Thursday, 18 June 2020
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020; Second Reading
It is a great privilege to speak today on this bill, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020. It is an issue that is very important to me and very important to my community. Ryan is home to the Gallipoli Barracks. Spanning around 200 hectares, the barracks is a major operational base and is home to three brigades. We also house the Enoggera Close Training Area adjacent to the barracks, some 450 hectares. This facility has a number of small arms ranges and is an important resource for individual training.
Ryan currently has almost 8,000 serving personnel. Two days ago in the House, I was able to speak on the incredible work our local serving defence personnel have been doing throughout this crisis, like the 20th Regiment of the Royal Australian Artillery quickly adapting their 3D-printing technology to print face shields for medical staff in Brisbane, just to name one example. Many of those who have served in these facilities, once they are no longer serving in our Defence Force, choose to stay on and continue to live, work and raise their families in the local community of Ryan. We have close to 2,500 veterans in Ryan and they continue to make incredibly valuable contributions to the electorate. It is a priority for me to make sure that they are supported and I am very proud to be part of a government that is absolutely committed to putting veterans and their families first.
This bill is about the next step in making sure our veterans have access to the right support at the right time—when they need it. I often speak about this government being a consultative one, and why that is so important to the success of our policymaking. I can think of no better example of that than the measures we are introducing today with this bill. My good friend the member for Herbert, who's in the chamber today, is a veteran himself and anyone here will tell you what a passionate advocate he is for veterans' mental health. Together with the Prime Minister and with many other members of the veteran community, he has been providing valuable input from his own experiences in order to find the best ways to help prevent veteran suicides, to support veterans' mental health and to save lives.
The first measure in this bill makes good on the commitment this government made in February this year to appoint a veteran family advocate. This new role will engage directly with families of veterans to improve the design of all veteran programs and services, including mental health supports and services. We recognise that this will be a continuously evolving area and that it is vital to get the ongoing input of veterans, their families and the defence community more broadly to shape this policy to get the best outcomes and make sure that our veterans' and their families' benefits are administered in the most effective and easy-to-access way. Once established, the Veteran Family Advocate will work directly with the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. Under the purview of this newly established role, it will work to ensure that every aspect of our veteran support system is focused on veterans' mental health and suicide prevention.
We, as a government, are listening to the real-life accounts, hardships and experiences of our veterans and their loved ones in order to respond to their needs in the best way possible. We have given our solemn commitment to take on their feedback and help them to be the architects of improvements to the system. We know that no government acting alone will be able to solve the complex and often unique problems those who have served our nation can face. We know that, once serving personnel leave active service, it can be difficult for them to gain civilian employment. We also recognise that this represents a vital part of the transition out of the forces, and that there needs to be additional support available when their transition, for whatever reason, does not go according to plan or they experience additional hardship or roadblocks.
Our government says loudly, as Mark Donaldson, VC, has said, that employing a veteran is good for your business, and the second measure in this piece of legislation is support for the employment program. Working with the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program, we'll be able to provide members of our ADF with the support they need to get a job, keep a job and grow in that job. Not only will this measure focus on equipping former ADF members with the necessary skills to seek a job, like interviewing and negotiating employment terms; it will also provide an avenue for post-employment assistance, like coaching with how to advance in a job and career advice. Again, we know that this is not a set-and-forget area. This must be and will be an ongoing and evolving focus, but it's an incredibly important focus to have.
I note my conversations at Gaythorne RSL and other local RSLs within the Ryan electorate about these young diggers who served our nation both in Afghanistan and Iraq and are now looking to exit the service and about the important work that those local RSLs are playing through their support programs as well in making sure those young diggers can transfer the skills they have learnt in the defence forces to an active career. In particular, I want to pay testament to John and other members of the Gaythorne RSL who are involved in Soldier On and the work they are doing particularly helping our younger diggers transfer out of the forces and into the workplace.
The final measure in this bill simply helps to improve the ease in which payments and benefits are administered by extending access to the quarterly energy supplement to people currently covered by other acts. This will ensure that all gold card holders are treated equitably, again showing that we will continue to seek further reform in this sector as we need to and as service personnel provide us with their feedback about how we can improve things.
I want to finish by saying to all the veterans in the Ryan community: please do not hesitate to reach out. We are here to support you, as are all the local RSLs in the Ryan community. We are here to help you access the many and varied avenues of support available. Please contact me or my office at any time. We know that the transition can be a daunting one. You have given so much of your family's time and your time to the service of our nation, and the least we can do is ensure that the transition to the workforce out of the defence forces is a successful one. To all those veterans living in the Ryan community, I simply say: thank you very much for your service.
I'm pleased to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020 and I move the amendment circulated in my name:
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) appropriately address the serious issue of veteran suicide, including its stubborn refusal to enact a full Royal Commission into veteran suicide and its insistence on instead establishing a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention; and
(2) introduce enabling legislation to establish a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention".
At the outset, Labor recognises the unique nature of military service, the sacrifice of current and former Australian Defence Force members and their families and the outstanding contribution they make to our nation. When a person enlists in the Australian Defence Force, they undertake a commitment to our country and, necessarily, may be placing their health and wellbeing on the line in service to our nation. In return, we are compelled to look after them and their families both during and after their time in the defence force. This commitment is about more than just their physical health; it is about taking a holistic view of the member and their loved ones.
We have a duty of care for those who have served. This is especially so where that service has had a greater impact on them and their families now and into the future. When an individual serves in the ADF, their family serves with them. Military families make so many sacrifices. Many service men and women are deployed for months and months at a time, and often longer than the time they initially thought they may be deployed for. This separation would no doubt cause emotional stress for them, their partners and their children. When personnel are not on deployment, they are on regular re-postings to different bases around the country, meaning that they have to choose between uprooting their whole family and living apart from them for periods of time.
Our veterans and their families often have complex needs and require special support, and the Australian community has a rightful expectation that they will be looked after. Labor joins with the government in continuing to support our former, current and future defence personnel. To that end, this legislation is designed to improve the wellbeing of veterans and their families. The bill addresses three key elements: it implements the government's commitment to create a veteran family advocate, announced earlier this year; it provides changes to support the transition from Australian Defence Force service to civilian employment; and it ensures that all recipients of the Gold Card are treated equally in terms of their benefits.
I'll turn firstly to schedule 1 of the bill. In February, following strong calls from Labor, from veterans and their families and from sections of the media for a royal commission into veteran suicide, the government instead announced two new roles: the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention and the Veteran Family Advocate. I note the government says it intended to bring forward legislation to establish the national commissioner later this year, while this bill will establish the Veteran Family Advocate as a new commissioner to work as part of the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. These commissions are responsible for supporting the administration of veterans legislation and providing advice to the minister and government in relation to these important acts.
The Veteran Family Advocate will work with veterans and families to build our understanding of risk and protective factors relating to the wellbeing of veterans and their families, particularly during their transition from the Australian Defence Force. They will be responsible for directly engaging with the families of veterans to help shape policy; improve the design of all veteran programs and services, including mental health support and services.
In addition to performing the statutory function of representing the perspectives of veterans' families within the commissions, we understand that they will also consult with the families of veterans to hear their insights and experience about how to ease the burden facing veterans' families in supporting their loved ones; work with ex-service organisations, which represent families of veterans across Australia; and participate in key bodies, such as the Council for Women and Families United by Defence Service and the Female Veterans and Veterans' Families Policy Forum.
I know the shadow minister for veterans' affairs consulted the Partners of Veterans Associations of Australia on this bill and they were broadly supportive, if a little unclear as to how exactly the new role would operate in practice. We understand the intention is that the Veteran Family Advocate will support the Department of Veterans' Affairs working to enhance the health and wellbeing of the veteran community. In doing so they will need to ensure that every part of the veterans support system is focused on veterans' mental health and suicide prevention and forge a partnership between these commissions and the families of veterans.
We trust they will have the necessary resources and independence to adequately represent the views of veterans' families to the Department of Veterans' Affairs and influence actual policymaking. Labor expects they will give a strong voice to veterans' families and promote better mental health outcomes when the Department of Veterans' Affairs is setting policy and making decisions. This is absolutely critical, because many veterans have complained about the lack of assistance once they transition out of the ADF. So the advocate will need to draw on advice from families to help shape veteran policy and reduce the risks as personnel leave the forces.
We know many Defence and veteran families have said that they are not always being heard when it comes to support and assistance. This is why Labor took a commitment to the last election to a strategy around better engagement by the Department of Veterans' Affairs with military and veteran families and identifying improvements to family support. Moreover, in June 2019 the Productivity Commission report on the veteran support system recommended better family engagement and support by relevant agencies. It's disappointing that the government has deferred its response to this important report until the delayed federal budget in October, but we do look forward to seeing that in due course.
Labor has serious concerns about the government's related proposal for the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. We would prefer, as many advocates have also called for, a royal commission into veterans' suicide, and I'll have more to say on that as we go. However, in substance, we welcomed the announcement of the Veteran Family Advocate at the time as a standalone measure. We just want to ensure that the advocate is appropriately resourced to be able to do their job. We all want to support veterans to the best of our ability. Labor hopes this new position will achieve better outcomes for our veterans and their families.
