Monday, 29 July 2019
Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019. I'm grateful for the opportunity to speak on the bill, which importantly has bipartisan support. The bill creates a new act that will provide a framework for governments, business and the community to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service, as well as to ensure support for veterans and their families.
I'm also delighted that this bill will establish the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. This is an incredibly important development. Those in this place will be aware that in September last year it was Labor that first announced that, if elected, it would establish a military covenant. Labor's proposed covenant would have covered both current and ex serving personnel and their families. We saw the need to recognise their commitment and sacrifice in serving our country by formalising Australia's commitment to provide them with the ongoing support that they seek and require. This is why Labor is united in welcoming the government's adoption of a covenant through the bill.
However, I must note that we would have liked to see a covenant for all Defence personnel, current and serving, as well as their families. It is unfortunate that what is before us today only covers those who have previously served and their loved ones. Another notable absence from today's bill, which was to be part of Labor's proposal, is the inclusion of annual reporting in the form of a statement to parliament. We wanted this so as to ensure that, whoever the government is, the government is accountable in meeting its obligation to current and ex serving personnel.
When this bill was first introduced in the 45th Parliament, we raised our concerns at the omission of these elements. We therefore referred the bill to a Senate inquiry so that those with a lived experience of service were provided with the opportunity to view and give feedback on the government's proposed covenant. This was followed by providing additional comments of these issues as part of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee's inquiry report. It was Labor's view, both then and now, that thorough consultation with those who were to be affected by the covenant ought to occur.
While we do believe it is a shame and a missed opportunity to not include those currently serving, I must also be clear that this does not negate the overwhelming positives of this covenant. For this reason, Labor fully supports this bill in both principle and practice. The art of compromise sometimes requires us to put the pragmatic over the perfect. This could serve as a lesson for some of those who sit in this place. However, it is important to put on the record that this is another example of a Labor policy that the government has thought a worthwhile idea and decided to pursue. On behalf of Labor, we do thank them for that.
In order to not further hold up the passage of this legislation, we requested that the Senate committee conclude their inquiry by 22 March both to enable examination of the legislation and for the process to be completed in time to be reviewed in the Senate by early April. We believed this was appropriate and would ensure that there was time to review the legislation, enable the current and ex servicing community the opportunity to be involved in the process and not delay the passage of the bill. The committee did indeed report back on 22 March, recommending the bill be passed without amendment. At the same time, Labor senators on the committee canvassed the above issues of including current serving personnel and strengthening the reporting element in the additional comments to the report. However, as it happened, while the bill was debated in April, there was not sufficient time for the bill to be passed in the House of Representatives in the final sitting week before the election, and therefore the bill lapsed.
Given the Senate committee's recommendation, the broad support for the bill and for the covenant from the veteran community, and the delay in the bill's passage, Labor is now willing to be pragmatic and support the bill in its current form. Our commitment to those who served is formalised in this covenant, and it was vital that we get it right. In addition to the introduction of the covenant, this bill inserts a general recognition clause which acknowledges the unique nature of military service, the demands we place on those who serve, the additional support they may require post-service, and the Commonwealth's commitment to supporting veterans. These are but some of the reasons Labor wholeheartedly supports this recognition and our ongoing obligation to those who have put their lives on hold in service to our country.
As an extension of this general recognition, the bill also includes an overarching statement in relation to the beneficial nature of veterans' affairs portfolio legislation, making it clear that the legislation has a beneficial purpose and should be interpreted accordingly. This section will note that the Commonwealth is committed to ensuring that those who make decisions involving veterans will interpret legislation in a way that benefits veterans and their families, where that interpretation is consistent with the purpose of the provision. This bill will also provide for departmental training to ensure decision-makers understand and appropriately apply the beneficial legislation to support the intent of this clause. In addition, a paragraph will also be inserted that will provide that claims decisions will be made within a time that is proportionate to the complexity of the matter, acknowledging the variety of complex client claims and that there will be differences in timeliness. One of the most common complaints about the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the DVA, is the lengthy and complex claims process. This commitment to timeliness will be welcomed by the veteran and ex-serving community.
The bill will also provide recognition of veterans and their families in the form of a lapel pin, cards and other artefacts. These should not be seen as mere platitudes, though. While many ex-service organisations are broadly supportive of veterans' recognition and items like lapel pins and cards, they've also said this must be backed up with substance, such as better veterans' support services. Labor wholeheartedly agrees. The issues facing our veterans and currently serving servicemen and women are of the utmost importance.
Finally, I would like to read the words of the covenant:
We, the people of Australia, respect and give thanks to all those who have served in our defence force and their families.
We acknowledge the unique nature of military service and the sacrifice demanded of all who commit to defend our nation.
We undertake to preserve the memory and deeds of all who have served and promise to welcome, embrace and support all military veterans as respected and valued members of our community.
For what they have done, this we will do.
I commend the bill.
As servants to the people of Queensland and Australia, we applaud this bill and will support it. It's very important to note that veterans are self-selected as people who love our country, are selfless and have initiative. This is a wonderful resource we have, and yet we've destroyed that, in many cases. One only has to go to an Anzac Day ceremony, or talk with veterans, as we go about our business of listening around the country, to find in veterans a love of our country, and a commitment to our country and to serving our country. These people have a lot of talent, and need to have the ability to offer that. However, they face enormous pressure, stress and hurt that can cripple—and, indeed, some have been crippled—and they can be crippled in more ways than just physically. The Romans knew that, because they talked about returning centurions no longer being the same as they were before they left.
One Nation honours that service, that dedication and that valour. It is really remarkable what these people do for our country. That's why we've taken up the vets' cause for several years now, not only for individuals but also for vets as a group. We have many individuals who we've assisted in a variety of ways, whether it be talking about PTSD—helping them with support for PTSD—physical ailments, treatment with the Department of Veterans' Affairs or simply understanding their issues. It is important for us to recognise, symbolically, what these people have done, and that symbolic recognition is in this bill. We applaud the government for that. And it is deserved; it is highly deserved.
Secondly, we compliment the government for the beneficial interpretation in making decisions on the health and welfare of vets. That's welcome, and it's about time. But that doesn't guarantee that they will be supported or get the treatment they need. What we need to ensure is that the Department of Veterans' Affairs is no longer callous or sloppy or continuing to deny vets the care they deserve. We've heard accusations of that and we've seen instances of it. So we hope that this is foreshadowing a change in the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
The DVA card, or the Department of Veterans' Affairs card, will make it easier to identify a vet as a veteran, and that's necessary. The overarching statements of principle we support. I also want to take this opportunity, though, to commend the many volunteers who have formed support and advisory groups for our veterans. However, the formation of these very groups—and they're called microservice groups—shows that the Department of Veterans' Affairs is not currently meeting veterans' needs. So we hope that the bill is more than just words, an ID card and a pin number. We hope the Department of Veterans' Affairs makes real changes.
Someone said a few years ago—I can't remember the source: 'We send them, we bend them, but we don't mend them.' We hope that now we can say that we mend them. Our vets deserve to be appreciated and honoured, and above all our vets deserve to be cared for. We support this bill and commend the government for it.
I rise to speak on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019, which sees the establishment of the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. I'd like to commence by acknowledging all those who have served, and are serving, and their families for the sacrifices that they make so our freedoms go forth into the night. We can sleep safely in our beds because of the work and the service of these men and women.
I've long called for the introduction of an Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant to more formally recognise and articulate the valued contribution that current and former members of the Australian Defence Force and their families make, and have made, to our nation. In 2014, I foreshadowed in my maiden speech the need for a covenant based on the principles of the covenant in the UK, and I have repeatedly pushed and advocated—and made myself a bit of a pest in the offices of certain ministers—for such an important reform and acknowledgement of the service and the sacrifice that is made by those who have served and are serving.
After my maiden speech in 2014, I wrote to the Prime Minister, to Mr Shorten, the then Leader of the Opposition, and to relevant ministers and shadow ministers. I wrote to all senators in this place, regardless of their political colour—Labor, Liberal, Nationals, Greens and the various Independents—asking for multiparty support to bring forward such a covenant. This covenant, and this idea of how we acknowledge those who have served, is beyond party politics. It should be beyond the madness that sometimes envelopes this building and this chamber, and it's something that I think we all agree on. Sometimes we just find it hard to find that agreement.
As part of this push, I convened roundtables with the various ex-service organisations—and there are many of them. I met with relevant members of the government and other stakeholders to try and find a pathway towards getting this covenant established here in Australia.
