Thursday, 9 February 2006
Australian Defence Force
I would like to take the opportunity tonight to speak about a couple of Army veterans I met a week or two ago, one of them in Hervey Bay in my home state of Queensland—another beautiful part of the world—and the other in Melbourne. They are amongst a number of Australian service personnel who have been injured whilst carrying out their service in the Defence Force but not on active duty. In one case, the person suffered a cerebral haemorrhage—a fairly severe stroke—in very hot conditions whilst training for the SAS. In the other case, the person suffered very severe head injuries from an accident in an Army vehicle.
The point I really wish to emphasise above all else is that somebody who is in the defence forces who, in training or working or preparing to serve their country overseas, is injured in the course of doing that duty should not be left in a situation where they have to scrape and battle for years and years, as these two men have, to get adequate assistance to try to rebuild their lives. Nor, I might say, should their families have to scrape and battle. As we all know, this occurs with carers throughout the community. But in both these cases these two men have families and parents prepared to do everything they can to help their sons get a fair go with proper compensation, ongoing treatment and proper help and recognition and this has made all the difference. I shudder to think what would have happened in both cases had these people not had parents there to help them and care for them.
It is not a unique story. As is the case with carers throughout Australia, they carry an enormous load. I have to say in passing that if there is one group in the community in general that we should be doing all we can to assist it is carers. In effect, they save the community and the taxpayer enormous amounts of money. I also want to make the point that if there is one group that we do owe a unique debt to it is those who are prepared to serve their country in the defence forces and, whether they get injured in a warlike situation or simply in their day-to-day activities within the Defence Force, they and their families should have the peace of mind of knowing that they will be properly looked after.
I am not saying that what these two men have gone through happens to every single defence person who gets injured but I do know that there are certainly enough of them for it to be an all-too-common story. There was an article in the Bulletin towards the end of last year that detailed a number of examples of people injured in war or, in some cases, when they came back from service, who had problems. Perhaps going with the theme of Senator Humphries’ speech about mental health issues, these problems can take a while before they manifest themselves. But a continual refrain is that these people feel like they are forgotten. They were all quite happy when they were healthy and the Defence Force and the government wanted them to do their duty, but as soon as they became unwell things changed. They all have the same message. They feel that they have been forgotten, that they are no longer of value, that they have been just left on the scrap heap. That is an unacceptable situation for any Australian. I do think we have a unique obligation to veterans and to service personnel who get injured in the line of duty.
I do not want to link this to the totally different debate about whether we should have sent troops to Iraq, and so on. But we have a government that is clearly prepared to wrap itself in the flag, to be there to wave off the troops—as they should be, of course—and to welcome them home and to visit the troops in the field. That is all appropriate and I am not criticising that. But to do all those things—the photo opportunities and the medals and the memorials and all that—but not actually provide care for people when they get injured is particularly offensive.
I call on the new Minister for Veterans’ Affairs to look at this issue. And while I am mentioning him I will take the opportunity to congratulate him. I have had a little bit to do with Mr Bruce Billson, the member for Dunkley in the lower house, from Victoria. In congratulating him I also call on him to have a look at this issue because I think it is a very burning issue, one of many that is important in the veteran area. It is understandable perhaps that Veterans’ Affairs is seen as a junior ministry but it is still unfortunate because it tends to be a bit of a leftover. It is often given to people who are on the way out or seen as just a leftover ministry to give to somebody for a little while. Either way it tends to be one that people pass through whether on the way up or on the way down. That is perhaps understandable but it is still unfortunate. It does take a while for anybody in any position, and certainly in a ministry, to get across all the issues. I am not ever likely to be a minister, but I think that I can reasonably assume that it takes a while to get on top of a portfolio in a particular ministry in order to get across all the issues and meet all the various stakeholders and then to start navigating through the sorts of changes that need to be made. If we are continually turning over ministers in a portfolio like veterans’ affairs that can create a problem for the issues that need addressing. I can assure the Senate and Minister Billson that this is an issue that needs addressing.
In recent years we have had significant changes made to legislation for the military compensation scheme. I was part of the Senate committee deliberations on that. Also there was a major Senate committee report on military justice, a separate issue but with some connections. Again, I played some part in that though not as much as I would have liked. Clearly, more still needs to be done particularly for injured service personnel. It is unavoidable that some people in the Defence Force will get injured and some quite seriously. We want to minimise that of course but it is a dangerous occupation. It is said that the training for SAS personnel is more dangerous a lot of the time than when they actually go into the battlefield because of the situations they put themselves through as part of that training. People will inevitably get hurt and they need to be absolutely confident, and their families need to be confident, that if that happens they will get proper help. I do not just mean somebody punching out on a calculator and saying: ‘Here’s your compensation payment and here are your entitlements. Give us a call if you have got a problem.’ These are people who are usually extremely fit and healthy. They are extremely active young people who suddenly have to adjust.
The person I visited at Hervey Bay has had to adjust to finding it very difficult just to walk around. As he said to me, he is a 30-year-old trapped in an 80-year-old man’s body. I think it is now four or five years since his stroke. I saw him doing his physio and just simply trying to raise his arms over his head a few times was enough to have him panting and sweating. He was exhausted after even small amounts of physical activity. Going from being fit, healthy and very active to that sort of situation, and to have other health problems, such as short-term memory loss, concentration difficulties, headaches and other problems as well, takes a lot of adjusting to. You cannot just leave somebody and say: ‘Here’s your cheque. Good luck.’ In his case he had to fight a lot even to get the proper sort of treatment he needed.
The same thing happened with the man in Victoria. It has taken a long period of time. He has lost his sight, is deaf in one ear and has other problems as well as a result of his accident. It took a long period of time and a lot of pushing by his parents for him to get the treatment he needed. What we need, I think, are people in the veterans’ affairs area who will be case officers for these people and will help them with that next journey of recovering from their accident, continuing to be productive members of the community and getting that recognition of the role they have played and the unique obligation that we owe to them. I urge the new minister, if he is looking for something to focus on as he takes on veterans’ affairs, to give some focus to this area. It is a key one. If we want to improve retention rates in the Defence Force, we need as a minimum for people to know that they will be looked after if something happens to them. (Time expired)