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Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Page: 2369

Mr HART (Bass) (11:16): Our ADF personnel put their lives on hold in service of our country. They take risks, make sacrifices and commit their lives and wellbeing to the Defence Force. For this reason and many others I'm very pleased that Labor is supporting the bill that we currently have before the House. The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 1) Bill 2018 comprises eight schedules, several of which address recommendations that came out of the Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel.

We know that for some former ADF personnel their service may have a greater impact on them. In these circumstances, we have a duty of care to ensure that both they and their families receive the support that they need to live full and productive lives. Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that former members of the ADF are battling rates of suicide higher than in the general population. A report released last year by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in collaboration with the Department of Veterans' Affairs found, for example, that men who are no longer serving are 14 per cent more likely than the general population to take their own lives. Further, that figure is higher still for young males between the ages of 18 and 24, who are twice as likely to die by suicide as people not in the ADF.

My electorate of Bass is home to the Launceston RSL ADF Welfare Team, the first of its type in Australia, which was set up by Nadia Titley, the Launceston RSL sub-branch secretary. Nadia recognised a gap in services when she saw ADF members becoming homeless and suicidal. The team is run out of the Launceston RSL sub-branch and staffed by accredited volunteers, mostly ex-service men and women with personal experience of military life and an increased understanding of some of the issues that veterans face in their day-to-day lives.

The aim of the Launceston RSL ADF Welfare Team is to catch veterans before they reach a crisis stage. They do this by providing a friendly ear, assistance and referrals as required, including providing them with essentials like food, housing, clothing, bedding, furniture, toiletries, financial support and health and wellbeing. Indeed, in a recent conversation with Nadia about the work of the Launceston RSL ADF Welfare Team, she emphasised to me that when some of our young veterans leave service they simply don't know how to deal with the day-to-day living activities that we experience. They don't know, for example, how to negotiate a lease for a rental property. They don't know what it's like to go to a supermarket and, for example, use a self-service facility. They're used to the all-encompassing embrace of the ADF, which is a good thing during their service but means that when they leave the service they are exposed to extreme change. Indeed, the veteran community in Launceston and in Northern Tasmania is very well served, and there are several groups and organisations supporting former ADF personnel through their transition back to civilian life and beyond, however difficult that may be.

Another organisation is Misha's Mates. This is an organisation started by a local Tasmanian veteran, Craig, who served in the ADF for 13 years with five operational deployments throughout Afghanistan and Timor-Leste. Craig knew that many of his colleagues from the ADF and other veterans were struggling with PTSD in the same way he had been, often with very serious consequences. However, the presence of his service dog, Misha, meant that he continued to make positive steps forward, including returning to study at TAFE and later university. Craig drew on his personal experience and started Misha's Mates, which supports veterans to select, test and train their own service dogs through an e-learning portal.

I must always recognise the tireless work of other local groups in this space, such as the Tasmanian branch of the Vietnam Veterans' Association of Australia and Launceston Legacy. The care and support provided to our veteran community and their families in northern Tasmania is to be commended, despite the ever-growing demand on these types of services in the face of worsening suicide rates and, of course, an overburdened Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Labor believe that one suicide is one too many, and for this reason we supported the establishment of the Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel as a way to explore the issues facing our ex-service men and women. The inquiry took almost a year to complete and received over 400 submissions. These submissions detailed the experience of individuals and interested organisations and suggested ways that we could improve outcomes for our veterans and their families. I note that the executive summary of the report by the Senate inquiry states that it was 'a very large and complex inquiry with terms of reference which could easily have taken multiple reports to cover'.

A number of issues were highlighted throughout the inquiry. These are the same issues that constituents raise with me time and time again in relation to their dealings with DVA, specifically the impact of financial stressors, the adversarial and lengthy claims process and a lack of support for partners of veterans. The report made 24 recommendations, two of which are addressed in this bill by establishing an interim incapacity payment for mental health in particular and increasing support for families.

In direct response to recommendation 19 of the Senate inquiry, schedule 1 seeks to provide additional support for current and former members and for families of current and former members, including deceased members, by providing additional childcare arrangements, counselling, household services and attendant care.

Schedule 2 establishes the veteran payment, which is an interim income support payment for those waiting for their mental health claims to be determined. It seems to me, in the light of what I have outlined with respect to the particular problems faced by the veterans community, extremely unfortunate that, up until this very welcome change, those who are most exposed by their mental illness might be without income and support. Clearly that was a gap that needed to be addressed, and I congratulate the government for addressing that.

