Thursday, 28 November 2019
Defence Service Homes Amendment Bill 2019; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
I rise today to introduce the Defence Service Homes Amendment Bill 2019. The bill would amend the Defence Service Homes Act 1918 to expand eligibility to the Defence Services Homes Insurance Scheme to all current and former members of the Australian Defence Force who have at least one day's continuous full-time service.
As the Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel, I recognise the Australian community has a clear expectation that our veterans and members of the Defence Force, as well as their families, will be well looked after. Of course, as a government we are absolutely committed to putting veterans and their families first. On 24 April this year, the government announced that expanded eligibility for the Defence Services Homes Insurance Scheme would commence from 1 January 2020. This expansion will close existing gaps and ensure all current and former members of the ADF are eligible for home building insurance under the scheme, regardless of the type of service they have undertaken.
The bill will ensure that reservists, peacekeepers and widows and widowers who are currently ineligible for the scheme will have access. The expansion of eligibility will mean that more ADF members and veterans will be able to access low-cost home building insurance, particularly in regional Australia and high-peril risk areas such as northern Australia. The amendments will be modern legislative provisions which will align the scheme to the Australian government's policy of supporting all veterans who have served, regardless of their type or length of service, in recognition of their sacrifice and service to the nation. These amendments are all about putting veterans and their families first. I commend this bill to the House.
I'm pleased to speak on the Defence Service Homes Amendment Bill 2019, and I move:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House criticises the Government for failing to:
(1) address the high number of veterans experiencing homelessness, as highlighted by recent reports from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute;
(2) fix Australia's broken aged care services for veterans, as highlighted by the current Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety; and
(3) respond to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's northern Australia insurance inquiry recommendations to urgently fix the wider crisis in the northern Australia insurance market".
Labor joins with the government in recognising the unique place in which the men and women of Australia's ADF and veterans generally are held in the hearts of Australians. We honour them for the contribution they have made to our country's defence and, as we are seeing now, to emergency management in facing bushfires, cyclones, floods et cetera. The Australian community has an expectation that veterans and members of the Defence Force and their families will be looked after and treated well in a manner consistent with the sacrifices they've made on behalf of us, our children and our children's children. Labor is committed to recognising the unique nature of the service and the sacrifices of those concerned. The Australian parliament is passing this legislation, we think, with our support, although there is an amendment which we hope the government will accept.
The Defence Service Homes Amendment Bill 2019 will amend the legislation that currently operates—the Defence Service Homes Act 1918—to expand eligibility for concessional homebuilding insurance under the Defence Service Homes Insurance scheme for all current and former members of the Australian Defence Force who have served at least one day's continuous service from 1 January 2020. Currently, the scheme is restricted to ADF personnel with warlike service or at least four years service, or eight years for reservists, and widows and widowers of these individuals. This expansion of eligibility is designed to close existing gaps and ensure that all current and former members of the ADF are eligible for homebuilding insurance under the scheme, regardless of the type of service they've undertaken. Reservists, peacekeepers, widows and widowers will be eligible under the scheme, and that's a good thing. This will streamline eligibility requirements and recognise all those who have served our nation, meaning more ADF members and veterans will be able to access low-cost homebuilding insurance.
ADF members who are posted to regional or northern Australia who are not eligible for the scheme face significantly higher homebuilding insurance premiums and, consequently, increased cost of living pressures. In some instances, ADF members may be unable to secure insurance cover for their home. This is a particular problem in my home state of Queensland and in the northern parts of Australia, which are subject to cyclones, floods and now, tragically, also bushfires. The ADF has a large presence in northern Australia, particularly in areas like Townsville, in my home state of Queensland, which is home to Lavarack Barracks, where there are around 4,600 ADF members posted. We know those opposite don't like to talk about climate change, but we know from experience that climate science says that northern Australia is generally more disaster prone, with greater exposure to and frequency of adverse weather and actual disasters and to more-extreme events such as cyclones, tropical storms and floods. ADF members and veterans therefore face higher insurance premiums as a result of being posted to bases like HMAS Cairns, Robertson Barracks in Darwin or RAAF Base Tindal in Katherine in the Northern Territory when compared to regions in southern Australia. This increases cost-of-living pressures on ADF members who are posted to these locations and subsequently establish family homes in these regions and who, indeed, may settle there after their posting has been completed.
