House debates

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Ministerial Statements

Veterans and their Families

4:30 pm

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to reflect on the Minister for Veterans' Affairs annual statement and say to any veterans or Australian Defence Force personnel listening to our broadcast, thank you for your service, and thank you also to the families and the friends who've supported you in that service to our nation.

As the previous minister who was directly responsible for most of the reforms spoken about in the ministerial statement, I want to direct my comments today to the ongoing process of reform, and the optimistic and positive quest for change which defined my team's time in that role. At the outset, I want to make one simple point which is often lost in the public debate about military service and our veteran community. We have a well-led, world-class, highly respected, well-trained and incredibly capable Australian Defence Force. We should be proud of them.

Our capability edge is our people. Sure, we need to keep investing in the equipment to allow them to undertake their task, but it is their skills and the training they receive which sets them apart, whether it's during conflicts or peacekeeping missions or humanitarian aid and disaster relief, they are well prepared and well equipped to do the job they do on behalf of our nation. They are all volunteers; they choose to serve in uniform. In return, we owe them the best conditions of service we can provide, every effort to ensure their physical and mental wellbeing, and an opportunity to transition successfully to civilian life. Overwhelmingly, that is exactly what happens. They train well, they serve well, they transition well and they should be justifiably proud of their service, and ready to take on new challenges in their lives.

It is a job with inherent risks of death and injuries, and as the veterans' covenant states: 'For what they have done, this we will do.' As a grateful nation, we are obliged to support our veterans when they need it. That's why I started saying, 'Thank you for your service' three years ago. It's a reminder to us all. I started saying, 'Thank you for your service' at every public event—not to embarrass Australian Defence Force personnel or veterans but to remind those of us who haven't served about the risks that are taken on our behalf. You keep us safe in an ever-changing world. You are the first people we turn to when the job gets too big for local or state agencies. As a civilian, it's been an extraordinary privilege to see you training and deploying, both at home and abroad. Thank you for allowing me to spend time with you and witness the pride, the passion and the teamwork you exhibit every day.

If I have any advice for our Australian Defence Force personnel, it is simply this: start preparing for your transition to civilian life earlier in your careers. No-one stays in the Navy, the Army or the Air Force forever. Finding a new sense of purpose, a new mission, a new role in our society after your military service is critically important for your wellbeing. The risk of injury means your career could end prematurely and it's why the new joint Transition Taskforce is so important to get right. We have let people slip through the cracks. We have had service personnel who weren't properly supported during transition. We know in this place that we have to do better. That was my personal challenge as the former minister: to work in partnership with the Department of Veterans' Affairs, ex-service organisations and the community to do better every day.

On a small moment of personal indulgence, it was incredibly humbling to be contacted in my last week in the job by people who were publicly making the case for me to stay as minister. In reality, of course, they weren't asking for me to stay. They wanted the stability, and they were largely happy with the direction we were taking as a team and as a government. We changed lives. We saved lives. We had more to do, but that is the nature of politics in our country. I use the term 'we' quite deliberately. You achieve nothing in politics or in this place as an individual. There's an old African proverb, Deputy Speaker Wicks, which I'm sure you're aware of, which says, 'If you want go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together'. In my relationship with DVA and my own office staff, we worked incredibly well together.

Sadly, the feedback I've received from stakeholders in recent months is disappointing. The new ministerial office is not engaged with the ex-service community or the department in a constructive way, and that's to the detriment of our veterans and their families. I urge the new ministerial office to become team players. In my experience, I was extremely well supported by a loyal and capable staff, along with the outstanding leadership team at the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the ex-service community itself, who were all trying to work together to achieve positive changes. Of course, we had many differences from time to time, but I was in no doubt that the ex-service community was working constructively to try and make a difference.

The same can be said for the secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Liz Cosson. Liz brought her own years of military experience to every policy conversation, and she added her own unique passion, empathy and respect for our veterans community and their families. We would not have achieved any of the reforms outlined in the ministerial statement yesterday without Ms Cosson and her executive staff—without her helping my office to shape public policy and without her advocating so strongly, through the ERC process, for budget bids to succeed in order to secure additional resources for every veteran in this country.

In the same vein, I wouldn't have known what to even ask for if I hadn't sat down and listened to the department, peak bodies like the Ex-Service Organisation Round Table, the Repatriation Commissioner, the Veteran Family Advocate and the Defence Engagement Commissioner, learnt from the experience and judgement of the leaders of a wide range of veterans groups and their families and respected their opinions.

