Thursday, 18 June 2020
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020; Second Reading
Can I firstly acknowledge all of those who have contributed to this debate. I'm not summing up for the minister. I know he is here. I could sum up but, no, I won't! I do want to thank all of those who contributed to the debate, because of the strong support for this piece of legislation and the benefits that it will accrue to members of the defence personnel and their families.
Just to remind ourselves, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020 has three key elements. It will implement the government's commitment to create a Veteran Family Advocate, it will provide changes to support veterans to transition from the Australian Defence Force to civilian employment and it will ensure that all recipients of Department of Veterans' Affairs gold cards are treated equally in terms of their benefits.
Schedule 1 will amend the Veterans' Entitlement Act 1986 and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004, MRCA, to establish a new commissioner position on the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to represent the views of veterans' families and to influence policy on veterans' mental health and suicide prevention. The Veteran Family Advocate is part of the government's 5 February 2020 announcement of a new National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention.
Schedule 2 will amend the MRCA to enable pre- and post-employment assistance to eligible former ADF members through the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Regulations 2020, the MRCA Regulations, and support for employment programs.
Schedule 3 will amend the VEA to extend eligibility for the quarterly energy supplement to eligible repatriation health card holders for all conditions—gold card holders—under the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests, the British Commonwealth Occupational Force (Treatment) Act 2006 and the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) Act 2019.
In thinking about this piece of legislation, it occurred to me that what I should do is to try to work out how many Defence Force members have served overseas since 1991. I did that, because I think there's a bit of a view around that there really haven't been that many people who have served overseas. I think the figure is probably northwards of 60,000 since 1991, in various theatres. We know, for example, that currently there are around 1,800 people serving in operations in the Middle East through Operation Accordion, where there are 600 personnel; in South Sudan; through Operation Mazurka in Egypt; through Operation Paladin in Israel; through Operation Resolute, the Australian maritime interest with 600 personnel; and through Operation Highroad in Afghanistan, where there remain 200 personnel. There are around 1,800 serving overseas as we speak. The minister will have a better understanding than I do, but I'm guessing that we're talking somewhere north of 60,000 who have served in operations overseas since 1991.
If we think about the number of men and women who have been in uniform without necessarily having served overseas we will understand that current full-time personnel, as of 30 June 2019, are 58,058. That is from the Defence annual report. I'm not certain how many reservists there are currently serving. I'm guessing it's somewhere around 20,000—the minister might nod if I'm right. So, if you think about it, the number of people in uniform currently is probably around 80,000. Then you can ask: that's currently, but what's the churn been through the Defence Force since the 1990s? We are talking a big number. This legislation is very important, because it affects that number. Once you walk into Puckapunyal or Kapooka and you put that uniform on, you're eligible for access to treatment by Department of Veterans' Affairs.
As the minister reminds me, the average career for a Defence Force person is around seven to 7½ years. It's a young person's game. So we're talking about young people joining up in their late teens, early twenties, and they're out of the uniform by their late twenties in large part. Many who come back from overseas operations—and even those who've never left this country; a private pay clerk, a lieutenant general in charge of field, a captain of a ship, or a seaman, or an aircraft engineer or a pilot—male or female, these people have done something that all of us appreciate. They've put on the uniform of their country to serve us. And we owe them obligations as a result of that service. What this piece of legislation does is recognise a number of things. Firstly, it recognises the importance of understanding and comprehending the impact that service has, whether it is overseas or not, on families. I appreciate the minister's initiative about this Defence Force family advocate position because it is really important.
We see Defence Force members in isolation working hard on COVID currently or on bushfires in Australia or on aid work in the South Pacific, doing all manner of things for the community, but it means they're away from home. Unlike us who elect to be here, they can be put in a position where they have to leave their family for an extended period of time at the direction of the government. They sign up for that when they put on the uniform. But that carries with it for us an obligation. We must make sure we understand the importance of looking after their families, and the service men and women themselves.
I've spoken before on many occasions about the issue of transition. But I do say that, if we concentrate on this package of looking after people as individuals and within a family unit and we understand the intent of this legislation, then we're going a long way to addressing what has been a real need in the Defence Force community and the veterans community. I want to thank the minister for taking these initiatives forward. We support them. The transition space to me is really difficult. I'm sure the minister appreciates this. There are a lot of people who come out of service who say: 'That's it. That's it. I want nothing more to do with that uniform.' And they are lost to us, and that's a real challenge. They're the people—them and their families—who need our strong support. This legislation seeks to do that.
In any event, I'm extremely pleased that we've now got the position of the veterans family advocate, who will support the Department of Veterans' Affairs in working to enhance the health and wellbeing of the veteran community. It's an extremely important initiative and one I totally support.