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Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Page: 14599

Mr WALLACE ( Fisher ) ( 12:33 ): I rise in support of the government's Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting a Unit Citation for Gallantry to my constituent, Geoffrey Eaton. Geoff was a private on the front lines during the battles for fire support bases Coral and Balmoral during the Vietnam War. Geoff did me the honour of requesting that I present him with the citation in lieu of his unit's commanding officer.

At the presentation, Geoff told me his story and described some of the harrowing experiences that he went through during those days in 1968. It is impossible for those of us who were not there to fully understand what this bill describes as 'the unique nature of military service and the sacrifice demanded of those who commit to defend our nation'. Geoff tried to describe a little about the effect that his service had on him, when he said:

I didn't talk of it for a long time. A lot of guys had a hard time coming back. I was pretty fortunate, I was looked after there. But later on it came back and bit me.

Geoff has been part of advocating for proper recognition of the actions and the experiences that his comrades went through at Coral and Balmoral. As he said at the presentation, the unit's recognition was 'a long time coming'. I was pleased to have the opportunity to thank Geoff for his service, and I hope that the citation will be of some comfort and pride to Geoff and to the other members of his unit and their families. Geoff's story was another moving reminder for me of how critical it is that we appropriately recognise and acknowledge our veterans' service. I believe that today's bill is another important step, both practical and symbolic, toward proper recognition for all of our former service men and women.

In August last year I held a Fisher veterans forum in my electorate at the Caloundra RSL. I invited Senator Jim Molan to take part in the forum. The veterans that we spoke with were passionate about the importance of service and the ADF. They were modest about their contributions and, most importantly, they were passionate about supporting one another. When it came to the help that they wanted from government, the message was loud and clear. Veterans want the support that we provide to be straightforward to access, and they want practical, pragmatic solutions. It is clear from this concise and well-designed bill that the government has heard that feedback. It has created a Veterans' Recognition Program that is indeed practical and straightforward. I want to thank the Minister for Veterans' Affairs for his efficient and committed work on this matter.

The bill before the House has two aspects. One sets out clearly in legislation the commitment that the Commonwealth government owes to veterans in return for their selfless service to our country. The second sets up the legislative framework for some of the government's simple and practical measures to aid in veterans' further recognition in the community. The first aspect, part 2, lays out the minimum that veterans can expect from our community in return for their service. The second aspect, part 3, sets up the means for our community to go further.

Service to our nation is, at the best of times, exacting and tough. It imposes great discipline, and even in peacetime exposes men and women to risks that are not faced in civilian life. Service in peacetime requires the sacrifice of time, of freedom, of comforts and of family. It can involve long stretches away from home, in unfamiliar and, in some places, hostile situations. As we have seen recently in the Queensland floods, it can require a willingness to go into situations which others are seeking to flee and to deal with the worst that nature can do to ordinary people. It is physically demanding, emotionally tough and psychologically stressful.

In times of conflict, on deployment, another layer of sacrifice—hard for civilians like me to imagine—is imposed on them. Few of us understand what it is to intentionally risk our lives. Few know how it feels to be vulnerable to armed attack or to watch close friends and colleagues be injured or even killed. Service men and women in conflict zones live with constant stress and privation from the luxuries of home. They can be required to deal with the worst of human suffering and to operate effectively in almost impossible situations. It is clear that these experiences, these sacrifices, are like nothing else in a person's life.

It is therefore right that the government recognises and acknowledges in this bill the uniqueness of that sacrifice. It is absolutely right that the government acknowledges that those who return from service of this kind may need special support with their health, with getting new employment and housing, and with enjoying some of the day-to-day activities in which we all take part.

We owe our service men and women a great debt. It is right that the government, with this bill, acknowledges that in fulfilling that debt it must provide the care and support that veterans need to participate in education or employment or to achieve economic wellbeing and sustainability. This represents, I believe, the government's acknowledgement of the least that we can do.

The second part of the bill provides the government with the ability to go further. By authorising the production of visible symbols of service, including the lapel pin and veterans card, which will form part of the coalition government's veterans recognition program, we will make it easier for individuals and organisations to provide extra acknowledgement in veterans' day-to-day lives. This may be as simple as a thankyou in the street or a seat given up on the train, but it might include discounts, concessions or other special offers made by businesses and organisations in the community.

With the proposed covenant, a uniquely Australian oath in its unpretentious simplicity, this bill also provides a means for all of us to buy into these same commitments. Alongside our government, alongside businesses and community groups, the covenant gives ordinary Australians the opportunity to give thanks and to acknowledge the debt we all owe to our service men and women.

I've sought in my own way, in my electorate of Fisher, to create more opportunities to acknowledge our veterans, and in the process I have encountered one of the very challenges that this bill will overcome. On 11 October last year, I held the first of what I hope will be an annual Sunshine Coast veterans day. I worked closely with Fisher icon Australia Zoo to provide free entry to the zoo for a day for all veterans and their partners. I received significant support from local RSLs, especially including the nearby Glasshouse Country RSL subbranch, and from local veterans organisation Wet Vets. Mates4Mates held their regular coffee catch-up at Australia Zoo, and, in total, hundreds of former service men and women visited the zoo to enjoy their unique wildlife experiences throughout the day. I'm grateful to Wes Mannion and Bill Ferguson of Australia Zoo and to Jamie Hope of Wet Vets for helping me organise the day. It was a wonderful experience, and I hope that we'll have many more such Sunshine Coast veterans days in my electorate in the years to come.

However, one of the challenges that Australia Zoo and I faced in organising the Sunshine Coast veterans day was appropriately identifying veterans. Without a universal identification card, it was difficult to create a clear and appropriate means of confirming their status. We had no desire to challenge veterans or to grill them on their service, nor did we want any confusion among the zoo's many ticket desk workers as to the eligibility for the scheme. In the end, it was necessary to trust to common sense and to the community's goodwill.

The provision in the bill before us today for a single, clearly marked veterans card will make this process significantly easier for everyone in future years. The veterans card, the veterans covenant and the lapel pin are simple, practical and timely measures that will enable our community and local businesses to get behind the recognition of veterans and to easily offer them the thanks that they deserve. I urge them to do just that.

Before I close, I want to acknowledge the work of my constituent Graeme Mickelberg and his son, the hardworking state member for Buderim, Brent Mickelberg. Graeme and Brent both served in the Australian Army and have been tireless proponents of greater recognition for veterans for many years. Brent has consistently highlighted the challenges of transition for recent veterans and has spoken movingly in the Queensland parliament about the post-traumatic stress disorder which made his own return to civilian life so difficult.

Graeme is a passionate man whose insistence and tenacious advocacy are impossible to ignore. After 40 years of service as an infantry officer at home and overseas, he is as knowledgeable as he is determined, and he deserves a great deal of credit for helping to bring about the bill before us today. As far back as May 2013, he wrote in the Sunshine Coast's Hinterland Times that Australia would be well served to consider:

… a military covenant that recognises the unique nature of military service and enhances the respect accorded to Defence Force members and veterans.

Since then, both Graeme and Brent have joined me in Canberra to meet with the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, and have been a very active part of supporting the development of this veterans' recognition program. I know that Graeme and Brent will be following today's debate very closely. I want to thank them for their hard work on behalf of veterans on the Sunshine Coast and all over Australia.

I also want to make a big shout-out to Win Fowles, another of my constituents and the vice-president of the Sunshine Coast Defence Force Welfare Association chapter. When I first became the federal member for Fisher, three years ago, Win was one of the first people I met with. He has taken me through many of the trials and tribulations that Defence Force veterans face on a daily basis. I know that Win has also been instrumentally involved in the creation of the military covenant.

On behalf of my colleagues and everyone here today, I'd like to honour all of those on the Sunshine Coast, and in fact all over Australia, who serve or have served in our nation's armed forces. We thank you for your service. We remember their families, who have lived with separation and often with fear of what may come. This bill contains not only a landmark acknowledgement on behalf of the government of Australia of our responsibility to honour that service but also practical steps to help our community to go further. In the words of the new Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant:

For what they have done, this we will do.

I commend the bill to the House.