In 2015, I launched a petition to engage with the broader Australian community to try and build support for the covenant, because, if you want to achieve change, you've got to sometimes bring the community with you. In terms of the covenant as an issue—those who have a little understanding of this area know that it can work in Britain, but Britain does have a different system to how we treat our veterans here. The Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, as set out in this bill, is supported by the Veterans' Recognition Program, which includes three parts: the veterans' card, lapel pin and oath.
The first, the veterans' card, is a redesign of the existing white and gold health cards issued by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The veterans' card will make it easier for Australians to recognise and respect the contribution that veterans have made to our country. Some veterans will receive their new-look cards as their existing card expires, and all other cards will be replaced by the phased implementation process that is currently underway. Businesses will acknowledge the current health cards during the transition, as will healthcare and service providers. The new-look veteran card will continue to provide access to health services and benefits as well as to additional concessions and benefits from businesses, organisations and community groups which chose to support the covenant.
At this point I would encourage those who are in business, whether as small business owners or who work in larger businesses, to understand and to think what they can do to support those who have served and are serving, not just in terms of a card or concessions but in terms of the benefits of employing those who have served our country. Over the coming months, each business, organisation and community group will receive an information pack outlining how they can support the covenant and connect with the veteran community. If you are part of a business, an organisation or a community group and would like to show support for veterans by offering benefits or concessions for veteran cardholders, you can do so by registering your interest on the department's website. It should be stressed, and I will stress it with emphasis, that any benefits or concessions provided will be at the discretion of the participating businesses and organisations, and I would stress to those organisations, whether commercial or NGO, to really push the barrow out in terms of what you can do to assist veterans.
The second, the lapel pin, may be worn to help identify veterans when they aren't wearing their uniform or medals. The veteran lapel pin and reservist lapel pin provide a way for the public to recognise and connect with veterans and acknowledge their service to the nation. The pins will be distributed in the coming months.
The third, the oath, is a commitment of respect to our veterans in addition to the oath traditionally recited on Anzac and Remembrance Day. The Australian community is encouraged to pledge the oath at community commemorative events in recognition of our veterans and their families. Veterans will be able to apply for their card, oath and lapel pin via MyService or the department's website. However, it must be acknowledged that we all know we can do more and we should do more.
It should be also acknowledged that the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant is only part of the government's commitment to putting veterans and their families first. In this year's budget, the government committed to investing more than $11.5 billion in services and support for our 280,000 veterans and their families. As the son, grandson and great-grandson of men who served—in particular, Dad, who receives support from the government because of his time in the Australian Army—it is something we gratefully receive. This is a real increase in funding of more than $300 million from last year. This includes funding for veterans' mental health and suicide prevention, funding to support grants for organisations that help veterans to find meaningful employment, funding to extend the Provisional Access to Medical Treatment trial, funding for family violence victims who are former spouses or de facto partners of veterans, amongst other things.
In detail—and I do stress that we know we can always do more—we are continuing to fund the largest reform in the Department of Veterans' Affairs history. This will make it easier and faster for veterans to access the services they need when and where they need them.
We are also providing $16.2 million to support veterans' employment. We have seen many great examples of businesses benefiting from the skills and capabilities of the veteran community through the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Awards. Nevertheless, we know that there are some veterans transitioning from the ADF who require more support navigating the civilian job market and the ex-service community plays a critical role here. That's why we'll be providing grant funding to organisations across Australia to deliver and expand their innovative programs to assist veterans to find meaningful civilian work.
We're also continuing a substantial investment in veterans' mental health and suicide prevention, committing $4 million to provide training for up to 7,000 volunteers to better recognise mental health risks and provide intervention and support. This builds on the nearly $200 million in uncapped mental health support we provide every year, including free mental health care for anyone with a single day of full-time service.
Through the budget, the government has also responded to the concerns of those veterans who have taken anti-malarial drugs. The government has responded to the recent Senate inquiry on this matter and has agreed, or agreed in principle, to all of the inquiry's recommendations. As part of this, we've provided $2.1 million to deliver a national program for concerned veterans to undergo comprehensive health assessments to identify any potential service related illnesses, injuries or disease. Also, 225,000 veterans and widows are set to benefit from a one-off energy assistance payment of $75 per single and $125 for couples to assist with the cost of power bills.
We should acknowledge, and Senator Sterle mentioned this in his speech, that we would not be here today without the numerous Defence and ex-service organisations who work tirelessly for veterans and their families. As I said earlier, there are a lot of them. There is no way I can pay homage, thank all of them or name all those individuals who have continued to assist veterans and also continued to help provide counsel and advice to those of us who are fortunate enough to sit in this chamber. Over the past five years I've met with many of them, but some I'd particularly like to mention are: the Defence Force Welfare Association, DFWA; the Queensland Veterans' Advisory Council; Legacy; the RSL; the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations, ADSO; and Mates4Mates. They were very good—and I won't name those individuals who have made sure that I'm fully aware of their views in relation to different issues that impact upon the covenant and the wider Defence community. I would like to publicly thank them for their patience with me, for their counsel and for all of their work. In particular, I will name someone: I'd like to recognise Graeme Mickelberg, who is chair of the LNP's Defence and Veterans' Affairs Policy Committee, for his tireless advocacy on this issue. Graeme and I have known each other for some time, but we first talked about this issue in the pub at Palmwoods about why this covenant isn't here in Australia and why it should be here based on the covenant's success in the United Kingdom. The covenant has been Liberal-National Party policy thanks to Graeme and the efforts of the Defence and veterans' affairs committee. Many party members and many constituents, many who don't support the Liberal-National Party, have contacted me and my office about this issue and for that I am grateful.
At the beginning of my speech, I made a point of acknowledging those who have served and are serving. One of the things that I find strange in this country is that—and I raised this issue, I think, a year ago and some people shot me down in flames and some people said it was a good idea—when we board planes, we acknowledge those who have signed up to a frequent-flyer program. We give priority boarding to those who might have joined a frequent-flyer program yet we don't acknowledge those who have served or are serving. My friends say that often it's the small things, when it comes to how you deal with veterans and the community, and it is that simple acknowledgement. So I wrote to the various airlines saying that I can't understand why we can acknowledge frequent flyers but we can't acknowledge those who have served and are serving in the Defence Force.
Likewise, where it's become customary now that we do an acknowledgement of country, I make a point that if we're going to do an acknowledgement of country we should also acknowledge those who have served and are serving. The freedoms that we take for granted in this country come about because of the sacrifices that these men and women have made and will continue to make for us. This Defence Veterans' Covenant and this bill that is before the Senate go some way to that, and I commend the bill to the Senate.
I'm pleased to rise tonight to speak in favour of the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019. In particular, I'm grateful to have the opportunity to place on the record my personal gratitude to the many tens of thousands of men and women who have served in our defence forces and who have dedicated their lives to protecting us and our loved ones.
Australian Defence Force personnel make enormous sacrifices on our behalf. The nature of their task can often require them to move their families across the country at very short notice. When they are posted on operations overseas, it can be for months at a time or years and requires them to be away from partners and children. How many veterans and serving defence personnel have missed their little one's first steps, their first day at school, sports games and just the simple pleasure of sitting down with a spouse and a cuppa at the end of a very busy day? These are the kinds of little sacrifices we can often forget, and they are made every day by the people who work so hard to keep us safe from those who would seek to do us harm.
I'd also like to pay tribute to the many community organisations that are helping and supporting veterans in my home state of Victoria. The Returned & Service League of Australia Victoria Branch has been dedicated to providing practical and ongoing support to veterans since 1916. The contribution this organisation makes to our community can't be overstated. Much of their work happens quietly and without fanfare, yet the impact of their efforts can be profound. For example, the RSL was recently responsible for providing a motorised wheelchair for the child of a medically discharged member of the Australian Army. The family of this former soldier was struggling to make ends meet raising four children. When one of the children needed a motorised wheelchair, it was the RSL that stepped in and helped them. To give you another example, when a retired member of the Royal Australian Navy was unable to afford a new pair of glasses it was the RSL that provided the funds, to supplement this, not their support pension.
It's not just the RSL that does this kind of good work in our community. Soldier On provides social activities, employment, educational support, psychological support and assistance for our veterans, helping them and their families stay connected in the communities that they love. Young Veterans supports former defence personnel with opportunities to create community connections with one another, an important component in the ongoing mental health of our veterans. Then there are the Vietnam Veterans Association, Legacy, Veterans Off The Streets, The War Widows' Guild, the Defence Force Welfare Association and countless others, all of whom are doing their bit to support our veterans and their families. But there's more to be done, and there's a role for everyone in this place and the community to lend a hand.
