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Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Page: 2364


Ms LAMB (Longman) (10:53): There are some things which I strongly believe shouldn't become tools for political games. I believe that veterans' affairs is one of those things. The lives and livelihoods of those good people who have served our country are worth far more than a few points on the political scoreboard, so I'm very happy to support the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 1) Bill 2018 in the House today.

As the member for Longman, I am really fortunate to represent a very large and strong community of veterans, veterans who have served across a number of wars and conflicts. Some have returned recently, of course, and many of them have made their homes in places like Narangba. Others have already spent many years at home and lived as civilians right across Longman, with a very large group of those civilians living in Bribie Island. I think it is incredibly important then that we support those brave men and women whenever we can. There are already some incredible services available to the veterans who live in Longman and call Longman their home, like Remembrance House in Burpengary. I have visited there many times. I remember that just last year on Anzac Day I was fortunate enough to be invited with the veterans to have a gunfire breakfast immediately after the ceremony. But I also visited there last year with the shadow minister for defence, Richard Marles, and we had a long and in-depth conversation with both our Vietnam veterans and some of our newer veterans who live nearby in Narangba. We have other great services like the RSL club and its sub-branches at Bribie, Beachmere and Caboolture-Morayfield. But these services can only provide so much assistance. It is really the role of parliament to support those who put their lives on hold and go and serve our nation. We have a duty of care to uphold.

This bill comprises eight schedules that were mostly recommended by the Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel. Labor believes that one suicide is one life lost too many. So we supported, of course, the establishment of this inquiry to explore the issues faced by our returned Defence personnel. Disappointingly, this was an inquiry that the coalition opposed. I say 'disappointingly' because I don't know how any government member could be against finding out why so many of our returned service men and women have, tragically, taken their own lives. I don't know why anyone would stand in the way of that inquiry, which could and actually did find solutions to this deeply saddening issue.

This bill is proof of just how valuable that inquiry was. It is proof that the experiences of individuals and interested organisations collated in over 400 submissions helped shape this very, very important legislation. Over the year that that inquiry ran, a number of issues were highlighted, and I will pick up just three: the impact of financial stresses; the adversarial and lengthy claims processes; and the lack of support for the partners of our veterans. Of the 24 recommendations made by this inquiry, the bill seeks to address two main areas. They are the interim incapacity payments for mental health and greater support for our veterans' families. Labor has been actively pursuing greater support for families for some time, so it is very, very welcome to see this featured in this bill.

Schedule 1 of the bill seeks to provide additional support for the families of current, former and deceased members of the Defence Force by providing additional childcare arrangements, counselling, household services and, of course, attendant care. The additional childcare assistance will see families eligible for up to $10,000 each year to cover the cost of child care and before- and after-school care. It is pleasing to see the government taking on these initial steps, and here's hoping they maintain that momentum. And I urge the government to consider a number of initiatives such as Labor's family engagement and support strategy for Defence personnel and veterans, which goes a little further than this, because that strategy actually will provide a national blueprint to include engagement of DVA and Defence with military families. This strategy will ensure that those who serve and their families will have access to best-practice support consistently available right across our country.

I would also like to flag schedule 2 of this bill, which I strongly support. Schedule 2 of this bill goes to those people who are waiting for their mental health claims to be determined. Schedule 2 establishes a veterans payment. Acting as an interim income support payment, the veteran payment has been established in response to the outcomes of the Senate inquiry into the tragic suicide of Afghan war veteran Jesse Bird. Jesse Bird, a soldier and combat veteran, died last year after losing a claim for a permanent impairment that he had been pursuing for almost two years. Jesse Bird had warned the Department of Veterans' Affairs that he was suicidal. He had warned them he was under severe financial stress. When soldier Jesse Bird died he had just $5.20 left in his bank account. I welcome schedule 2 of this bill, because this veteran payment will seek to ensure that a tragedy like the death of Jesse Bird doesn't happen again.

As a form of interim income support payment that is available between lodging a mental health claim and then the claim being determined, the applicant is entitled to a basic rate of $913, or $713 if they are a partnered person. In addition to this, a person may also be eligible for a pension supplement, rent assistance, family tax benefit and a remote area allowance. These payments are subject to satisfying an asset and income test and, importantly, also require the applicant to engage in vocational and psychosocial rehabilitation, including some financial counselling. Veterans' partners may also be eligible for this payment, and the payments will continue to be provided in the circumstances where both the veteran and their partner are receiving a payment and the veteran subsequently passes away.

I stand with Labor in strongly supporting any measures that assist individuals struggling with mental health injuries. As I mentioned, in the electorate of Longman, which I represent, just north of Brisbane, we have an incredibly large veteran population. The electorate also has a very large number of people living with mental health injuries, and I understand from speaking with many of these residents who live in my local area just how difficult day-to-day life can be for these wonderful people. I understand through conversations with them just how heavily financial security can play on their mind. When you're already dealing with problems of your own, the added stress caused by finances is a burden that simply is not needed.

It's worth noting that if a member's claim is not accepted the Department of Veterans' Affairs will support the individual with another form of income support to ensure the veteran isn't left without a plan or without any support. It's anticipated that the veteran payment will benefit approximately 1,500 veterans and their partners in the 2017-18 year. So, if by just standing here and supporting this bill my parliamentary colleagues and I can help alleviate just some of the pain of 1,500 returned service men and women and their partners, I wholeheartedly support this measure.

I will move to schedule 3 of this bill, which also deals with mental health support, amending the MRCA and the Veterans' Entitlements Act to create a new pilot program to improve the mental health support that's available in rural and regional areas. Rural and regional areas, which are incredibly important to our country, are where a lot of our veterans have decided to make their home. Building upon the existing Coordinated Veteran's Care Program, which uses a team based model of care led by a GP, the Coordinated Veterans' Care Mental Health Pilot will see the GP access and diagnose clients, undertake care planning and refer clients to use an app on a smart device. This program will target veterans with mild to moderate conditions, such as anxiety or depression, who also have a physical condition that requires some form of pain management. It's expected the program will recruit up to about 125 people each year over the two years. I welcome this. I hope to see a really tangible outcome from this pilot when it reaches Longman in the very near future.

In closing, I'd like to express my support for schedule 5 of this bill. This will be the first legislative instrument to support the implementation of veteran-centric reform. It's designed to help ease the transition process for veterans, of course—who wouldn't support a reform that eases the pathway that veterans will go through after returning from their work and their time in the Defence Force? It seeks to amend the Veterans' Entitlements Act as it relates to a claim for a qualifying service, creating an additional way for a determination to be made. It enables the automation of a qualifying service determination primarily based upon the information that's provided by the Department of Defence—in essence, removing a step in what could be a very lengthy process that veterans have to go through to make an application for a benefit or a payment. Of course, this won't alter the right for a veteran to make a manual application themselves at any time; it just smooths that process for them and improves the existing process provided to veterans with another option that should make things easier and should take another stress out of their lives. Who wouldn't welcome and encourage this process?

I'm sure I'm no different to other members in the House: my office hears, time and time again, from constituents about how difficult claims can sometimes be and the stress that it causes when they're trying to move through the system to access an entitlement. People who are already vulnerable and people who might be at the end of their tether are applying for Newstart, the age pension or the disability support pension. They've explained to me quite often that the bureaucratic process can be all too much at the time of crisis—it really can be. Even something as simple as smoothing out the process by way of automation, as is sought to be achieved in schedule 5 of this bill, can make a huge difference in someone's life when they are in a very, very vulnerable state. I can totally empathise with anyone who would be concerned about allowing government to bring automation into the claims process for veterans, but allowing the veterans the ability to manually process a claim, as they can now if they choose, provides at least some solace that this will help and not hinder the claims process.

I will, of course, support anything that makes claims processes easier for our veterans. I have huge communities in places like Bribie Island, and brand-new families are establishing themselves in places like Narangba, so the announcement of $10,000 regarding child care is most welcome. But, along with the rest of Labor, I will take all due care and caution to ensure that all steps are taken by parliament to ensure support for those who have served and those who will serve in the future.