Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran Reforms) Bill 2018

I acknowledge the service of all of our veterans and Defence Force members and those who are serving today. I make it a priority to go along to the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program as often as I can. I acknowledge the crew of HMAS Warramunga, who are currently serving in the gulf. The crew have seized over $1 billion worth of illegal drugs since deploying to the western Indian Ocean, and I acknowledge this work. I was there only last year with the ship’s crew prior to their deployment.

Over 1.5 million Australians have served Australia in wartime, and 102,000 men and women paid the ultimate price. One of those was my mother’s husband, Jack Leonard. Mum was a war widow from World War II, and I know firsthand just what that meant to my mother and my two sisters. It was George Washington who said:
The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.

We know that Australia has one of the most comprehensive systems of veterans care in the world, and it’s a system that has adapted. In 1916, when the RSL came into being, the world was still in the grip of World War I. Australia had seen 416,809 Australians take part. We lost over 60,000. Again, following World War II, there was an influx of a different generation of veterans and there were new ways needed to assist them on their return.

Today, our modern veterans from very modern conflicts have different requirements and different needs for assistance compared to the veterans from either of the two world wars. This is very important to the government, and this bill goes a long way to placing the veterans and their needs at the centre of the support. This is critical to the Turnbull government. I commend the minister for all of the work in this space. We’re introducing new initiatives to deliver a range of services to veterans and their families to put them first in the services and supports they’re receiving. This continues from the 2018 budget and the eight measures we introduced under the veterans’ affairs legislation and Veteran Centric Reform.

We know that the best type of support for our ex-servicemen and women is the economic independence that comes with having a job, which is why we continue to promote employment for veterans by ensuring that the business community actually understands, recognises and values the benefits of employing a veteran. The member for Canning would understand this very well—the qualities that he can bring to so many different roles, including this one in the parliament, and I thank him for his service.

Veterans bring skills of leadership, of discipline, of team work and of patriotism and that would benefit any business in Australia and overseas. We want to encourage and support our veterans to get back into the workforce and assist them financially while they’re studying, so that they can concentrate on reskilling and re-educating themselves into a different role. For veterans participating in a rehabilitation plan and in approved full-time study, their incapacity payment won’t be reduced after the 45 weeks. More than 5,000 men and women leave the services each year and this measure will make a real difference to how they actually manage the transition back into civilian life and work, particularly through, perhaps, a full-time study approach.

One of the tragic aspects of dealing with veterans’ issues is, of course, the high level of suicide rates. I have heard especially when I do the Defence Force programs, many accounts from our recent veterans— those within my own electorate and elsewhere— about recent veterans or mates who have taken their own lives. In this bill, we will provide a new veteran suicide prevention pilot, and it is a pilot. Reducing suicide, particularly amongst veterans, is a key priority for the government. This pilot will provide mental health support for veterans who have been hospitalised after attempted suicide or who may be at increased risk because of their mental health or other factors. The government is determined to provide intensive services to ensure that veterans are accessing the treatment they so badly need. The pilot will provide intensive support for up to 100 veterans who have complex mental health challenges, and many of them are complex. The evaluation will be important and will provide a key platform for future policy directions. That could well lead to greater improved support and mental health services, which is what we want to see. It will literally save the lives of veterans suffering from mental health issues.

The bill will also make it easier for the partners of veterans who have lost their lives, those who have made that ultimate sacrifice. Changes to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 will actually give partners more time to choose whether to receive the compensation payable for their partner’s death as a weekly payment, or a lump sum or a combination of both—whatever works best for them. The proposed amendments will give partners, during what is the worst time for them, two years rather than the current six months to decide how they would like to receive their compensation. Speaking of my mum, all those years ago, back in 1943, what did she receive? I talk about the evolution of our support. Well, she received, per fortnight, 122 shillings in a war widow’s pension, 35 shillings for my sister Pam and 25 shillings for my sister Judy. Legacy, that wonderful Australian voluntary organisation established in 1923 by ex-servicemen, which cares for the dependents of deceased Australian servicemen, sent my sisters Pam and Judy birthday and Christmas cards and gifts each year until they were 16. You can imagine in those years just how much this meant.

When we talk about sacrifice, my mother’s husband left on my sister Pam’s third birthday. My sister Judy was only a tiny little tot and she actually couldn’t even remember her dad at all. So, when we talk about the practical support and services that we offer to veterans’ families, I can only say that nothing is too much. I know what my own family has been through.

Another of the measures in this bill would extend the Long Tan Bursary to the grandchildren of Australian veterans who have seen operational service in Vietnam. It’s part of the Veterans’ Children Education Scheme. Many years ago, DVA decided to support both veterans of the Vietnam conflict and also their families. Currently, the Long Tan Bursary scheme is limited to eligible children of an Australian Vietnam vet. We’re proposing to extend that eligibility so that eligible grandchildren of an Australian Vietnam vet who has seen operational service may apply. Children will remain eligible and bursaries will be given first priority during that assessment process. The intent of it is to honour the original intent of the scheme. The Long Tan Bursary enables successful applicants to undertake post-secondary education. We, as members of parliament, go into schools and we see these Long Tan bursaries often awarded.

During the Cold War, Australian submariners would undertake long patrols. One of the other changes we’re making in this bill is about this service. This service often meant months at sea and no ability to discuss their operations. The level of secrecy in these patrols was absolutely intense. This bill will deem submariner service on a submarine between 1 January 1978 and December 1992 as operational service where they served on a special operation during that period. The deeming provision will enable all submarine service during this period by persons who have served on a submarine on special operations to be treated as operational service. That will ensure the classified nature of information about special operations does not hinder or stop access by these personnel to the benefits and entitlements available to those within operational service.

I know that one of my predecessors in the role of chief whip, Alex Somlyay, pursued recognition of this type of service as operational service in his time in this House and pursued access to benefits for submarine veterans. I acknowledge Alex and his historic service to this House. This measure will provide the benefits that Alex Somlyay so strongly fought for.
One of the common complaints from veterans is often the complexity of dealing with the processes of DVA. It is something we, as members of parliament, hear about. It can take time and be frustrating. But we’ve listened and acted. Measures in this bill will enable veterans with coverage under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 to lodge a claim for compensation orally. Those who wish to do so will continue to be able to make a written claim. But these measures mean that a client will be asked, during a needs assessment telephone call, whether they want to make a claim for compensation, and their oral statement will be treated as a valid claim under the act. This is really demonstrating that the government has listened to the concerns and the frustrations of veterans and their families and is absolutely committed to putting them first. These measures follow on to so many of our previous measures.
I really want to go back to what families actually have to go through. I’ve spoken in this place previously and I’ve looked at what my mother and sisters went through all those years ago, and I can only say that the measures in this bill can’t change what’s happened but can help to make the situation easier to manage. I know, from reading my mum’s diary, that when she got notification of her husband’s death it was a very hot day in Brunswick, a little community. She was out on the family dairy farm. She said the girl from the post office rode her bike out in that hot sun, because the way you were told was by telegram. She received that telegram. She said that message was really quite anticipated, but she didn’t want it. It still came. It was very difficult for her and for those two little girls, my sisters, but she got on the train. She didn’t want Jack’s mum to hear in the same way she had, by way of a telegram, so she went to tell her personally. I want to acknowledge the widows and widowers in what they’ve had to go through and the way they’ve had to deal with so many practical issues when they’ve lost a loved one in a conflict zone.

It took my mother until she was 75, when she went to a 2nd/28th reunion and actually met the men who’d served with Jack and knew how he’d spent his last days and how he’d died and where he was buried. And I can only say in this place: that was the first time that she’d received any closure.

So many of our Defence Force men and women end their lives away from here, on a different shore. And what they do, in providing service not just to our nation but to those in so many other countries, is extraordinary. I met the Menin Gate buglers. I said to one, ‘It’s an extraordinary contribution you make, voluntarily playing our last post 30,000 times,’ and he said: ‘You listen to me. In this country, what we know is everything we are and everything we have is because of your Australians’ blood on our soil.’ He said, ‘The least we can do is play your last post.’ That says it all. I acknowledge the extraordinary bravery and courage of all of our Defence Force men and women.