Schedule 2 of the bill facilitates flexibility in the way programs can be designed to assist the transition from the Australian Defence Force to the civilian workforce. This will allow for the establishment of new programs, such as the Support For Employment program, through the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Regulations 2020. The regulations will contain the details of the employment, assistance or benefits, as well as who they will be provided to and in what circumstances they can be provided. Once established, through the regulations, this program will provide eligible veterans with both pre- and postemployment assistance. This includes career advice, coaching, assistance with skills translation, resume and interview preparation, and coaching to adapt to the structure and styles of communication in civilian employment. This will ensure similar employment support is available to recently transitioned veterans as is currently available to transitioning ADF members.
This funding and extra support is very welcome, although we would have liked to have seen it happen much sooner. Labor has been concerned that many of the government's veterans employment initiatives in the past have been tokenistic and appear to lack clear goals, targets and evaluations, which make it difficult to track whether they are actually delivering tangible outcomes. Some programs, like the Veterans Employment Commitment, which invites businesses to make a public commitment to employing veterans, and the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Awards, provide little real incentive for employers and rely largely on goodwill and PR. So it has been pleasing to see the government take a more needs based and individualised approach to transition more recently, with things like coaching and career planning, job placements and job search programs, service documentation, and early engagement and case management for younger ex-service men and women who may be at greater risk of mental health problems and even suicide. Labor understands the importance of veterans' employment, and the amendments in this bill are consistent with our calls for better support for veterans' transition from the ADF, so we support them.
Finally, schedule 3 of this bill rectifies an unintended oversight that has meant that the energy supplement has not been payable to some veteran gold card holders because they are covered under different legislation. This quarterly payment is made to a range of Department of Veterans' Affairs clients, including holders of the gold card, under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 and the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. The measure will benefit approximately 91 eligible gold card holders under the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests and British Commonwealth Occupation Force (Treatment) Act 2006, which covers service personnel involved in British nuclear tests in Australia and occupation forces in Japan, and Australian civilian, surgical and medical team members from the Vietnam War under the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) Act 2019. This measure will ensure that all gold card holders are treated consistently and equitably, and it will help more veterans meet the cost of their energy bills.
All up, these amendments should help to better meet the needs of veterans and their families, and Labor supports them. Our Defence Force personnel put their lives on hold in the service of our country. They take risks and make sacrifices, sometimes committing their lives and wellbeing for the good of the country. In return, we must do everything in our power to support them. As I've heard at meetings of local RSLs and from family and friends, and as I have discussed with many constituents both in my electorate and beyond, these risks and sacrifices, mental and physical, are very real. They are hard to manage. They take a huge toll on individuals and on their families. Veterans and their families need our full political and community support.
As I foreshadowed earlier, I will move a second reading amendment to this bill, which calls out the Morrison government's failings when it comes to the painful and ongoing scourge of veteran suicide. Firstly, whilst the measures in this bill to introduce a veteran family advocate and better employment and better transition support will go some way to addressing this issue, and are to be commended, the same can't be said for the way the government has responded to the issue of veteran mental health and suicide prevention more broadly. I remind the parliament that the context of for the Veteran Family Advocate was the government's announcement in February of a new National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. This followed widespread calls and overwhelming support for a royal commission into veteran suicide, and the Prime Minister's stubborn refusal to listen to these calls and commence one. Labor cautiously welcomed the announcement at the time as an important step forward, and because we did not want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Nonetheless, we were keen to see the detail, which has still not been forthcoming. Like many others, both in this place and outside it—like Julie-Ann Finney and the Bird family, whose sons tragically took their own lives after long battles with the Department of Veterans' Affairs—we have become increasingly concerned that the national commissioner won't be better than a royal commission, as the government has claimed.
That's why in recent months Labor MPs and senators have been meeting with Ms Finney and other veterans' families and advocates to hear their views. It's become increasingly clear that the government has a major job to do in convincing them, and the public, that it is genuine in wanting to tackle this very important issue. A growing concern, shared by many veterans, is that this is simply a marketing exercise which won't accomplish what a royal commission would because it will have neither the resources nor the independence from government to ask the hard questions.
We know that only a royal commission will provide closure, healing and restorative justice for the defence and veterans' community. We have seen the benefits of this in many other areas, such as banking, mental health, child sexual abuse, aged care and disability services. What many parents of veterans who have taken their own lives have said is that a royal commission will allow them an opportunity to have their say and to be heard, while providing a powerful voice for their children. Importantly, it would provide an opportunity for us as a community to listen to them, and to assure them, in a public way, that we are doing everything possible to prevent these tragic deaths from happening in the future. Only a royal commission will do this. Otherwise, the national commissioner runs the very real risk of being little more than a new, glorified federal coroner. It might be that a royal commission could recommend that a standing, permanent capability be established to oversee ongoing reforms along the lines of what is envisaged with a national commissioner. But what is currently being proposed is putting the cart before the horse, and shows real lack of leadership and good faith with our veterans.
We know that the devil will be in the detail, so we need to see that detail as soon as possible. The time for procrastination by this government is well and truly over. All we've had so far is a media release and a two-page fact sheet. The government needs to release the enabling legislation and terms of reference as soon as possible, and to consult widely on it. It's very disappointing that, having committed to a national commissioner back in February, the government appears to be on a go-slow on a range of veterans' initiatives, including this one, and is showing a real lack of urgency on a very important issue. Not until we see the legislation will we be able to scrutinise it and see if this proposal will indeed have all the powers of a royal commission, and if the government is really genuine about tackling this terrible scourge. But, better still, while there is still time, the Prime Minister should do the right thing and establish a royal commission so that we can get to the bottom of veteran suicides and deliver real accountability and justice for our veterans and their families once and for all.
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 too many of them slipping through the cracks and not getting the support they and their families need after they leave the Australian Defence Force and, in some cases, tragically taking their own lives. As I've said, the government needs to do more to address veterans' mental health and suicide, which is precisely why I'm moving this second reading amendment and raising serious concerns about the government's current proposals in this area. Notwithstanding this, the bill currently before the House will go some way to addressing these issues and delivering better outcomes for our veterans and their families. So to that extent and for that reason Labor supports the bill.
I would also like to say a huge thankyou to my local RSLs and the volunteers that run them and work with them to support the returned service men and women in my community, as I know similar volunteers do right across our country. I meet regularly with the leadership of my local RSLs and I not only see with those people the personal pain and suffering from their own service—indeed, deep PTSD issues that they have to confront—I hear and work with them on their own battles with the Department of Veterans' Affairs and how it affects them and their families and their ongoing lasting scars decades after they have left service.
But it's not just about them. Those volunteers through our RSLs and other veterans' services continue to put themselves out, in many cases retraumatising themselves, to help other veterans. I'm in a very honoured position to be able to hear the stories of not only those volunteers but the veterans they help too, and the stories I hear are deeply distressing. It's why it is so important that there are better avenues for the Department of Veterans' Affairs to properly understand what these veterans and their families are having to confront. This is not a load that should have to continually fall on volunteers in our community. Veterans' Affairs needs to get it right for them the first time, every time. This is a start. It's not enough. But I commend the bill.
The original question was that this bill be now be read a second time. To this the member for Burt has moved that that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I'll state the question in the form that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.
I rise in support of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020. I've never served in uniform. I haven't had the privilege of doing so. But I do represent a cohort of veterans in my community, in my electorate. The Sunshine Coast has reportedly around 15,000 veterans living in it. It's one of the largest veteran populations in the country, and quite naturally—why would you want to live anywhere other than the Sunshine Coast? It is God's paradise.
I join with the member for Burt in his view that we as a government, we as a parliament, need to do everything we can to ensure that we look after our veterans. There are not too many jobs where you are called upon to go to work and perhaps be injured in training or perhaps be killed or be asked to kill someone else. Military service is unique, and this government takes its responsibility to veterans very, very seriously. Just last year, the federal government paid some $11.5 billion for services for our veterans in looking after them. That's a substantial sum of money. But it's an investment that we make with pride because we believe in our veterans.
This bill goes a considerable way to looking after veterans. It establishes the Veteran Family Advocate in schedule 1. In schedule 2 it establishes an employment program to help veterans transition to employment once they discharge. It provides a quarterly energy supplement for those veterans who missed out in schedule 3—and I'll come to that later.
No conversation around veterans and their care would be complete without addressing the issues that some face in relation to mental health. I say 'some', because it is incumbent upon us in this place, in our own electorates, and in the broader community, to put things into perspective. Whilst I acknowledge and applaud the discussion around mental health for veterans and in the broader community, we need to be very, very careful that we do not establish a misnomer or a misconception that, if you have served in the ADF, when you discharge you're broken. Nothing could be further from the truth.
