The government has presented the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 1) Bill 2018, which is intended to deliver a range of services to veterans and their families. It is a positive move. Even the name indicates a change of attitude and a change of approach. I obviously welcome a veteran-centric approach. The more the focus is on veterans and their families and their needs, the better.
The minister summarised the main points of the bill in his second reading speech when he introduced the bill. I congratulate the current minister on his promotion to Deputy Prime Minister, and I hope that the next veterans affairs minister has a deep understanding of and is passionately focused on the important work of this portfolio.
I wish to recognise the good work of the government with bipartisan support in changing the approach of veterans services so as to make those services more appropriate to the needs of veterans, to make them empathetic, more caring and less adversarial. I believe this bill goes some way towards that aim, but there is obviously a lot more work still to be done.
The minister pointed out that there are more than 300,000 Australians who have served in our defence forces in peace and war. Each year, more than 5,000 of those will leave the services, and they and their families need and deserve our support as they transition to civilian life and move on to the next stage of their lives. I hope the minister is correct in saying that the measures in this bill will assist our ex-service personnel and also their families. On that basis, Labor supports the bill, and I support the detailed response by the member for Kingston, the shadow minister for veterans affairs, in her speech on second reading debate. I acknowledge the acknowledgement by the previous speaker, the member for Leichhardt, of the shadow minister, because she is doing a fantastic job. She spoke well in her speech on those issues that we have identified in a bipartisan way.
This bill addresses two of the recommendations of the inquiry by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel by establishing an interim incapacity payment for mental health and by increasing support for families. Families are absolutely crucial in supporting our current and ex-service personnel, and Labor is committed, if elected, to developing a family engagement and support strategy for defence personnel and veterans.
As an ex-serviceman myself, I am very conscious of the challenges faced by many of our veterans. I was recently privileged to host a veterans forum in my electorate of Solomon, where I heard firsthand accounts of the concerns of many of the veterans about the difficulties they face in the transition to civilian life. In Solomon there are over 2,000 veterans, and I want to make sure that they have the best possible care and support. The shadow minister for veterans affairs came up to Darwin for that veterans forum and addressed the gathering. She took note of the issues faced by veterans and their families in the Top End. However, I must point out that, in the same week, the current minister was in Darwin to attend the commemorations of the bombing of Darwin, which was great, but, as well as remembering the fallen, it would have been great if the current minister had held a forum himself, perhaps to hear from veterans firsthand about the challenges that they face.
I will note some of the main provisions of the bill which I believe are of particular interest to veterans in Solomon, and I’ll be making that information available to them now that this bill is before the House. We know that family support is crucial to veterans, and I wish to acknowledge the support often given in difficult circumstances by parents and partners. They are the glue that often keeps veterans and the families together. Even if it’s a single member of the forces without their own immediate family, of course their extended family is incredibly important. This is particularly important in the treatment or recovery of ill or injured veterans.
This bill will provide greater access to child care, additional home care and counselling and will help families maintain connection to community and employment. This is obviously welcome. The bill recognises partners who have to care for a severely incapacitated veteran in addition to their own employment and home duties. They will receive help to develop their skills in caring for a veteran with physical or mental injuries and identifying when people may be at risk of self-harm or causing harm to others.
Three particular services included in the bill are increased childcare assistance to veterans who receive incap payments and have served in recent overseas conflicts and to the partners of veterans who have served in a recent conflict and have died either as a result of the conflict or by suicide; extending intervention counselling for up to five years post discharge for veterans with a rehab plan, their partners and their families; and childcare, home care assistance and counselling for up to five years post discharge for partners and families of veterans who have died either as a result of the conflict or by suicide. I, like all members, am obviously seriously concerned about suicide by our veterans. One is too many, and we’ve had a lot. I cannot imagine the pain and sense of hopelessness which precedes such an act of terrible finality, and the suffering of partners, family and friends that are left behind. I’ve spoken with many.
When I spoke in this parliament about the government’s response to the recent Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel, I welcomed the report and the government’s positive response. I recognised the good work of the members of the committee, particularly then Senator Lambie for initiating the report and the chair, Senator Alex Gallacher, and the deputy chairs, Chris Back and Bridget McKenzie. I thanked all who made submissions to the inquiry. It is because of their strength and their courage in making those submissions that the report was able to provide such a comprehensive picture of the difficulties faced by veterans as they transition into civilian life.
