Tuesday, 22 October 2019
Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019; Second Reading
Brett tried to stay in the service but ended up requesting discharge. Like many men proud of their masculinity, he never really discussed the mental anguish he was suffering and continues to suffer. In the years since, Brett has attempted suicide more than once. He and his partner, an incredibly supportive and articulate person, fight bureaucracy every day.
At the core of the DVA's intransigence is its ongoing doubt that Brett was suffering PTSD at the time of his discharge. The hoops it has made Brett jump through again and again—the medical tests, the appointments, the paperwork—are beyond belief. Brett's dealings with the DVA have worsened his mental health, not improved it. That in itself should be a clarion call to the DVA to change its ways. If the way it conducts its affairs hurts the veterans it was established to assist, it is not doing its job. This is a man who was injured in the service of his nation, who has attempted to take his own life, who is virtually a recluse before the age of 50, and the department wants to argue about whether his PTSD kicked in before or after discharge. It's not good enough.
Thankfully, at the last meeting between my office and Brett, we introduced Brett to Mates4Mates, a fantastic mental health support program run in Tasmania for exservice personnel, and he has found a real connection. We can only hope that these small not-for-profit organisations get government support and stay active, because God help us if we see the closure of another community group that is getting results on the ground.
Another of my veterans is Eric, who lives in Bridgewater. He served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Eric had issues accessing dental care with his gold card entitlement. It was eventually resolved after my office intervened, but Eric's comments about his experiences with the DVA and with politicians have stuck with me. Eric openly expressed his frustrations with all politicians. We celebrate our country's service men and women in the way we shake their hands, give them hugs and speak about them during speeches on ANZAC and Remembrance Day. We wear the lapels. We use them as examples of everything good about Australians—resilience, camaraderie, sacrifice. Yet, after the photos, they return to their communities, neglected, forgotten about and forced to contend alone with a department that fails to treat them with dignity, respect and the courtesy that their service has earnt them.
Eric only wanted two things from me when he contacted my office: help getting new teeth and a commitment that he and other veterans and those currently serving would be better looked after. He wanted to make sure that we would not forget about the contribution that veterans make, about what they have done and what they stand for. He wanted to make sure that I would be an advocate for better treatment, for better access to health care and for better services and benefits, which veterans are so deservedly entitled to.
None of this is new information. We've known for years that returned service personnel suffer poor mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, family breakdown and suicide at higher rates than the general Australian population. For a long time, we have not been able to put a number to these stats. The specialised research doesn't exist readily. There's little literature and little coordinated information. What we know, we've had to string together from other data. An exception is the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, which recently published a report called Homelessness amongst Australian veterans: summary of project findings. It found that there are at least 5,800 veterans experiencing homelessness in Australia. That makes the homelessness rate for veterans around 5.3 per cent, when for the general population it's around 1.9 per cent.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare provided further analysis in Use of homelessness services by contemporary ex-serving Australian Defence Force members 2011-17. This report found that more than 1,200 ADF veterans were either homeless or facing homelessness following discharge. The report found that, when veterans started to access services, 46 per cent were already homeless and the rest were at risk. It also noted that veterans were twice as likely to describe themselves as sleeping rough and having no shelter before accessing assistance in comparison to non-veterans; they leave to it the last minute; and they try and do it on their own, until they just can't. Both of these reports explain some of the issues underlying the rate of homelessness among veterans: poor mental health, unemployment, financial stress and domestic and family violence.
The 2010 ADF Mental Health Prevalence and Wellbeing Study interviewed half of all serving ADF members, and their experiences and results are blunt: 17.9 per cent sought help for stress, emotional, mental health or family problems; 27.6 per cent were concerned that reporting a mental disorder might result in them being treated differently during the length of their service; 26.9 per cent feared their military career might be harmed; and 36. 9 per cent said that the highest barrier to seeking help was concern that it would reduce their deployability. I recognise this report was issued almost 10 years ago, but it is indicative of the kind of toxic culture we have allowed to become embedded. Serving members feel actively deterred from seeking mental health help because it may have negative implications for their job. We need to turn that around. It's no wonder ADF members are leaving the military in bad shape. It's no wonder that they are reluctant to seek assistance when they return to civilian life, and it's absolutely no wonder that they have such poor health outcomes.
Those who serve in our Defence Force require specialised and tailored health and social service assistance. It is critical that any covenant, the subject of this bill, provides the incentive that is needed to make that happen. Our veterans and their families, our current serving members and any Australian who enters the ADF in the future needs to know that their government and their community will support them. It is incumbent on all of us in this place to ensure that any person who has put their hand up to join the Army, Navy or Air Force will be looked after properly when they return to civilian life. They should be confident they will have access to the services they need to transition properly. They should be assured that their government, the one that they work for, is running a department that is sensitive to their needs and to the realities of their service, and that it isn't bogged down in bureaucratic nonsense. Our veterans and those who are serving need to know that they have earnt the permanent respect and thanks of a grateful nation, and this should be reflected in the way we treat them.
I know the minister is committed to this. We stand with the minister on this bill and this covenant and all that they seek to achieve. I repeat my comments from yesterday: we do wish current members were also covered by the covenant. But, broadly speaking, this bill is one that Labor does support. We support its aims and its ambitions, and we stand with the minister in seeking a better deal for our veterans and making sure that they are better looked after. I hope that this covenant and the results of this bill lead to a deep culture change within the DVA, especially to ensure that our veterans, when they return, are treated with the respect, the dignity and the courtesy they so richly deserve.
Earlier this year, an Adelaide Hills man was deployed to the Middle East on operations. Last week, his community wanted to show their gratitude for his service, and so, with the assistance of the Macclesfield RSL, students from the local primary school wrote letters of support and encouragement and gathered together treats to remind this soldier of home. It was a privilege to add my own words to the care package, and I hope that the soldier will know that his community is grateful for the sacrifices that he has made being away from family and home. We look forward to welcoming him home again soon.
While small communities find their own way of showing respect for our veterans, the Australian Veterans’ Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019 creates a formal framework to provide government, businesses and the public with the ability to recognise and respect the sacrifices made by veterans and their families. It does so through three measures: by enshrining the Australian Defence Force covenant in legislation, by confirming that veterans laws should be interpreted for the benefit of the veteran, and, finally, by providing for the issue of pins, cards and other artefacts.
While I support the bill and the intention that underpins it, I query the tangible benefits of pins and cards. In January this year, I hosted a roundtable forum. I was very grateful that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, who is here in the chamber, came over to South Australia. A collection of RSL stakeholder representatives from my electorate attended the roundtable. It was an opportunity to give voice to the issues that have a real impact on the day-to-day lives of veterans and their families. Over 50 veterans attended the morning tea and roundtable and nobody mentioned a lapel pin. When veterans called for improvements, it was around the best advocacy grant funding framework to ensure a fairer distribution among ex-service organisations in all states and territories. I was very grateful to raise this issue again with the minister just yesterday afternoon. I hope that we can work towards a solution that benefits both regional and rural RSLs, as well as their metropolitan counterparts.
What veterans continue to raise with me is the continuing injustice of the DFRDB commutation provisions. I note that the ombudsman is currently conducting a review into this matter, and I eagerly await the findings in a report to be delivered later this year. What veterans raised with me was the need for a grant funding project to address accessibility issues plaguing our ageing RSLs and memorial halls across the electorate, and, of course, they raised with me the availability of affordable and veteran-specific mental health services, such as the Jamie Larcombe Centre in Adelaide.
After this bill was introduced, I took the opportunity to discuss the concept of lapel pins with veterans in my electorate. Some welcomed the sentiment behind the initiative, describing it as well intentioned but ultimately perhaps misguided in an attempt to recognise veterans and their families. Others were more forceful in their opposition, labelling the pin and veterans cards as a tokenistic gesture. In the words of one of our veterans, Mr Dennis Oldenhove, President of the Macclesfield RSL: 'We know who we are, we know what we've done and a pin won't change that.' One mother of a veteran who has spent the last few months in and out of the Jamie Larcombe Centre welcomed the sentiment behind the initiative but would rather the funds were spent on training DVA staff so that they were better equipped to deal with the complex and unique needs of veterans.
Regarding the financial impact of the bill—$11.1 million over the forward estimates—it is unclear what proportion is to be allocated to the design, manufacturer and delivery of the lapel pin, but I expect that these details will be revealed in due course. Given the purpose of the pins is to identify who has served for our nation, I'm pleased to hear that the department confirms that the pins will be designed in Australia and made with Australian materials. At this early stage, it's unclear as to what benefit will be conferred on veterans who receive a veterans card. The department states the card will enable businesses, service providers and community groups to identify veterans so they can offer their acknowledgement and respect. But it is important to understand that this card itself does not require a business to provide a discount or other concession. It's entirely a matter for the business to choose what discounts, if any, they provide to a veteran or their family, or, indeed, if they choose to recognise the veterans card at all.
On the face of it, the proposed veterans card appears to be an exercise in rebadging and redesigning the DVA's current health treatment and concession cards known as the gold, white and orange cards. It's difficult to see what additional benefit this will provide to veterans when there are already longstanding Defence family benefit schemes in operation. For example, in South Australia, Defence Families of Australia has been operating for six years and has already secured over 10,000 partnership agreements with some of the largest businesses in Australia, who are now offering discounts and benefits to veterans.
While I'm sceptical as to whether the lapel pins and veterans cards will be of meaningful benefit to veterans and their families, it should not detract from the other positive measures contained in this bill. The bill enshrines in legislation the Australian Defence Force covenant. The covenant was announced by the minister late last year and it encourages Australians to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service and to support veterans and their families. The covenant includes an oath: for what they have done, this we will do. People will be encouraged to take the oath at community commemorative events, such as Remembrance Day, but this will not replace the Ode and nor should it.
The bill is also particularly important as it enshrining in legislation a commitment by the government that decision-makers will interpret veterans' affairs legislation in a way that benefits veterans and their families. This section also confirms that decision-makers will decide claims in a manner that's fair, just and consistent and do that within a time that is proportionate to the complexity of the matter. Arguably, these measures that veterans and the broader Australian public would expect are already occurring as a matter of course and should not need to be set out in legislation.
I accept that I cannot speak for all veterans in my electorate nor, indeed, for all veterans across the country, but I return to the question of action versus words: does the bill actually improve the lives of veterans and their families? For example, this bill does not help those veterans pleading for transparency around the DFRDB computations and nor does it provide a fairer distribution for advocacy grants around our regional RSLs, who must travel significant distances to provide support to veterans living outside of metropolitan Adelaide. The bill also neither gives nor takes any rights from veterans and their families, and it confers no physical or financial benefit. That's not a criticism of the bill nor is it intended to minimise the importance of the covenant. I accept that respect and gratitude are not conditional upon the provision of financial support and that genuine and meaningful acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by those who have served our nation and those families who have supported them can be an important step in helping veterans adjust to civilian life. I'm also mindful that this bill should not be viewed in isolation from other valuable reforms and initiatives that are currently being undertaken by the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
I support the bill and want to convey my deepest gratitude to both those past and present serving Defence men and women. Your sacrifices and those of your family will not be forgotten. Our country's forever indebted to you. Thank you. For what you have done, this we will do.
The Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) 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 their families. In particular, the bill establishes an Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, which enshrines in legislation the social contract established at the end of World War I to honour and look after our veterans. It could be said that the bill is largely symbolic, but personally I think it goes a lot further than that because it makes a very clear statement about the relationship between government and the veterans of this country and makes very clear the obligations that we have to support Defence personnel once they leave service.
This particular covenant was referred to when the minister made his third annual statement on veterans only last week. I will refer to that statement for a moment because in that statement the minister has outlined a number of veterans support programs that the government has committed to, and again I support all of those programs. Indeed, I think it's important that each year the minister makes such a statement, which sets out what is happening within the veterans community across Australia.
As the statement quite rightly points out, about 280,000 veterans and their families are currently supported by the government across the country. One of the very interesting comments to come out of that statement was that each year around 5½ thousand personnel leave our military service. What's just as interesting is that the average length of time that defence personnel remain in service is now around eight years. That is not that long, but, more importantly, what that says to me is that our defence personnel are leaving the defence services at a relatively young age, which means that they still have their whole lives ahead of them and therefore, if they have been affected by this service in some way, they will need support for a long time. It seems to me that the obligations that we have to support them perhaps will only grow over the years to come, because they are leaving at a much younger age.
Military service is indeed unique. I join with others in saying thank you to those who have served and those who continue to serve, and to their families for the disruption to and the demands on them and the sacrifices they also make. There are several veterans organisations in my region and in the electorate that I represent, the electorate of Makin, and I have frequent interactions with all of them. I see firsthand the impact of military service on personnel and on their families.
On 18 August, I attended—as I do almost every year, unless I'm here in Canberra—the annual Vietnam Veterans Day service held at Henderson Square in Montague Farm in my electorate. Some 60,000 Australians served in the Vietnam War. My understanding is that 528 Australian lives were lost as a result of that war, and indeed some three million people in total lost their lives as a result of that war. The keynote address on the day was delivered by His Excellency the Governor of South Australia, Hieu Van Le, who brought to the commemoration a very personal perspective on the war, from his war experience. He was in Vietnam at the time, as a young man, and saw firsthand the atrocities of that war, and it was indeed an eye-opener to hear his firsthand account of life throughout that period. It was after the war that he came to Australia as a boat refugee. The event was organised by the City of Salisbury and by the northern branch of the South Australian Vietnam veterans, who, again, I also have a very close relationship with and have had for many years. What was particularly wonderful to see on the day was a contingent of former South Vietnamese soldiers, who had since migrated to Australia but who had served as Australian allies in the war, and were there standing proudly in respect of the service that they had provided.
This service, like most of these services, was well attended, with the Indigenous community, schoolchildren, the wider community, other veterans groups and their families all there for the day. I think that that is important because, for most veterans—particularly the Vietnam veterans, who often feel that their service was not properly acknowledged—it is always heartening to see the community come out in large numbers to acknowledge that service. I think that that is one of the things that makes a difference to the rehabilitation of those veterans who find it difficult, after they end their military service, to re-establish themselves within the community—just to know that the community appreciates what they did. That appreciation cannot be better displayed than by people coming out to commemorative services. Whilst I'm on my feet saying that, can I say that, in recent years, I have been incredibly heartened by the number of people coming out to services—particularly on Anzac Day, where the numbers have swelled in recent years. In my own electorate, at the two major events, both at the Salisbury RSL and the Tea Tree Gully RSL, people are now coming out by the thousands to those services. It's wonderful to see not just veterans but also younger people coming out in support.