These changes will help reduce costs faced by ADF members, veterans and their families and provide greater peace of mind for deploying members and their remaining spouse and family should an adverse event occur and an insurance claim is warranted. I note the scheme is a highly valued benefit among veterans communities and ADF members, so expanding it in this way will serve as a useful defence recruitment and retention tool.
These amendments are a consequence of the recent change to the definition of 'veteran'. Historically, the term 'veteran' was only applied to those with active service and those who only served at home being called ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen. With the introduction and expansion of Non-Liability Mental Health Care, the definition has now changed so that anyone who has served one day of full-time service in the ADF is classified as a veteran. We agree with that. These changes will align the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme with the policy of supporting veterans who have served regardless of the type or length of service, in recognition of the sacrifice they've made in the interests of the nation. These amendments will mean better outcomes for defence personnel, veterans and their families, especially in the regions, and that's why Labor supports them.
I've made a number of amendments in the motion I have moved. They deal with issues such as the high number of veterans experiencing homelessness, as highlighted by recent reports; the broken aged-care services for veterans, which was highlighted by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety; and the failure of the government to respond to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's northern Australia insurance inquiry recommendations to urgently fix the wider crisis in the northern Australia insurance market, which, as I've outlined already in this speech, affects veterans. I moved that motion, as I foreshadowed earlier, criticising the government's failure in a number of areas affecting veterans and the Australian community more broadly, especially in northern Australia.
First, it must be said that the good measures in this bill stand in stark contrast to the government's complete failure and inaction when it comes to the plight of homeless veterans. As I mentioned in the House last night, it would be remiss not to note the alarming findings of the recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute reports. The AHURI report showed that veterans are almost three times as likely to experience homelessness as the general population, with 5.3 per cent of veterans homeless in any given 12-month period compared to the national average of 1.9 per cent. This is an indictment on the way we treat our struggling veterans, many of whom find themselves in poverty and, therefore, in homelessness. It shows that far too many are falling through the cracks and that support services are failing some of our most vulnerable people. Veteran homelessness is a national shame, and the government needs to do more to tackle this crisis.
Previously we have seen figures that one in 10 people who sleep rough are actually veterans. I recently met with the board of the New South Wales RSL—last week, in fact—and they noted that there is a 25 per cent increase in the number of veterans who are seeking their help. But it's not just about homelessness; it's about mental health and wellbeing and suicide prevention more broadly, because these conditions and these situations often go together. The fact is the government needs to do more to support current service personnel when it comes to transitioning out of the ADF and into civilian life, through assistance with health, mental health, employment and financial service and advice.
There have been a number of reports into veteran mental health in recent years, most notably the recent Productivity Commission review of the veteran support system in this country. We know that the government plans to release a response to this report and a veteran mental health and wellbeing national action plan by the end of the year. That's all well and good, but this is a government which has been in office for three terms, more than six years, and is only now hastily coming up with a plan to address these issues.
On a similar note, as my amendment refers to, the government needs to act to fix Australia's broken aged-care services for veterans. In the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety we heard some harrowing testimony and submissions from veterans and ex-service organisations, who said many veterans feel abandoned and no longer acknowledged for their service when moving into aged care. In its submission the RSL pointed out that, just like the veteran support service and system, navigating the aged-care system run by the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Department of Health can be complex and confusing for many veterans and their families. The veterans aged-care home operator RSL Care South Australia told the commission how veterans with mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder can age prematurely and require early entry into residential aged care. So we see veterans in aged care facing special challenges and needing tailored support.