When the men and women of our Defence Force are on deployment, they are in harm's way—literally—putting their safety and lives on the line for our national interest, sacrificing their physical and mental health for our safety and comfort. We owe our veterans a great debt. As both sides of this place and many on the crossbench recognise, this is a way for us to plan a recognition of veterans and serving members of our Defence Force. It's also why, despite some concerns about the mechanisms of the bill, Labor will support the proposed format for recognition of immense contributions that veterans have made to our community. The centrepiece of this bill is the establishment of an Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, which will provide a framework for our community to recognise and thank veterans for their service to our nation. It is something for which a range of stakeholders have been lobbying for some time now. This will serve as a solemn reminder of the debt of thanks and service our community owes veterans.
However, there are concerns that the covenant does not cover currently serving military personnel. Recognition models around the world that are similar to that which would be established by this bill, notably that of the United Kingdom, include currently serving military personnel. As the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Amanda Rishworth, stated earlier this year when this bill was debated in the other place, 'Our obligation to look after members is just as great when they are serving as it is when they are in transition, through that transition and then while in civilian life.' The member for Kingston is correct. Veterans hold a special place in our community, but so do currently serving members of the defence forces, and we should include them in formal recognition.
I believe that the establishment of the covenant and a formal program of recognition for our veterans is important. Lapel pins and a veterans card are simple things that we can do to achieve this. But that recognition has to go hand in hand with proper support and assistance through the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Our thanks to and recognition of veterans also has to include proper provision of health care and mental health services. Cutting departmental staff and changing departmental programs in ways that are not yet clear make the provision of that health care and those mental health services harder, not easier. Words are important, but they must be backed up with action. I'm now looking to the government to ensure that the impact of their budget cuts will be minimised at the very least. I am pleased that I've been able to place on the record my gratitude to former and current Defence Force personnel and the many community organisations that support them.
When you hear the way the rest of these senators talk about the Australian Veterans’ Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019 here, it's as though they're talking about something completely different, because they're all talking about a bill that recognises and respects veterans and their families, and I don't see that anywhere. The bill as written by the government does nothing. It does absolutely nothing. It's designed to mean nothing, it offers nothing, it says nothing and it commits nothing. In the words of one veteran, 'When you've got a mental health condition, you're in a constant battle with yourself, and then DVA makes you battle them as well.' And for some veterans, it's asking too much; it's one battle too many. They haven't got it in them. There's nothing left, because they're just an empty human shell.
The government says that this bill is about recognising and respecting our veterans. Recognising? And respecting? You get a pin, you get a card, you get a covenant. You get a bill that falls over itself to say how much we love and respect veterans and their families, how we recognise them and their service and sacrifice, how they're great and they deserve the world—but in the meantime, here's a pin.
If you really respected veterans and their families, you wouldn't send them a pin; you would send them an apology. This government has failed veterans each and every time. Veterans fight for us—all of us—and when they come home they fight the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Wow, they've got a lot to look forward to, haven't they! The review into the Department of Veterans' Affairs handling of compensation claims found that the DVA could actually be harming the mental health of veterans. Imagine going to the department that's there to help you, asking them to help you and coming out the other end worse.
And there are thousands of us. This isn't rare. This isn't only happening now and then. Nearly three out of four ex-service personnel and ADF members who transition into the Reserve have a mental health condition at some stage in their lifetime. Male veterans under 30 are twice as likely to commit suicide. Between 2014 and 2018 DVA received 10 claims for mental health conditions a day. That is 19,000 mental health condition claims. People are coming back with mental scars that run deep and they are asking for help, because we tell them that's what they should do, because we promised them help, because we care about them—supposedly. Then we withhold it and we break them. Veterans are killing themselves, and once again you want to send them pins.
It's you in the government who sends these people to fight, but when they come back you wash your hands of them. This bill doesn't even make a secret of that; you don't even try and hide it. It doesn't fix a single broken system, broken promise or broken veteran. It doesn't even try. What it does, according to the minister, is provide symbolic recognition. This bill is just about making people feel good so you guys in here can have your fuzzy wuzzy moment. Well, I'm not getting the fuzzy wuzzy, I'll be honest with you.
Clause 10 says outright that the bill 'does not create or give rise to rights or obligations'. It clearly states that. In other words, where the bill says the Commonwealth will cooperate with veterans and their family, it's just words. There's no promise. You're not legislating it. There's no promise here. It's a feel-good moment for you all in here. Where the bill says that the Commonwealth will work to resolve veterans' claims quickly, simply and fairly, once again, it's just words. If the government doesn't honour those words, too bad—there is nothing you can do about it. There are no penalties for you people in here—nothing at all—absolutely nothing.
This bill promises to recognise and respect veterans. Haven't we been doing that for—how many years now?—over 100? Haven't we been promising to do that with them already? I've heard it time and time and time again. Where the bill says the Commonwealth will cooperate with veterans and families, it's just words; it's not a promise. Where the bill says the Commonwealth will work to resolve veterans' issues, quickly, simply and fairly, it's just words.
This bill promises to recognise and respect veterans and treat them with dignity and fairness, but this promise isn't legally enforceable. There are no penalties for you people. It says to veterans, 'We promise to treat you right.' Like I said, you've been promising to do that for years; you just don't want to be held to that promise. What a shameful performance in here today. You say, 'We don't want to be held to it, but we'll make promises for you.' If you really wanted to help these veterans, you wouldn't be doing this. This is like a slap in the face to them.
What you do is what the Liberals promised in 2004 when the then Minister for Veterans' Affairs promised that the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 would be the best of both of the existing schemes. What you'd do is summon all the big wigs from business, unions, employment agencies and government and lock them in a room and say, 'We're not leaving without a plan to give veterans specific, targeted employment opportunities that are flexible enough to let veterans work and still receive treatment.' You'd push Insurance Council Australia to stop its members from deducting fees for TPD people, total and permanently disabled people, and you'd encourage income protection policies for veterans returning to work. I haven't heard of any of you trying to do that. I haven't heard of any of you trying to take Insurance Council Australia on. How's that goodwill going in here? These policies are absolutely worthless.
Veterans who try to claim after going from service to civilian employment are told they can't claim against their policies if a complaint relates to their service, because it's pre-existing or war caused. If you really want to help veterans, you'd grant veterans with operational war service a gold card for life. You're not doing any of that. You're giving veterans another card to go in the wallet, another pin to go on the jacket, another promise to be broken as soon as it costs you something to keep it. Also, you can pat yourselves on the back and make yourselves feel good.
I'm moving amendments that are going to be voted down by the government because the purpose of this bill, according to the Liberal Party and according to the National Party, is pure symbolism. That's all it is: symbolism. The Liberal Party doesn't want to be held to a lifetime of dealing with the claims of veterans because that would cost them too much to actually deliver. Apparently pins are a cheaper solution. The Nationals don't want my amendments to succeed either. The Nationals will only vote for this bill if it means they get to say they support veterans without ever having to do a thing to actually support them. They will vote against committing the Commonwealth to an ambition to treat veterans better than the way they're being treated right now. They say this bill isn't about changing things; it's about symbolism. It's not about what it means, because, without my amendments, none of this means absolutely anything. It's all about how this looks. I'm not here to make you look good—I'll be honest—especially when it comes to veterans. I'm not here to support a veterans bill that doesn't support veterans. I won't do that.
In 1917, Prime Minister Billy Hughes said:
... the care of the returned soldier is one of the functions of the Commonwealth Government ... They go out to fight our battles. We say to them: ‘When you come back we will look after you’…
That says something more solemn and profound and comprehensive than anything you can fix in this excuse of a bill, and it says it in five words. It says, 'We will look after you.' That's what you're supposed to be doing, but, no, you want to symbolise. This bill doesn't say that, does it? It doesn't respect veterans. This bill doesn't recognise their service and their sacrifice. You are kidding yourselves. It is absolutely embarrassing right now, in this chamber, to be aiming this low. Just say you'll look after them and bind yourself to it. Set that standard for yourselves and work like dogs to live up to it. If you fail to meet the standard that respect and recognition actually demands, own that failure. Own it; be honest. There's honour in trying to treat every veteran like a hero instead of a cheat. There's no honour in this bill. You're walking away from your side of the deal before you're even asked to honour it. They were sent to fight for us and we should show a bit of fight for them. That's how you show respect. So you know what you can do with your pins. I'll be honest with you.
I have a bit of time here. This is good. I just want to talk about something in clause 7. Apparently existing veterans legislation already requires DVA to act essentially in accordance with equity, good conscience and the substantial merits of the claim without regard to legal technicality. This clause is about applying the legislation beneficially. There have been a number of Senate reviews, including the constant battle, and recommendations quite clearly articulate the failure of DVA to undertake its existing legislative function. So why does this bill need to again remind them that they will have to practise the act accordingly. Why? I'll tell you. You're not doing anything here.
I want to give you a case. This is very disturbing, and this has happened in the last 12 months, and apparently we're fixing the system. I'm going to bring this case up. I want to talk about a 94-year-old war veteran fighting to get a VEA-EDA pension through the AAT—with DVA using their usual lawyers to take us all down—and being forced to see four medical specialists and give evidence before the AAT. That's right: a 94-year-old veteran. But you're changing your ways! Hang on, it gets better. It gets good here; it gets better. Do you know why? Because DVA did not accept his own lifestyle self-assessment—a 94-year-old man.
Sitting suspended from 18:30 to 19:30
I just want to go on about the goodwill that we've got going on here and, of course, the goodwill of Veterans' Affairs as per usual—I don't see much goodwill coming out of them at all. But I want to talk about the case of a 94-year-old World War II veteran fighting to get an EDA pension through the AAT with DVA using their usual lawyers. Imagine using lawyers against a 94-year-old and being forced to see four medical specialists—once again, a 94-year-old seeing four medical specialists—and then expecting him to give evidence before the AAT. And why? Because DVA did not accept his lifestyle self-assessment—a 94-year-old doing a self-assessment. This just keeps getting better. This is not the old DVA but occurred throughout 2018, and the AAT decision was handed down in May 2019. Imagine putting that World War II veteran through so much trauma at 94 years of age, and they were doing that while they were shaping this bill of their goodwill. So, honestly, we have to ask the questions.
I also noticed that Senator McGrath—and I thank you for bringing up the DFWA, because apparently you're not listening to the DFWA. The DFWA, Defence Force Welfare Association, has made very, very strong representations to amend the title to more specifically identify its intent besides its intent to give us a card and some sort of pin and to have a no-disadvantage clause inserted in the legislation. Indeed, when the FADT committee reviewed the bill, the Defence Force Welfare Association made a submission for the inclusion of such a clause but, of course, guess who opposed it? Veterans' Affairs. It took the view that DVA related legislation was beneficial to ex-serving ADF members anyway and that, as the bill was not about additional benefits, there was no need for a no-disadvantage clause. I actually thought that was a fair ask: no disadvantage to be brought to the veteran. It's not a big ask because we have all this goodwill, and you would not want this or any other bill to disadvantage a veteran—just one word: disadvantage.
Veterans and their families are affected by other legislation practices which sometimes have had unintended consequences. Oh, my goodness, the Department of Veterans' Affairs is full of those unintended consequences but, instead of cleaning up those unintended consequences, it's just let them sit. That's why it's such a dirty, sticking rotten mummy. You don't fix it; you just put bandaid over bandaid over bandaid. This is why we're in the situation that we're in now. This is why you are losing lives within the Department of Veterans' Affairs, because your decision-making is out of control. That's if you are making decisions. This is what is taking their lives.
I can tell you now: you have had review after review after review. You've had recommendations which you have not bothered with. You've just put whatever you thought was going to fix the Department of Veterans' Affairs without actually looking at all these review systems, and it is absolutely shocking. It would be nice if you actually started to listen to what was going on. So, let's have a look at these. You've had Enzyme reports. You've had forums. You've had chronology of other reports since 2009 related to transition of ADF personnel. You've had an Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing study into the suicides of serving and ex-serving ADF personnel. You've had an Australian National Audit Office report on the administration of rehabilitation services under MRCA. You've had an inquiry of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade into the care of ADF personnel wounded and injured during operations. Oh wait! It goes on. It keeps getting better! You've had all these reviews. You've had all these workshops. Are you actually listening? Because I would have thought if you were listening after all those reviews this Department of Veterans' Affairs should be tickety-boo, but it is actually worse than what it ever has been.
I've sat on the fence with the royal commission in the Department of Veterans' Affairs—I really have. It is getting to the point where you've now got inquiries going on in other states because of suicides, because the DVA, with their own hand, has caused those. That, to me, is very worrying. I don't think you're learning anything in here. There are also a lot of people out there that have not been able to function, who have PTSD, so they not only have psychological injuries they have physical injuries as well. They've got no idea these inquiries are going on. You're not exactly broadcasting them all over. There's a bit of smoke and mirrors going on. I can tell you now they haven't had their chance to have their say, and part of the healing process for those veterans will be to be able to have their say.
I'm gonna see what happens in here over the next six months. But I'm telling you now I am leaning towards supporting those calling for a royal commission, and that support is getting bigger. If I get on the train about that, especially on my social media, you will have no other choice but to call a royal commission on the Department of Veterans' Affairs, because it's failed to do its job. By doing all these little niceties here and giving us a pin is not going to fix the physical and psychological conditions of these veterans and those who have served. That's not what they're asking for. They're asking for what you have promised them for a hundred years, and that is to look after them when they return. They are not getting that from in here, so either we don't have the capability to be able to fix the system or something is terribly, terribly wrong. I tell you what, I've had enough of the suicides. So have they and so have their families and so have their friends. It is beyond the point of return. For goodness sake, to us this is a slap in the face, this whole card and 'I'll get up and ask questions about that'. It's a nice feeling, but it's not fixing anything. It's all smoke and mirrors. Anyway, I'll leave the rest of what I have to say and the questions until the committee.
I rise today to add my contribution in support of the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019. This bill will enshrine in legislation the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. The covenant will help recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service as well as the sacrifices our veterans have made in defence of our great country, whether that is overseas on operations or here at home as part of the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program, as a member of the catering corps feeding our troops, as a member keeping our aircraft in the air or as a driver transporting stores and equipment across Australia.
The covenant also recognises the unique sacrifices that families make to support and assist their loved ones. As mentioned, the purpose of the covenant is to acknowledge the unique nature of military service, particularly the sacrifice demanded of those who commit to defend our nation and their families. The Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant is an oath that the parliament of Australia endorses on behalf of the people of Australia and reads:
We, the people of Australia, respect and give thanks to all who have served in our defence force and their families.
We acknowledge the unique nature of military service and the sacrifice demanded of all who commit to defend our nation.
We undertake to preserve the memory and deeds of all who have served and promise to welcome, embrace, and support all military veterans as respected and valued members of our community.
For what they have done, this we will do.
This oath is not intended to replace the ode that is traditionally recited on Anzac Day or Remembrance Day, but it is an additional commitment of our respect for veterans. I would like to take this opportunity to personally thank our veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice. It is thanks to them that we are able to rise in this chamber to discuss and debate legislation. Without their sacrifice, who knows what type of democracy we might have.
Further, to the veterans' covenant, this bill also includes a veterans' recognition program, something I am personally very pleased to see introduced. This veterans' recognition program supports the covenant by providing a new veterans' card, veterans' lapel pin and oath. These provides a pay for Australians to identify and acknowledge our veterans for their service on any day of the year, not just on Anzac Day or Remembrance Day. As a country, we should be remembering and acknowledging the service and sacrifice our veterans make each and every day.
A veterans' recognition program provides a way for all Australians to support our veterans. It allows businesses and other organisations to offer discounts, benefits or concessions to our veterans when they present the veterans' card or are wearing their lapel pin. The veteran lapel pin and reservist lapel pin provide a way for the public to recognise and connect with veterans and acknowledge their service to the nation. The pins will help identify veterans when they aren't wearing their uniforms or medals and will be distributed in the coming months.
I would like to stress that the pins do not seek to replace the returned from active service badge and operational service badges. The returned from active service badge recognises Australian Defence Force members who have returned from active or war-like service during military campaigns in operational areas. The operational service badge recognises all declared operational service, such as border protection, service in the Greater Middle East area or other operations. I strongly encourage any business who would like to be involved in this veterans' recognition program to go to the Department of Veterans' Affairs' website and register their interest in being part of this exciting program. By doing so, they will receive an information pack, which will then help them support and connect with the veteran community.
I would just like to comment on the contribution made earlier from one of the senators on the opposite side of the chamber, where they stated this bill doesn't include current serving members of the Australian Defence Force. I will clarify that, as in the definitions included in part 1 of the bill, veteran means:
… a person who has served, or is serving, as a member of the Permanent Forces or as a member of the Reserves.
The coalition Morrison government puts our veterans and their families first. In the budget announced earlier this year, the government increased fund to the Department of Veterans' Affairs by $300 million. We are strengthening the support for our veterans with $24.4 million in funding for a range of programs, such as extending the trial of the provisional access to medical treatment. This is a fantastic initiative that allows our veterans to access treatment for a range of specified medical conditions whilst their DVA claims are being assessed. This allows faster access to medical treatment and helps prevent further deterioration of their health condition.