On 8 September I joined the Para District sub branch of the National Servicemen's Association in celebrating, at the Salisbury RSL club rooms, the 20th anniversary of the sub branch being established. Indeed, 20 years ago, I was there when the sub branch was established, and participated in the establishment of it. Some 290,000 Australians were called up in two intakes between 1951 and 1972. Whilst it is true that they are now generally of an older age group and are no longer in service, and that their numbers are diminishing, they should never be overlooked, nor should their service be seen in any way as lesser than that of any other person who has served this country. I particularly acknowledge the founding president of the Para District sub branch of the National Servicemen's Association, John Fisk, who I have got to know well over the years. I see John regularly. He's still an active member of the community. It was good to see him there at the lunch, along with current president Trevor Carter and state president Barry Presgrave.
In just over a week's time, on Saturday 2 November, I will also attend the Kokoda Track memorial service that is held at the Kokoda Memorial in St Agnes, also in my electorate. Each year, unless I'm here in Canberra, I attend that service. That is a very special service in that those Australians who served in New Guinea and, in particular, as part of the Kokoda Track conflict are quite often overlooked. The reality is that they too did this country very proud. Some 625 Australians died and a further 1,055 were injured in New Guinea between July 1942 and 2 November 1942. But 2 November marks the retaking of the track by Australian forces, and, because of that, it's a moment to commemorate. My understanding is that, unfortunately, there were some three times as many casualties from sickness, from being in the jungle and from the weather conditions, than there were from the conflict itself. Nevertheless, it was a major conflict. One of the wonderful things about that service is that, almost every year that I have been to it, there has been someone who has been able to give a personal account of what it was like to serve in the Kokoda Track conflict back in 1942. When you hear the stories of what it was like, you understand just how different each battle is, how different each situation is and how different the long-term impacts of that service are on the lives of those people who have had to serve.
On 11 November I will attend Remembrance Day services, as I am sure most members of this place will. That's an annual commitment that I make, as I'm sure so many other people do. I mention each of those commemorative services because, as I was saying a moment ago, each service is unique and each event is unique. Therefore, the impact on serving personnel will also be very different. I am sure it is very different for those military personnel who have served in the Middle East in recent years to what it was for those who served in Vietnam, World War II or even World War I. For that reason, the support services provided by the Department of Veterans' Affairs should take into account the uniqueness of each era and of each conflict.
Sadly, I don't think that that has been the case to date. I have often met with veterans who have personal stories and personal issues that they feel aggrieved about because of the response they receive from the Department of Veterans' Affairs when they approach the department for assistance or some other kind of support. It seems to me that there hasn't been sufficient flexibility in the department to be able to give them the support that they rightly deserve and, I believe, are entitled to, but which, because of the way the guidelines are written, they miss out on. I hope that as a result of this covenant, which I think implies a very different response from what has been provided in the past, there will be the opportunity to demonstrate that flexibility and provide that support where the situation justifies the department doing so.
There is one other matter that I want to touch on, and that is that this Sunday there will be a fundraising walk held in Adelaide for the Trojan's Trek Foundation Ltd. Trojan's Trek is a veterans support program where veterans adversely affected by their service participate in an outback track with colleagues and professional support workers. The program is held in both Queensland and South Australia. Whilst the program in Queensland is financially supported by the state government, that has not always been the case in South Australia.
Local Makin veteran Bill Bates will be participating in the fundraising walk, and I wish him well with both his walk and his fundraising. Bill is someone who has committed himself to supporting the veterans in South Australia through other activities as well, I know, because he was associated with and is a former president of the Tea Tree Gully RSL. He is absolutely committed to finding ways of supporting veterans who are finding it hard to readjust to life after their service. The Trojan's Trek is one way to be doing that, and he'll be raising some funds, and I wish him well in doing that. But I commend him for his efforts to support veterans in my state of South Australia.
I close by saying this: we acknowledge our own veterans often, and rightly so. But I also take this opportunity to acknowledge the veterans who have come to Australia from overseas, who perhaps migrated to Australia from other countries. Whilst they didn't serve our country, in the same vein, I acknowledge their service to their country and acknowledge the hardships that they also quite often go through as a result of their military service. Many of them are people who served in Europe, some from Great Britain, our allies, who have since migrated to Australia. I simply want to make the point that, in acknowledging veterans today, I acknowledge all veterans, not just those who served Australia.
I rise to speak on this Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019. Like other members of the House, this is the second time that I've had the honour to speak on this important bill, which lapsed, of course, at the end of the last parliament. Labor were proud to support this bill then and we're proud to support it now.
