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Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Page: 2397


Ms O'TOOLE (Herbert) (16:39): I am also pleased to stand here and speak in support of the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 1) Bill 2018. I am honoured to represent the largest garrison city in this great nation. The electorate of Herbert is home to the largest community of veterans, ex-service personnel and their families. I can call Australia a great nation thanks to the men and women who have served to protect our freedoms. Our Defence Force personnel have put their lives on the line so that we can have a great quality of life in this country. Our Defence personnel have made huge sacrifices: time away from their families, risking their own safety, lives, mental health and wellbeing. No amount of money or thanks we give to our veterans, ex-serving personnel and their families could repay the debt as they richly deserve, but as their elected representative I can fight for their rights and wellbeing every day in this place to ensure that they have access to the health care, training and job opportunities they require, that their families are supported well and that they have a strong voice in this place on all matters related to veterans.

I am passionate about veterans' affairs and have brought my mental health expertise into my role as the member for Herbert. Before being elected to this place I worked for 15 years in the role of CEO of two mental health community managed organisations in both the mental health specialist employment area and the community and social inclusion sector. People's lives are complex, especially when living with mental illness. Without a doubt this government needs to do much better in general, but particularly so in relation to veterans, and this bill will go some way towards that. Quality mental health services require highly trained people—that is, support workers and professionals who are able to build relationships based on trust and dignity. Contemporary mental health supports are directed by the person seeking the support, which may also include their family members.

This is particularly the case for veterans and ex-serving personnel. This approach to service delivery also creates training and job opportunities for veterans in the form of peer workers. Veterans and ex-service personnel struggling with poor mental health and PTSD will relate much better to workers with lived experience of defence life. That is why the suicide prevention trial, known in our community as Operation Compass, is doing so well. The project manager is a retired army colonel who has experienced a number of overseas deployments and has lived experience of defence life. Operation Compass has been supported by the Townsville Defence Community Reference Group that I established in 2016 in order to work with stakeholder groups and Defence personnel. I particularly acknowledge the outstanding contributions to this project from retired Lieutenant General John Caligari, personnel from Lavarack Barracks and RAAF Base Townsville, the Northern Queensland PHN, VOTSA—Veterans Off The Streets—the RSL and many local ESOs.

Operation Compass has also led to the establishment of The Oasis, a veterans' hub that will be a one-stop shop for transitioning service personnel and those who have transitioned and are in need of assistance, including mental health support. The Oasis is also supported by the Townsville Defence Community Reference Group. I understand our veterans and ex-serving personnel and families deserve quality, timely and appropriate supports. My meetings with veterans and veterans' organisations over the last year has led me to understand that we lost 86 veterans to suicide in that 12-month period. One life lost is simply one too many. This figure shows the government needs to do better by our veterans. As I said, this bill goes some way towards starting that help today.

I am proud to stand with Labor in support of this bill. This bill seeks to address two recommendations from the Senate inquiry by establishing an interim incapacity payment for mental health and increasing support for families. Where there are issues with someone's mental health, there are always issues for the family. All too often families get left out of the conversation about mental health support options. Families must be included, as they are the ones who bear the brunt of the impact and are there day in, day out, giving the support needed. Families provide the immediate and necessary support, and if we are to do better by veterans, we need to do better by their families when it comes to mental health support.

Greater support for families has been a focus for Labor in policy development, and this is essential, because often it also impacts on children. It is for this reason that a Shorten led Labor government has committed to developing a family engagement and support strategy for Defence personnel and veterans. This strategy will provide a national blueprint to include the engagement of DVA and Defence with military families. It would also ensure that best-practice support for families of serving personnel and ex-ADF members was consistently available across the country. The government has begun to implement these recommendations, but we cannot take our foot off the pedal when it comes to ensuring support for families, and Labor will ensure that this momentum continues.

Schedule 1 seeks to provides additional support for current and former members and their families, including families of deceased members, by providing additional childcare arrangements, counselling, household services and attendant care. These are very necessary and vital supports. From child care to counselling to household services, these measures are vital. The additional childcare assistance will see families eligible for up to $10,000 per child per annum, under school age, and/or $5,000 per child per annum for primary school children, and cover child day care and before- and after-school care expenses. Brief intervention counselling will also be extended to current and former members with a current rehabilitation plan within five years post discharge. Their families will also be entitled to access up to a total of 20 sessions over the five-year period. The counselling provided will be in addition to any treatment provided under the DVA healthcare system. Additional household services, home care and counselling will enable widows and widowers of an ex-ADF member to receive financial assistance for a range of services—for example, garden maintenance, home and domestic support—to assist them to adjust to life after the death of their partner. This increased assistance is intended to include a current or former member who has a post 1 July 2004 warlike service and has a current rehabilitation in place, and the partner, children, parents and siblings of deceased members who rendered warlike service and who may have committed suicide due to their service. This is intended to recognise the unique needs of these members and their families and provide an appropriate level of assistance to assist their health and employment outcomes and provide needed support for the family who support the member.

When a person's mental health is affected, they should not have to jump through hoops just to get help. Everyone should be able to reach out for help.

There are a number of measures in this bill that I proudly support, but, most importantly, it is the interim income support. In the last sitting of parliament, I met with Karen Bird, Jesse Bird's mother. She is an amazing woman, and, despite everything Karen, her husband and family have gone through—all of the negativity and the life-changing events—Karen has been able to turn her heartache into action, and I found her an incredibly positive and inspiring woman. Karen and her husband are passionate that their son's life was not lost in vain. She is a quiet, deeply respectful but very strong woman, and she and her husband are working hard to ensure that no other family has to endure what they have endured. They will do whatever it takes to hold the government and the department to account.

Waiting around for help and assistance can send people into a further downward spiral which is life-threatening, which is why the interim income support is such a vital part of this bill, because it will make such a big difference. Schedule 2 establishes the veteran payment and interim income support payment for those waiting for their mental health claims to be determined.

This bill is the beginning of what governments can do to support our veterans, ex-serving personnel and their families in their time of greatest need. I am hoping that the two recommendations from the Senate inquiry on this bill being implemented will be the first of many more to come. I can't express enough that we must do better by our veterans, ex-serving personnel and their families. This is not about politics; this is actually about people's lives—people who have put their lives on the line for our safety and our freedom. Now it is up to us in this place to ensure that our veterans have access to all of the care and support that they need.