On the one hand, we talk about the importance of acknowledging mental health issues. But then, on the other hand, we talk about the importance of giving every opportunity for ADF veterans to seek meaningful employment. Is it any wonder that not enough businesses are employing veterans? We talk so much about mental health and veterans that I fear that we're setting up a misconception in the broader public that, if you are a veteran, you're broken. I am concerned that employers may be fearful about the person they may be employing and the problems that might come with that. Veterans bring so many skills, values and attributes to their task, whatever that task might be. They bring the values of commitment, of trust, of honour, of getting the job done and of not being clock-watchers. They're task-orientated.
For any employer out there, and for my colleagues in here, I implore you to, next time you have a job vacancy, specifically search out and try and employ a veteran. You will not be disappointed. That goes for my colleagues in this place. This may sound surprising to some who may be listening but there are many similarities between service in the military and service in politics. In my short time of four years in this place, I've employed around four or five veterans, and I have found them to be exceptional employees. They bring a great amount of vision, wisdom and dedication to the role that they fulfil in my office. So I want to say to members of parliament: don't encourage members of the business community to employ a veteran if you aren't doing it yourself. Lead by example and employ a veteran. The vast majority of veterans are not broken men and women. The vast majority of veterans will make outstanding employees. I want to send that challenge out to all employers, including members of the parliament today.
That said, I want to acknowledge for his service the member for Herbert, who's just entered the chamber. I want to acknowledge the member for Canning and the members for Stirling, Braddon and Solomon. This is a not a partisan thing. It includes members opposite, including the retired member for Eden-Monaro, who was an outstanding member of this House and an outstanding member of the ADF. This is not a party politics thing. Members of the ADF join the ALP or the Liberal Party or National Party, and I want to acknowledge their service to this place and their country.
We have to acknowledge that, unfortunately, we do damage some of our men and women. We damage them—not all of them, but some of them—because of the physical demands we make of them. But it's not just the physical demands we make of them; it's also the mental scars that some of them incur as a result of their service. A constituent of mine by the name of Peter Kennedy, at a function I held recently, said this about veterans: 'We had a few scratches. Some of us are a little bit bent out of shape. But if you work with us and help us back into shape, you're going to get a great product for a long time.'
The sad reality is that when members of the ADF, particularly men, are currently serving, they have a 48 per cent lower chance of dying by suicide than the general population. I'll say that again: a recent study found that ADF personnel—and this study, unfortunately or fortunately depending on which way you look at it, was restricted to men because at that time there weren't any women who had taken their own lives—had a 48 per cent lower chance of taking their life whilst they were serving in the ADF. But once they're discharged, that 48 per cent lower chance jumps to an 18 per cent higher chance. Why is that? Why is it that we see that jump? I'm not a psychologist, but in my view many men, particularly young men, who have served in the ADF, may have longed for nothing other than to be an infantry soldier, or to serve in the RAAF or the Royal Australian Navy. That may have been their life's ambition before, for one reason or another, whether it be of their own volition, or because they may have been injured, or perhaps it may even be a disciplinary matter, men who discharge in their mid-20s or lower are significantly at risk of self-harm. Why is that? Whilst they are in the ADF, they have a sense of mission and a sense of purpose. They belong to a tribe that will back them to the hilt. Their mates will die for them. But, when they leave and are discharged from the ADF, all of a sudden they are on their own and they lose that sense of mission, they lose that sense of purpose and they lose that tribe—or at least they may feel like they lose that tribe—and many young men in particular have a great deal of difficulty dealing with that.
The vast majority of them will recover and will go on to lead very full and meaningful lives. But some will struggle. That's where this bill, with its introduction of the Veteran Family Advocate, will assist, because this is a statutory function. The Veteran Family Advocate will consult with families. Families play the most significant role in the recuperation and recovery of our young veterans. They are those closest to the veteran and they are the ones who can do the most beneficial work with them. The Veteran Family Advocate will work with ex-service organisations. The Veteran Family Advocate will participate in key bodies such as the Council for Women and Families United by Defence Service and the Female Veterans and Veterans' Families Forum.
But, in my view, perhaps the most important thing that will come out of this bill in their transition to civilian employment is the Support for Employment program for ADF personnel. Just think about it: one minute they might be flying, driving or sailing multimillion- or multibillion-dollar equipment. This government, this country, entrusts to them such a great responsibility: to serve their nation but to do that with significant assets. And yet, when they leave, some can't get a job. How demoralising would that be for those men and women, particularly those who are young? This measure in schedule 2 will complement the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program. It'll provide eligible former ADF personnel with both pre- and postemployment assistance. This is so important.
We talk in this place about the best form of welfare being a job. I want to encourage all employers, including those in this building, to walk the talk and give a job to a veteran.
I'm glad to rise today to support the wellbeing of local veterans and their families across the New South Wales South Coast. We have a strong defence presence in my electorate of Gilmore, so it is no surprise that veterans and their families are an important part of our community. We need to make sure we are doing absolutely everything we can to help and support local veterans, and that is why I am supporting the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020 today.
During the 2019 election, Labor promised a veteran family engagement and support strategy. We recognised the critical importance of urgently addressing the rates of veteran suicide in our community and making sure that those who leave our defence forces get the help and support they deserve. Defence families are the unsung heroes of the Australian Defence Force. Families of serving and veteran military personnel face a unique set of challenges; there is no doubt about that. These can be even more challenging as they leave the Defence Force and try to reintegrate back into civilian life. We need to make sure that those who support our serving and veteran ADF members are receiving the help they need.
I am pleased that this bill will create a commissioner to represent the perspectives of families of veterans on the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. The Veteran Family Advocate will give a voice to veterans' families and highlight the important role they play in veteran and family health and wellbeing. It will make sure families inform veteran policy and the administration of veterans' entitlements. The Veteran Family Advocate will work with veterans' families to build our understanding of risk and protective factors as veterans transition from the Defence Force. Veteran suicide is a scourge among our community and it requires urgent and immediate attention. It is absolutely critical that every part of the veteran support system is focused on veterans' mental health and suicide prevention, and I hope that the advocate provides the strong voice veterans' families need.
There are a number of organisations on the New South Wales South Coast that are working hard to support local veterans and their families. One of the best things about our beautiful coast is, no doubt, the ocean. We have hundreds of beaches in my electorate, so I guess it should be no surprise that some clever-thinking locals have put surfing and therapy together to improve the mental health and wellbeing of local veterans. The Australia-first initiative Defence Surf Therapy is thanks to local Gerroa veteran Glenn Kolomeitz and former professional surfer and owner of the Gerringong Surf School, Rusty Moran. The program was launched last year to show that non-pharmacological treatments can be effective at reducing stress and managing mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder. It is innovative programs like this that we need to be focussing on as we look for new ways to manage a long recognised problem. That is why I was absolutely thrilled to see this program receive $280,000 in federal funding under the Supporting Younger Veterans grants program. The Nowra based Keith Payne VC Veterans Benefit Group will manage the governance of a 12-month pilot for this program, and it is hard to imagine a better place to run a surfing program like this than the beautiful Seven Mile Beach at Gerroa. Over 10 weeks, up to 70 veterans will be taught how to surf by Rusty and his team.
But, of course, the program is about so much more than surfing. Veterans can meet and connect with each other. They will learn how to practice mindfulness and they will be supported in their journey back into civilian life. The program is based on a similar one from the United States and will also see psychology services offered, with follow-up six and 12 months later. The overall benefits of a program like this are far greater than the two-hour surf lesson. By finding different ways of dealing with the mental health concerns of our veterans, we help them to re-engage in our community. As Rusty Moran said:
If we can help veterans learn practices to clear their mind of negative thoughts, they can be more present off the board then hopefully they can incorporate it into their civilian life routine.
As with mental health responses in the broader community, we need to find ways of helping and supporting people without just turning to medication. We know that can have all kinds of wider repercussions. This is the type of program that can be developed if we stop talking at veterans and their families and start listening to their ideas. It is wonderful to see the broader veteran community getting behind this fantastic initiative. Thank you to Rusty Moran and Glenn Kolomeitz as well as to Rick Meehan and Fred Campbell from Keith Payne VC Veterans Benefit Group for your work putting this program together.
Rick and Fred are also wonderful advocates of our local veteran community. They are a passionate pair who have spent years working to improve veterans' lives. They are the driving forces behind the successful Shoalhaven Digger Day, another great day of celebration and connection for our local veterans. It's a traditional rugby match with more than a little friendly competition between long-time rivals Shoalhaven and Kiama. It's just one of a host of fantastic local celebrations and, as Rick says, 'A time to reflect on what our veterans have done for our country in all past wars and conflicts.' They also run the Operation Walk to Talk group on Friday mornings in Harry Sawkins Park in Nowra, another great initiative aimed at improving the mental health and wellbeing of local veterans.