We are providing $4 million in funding to provide training to RSL and other ex-service organisation volunteers, who, as we know, work closely with and offer assistance to our veterans. This training will help them to recognise people at risk and, where appropriate, provide intervention and referral for additional support. The coalition government is providing grants to not-for-profit organisations to help them deliver programs that will assist veterans to find employment post-discharge from Defence. The many new and amended listings being made to the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme also offer support and assistance to our veterans.
All of these initiatives add to the previous work the coalition government has done for veterans over the past few years, such as reducing red tape in the DVA claims process by streamlining the requirements for certain conditions. If a veteran's doctor diagnoses one of the streamlined conditions, DVA can accept it as service related. This results in less paperwork and a reduced processing time. It is a much more client-focused model, easing some of the stress placed on veterans in submitting their claims to DVA. We are also introducing non-liability health care, which allows current and former Defence members, depending on eligibility, to receive treatment for any mental health condition, cancer, malignant neoplasm and pulmonary tuberculous without the need for the condition to be accepted as service related. Once again, it's a more client focused model, easing stress on our veterans.
Support and counselling is also available for veterans and their families through Open Arms—Veterans and Families Counselling Service. It provides free and confidential counselling, group treatment programs and suicide prevention to help our current serving defence members, our veterans and their families. Open Arms has experienced counsellors who have undertaken specific training to help them understand the unique demands of military life and to help members, veterans and their families transition and adjust to civilian life after military service.
Over the past two or three years the Department of Veterans' Affairs has refocused. No longer are they claims-process driven—rather, they now put the veteran at the centre of every decision they make. This has been supported by the coalition government's investment in the Veteran Centric Reform, focused, as its name suggests, on putting the veterans and their families first. The Department of Veterans' Affairs has been in existence for over 100 years. As a result, and as you can well imagine, some of the systems and services have needed to be updated to bring it into the modern era. This has included putting a focus on improving the digital aspect of delivery. MyService has been introduced to allow some claims to be done and certain services to be available via online servicing. Telephone access, which has been in existence for some years, needed to be upgraded and, through the introduction of the Veteran Centric Reform, improved technology has made it much faster and easier to speak to the department. This has been enhanced through the single contact number of 1800VETERAN.
The Department of Veterans' Affairs has worked in partnership with the Department of Human Services on many service delivery aspects, including the expansion of face-to-face services in some locations, particularly rural and regional areas. There has also been an improvement in data and system capabilities. Investment in computer systems has certainly provided a faster and far more accurate access to veterans' records.
The majority of veterans who leave the Defence Force go on to have success careers, and another recently introduced development for veterans has been the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program. This program demonstrates the importance of government places on raising awareness with employers, both in the private and public sector, of the value and unique experience of our veterans. The Australian Defence Force invests heavily in its service men and women, who have a broad range of skills and experience developed through their careers. Their skill sets, including leadership and problem-solving skills, are in strong demand and will obviously transfer into civilian and public life.
Australian businesses of all sizes and across all industries have an opportunity to employ these skilled and capable individuals when they leave Defence. By making businesses more aware of the value veterans bring to their organisations, employment opportunities for veterans will increase. As a result of that, the introduction of the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Awards has also provided some wonderful examples where businesses have benefitted through employing veterans. It provides an opportunity to celebrate veterans in the civilian workforce, such as those who were successful in the 2019 awards.
I would like to pass on my congratulations to these following award winners: Outstanding Contribution by an Individual to Veterans' Employment, Mr Chris Mayfield OAM; Outstanding Veterans' Employer of the Year, BCT Solutions; Veterans Employer of the Year—Large, Boral Limited; Veterans' Employer of the Year—Medium, BCT Solutions; Veterans' Employer of the Year—Small Business, Veterans in Construction; Veteran Employee of the Year, Mr Jordan Ivone; and Veteran Entrepreneur of the Year, Mr Ben Whitham. Supporting the spouses of our veterans was Excellence in Supporting Spouse Employment, Defence Bank; and Excellence in Supporting Veterans' Employment was Ironside Recruitment. They are all worthy and successful winners.
Another area of support provided to our veterans by DVA is the significant recognition of their service through a number of national services, mostly coordinated through DVA. These include many Anzac Day and Remembrance Day services around the country and things such as the significant program of events commemorating the Anzac centenary, during the period 2014 to 2018.
By acknowledging those who fought in the First World War, we also acknowledge all those who have served since. It was a great honour for me to be able to be present and attend the Centenary of the Battle of Polygon Wood in Belgium in 2017. That battle took place on 26 September 1917 as the men of the fifth Australian division prepared for their first major battle in Belgium. The sombre mood of that service and the immense sacrifice of Australians at that place still stays with me today. The Australian people and everyone in this chamber recognise the sacrifice and commitment of those who have signed up for service and made an oath or affirmation to defend Australia. This bill further cements Australia's gratitude for their service. I urge all senators in this chamber to support this bill.
I should first note that this is not my first speech. I'd like to commence by commending the senators who have made contributions to this debate on this bill, the Australian Veterans’ Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019, thus far. I have genuinely been interested and listened to their contributions to this debate. In particular I'd mention the passionate speech that was given by Senator Lambie. Obviously she holds these issues close to her heart. I think she made a great contribution to the debate here tonight, and I commend her for it.
Listening to those contributions I was reminded of a quote from one of the great Russian writers, Dostoevsky, who said in his work—it was either Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov'Judge a society by the way they treat their prisoners.' That is, if you go into the prisons in a society and see how that society treats its prisoners, then you can make an assessment as to the humanity of the society I think perhaps we could take those words and adjust them to this case and say, 'Judge our country—judge Australia—by the way we treat our veterans and their families,' because there is no more-special class of citizen in our society than those who have served our country in the armed forces.
Earlier today I made a contribution to the debate with respect to maritime borders in Timor-Leste. In that contribution I referred to the service that has been given by a number of my friends and people I've gotten to know over the years in that field and in particular during the time of the troubles in East Timor. My friend and colleague Senator James McGrath referred to the contribution of Graeme Mickelberg, who is an outstanding veteran himself and has made an outstanding contribution to this debate and to the discussion of the covenant. His son, Brent Mickelberg, is a member for the state seat of Buderim. Brent himself served in the Australian infantry, just as his father did. When he gave his maiden speech to the Legislative Assembly in Queensland, Brent Mickelberg, the member for Buderim, made a great contribution to the understanding of Queenslanders as to what veterans go through—the contribution and the sacrifices they make. I want to quote from his maiden speech:
I cannot speak in detail about my service over in Afghanistan, but some of the things that we saw will stay with me for life: images of children killed by the Taliban, suicide bomb attacks and US soldiers killed by the Afghan soldiers they had been mentoring.
Brent then went on to describe the troubles he had upon returning to Australia and the struggles he had adjusting to that. He described how:
On a drive from Cairns to Townsville one night with my sister I recall seeing movement on the side of the road. It clearly triggered something and I swerved violently in reaction. To tell you the truth, I had not even realised what had happened or how I had reacted until Katie told me to pull over.
He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It got so bad. Brent said:
Over time I began to wonder if I would be better off ending my life so that I would not be a burden to Anna and my family. I felt that I was not doing anything to make their lives better anyway.
So here is a great Australian who had given service to our beautiful country and was left in a dark place of desperation following his service for our country. But he told his story. He recovered. He sought treatment from a psychologist who specialised in returned veterans and police, got treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder and worked through it. He had the bravery and the courage to refer to his own personal struggle. In his words, he said it was 'not only to spread awareness about the danger of PTSD for our Defence and emergency services personnel but also because too few men are willing to stand up and tell their stories of struggling with mental health. I want my son to grow up knowing that he should not be afraid to seek help if he ever needs it.'
Those are the people—the Brent Mickelbergs of the world and of this country—whom we are here respecting this evening in terms of this debate. Those are the people whom we must keep at the forefront of our minds and it is those people and their families who should never be let down by whatever government forms in this place.
I want to talk about the unique nature of defence service. Senator Lambie referred to the Defence Force Welfare Association and a submission they made. I want to quote from that submission in terms of informing the Senate as to: how is military service unique? How is it unique from the police, the fire service, the ambulance service and others who put themselves in harm's way? We know the great courage and bravery that they show. What is unique about military service in addition to the sacrifice? I'd like to quote from their submission because I think it encapsulates the concept of uniqueness extremely well. They said:
In examining military service as a unique calling we should understand that exposure to danger and the courage to face it are of themselves not unique features of military service. In arguing our case, we do not maintain that the serviceman has a higher requirement to show courage, nor a greater willingness to make sacrifices—even of his life—than others who serve the society and protect it from danger. We claim only for the serviceman—
a distinction from all other callings, in that he and he alone—
or she and she alone—
is under a compulsion to face danger and make sacrifices—even of his—
life—once either he—
has committed himself—
to serve, or has been compelled to serve by the State.
