Monday, 9 November 2020
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020. The bill is designed to improve the wellbeing of veterans and their families, and of course Labor will be supporting this bill, with some amendments that have been moved by the shadow minister. Earlier this year the government announced two new roles: the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, which will be complemented by the Veteran Family Advocate. I note that the government intends to bring forward this 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.
As I said, we on this side will be supporting the bill, with some amendments. But, I've got to say, there are some serious concerns about the government's related proposal of a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. We on this side have said many times that we prefer a royal commission into veteran suicide. From a procedural point of view, we believe that it may be premature to establish the Veteran Family Advocate position ahead of a national commissioner. However, we welcome the announcement of the Veteran Family Advocate at this time as a standalone measure. We just want to ensure that the advocate is appropriately resourced to do the job. So, we have some serious concerns. Given the growing number of veteran suicides, I cannot for the life of me understand why, if you want to help veterans and their families, the government has completely failed to act in this area. We've said that we need a royal commission into veteran suicide. We don't need it five years down the track, or three years; we need it now. There were 33 suicide deaths among serving and ex-serving ADF personnel in 2018, and there were 465 suicides between 2001 and 2018. But we know that the figures are actually much higher. If this was road traffic accidents or something else, there would be an outcry. It's appalling that this government isn't conducting a royal commission. Our service men and women deserve much better.
In my electorate I have some great advocates who are mums who have lost sons. Imagine being in their position. Their sons served in the ADF, on the front line, and gave their all for this nation. For people like Julie-Ann Finney, from my electorate, and Angela McKay, who have both lost sons, the least we can do is conduct a royal commission. Their sons were in the Defence Force, served with dignity and were proud to be in the Defence Force. We make decisions in this place and send people into the most dangerous spots in the world and ask them to put their lives on the line for our democracy, our freedom and all the things we believe in. Yet we cannot get to the bottom of all these deaths that occur through suicide in the defence forces.
When they come back from some of these places, they are obviously traumatised. Imagine being on the front line. I went to Afghanistan and spoke to young Army and Air Force people over there. They told us some of the horrific kinds of stories that you hear. At Tarin Kowt, on the front line, one young soldier told us of an experience he had two weeks before we got there. They would go out and give colouring pencils and crayons to kids in the village. One day when they are out with a swarm of kids wanting their lollies and colouring pencils, one of them had a suicide jacket on and it exploded. The officer who was put in charge was a 23-year-old man who was serving there. What he described to us has been etched in my mind for ever and a day. His job was to investigate who the suicide bomber was. He explained to me that he had had to pick up the pieces of the body and lay it on the table. It was completely torn apart. He had to put the arms and the legs down separately and the body, the torso and the head. When they looked at the body, they saw that it was a young kid of no more than 13 or 14 years old.
The young man who described this to me was about to come back to Australia a few weeks later. I thought to myself: when he comes back to this place, who would he have to talk to? Who would understand the horror and the tremendous trauma that he had gone through in that period? And you could see when he was explaining it to us that it was a horrific event. What would this young man do when he came back—talk about the football? I recall him telling me he was a Port Power supporter. I figured he'd be back within a week and go and speak with his mates—people who would have no idea what he was doing in Afghanistan and maybe not even have any interest in what he was doing. They were going to say: 'How are you, mate? What did you think of the footy scores on the weekend?' We need to put supports in place for these people so that when they return home we can ease them back into the community and they are free of any trauma. We must work at that continuously.
That's why this bill is short. It doesn't call for a royal commission. It doesn't acknowledge the hundreds of mums and dads out there who have lost children to suicide in the defence forces. We need a royal commission now—not next year, not the year after. We need the Prime Minister to call a royal commission into veteran suicides to give people like Julie-Ann Finney and Angela McKay in my electorate the ability to voice their concerns and tell us what they went through when their sons came back and to get to the bottom of why so many veterans are committing suicide.
This is obviously an area that has been going on for too long in a negative way. We hear about it regularly, we read about it in the papers and we hear horrendous stories. This has to end, and it will only end with the services in place, the agencies in place and the medical people in place to assist these people with social workers and by keeping a constant eye on them. It is not good enough to come back from war-torn areas and just get thrown into the community without someone keeping an eye on you to see if you're okay and making sure there are services you require, or if there is anything that can be of assistance or just someone to talk to—just like this young lad I was telling you about. It absolutely blew me away when he told me the story of what he had to do. He was 23 years old and due to come back to Australia in two to three weeks after that incident.
I wonder what measures were put in place for this young man after the trauma that he went through? He's one of hundreds. He was trained and he was proud of his job. He exercised his job in the proper and appropriate manner. He knew he had a job to do that day; he did it, and, as I said, he protected our democracy, our freedom and our way of life by being over there. The least we can do for people who have gone through horrendous events, such as this young lad, is to conduct a royal commission into veterans' suicides, to ensure that we minimise them. One is too many. I hope that the government sees fit, and that the Prime Minister sees fit, to call a royal commission into veteran suicides.
I want to thank the member for Adelaide, who contributed to the debate on this bill and I acknowledge the continued support for the veteran community demonstrated by everyone in this parliament.
The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020 addresses three key issues. It fully implements the government's commitment to create a Veteran Family Advocate, it provides changes to better support for the transition from ADF services to civilian employment and it ensures that all recipients of the gold card are treated equally in terms of their benefits.
We recognise that in many ways, the service of Defence families on the home front is just as important as service on the front line. That is why the government has made engagement with veterans' families a priority over successive terms, establishing the female veterans and veteran families policy forum and the Council for Women and Families United by Defence Service. We have listened to what is working and what needs improvement. This bill will take our commitment further by establishing a Veteran Family Advocate.
I'd like to congratulate Ms Gwen Cherne, who has been appointed as the inaugural Veteran Family Advocate and as a commissioner on the Repatriation Commission. This bill extends that appointments, so Gwen will also be appointed as a commissioner on the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. These commissions are responsible for the administration of veterans legislation and for providing advice to the minister and government in relation to these acts.
Since being appointed Gwen has wasted no time, working with veterans' families to build our understanding of risks and predictive factors of ADF personnel, veterans and their families, particularly as they transition to civilian life. Gwen has spent her first several weeks learning more about the department to understand recent progress and the challenges which still face it. She has met with the Female Veterans and Families Forum and the Council for Women and their Families United by Defence Service, and has sought briefings with Open Arms, including with peer support workers and the Veterans Review Board. Gwen has met with Defence, Defence Families Australia, the staff establishing the Joint Transition Authority, the Australian War Memorial, the ACT veterans ministerial advisory committee and many other national bodies.
Based on this, Gwen is drafting a strategy to address the obligations under this new role, focusing on policy and system changes to support the government's commitment to enhance the health and wellbeing of the veteran community. Gwen will also work with the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention so that recommendations can be rapidly translated into removing risk factors. Ms Cherne has an impressive resume in roles relating to defence personnel and veterans' families nationally and internationally. But, more than that, she brings a range of lived experience. Gwen is the granddaughter of a World War II veteran and the daughter of a Vietnam veteran who had PTSD. She spent time in Afghanistan as a development worker working on military bases and coordinating stabilisation reconstruction efforts with the international response. She was a defence spouse, a carer after her husband suffered a stroke while deployed in Iraq, and she experienced and survived family and domestic violence. Gwen is a war widow to suicide and the mother of a current serving Australian Defence Force member.
Gwen will ensure veterans' families have a voice. The government cannot solve the complex problems faced by veterans without the assistance of their families. Families understand how a veteran feels at a particular moment, the nature of their challenges and what needs to be done to best support them, and I understand that from families of veterans in my own electorate who've contacted me. By working together, we can achieve better results for our veterans and their families that support them. I wish Gwen all the best in the role.
The second part of this bill facilitates flexibility in the way programs can be designed to assist the transition from the ADF to the civilian workforce. This government has made significant improvements in transition and employment support. This was clearly demonstrated in the budget with an additional $23.7 million provided for the Joint Transition Authority and employment support. This bill will further support employment by allowing 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.
I thank the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills for their work and note their comments in relation to the transition to civilian employment measure. In response, an addendum to the explanatory memorandum has been prepared, which I now table, to address concerns by the Senate committee as to why it is most appropriate that details of the support for the employment program be placed in the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Regulations 2020. Once established through the regulations, this program will provide eligible veterans with both pre- and post-employment assistance. This will ensure similar employment support is available to the veterans for up to five years, as is currently available for transitioning ADF members, including career advice, coaching, assistance with skills translation, resume and interview preparation, and coaching to adapt to the structure and communication of civilian employment.
The final part of this bill fixes an unintended omission that has meant the energy supplement has not been payable to some gold card holders because they are covered under different legislation. This government acknowledges the importance of the gold card to the veteran community. After extensive consultation and as part of the interim response to the Productivity Commission's report, we have ruled out any changes to the gold card. This provides certainty to our veterans and their families. This measure builds on our acknowledgement and extends the provision of the energy supplement to Australian participants in the British nuclear tests, British Commonwealth Occupation Force and Australian residents who worked as part of the Australian surgical and medical teams in Vietnam, ensuring all gold card holders are treated consistently.
Our veterans were prepared to make great sacrifices when we needed them and, as the Australian Defence Force Veterans' Covenant states, 'For what they have done, this we will do.' This bill supports the wellbeing of veterans, their families and the wider veteran community.
Finally, I note the second reading amendment to this bill moved by the opposition regarding veteran suicide and a royal commission into veteran suicide. The suicide of any former or serving ADF member is tragic, and the government is committed to taking action to prevent these deaths. Suicide prevention is a complex issue and it deserves an enduring focus. Like a royal commissioner, the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention will have powers to undertake full inquiries into suicides and suspected suicides, including the ability to compel production of evidence, summon witnesses, conduct public and private hearings, and make recommendations to the government about actions to prevent future suicides. Unlike a royal commission, this will be a permanent and ongoing function. I note that the Attorney-General has introduced two bills to enable the establishment of this important role: the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill 2020 and the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2020. I thank the Attorney-General and his department for leading this important work, which will create enduring change for ADF personnel, veterans and their families. I commend this bill to the House.