004. I spent almost a year in Iraq, posted by the Australian government in 2003 and 2004, working on a whole range of national security and counter-terrorism tasks. There was the 2004 dawn service in Baghdad, at the Australian headquarters. You'd see, every morning at dawn, the coalition headquarters being hit by mortars and rockets, so the Anzac service had a particularly eerie feel about it, especially because of the backdrop we had. You would see tracer fire lighting up the pre-dawn and the background noise of helicopter gunships rumbling across the skies as we commenced the service. As the sun rose and the Last Post was played, I saw the silhouette of the bugler against the blood-orange sky. At that moment, an emotion hit me that is difficult to describe. I intellectually knew that Diggers all around me at this service were putting their lives at risk every day. They were protecting us as we moved around Baghdad and other parts of Iraq in the ASLAVs and other convoys, but those experiences really opened up a better understanding, a deeper understanding, of what the first Anzacs had to go through—those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in France, the Middle East and of course Gallipoli. How many more have made that same sacrifice since then? At that particular moment during the service at Baghdad, I felt an enormous gratitude for the generations of our service men and women who fought and died for our freedoms. I don't do it often, but I did shed a tear at that service.

I'm reminded through these experiences in my electorate of Wills that there's always more work to do to fully recognise our veterans. There are a number of veterans who live in my electorate, and there are those who are currently serving, with families in my electorate. We need to look after them when they return and look after their families and their loved ones if they don't. RSLs have obviously been doing this on the ground for generations. After the end of World War II, RSLs were at the very heart of many of our local communities and they played a huge role in supporting our veterans and connecting people through shared experience. There are many other organisations now that also do some of this great work.

I visit the RSLs in my electorate—the Coburg RSL, the Pascoe Vale RSL, the Glenroy RSL and the Fawkner RSL—and speak with some of the older Diggers there, but unfortunately I don't see a lot of the younger ones. The next generation is largely missing. A lot of the men and women who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor don't tend to go to these RSL as much as previous generations of veterans. Maybe that's changing or it will change as they get older and they seek to be with their fellow veterans in a setting.

I know there are many from the more recent conflicts who are struggling. Many of them are struggling; many families are struggling. A lot of veterans have issues such as PTSD and they have mental health issues. The issues are not just physical; they are emotionally affected by what they've seen and what they've experienced. It's really up to us to not just recognise them, remember and commemorate. That's all very important. Those Anzac Day services and Remembrance Day services that we all attend are critically important to keep the memory alive.

Mr Chester interjecting

Yes. But it has to be for 365 days a year. It has to be an ongoing and constant sense of obligation to those who have served our nation. So it is up to us to support them, and this bill goes some way towards doing that.

The bill and the creation of the covenant serve as a reminder to us and a recommitment to those veterans that we will keep doing the work to help support them and meet their needs and the needs of their families. No matter where or when the person served, we as a nation should always recognise and remember those who gave the ultimate pledge of service to our country. It is our responsibility to protect who we are and the freedoms that we hold dear, in the same way that they did for us.

7:10 pm

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

Before I start, I'd like to acknowledge and join with the remarks from the member for Wills and acknowledge the unique service to his country that he provided, which I think was quite exceptional and should be recognised, along with the service of all members in this place. Earlier this year 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. He 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 he went through during those days in 1968. It 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, towards proper recognition for all of our former service men and women.

In August last year I held a Fisher veterans forum at the Caloundra RSL, in my electorate. I invited then-senator Jim Molan to take part in the forum. The veterans 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 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, having created a Veterans' Recognition Program that is 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, the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019, has two aspects. One sets down 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 the further recognition of veterans 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 sacrifice of time, of freedom, of comforts and of family. It can involve long stretches away from home in unfamiliar and hostile places. As we've seen recently in the Queensland floods, it can require a willingness to go into situations that others are seeking to flee and to deal with the worst that nature can do to ordinary people. It's physically demanding, emotionally tough and psychologically stressful. In times of conflict, while on deployment there is another layer of sacrifice that is hard for civilians to imagine. Few of us understand what it is to intentionally risk our own 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's 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 the uniqueness of that sacrifice in this bill. 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 the 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 acknowledgment in veterans' day-to-day lives. This may be as simple as a thank you 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. 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 annual Sunshine Coast Veterans Day. I worked closely with Fisher and national icon Australia Zoo to provide free entry to the zoo for a day for all veterans and their partners. I received significant support from our local RSLs, including, especially, the nearby Glasshouse Country RSL sub branch and local veterans organisation Wet Vets. Mates4Mates held their regular catch-up at Australia Zoo. In total, hundreds of former service men and women visited the zoo to enjoy the unique wildlife experiences throughout the day. I'm grateful to Wes Mannion, Bill Ferguson and the Irwin family of Australia Zoo and to Jamie Hope of Wet Vets for helping me organise the day.

I'm delighted to say that we've already set up and announced the second annual Sunshine Coast Veterans Day, on Monday 28 October. This year the Minister for Veterans' Affairs himself will be joining us on the day to share the experience and chat to our service men and women past and present. Once again, I want to thank the zoo and our local RSLs, especially Brian Machin, Wendy and Dave Siebrecht and Nick Shelley of the Glasshouse Country RSL sub branch, for helping me to promote the event. I'll be having a stall at the zoo. I'd encourage current and former service men and women, whether they live on the Sunshine Coast or not, to come along, enjoy the zoo's terrific experiences for free and pop by my stand and say hello.

The Sunshine Coast Veterans Day has received terrific goodwill and support from everyone involved, but we have faced challenges in putting it together. Perhaps the most important has been appropriately identifying veterans. Without a universal identification card it's been 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 eligibility for the scheme. In the end, last year, 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 easily offer them the thanks that they deserve. I urge them to do just that.