As a government, we have invested heavily in veterans employment and transition services, while boosting mental health care and developing a network of wellbeing centres. There's so much more to be done in this space. The new minister's office needs to work with MPs, on both sides of the House, and existing service providers and back in the organisations which are already making a difference on the ground.

On a separate note, our decision, as a government—with support from the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Treasurer—to include a question on veterans in the census will help us inform our future decisions on where our services need to be located. That data gathering is a breakthrough, and sharing that information with the states is vital. As a government, our introduction of the veterans recognition package and the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, along with the redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial, will help define how we respect and remember our service personnel in the future.

Importantly, the new Sufferings of War and Service public art installation will also help families dealing with the grief of having lost loved ones. I thank the people who worked with me so constructively on such a harrowing and emotionally charged issue. It will be an important piece of artwork, and I thank the Chief of Defence Force for agreeing to fund this work and for not forcing the families to fundraise from other sources.

I've reported several times before in this place that, as a renowned dog lover, the successful introduction of the Psychiatric Assistance Dog Program is one of my proudest achievements in that portfolio. I've met with veterans who have received a dog, and it has been a life-changing experience for them. We now need to broaden our minds in this place and look at other innovative treatments, things like equine therapy and art therapy. There was resistance at first to the dog program, but we overcame that, and I think being more innovative in future in how we deal with PTSD will be important for our veterans community.

Finally, the royal commission started this week, and it's a chance to unite our Defence and veterans community. It's important that we tell the good stories and the bad stories. It's important that we continue to learn from any mistakes. We must give our veterans and their families the hope and the confidence that support is available to them, that there are pathways to good health and that we are working in partnership in this place to achieve the best possible outcomes for them. It's so important that we don't feed into a vicious media cycle of despondency, desperation and helplessness. As a backbencher, I want to see this coalition government continue to maintain the momentum for reform and to build on all the good work we've done while the royal commission runs its course. I will continue to promote positive stories and messages of hope for our ADF personnel and our veterans, notwithstanding the very real challenges and the difficulties some may face. As a government and a grateful nation, we must support those who need our help, but at the same time we must promote the many achievements of our veteran community. On that note, I take the opportunity to thank the staff at the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I thank the staff and the volunteers of the ex-service organisations. I thank the families and the friends of serving men and women. And I thank all the people in this place who are working in a bipartisan and constructive way to make a difference. We really have come a long way together, but there's more to be done—together.

4:40 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to start in the way that the former veterans minister, the member for Gippsland, finished, and that is by thanking the hardworking staff at the Department of Veterans' Affairs and thanking all those members of our ex-service organisations who give so much love and support to our veterans and their families. Whether you're in a paid role or, particularly, a volunteer, our nation owes you a great deal of gratitude, not only, in the case of veterans, for your service but for your willingness to help others.

I'm pleased to have this opportunity to rise and to speak about veterans and their families. One of the principal reasons that I'm in this place—as I'm sure is the case with other members who have served—is to improve the lot of our veterans and their families, to look after our veterans and their families. I listened with great interest to the minister's statement. I don't think it has helped that he is the sixth Minister for Veterans' Affairs over eight long years of this government. Personally I would have preferred it if the member for Gippsland had continued in that role and we had been able to make some more gains. It's not a slight to the current minister; it's just that there is something to be said for continuity—although I think you can improve a number of things, and that's why I'm here and happy to help. We need that consistency, I think, and there are many examples of where those opposite, the government, can do better.

The minister told us he is determined to address the high rates of suicide amongst the ADF and the veteran community, and of course that is something that we all want to ensure happens. We know that there are suicide prevention trials underway. In May this year the government announced that the National Suicide Prevention Trial, at 12 national sites, would be funded for another year of operation and transition. There is $1 million for each site over financial year 2021-22. Those opposite, of course, are good at announcing things, but not a dollar has been received. The money has been announced and not received, so it would be good if that was done as soon as possible.

It is a truism to say that we can't rewrite history. It is a truism to say that those opposite, the current federal government, fought against the establishment of a royal commission into Defence and suicide for a long time. It took the veterans community and federal Labor, working with those of like mind who knew how desperate the situation was, and it was well past time for the fullest, broadest and highest level of inquiry in order to stop this scourge. It is a shame that it took so long. I know there has been a lot of trepidation among the veterans community about it. But one thing I'm hearing overwhelmingly now from those who were sceptical is, 'I now understand,' because veterans, their families and their advocates have got a chance to tell their story. That is very, very important. Through the telling of those stories, the themes about where our patriotic Australian men and women have fallen through the gaps will become evident and we'll be able to fix the system in a systemic way, which obviously is what we are after. I am concerned that there is a lack of trust in the government, but, given that they fought so hard against this royal commission, if they do not cover it up and if they have an opportunity in government—obviously I hope that Labor forms the next federal government and implements the recommendations, but if it is those opposite, then they need to respect the recommendations and crack on.

