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Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Page: 2373


Mr WALLACE (Fisher) (11:31): Since my election to parliament, I've had the honour of meeting a great many current and former members of the ADF. In July last year, I travelled, with members opposite, to the Middle East to take part in the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program. We spent eight days embedded with the men and women of the ADF, and I had the opportunity to speak to them about the challenges that they face and their expectations for their lives after service.

I've also spoken at RSLs all over Fisher, including at the Caloundra RSL AGM. I've met with veterans' groups and encountered many current and former service men and women through my Fisher defence industry initiative. I've even had the privilege of meeting one of my constituents who is a veteran of the Voyager disaster, the famous Bernie Verwayen, who every law student would be aware of in the matter of estoppel. I have gone out of my way to meet with as many current and former service men and women as I can, because I am passionate about helping to drive change in this area.

As the Prime Minister said just a few weeks ago, we best honour the diggers of 1918 by supporting the service men and women, the families and the veterans of 2018. That's why I chose to focus on the treatment of PTSD when I was asked to travel to Sweden, the UK, Canada and the Netherlands by the government last year. During that trip I met with doctors, mental health practitioners, armed forces and government veterans' agencies in those countries to learn about best practice in resolving the mental health problems which can be caused by serving in the military. These included the departments of national defence and veterans' affairs in Canada and the Swedish armed forces department of veterans' affairs. I've sought, since that trip, to bring these lessons to my discussions with our government, and I thank successive ministers for their ongoing engagement with me around some of these ideas.

The veterans and the service men and women I have met have been passionate, as I am, about ensuring their ongoing welfare. They, like me, want to see people who have served get the support they need to build successful and fulfilling civilian lives. They want to see more support for dealing with the sometimes, or often, harmful impacts of service on their physical and mental health, and they want to see a Department of Veterans' Affairs that is focused on them and their families and their needs. They don't want to see a combative DVA that fights them on every front from the day that they leave their service.

In achieving better outcomes for veterans, the role of community organisations will be vital. There are around 17,000 veterans living on the Sunshine Coast, and our community come together to provide what support we can. In Fisher, we have very active RSL sub-branches at Caloundra; Beerwah and district; Kawana Waters; Glasshouse Country, of which I am the patron; and Maleny. We also have other organisations, such as the Young Veterans Sunshine Coast group and a Diggers Rest that received a Stronger Communities grant just last week.

However, in the end, it is sometimes our sober responsibility as parliamentarians to send Australian service men and women into harm's way. It is also our responsibility to care for them and their families when they return and, unfortunately, in some instances, when they don't. I know that no-one has taken that responsibility more seriously than the former Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the new Minister for Social Services. The minister's record of delivery for veterans stands as a testament to his commitment and his dedication to looking after our ADF personnel. Two commitments in particular stand out from the then minister's list of achievements: the 2017 budget's provision of $350 million in extra investment for veterans, and the October 2017 government response to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee report The constant battle: suicide by veterans. The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 1) Bill 2018 is about enacting some of the critical measures involved in those two landmark policies. Under the then minister and under his equally committed successor, the Deputy Prime Minister, the government is already delivering more than $11 billion to veterans and their families every year. There are 291,000 veterans and family members who currently receive government support, and 48 per cent of them are women.

In the areas that are most important to veterans, the Turnbull government has been particularly active. When it comes to the transition to civilian life, the government laid the foundations for improvement in January 2016 when we reformed regulations such that the Department of Defence can inform the DVA directly when a serving member has become a veteran. This ensures that more veterans can receive much earlier engagement and begin their path to a successful transition to civilian life. In the 2017 budget the government invested $2.7 million for the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program. This money is being used to help businesses understand the unique skills and attitudes ADF members have developed during their service, through supporting the industry advisory committee, through creating an ex-service organisation industry partnership register and through the first annual Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Awards. This program, importantly, also includes the spouses of veterans, who often endure the employment consequences of their partner's service. The government further invested $9.1 million in the 2017 budget for accelerated access to rehabilitation services, streamlined access to incapacity payments and improved access to the totally and permanently incapacitated disability pension for veterans working past the age of 65. In December 2017, Minister Tehan announced almost $1 million allocated to 12 organisations to deliver targeted programs to help the transition process and employment prospects for young veterans.

However, the minister knows that funding is most effective when partnered with meaningful reform. That is why he announced in the same month that the Turnbull government had ensured that every service man and woman would be guaranteed access to the personal documentation they need to claim support from government agencies in civilian life before they are discharged. This includes an individual transition plan; a record of professional military education and training; unit posting and employment history; final entitlement summaries; and copies of medical and dental records. It's also why Minister Tehan oversaw the passing of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 2017, which helped government departments to speak to each other to ensure that veterans' superannuation benefits assessments can be processed more quickly. It improved the working of the Specialist Medical Review Council, allowed for greater delegation and ensured that the department can respond flexibly to changing circumstances. This was partnered with more investment in the form of an unprecedented additional $166.6 million toward modernising the DVA. This will improve computer systems and it will cut transition processing times dramatically. We have also implemented a trial of alternative dispute resolution for veterans who choose to appeal a decision of the Veterans' Review Board. This is already resolving cases that used to take a year in as little as three months.

There is more to be done, and in this bill are measures to make that transition earlier. In particular, schedule 5 allows the Department of Defence to provide information on qualifying service to the DVA in an automated qualifying-service determination. This will remove an administrative step for veterans to speed up their access to entitlements and reduce unnecessary transition stress. This is only the beginning of the veteran-centric reform package that the government will introduce, but it is an important first stage. When it comes to veterans' mental health, I believe that no government has ever demonstrated greater drive and focus on the issue than this coalition government.

Under Minister Tehan, the 2016 budget made treatment for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, drug and alcohol misuse free for anyone who had served even just one day in the full-time ADF. The 2017 budget went further for veterans, including an extra $33.5 million to extend that coverage to all mental health conditions, without a need to prove that the condition is related to their service and without a cap on funding. All veterans with a mental health condition have access to the Veterans and Veterans' Families Counselling Service, the VVCS. In 2017, once again, the minister and this government secured $8.5 million to extend VVCS to all current partners and children of veterans as well as some former partners. More recently, more than $640,000 is being provided to community groups, supporting veterans under the latest round of the Veteran and Community Grants Program, adding to the $800,000 delivered under round 1. These grants provide support for some of the simple things that can make all the difference to veterans' mental health, like bus trips to reduce social isolation, computer equipment, equipment for Men's Sheds or the refurbishment of RSL facilities.

This bill delivers on critical additional measures announced by Minister Tehan in the government's response to the Senate inquiry in October which need the support of this House and the other place. The government committed $9.8 million last year to pilot new approaches to suicide prevention and improve care and support available to veterans. These included the Coordinated Veterans' Care Mental Health Pilot, which is the subject of schedule 3 of the bill. This health pilot will incorporate new technologies to provide specialist, light-touch cognitive therapy, critically, in rural and regional Australia.

In October 2017, Minister Tehan also announced a further $31 million to support veterans' mental health as part of the government's response to the Senate inquiry into veteran suicide. Portions of this investment will go to a new veteran payment, which forms schedule 2 to the bill, for financially vulnerable veterans with a mental health condition. It will also support an annual check for ex-serving ADF members for the first five years after discharge, and a pilot of a new case management service for transitioning veterans among other projects.

This government understands its responsibilities to our veterans. It has listened to the voices of 300,000 former ADF personnel and their families and is doing all that it can to honour their service and their sacrifice. The government understands that doing right by our veterans will take investment and also knows that it requires fundamental reform. Minister Tehan delivered a great deal for ex-service personnel, and this bill is part of the current minister's vigorous pursuit of the same.

I would like to join with the remarks of the previous speaker, specifically in relation to the importance of bipartisanship in any issues involving veterans. We, as members of parliament, as I mentioned earlier, have a course, unfortunately, to send our men and women overseas. We have a responsibility to ensure that we look after them when they return, and that responsibility falls on every single one of us in this place. There is perhaps no greater priority for us as parliamentarians than to work together in a bipartisan manner to bring that into effect. I congratulate the shadow minister and those opposite for the bipartisan approach that they take in relation to this portfolio. It's a worthy and honourable thing for them to do in this case. It is unfortunate that we don't get that on all issues, but there is no issue more important than this.

The process of investment and reform is ongoing. I know that the government will continue to work with the transition taskforce and others to do more. I look forward to contributing to that important work with the future Minister for Veterans' Affairs when he or she is appointed. In the meantime, this bill is a vital part of our pragmatic consultation-driven changes, and I commend the bill to the House.