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Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Page: 2394


Ms McBRIDE (Dobell) (16:26): I rise today to speak in support of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 1) Bill 2018. In doing so, I would like to share some words from Cassandra, a veteran of the Royal Australian Navy and a constituent of my electorate of Dobell, who has written to me a number of times deeply concerned about the wellbeing of veterans and, in particular, the rising rate of suicide. In November last year she wrote:

I woke this morning to hear the number of Veteran suicides so far for 2017 has risen to 73. Every time this number rises I feel immense sadness but this one more so as I have now learnt his name. I lived next door to him, his beautiful wife and two wonderful children. He was discharged some years ago but has forever struggled with … PTSD and yesterday he made the ultimate decision to end his life. Many will not know the years of impact on not only this person but his family behind closed doors, it was more than any can imagine.

Veteran suicides are a national tragedy. Labor is committed to supporting our current and ex-service personnel and their families. Labor supported the establishment of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel as a way to thoroughly develop responses to the issues facing our ex-service men and women. The inquiry took almost a year to complete and received over 400 submissions detailing the experiences of individuals and interested organisations and suggesting ways we can improve the lives of our veterans and their families. I want to take the opportunity to thank those people who shared their deeply personal experiences as part of this process. A number of issues were highlighted by the inquiry, including the impact of financial stress, the adversarial and lengthy claim process and a lack of support for partners of veterans. The Senate inquiry made 24 recommendations, of which the government accepted 22 and two in principle. Labor offered our support to the government to ensure these recommendations were implemented quickly and effectively. This bill contains a number of measures, several of which address recommendations that came out of the Senate inquiry. We were pleased to see action being taken to make this change. We will continue to apply pressure to the government to keep these changes on track.

This bill seeks to address two of the recommendations of the inquiry by establishing an interim incapacity payment for mental health and by increasing support for families. Greater support for families is an issue which Labor is actively pursuing. It is important to support those supporting our current and ex-defence personnel. It is for this reason that we committed, if elected, to developing a family engagement and support strategy for defence personnel and veterans. This strategy would provide a national blueprint to engage DVA and Defence with military families. It would also make support for families of serving personnel and ex-ADF members consistently available across the country.

I have often spoken with Bob Ihlein, who is from The Entrance Mens Shed and is a member of Overwatch, a veterans suicide prevention group and a strong advocate for veterans mental health and suicide prevention. Bob let me know recently that Overwatch has saved at least 15 lives because of its interventions. Bob has said that providing child care, counselling and household help for veterans and their families is important in helping them deal with their problems and with DVA itself.

Schedule 1 of the bill seeks to provide additional support for current and former members and the families of current and former members, including deceased members, by providing additional childcare arrangements, counselling, household services and attendant care. This is in direct response to recommendation 19 of the Senate inquiry, which called for a review of the support available to partners of veterans to identify avenues of assistance. Labor welcomes this additional funding and support for those who support our current and ex-serving defence personnel.

Schedule 2 establishes the veteran payment, an interim income support payment for those waiting for their mental health claims to be determined. These payments are subject to satisfying an asset and income test and require individuals to take part in vocational and psychosocial rehabilitation, including financial counselling. Partners of veterans may also be eligible for a payment. This new payment is in response to the Senate inquiry and the outcomes of the inquiry into the suicide of Jesse Bird. The veteran payment will be a form of interim income support payment available between lodging a claim for a mental health injury and the claim being determined, to assist vulnerable people who may be in financial difficulty. Where a veteran and their partner are receiving the payment and the veteran dies, payment will continue to the partner. These payments will continue while the claim is being determined and for a period of time following the decision to allow for a smoother transition for the veteran and their family. Importantly, if the member's claim is not accepted, DVA will support the individual across to another form of income support so the veteran is not left without a plan or support. Labor supports this measure as financial security is crucial to those whose service has impacted them and their family. It is our responsibility to support them. I mentioned earlier Bob from the Entrance Men's Shed and from Overwatch. He understands how important the interim payment is for veterans waiting for their claim to be dealt with. This is what he said to me about this interim support:

Veterans need income while their claims are being dealt with; the cost of living is still the same and you need some sort of income.

It just makes sense.

Schedule 3 of this bill creates a new pilot program to improve mental health support available in rural and regional areas. Before coming to this House I was a mental health worker for 10 years at Wyong Hospital, near where I grew up. I've seen firsthand the difference it can make to have timely access to psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists and other people involved in supportive services. The Coordinated Veterans' Care Mental Health Pilot will build on the existing Coordinated Veterans' Care program, which uses a team based model of care, which is vital, led by a general practitioner supported by a practice nurse. This pilot will allow the GP to assess, diagnose, undertake care planning and refer clients to use an application on a smart device. It will be targeted to those veterans with mild to moderate mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, who also have a physical condition requiring pain management. It will recruit up to 125 people each year over two years, with the aim to provide support to veterans in rural and regional areas. I earlier mentioned my experience as a mental health worker. In particular, dealing with pain as a comorbidity with mental health conditions is extremely complex and requires coordinated care by multidisciplinary teams, so I strongly support this measure. Access to support for mental health conditions in rural and regional areas is an issue of ongoing concern for veterans and those who care for them. Labor supports changes which address some of these concerns.

Schedule 4 will amend the existing provisions relating to compensation for household and attendant care services where an ADF member sustains a catastrophic injury or disease under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. The new provisions will enable the commission to specify the conditions for the purposes of the definition of a catastrophic injury. The provisions will also allow the commission to approve weekly compensation for household and attendant care services it considers reasonable in individual circumstances. Currently this assistance is provided via an exceptional determination. This change will remove this requirement, reducing delays in providing support. This amendment will also ensure that entitlements made under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act for household and attendant care services are equivalent to members covered under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act and civilians covered under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. The amount payable will be determined by the commission according to the individual's circumstances. In addition, for those who have already gained assistance through a special determination, their current level of assistance or benefit will be preserved.

Labor supports changes which streamline processes for individuals, particularly in circumstances where an individual has suffered a catastrophic injury. We have an obligation to make the process straightforward for these individuals and for their loved ones. As Bob has said to me often, one of the problems for veterans is the paperwork involved and the time taken for them to get help. As Bob said to me, 'When you are suicidal, the last thing you want to think about is paperwork.' It's not something that someone should have to deal with. The system should be streamlined and straightforward and should be there to support them.

Schedule 5 is the first legislative amendment supporting the implementation of veteran centred reform and is part of the broader improvement strategy designed to ease the transition process for veterans. This amendment will create an additional way for a qualifying determination to be made. The amendment will enable the automation of a qualifying service determination and will primarily be based on information from the Department of Defence to DVA. Essentially, this amendment will remove a step in the process a veteran must currently take in order to make an application for some benefit or payment. Again, Labor supports changes which improve processes and support for veterans and their families. That said, Labor will be monitoring these reforms closely to ensure they work as intended and don't chip away at veterans' entitlements.

Schedule 6 makes a number of technical amendments and enables the commission to provide information to the Chief of the Defence Force for the reconsideration or review of a determination made regarding the liability of injury, disease or death of an employee. This amendment will align the information-sharing provisions under the DRCA and the MRCA. The amendments in this section will also reinsert section 43 into the SRCA which was omitted during the drafting process. This will ensure that a peacekeeper does not experience any disadvantage. This does not reflect a policy change to any entitlement and/or benefit a peacekeeper may receive under the SRCA. The creation of DRCA in 2017 caused some angst in the veterans community. Labor worked diligently with members of the veterans community to follow up each concern in order to make sure that this legislation works as intended. Again, Labor supports changes which simplify the complex legislative framework which exists for current and ex-serving Defence personnel as long as it doesn't reduce veterans' entitlements. We are assured by the government that these changes have no impact on entitlements and, instead, only remove redundant provisions, add information-sharing and ensure peacekeepers are not disadvantaged by the creation of the DRCA. It is because of these assurances that we support this provision.

Labor supports the amendments proposed in this legislation—in particular, those which address recommendations from the Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel. Labor will continue to monitor the implementation of the other recommendations to ensure they are delivered in a timely manner and that the gaps highlighted through the Senate process are addressed. Our ADF personnel take risks, make sacrifices and commit their lives to the Defence Force to serve our country. I thank the former Minister for Veterans' Affairs for the opportunity to meet with him and to discuss veteran suicides and raise the concerns of Cassandra, Bob and many others in my community who are doing what they can to draw attention to this national tragedy and are working locally in our community to try to improve the lives of veterans and those who care for them.

I'm looking forward to hosting in my electorate a safeTALK workshop organised by the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service to help raise awareness and understanding about the risk of suicide amongst veterans and help people involved in their care, including RSL sub-branches and welfare officers, by providing the tools that they need to be able to have safe conversations about suicide and suicide ideation. This is something that is really close to my heart. As someone who has worked in mental health and has seen the consequences for individuals and their families, I'm really pleased to speak in support of this bill. I'm looking forward to swift implementation so that no people are left behind or worse off. I support the government in what they're doing and support the recommendation of the Senate inquiry. This is something that really matters and it's something that we can and must do something about.