When it comes to supporting specific mental health needs for those participating in the royal commission, I can give you suggestions. These are coming from veterans who are there and present. They're saying it's bringing up difficult issues, as we always knew it would, and there are mental health supports there during the day, but a phone number for after-hours help probably doesn't cut it. If there are mental health professionals made available where the hearings are taking place that can be accessed for face-to-face consultation, then that would be good. That is the feedback from the veterans who are there.

Speaking of those who are attending the royal commission hearings in Brisbane at the moment, I want to give some feedback direct to the House from evidence given from some of those who are there. I will read an excerpt of evidence given by former serviceman Major Michael Stone, who I served with in Timor-Leste and who is now doing great things for veterans with his not-for-profit organisation. He's based out of Queensland. Before COVID, he was taking veterans into Timor; now he's doing it on a lovely beach up in Queensland. Thank you for your service, Mick, and for your great words to the royal commission. In a totally apolitical and bipartisan way I want to House to learn from them. He said:

Who will have a veteran trust to encourage them, motivate them, understand them, love them, and to call them out? To empower them to take responsibility, accountability and to do the hard work it takes to get healthy and stay healthy?


as in his organisation—

have evidence and methodology that veterans, especially veterans with lived experience, and their partners with lived experience, can do this.

Military operations have multiple dimensions of exposure to violence, human suffering and government policy. It should be no surprise that the moral burden of overseas missions and wars, executed on behalf of the Australian people, and ordered by the Australian Government, are left with the Australian veterans to process and their families to absorb the impacts. It's hard to acknowledge, to talk about …

Later, he goes on to say:

The veteran is the embodiment of the best of us as a nation. Those that join the Defence Forces are vetted prior to joining for their mental acuity, physiological stability, health, motivation and physical fitness. On joining, they are above average in every statistic. On departure, they are above average in the worst statistics.

Like all people, we veterans have our problems, but we can be empowered to be part of the solution. We can significantly contribute to prevention, early intervention and postvention. A paradigm shift for everyone involved from a focus of sickness to a focus on promoting wellness will significantly reduce suicide in the Defence and veteran community.

I just wanted to share that with the honourable members and with the House, because that is just one example on one day of one hearing where you're hearing, straight from veterans, that they want to actively be part of the solutions, and they have been doing the hard work to make sure they have also evaluated the effectiveness of what they're doing to help their fellow brothers and sisters. So I just want to associate myself, as a veteran, with what Mick said there.

There are many examples I could give of veterans, fine Australians, who have been injured either on operations or during training, and I will give the House some more examples soon in another speech. But, suffice to say, for the finest of Australians serving our country proudly, the least we can do is make sure that they've got every support—every support. The great hope of all honourable members, I'm sure, is that, whilst this royal commission goes on, we support people as best we can, and then, when we get those recommendations, we do the best that we can to implement them, in the interests of our fellow Australians.

4:50 pm

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Charles Province once wrote:

It is the Soldier, not the minister

Who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the Soldier, not the reporter

Who has given us freedom of press.

It is the Soldier, not the poet

Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer

Who has given us freedom to protest.

It is the Soldier, not the lawyer

Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the Soldier, not the politician

Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,

Who serves beneath the flag,

And whose coffin is draped by the flag,

Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

You could replace the word 'soldier' with 'somebody who serves in the Air Force'. You could replace the term 'soldier' with 'somebody who serves in the Navy'. We should be very proud of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Australian Navy and the Australian Army. I acknowledge the member for Solomon for his service in uniform. I acknowledge all those who have served.

For those who have served and who are now doing it tough, there is help available. Open Arms Veterans & Families Counselling service, 1800044066, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Safe Zone Support, 1800142072, is a free and anonymous counselling line for currently serving Australian Defence Force personnel, for veterans and for their families, and, when you call that number, it is up to the caller how much or how little personal information you share.

Recently on the ABC's Q&A program, Afghanistan veteran Daniel Keighran VC, who was given that honour after his efforts in the battle of Derapet on 24 August 2010, had this to say:

I was there for the men and women to the left and to the right of me on the ground. It's as simple as that. I went, they went. We served our country, the government of the day. I have no questions at all of why we went, or no issues for why we went across there. At the start of the program, you know, I said that I fought beside the Afghan National Army as well. For me, it was absolutely about human rights.

