BILLS - Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020 - Second Reading

By Matt Keogh MP

18 June 2020

Watch Matt's speech here 

I'm pleased to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020 and I move the amendment circulated in my name:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House criticises the Government for failing to:

(1) appropriately address the serious issue of veteran suicide, including its stubborn refusal to enact a full Royal Commission into veteran suicide and its insistence on instead establishing a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention; and

(2) introduce enabling legislation to establish a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention".

At the outset, Labor recognises the unique nature of military service, the sacrifice of current and former Australian Defence Force members and their families and the outstanding contribution they make to our nation. When a person enlists in the Australian Defence Force, they undertake a commitment to our country and, necessarily, may be placing their health and wellbeing on the line in service to our nation. In return, we are compelled to look after them and their families both during and after their time in the defence force. This commitment is about more than just their physical health; it is about taking a holistic view of the member and their loved ones.

We have a duty of care for those who have served. This is especially so where that service has had a greater impact on them and their families now and into the future. When an individual serves in the ADF, their family serves with them. Military families make so many sacrifices. Many service men and women are deployed for months and months at a time, and often longer than the time they initially thought they may be deployed for. This separation would no doubt cause emotional stress for them, their partners and their children. When personnel are not on deployment, they are on regular re-postings to different bases around the country, meaning that they have to choose between uprooting their whole family and living apart from them for periods of time.

Our veterans and their families often have complex needs and require special support, and the Australian community has a rightful expectation that they will be looked after. Labor joins with the government in continuing to support our former, current and future defence personnel. To that end, this legislation is designed to improve the wellbeing of veterans and their families. The bill addresses three key elements: it implements the government's commitment to create a veteran family advocate, announced earlier this year; it provides changes to support the transition from Australian Defence Force service to civilian employment; and it ensures that all recipients of the Gold Card are treated equally in terms of their benefits.

I'll turn firstly to schedule 1 of the bill. In February, following strong calls from Labor, from veterans and their families and from sections of the media for a royal commission into veteran suicide, the government instead announced two new roles: the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention and the Veteran Family Advocate. I note the government says it intended to bring forward legislation to establish the national commissioner later this year, while this bill will establish the Veteran Family Advocate as a new commissioner to work as part of the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. These commissions are responsible for supporting the administration of veterans legislation and providing advice to the minister and government in relation to these important acts.

The Veteran Family Advocate will work with veterans and families to build our understanding of risk and protective factors relating to the wellbeing of veterans and their families, particularly during their transition from the Australian Defence Force. They will be responsible for directly engaging with the families of veterans to help shape policy; improve the design of all veteran programs and services, including mental health support and services.

In addition to performing the statutory function of representing the perspectives of veterans' families within the commissions, we understand that they will also consult with the families of veterans to hear their insights and experience about how to ease the burden facing veterans' families in supporting their loved ones; work with ex-service organisations, which represent families of veterans across Australia; and participate in key bodies, such as the Council for Women and Families United by Defence Service and the Female Veterans and Veterans' Families Policy Forum.

I know the shadow minister for veterans' affairs consulted the Partners of Veterans Associations of Australia on this bill and they were broadly supportive, if a little unclear as to how exactly the new role would operate in practice. We understand the intention is that the Veteran Family Advocate will support the Department of Veterans' Affairs working to enhance the health and wellbeing of the veteran community. In doing so they will need to ensure that every part of the veterans support system is focused on veterans' mental health and suicide prevention and forge a partnership between these commissions and the families of veterans.

We trust they will have the necessary resources and independence to adequately represent the views of veterans' families to the Department of Veterans' Affairs and influence actual policymaking. Labor expects they will give a strong voice to veterans' families and promote better mental health outcomes when the Department of Veterans' Affairs is setting policy and making decisions. This is absolutely critical, because many veterans have complained about the lack of assistance once they transition out of the ADF. So the advocate will need to draw on advice from families to help shape veteran policy and reduce the risks as personnel leave the forces.