The idea of a veterans' covenant was a policy pledged by Labor in September last year, based on the example of other countries and especially the UK. We were proud of this policy which pledged to support former and serving defence members by recognising the unique nature of military service and by giving government, business and the community a framework through which to do just that. We're proud to have shown national leadership on this issue, in close consultation with ex-service organisations, RSLs and DVA. It's commendable that the government has shown its support for the veterans covenant. We do have some reservations about the bill, which I'll return to shortly, but it's important to acknowledge that this is a vital area of multipartisan consensus, which we should celebrate and foster.
Veterans policy is close to my heart not just because I live in Darwin—Darwin and Palmerston being among the moment important defence towns in our nation. It is also a vital area of policy to me because it goes to the foundational question of our values as a people and as a democracy. This is, helpfully, reflected in the word itself: 'covenant'. For members like me, who didn't cut their teeth as legal practitioners before coming to this place, it's helpful to recall the distinction between a contract and a covenant. A thorough Google search yields free legal advice that they are different in a number of important ways. Contracts are about interests. They're utilitarian, commercial and legally enforceable promises: 'If you do this for me, I'll do that for you.' A covenant is about values. They have been described as spiritual agreements. They help us create selfless other-regarding relationships. A contract is an agreement you can break when it suits you. Most contracts have clauses stipulating how one party can terminate it, which is often all that's needed to opt out. A contract is not personal; it's just business.
But legal experts have called a covenant a perpetual promise. It can't be simply cancelled by a clever lawyerly arguments. A covenant can remain intact even if one party breaches it. For this reason is a covenant is not entered into lightly. It's not simply about advancing your own interests; it's about defending and promoting the interests of another. This gives covenants their most special quality: the fact that a covenant is not broken when one party walks away. The committed party can in fact continue to look after the other person even when they have given up. That can seem incredible and very impractical to us, but it points to the spiritual character of covenants. Another source, much older and more authoritative than Google, illustrates the archetypal covenant which most would be familiar with irrespective of their belief system:
And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
A lot of people will remember that. I think it's important to reflect on what we mean when we speak of a veteran's covenant in light of these words. It's of more than academic or theological interest. The covenant between our nation and our armed forces is constitutive of our values as a people and in turn the values on which our shared democratic institutions rest.
If we're honest, we have to recognise that the covenant between our nation and its armed forces was not always honoured and upheld equally by both parties. We do not need to attribute blame or to reopen any of those deep wounds in our community from the past—wounds that have, thankfully, mostly healed—but we should acknowledge the sad historical truth that, when the bonds between the nation and its uniformed men and women have been so strained, particularly during and after the Vietnam War, the lives of many of our veterans were profoundly disturbed, distressed and sometimes destroyed by this rupture. This is despite the fact that many Australian veterans of that war, as we know, were compelled by this House to serve; despite the fact that many veterans performed their military service with great distinction, whatever their views of that war were; and despite the fact that Australia's armed forces remained loyal in fulfilling their perpetual promise to our nation.
It's important to recall this sad chapter in our history today to reflect on how far we've come as a nation since the 1970s, because this bill is about more than the Commonwealth procuring a new let of lapel pins and veteran cards; it's about ensuring that the uniqueness of our veteran service and contribution is nationally recognised and enshrined in law. It's about guaranteeing that we never repeat past mistakes in impugning returned or serving soldiers' personal integrity for wars which they did not choose to enter into, a responsibility which can be attributed only to the government of the day. It's about upholding the principle that our veterans should never treated in a lesser way than non-serving Australians. That's the crux of this bill's intent. It's important to note what this bill is not about. Australian veterans certainly don't want to be treated as more important members of society than the rest. From my perspective that's true. They don't expect to be called to board aeroplanes first. That's not the ethos of the Australian Defence Force and it's certainly not the ethos of the Australian people. What all serving Defence members and veterans expect, and rightfully so, is to receive equal treatment before the law and that means recognising in federal legislation that military service is completely different to most civilian vocations.
For all of our bipartisan tributes to our veterans, what this House asks of current and former Defence members is still commonly misunderstood by the rest of society. We ask that Defence members give up a lot of personal autonomy and freedoms that other Australians enjoy and expect. We ask that they comply at all times with the orders of their chain of command on how to dress and where to live in Australia or overseas, often regardless of their preferences and usually at great cost to their personal and family lives. We ask and indeed expect that full-time and part-time Defence members, if called to do so by this government or this House, take up arms to protect Australia's strategic interests, and that they do violence professionally and ethically, with great restraint and great compassion, in the name of all Australians, whose flag they bear on their uniforms.
