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Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Page: 2367

Mr WOOD (La Trobe) (11:07): I also wish to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-Centric Reforms No. 1) Bill 2018. I'd like to start by acknowledging the people who are the reason we are debating this issue today: the veterans and their families. Whenever and wherever our veterans serve in the Australian armed forces, they do so in order to protect this country and its people. They've always put their country first. We know that when they've come home, whether it's to the suburbs of Sydney, the outback in Western Australia or my electorate of La Trobe—and we have so many veterans—the support our veterans have needed and benefited from the most has been provided by their families. The veterans are, of course, always supported by their families. We also know that members of veterans' families, whether they are partners, children, parents, siblings or close friends, have made a huge sacrifice while the service men or women are away, because they miss so many occasions, such as birthdays, school events, Christmases and special family celebrations. On behalf of the government, we thank the veterans and their families for what they have done for our country and what they have given up.

We also know that, all too often, sacrifices continue in other ways when veterans return, so I commend the government for seeking to implement a number of specific initiatives which are a response to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee report entitled The constant battle: suicide by veterans, which was tabled in parliament last year. I thank the members of that committee. Arising from this report, the government is providing an additional $31 million to support veterans' mental health on top of the $58.6 million that was provided in last year's budget for veterans' mental health. When it comes to veterans, money will never go far enough for what they have done. I also recognise that the opposition members are supporting the government with this bill.

I applaud the measures that are proposed in this amendment bill, and I'm particularly interested in the inclusions that relate to additional family support for veterans. These are matters—especially the child care—that have been raised with me directly by affected constituents in my electorate of La Trobe. Over the years, I have heard firsthand from veterans about the impact that their combat experience has had on their mental health. I also must say that a number of veterans over the years have had major issues with the DVA in my electorate. My staff always have a door open for our veterans, and we say, 'Let us go and fight these issues for you when you have issues with the DVA, as you have already fought for our country.'

So I'm pleased to see that this bill introduces a number of new income support payments for veterans who are unable to work for this reason and who have consequently lodged a compensation claim. When you meet these people, it becomes very apparent that it is very difficult for them, after being in a high-stakes environment where their life can be on the line every day, to come back to mundane work and life in Australia. It is a very difficult transition process. The bill will ensure that, if they are financially vulnerable, they can receive immediate financial assistance while their claims are being assessed.

In July last year Berwick resident Julie Anderson—I've met with Julie so many times over the years—wrote to me and pointed out a very concerning fact: 'Only five more veterans have to end their lives this year and that will be equal to those killed fighting the enemy in Afghanistan in over 10 years.' Julie makes the sad and relevant point that it's after their efforts, after their service to Australia, when they come back home, that the mental battle really begins within them. Julie has been involved in the social media campaign entitled Not One More, and she referred to a suicide epidemic of our young veterans, which, sadly, is true. She also said 99.9 per cent of our taxpayers want to know that our vets are looked after, but over the past 10 years very little headway has been made to reduce waiting times in suicide prevention despite huge increases in budget.

When I met with the wives of two local veterans, they described the daily challenges of looking after children whilst caring for their badly incapacitated husbands. One of them, whose name is Lyn, said: 'Transitioning out of Defence in any capacity is leaving veterans vulnerable. Medically discharged veterans are often left for months to end with living off $600 per week with no consideration for the size of their family.' So it is heartening to see that the bill will deliver improved family support to veterans who are in receipt of incapacity payments, and that includes greater access to child care—I believe the amount would be up to $10,000 per year—and counselling to enable the family unit to maintain a normal life with connections to community, employment and social interaction that other people are able to take for granted.

As I said before, when veterans return to so-called normal life in Australia, it is very hard to adapt, for the family and children especially. For those spouses who pay the highest price of all, with the tragic loss of a veteran through death in recent conflict or through suicide, I believe it is most appropriate that spouses should be eligible for household services and counselling to assist them with adjusting to life after the tragic death of their partner. I believe that the period of two years of service that is offered under this bill is a great start; however, I firmly believe we should not be putting such a relatively brief time limit on trauma and that in fact services should be extended to five years. This is something I've mentioned to my colleagues in the government.

This view arises from the opinions expressed to me by a number of RSL representatives, in particular Alan Ashmore from La Trobe. I have known Alan to be an amazing ambassador for veterans over the years. He is himself a Vietnam veteran. He has been a tireless campaigner for veterans' rights for nearly 40 years. I think a meeting with Alan was probably one of my first meetings in my office in 2004. Recently, Alan said:

Only last weekend I met up by accident with the former wife of one of my best mates whom I was in Vietnam with but suffered badly with PTSD on his return. Mentally and physically he was one of the three toughest men I have ever met but has been a mess since his return from Vietnam. It took him 14 years to get his TPI—

which is an absolute tragedy. He continued:

It destroyed his marriage and the mental health of his two daughters who still spend periods of time as in-patients in a mental hospital. If it wasn't for their faith and supportive network I doubt if the daughters would still be with us.

Alan finished by saying:

I mention this as I believe close to one million Australians are affected by their war service or as a close family member.

I believe that these changes cannot come soon enough, and therefore I join with my colleagues in commending this bill to the House. With these tragedies, it should have come in so many years earlier.