There's the compulsion, and therein lies the uniqueness of military service. Subsequently in the submission from the Defence Force Welfare Association, it says:
... once the individual has entered military service, the relationship of obedience is established. This relationship necessarily requires the surrender of the individual’s "inalienable" right to liberty, and alienates his right to life and security of the person, by placing responsibility for their preservation in the hands of others.
Again, that is where the uniqueness lies in terms of military service.
I would like to take on board Senator Lambie's point with respect to the no-disadvantage test. I note clause 7 refers to the beneficial interpretation of legislation. It refers to three pieces of legislation and instruments which are made under those acts—in particular, the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986; the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004; the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988; and also instruments made under those acts. It is important that we actually read these words and reflect on what it means in the cases that come before the relevant decision-makers. Subclause 7.2 states:
(2) The Commonwealth is committed to decision-makers deciding claims under that legislation:
(a) in a manner that is fair, just and consistent; and
(b) within a time that is proportionate to the complexity of the matter; and
(c) in a manner that promotes public trust and confidence; and
(d) on the basis of only requiring evidence sufficient to meet the relevant standard of proof for the claims.
I would hope that all decision-makers, when they're considering matters related to veterans, have extremely close regard to subclause 7.2. It says:
… deciding claims under that legislation:
(a) in a manner that is fair, just and consistent—
and as far as I'm concerned, that needs to take into account the unique nature of military service. It says:
(b) within a time that is proportionate to the complexity of the matter;
(c) in a manner that promotes public trust and confidence; and … only requiring evidence sufficient to meet the relevant standard of proof for the claims.
It's extremely important that decision-makers have reference to each of those matters.
I note that the Productivity Commission has brought down a report recently, which the government is considering. I think there is no work more important for this government than considering that report in great detail, ensuring that our DVA treats veterans with respect and ensuring that they get the actual outcomes that they deserve, given the service they've given our country.
I think employers all over this country need to consider their policies. Many of our largest companies in this country have policies which promote diversity. They should have policies that promote diversity; there is no question about that. I suggest that those companies reflect on their policies and find room in their policies for veterans, recognising that consideration should be given to employing veterans. They should put that in their diversity policies and their employment policies, and they should discuss what practical measures could be taken to assist in the employment of our veterans.
Lastly, I'd like to read the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. We've spoken about the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. I think we should reflect closely upon each and every phrase in that covenant.
We, the people of Australia, respect and give thanks to all who have served in our defence force and their families.
We acknowledge the unique nature of military service—
the unique nature of compulsion, which I referred to earlier in my speech—
and the sacrifice demanded of all who commit to defend our nation.
We undertake to preserve the memory and deeds of all who have served and promise to welcome, embrace and support all military veterans as respected and valued members of our community.
For what they have done, this we will do.
It is a covenant, a promise, between the Australian people and our veterans, and no-one deserves the benefit of that promise more than our veterans and their families.
In rising to speak today on this bill, I wish to first and foremost express my continued thanks and gratitude to Australia's veteran community for their tireless service to our country. As I'm sure honourable members have heard tonight, this bill is about putting veterans first, putting veterans' families first and recognising the unique and special service that veterans provide in defending our country. I think that we not only need to recognise their service but also understand the impact that that service has on both the lives of veterans and the lives of their families. I certainly hope this bill will go some way to making life easier for them as they adjust to life following their valued service.
In rising here tonight, I wish to speak first and foremost about my personal experiences—be they second-hand—of people I might know or have heard of who come from Tasmania and about why I personally think that this is a bill that deserves wholehearted support. Tasmania, the state I come from, like all Australian states and territories, has a strong history of military service. Currently there are more than 10,000 veterans living in Tasmania. Indeed, Australia's last surviving soldier from the Gallipoli campaign was a Tasmanian. His name was Alec Campbell.
Alec join the Australian Army at the age of just 16 and was said to be nicknamed 'The Kid' by his fellow servicemen in Hobart because, at the time of his training, he was still too young to shave. Of course, the Alec Campbell I know is the one who was still attending Anzac Day marches in my lifetime, who still had youthful enthusiasm despite seeing some undeniably terrible things. There's something quite profound in me being a young girl attending Anzac Day marches and thinking: 'What would I have done if I'd been in Alec's situation? Would I have been brave enough to put my hand up to fight for my country?' Those are questions that I dwell on every Anzac Day—or more regularly than that. Being a young person growing up at a time where Alec was still alive in Hobart and was attending Anzac Day parades at the same time I was, one can't help but meditate on that for a moment.
Speaking of Tasmania's young war heroes, 14 of Australia's 100 Victoria Cross recipients are Tasmanian. Given the nature and aim of this bill today to appropriately recognise the contribution of our veterans, it would be remiss of me to not mention Ordinary Seaman Edward—or, as he was known, Teddy—Sheean. Teddy Sheean was a Tasmanian World War II hero and one of our best-known wartime servicemen in Tasmania, perhaps second only to Alec Campbell for being our last living Gallipoli veteran. On 1 December 1942, when Teddy was 18 years old, the ship on which he was serving, the HMAS Armidale, sank as a result of enemy attack. As the ship went down, Teddy continued to defend his fellow shipmates, firing at the enemy while at the same time surely knowing that his own life was soon to end on that ship as it sank. Efforts are currently underway in Tasmania, led by former senator for Tasmania and now Minister of Veterans' Affairs in the Tasmanian state government, Guy Barnett, to ensure that Teddy Sheean is appropriately recognised for his heroism on that fateful day in 1942. I have heard Minister Barnett speak on this topic very regularly. I'm always taken aback by the passion with which he speaks of the need for us to recognise Teddy Sheean. It's that same need that we bring to this bill today—a need to recognise our veterans for the contribution that they have made.
I am quite fortunate in that not too many of my immediate family have been caught up in the perils of war, except my great-grandfather John Henry Beard of Oatlands—who I never met, but I did meet his wife, my great-grandmother. John Beard went to war in his 30s. He fought in World War I at quite an old age, particularly in comparison to, for example, Alec Campbell. My mother, who was alive while my great-grandfather still was, tells a story of when I asked her: 'What experiences did my great-grandfather share with you? Was war something that was talked about around the dinner table? Was it something that every Anzac Day you all came together and celebrated?' and my mother said no. There was an understanding or an acceptance in the family that the war had greatly affected my great-grandfather. He was suffering from shell shock and a few residual wounds from that time. My mother was instructed, 'Don't ask. It's not a chapter of his life that he wants to relive and so if you are respectful of the service that he made then you won't ask him about it.' I raise that tonight not because I think we're doing the wrong thing in recognising our veterans—I certainly don't—but because I think it is an important step for this government to take, to say that we need to support veterans' families—like my great-grandfather's family 50-odd years ago—to be able to come to peace with what has happened, to be able to talk about it publicly, to celebrate it, if that's what's appropriate, and to commemorate it—again, if that's what's appropriate. Looking back at my mother's stories of speaking with my great-grandfather, it certainly appears that he didn't feel supported in sharing his stories, whether that was because they were too traumatic for him to deal with or because he didn't feel that it was appropriate to share those stories with his family. Being an inquiring sort of person, I certainly would have relished the opportunity to sit down and talk with my great-grandfather, had our lives overlapped, about his experiences in war. But, as I said, it wasn't something that was really spoken about.
I'm very honoured tonight to be speaking on this bill to ensure that we can make life just that little bit easier for our veterans, because I don't think that any of our veterans should feel that they can't share their stories, or that they're not supported to share their stories because their community doesn't understand the sacrifices that they have made in serving our country. I have a number of friends who have given active military service or have been in the reserves. I'm not going to name them here today, because I don't think that would be appropriate, but I see two key things in them. One is the pride that they have for their country and the drive that they have in doing what they do, particularly my friends who have joined the reserves. I say: what compelled you to do this? And they all say that they're proud Australians and they want the opportunity to serve their country in whatever small way, even if that is just in a volunteer capacity. With those that do see active service, I look at the families around them—I think the support network those families provide is just incredible. I'm very happy that the bill that we're discussing here tonight, the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019, will go some way towards making life for those families easier, as well as for the veterans.
Let's not beat around the bush: war is not an enjoyable thing to experience. Growing up when I have, I consider myself very fortunate that I haven't experienced war firsthand. That is no doubt due to the tireless efforts of our veterans looking after our interests overseas, and I'm very thankful for them. But I have some friends who have family members or spouses or friends who have served overseas, and that has had a profound impact on them. I'm very happy not only for the veterans but also for their families and all of the work that they do in supporting veterans to ensure that their contributions to Australia are recognised. That's why I'm very excited to be talking about this bill tonight, and all that it will entail in recognising veterans and their families. I think, particularly, the covenant of Australian Defence veterans—which we've heard a lot about from my colleague, Senator Scarr earlier—represents a really important step in solidifying our relationship with the veterans community and in recognising the work that they do. It's good to see that the covenant will be supported by a veterans recognition program, which will include a veteran card, a lapel pin and an oath. I was researching this tonight, and thinking about the lapel pin and what a small thing that represents but, at the same time, that it will enable everyday people like me, walking down the street, to recognise those veterans who might have served and protected our interests overseas.
Walking down the street, I often think that anyone standing in the vicinity could be a veteran, could have fought for our country, and how am I meant to know who I should thank? Because, as I think I've reflected here tonight, I certainly am thankful for the sacrifice that these people make. Something as simple as a pin could be an indicator. I know in Tasmania I often see our Legacy families wearing pins and, again, it's such a simple way to demonstrate that. I understand that some people may not want to wear a pin if they don't feel comfortable with one, but it's about breaking down those barriers and helping the broader community understand and identify veterans and the sacrifices that they have made for their country, if they so wish.
The Veteran Card will also make it easier for Australians to recognise and respect the contribution that veterans have made to Australia. The Veteran Card, which is a redesign of the white and gold healthcare cards, will be acknowledged by businesses, and healthcare and service providers. I hope, again, that it'll go some way towards making life easier for our veterans. And, of course, we will continue to provide access to health services and benefits to cardholders as well as concessions as relevant. I think these are certainly well deserved for the reasons that I've outlined tonight. Our veterans make a significant sacrifice for our country, and we should be thankful in that regard and I think this card will go a long way to demonstrating that.
I think I have set out what drives and motivates me to care so deeply for veterans affairs in rising to speak on this bill tonight. Like I said, I come from a state that has a long history of military service. Through regularly attending Anzac Day services and Remembrance Day services over many years, and looking at the people around me, I've continually reflected on: what would I do if I were in their situation; and how would I want to be recognised? While I don't think I would be very brave on the battlefield, I certainly think that if I were that I would somehow want to have those barriers pulled down between me and the people who haven't necessarily experienced what I had and be able to talk about it, to have those conversations and tell stories of my experiences of war or in active service.
Anything that we, as a parliament, can do to ensure that those barriers are pulled down to make it easier for people to recognise veterans—or making veterans feel more supported and providing additional support to their families so that they can feel equipped to have the conversations with their families about what they've experienced—is incredibly important work for us to be doing. I know it's getting quite late in the evening, but this is a very important debate for us to be having. And, as I've said a couple of times over the last little while, it's an honour for me to be speaking on this issue tonight. Thank you.
My ears pricked up when Senator Chandler talked about Teddy Sheean. Of course, he shares company with some pretty good people: he shares the company of Vice Admiral Collins, Rear Admiral Farncomb, Captain Waller, Captain Dechaineux and Lieutenant Commander Rankin. Of course they are also the names of five of our submarines, and Teddy Sheehan bears the name of the last—or in fact the fifth one in the series. But he is noted amongst submariners because in fact he is an ordinary seaman, and I think that serves as a great testimony to Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean.
I'd like to speak just very briefly to the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019. The bill will create a framework for government and businesses to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service, and to support veterans and their families, which, of course, Centre Alliance recognises is an important aspect of veterans' wellbeing and indeed of Australian culture.
The bill sets out to achieve this by enshrining the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant in legislation; by confirming that veterans laws should be interpreted for the benefit of the veteran; and, finally, by providing for the issuing of pins, cards and other artefacts. The pins are to be made in Australia from Australian materials. The new veterans card is a rebadging of the DVA health card and will provide an opportunity for businesses to offer discounts. Naturally, this is at the discretion of Australian businesses. However, the South Australian based company Australian Partners of Defence—who have been operating for six years and have secured over 10,000 partnership agreements with some of the largest businesses in Australia—in partnership with DVA, will be facilitating the offer of discounts and benefits available to veterans via the veterans card.
The bill, however, is predominantly symbolic in nature. While it is a gesture that demonstrates the reverence Australians have for those who have served or are prepared to serve in the Australian Defence Force, it is only symbolic. But it is a start, something that can be built on over time and something I encourage the department and the government to strongly consider during this 46th Parliament.
Central Alliance support the bill, and we want to convey our deepest gratitude to past and present serving defence men and women. Your sacrifices and those of your families will not be forgotten. For what they have done, this we will do.
I rise tonight to make a brief contribution on this Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill. I wasn't planning to make a contribution. It was hearing Senator Lambie's contribution, actually, that made me decide to speak. I absolutely respect Senator Lambie's service to this nation and the contribution she made, and there is something that happened to me which I wish to describe to the Senate. In essence, this bill is about respect and recognition, Senator Lambie, and respect and recognition are very important to service men and women, and very important to their families, and that's why I wish to describe something that happened to me relatively recently, on becoming a senator for Western Australia.
It's a somewhat convoluted story, but it started with a letter to the editor in The Canberra Times. The letter was from a woman who lived in Western Australia, and she wanted a poppy put in the wall of remembrance to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of her grandfather's death. Obviously, as she was based in Western Australia, she couldn't get to Canberra herself, so she put that letter to the editor in The Canberra Times, asking if there was anyone in Canberra who could perhaps go to the wall of remembrance on the 100th anniversary of his death and place a poppy there.
How did I get involved as a relatively new senator? Someone living in Canberra who was a former colleague and a friend of my wife's happened to see that letter and happened to be researching her own grandfather's service in World War I, service that was based out of Western Australia as well. Having got her grandfather's records, my wife's friend realised that her grandfather and the grandfather of the woman who had put the letter in The Canberra Times had served together. They'd trained together at Blackboy Hill, which was a training camp in Western Australia, before shipping out to the battlefields. My wife's friend also realised that their commanding officer was Edmund Drake-Brockman, a relative of mine—a great-great-uncle. The Drake-Brockman and Brockman families are very closely related. My great-great-uncle had been the commanding officer of her grandfather and of the deceased service person who the woman was seeking recognition of on the 100th anniversary of his death.
Whilst this chain of events is not unusual in Australia—we all know that there is only one or two degrees of separation between anyone—it was a great honour for me as a newly-selected senator for Western Australia at that point to be able to organise for someone in Canberra to place a poppy in the wall of remembrance on the 100th anniversary of that serviceman's death. It meant a lot to the family involved. But I think this is the nicest part of this story. I got a staffer in this building—Philippa Campbell, who many on this side would know—to take a poppy to the wall of remembrance. She found on that day 10 poppies in the wall of remembrance. Ten poppies had been taken there by people in Canberra who had read that letter in The Canberra Times. They had of their own volition gone to the wall of remembrance on that day to honour the wishes of the grandchild of a deceased veteran.
I say again: respect and recognition are important. They are an important part of what we do for our veterans. I think that it is important to remember that when we honour our veterans, in many different ways, it is to say thank you for the service that they have provided to the nation and to say thank you to their families for the service that they have provided to this nation. It's a very important part of what we do as a government. It's not the only thing though. As I have talked about in this place before, it's easy to single out one thing that the government are doing and try to criticise it and to pretend that that one thing we are doing is reflective of all we are doing. That is clearly not the case in this space.
Australian veterans are a focus of this government. We will continue to see an improvement in support and services for veterans, including through the $11.5 billion in funding allocated in the 2019-20 budget. This funding represents an overall increase of $300 million allocated to the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the DVA, in 2019-20 compared to 2018-19 to support our veterans and their families. The 2019-20 budget is focused on putting veterans and their families first and continues to see investment designed to transform the DVA. I think everyone knows that there have been failings in the past. This government is committed to continuing to improve that level of service and continuing to improve that level of support for all of our veterans.
We need to make it easier and faster for veterans to access the services that they need. The minister has made very clear that this is a top priority for them. It includes really basic things—and, yes, they are basic. The 1800VETERAN line, introducing a single contact phone number, is a very simple but very effective way to ensure that our veterans right across Australia have straightforward easy access to the services and supports that they require. Every veteran, no matter where they live, should have better access to the DVA. This is being achieved through partnering with the Department of Human Services. The Department of Human Services obviously has a very large footprint across Australia and, by giving veterans access to those services through the Department of Human Services, we take the supports that the veterans want and need to more places and make them more easy to access.