Our RSL sub-branches play an important role in supporting our veteran community. Run by passionate volunteers, they are making a real difference in the lives of local veterans. For example, take the Sussex Inlet RSL Club sub-branch. Volunteers from the sub-branch are regularly visiting veterans in hospitals and nursing homes, providing company and mateship to those who are often in very lonely situations. I was proud to support these volunteers recently by providing $4,000 to the Sussex Inlet RSL Club sub-branch for training and fuel reimbursements under the volunteer grants program. A few months ago, I also had the pleasure of dropping into the Moruya RSL sub-branch meeting at the lovely RSL memorial hall. All of the local members are always welcoming, and I was happy to have the opportunity to check in with them. I hope to be back there soon.
I was also thrilled when the Eurobodalla Vietnam veterans received $5,332 under Building Excellence in Support and Training grants. This will help provide compensation and welfare assistance to the defence and veteran community on the far South Coast—more wonderful news for local veterans. I know it will make a real difference to local communities and families. Last year I joined with the Eurobodalla Vietnam veterans to commemorate Vietnam Veterans Day. The service was a fitting tribute to those brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. I was proud to join with them to honour people for their service.
It would be remiss of me to talk about the importance of ADF families without mentioning the amazing Shoalhaven Defence Families Association. The New South Wales South Coast is of course home to HMAS Albatross and HMAS Creswell, two vital Australian Navy assets, but they are also vital assets to the Shoalhaven community. The Shoalhaven Defence Families Association was created to support the families of our local serving personnel—those unsung heroes I spoke about earlier. Their aim is to bring fun, friendship and support to defence and civilian families in the Shoalhaven and surrounding areas. This includes activities like playgroups, craft groups, courses and training as well as the community centre Kookaburra Retreat. The Kookaburra Retreat has a strong focus on supporting families that are facing the particular challenges that come with the defence way of life. It gives families of serving personnel a social outlet and lets them build connections with people who understand exactly what they are going through. The value of that cannot be overstated. Thank you to all the members of the Shoalhaven Defence Families Association for everything you do to support our defence families.
Schedule 2 of the bill also helps to facilitate flexibility in the way programs can be designed to assist the transition from the ADF to the civilian workforce. Eligible veterans will be given both pre and post employment assistance, including career advice, coaching, assistance with skill translation, resume and interview preparation and coaching to adapt to the structure and style of communication in civilian employment. We need to make sure that there is enough support for our recently transitioned Defence Force members so that they can gain and keep meaningful employment. We know that this, in itself, makes a distinguishable difference to mental health and overall wellbeing outcomes both in and out of the defence industry. I am pleased to support these improvements to workplace support for our veterans.
We need to do more to support our veterans as they transition into civilian life. It is a challenging and confusing time and too many people have told me they just didn't know where to go. That is why, before the last election, Labor committed to seven veteran wellbeing centres across the country, including one in Nowra. These centres will enable services to be delivered on the ground. They'll be a one-stop shop providing support for local veterans. This is something our veteran community, including the South Coast Veterans Motorcycle Club, lobbied hard for.
RSL New South Wales has been selected as the local partner and delivery agency for the $5 million centre, with former Navy commodore and president of the RSL Central Southern District Council, Lee Cordner AM, overseeing the steering committee. However, we are waiting for crucial details on funding and implementation approaches to be announced. We still don't know, as yet, where the site will be, but it was said that it would be completed in 2020. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, planning on other centres around the country is far more advanced than the Nowra centre. Our country areas are missing out again. The government need to get on with it. Local veterans have been waiting for this too long already. They deserve better.
The last change in this bill, to schedule 3, will mean all gold card holders will now be able to access the energy supplement to help them with their energy costs, a move I know will be welcomed by those caught up in an unintended omission from the current legislation. I will always support efforts to make sure our veterans are treated fairly and consistently, and I am glad to see this change being made today.
I have long been advocating for and supporting reform that improves the lives of our local veterans. When I was a candidate during 2018, I held a veterans forum, along with the member for Kingston, the then shadow minister for defence personnel and veterans' affairs, to hear firsthand from our veterans about what policy changes were needed to better support our veteran family. At that forum, we discussed support for veterans transitioning to a civilian life, through training and workplace support. We also discussed the need to improve support for our wonderful ADF families. I have already mentioned Labor's Family Engagement and Support Strategy, but it was a critically important commitment to so many in our community.
This bill seeks to address these issues, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about how we can further support local defence and veterans' families, but these ideas need to come direct from veterans themselves. I would like to take the opportunity to make special mention of my former colleague, Mike Kelly. A veteran himself, Mike was a true advocate for the Eden-Monaro veteran community. He was a major contributor to Labor's policy agenda on veterans' issues in the lead-up to the last election. Mike understood the challenges facing our veterans in gaining employment outside of the Defence Force and in managing their mental health. I was proud to stand with Mike in advocating for improvements like those included in this bill today. I know he will continue to play an important role in the local community, even after his retirement from this place. I wish him all the best.
I will keep listening to our veterans and advocating for the policy improvements they need. These ideas must always come from the ground up. I hope that this bill will provide that strong voice for veterans' families, to promote better mental health outcomes as part of the regular policy and decision-making process. I have heard from too many veterans about the lack of support provided as they left the Defence Force, and from too many families who have told me that they felt they were going it alone. I hope this bill will help to achieve better outcomes for veterans and their families. I would like to thank each and every member of our veteran community for their efforts to serve and protect our country. Thank you to all our unsung defence heroes, and the families and friends of our Australian defence forces, who are there every day, dealing with the unique challenges they face. And thank you to everyone in our broader community for working so hard to protect and support our defence family. I commend the bill to the House.
I'd like to start by acknowledging all the men and women around the nation who have worn the uniform or continue to wear the uniform in service to this nation, and I acknowledge their families, who are the backbone of the defence community. I would like to acknowledge every member in this House who has served their nation in the ADF—the member for Canning, the member for Solomon, the member for Stirling, the member for Braddon and the member for Leichhardt and, of course, the senators in the other place who have served this nation and continue to serve this nation.
Improving the wellbeing of veterans and their families should not just be words. It should be enshrined in all of us here, every day, to better support the people that have fought for our freedoms, our democracy and our way of life—the people that we put in harm's way to ensure that we can sleep safely and soundly at night. It's important that we acknowledge not just our ADF men and women but also their families. Their families are often forgotten about or left behind, not included in discussions and not included in policy development. I think it's such a step forward for everyone in this place to support the Veteran Family Advocate, because the Veteran Family Advocate is the person who links into the families—to the wives, to the husbands, to the spouses and to the children—to better inform government and ex-service organisations on policy, on the way we should go forward and on the way that best supports the family. That's because we know what can happen with family breakdown.
Our Defence men and women veterans have a higher-than-average rate of suicide—higher than for the general public. That's not good enough. We who sit in this place should never accept that. We who sit in this place, who pass laws, who speak on bills and who thank people for their service, must use more than words. We must go into action and not use words for political point-scoring. There is always healthy debate about what we should and shouldn't be doing in the veterans' community. That's debate that I would encourage. But it should be debate where we all want to go in the same direction, not just for point-scoring.
The Veteran Family Advocate will complement the national commissioner, which is a rolling commission into veteran suicides. The family advocate will set out, influence and develop policy within the Department of Veteran's Affairs. The advocate will also link in with ex-service organisations around the country and their members of parliament at the state and federal levels. We know that having this family advocate, as well as the families' committees that have been set up through the Department of Veteran's Affairs, is in the best interests of the nation and definitely in the best interests of family members, still-serving family members or former-serving family members.
We know that meaningful engagement and meaningful employment that are things that are encouraged within the veterans' space. We know that, through illness or injury, not everyone can work once they've left the ADF. But it is something to have that engagement and that meaning in your life, where you wake up in the morning with something to do or somewhere to be employed. To balance injury, illness, engagement and employment is a challenge, but this family advocate will help with that balance. I could have been a statistic easily—easily. Friends of mine are statistics—friends of mine that we discuss in here. This is something that we must do together. We have to do it together.
I know that the former Minister for Defence, Joel Fitzgibbon, agrees. I know he does. And I know that everyone on the other side and on the crossbench agree. But sometimes—and I'm going to use a word that I'm allowed to use—it does make me somewhat upset when we see the knives come out on something so important. I know that it doesn't have to happen and I know that sometimes it happens unintentionally, but when it happens it doesn't affect us in here; it affects the families, the spouses, the wives, the husbands, the kids, the still-serving and the former-serving people. They see us in here using them as a political football. We mustn't do that; we must work together. Debate, yes, but work together for the betterment of the veteran community and their families.
I'd like to see our veterans included with ex-service organisations. And, where there isn't an ex-service organisation, how can we find one there? How can we link people in, whether in person, or via social media or other platforms? It's that linkage, that connection, that we need. And for families, it's the same thing; having that connection with other families. It's talking to them and finding out what works in their house—what works at home and what works when they've been deployed, or are deployed or were deployed? How are the kids tracking? These are things that we need to discuss and these are things which we need to foster and encourage.
Whilst this is a bill that we're talking about in parliament, the role of government is to create a healthy environment in which the communities that we speak on, the veteran community and their families, can grow and prosper—to deliver for them. It should be veteran-led, families-led, not government-led. Having veteran employment awards that recognise industry and different organisations that employ veterans and their families is a great step in the right direction, because, whilst not every veteran comes out of the military well, we're not all broken. Some of us are, and that's okay. We still can have employment and engagement, and so can our families. We need to foster the non-broken narrative that plagues Australia when we talk about veterans, because of the high number of suicides, because of the high number of people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness or can be mentally unwell—just like everyone else. Everyone else goes through the same dramas, just in a different and unique way. I say to employers, to industry and to political parties: having veterans involved will only benefit you.
Having the support wraparound that a veteran family advocate will provide will be essential. We'll be able to amend, to change, to refocus what we discuss. We do not need to be telling people what they want. We must be asking, 'What do you need?' It should be led by the veterans and veterans' families, not led by government. I know that, in the case of the families and other people who have been bereaved by suicide, it hurts every person here, every day, having to talk about how we 'should' be working together or how we 'should' do this or how this 'could' work. The time for talk is over. The time for action needs to be now, because suicide, mental illness and suicide prevention are the responsibility of everyone who sits in this place. We need to be a part of creating, developing and working with the families to be a part of solutions—to be solutions-oriented, not waiting for something terrible to happen. Having more than 400 suicides in less than a 20-year period is simply not good enough. It should not be accepted by any member of parliament. The community does not accept it; therefore, we should be doing more to combat it.
I want to finish by saying that a veteran family advocate is long overdue. A veteran family advocate should have no political ties. It should be independent and sit in the middle, as I'm sure it will, and work with every person and with ex-service organisations—a big team, a great team, that goes out and speaks with families, children, members, ex-service organisations, people in this place, everyone. Families, veterans and still-serving members of the ADF should never be used for point-scoring or for adversarial action. They should be used to create and promote better policy and a better agenda so that we can best support them.
I rise today to speak on this important bill, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020, which aims to enhance the wellbeing of veterans and their families. You don't have to look far in Indi to find strong communities of veterans and their families, from lively returned-services clubs in Mansfield, Myrtleford, Alexandra and Yea, to name just a few, to veteran welfare and support centres, community fishing groups and even one of the largest and most-diversified military museums in Australia, the Army Museum Bandiana. Veterans are a proud, proud part of our community.
The Bandiana Military Area, which houses the Army Logistics Training Centre and Gaza Ridge Barracks, also spans some 670 hectares just outside of Wodonga. Colonel Matt Patching is the commandant of the Army logistics training centre there. Indi is full of active service personnel and members of the broader community committed to supporting and advocating for our veteran communities. Indeed, it was the Latchford Barracks in Wodonga that opened its doors last summer during the 'black summer' bushfires, providing a safe haven for families with nowhere to go. On 6 January, in the middle of our darkest days, 160 people forced to evacuate their homes were welcomed at the Latchford Barracks.
The reforms in this bill make it clear that the nation sees our veterans and their families and recognises their immense contributions and unique challenges. It says, 'We see you and we support you.' The creation of a veteran family advocate position on the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission recognises an often hidden segment of our veteran communities. Families of veterans see them in their quiet moments and understand their particular aspirations and their very real challenges. Veteran family members have their own stories to tell.
If you will indulge me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I want to draw on a few firsthand examples from my electorate that illustrate the communities that these reforms support on the ground. Late last year, I heard from the tireless team of volunteers led by Mr Wayne Taylor at the Hume Veterans' Information Centre based in Wodonga. This centre has been operational for over 20 years and has assisted 7,500 veterans, war widows and widowers, other veteran dependants and carers during that time and has supported them in an array of needs. Many mental health issues, of course, as illustrated and talked about in the House today, are largely and greatly affected by PTSD, and we know our return service men and women suffer from this tremendously. From January to October 2019 alone, the compensation advocates and welfare team at the centre dedicated 1,600 volunteer hours and 13,000 kilometres on the road assisting veteran communities. That's the equivalent of three trips on the road from Sydney to Perth. That's a lot of driving! The volunteers help support veterans prepare documents for the Department of Veterans' Affairs and act as knowledgeable conduits for applications as their paperwork is assessed. These volunteers also provide invaluable advocacy support for spouses, families, and widows and widowers of veterans, as well as services ranging from hospital and aged-care visits to bereavement support, assistance with legal affairs and even home maintenance and gardening. These volunteers and the unwavering spirit of veteran communities in Indi hearten me. I was delighted to learn last year that the Hume Veterans' Information Centre had received a $5 million grant to expand their contributions and establish a new veterans wellness centre in Wodonga, which will ensure these services for veterans and their families continue and that they do so in a modern state-of-the-art building.
The expansion of financial assistance to former ADF members to aid their transition to civilian work is another welcomed measure in this bill. These new measures, which include support with resume writing, job interview skills and navigating issues in the civilian workplace, which can be worlds apart from defence workplaces, will help veterans of working age to find fulfilling new roles. Former ADF members have incredible skill sets from leadership, strategic planning and problem solving to advanced engineering, emergency management and medical qualifications. It's important that we build strong bridges for former ADF members so that they can utilise these skills in civilian life and employment, if they wish to, and bring such skills and expertise to our community. This bill is another part of that bridge to civilian life.
Supporting defence personnel also means supporting their spouses and families. Defence families often move around the country to new locations where they have no roots, no supports, and no broader family members. Supporting their spouses to find meaningful employment is so important to making defence a viable career path for families, and that's why I'm encouraging the government to consider a proposal developed by Business Wodonga for two schemes to enable defence spouses to find employment opportunities in Wodonga. The first is a six-week program to accelerate social and professional networks for defence spouses to help them start businesses, find employment, upskill or tap into local networks. The second is an employment exchange program where newcomers to Albury-Wodonga could be skills matched to prospective employers even before arriving in town. Supporting worthy programs like this is crucial to making defence a viable career pathway. I implore the government to consider such programs, especially in these difficult times where people are seeking work.
While it's important we provide assistance to former ADF members in their transition to civilian life and employment, it's also really important that we ensure ADF members receive the appropriate superannuation benefits and other entitlements accrued during their service as they enter into civilian life. I note, for example, that veteran communities in my electorate welcomed the defence bill this parliament passed in May, which enables former ADF members to continue to make contributions to their ADF super accounts and extends access to the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme for up to five years.
There are tireless advocates for these types of reforms. I note in particular the work of former Lieutenant Colonel Mr Jim Hislop OAM, who was recently awarded a Queen's birthday honour for his service to veterans' communities, and his colleague Mr Herb Ellerbock, former warrant officer class 1. These gentlemen have briefed me about the concerns they and veterans they represent have had with the administration of the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefit Scheme. As an independent, it is my privilege to represent the interests of everyone in my electorate. To this end, I support their advocacy in this place. It's so important to ensure veterans transition well into civilian life and that their service and entitlements are truly honoured. There are countless other examples of service and altruism I could have given today from the veteran community in my electorate, but I won't go into all of those.
I want to say finally that this is a good bill. It keeps those communities of our veterans front of mind. I'm very pleased to support it. I commend this bill to the House.
There are many things that have given me angst, including the DVA and the situation with our returned servicemen. I'm just a little bit before Vietnam by a few months. I joined the militia because—I can't remember—we were either at war with Indonesia or we were going to war with Indonesia. They were scary times. I served some eight years in the militia. My father before me had joined the militia before the Second World War, again, I think with a view that war was going to come. I can't say that in my case I was being very patriotic. I felt if I got in early, I'd be giving the orders instead of taking them, so I was so probably anything but patriotic!
In the Second World War Uncle Dick, Uncle Bert, Uncle Allan, Uncle George—I think eight of my uncles, or my parent's cousins which we called uncles—were fighting in the war. I knew all of them when they came home. There were 62 that had fought in the war in Cloncurry. I cannot remember a single person that came back with a problem—not one! Did we have any alcoholics? No. Did we have any people with mental problems? No. Did we have any suicides? No. So what's going on now?
There have been two very excellent documentaries on this issue—and I can't remember what channels they were on—that concentrated on the Department of Veterans' Affairs. With all departments there are good people, but there's something seriously wrong. A government department administering this is just totally wrong. In every case that I have had the bloke is going along. He runs into a few problems. He's not at ease. He goes along and sees the DVA and then he falls right off the edge. That was the two documentaries. The minute they came in contact with the government department—and I'm not going to hazard a guess but I do know that they believed that the DVA was on their side and there to help them and they got the exact opposite reaction from the people they were dealing with.
I better not mention his name without his permission but a captain in the Army was having a fight with a major on the aeroplane and I was between them. The major said: 'There's no problem. It's all in their minds. They're just softies.' The bloke pulled out the photograph of his platoon, which he obviously carries with him wherever he goes. If my memory serves me correctly, there were five that had committed suicide, four who had been killed in accidents which were tantamount to suicide, and five who were under psychiatric care. Is that the average? It may well be the average.
If you've got public servants here in Canberra running this outfit, there is something terribly wrong. I represent a fortress city, Townsville. I represent the northern beaches areas of Townsville and Cairns, where most of the soldiers retire to, so I have a disproportionate number of retirees in the Kennedy electorate. There are a few people who say they have had a good experience with the DVA, but if I go into every single problem that arose when they went near the DVA—there's not a single person having any power up in North Queensland where all the soldiers are. There are about 2,000 naval personnel and related families in Cairns. That's quite apart from the 6,000 or 7,000 in Townsville in the Army, yet there is not a single representative that they have on a commission that controls this body, and the government is proposing that we have a commissioner! We know where he will be coming from. The good old boys, the ranking brass, will have a look at the generals or the colonels. But forget about the ordinary soldiers. They won't be getting a look in. Forget about the warrant officers, the sergeants and the lesser ranks; they won't be getting a look in.
So long as this Public Service mentality prevails in an area that should be supersensitive to people—if you want government of the people, by the people, for the people, then the first thing you should be doing is setting up a commission that reflects government of the people, by the people and for the people. You have it run by a bunch of public servants who probably didn't fire a rifle in their entire lives let alone a rifle in combat, so we shouldn't really be surprised what the outcomes are. I haven't done the research that I probably should have done on this but I don't doubt that the report is correct, but the fact is that many more people have died with post-traumatic stress syndrome than died in warfare in the Vietnam War or in subsequent wars that we've been involved in. We’re losing more people because of their treatment after the war than we lost actually in the wars.
When the boys came home from the First World War—Jack McEwen, I sit under his picture. Like so many of us he never actually went over. I thank the good Lord, I didn't get sent over. We were in a 24-hour call-up. We were F1 battalion, ready for combat, but it blew over—Indonesia—before we went over there. So I was lucky. Jack McEwen volunteered in the First World War. It blew over before he went over there. But as a returned serviceman he was entitled to a block of land, which he turned into a dairy farm, which he turned into five dairy farms, and he became one of the biggest dairy farmers in Victoria and the great leader of the dairy industry throughout Australia. He got his chance and his start in life as a result of the government looking after him after the war. As a soldier, he was looked after.
After the Second World War, you again got free university education if you wanted it, free trade training if you wanted it, and, again, soldier settler blocks were made available. The average size of a station property in North Queensland is probably 100,000 hectares. I myself owned 100,000 hectares, and mine was the smallest station in the area where I was. Now, if you put a few dams and weirs in, you could have your soldier settler schemes for these people. But they get nothing. They come home now and they get absolutely nothing. I've asked thousands of people—well, hundreds anyway—this: 'What's the problem?' And they say, 'Well, we're in a family. We're in a team. We had clear-cut objectives. Our life was mapped out for us, and suddenly we're just wandering, lost souls. No direction, no jobs, no family, no team. Just ships cast adrift.'
I think that, to start, we should set up a commission, and that commission should not represent the 20 or 30 people who have served as colonels, generals, brigadiers or whatever. In saying that, one of the finest Australians I've ever met in my life, and one of the most outstanding soldiers this country has ever produced, is the famous brigadier of the 'mad galahs', as they call themselves. I'm not necessarily knocking them; there are exceptions to the rule. What I'm saying is: if you in this place seriously believe in government of the people, by the people, for the people, then, for every colonel, you have thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen, and that is where that commission should come from. I'm not saying there shouldn't be some from the higher ranks, but the vast, overwhelming bulk should represent the vast, overwhelming bulk of the Army, and that would be a good starting point to turn this around.
I want to pay tribute to people like Tim White, an ex-captain in the Army—and he's not Robinson Crusoe; there are many others like him. He's taken it upon himself to look after his boys after they get out. And they've taken it upon themselves to look after First Australians. His first mission was at Wujal Wujal. There were 23 young men who did the bushcraft course there and, of the 23, I think six became regular soldiers and 12 joined the militia, which was an excellent outcome. But, knowing Tim well, I think that he's doing this more for his soldiers and for the terrible suffering of his own platoon, whose horrific figures I have quoted here. I hope I've quoted them accurately; I couldn't get hold of him before I got up to speak. There'd be 1,000 Tim Whites out there, screaming out for something to be done. But I don't want to say what should be done. I don't even want to analyse the problem, because, even though I have spoken to hundreds of them, I'm not 100 per cent sure. But this I know: they'll be going along alright; they go to see the DVA and then they walk straight over the edge—and, in many cases, quite literally over the edge.
I was in a hotel on the last night that I spent campaigning in the last state election, and there were five blokes there who had retired from the service. One was a senior officer, and he was not in a good state. There were two others; one of them very seriously in trouble. I again pay very great tribute to the president of the RSL and of people like myself who were in the militia for Far North Queensland. I went over to him and said, 'Are you aware of what's going on?' He said, 'I'm watching everyone of them on a daily basis.' We have good and saintly people who go out of their way to look after these soldiers, but we are falling well short of where we should be.
I listened to the address by the professor of agriculture—the dean of the faculty at the biggest agriculture university in Australia, the University of Queensland. In his address he said that there are three great shames of this nation: the way we treated the First Australians; the way we treated the people who came home from Vietnam—returned servicemen—in general; and the way we treated the dairy farmers of Australia. I would have added to that our participation in the Boer War, where 28,000 women and children were starved to death as policy by the British Army and in which we participated; and the great shame that we would only allow 15,000 Jewish people in here before the Second World War. Six million of them couldn't get any country on earth to take them, so they perished in the gas chambers of Adolf Hitler. Sadly, we must share some of the horrific blame here. We could have taken half a million of those people and not even noticed they were here in Australia.
One looks back on these mistakes, but here is one that we can address now. Jacqui Lambie has served notice, and I am one of her lieutenants in this battle. Jacqui has promised me that she'll visit us, in and out of Townsville, on a regular basis, and we're going to start to shake things up. So either go along peacefully or it's going to be done hard, and that's not going to be very pleasant for anyone.
I rise to speak on this important bill, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and their Families) Bill 2020, today and to speak about the second reading amendment moved by the shadow minister.
I thank the member for Kennedy for his remarks. I am in awe of his commitment to veterans across our state and our country, and I thank him for his very informed remarks. As the son of a World War II veteran, I can echo what he said in the debate. When my father came back from war there wasn't a lot of support for veterans. Veterans were either deemed to have shell shock on their service record or they were given housing opportunities, with no real support.
In preparation for today's debate, and through the National Archives, this week I received my father's Royal Australian Naval Reserve Record of Mobilised Service. On 27 October 1941, official No. B3388, Dick, Allan Baxter, of Brisbane signed up to the Royal Australian Navy. On that record it listed his dates of service, on a two-page, yellow, torn document that clearly is still in existence. He was discharged on 1 April 1946, and the statement of service was forwarded to the ex-servicemen on 25 May 1946.
The reason I've read that into the record is that it was really the clear demonstration that when people left the Navy or the services, a lot of the time they were left to fend for themselves. Growing up, and later in life—it was only really when I was a teenager—that my father would talk about the war. He never attended RSL meetings and never attended Anzac Days. He was a very proud veteran and a very proud patriot, but he never acknowledged, or didn't want to talk about, the war. I think our country has come so far, when every single member of this parliament now works closely with their veterans and RSLs. This wasn't always the case. Everyone has a different story about their service in the ADF. I myself haven't served, but I'm proud to work alongside so many RSL sub-branches in the Oxley electorate to not only learn from but understand their experiences. I talk about their sacrifice. I talk about the tremendous effort they've given to our country. I want to speak on this bill today to acknowledge the fact of not just how far we have come with our veterans in this country but how far we still have to go.
I know the good work of RSL sub-branches across Australia, including those in the south-west of Brisbane and the suburbs of Ipswich that I proudly represent in this parliament: the Centenary Suburbs Sub Branch, the Darra & District Sub Branch, the Forest Lake Sub Branch, the Goodna Sub Branch, the Redbank Sub Branch and the Redbank Plains Sub Branch. I commend each and every one of the sub-branches for its hard work. The presidents and committee members of all of them should be applauded for their advocacy for veterans in our community and beyond.
I've had a number of roundtables with the Hon. Amanda Rishworth, the former shadow minister, and with the member for Blair, Shayne Neumann, my neighbour, who is now the shadow minister. I pay tribute to the work that they have done and the dignified way in which they have stood up for veterans in this country and their advocacy with respect to what needs to happen for the veteran community.
We know the bill today introduces three important measures that will provide better and more appropriate support for our veterans: it will implement the government's commitment to create the Veteran Family Advocate, it will provide changes to support veterans' transition from the Australian Defence Force to civilian employment, and it will ensure all recipients of the Department of Veterans' Affairs gold cards are treated equally in terms of their benefits. As I said in my opening remarks, it's vital that we look after the men and women who've looked after us. Whilst Labor does support the bill, I want to take this opportunity to raise my voice in the parliament about ongoing concerns within the ADF and the wider Australian community about suicide among serving and ex-serving ADF personnel and, in particular, about ex-serving ADF personnel who face increased risk of suicide.
Regardless of the role or capacity in which any veteran served our country, it has been a unique and critical role in the joint effort to protect Australia, its peoples and our freedoms. This bill recognises this by implementing the government's commitment, announced on 5 February this year, to create the Veteran Family Advocate. It also provides changes to support the transition from Australia Defence Force service to civilian employment and, as I said, it sorts out the issues for gold card recipients.
Earlier this year, the government announced two roles: the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, which will be complemented by the Veteran Family Advocate. I note that, while the government intends to bring forward legislation to establish the national commissioner later this year, and while this bill will establish the Veteran Family Advocate as a new commissioner to work as part of the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, Labor has had serious concerns about the government's related proposal of a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. We would prefer a royal commission into veteran suicide. From a procedural point of view, we believe it's a bit premature to establish the Veteran Family Advocate position ahead of that of the national commissioner.
This has been an important issue for the Leader of the Opposition, supported by every single member of the Labor team. They have been working alongside a number of groups, and, on the issue of a royal commission, I want to acknowledge, in particular, the work of my friend the member for Solomon, Luke Gosling OAM. I acknowledge his service in this House, because we know this powerful issue must be addressed.
Regarding the substance, we welcome the announcement of the advocate as a stand-alone measure; we just want to make sure that the advocate is appropriately resourced and is able to do its job. These commissions are responsible for supporting the administration of veterans legislation and providing advice to the minister and government in relation to these acts. They will be responsible for directly engaging with the families of veterans to help shape policy, improve the design of all veterans programs and services, including mental health support and services.
I hear the stories of veterans and their families. I'm very proud to represent a number of ADF serving personnel, with a large amount of Defence Force housing located in the Oxley electorate, in the suburbs of Forest Lake, Springfield and Springfield Lakes, heading out towards Amberley Air Force base. I've met with the various veterans groups, such as the RSL sub-branches, and also with a number of local serving personnel whom I was able to visit personally when I was privileged enough to travel to the Middle East on a special trip last year to visit Operation Okra. As we know, a number of members of parliament have taken the opportunity to join the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program, which gives that rare insight into the sometimes dangerous but important work that our service men and women are undertaking. Currently there are around 2,000 ADF personnel deployed in the Middle East region.
On my trip to the Middle East last year I was joined by a number of colleagues: the member for Fisher, from Queensland, and also Senator Kimberley Kitching, a senator from Victoria. I was particularly honoured to meet with local residents who were serving there and to hear about their concerns and issues. All of them had one common message to me: 'If you get the opportunity, make sure you speak for us.' And that's what I intend to do for as long as I serve in this place. On the trip I was honoured to meet everyday Australians, who are also mums and dads, who have chosen to fight for the peace and freedom of our country. As a result, I wanted to speak on this bill today, to look at all the measures we can put in place to help, to prevent mental health issues and of course to ensure suicide prevention. One suicide is too many.
The veteran family advocate will have the necessary independence to represent the views of veteran families to the DVA and, I would hope, influence policymaking outcomes. It's critical to their role. Many veterans have complained about the lack of assistance they receive when they transition out of the ADF. I'm really hopeful and confident that the advocate will go and sit with the families, hear their stories, listen to the advice and be able to better shape veteran policy in ways that will reduce the risks of personnel issues and leave surrounding the ADF. Labor believes that the advocate will make the voice of veterans' families louder and stronger—a voice that will be heard and one that will shape policies and decision-making to promote better mental health outcomes for our veterans.
Many Defence and veteran families have also told me they simply don't feel that they're being heard when it comes to support and assistance. So I really hope that this is another opportunity for the government to hear the pleas—and the cries, in some cases—to establish a genuine independent royal commission into Defence personnel and veterans suicide. And I'm very sad to report to the House that from 2001 to 2017 there were 419 suicides among Reserves and both serving and ex-serving ADF personnel. That's why I was really pleased that going into the last election we took in a strategy around better engagement by the DVA with military and veteran families and identifying improvements to family support. Moreover, last year's Productivity Commission report on the veteran support system recommended better family engagement and support by agencies. In the lead-up to the 2019 election campaign I stood in front of veterans groups and RSLs who were very concerned about some of the recommendations that were coming through and how a future-focused Department of Veterans' Affairs would be shaped.
We all want to support veterans to the best of our ability. Every member of this House wants that, and I hope this new position will achieve better outcomes for our veterans and their families. Schedule 2 of the bill facilitates flexibility in the way programs can be designed to assist the transition from the ADF to the civilian workforce. Once established through regulations, the program will provide eligible veterans with both pre- and post-employment assistance. It's a really critical element for veterans, when they are transitioning, to have clear pathways, equal opportunities into the workforce, career advice, coaching, assistance, skills transition, resume and interview preparation and one-on-one peer support so that they understand the styles of communication in civilian employment, which clearly can be different from the important work that they have undertaken.
Schedule 3 of the bill rectifies the unintended omission that has meant that the energy supplement has not been payable to some DVA gold card holders because they are covered under a different piece of legislation. It's not a huge amount of money, but for veterans, particularly for seniors, who rely on that support and particularly with these rising costs, where we're seeing the cost of living go through the roof, and with uncertain times in the economy, heading in towards recession, every little dollar counts. I'm really pleased that, although it's only a minor change, it's an important change for a number of people who had fallen through those cracks. I thank the government for taking action on that.
I thank the shadow minister Shayne Neumann for his advocacy. He worked constructively with the government. I think this area of public policy is one where we can work together and is one where we should work together to ensure that those brave men and women who have served our country—and I thank each and every one of them for their service—see this parliament standing shoulder to shoulder together to ensure not only their voices are heard but their issues are addressed . Together we can show better respect and more support for our ADF personnel and veterans.
I'm very pleased to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting The Wellbeing of Veterans and their Families) Bill 2020. I just want to thank the member for Oxley for his contribution and for his ongoing care of veterans and service people who live in his electorate and more broadly. He takes a real interest by getting out there during the ADF parliamentary programs to see what our amazing women and men are doing in the ADF in defence of our nation and our interests.
I'll just cover the legislation briefly and then make some observations. The legislation contains three measures, as we've heard, which are all aimed at better meeting the needs of veterans and their families. The first implements the PM's commitment to appoint the Veteran Family Advocate, announced on 5 February this year, whilst the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention was being announced. This new position recognises the critical role families play in supporting the health and wellbeing of the veteran community. When I'm speaking to veterans, they often say the only thing that's keeping them going, if they're experiencing difficulties, is their families—the love and support of their families. And those families need support. The Veteran Family Advocate will engage with these families, with a strong focus on mental health and suicide prevention.
I know, as a veteran and as the son of a veteran who was the son of a veteran, families do play a critical role. Every time I get to speak with people in my community, which is often, whether they be veterans, current serving personnel, finished serving personnel or families, I hear there is a real need for more support. That's why this role, I think, is very important. The day-to-day role of the advocate will include examining issues relating to veterans' and families' policy, benefits, entitlements and health outcomes.
We on this side as the federal opposition trust the individual advocate and their support will have all the necessary independence to represent the views of veterans and their families to DVA and to also influence policymaking in a real way.
We, the federal opposition, do have serious concerns about the government's related proposal, and I spoke about that earlier this week. The National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention may have been a recommendation of a full royal commission. I think it may very well have been. But I do wonder whether it may be a bit premature to establish the Veteran Family Advocate before the national commissioner. I do wonder that. But I do sincerely hope for the best. I hope that the individuals chosen for those roles are well experienced and have lived experience, because that will help them be the best possible representative that they can be.
I echo the amendment of my colleague, Matt Keogh, the member for Burt, which notes the government's 'stubborn refusal to enact a full royal commission into veteran suicide and its insistence instead on establishing a national commissioner'. I have been on the record many, many times as saying that it is, I think, the majority of veterans' views that a royal commission is required. As I said, I think this permanent national commissioner may very well have been a recommendation of a royal commission—but more on that in a minute.
The second measure in the bill will help to make the transition and journey from being an ADF member to being part of the civilian workforce smoother. It will include developing skills for transition to civilian life, such as equipping veterans to interview effectively when they're going for jobs as well as coaching them to adapt to the way of life and to work on civvy street. The third and final measure will ensure that all veteran gold card holders are treated equitably, as we would all hope for. Together, these amendments should deliver better outcomes for veterans and their families and Labor supports them.
But let's not forget the important context for why we are passing these measures today. The government's announcement in February came after widespread calls from veterans, the media and Labor for a royal commission into veteran suicide. There was a huge tide of public support for a royal commission into veteran suicide that became a core political issue late last year. It is that movement, that tide of public support, to which we owe these improvements today. So I want to thank all those who pushed for a royal commission—and they continue to push—because they have the best interests of veterans and their families at heart. I ask them to maintain the rage.