This payment will be available between lodging a claim for mental health injury and the claim being determined, to assist vulnerable persons who may be in financial difficulty. Importantly, the payment will require that a person receiving this payment must participate in vocational and psychosocial rehabilitation. Labor strongly supports measures which provide vulnerable veterans and their families with assistance and support, particularly during difficult times. For individuals struggling with mental health injuries, financial security will play very heavily on their mind. These payments will take some of that burden off the individual and their families whilst they receive the care and support they need to recover.

Schedule 3 amends the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, the MRCA, and the Veterans' Entitlements Act, the VEA, to create a new pilot program to improve mental health support which is available in rural and regional areas. The Coordinated Veterans' Care Mental Health Pilot will build on the existing Coordinated Veterans' Care Program, which uses a team based model of care led by a GP and is supported by a practice nurse. It will be targeted to 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. Access to support for mental health conditions in rural and regional areas has been an issue of ongoing concern for veterans and their loved ones. Labor is supportive of changes that seek to 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 suffers a catastrophic injury or disease under the MRCA. The new provisions will enable the commission to specify the conditions for the purpose of the definition of catastrophic injury. Currently, this assistance is provided via an exceptional circumstances determination. This change will remove this requirement, thereby minimising any delay in the provision of support. As I said earlier, Labor is supportive of changes which will streamline processes for individuals, particularly in these circumstances, where an individual has suffered a catastrophic injury. We have an obligation to ensure the processes employed in this area are straightforward for these individuals and their loved ones.

Schedule 5 is the first legislative amendment supporting the implementation of the Veteran Centric Reform and is part of a broader improvement strategy designed to ease the transition process for veterans. This amendment seeks to amend the VEA as it relates to a claim for qualifying service. This amendment will create an additional way for a qualifying determination to be made. Essentially, veterans will no longer have to go through a process which they find most frustrating to prove their service. Rather than qualifying, service determination will be automated and will primarily be based upon information the Department of Defence provides to DVA. As to why this hadn't been implemented earlier, I do not know. Imagine the frustration for somebody in coming to me in my former practice as a lawyer and providing a whole lot of service information and saying, 'Why hasn't Defence provided this to the Department of Veterans' Affairs?' This is a very welcome change. Labor will monitor the reforms to ensure that they deliver the desired outcomes and they don't chip away at veterans entitlements.

Schedule 6 makes a number of technical amendments to the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act which will remove redundant references to Comcare and other bodies and repeal provisions not presently related to providing compensation and rehabilitation to current and former ADF members and eligible persons. I understand that these changes will have no impact on the individual. These amendments seek only to remove redundant references given the Defence-specific nature of the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act, the DRCA. I'm happy to support any measure that simplifies the complex legislative framework which exists for current and ex-serving defence personnel as long as it doesn't reduce veterans entitlements.

Schedule 7 makes a number of consequential amendments related to the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Omnibus) Act 2017. A number of references are made to 'the council', which will now change to 'the review council' to make it clear that these references relate to the Specialist Medical Review Council, which was introduced by that act.

Schedule 8 makes a number of amendments. The first is to the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Test and British Commonwealth Occupation Force (Treatment) Act 2006 to enable a person who is a member of the ADF and served in Japan at any time during 16 August 1945 to the end of 30 January 1946 to be eligible for the gold card. I understand that, in previous legislation before the House last year, there was an error and a person or persons were omitted that needed to be added for eligibility. Given that those individuals were exposed to the same conditions as those who served as part of the British Commonwealth Occupational Force, it is entirely appropriate that they receive the same care and support extended to members of the BCOF, as acknowledged last year. The second change is to the VEA to align the pension age in the VEA with the DRCA and the MRCA. Currently, the pension age as prescribed in the VEA is 65. This will now be changed to state 'pension age', meaning that, as the pension age increases, the act will reflect this and not leave individuals with a gap in support.

As I indicated earlier, Labor is broadly supportive of the amendments proposed in this legislation, in particular those which address recommendations from the Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel. Of the 24 recommendations made by the Senate inquiry, the government accepted 22 and two more in principle. I'm very pleased to see action being taken to ensure that these changes are implemented.

As you will be aware, Deputy Speaker, the area of veterans' affairs is very much an area where bipartisanship should apply, and it's something we should celebrate where the government makes a positive move. It's very important for members in this place to recognise that we owe a debt of gratitude to ex-service personnel, and that debt of gratitude is not simply repaid by platitudes expressed in this place. We need action, and we need to heed the expert evidence that's presented to Senate inquiries and the feedback that comes from RSLs and ex-personnel representative organisations.

Labor will continue to monitor the implementation of the other recommendations to ensure that they are delivered in a timely manner and that the gaps highlighted through the Senate process are addressed. As I've said previously, our current and ex-serving Defence personnel put their lives on hold in service to our country. They deserve our unwavering support, now and into the future.