There's also going to be an agent network and mobile service centres. There's investment in making sure that online claims processing is more straightforward and simplified and that veterans can access the information and services they require online. Again, this is a very important change in the way people are accessing their services. It is something that veterans have asked for, and it is something that the government is, again, delivering on. A one-off energy assistance payment will be provided to more than 225,000 veterans and widows who receive support payments—a payment worth $75 for singles and $125 for couples.
This is all focused on one very simple thing, something that many of my colleagues have said tonight, and that is about putting veterans first. It's about putting veterans' families first. That is why we as a government are continuing to invest in the veteran community and their families. We continue to provide the services that veterans need, that they want and that we continue to develop and supply—again, $11.5 billion in services and support, relied on by 280,000 veterans and their families. This is a significant part of the Australian community and a very important part—and one that this nation relies on in the toughest of times. It's certainly true that when we think of our veterans we think about the extraordinary contribution they have made in so many different ways. Earlier today I spoke about Timor-Leste, and we all know of the extraordinary service that our serving men and women at that time put in to ensure that our near neighbour was able to have a smooth transition to democracy at a time when that wasn't necessarily an obvious outcome.
So, in concluding, this is important reform. It is about respect and recognition of our veterans, and all those who have contributed on this side have a very clear view of the importance of that and the importance of the bill.
I also want to speak this evening on this important piece of legislation, the Australian Veterans’ Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019, and in doing so reflect on a number of important points. The first is that there's never too much that this country can do to honour the past service of men and women of the Australian Defence Force. This bill is an important part of what should always be regarded as an ongoing process of honouring the service and the sacrifice of veterans in our community.
I paid very close attention to Senator Lambie's contribution, because Senator Lambie's contribution was important, for one reason. While I would have differed in the way that Senator Lambie communicated the issue, the reality is that for some members of the veteran community their experience with the Department of Veterans' Affairs has not always been smooth. They can at times feel that their concerns and particular circumstances are not being listened to, that they are not being understood and on occasion that they might even be being ignored. I think that's an important aspect to be constantly alert to—and I'll come to why that is important in a moment.
The second comment I'd like to make is that this is an important bill, and I think that's demonstrated by the large number of senators who want to make a contribution to the debate on this bill, because it does honour veterans. It honours their families. It honours veterans, past and present. Of course, it also recognises that across our country the Returned and Services League plays a very important part in being a voice for the concerns of veterans and plays a very important part in giving life to the symbolism when we come to honour the sacrifice of veterans—very, very important. While Senator Lambie's concern with this bill was in part, in her view, because it was heavily symbolic, I think that symbolism in this particular area of our community is still a very important part of what should be an ongoing process of constant recognition.
On this bill I speak with a bit of personal circumstance. My father served in Vietnam. He was a regular Army man who was asked by this country's government to go and stand up for certain values in Vietnam. He went to Vietnam and did his service. While he was in Vietnam he was engaged to my mother. When I think about the service of Vietnam veterans in particular, I also think about the difficulty that partners, indeed fiancees, as was the case in my mother and father's situation, who had to live in a community like Australia in the very late sixties and early seventies and had to endure the remoteness of their loved ones serving in a country like Vietnam at a time when parts of our country and parts of our community perhaps did not show much compassion for the service of regular Army men, as was the case with my father.
The situation in my family was further compounded when my father's younger brother was conscripted to serve in Vietnam. When I think about the contribution that veterans make in our community, I'm someone who does pay close attention and who has always had a keen interest in the history of the First and Second World Wars. But when I think about veterans issues I see them through the lens of my father's own experience. My father is now in his late 70s. His service in Vietnam is something we don't talk about in our household. I think that for me and my brother and sister and my mother we've learnt, not formally but informally, that there's still a lot of healing to be done on my father's part. I've never asked my father about the elements that are contained in this particular bill. I have never asked my father about his view on the Australian veterans' covenant, and I don't think that matters so much because I know at different points of time members of the veterans' community come to deal with issues, take opportunities, as symbolic as they might be in this particular case, and, in their own time, they find an opportunity to use things like this, a pin, a veterans' card, a commitment, an oath, as part of their own journey in better understanding the tremendous contribution and sacrifice they have made in pursuing what were objectives of the government and the Australian community at that particular point in time. So I'm someone who thinks that initiatives contained in this bill are symbolic. They may not mean a lot to some people in our community, but to others they mean a great deal. I think it's worth remembering that 166,000 veterans are currently supported by the Department of Veterans' Affairs in our community, and 117,000 dependents of those veterans are supported by the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
Veterans, or the character of veterans, continue to change as the nature of our commitment internationally changes. The experience of veterans in the First World War and the Second World War was very different from the experience of veterans in the Korean conflict or the Vietnam War and, again, very different from the experiences of younger, modern veterans, let's call them, who have left service after making important contributions in helping to resolve the conflict in the Middle East.
This is a bill that is worthy of debate. I'm personally satisfied and pleased at the number of coalition senators that have put their names on the speaking list to contribute to honouring veterans and the organisations that support veterans, like the RSL in Albany, with which I know Senator Brockman has a very close association, and the Highgate RSL, of which I'm an associate member. Some of those members of the Highgate RSL were recognised in the Queen's Birthday honours list that was announced just recently. So this is an important opportunity to recognise that recognition of veterans' service is something that should be ongoing and constantly a top-of-mind issue for not just the coalition government but, I would hope, all future governments.
In regard to this bill, there are a couple of specific comments I'd like to make. The first is around the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, something that I recall Senator McGrath having advanced and advocated for a number of years ago, if I recall correctly. The Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant recognises and acknowledges the unique nature of military service and the contribution veterans and their families have made to our country. Legislating a covenant has been a priority for the veterans community for some years and is something the Morrison government is pleased to be able to deliver on after what has been considerable consultation within the Australian community. The covenant is supported by the Veterans' Recognition Program, which includes the veterans card, lapel pin and oath. These provide a way for Australians to identify a veteran and to acknowledge publicly or privately, depending on the circumstance, his or her service when they're not in uniform or wearing their medals.
I'm particularly pleased that this covenant initiative has been endorsed by employers, businesses, local community groups and the broader Australian public, who will be encouraged to support veterans and acknowledge their service through initiatives that encourage veterans and their families to connect with their community. Businesses and communities will also be encouraged to show their support for veterans by offering benefits or concessions for veteran card holders. Any benefits or concessions provided will be at the discretion of participating businesses and organisations, and I do think that's an important element of this initiative. Each business, organisation or community group will also receive information about how they can better support the covenant as the level of public awareness, endorsement and embracement of this initiative progresses in the community.
I'm not too sure whether Senator Lambie mentioned this in her contribution, but I think the recent Productivity Commission report on veterans' issues with the Department of Veterans' Affairs is going to be a very important document which will enliven the debate about how we better support the Australian veterans community. Already I've received a number of representations from veterans communities and veterans' representatives who are not convinced by the recommendations and the approach the Productivity Commission report has taken. I have given people a personal commitment that, as the son of a veteran, I will be paying very close attention to the concerns, the ideas and the points of view of veterans communities when it comes to framing a legislative response to the Productivity Commission report.
I am someone who generally thinks that the work of the Productivity Commission is necessary and is to be applauded. The Productivity Commission process did give us an outcome on the GST issue, which I thought was very, very important in the Western Australian context, but it does not mean that the Productivity Commission is infallible. It does not mean that every proposition or every answer that the Productivity Commission provides is without contest. I'm someone, like I said, who has given communities a commitment that I'll be paying very, very close attention to that Productivity Commission report, the government's response and what we might find in legislation.
I didn't have the opportunity this evening to listen to the first speech of the new member for Stirling, Mr Vince Connelly—
'An excellent speech,' says Senator Brockman. 'An excellent speech,' says Senator Reynolds. I have no reason to doubt that energy and commitment. He's a great member for Stirling. I have great confidence he's someone who will hold the seat of Stirling for a very long time. But the point I was about to make—and perhaps I'm guessing now—is that I'm sure Mr Connelly would have made a contribution in his first speech about the importance of veterans. I suspect he might have made some reflections on the Productivity Commission report and even expressed some of his own ideas about what might be a better way, an alternative way, to continue to support veterans and their families in our community.
This is my final point before I sit down. Men and women have served this country and they have become part of the veterans communities, but living with them and enjoying the celebration, the honouring that we do as a community with them, sometimes is equally matched with having to live with some of the suffering and sorrow and hidden hurt that veterans carry in our community. That's a very, very important point to be acknowledged. Senator Lambie made that point in her contribution. I'm someone who believes that veterans deserve to be supported, but veterans' families deserve to be supported as well.
So, with those brief remarks, I will leave it to other senators, other coalition senators, to make their contributions on what is a very, very necessary and very, very worthy piece of legislation. Thanks very much.