Thursday, 12 November 2020
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020; Second Reading
The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020 contains three measures aimed at better meeting the needs of veterans and their families. Firstly, the bill amends the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 and the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 to create the new position of Veteran Family Advocate on the Repatriation Commission and Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to represent the families of veterans. Secondly, it amends the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act to enable the provision of assistance or benefits to former Australian Defence Force members to transition to civilian work. Finally, it amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act to extend the quarterly payment of the energy supplement to holders of gold cards under the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests and British Commonwealth Occupation Force (Treatment) Act 2006 and the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) Act 2019.
Labor notes, however, that the government has already announced that Ms Gwen Cherne has been appointed as the Veteran Family Advocate to the Repatriation Commission under existing veterans affairs legislation and commenced in the role on 24 August 2020. It seems that the government have a penchant for appointing people before the relevant legislation has been passed. They raced ahead and appointed an interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention recently before the enabling legislation had even been debated in the House, much less passed by the parliament. That said, Labor welcomes Ms Cherne's appointment and acknowledges her passion and experience in supporting the ex-service community. We expect she will do a good job representing the perspectives of veteran families in ongoing policy- and decision-making across government.
She would know that many veterans and their families are sceptical that the government's proposed national commission for veterans suicide is little more than a marketing exercise designed to placate them. Many believe it's not better than a royal commission, as the government claims, and that it won't accomplish what a royal commission could because it still lacks the independence, powers and resources to ask the hard questions. Labor has continued to call on the government to do the right thing and to announce a full royal commission, with clear start and end dates, so that we can get to the bottom of veteran suicides.
This bill before the Senate should support better mental health outcomes and suicide prevention for veterans and their families, and Labor supports it. But the best thing that the government could do is to show faith with veterans and their families and commit to establishing a royal commission into veteran suicides so we can tackle this issue once and for all. This legislation supports the wellbeing of veterans, their families and the wider veteran community. Labor supports it, and I commend the bill to the Senate.
The Veterans Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020 addresses three key issues: it fully implements the government's commitment to create the Veteran Family Advocate, it provides changes to better support the transition from ADF service to civilian employment and it ensures that all recipients of the gold card are treated equally in terms of their benefits.
We recognise that in many ways the service of defence families on the home front is just as important as service on the front line. That is why the government has made engagement with veterans' families a priority over successive terms. We have established the Female Veterans and Veterans' Families Policy Forum and the Council for Women and Families United by Defence Service. We have listened to what's working and what needs improvement, and this bill will take our commitment further by establishing the Veteran Family Advocate. I'd like to congratulate Ms Gwen Cherne, who has been appointed as the inaugural Veteran Family Advocate and as a commissioner on the Repatriation Commission. This bill extends that appointment, so Gwen will also be appointed as a commissioner on the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. The government cannot solve the complex problems faced by veterans without the assistance of their families. Families understand how a veteran feels at a particular moment—the nature of their challenges and what needs to be done to best support them. By working together, we can achieve better results for our veterans and the families which support them.
The second part of this bill facilitates flexibility in the way programs can be designed to assist the transition from the ADF to the civilian workforce. This government has made significant improvements in transition and employment support. This bill will further support employment by allowing for the establishment of new programs such as the Support for Employment Program through the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Regulations 2020. The regulations will contain the details of the employment assistance or benefits, as well as who they will be provided to and in what circumstances they can be provided.
I want to thank the Senate Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills for their work, and I note their comments in relation to the transition to civilian employment measure. In response, an addendum to the explanatory memorandum has been prepared—which I believe has been tabled—to address concerns by the Senate committee as to why it is most appropriate that details of the Support for Employment Program be placed in the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Regulations 2020. Once established through the regulations, this program will provide eligible veterans with both pre- and post-employment assistance. This will ensure that similar employment support is available to veterans for up to five years, as is currently available to transitioning ADF members, including career advice, coaching, assistance with skills translation and resume and interview preparation and coaching to adapt to the structure and communication of civilian employment.
The final part of this bill fixes an unintended omission that has meant the energy supplement has not been payable to some gold card holders because they are covered under different legislation. This government acknowledges the importance of the gold card to the veteran community. This measure builds on our acknowledgement and extends the provisions in the energy supplement to Australia participants in the British nuclear tests and the British Commonwealth Occupation Force, and Australian residents who worked as part of Australian surgical medical teams in Vietnam. This ensures that all gold card holders are treated consistently.
Our veterans were prepared to make great sacrifices when we needed them. As the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant states, 'For what they have done, this we will do'. This supports the wellbeing of veterans, their families and the wider veteran community, and I commend the bill to the Senate.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.