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Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Page: 14607

Mr PERRETT (MoretonOpposition Whip) (13:08): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It has been a pleasure to be in the parliament with you. You have been a credit to the parliament and the people you represent, and I wish you all the best in your future endeavours. I hope to maybe catch up with you for a beer if we can find time in the future.

I rise to speak on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. This bill creates a new act which will provide a framework for government, business and the community to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service and support veterans and their families—something all sides of parliament would support. