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Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Page: 14580

Ms RISHWORTH (Kingston) (11:10): I rise today to speak on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. This bill creates a new act which would provide a framework for government, business and community to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service and for support for veterans and their families. Importantly, this bill establishes the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant.

The idea of a covenant which acknowledges the importance of both current and ex-serving personnel is not a new one. The ex-serving community have been advocating for this for many years, having seen the effective operation of the covenant in the United Kingdom and seeing value in establishing one here in Australia. I'd like to pay tribute to the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations, otherwise known as ADSO, who have been spearheading this campaign for many, many years, urging governments and oppositions to consider establishing a covenant and arguing for its importance.

Subsequently, after much consultation by me and the Leader of the Opposition, in September last year, Labor announced its commitment to developing an Australian military covenant. This commitment, as I said, was made on the back of lobbying by those in the current and ex-serving community who impressed upon me and Labor the importance of acknowledging the unique nature of military service.

Serving in the ADF is a career unlike any other, and what we ask of those who serve and those who stand beside them is exceptional. Consequently, our obligation to those who serve should be unwavering.

Our proposed covenant was to be a solemn promise which recognised our obligation to, and acknowledged the sacrifices made by, both current and ex-serving Defence personnel. When an individual undertakes to serve their country, we, in turn, undertake a commitment to look after them and their loved ones both during and after their service. And, while this promise has been an implicit promise by governments for many years, we did believe, last September, that our serving men and women deserved to know, in no uncertain terms—in very explicit terms—that we value their service and will look after them.

As part of the military covenant that we committed to, we also argued for introducing a legislative requirement which would see governments report annually to parliament on how they were meeting their responsibility to support our serving and ex-serving personnel. We firmly believe in the importance of a military covenant, and it is for this reason that we've welcomed the government adopting the proposal and establishing a covenant—albeit very, very late in the parliamentary term.

However, there are a few key differences between what we proposed last September and what the government has introduced in this legislation. The first is the absence of a mention of currently serving ADF personnel in the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. This is unlike the UK's covenant, which does recognise both those currently serving and veterans. Labor's military covenant did seek to cover both those currently serving and those who have left, in recognition of the whole-of-life obligation we have to look after those serving as well as those who have left Defence. We believe that the government, without including those currently serving, is missing a big piece of the puzzle. Our obligation to look after members is just as great when they are serving as it is when they transition, through that transition and then while in civilian life.

In addition, Labor's military covenant included annual reporting in the form of a statement to parliament on how the government is meeting its obligations to current and ex-serving personnel. While we recognise there is currently an annual statement to parliament, that is purely a decision of the government and not a statement by the parliament. We think that the absence from this bill of a legislative requirement to report to the parliament is a problem. I believe that requiring the government to report back to the parliament about how they are supporting current and ex-serving personnel would provide an important accountability measure, and we think that the accountability measure should be to the parliament of this country.

Given the importance of this legislation, Labor felt it prudent to send this legislation to a Senate inquiry in order to ensure that consultation had been adequately conducted and to enable interested parties to make submissions. In addition, some in the veterans community believed that the opposition had been consulted on the wording and the detail of this covenant well before it was in parliament. I need to place on the record that this simply was not the case. There was no consultation. The opposition had not been engaged until this legislation was in the parliament. It was disappointing, certainly, and it was therefore important that we proceeded to a Senate inquiry in order to ensure that proper consultation would occur. Through the Senate inquiry we teased out some outstanding issues. Particularly, the issues of including current serving personnel and of regular reporting to parliament were raised.

While Labor does have these concerns, we are acutely aware of how few sitting days we have before the calling of an election and we respect the desire of the ex-serving community to have this bill passed before the election that's coming up. With this in mind, I think it is important to note that despite the government announcing their commitment in October last year it has taken them many months to introduce this legislation. In order not to delay the passage of this bill, Labor requested that the Senate committee complete its inquiry by 22 March in order to enable both the examination of the legislation and that the process be completed by this sitting week.

Fundamentally, Labor does support the introduction of this legislation and the legislation of a covenant that recognises the obligation we have to those who have served. As detailed, Labor's announcement did go further than this covenant before the parliament. Labor believes that our obligation is no greater to those who have left the ADF than to those still serving. This is an issue that was noted by the Defence Force Welfare Association, as the peak body representing current serving members and as the chief advocate, for the past 10 years, of the need for a military covenant. The association stated:

… the intent of the legislation through the concept of the unique nature of military service is for recognition to be inclusive of not only veterans but of those still serving in military uniform.

Labor continues to consider whether there is a benefit in including current serving members in the covenant, and we do believe it is the case. However, as we said, we will not propose any amendments at this stage, because of the need to see this legislation enacted. In addition, we won't be moving any amendments addressing the absence of a reporting function, despite believing strongly that it has merit. As I have said, I continue to believe it is worthwhile to include reporting requirements in the legislation as a way to ensure the covenant is more than just a set of words. This has been a strong desire of many I have spoken to in the ex-service community. If Labor is successful at the next election, these are two issues we will certainly consider in ways that could strengthen the covenant, and we will do so in consultation with the serving and ex-serving community.

In addition to the covenant, this bill introduces a number of other clauses aimed at recognising the sacrifices made by those who served. This acknowledgement is chiefly contained within the general recognition clause, which acknowledges the unique nature of military service and the demand we place on those who serve and the additional support that they might require and the Commonwealth commitment to providing that support. Furthermore, it acknowledges the demands placed on and the sacrifices made by families of veterans. This is an important component and one which has not always been acknowledged as well as it should be.

The nature of military life is unique, and families can also be deeply affected by military service. We know that many servicemen and servicewomen are deployed internationally for months at a time, with this separation causing emotional stress for partners and children. When they are not deployed, there is regular reposting to different bases around the country, meaning they have to choose between uprooting their whole family or living apart for a period of time. Post service, particularly in cases where someone has been medically discharged, there is also ongoing and significant impact on the family. Military families make many sacrifices both during and after service, all the while supporting their loved ones.

The importance of family for those who have served or continue to serve is an issue which has come up time and time again during the approximately 53 roundtables that I've held over the last three years with current and ex-serving ADF members. These individuals have made it clear that for too long families have been overlooked and have not been given a seat at the table when it comes to discussing what support they need. It is for this reason that Labor have announced that, if elected, we will develop a national family engagement and support strategy. The strategy is a direct recommendation from the National Mental Health Commission review into veteran suicide and self-harm. The strategy will give families a voice and provide a national blueprint to include engagement of DVA and Defence with military families. Importantly, it will address the lack of engagement with families and acknowledge the critical role they play. In a bill designed to recognise the service of veterans, it is appropriate that families are also recognised. Labor is pleased to see families included in the general recognition clause and in the covenant itself. This recognition is long overdue.

As an extension of the general recognition clause, the bill also introduces an overarching statement in relation to the beneficial nature of the Veterans' Affairs portfolio legislation, making it clear that veterans legislation has a beneficial purpose and should be interpreted accordingly. This is a welcome addition and something that is raised with me by many advocates in the ex-service organisations and ex-service community across Australia. I routinely hear stories where, despite the intention to promote a beneficial purpose in the veterans legislation, advocates state that the legislation has not been applied in a beneficial way to assist veterans. I understand that currently none of the principal acts include a beneficial statement similar to what is proposed in this bill. Instead, the VEA and MRCA contain provisions that enable limited flexibility and promote a beneficial purpose. Including this section will make it clear to decision-makers, veterans and the ex-serving community that the Commonwealth is committed to decision-makers interpreting legislation in a way that benefits veterans and their families where that interpretation is consistent with the purposes of the provision.