These requirements have preciously few parallels in civilian life. As my colleague the member for Eden-Monaro, Dr Mike Kelly, testified on this bill, before the election, 'Military service carries with it unique and often unavoidable risks and dangers to the member's person.' As Mike movingly said, 'Even training exercises can be fatal. Even wearing ill-fitting boots and load-carriage equipment, like packs, can grind or pulp well-nigh every joint in your body. Even if you do your drills correctly and observe all safety precautions, that's just the nature of the vocation.' But it's not just your body's joints that inevitably suffer. In many ways they're the more visible and treatable wounds. It's the psychological, family, community and social joints in the lives of current serving personnel and particularly veterans that become irreversibly dislocated, damaged or destroyed, often in the oppressive silence of returned service members who feel so misunderstood, marginalised and lost in a civilian culture that has no categories to begin to listen to, let alone understand, what they've experienced.
As the member for Eden-Monaro said, and I fully agree with him, 'Military service can make you feel like you literally speak a different language.' That's why social support, in the form of our ex-service organisations, RSLs and a properly resourced DVA, are so vital to achieving successful post-military reintegration. The psychosocial research is very clear on the fact that the onset of mental illness like PTSD is accelerated by civilian reintegration, especially where there is no support. The research shows that social support, post military service, is a key predictor of successfully preventing PTSD onset. That's why the lapel pins and the veterans cards that this bill will fund are important for our veterans. It's not about virtue signalling and certainly not about tokenism. It's about ensuring we can all recognise veterans among us and help to bear their burdens, which can metastasise in silence. It's about bringing society on board with the mission of supporting those whose job it is to keep our Commonwealth free, strong and safe from armed coercion and aggression.
Our armed forces exist to defend not only our interests but our values, our democracy and our national existence. This bill is ultimately about strengthening the bonds of our nation to ensure we can weather the violent storms that will come, which is why I am proud to support this bill, it's why Labor is proud to support this bill and it's why Labor is proud to have worked in tandem with the ex-service organisations and with the minister to take national leadership on this.
I noted Labor's reservations at the start of my remarks and these are longstanding and consistent. For one, we note that this bill does not cover those currently serving, which we see as a significant missing element. In addition, Labor has proposed that a reporting element be legislated requiring an annual statement to the House in relation to veterans and their loved ones. I note the minister recently gave a statement to the House. We were concerned about these omissions and referred this bill to a Senate inquiry to give veterans a chance to view the wording, provide input and be comfortable with the language. The Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade recommended on 22 March that the bill be passed. While we will not be moving any amendments to this bill, we continue to believe the current serving members and that a reporting element continue to be included for the life of this parliament.
Labor's commitment to those who serve or have served is rock-solid and, as such, we welcome changes which increase recognition for veterans and their loved ones. While important, this bill isn't the only priority for serving and former Defence personnel around our country. In the NT, for instance, we lack a dedicated service centre to support current and ex-serving Defence personnel, first responders and their families. As I did in the House last week, I acknowledge the minister's visit to Darwin recently to begin consulting to ensure that we do have a wellbeing centre. Lacking such a centre does put us at odds with defence communities across the country. I believe that, with the territory being so critical to our force posture, it is an issue of great demand and great urgency.
We have already done quite a bit of consultation, and it's great that that will be taken into account in the upcoming consultation. It's very important that such a wellbeing centre really cater for the families. They bear a great burden of the service that members of those families give to our nation. It will be an important link for those members to the broader community and to support services. It will also bring people with similar experiences and needs together. We need this wellbeing hub to connect people.
It is an urgent issue, and I appreciate that there will be more consultation to come, but I believe we owe it to our veterans and we owe it to our country to make sure, as this bill states:
The Commonwealth acknowledges that support for veterans should be provided in a way that respects their dignity as individuals, enhances their self-esteem, is sensitive to any physical or mental injury or disease they may have suffered and respects their military service
The reason for this, as the covenant itself concludes, is simple: 'For what they have done, this we will do.'
We have 12,000 veterans in Townsville. We probably have the best part of 20,000 or 30,000 family and retired veterans in the greater Townsville region—most certainly in North Queensland. It is almost endemic in our soldiers now that, if they go to war, they will come home and suffer PTSD. There are some people out there who say: 'They're weak. They're not strong in themselves. They are a soft race that have been sent to war; they're not like the Second World War soldiers.' I'm one of the few people in this place who actually has memories of the boys coming home from the Second World War. I was born in 1945. At the age of 10, these people were just nine or 10 years out of uniform. Almost all the town—prominent citizens—had gone to war in my little town of Cloncurry. The modern soldier comes home from the very traumatic experience that warfare is, and he doesn't fit in. In the Second World War, it was the other way around. If you hadn't been to war, you didn't fit in.
My father, who was booted out for being medically unfit, volunteered for overseas service. He volunteered before the war broke out because he could see it was going to break out. He carried a chip on his shoulder for the whole of his life that he didn't go to the war and that he was forced out of the Army. My grandfather on my mother's side, who was drafted into the Civil Defence Corps, carried a chip on his shoulder a mile high because he was not allowed to go to war. My great-grandfather and the great-grandfather of the honourable Leader of the House—our mutual great-grandfather—he wanted to go to war, and his father told him he couldn't. Only one of the boys could go, and they tossed the coin. I suppose the honourable Leader of the House and I were lucky that the coin went the way it went, because our great-grandfather's brother went to Gallipoli, and he's still at Gallipoli. He will always be at Gallipoli. In a terrible tragedy for our family. His namesake, Bert Henley, died some years after; his health was broken when he was released from Changi Prison and he died some years afterwards. So we lost two members of our family to two wars.
The point I'm making is that the people that didn't go didn't fit in. They came back to a society that was totally dominated by the people that had gone to war. In my family, on both sides, in all of the pictures of them they are all in uniform. Whether they were women or whether they were men, everyone was in uniform. So they were the norm. I have asked myself a million times: why were the people that came home from the Second World War far more able to deal with life than the people that didn't go to the war? Now the people that go to the war are far less able to deal with life than the people that didn't go to the war. Of course the reason is that they came back to a society that was completely dominated by the people that had gone to the war. Even this chamber 10 years after the war—I'd say at least half of the chamber were people that had been in the war. They got free education when they came back from the Second World War. There were soldier settler blocks made available to them. To a very large degree, the country did everything that was humanly possible to roll out the red carpet. Ben Chifley, the finest Prime Minister that the country has ever seen by a long way, built 26,000 homes, and most of those homes went to the people coming back from the war. They were the heroes and they were the mainstream of Australian society. These people are very much not the mainstream of society.
Unfortunately a lot of our culture showed pictures of people coming home from Vietnam damaged, and the pro-communist brigade—let me be very specific. Bill Hayden, the Labor Treasurer and Labor leader in this place, said that Evatt's conduct eviscerated the ALP to a point where we lived in political oblivion for 26 straight years. Evatt had six staff as Leader of the Opposition in this place, and two of them were leaking documents to the KGB. In one of the most extraordinary happenings that this place has ever seen, Mr Evatt got up here and claimed that he could prove that these two people had not been effectively spies for the communists. He could prove it. He waved this letter around, and the letter was from Molotov, who was the minister of foreign affairs and the minister for the KGB. That was proof that they weren't working for the KGB. The other side of parliament exploded in laughter, of course, and the ALP were white with shock and horror, because the downside of this was going to be oblivion for them for many, many years to come, as it was.
We move from a period where this nation was very under very great threat from communism. There were 500,000 members of the Communist Party. Sukarno had become a puppet of the communists and he was invading the surrounding countries. He invaded New Guinea; he invaded Borneo. I, as a young man, was handed an SLR—there was a 24-hour call-up—to go and fight the war against Indonesia, delightfully called Konfrontasi. You can call it what you want, but, as far as I was concerned, I had a rifle, I was being sent up there and someone was going to shoot me and try to kill me when I got up there. Their army was 20 times the size of our Army.
Communism was very real. The history books now read that communism died in Vietnam. The expansion of communism died in Vietnam. The last Governor-General said this on Vietnam day: 'The history books are now read and the communists never took another state.' Until that time, every two years after the war, they gobbled up a new country. One of the countries they gobbled up was China, the biggest country on earth. They most certainly had India on their side and they most certainly had the Arab states that came together on their side, so there wasn't much left on our side. A quarter of Europe was part of the USSR at that stage. So the world was threatened. Now we know that the heroes were the people who fought and died in Vietnam. At the time, it was a very questionable war, and it was seen that way by the population. Many of my generation didn't want to go to war. They were scared, and you can't blame them for being scared. It was not anywhere near as clear cut as it is now. History takes a long-term view.
The world, not Australia, owes Vietnam vets so much, because, of all the great upheavals in human history, by far and away the worst was communism. Stalin was responsible for the direct murder or indirect deaths of 28 million people and every history book now reads that Mao Tse-tung was responsible for the deaths of 48 million people. That does not include the upheavals in Africa caused by the communists and the upheavals in Asia caused by the communists. Many tens of millions would be added to that list if you put those people in. So it's the worst scourge the world has ever seen—worse than slavery, worse than 'the Sword of Allah', as he called himself, who murdered four per cent of the world's population; worse than any of those people.
When we are talking about vets affairs we are still mainly talking about the people who fought in Vietnam. Our treatment of them has been absolutely lamentable. There were my six best friends through primary school and through secondary school and my cousin, who was my best friend—a groomsman at my wedding. My cousin's best friend drank himself to death and his best friend was busily trying to drink himself to death. There are so many people that I know and am friends with who were treated so shabbily, and the great heroes who crushed communism are treated so shabbily.
Now, let me turn to the DVA. I urge the minister to consider that it has failed. You could not watch that 60 Minutes show or the Four Corners show on people who did away with themselves. I thought the previous speaker was dead accurate in everything that he said. I just wish Mike Kelly were here as well to say these things. Clearly, it was the interaction with the DVA that caused the horrific results that were shown on 60 Minutes and Four Corners. I deliberately watched both programs and recorded one of them so I could watch it again, because I represent so many of these people. I represent the Northern Beaches of Townsville and I represent where a lot of veterans retired—the coast up to Cairns and Cairns itself. Some of those people come under my responsibility.