We know many Defence and veteran families have said that they are not always being heard when it comes to support and assistance. This is why Labor took a commitment to the last election to a strategy around better engagement by the Department of Veterans' Affairs with military and veteran families and identifying improvements to family support. Moreover, in June 2019 the Productivity Commission report on the veteran support system recommended better family engagement and support by relevant agencies. It's disappointing that the government has deferred its response to this important report until the delayed federal budget in October, but we do look forward to seeing that in due course.

Labor has serious concerns about the government's related proposal for the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. We would prefer, as many advocates have also called for, a royal commission into veterans' suicide, and I'll have more to say on that as we go. However, in substance, we welcomed the announcement of the Veteran Family Advocate at the time as a standalone measure. We just want to ensure that the advocate is appropriately resourced to be able to do their job. We all want to support veterans to the best of our ability. Labor hopes this new position will achieve better outcomes for our veterans and their families.

Schedule 2 of the bill facilitates flexibility in the way programs can be designed to assist the transition from the Australian Defence Force to the civilian workforce. This will allow 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. Once established, through the regulations, this program will provide eligible veterans with both pre- and postemployment assistance. This includes career advice, coaching, assistance with skills translation, resume and interview preparation, and coaching to adapt to the structure and styles of communication in civilian employment. This will ensure similar employment support is available to recently transitioned veterans as is currently available to transitioning ADF members.

This funding and extra support is very welcome, although we would have liked to have seen it happen much sooner. Labor has been concerned that many of the government's veterans employment initiatives in the past have been tokenistic and appear to lack clear goals, targets and evaluations, which make it difficult to track whether they are actually delivering tangible outcomes. Some programs, like the Veterans Employment Commitment, which invites businesses to make a public commitment to employing veterans, and the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Awards, provide little real incentive for employers and rely largely on goodwill and PR. So it has been pleasing to see the government take a more needs based and individualised approach to transition more recently, with things like coaching and career planning, job placements and job search programs, service documentation, and early engagement and case management for younger ex-service men and women who may be at greater risk of mental health problems and even suicide. Labor understands the importance of veterans' employment, and the amendments in this bill are consistent with our calls for better support for veterans' transition from the ADF, so we support them.

Finally, schedule 3 of this bill rectifies an unintended oversight that has meant that the energy supplement has not been payable to some veteran gold card holders because they are covered under different legislation. This quarterly payment is made to a range of Department of Veterans' Affairs clients, including holders of the gold card, under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 and the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. The measure will benefit approximately 91 eligible gold card holders under the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests and British Commonwealth Occupation Force (Treatment) Act 2006, which covers service personnel involved in British nuclear tests in Australia and occupation forces in Japan, and Australian civilian, surgical and medical team members from the Vietnam War under the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) Act 2019. This measure will ensure that all gold card holders are treated consistently and equitably, and it will help more veterans meet the cost of their energy bills.

All up, these amendments should help to better meet the needs of veterans and their families, and Labor supports them. Our Defence Force personnel put their lives on hold in the service of our country. They take risks and make sacrifices, sometimes committing their lives and wellbeing for the good of the country. In return, we must do everything in our power to support them. As I've heard at meetings of local RSLs and from family and friends, and as I have discussed with many constituents both in my electorate and beyond, these risks and sacrifices, mental and physical, are very real. They are hard to manage. They take a huge toll on individuals and on their families. Veterans and their families need our full political and community support.

As I foreshadowed earlier, I will move a second reading amendment to this bill, which calls out the Morrison government's failings when it comes to the painful and ongoing scourge of veteran suicide. Firstly, whilst the measures in this bill to introduce a veteran family advocate and better employment and better transition support will go some way to addressing this issue, and are to be commended, the same can't be said for the way the government has responded to the issue of veteran mental health and suicide prevention more broadly. I remind the parliament that the context of for the Veteran Family Advocate was the government's announcement in February of a new National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. This followed widespread calls and overwhelming support for a royal commission into veteran suicide, and the Prime Minister's stubborn refusal to listen to these calls and commence one. Labor cautiously welcomed the announcement at the time as an important step forward, and because we did not want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Nonetheless, we were keen to see the detail, which has still not been forthcoming. Like many others, both in this place and outside it—like Julie-Ann Finney and the Bird family, whose sons tragically took their own lives after long battles with the Department of Veterans' Affairs—we have become increasingly concerned that the national commissioner won't be better than a royal commission, as the government has claimed.

That's why in recent months Labor MPs and senators have been meeting with Ms Finney and other veterans' families and advocates to hear their views. It's become increasingly clear that the government has a major job to do in convincing them, and the public, that it is genuine in wanting to tackle this very important issue. A growing concern, shared by many veterans, is that this is simply a marketing exercise which won't accomplish what a royal commission would because it will have neither the resources nor the independence from government to ask the hard questions.

We know that only a royal commission will provide closure, healing and restorative justice for the defence and veterans' community. We have seen the benefits of this in many other areas, such as banking, mental health, child sexual abuse, aged care and disability services. What many parents of veterans who have taken their own lives have said is that a royal commission will allow them an opportunity to have their say and to be heard, while providing a powerful voice for their children. Importantly, it would provide an opportunity for us as a community to listen to them, and to assure them, in a public way, that we are doing everything possible to prevent these tragic deaths from happening in the future. Only a royal commission will do this. Otherwise, the national commissioner runs the very real risk of being little more than a new, glorified federal coroner. It might be that a royal commission could recommend that a standing, permanent capability be established to oversee ongoing reforms along the lines of what is envisaged with a national commissioner. But what is currently being proposed is putting the cart before the horse, and shows real lack of leadership and good faith with our veterans.

We know that the devil will be in the detail, so we need to see that detail as soon as possible. The time for procrastination by this government is well and truly over. All we've had so far is a media release and a two-page fact sheet. The government needs to release the enabling legislation and terms of reference as soon as possible, and to consult widely on it. It's very disappointing that, having committed to a national commissioner back in February, the government appears to be on a go-slow on a range of veterans' initiatives, including this one, and is showing a real lack of urgency on a very important issue. Not until we see the legislation will we be able to scrutinise it and see if this proposal will indeed have all the powers of a royal commission, and if the government is really genuine about tackling this terrible scourge. But, better still, while there is still time, the Prime Minister should do the right thing and establish a royal commission so that we can get to the bottom of veteran suicides and deliver real accountability and justice for our veterans and their families once and for all.

We have a special obligation to help our veterans. We train them, we ask them to put their lives at risk for us, and yet we find too many of them slipping through the cracks and not getting the support they and their families need after they leave the Australian Defence Force and, in some cases, tragically taking their own lives. As I've said, the government needs to do more to address veterans' mental health and suicide, which is precisely why I'm moving this second reading amendment and raising serious concerns about the government's current proposals in this area. Notwithstanding this, the bill currently before the House will go some way to addressing these issues and delivering better outcomes for our veterans and their families. So to that extent and for that reason Labor supports the bill.

I would also like to say a huge thankyou to my local RSLs and the volunteers that run them and work with them to support the returned service men and women in my community, as I know similar volunteers do right across our country. I meet regularly with the leadership of my local RSLs and I not only see with those people the personal pain and suffering from their own service—indeed, deep PTSD issues that they have to confront—I hear and work with them on their own battles with the Department of Veterans' Affairs and how it affects them and their families and their ongoing lasting scars decades after they have left service.

But it's not just about them. Those volunteers through our RSLs and other veterans' services continue to put themselves out, in many cases retraumatising themselves, to help other veterans. I'm in a very honoured position to be able to hear the stories of not only those volunteers but the veterans they help too, and the stories I hear are deeply distressing. It's why it is so important that there are better avenues for the Department of Veterans' Affairs to properly understand what these veterans and their families are having to confront. This is not a load that should have to continually fall on volunteers in our community. Veterans' Affairs needs to get it right for them the first time, every time. This is a start. It's not enough. But I commend the bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms Bird ): Is the amendment seconded?

Ms Payne: I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The original question was that this bill be now be read a second time. To this the member for Burt has moved that that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I'll state the question in the form that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.