You know, those friends that I have, or had whilst I was in country, the Afghan National Army. You know, for me, it was about creating a better tomorrow for them. So, yes, there was a number of issues throughout. That's without a doubt. I'm, for one, who's been in combat and situations like that, that every step that you could take could be your last. I'm not going to sit here and question some of the decisions that were made, but let's be honest, mistakes were made.

Indeed, Daniel is right. I have the utmost respect for him. I have the utmost respect for all of those who served in that conflict, the longest conflict that Australian services have been engaged in. We lost 41 of our best and bravest.

I pay tribute to the former veterans affairs minister, the member for Gippsland, who we heard from earlier. I pay tribute to him because he listened, he cared, he had empathy, and I know that the service he gave veterans between 2018 and 2021 made a lot of difference for those veterans. I also pay tribute to his staff, as well as to Liz Cosson AM, CSC, the secretary of the department and a Major-General, no less. She was the first female Major-General in the Army when she was given that great honour in 2017. I know that her and her department, the Department of Veterans' Affairs, go out of their way—as they should—to do everything that they can for our veterans. No-one always gets it right and there are those who, sadly and unfortunately, slip through the cracks.

Many veterans in Australia are not in contact with DVA. As at June 2019 there were more than 290,000 Department of Veterans' Affairs beneficiaries in receipt of pensions, allowances and treatments or pharmaceuticals. This number includes about 184,000 veterans and 110,000 dependants. But many veterans in Australia are not in contact with DVA. In 2017 DVA estimated they had contact with one in three veterans who had served since Vietnam and one in five who had served since 1999. DVA estimated there were about 631,800 living Australian veterans who have ever served in the ADF either full time or in the Reserves, as at 30 June 2019. To that end, I was very pleased that a question about military service was included in the recent census. I thought that was very important and timely. Hopefully, that will enable some of those veterans who have not had contact with DVA—for whatever reason; whether it's their own choosing or perhaps something that went wrong with an initial DVA contact—to get the support and the assistance that they need, if they so desire.

I'm proud to hail from Wagga Wagga. It's the only inland regional city with all three military services represented: Army, Air Force and—even though we are many hundreds of kilometres from the nearest drop of seawater—Navy. I'm very proud of that fact. If you serve in the Air Force for any given length of time, you end up at Forest Hill. The 'home of the soldier' at Kapooka is the proud training base for all recruits, who do their initial 12-week training before they are sent to the far-flung corners of the nation—indeed, who knows what corner of the globe—to serve in the khaki, a tradition that stretches back to Gallipoli and even before that.

I am a former Minister for Veterans' Affairs and a former Minister for Defence Personnel. I am also a former Assistant Minister for Defence. I'm proud of those portfolios and of the work I was able to do in my limited time in those areas—work that was continued, enhanced and improved upon by the member for Gippsland. I listened carefully to the member for Solomon and to the former veterans' affairs minister when they talked about the current Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, which is sitting in Brisbane. It will be elsewhere in the nation too. I'm very pleased to say that it is coming to Wagga Wagga. I know that it is going to Townsville. It is important that it has the regional outreach, particularly in towns and centres where there is a high military presence—and an ex-military presence, because many military people actually retire to the places with which they are familiar. Whilst they are serving they form great friendships, they form great networks and they feel comfortable in those places.

The government established the royal commission on 8 July 2021. I know there will be some very sad stories coming out of that. I know there will be some evidence given and some personal tales told that will shock the nation. I would urge and encourage people who want to contribute to that process to do just that, either in person or via other means. But tell your story, tell us about your issues and your concerns, because we need change. We need reform, and this is one way that we will achieve just that.

Some $11.7 billion in federal funding supports more than 325,000 veterans and their families each year across the board, and the 2021-22 federal budget included an additional $702.6 million with a focus on wellness support, suicide prevention and ensuring the DVA is appropriately resourced, as it should be. Mistakes will be made, and that is why I urge and encourage those veterans to reach out to the department, even if they've had an experience that was perhaps not of their liking or as they wished in previous times. Please reach out, please ask for support if you need it, and if you have a contribution to make to the royal commission then please try to do just that, because we do need to change and it will only be from your evidence and those submissions that we can make the necessary changes. Finally, thank you for your service, to all veterans and all currently serving personnel.

5:01 pm

Photo of Pat ConaghanPat Conaghan (Cowper, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

First and foremost I would like to acknowledge and thank all our past and present ADF members. Thank you for your service. We wouldn't have the freedoms that we have today but for you. I'd also like to extend my thanks to their families, because you make great sacrifice in allowing your family members to serve in the ADF and continuing to support them once they have left the ADF. I'd also like to acknowledge and thank the former defence personnel and veterans' affairs minister, the member for Gippsland. I know the member for Gippsland very well and have seen him and the work that he has done over the few years that I have been here. One thing I can say is that he has empathy for ADF members, and he did as much as he possibly could in his role. I saw that when he came to my electorate on two occasions and met with the local veterans organisations. We have many veterans organisations in my electorate. We have one of the highest cohorts of veterans in Cowper, and the member for Gippsland's empathy shone through. If an issue was raised he and his staff—thank you also to his staff—would address that problem immediately. I would like to thank the former minister for how he undertook his role and the work that he did.

One thing that he said quite often was that not all ADF veterans are broken, but when they are and when they are struggling we as a grateful nation have an obligation to those who served us to support the wellbeing of these men and women over their lifetime. We also have an obligation to continue to encourage them and to ensure that they not only speak up but are heard, that we actually listen. We need to do this consistently, and I think that has been the problem in the past. We have to provide a level of support and advocacy that extends not just to them but also, importantly, to their families. In that regard, I am pleased to say that the federal government has invested $11.7 billion in funding for the 336,000 ex-service personnel and their family members. One of the most important parts of this is something that I'm working on with the veteran community in my electorate as more than $40 million of that funding is to establish veteran wellbeing centres across Australia. There are currently six of them, $5 million per centre. Previously, the services were spread out everywhere, but now those new centres are better targeted to the needs of the veterans and their families in local communities. These services include health and wellbeing, employment, training, housing et cetera, entrepreneurial pathways and volunteering opportunities under the one roof. That is the secret: under the one roof, so the veterans know to go. They might not know what to do, but they know where to go. That's the start, the most important thing.

The former minister, the member for Gippsland, referred to veteran support dogs. I met with a veteran the other day and, seriously, he was like a kid waiting for Christmas because it was only a matter of days until his puppy was turning up. He was so excited, and it was self-fulfilling: he knew that this puppy was going to make him happy and help him get through the day. It might be a very small initiative, but it's something that can make such a huge difference to the life of one person. I made him promise that he would bring the puppy in when he got it.

As I said, in my electorate, I've been working closely with veterans organisations to have our own hub and spoke. We're after $5 million–that's not for one; that's for four hub and spokes. It will make the world of difference to the many veterans in my electorate. In that regard, I would like to thank Richard Kelloway, Stephen Sawtell and Pat Magann, veteran advocates, but also, others involved: Justin Poppleton, Louise Freebairn, Peter Bruce, Shawn Bergquist and Bill Wagner for the work that they are doing to help our veterans—it's such important work. They get paid a pittance and do the work of a thousand men—they really do.

I will just address the royal commission very quickly. I could not think of a better appointment than Nick Kaldas as commissioner to the royal commission. I know Nick Kaldas well. He had 35 years in the New South Wales Police Force and retired as assistant commissioner. He is a man of real life hands-on experience. It might not be at war, but it is experience that veterans would understand and appreciate: this is a common man, a decent man and a man who can empathise with them because of that experience. I mean no disrespect to those who graduate university, go straight into a chamber, become senior counsel, do well and are appointed as commissioners—he hasn't come through that way; he's come through with hands-on, hard, real-life experience. He was in the homicide squad, a lead detective for Samantha Knight and many other high-profile cases like Sef Gonzales and John Newman. He has experience of talking to families, empathising with families, which is exactly what he is doing now through this royal commission. He was a negotiator for 10 years.

We've already seen, through social media and through reports from people who have listened to him in the short time the commission has been going, that veterans can see this is a man who will make a difference. I have no doubt that he will make a real difference to the lives of those who will give very difficult evidence and tell very hard stories. I cannot imagine for a moment—my heart goes out to those mums and dads—having two teenage children now, that my children would go off to war and come back only to lose their lives because of what they saw. It is unimaginable. I know that the commissioner will listen to you. You will be heard, and changes will be made.

In conclusion, I acknowledge the work that needs to be done for our ex-service men and women. There is a vast chasm between what is happening now and what needs to be done.

We are taking a bipartisan approach. We all want this. We all want this to be resolved and to have a better process for our ADF personnel when they do return home. It is always very difficult, whether you spend five, 10, 15 or 20 years in any service, whether it is the ADF, police, ambos, firies—in a way, you become institutionalised and it does become very difficult. But those who become institutionalised need to have that support when they leave those services. So, to echo the sentiments of our Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel: they have given us their best and, in return, it is only right that we give them our best.

Debate adjourned.