Those of us at the coalface can clearly see a situation where anxiety comes in at a low level and then becomes a problem. They then go along and see the DVA, and then anxiety turns into trauma—and, from then on, we are in an absolute disaster zone. I don't know what transpires—and I'm not going to take up the time of the House going into what may transpire. All I can say is that the DVA is a department that has failed totally and miserably. There is only one way that this can be addressed, and I officially and publicly call upon the minister to abolish the department and replace it by a board, an authority, consisting of people who have actually fought in the wars and been in the Army—and a majority of them not senior ranking officers but NCOs and ORs.
Having served a lot of my life in the Army—and, whilst it was in the militia, it was on a war footing; so it was anything but a militia at the time—I believe that the only way this problem can be overcome is by putting the people that have been through it, and are going through it, in charge of the administration of veterans affairs in this country. It is not suitable for a government department to be running this, and clearly the government department has failed and failed miserably. In Townsville, they ran in the newspaper a front-page, massive article on homelessness. I conclude on this note: we can't even provide a home for the people that destroyed communism throughout the world. We can't even provide a roof over their head.
I'd like to thank all members who contributed to the debate on this bill, the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019, and acknowledge the continued tradition of bipartisan support for the veteran community demonstrated by the opposition.
As the Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel, I have had the privilege to speak with Australians from all walks of life and hear firsthand how the community respects our Defence Force personnel, veterans and families. This bill provides recognition and acknowledges that the people of Australia value our Defence Force and those who have committed to defending our nation. Of course, as a government, we are absolutely committed to our Australian Defence Force personnel and putting veterans and their families first.
This bill will provide an Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, allowing all Australians to make an oath to acknowledge, support and pay respect to all who have served, those who continue to serve our country, and the families who support them in that service. The covenant will also be supported by the introduction of the veteran card and a veteran and reservist lapel pin as part of the wider veteran recognition package. This recognition package will enable the Australian community and businesses to recognise our veterans and our Defence Force personnel in their own way. Simply put, this is a way Australians can say to our defence veterans and the veteran community broadly: thank you for your service.
In developing the covenant and the broader recognition package, the government consulted widely with veterans and ex-service organisations to develop an understanding of the unique nature of military service and the challenges that veterans and their families face following their transition into civilian life. The consultations have been a very productive, with overwhelming support from the ex-service community. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those ex-service organisations and individuals who have called for a covenant. I thank them for their positive contributions and commitment to seeing the covenant enshrined into law. The creation of the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant will align Australia to other Commonwealth countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, who have in-principle covenants, providing solid evidence of their support for their veterans.
This bill also includes a statement in relation to the beneficial nature of veterans legislation, supporting the principles that decisions be made fairly, justly, consistent with legislation and similar type claims and, importantly, in a timely manner so that the public may have trust and confidence in the determinations made. While we acknowledge the intent of the amendments made in the Senate, we do hold some concerns around changes seeking to have all claims under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act determined within 90 days. There are circumstances when 90 days is not necessarily appropriate, because of the complexity of the veterans' individual circumstances, so it is an essential that our focus continues to be on the needs of the individual veteran, first and foremost, not on time frames. Nevertheless, our government remains absolutely committed to progressing veterans' claims as quickly as possible.
The Australian people expect that the welfare of veterans and their families should be our priority and, as I've said previously, this government is committed to putting veterans and their families first. Our government has committed nearly $500 million to date to fund the biggest transformation in the history of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. This investment is about building a better experience for veterans and their families, making it faster, simpler and easier for veterans and their families to access the services and support they need whenever and wherever they need it. And we are starting to see the benefits of this investment, with more than 100,000 veterans having signed up for our digital platform, MyService, and over 66,000 claims have been lodged. We have streamlined decision-making on 40 commonly claimed conditions, with the decisions in some instances happening instantly. Since the transformation commenced, we are seeing improvements in veterans' interaction with DVA. The MyService users are overwhelmingly satisfied with the experience, rating the platform 4.5 out of five stars. We are also seeing these improvements borne out in the satisfaction survey, with the overall satisfaction rate of veterans increasing year on year, and increasing most notably amongst those under 45.
More broadly, our government continues to make meaningful and important investments to improve veteran services, including: enhancing the mental health support available to veterans, improving the transition process and ensuring a focus on individual need, improving employer support, and expanding the support available to veterans' families. This legislation is part of an ongoing journey to transform the culture of DVA in favour of those currently serving in the Australian Defence Force, our veterans and their families. Our government remains absolutely committed to acknowledging the service and sacrifice of the men and women who defend this nation and to putting veterans and their families first. I commend this bill to the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.