In the royal commission hearings, the Secretary to the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Liz Cosson, conceded the department needed to do more to help veterans moving from its own low-level aged-care services to the mainstream residential aged-care system run by the Department of Health. What's more, the DVA has admitted it will take years before the two departments' systems, even the DVA's own multiple IT systems, can actually talk to each other. Once again, this underscores the need for better information-sharing between agencies to understand the issues and provide services when and where they are needed.
If we are going to tackle a range of issues affecting veterans, including aged care, homelessness, mental health and suicide prevention, we need better data and joined-up services, and that's not happening now. To that end, as I've said before, Labor supports including a question on military service in the next national census so we know more about where the veterans are, where they're located, how many veterans there are out there and can better deliver support services to them. The fact that this government hasn't done that in three terms shows its failure in this area. I know it's supported by Veterans' Affairs ministers at the state level because I've spoken to numerous of them. On that note, we welcome the secretary's comments that the department needs to do more in the aged-care space, and our veterans deserve better when it comes to aged care.
As per the amendment I've circulated, the government needs to respond to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's northern Australia insurance inquiry recommendations to urgently fix the wider insurance industry in northern Australia insurance markets, which so affects so many veterans at the RAAF bases and the military bases I referred to earlier. It is interesting that the government cited the interim findings of the ACCC inquiry as one of the grounds for this amendment. That inquiry found that consumers in the northern parts of Australia face significantly higher insurance premiums and can often be underinsured when natural disasters hit, so it is commendable the government is addressing this issue for our defence personnel and veterans. But it needs to respond to the ACCC's recommendations and act now to fix this urgent problem and the wider problem of accessibility and affordability of insurance for all consumers in northern Australia.
Since July 2019, the ACCC has been calling on the Morrison government to act on the 28 recommendations to help residents and small businesses in northern Australia who are unable to secure reasonably priced insurance for their homes and businesses. To date, the government has ignored these recommendations and the pleas of locals for action. Even before this latest ACCC report, the Liberal and National Party government here has been promising to fix this crisis for years but has done nothing. As Labor has continually pointed out, even the government's own north Queensland backbenchers, the member for Herbert and Dawson, have grown sick of telling their communities to wait for action and are trying to distance themselves from the government's complete failure to address these issues. Of course, this comes on top of the government's own failures with respect to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility—or, as we like to call it, the 'no actual infrastructure fund'.
A full four years after it was set up, the NAIF has only released $44 million, or less than one per cent, of its $5 billion budget, with not one per cent released to projects in my home state of Queensland. Despite this parlous state of affairs, the NAIF board somehow saw fit to approve more than $400,000 worth of bonuses for senior NAIF executives—talk about rewarding poor performance! These bonuses are part of $26.6 million in administrative costs racked up by the NAIF or nearly 40 per cent of all the funds that have left the NAIF to date. It is an absolute disgrace. The government needs to stop wasting money and start spending money on much needed projects in northern Australia. It's like an episode of Yes Minister or Utopiaan infrastructure facility that hasn't funded any infrastructure. This is a government that talks a big game when it comes to the regions and northern Australia but doesn't deliver much at all.
The government's incompetence, which is holding back jobs and economic development in the north, is very stark. Once again, it shows that across so many policy areas, whether it's veterans, aged care, the regions or the economy, this is a lazy do-nothing government that has no policies and plans for the country, and has failed to deliver for Australia.
As I said earlier, we have a special obligation to help our veterans. We train them, we ask them to put their lives at risk for us and yet we find them sleeping rough or not being properly looked after in their old age. The government needs to do more to address a whole range of challenges affecting our ex-service men and women, especially when it comes to homelessness and aged care, which is precisely why I'm moving a second reading amendment on these issues. Notwithstanding that at least the government's current bill before the chamber means a better outcome for defence personnel veterans and their families, and that's why Labor supports this bill. I commend the bill and the amendment to the chamber.
I'd like to start by addressing some of the falsehoods that the shadow minister decided to throw around just previously, and then I'll talk on this bill as well as suicide prevention, and that all comes into the cost pressures, especially in north Queensland.