The Senate report referred to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report commissioned by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to calculate accurate numbers and rates of suicide deaths amongst serving personnel, reservists and ex-serving ADF personnel. The AIHW found that between 2001 and 2015 there were 325 certified suicide deaths among people with at least one day of service since 2001. Of these deaths, 51 per cent were people no longer serving at the time of their death, 21 per cent were people serving in the active and inactive reserves at the time of their death, and 28 per cent were people serving full-time at the time of their death. Ninety-three per cent were men and seven per cent were women. The AIHW found that the suicide rates of ex-serving men were more than twice as high as for those serving full-time or in the reserve. They were also slightly higher than for their counterparts in the general population after adjusting for age. Ex-serving men aged 18 to 24 were at particular risk, being two times more likely to die from suicide than Australian men of the same age. Ex-serving men aged 25 to 29 accounted for slightly more deaths than other age groups and were 1.4 times more likely to die from suicide than Australian men of the same age.
Data collection about suicide is difficult in the general population, and in the ex-service community in particular, due to the stigma which continues to surround suicide and the fact that a veteran’s suicide may not be reported to DVA or anyone else for that matter. These figures may in fact be considerably lower than the real situation. Another point is that recruits to the ADF are fit and healthy, rigorously selected. Any suicide rate amongst ex-service personnel higher than the general population is very significant. So what has caused it? I believe it is significant that the inquiry found that many submitters identified delays, negative determinations or perceived maladministration in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs compensation claim processes as creating critical stress for veterans and as a contributing factor to suicide. That is from the report at paragraph 3.43.
Another welcome initiative in this bill is a new income support payment, providing vulnerable veterans with interim financial support until their claims for liability for a mental health condition are determined.
The government’s response to the Senate report acknowledged that many veterans have had negative experiences with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and that there is a need to streamline administrative processes. Streamlining administration is a good thing, and of course I support it, but what I want to see is a department generally committed to serving and supporting our veterans in a sympathetic and supportive way. Even though I still hear anecdotal evidence that this is not the case, I believe that everyone in the department are genuinely doing everything that they can.
However, when I held this forum recently at Nightcliff Community Centre in my electorate, I and the shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs did hear overwhelmingly from the veterans that attended some of their frustrations in dealing with the department. Some saw that adversarial system. Some spoke of having to prove their case, of feeling demeaned and humiliated and having to get down and beg for help. This is obviously no way to treat those who have served our country. They spoke of having to explain their situation to officers who sometimes had little concept of the stresses and dangers of military service and training, let alone armed conflict, and who are not trained in dealing with emotional and stressed individuals. We need to make sure—and I am sure the department is doing this—that DVA officers, when they are doing their very special and challenging role, have the adequate training, mentoring and support to do their job.
We know that in different parts of the country veterans are experiencing different levels of support. We heard at the forum that increasingly some gold card holders were being told by medical practitioners that their books are full and some are being been turned away. Clearly this is unacceptable. There is a clear need to improve access for veterans to mental health services and to professionals who have an understanding of particular concerns of ex-service men and women. I add that in my electorate in Darwin and Palmerston and the Top End we need strong veteran advocates to help veterans in their dealings with the department. That is very important. We are currently advertising for such a position for a level 2 or 3 advocate to come up to Darwin and do that full-time work. I think it is at seek.com.au, for those who are interested.
Meaningful employment is very important for the self-esteem of ex-service personnel. Jobs help build social and professional networks and to some extent at least replace support and friendships inherent in service life. Of course they also provide remuneration that we all need for life’s necessities. That’s why the government’s program to get veterans into skilled jobs and the Australian Veterans’ Employment Coalition are so important and are doing such good work. I congratulate the companies that are part of that veterans’ employment coalition and I look forward to seeing some of the results of their work. Major employers recognise that veterans have leadership and team work skills, flexibility and the ability to work in a fast-paced, changing environment. As one employer said, they have dependability, integrity, loyalty and experience, and that makes them especially suited for working in a culturally diverse or global environment.
Darwin is a very important defence city with a significant serving defence population, and this means that ex-service personnel increasingly choose to stay in Darwin when they retire or leave the services. We welcome them in the Top End, in the northern capital, and we value them. They enrich our community. We must also support them and provide them with the services that they need. They’ve served our country. They are the heroes of our nation and we should do everything that we can to support them.
I just want to acknowledge the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia NT. They changed their name recently to Veterans Australia NT. By dropping ‘Vietnam’ out of their name—a first for Australia—they’ve sent a very clear message to veterans that they are inclusive. I congratulate them for making that change, and I commend the bill.
The Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 1) Bill 2018 amends the: