Veterans Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018

House of Representatives, 18 June 2018

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Transcript

To varying degrees, both sides of politics in this country have settled on a social contract where as a society together, through government, we seek to look after those that are less fortunate and those that clearly need our assistance, especially when it comes to their health. This obligation to care for our fellow person is even greater when the cause of their suffering is through their service to our community and nation. We owe a debt to those who put their lives on hold in service of our country.

When a person enlists with the Australian Defence Force, they undertake a commitment to our country and place their health and wellbeing on the line in service to our nation. In return, we should undertake a commitment to look after them and their families both during and after their time in the ADF. This commitment is about more than just their physical health; it is about taking a holistic view of the member and their loved ones. For those whom service has had a greater impact on, we have a duty of care to them and their family now and into the future. While many will leave the ADF having gained much from the experience and view their service positively, for some their time with the services and their subsequent transition back into civilian life can have a negative impact on their physical and mental health. Mental illness can be an impact of war and service. Without effective support and treatment, the impact on veterans and their support network is significant.

The critical role of family members in supporting our current and ex-serving Defence personnel is often not acknowledged or appreciated by society as much as it should be. When an individual serves in the ADF, their family serves with them. Military families make sacrifices. We know that many servicemen and women are deployed internationally for months at a time, with this separation causing emotional stress for partners and children. When personnel are not deployed, there are regular repostings to different bases around the country, meaning that they have to choose between uprooting their whole family and living apart for periods of time. Post service, particularly in the circumstances where someone is medically discharged, the impact can be significant and ongoing. When someone is medically discharged, it is often the family who become their carers. It is the family who help and support them. It is often the family who can identify the first signs of mental illness. It is also the family who can recognise the signs and symptoms of poor physical health. But they need support, too.

The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018 contains several measures seeking to improve the lives of those who have served our country and their loved ones. It's the least we can do. Indeed, it's probably even less than what we can and should do but it is at least a start. Transition is a critical juncture in the life of veterans and their families. If not undertaken well, it can lead to worse outcomes for them and their loved ones. This bill seeks to improve this. The first part of the bill recognises the importance of education and retraining for those whose service has had a greater impact on them, whether that be physical or psychological. Further education and training is vital for veterans, particularly when the individual has had no choice but to leave the defence forces and reorientate their lives. Currently, the majority of incapacity payments reduce to 75 per cent of a person's usual earnings after less than a year. Former members of the Australian Defence Force should receive incapacity payments at 100 per cent of their normal weekly earnings when they are studying full time as part of their rehabilitation and integration back into society. This bill will increase their payments up to 100 per cent, providing financial security for veterans and their families. We support this plan and anticipate that about 150 people will benefit from this annually.

Education and reskilling can be an important part of transition for those leaving our defence forces, but, for those who have done so due to injury or illness, reorientating their lives is even more important. This payment will ensure that those receiving incapacity payments don't have to worry about finances as well; they can instead focus on getting back up and running. We believe that, through this training, veterans will be better able to move into meaningful employment post-service. In Perth's south-eastern suburbs that I represent, youth unemployment is very high—near 20 per cent. However, more than 30 per cent of veterans who leave the Defence Force are unable to find employment. For veterans who do find a job after leaving the Defence Force, 19 per cent are underemployed in jobs well below their capacities—and they're likely to cop a pay cut of around 30 per cent for the privilege—upon leaving the Defence Force. It is for this reason that Labor has committed to a $121 million veterans' employment program that seeks to ensure that veterans are best prepared to move into meaningful employment and that employers are able to gain the many advantages of hiring these highly skilled individuals. This will include a scheme that converts rank and length of service into an automatic university entrance rank.

The things that our veterans have seen and experienced should not have to be witnessed by anyone. Post-traumatic stress disorder and other significant mental health issues are commonplace for veterans, sometimes not becoming apparent for many years after leaving services, and affecting not only those who have served but their families and friends too. The Labor-supported Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel, completed last year, has had some especially positive outcomes in the way that we approach these matters. Importantly, it provided a forum to give veterans and their families a voice—an opportunity to prompt much-needed change. For too long, there has been stigma around mental illness and suicide, particularly for our ex-serving personnel. This has meant that some veterans have been reluctant to ask for help, leaving them feeling isolated and often alone. Overcoming stigma is integral to ensuring that those suffering know that they can talk about how they're feeling and to preventing tragedies from occurring. Of course, this is always easier said than done. Through the Senate inquiry, for example, we heard the story of Jesse Bird and the very real and tragic results of not getting post-service care right. Jesse was exposed to significant trauma in his eight months of service in Afghanistan. This caused him to leave the Defence Force. It is clear now that Jesse never received or accessed the care and support that he needed following these traumatic events. Tragically, he took his life in June last year.

The risk of suicide among those who have left the service is 13 per cent higher than the general population. This is a figure that can no longer be ignored. This bill will also see the creation of a new suicide prevention pilot to provide greater support to those who have attempted to take their own lives or are at risk of doing so. This program will add to the two other suicide prevention trials currently being coordinated by the Department of Veterans' Affairs that followed the Senate inquiry and the National Mental Health Commission's review of services for veterans.

Schedule 3 of the bill is a logical change that will provide greater support for those recently widowed. I can only imagine that the untimely death of a partner is one of the most difficult times in anyone's life, so to take the pressure off any formal decision-making required through Veterans' Affairs is a welcome one. Currently, such partners have six months to decide how they would like to receive their compensation. These changes will amend the amount of time that wholly dependent partners have to make a decision on the mode of compensation that they will receive for up to two years. This amendment will ensure that those individuals, who are in exceptionally difficult circumstances, have sufficient time to make a decision about their financial arrangements.

Schedule 4 of the bill amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act in order to extend the eligibility of the Long Tan Bursary to grandchildren of Vietnam veterans, with priority to be given to supporting the children of Vietnam veterans. The Long Tan Bursary offers 37 scholarships of up to $12,000 over three years to children of Vietnam veterans to assist with post-secondary school education and training.

The amendments in schedule 5 will simplify the support available to those who have served as submariners between 1978 and 1992 and have a claim with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Labor is supportive of these measures in recognising the service of these submariners.

The final schedule to this bill simplifies the process for veterans applying for compensation under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. Under that act a claim for compensation is distinct from a claim for liability. In many cases compensation is claimed concurrently with liability by a member or a former member indicating on the liability claim form that they are seeking compensation, but sometimes these claims are made without an application for compensation. As part of this process, a needs assessment is carried out, which is often conducted over the telephone. Under these changes, if someone were to indicate verbally that they are seeking compensation, it will be considered to be an application, thereby streamlining the process for our veterans and cutting back on unnecessary red tape. No longer will they be required to only submit such a claim in writing. This should make the claims processing easier for veterans.

I understand that the shadow minister for veterans' affairs has often alluded to issues surrounding the needs assessment by advocates and members of the ex-service community, as the assessment is used to determine compensation claims. According to those who have spoken to us, the information provided during the assessment has been used to decline or reduce the severity of claims years down the track. The government has now advised that needs assessments are not used to determine compensation but rather to identify forms of support veterans may be eligible for. The government will be providing further clarification to veterans that the online assessment is not used in the calculation of compensation.

The long and overly complicated and sometimes adversarial nature of the claims process for some veterans has been raised from time to time. During many inquiries submitters have highlighted these issues, describing the DVA claims process as 'challenging' and weighing 'heavily upon one's mental health and wellbeing, generally at a time when one is at an extremely low ebb'. Prior to the last election, Labor sought to resolve such issues by undertaking a first principles review of Veterans' Affairs. Our proposal for a first principles review was a holistic end-to-end review of the department based on a set of agreed first principles. The review would examine the department and seek to rectify administrative process failings to ensure the department is actually able to meet existing and future challenges in a clear and efficient manner. Most importantly, such a review would help to re-establish the trust of veterans and their representative organisations in the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Our Australian Defence Force personnel put their lives on hold in the service of our country. They take risks. They make sacrifices, sometimes committing their lives and wellbeing for the good of our country. In return we must do everything in our power to support them during their service as well as after it. As I've heard when meeting with my local RSLs, as I have seen with my friends and my family's friends, as I have discussed with our serving Defence Force personnel when I was fortunate enough to spend time with them last year in the Middle East and Afghanistan as well as on some bases in WA, and as many of my constituents who themselves are veterans regularly remind me these risks and sacrifices and the physical and mental pain that follow are very real. They are hard to manage. They have a huge toll on them as individuals. They have a huge toll on their families. They need our community's full support. These measures and this bill are but a small part in ensuring that we recognise our obligation to our ex-service community. Hence, I and Labor offer our full support for this bill.