We're talking about the NAIF, and I found it quite ironic that someone from the south-east corner would be sitting across from me, pointing and saying that we're not doing anything in the north.
Maybe you should stay in your patch, mate. Because the NAIF has rolled out some projects within north Queensland which include at JCU and at the airport—and the JCU did take quite a while to get over the line because the Labor state government decided to put up roadblocks because that's how it works. It's okay, I'm happy to educate the shadow minister on how the NAIF works a little bit later, because that's not why we're here.
We are here to talk about the Prime Minister's and Minister Chester's announcement that we would extend the eligibility—
I am absolutely disgusted by the member for Greenway's actions to quieten me when I'd clearly said I wanted to talk about veteran suicide. What you've just done is inappropriate and disgusting. Veteran suicide should be bipartisan. We should be working together, not working for cheap political points. Why does this need to happen? We should be working together. I will start by saying only three days ago I got a phone call from a mate in Townsville to tell me another veteran, a friend of mine, had died by suicide only a couple of days before. This is where people in this House should be working together—not running away but working together. Veteran suicide and suicide prevention are all of our business. The political pointscoring that we're seeing from those opposite is absolutely disgusting. Suicide prevention is our business.
I'd like to start again and speak about this bill. The Prime Minister, with Minister Chester, announced we would extend eligibility to the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme to allow any current and former Australian Defence Force member who has had at least one day of service access to home building insurance through the scheme. For the last 100 years the scheme has provided home building insurance to eligible ADF members and veterans in recognition of their service and sacrifice to our nation. Eligibility for insurance under the scheme is currently, broadly speaking, restricted to individuals and their widows and widowers who have seen warlike service or those who are currently serving in the ADF with at least four years service or eight years for reservists.
The amendments proposed to the Defence Service Homes Act, subject to being passed by parliament, will expand the scheme's eligibility requirements to all current and former members of the ADF regardless of their type or length of service. This includes reservists and peacekeepers as well as widows and widowers of individuals. It will reduce the cost of home building insurance for around 350,000 ADF members, veterans and their families and provide cost savings to individuals who take up the scheme's insurance. This will ease the cost of living for those ADF members, veterans and their families, particularly those located in regional and northern Australia, like my electorate of Herbert.
From 1 January 2020, all current or former Australian Defence Force members who've had at least one day of service will be eligible to access the home building insurance scheme through the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme. Dependent on passing of the legislative amendments, expansion of the scheme's eligibility requirements will come into effect from 1 January. The number of ADF members and veterans who are currently ineligible to access home building insurance through the scheme, as I said before, is estimated to be around 350,000. The impact of this change is expanding the scheme's eligibility requirements, which will address the current disparity in eligibility criteria and recognise the service and commitment of all those who've served the ADF. Approximately 350,000 ADF members and veterans who are currently ineligible for the scheme will be able to access the concessional home building insurance offering.
In Townsville, insurance is a big issue. Only recently, working with the member for Dawson, we got the Assistant Treasurer to come to Townsville to talk about insurance. There are homes that aren't insured and there are also strata that have been told they can't get insurance, so we are working with the insurance companies and CEOs to ensure that people in the north can get affordable insurance. This is just another way we've helped the veterans in my region—definitely in Townsville—who find it hard to get insurance.
The scheme's current eligibility requirements do not recognise all those who have served our nation. As such, the disparity between ADF members and veterans—now we're all called veterans, whether we've done one day of service or we've seen warlike operations—who can and cannot access home building insurance through the scheme based on the individual's type and length of service will be changed. ADF members who are posted to regional and northern Australia are not eligible for the scheme, face significantly higher home building insurance premiums and, consequently, increased cost-of-living pressures. And we know that high cost-of-living pressures can be a cause of veteran suicide, especially around this time of year as we move into Christmas. It's something that we, in this place and the other place, should be working together on—that is, to lower the high cost-of-living pressures and, in turn, lowering our high rate of veteran suicide. (Extension of time granted) I will give credit where credit's due, and I thank the shadow minister at the table, the member for Kingsford Smith, for allowing me to continue, because veteran suicide is a top priority of the government and of everyone in this place, or it definitely should be.
For the vast majority of those serving in the ADF it is an overwhelmingly positive experience, and it's good for the individual, it's good for our community and it's in our national interest. But I want to add that not all veterans are broken; not all veterans are wounded, injured or ill. And for the ones that are, that's okay, because it's about post-traumatic growth. We all have had bad experiences happen in our lives, and the view or the stigma that 'all veterans are broken' is something we need to actively change. I believe that meaningful engagement and meaningful employment gives meaning to one's life. If I can stand before you in this place and talk about my own mental illness and about how we can all work together, I truly believe that in this place, and the other place, we will all work together to lower the high rate of veteran suicide and the high rate of stigma around mental illness and suicide.
A lot of veterans leave the ADF and transition into civilian life successfully, having had a career that has set them up with the skills, training and attitude to succeed. You wouldn't have to lob a stone very far in this place to hit the veterans here or hit the people who support our veteran community in the challenges that we face. But, veterans work hard—very hard. Veterans are the ones—although there are other people too—who like to get up early and get on with the job. It's important that we recognise the unique nature of military service, the strength we have within our veteran cohort and the opportunities that should arise from their service.
But like all Australians, our defence personnel are not immune from mental health challenges and the tragedy of suicide. This is pertinent and relevant to me; I was told only a couple of days ago a friend had died by suicide. Suicide in the serving and ex-serving community is a very serious and complex issue, and the government, with the crossbench, are working hard to ensure Defence Force members are supported both in and out of service, and that there are wraparound services to help the families. This does include breaking the stigma surrounding mental health. Only yesterday, Open Arms reached out to the family of our mate who died by suicide. They got counselling straightaway. It's extremely important that we acknowledge the good work of Open Arms as well as other mental health and wellbeing services around the country. All veterans and their families are eligible to call Open Arms if they're in distress, or if they just need a chat.
Every year, more than 5,500 people leave the military, so improving the transition experience is vital. Just as enlistment is an important part of the ADF, transition back into civilian life is equally important. There needs to be a soft landing on the way out. There has to be a transition process that ensures our veterans don't just fall on their face. There has to be, once again, bipartisan support for working with those transitioning to ensure that people leaving the military feel as good as when they went in, or, if they don't, that they move into something meaningful in their life.
Regardless of time served, members can now access coaching, including career planning, full service documentation, skills recognition, resume preparation, job search programs and financial literacy education. Former ADF members are able to access this support, including employment support, for up to 12 months after transition. I think it's a great step forward to have the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Awards, which encourage organisations, and definitely defence industry, to employ veterans, our former serving people. We're the ones who use the equipment, the ones who take it on operations or use it back here in Australia, so veterans are very well equipped to work in defence industry. I spoke to defence industry primes only a couple of days ago, and my words to them were: 'Hire more veterans, because the skill sets they bring will reward your business tenfold.'
In recent years this government has focused on supporting the mental wellness of veterans and their families. That support includes a $5 million investment in The Oasis Townsville, as well as other organisations around the country, which brings all organisations under one roof. It keeps everyone together. It helps veterans and their families find the support they need quickly so they can get back out there and get on with their lives. It's very important that we're talking about cost-of-living pressures with this, because lowering cost-of-living pressures can only help veterans. It's something I've been working very closely with the Minister for Veterans' Affairs on, as well as with Liz Cosson, the department's secretary. I think we all know that we need to relieve as much pressure as we can because, if the bills stack up and times are tough, especially at this time of the year, it is hard for veterans out there—especially in North Queensland, my patch.
I thank you for the opportunity, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I thank the chamber for granting me extra time.
Honourable members: Hear, hear!
The Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme offers ADF members, veterans and their widows a range of insurance products with broad coverage and often little or no excess. The Defence Service Homes Amendment Bill 2019 expands eligibility for coverage under the insurance scheme to include all current and former members of the Australian Defence Force, including reservists and peacekeepers, who have completed at least one full day of service. Currently, ADF members are required to complete varying periods of service before they are accepted into the defence home insurance scheme. Other ADF members and veterans ineligible for the scheme are required to pay higher home building insurance premiums as a consequence of being based in high-peril risk locations, including across northern Australia.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has been investigating the pricing and availability of insurance for consumers in northern Australia since 2017. The ACCC's first interim report, released in December 2018, found 'home, contents and strata premiums are, on average, considerably higher in northern Australia than the rest of Australia' and that they have increased sharply in recent years in light of a series of natural disasters, such as Cyclone Debbie in 2017. While home and contents insurance prices rose by 50 per cent across Australia between 2008 and 2018, prices rose by 130 per cent for the same period in northern Australia. In real terms, insurance premiums in northern Australia ranged between $2,200 and $4,000 per annum while the national average is around $1,300 per annum. One factor in the high insurance schemes is the lack of competition. The insurance market in northern Australia is concentrated, with some regions dominated by a single insurer. This bill will provide another choice to those ADF members and their families who have made their homes in northern Australia. The bill highlights the often overlooked financial implications that accompany a life of service, and I hope the concessional home building insurance provided through the scheme will go some way to reduce the costs of living faced by veterans and their families.
There is also an emotional and social cost for those families who uproot themselves from close family and friends to follow their loved one to a new Army, Air Force or Navy base in a new town or even a new state. One small thing the ADF can do to help with the stress of relocating is provide those families with an opportunity to spend quality time together. The Army Amenities Fund Company, which is administered by the Army Amenities Fund Board, operates a series of holiday homes across the country for this very purpose. In South Australia, the board administers three small holiday homes in Goolwa, a small coastal town on the southern Fleurieu in my community of Mayo. Notwithstanding that the Goolwa properties are the only amenities in South Australia, the ADF members and their families and the board decided to commence a detailed scoping for the sale of the Goolwa properties in August this year.
Last month I met with the Minister for Veterans' Affairs to discuss the possible sale of the Goolwa properties and the implications for veterans and their families in South Australia. I've been advised by the minister's office that the decision to review the viability of the Goolwa properties was based on the low Army user profile rate and low overall occupancy over the past 10 years. I really do find it very difficult to accept that there would be a low usage rate on those properties. Goolwa is a highly desirable place to holiday. I was further advised that the board is conscious of providing high-quality, economically priced holiday accommodation and has decided the proceeds from the potential sale of the Goolwa properties will be used to purchase properties in other areas more popular with personnel. But it's unclear whether this would be at another location in South Australia, let alone on the Fleurieu. South Australian veterans deserve holiday properties in South Australia. Mayo and the Fleurieu are incredibly popular holiday destinations and they are easier to get to. I would urge the government and the board to keep these properties. If you are determined to sell the properties, please replace them with properties nearby. It's unclear, as I said, whether we will have any of these homes left in South Australia. If that were to occur, it would be a great shame. I understand that the sale of the properties will require ministerial approval. I urge the minister to consider the views of the local community, the RSL clubs across the Fleurieu region and current and former ADF members across South Australia when making the decision. I commend the bill to the House.
In summing up, I want to thank all members who have contributed to the debate today and acknowledge the continued tradition of bipartisan support for the veteran community demonstrated by the opposition and the crossbench on legislation of this nature. The Defence Service Homes Amendment Bill 2019 expands eligibility to the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme to all current and former members of the ADF and will close existing gaps in eligibility. It ensures that currently ineligible reservists and peacekeepers will have access to the scheme, as will widows and widowers. These amendments will mean better outcomes for veterans and their families, particularly in regional Australia and high peril risk areas such as northern Australia, where they will be able to access low cost home building insurance. This is about putting veterans and their families first now and into the future. I commend the bill to the House.
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Blair has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question before the House is the amendment moved by the member for Blair be agreed to.
Original question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.