Of course, there are elements that can't be beneficial, such as the recovery of Commonwealth debt and the provision protecting the Commonwealth from fraud. However, this bill makes it clear that, where possible, the act should be interpreted beneficially. Department training will be undertaken to ensure decision-makers understand and appropriately apply the legislation. In addition the bill will acknowledge that the role of each decision-maker is one of responsibility, with decision-makers in a trusted position and, as such, that they should act ethically, honestly, objectively and with integrity. The bill acknowledges that when this happens it is reflected positively in the public perception of the department and themselves.

A paragraph will be inserted that will provide that claim decisions be made within a time that is proportionate to the complexity of the matter, acknowledging the variety of the complex client claims and subsequent differences in timeliness. As part of this section, a clause will be inserted that states that a decision-maker is committed to only requiring evidence sufficient to meet the relevant standard of proof for the claims. The timeliness of claims is a common source of concern and frustration for many in the ex-service community. I understand that, as of 4 March, the longest claim under the Veterans' Entitlements Act was 547 days, which is one year, four months, two weeks and five days, and the longest DRCA related claim was 548 days, which is one year, six months and two days. Fundamentally, these are individual veterans waiting for an outcome of their claim for well in excess of a year. Any improvements or commitments to addressing the timeliness of claims would be welcome by Labor and the veterans' community. As such, Labor offers our support to the general recognition element of this bill and urges the department and the government to resolve these claims that continue to blow out.

Finally, this bill will also provide recognition for veterans and their families in the form of a lapel pin, card and other artefacts in recognition of the military service of veterans and the sacrifices made by the families of veterans. This inclusion is to facilitate the second half of the government's announcement from October last year. The announcement included, as I said, the establishment of a veterans discount card and the provision of a lapel pin. At the time, Labor offered our support to the establishment of these items if it would bring tangible benefits to veterans; however, the government has absolutely failed to provide this. Since October, Labor has sought information as to which businesses have signed up to offer discount cards to current serving men and women and also to our veterans. Questions have surrounded the card since last year. It was disappointing to find that, as at the most recent estimates process, no businesses have actually signed up to the card. When it was announced, the government stated that it would be a separate card to those healthcare cards of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Of course, now we find out that it will actually be a rebadging and a reissuing of the current DVA healthcare card, at a lost of $11.1 million.

Since the card was announced five months ago, the only commitment for discounts was made by Virgin Australia, who originally offered priority boarding, but, after a backlash from veterans, has now sought to review that. This offer was derided by so many in the veterans community as a tokenistic gesture, which subsequently led to the offer being with drawn and placed under review. Since that time there have been no commitments from business in relation to this card, and there is growing scepticism within the veterans community about whether this was a cheap ploy by the government. I'm also aware that there are a number of other discount cards which veterans currently have access to—some at a cost; some of which are free—which offer a range of discounts. It is unclear how the discounts offered by these cards will interact with the veterans discount card, which is also a healthcare card.

We want to see tangible benefits delivered to veterans. If that is in the form of discounts, well, so be it. But we've not seen from this government any tangible benefits delivered when it comes to this discount card. That being said, this legislation does formalise the card and the lapel pin as forms of recognition for those who have served, and we offer support for that. If we are elected we will have to get to work on cleaning up the government's mess when it comes to the veterans discount card. We look forward to more information being available about the veterans discount card in Senate estimates on Friday. Hopefully, the department will be able to give us real information about the practical benefits that are being delivered as a result of this card. As I said, as at February this year, we have not been able to get such answers.

In closing I would like to thank all of those in the veterans community who have participated in providing feedback, who have lobbied for recognition as part of the military covenant, who have contributed to the Senate inquiry and who continue to advocate so strongly for veterans right across this country. As I have flagged: while not proposing any amendments here, if elected we will certainly consider ways we can strengthen this legislation through regular reporting to parliament and the inclusion of currently serving ADF members. However, we support the principles of the bill and acknowledge the support for those who have served and their loved ones. This is very important recognition. It is an important message coming from the whole parliament that we appreciate your service. We recognise the sacrifices that you and your families have made. I commend the bill to the House.