Throughout COVID-19 and the bushfires, the petition begun by Julie-Ann Finney, who lost her son tragically to suicide, like so many other mothers and fathers have, has only continued to grow. It's currently an impressive size of 342,505 petitioners. It's probably gone up more today. That's equivalent to 2½ Darwins or to 10 Gladstones. It's bigger than Geelong and Newcastle. It is an incredible achievement. But of course Julie-Ann simply provided a method by which the Australian people, patriots of this nation, could say there has been too much of young women and men, Australian patriots, taking their own lives, dying by suicide, and we need to make it stop. That huge number of people who have taken the time to sign that petition also says that this is an issue of central importance to the lives of veterans, their families and their communities around Australia. I think it says that we should not relent in our commitment to treating veteran suicide as a national scourge and that we need to drive down these shocking figures as a matter of urgent priority. And I say that that is a bipartisan commitment. I know that those opposite—the member for Herbert, the member for Canning and others—have lost mates, as I have. They don't want to see any more veteran suicides. But I guess we differ in the focus on doing everything we can, and a royal commission with a fixed start and end date would enable so many voices to be heard. That would give us recommendations and it would fix these issues.
Some say that we already know what to do. I think there is a lot more that we can learn if we listen, and, as I said, the national commissioner may very likely have been one of the recommendations, and we would have had a lot better result. It was probably the No. 1 issue on the public's mind coming into Christmas—and we remember that then the fires started—but it's important for us all to remember that it's not just about what's in the news cycle today, this week or next month. The news cycle will move on, but nothing will move on for a lot of veterans until the support they need is delivered. The federal government has a huge role to play in that, and I can assure them that veterans and their families are still very passionate about this issue. They want to see that everything possible is being done. We know that there are still veterans dying by suicide, so we need to do as much as we can as soon as we can.
We acknowledge that the family advocate and the national commissioner are steps in the right direction, and we understand that the national commissioner will be established through legislation to be introduced later this year. Whilst acknowledging all of that, Labor continues to call for a royal commission into veteran suicides because it is the best way to deal with this issue. We can walk and chew gum at the same time; we can continue the work to make DVA more user friendly, to have better coordination between ex-service organisations and to give more support to families. We can continue to do these things whilst a royal commission is held. As I said, it's important to recognise that the national commissioner could very well have been, and in all likelihood would have been, a recommendation through a holistic royal commission which had a clear start and end date.
This bill is intended to deliver better support for veterans and families in transition, particularly through the creation of the Veteran Family Advocate and more support for veterans' employment. These are all very important things. I want to acknowledge the work of the member for Kingston previously, and now the member for Blair, in keeping a focus on family engagement and support strategies. I will continue to work with them, to make sure that these services are delivered, and are delivered on the ground through veterans recovery and wellbeing centres. Prior to the last election, as honourable members would remember, Labor committed to rolling out seven such veterans centres across Australia, in Perth, Townsville, Ipswich, Adelaide, Wodonga, Nowra and in my electorate of Solomon—Darwin and Palmerston, in the Greater Darwin area, the northern capital of Australia. Of course, Labor was happy that the coalition embraced our policy with its own promise of veterans wellbeing centres. Unfortunately, more than a year on from the election, progress on centres differ and some are well behind schedule.
I remind the minister that during the election campaign he and the Prime Minister announced that the Darwin centre would be completed in 2020, which is why I would like to take this opportunity to update the House on the progress towards a wellbeing centre in Darwin. Mates4Mates, a great ex-service organisation, is going through the process of establishing a business case with the Northern Territory government. It is exciting to hear about the services that they will be providing. I do acknowledge that things have slowed down a bit with COVID-19, in terms of what can be done on the ground and travel and so forth. I acknowledge all of that. But I just ask the minister and the department and everyone involved to move as quickly as possible to establish that wellbeing centre in my electorate. I also note that the ex-service organisation Soldier On are recruiting for a Darwin based staff member to run a Pathways program. The RSL will also be rolling out an employment program in partnership with Mates4Mates. I have asked and I will continue to ask these national ex-service organisations to coordinate their efforts to ensure the best possible service delivery to the veterans of the Northern Territory. It's great to have some movement in this regard. I just want to acknowledge Billeroy House, an initiative of Darwin RSL, who had a morning tea yesterday for veterans and their families. To the team at Billeroy House: thanks for everything you're doing there.
This bill, the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020, creates a new position for the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to represent the families of veterans. It also enables the provision of assistance or benefits to former Australian Defence Force members to assist them in that transition to civilian life, and it extends the eligibility for the quarterly energy supplement to holders of gold cards, who had previously been excluded. These are important changes that I very much support.
Warringah has a strong community of veterans with over 1,300 veterans and over 2,500 clients of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Some of the most iconic sites in our electorate are dedicated to and commemorate our diggers—the Mosman War Memorial, Poppy Park in Forrestville, the North Head memorial and the Freshwater Anzac Precinct incorporating Soldiers Avenue and Jacka Park. These are important monuments and services for our veteran community. The recognition of veterans' service brings us together as a nation each year on significant days like Anzac Day. The Australian Defence Force serves as more than a job. It is a part of a veteran's identity, community and extended family, and is often their home.
I wish to make comment on the importance of the bill in giving prominence to veterans' wellbeing and to the significant role that families play in supporting veterans through their transition. I also wish to highlight the efforts of local veteran support centres in the Warringah community. A report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released late last year found that there were 419 suicides in serving reserve and ex-service ADF personnel between 2001 and 2017. That is far too many. The rate of suicide for ex-servicemen was 18 per cent higher than in civilian Australian men. Similarly, the rate of suicide for ex-serving women was also higher than in the civilian population. The rate of suicide in serving men and reservists, though, was 48 per cent lower than in the general population. This data clearly shows that the transition point from service life to civilian life is a pain point in the journey for a veteran.
It is not only suicide that plagues our veterans. Compared with those who haven't served, our veterans are also twice as likely to be imprisoned. These are very concerning statistics. Further, veterans are 2½ times more likely to experience homelessness than the general population. All these statistics point to a problem and I certainly look forward to the government focusing on the problem to find solutions. We need to improve the support provided to our veterans to ease this transition and help them redefine themselves outside the military. It is such a substantial change to their way of life that it must be done with assistance and with better support.
I welcome the appointment of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. This role is important in drawing attention to, and working through, the key issues faced by veterans in their transition and throughout their lives post service. I also welcome the establishment of the Veteran Family Advocate through this bill. There is no doubt that families are on the front line of this problem and, in dealing with this transition, they are the first to experience mental health struggles of veterans. They need assistance too. The family advocate will directly engage with the families of veterans to improve the design of all veteran programs and services, including, and very importantly, mental health supports and services. We need to support families, integrate them in the support structure and empower them to assist veterans with their transition. We need everyone to be on board. These two roles will work together to reinforce the work already begun by the Department of Veterans' Affairs through the Veteran Centric Reform program. I encourage the government to continue with the full implementation of this program to realise the benefits of the reform. Putting veterans and their families at the heart of the services that the government offers is essential to the success of any measures to improve the mental and social outcomes of veterans in their transition.
Locally, I am very proud to talk about the Veterans Centre Sydney Northern Beaches and to report on the efforts that the centre goes to in supporting our veteran community. This centre continues to support many current and former ADF personnel and their families. Through the COVID-19 lockdown, the centre has developed a rapid response plan and proactively intervened in high-complexity cases. The handover between the ADF and the DVA rehabilitation teams can often be a long administrative process. In some cases, it can take up to four weeks before a client will be contacted by a new DVA rehab consultant. In certain instances, this can be too long. The veterans centre offers to bridge this gap to ensure that the transitioning member is not left unsupported whilst they navigate their way out of the service environment and into civilian life. They currently serve 137 veterans and have about 20 on the waiting list. They have reported a quite considerable increase during this COVID-19 lockdown, with a 25 per cent increase in the number of inquiries during recent weeks. As with the rest of the community, the centre has not been immune to the economic impact of the COVID-19 restrictions. So, moving into next year, funds to support veterans in significant distress are limited, and they will be seeking additional funding from both fundraising and public funds to continue their support.
Locally, there is an interesting project that I have brought to the attention of the minister which I would commend for further consideration. That is the 10 Terminal project, which is quite appropriate today in the context of the release of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust review that relates to this location. Locally, it's a very important project and has considerable support from the community in Mosman. It is a proposal for 10 Terminal facility at Middle Head to be a transition hub providing a live-in, integrated, wraparound service to support transition from service to civilian life. It is located in an iconic, beautiful bushland area but close to the urban centre of Sydney and can be the ideal stepping stone into civilian life. The proposed transition hub would be located at a historically important military site with connections to the ADF to this day through HMAS Penguin. I acknowledge the correspondence received from the minister. I thank him for considering this issue and urge him, on its behalf, to continue. The transition hub concept remains on the table and we will be working with the relevant parties to further the concept through applications for veterans and community grant funds.
Finally, I commend this legislation and the attention devoted to this important issue of veteran wellbeing. It is essential for the strength of our community that we continue to support the men and women who have served in the Australian Defence Force and their families.