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Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Page: 2379


Mr LLEW O'BRIEN (Wide Bay) (12:00): I rise to support the government's reforms to the veteran payment system which will lend a hand to ex-service personnel when they return to their community. There are 300,000 people who receive a benefit of some kind from the Department of Veterans' Affairs, including over 3,000 in Wide Bay. It was a coalition election commitment to provide more support to veterans in both employment and the area of mental health treatment. These people put their lives on the line to protect us and our freedoms. It's only fair that we support them and their families as they make the transition back to civilian life, which can be very hard. While all men and women of the ADF are deserving of respect, we particularly remember those who paid the ultimate price. Each year we commemorate lost soldiers on Remembrance Day, promising: lest we forget.

We should remember that suicide also affects service personnel, taking young lives and destroying families. A study in 2012 found that 54 per cent of all ADF members experience some kind of mental ill health. For many ex-service personnel, the trauma of war remains in their mind and triggers another battle, which for many is too much to bear. Between 2001 and 2015, at least 325 ex-service personnel, tragically, took their own lives—more than three times the total number of casualties in Afghanistan. The true figures are estimated to be higher than this because suicide is only recorded by the DVA when a family makes a claim. One estimate put the veteran suicide toll last year at 84, up from 79 in 2016. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, young ex-service personnel are twice as likely to take their own lives as the average Australian. They are considered high risk because they often return to the community with severe mental trauma and without the skills to secure employment. Worse yet is the difficulty in receiving timely and appropriate compensation for their mental illness.

In 2016, the Senate began an inquiry into this issue, where they heard from hundreds of veterans and their families and peak organisations. The committee, which included my colleague Minister McKenzie, was met with a deluge of complaints about the DVA and its outdated protocols. Veterans reported that their legitimate claims were being stonewalled by bureaucracy.

One of the families that voiced their concern was the Bird family from the Gold Coast. In November of 2016, John and Karen Bird said that their son's claim had fallen on the deaf ears of complacent staff. Jesse Bird had developed post-traumatic stress syndrome after he witnessed a close mate of his die instantly from a bomb blast in Afghanistan. When Jesse returned to Australia, he struggled to hold a job due to his anxiety.

Jesse's claim for compensation was stalled for months and was eventually declined. Jesse's family blamed his continued mental decline in part on the application process. A few weeks after being denied this vital benefit, Jesse, tragically, took his own life. The tragic and avoidable death of Jesse Bird sent shock waves across the country. Then veterans' affairs minister Dan Tehan admitted the department had grievously let Jesse and his family down.

The respect we show for the military must not only be found in museums and monuments. The true test is whether we're prepared to give all veterans, especially those requiring urgent assistance, a dignified and fair life. These reforms to DVA will go a long way to achieving this. They are in response to the recommendations of the Senate report The constant battle: suicide by veterans as well as advice from the Productivity Commission and the Australian National Audit Office.

Veterans incapacitated due to mental ill health will no longer need to file lengthy paperwork in order to receive compensation, as the process will be automated. Crucially, a new income support payment will be provided for assistance while their claims are processed. This is expected to benefit approximately 830 veterans and their families and partners in the first year.

Like all good welfare policies, these reforms are designed to help people take control of their lives without encouraging dependency. I'm pleased to say that, in addition to reforms of the payment system, a suite of new services will be available to veterans and their families. The government has committed $31 million to veterans' mental health services on top of the $58.6 million announced in last year's budget. This funding will go towards community-driven initiatives by practitioners and ex-service organisations working together. Families of veterans will also receive more support, including increasing access to child care, counselling and financial advice services. Particularly noteworthy is the commitment to a two-year trial program worth $3.6 million. The Coordinated Veterans' Care Mental Health Pilot will include up to 250 veterans in regional and rural communities. The service will be available for both gold-card and white-card holders, meaning young ex-service personnel can participate. The pilots will be run by a local GP and nurse and use an innovative smartphone app designed by an external expert in mental health. I'll be watching the results of this trial with keen interest. In the past, the need to travel to a city to get specialist treatment has deterred many from seeking help. I thank Minister McKenzie and Assistant Minister Gillespie for their interest in this area and will continue to work closely with them to provide access to mental health services in Wide Bay and across regional Australia.

It is clear that early intervention is the key to preventing suicide. A well-known case in point is the lauded response by the US Air Force in the 1990s to rapidly rising rates of suicide among their personnel. A series of targeted measures for soldiers during and after their service led to a massive 21 per cent decrease in suicides, going from a high of 68 in 1994 to 20 in 1990. The success of the United States Air Force in reducing suicide is something we should strive to achieve in the Australian military. Never again should diggers feel the need to keep their emotions bottled up as so many did when they came home from the Great War.

I'm constantly inspired by the great work done by community-driven groups like Soldier On and Mates4Mates. I want to see more projects like these in the future reaching out to veterans and transforming their and their families' lives for the better. I fully support the government's welcome reforms to DVA. They have been a long time coming and will allay widespread concerns within the veteran community that the department is not working for them. I will continue to be a strong advocate for veterans as well as all other emergency services workers facing daily trauma. I thank Minister McCormack for his work and implore the government to do everything it can to reduce suicide across the board and eliminate the stigma attached to mental ill health, lest we forget the victims of veteran suicide in the past. Let's work to stop the deaths into the future.