Before I close, I want to acknowledge once again 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 post traumatic stress disorder, which made his own return to civilian life so very difficult. Graeme is a passionate man whose insistence and tenacious advocacy is 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 as back as May 2013, Graeme 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 very pleased to see this bill making progress today. I want to thank them for their hard work on behalf of veterans on the Sunshine Coast and all over Australia.

On behalf of everyone here today in this place, I would like to honour all of those on the Sunshine Coast and all over Australia who serve or who have served in our nation's armed forces. We thank you for your service, and we remember their families, who have lived with separation and often with fear of what may come. This bill contains not only a landmark acknowledgment on behalf of the government of our responsibility to honour that service but 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.

7:23 pm

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Imagine a country where a man or a woman who has served their country in uniform requires assistance from the government and gets it, without having to jump through a tortuous serious of loops, where veterans can call the DVA and get hold of someone straight away, who then goes out of their way to help that veteran in every way they can, who regularly stays in touch to keep that veteran informed of progresses of their concern, a country where the DVA treats every veteran with courtesy and respect. We are not in that country yet but it is hoped that the passage of this bill will get us closer to it. Labor is supporting the Australian Veterans’ Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019, just as we did when it came before the parliament in the weeks before the 18 May election. We all hoped, back in April, that it would get through the parliament before the election but, unfortunately, that did not happen. I'm pleased the government saw fit to place the bill back on the parliamentary schedule on 4 July so that its measures can finally become law.

Labor does continue to harbour concerns that this bill does not cover currently serving personnel but, in the interests of bipartisanship and a speedy resolution, particularly as the bill has the support of the veterans' community, Labor is backing the bill without amendment. Importantly, this bill establishes the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. As members are aware, back in September 2018, eight months before the election, Labor announced that if we were to win government, we would establish a military covenant based on the UK Armed Forces Covenant. In February of this year, the government presented its own version, absent of the provisions for currently serving personnel.

The bill is symbolic. It enshrines in legislation the social contract established at the end of World War I for the nation to honour and look after our veterans. It does not create nor give rise to any new legal rights or obligations and does not allow veterans to revisit or re-litigate previous cases or causes, for example, around claims for compensation. The key difference between our promise on this side and the covenant the government subsequently put to the parliament is that ours would have also covered current Defence personnel and families. Labor does stand by its view that excising current serving personnel from the covenant is a mistake, but we have no wish to put obstacles in the way of a bill that we otherwise strongly support and which we would have enacted if we were in government. In addition, Labor would have preferred to see in the covenant a requirement for annual reporting in the form of an official statement to the parliament on how the government is meeting its obligation to current and ex-serving personnel. Good intentions are one thing, but the prospect of shortcomings being exposed can serve as a handy incentive to action.

Tasmania has a strong history of involvement in Australia's Defence Force and military activities. In World War I, approximately 15,000 men and some women went to war from a small population of just over 200,000 people. Today, that would be like 37,500 Tasmanians signing up, the combined populations of all the men, women and children in the towns of Sorell, Brighton, Longford, St Helens, New Norfolk, Deloraine, Bridgewater, Prospect Vale, Campbell Town, Sheffield, Westbury, Swansea, Cressy and Richmond in my electorate. Tasmanians again showed their mettle in World War II, Vietnam and the host of conflicts that have come since. And Tasmania's military history is a rich one. Fourteen Tasmanians have been awarded a Victoria Cross for their valour in the face of the enemy. In fact, the first two VCs awarded to Australians were awarded to Tasmanians. My own electorate of Lyons, a vast agricultural seat, is home to a number of Victoria Cross recipients, notably John Bisdee, Walter Brown, Lewis McGee, Harry Murray, James Newland and Percy Statton. Many of the small communities in my electorate remember with sadness and pride the departure of so many sons and the fact some never returned.

I've visited the Woodsdale Museum in the Midlands. Housed in an old schoolhouse built in 1884, the museum, founded by a group of enthusiastic history buffs and run entirely by volunteers, has been transformed through state, local and federal government grants, and it features heavily the region's contribution to the Australian war effort. Collected over time, the volunteers now have portraits of almost all the men and women who left this very small community to go to war. There are halls throughout my electorate with similar memorabilia.

Brighton has a long history as a military town. Troops destined for the Boer War and World War I trained in paddocks near the Jordan River, and a permanent camp site was built in October 1939 to train enlisted men. Sadly, the Brighton army barracks no longer exists, having been burnt down. Those who went to fight in later wars, particularly the Korean and Vietnam wars, also used this site for training. Although the camp burned down, the site's gates still stand, and a sculpture by local sculptor, Folko Kooper, has been erected just outside them in remembrance of the young men who marched through the gates as they headed overseas.

Recently, I had the opportunity to support an application under the Stronger Communities Program for funding a statue in Magra, a small town just outside New Norfolk. This was for two local brothers, the Harris boys, who gave their lives in World War I and who now, proudly, have statues remembering their service looking over the local CWA hall carved out of cypress pines that were dying.

But, for a nation that shows such deserved pride in our military history and the contributions of so many men and women, we have failed utterly to look after those who make it home. This bill sets to redress that failure, and I hope it's enough. But, if it's not enough, we must stand ready to do more and without delay. My office has been working with Brett, a veteran who's applied for invalidity benefits due to diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder. During his service, Brett, a highly specialised soldier, who received high commendations and who lived for his service, regularly jumped from planes. His last jump caused an injury, leaving him unfit for operational duties.

Debate interrupted.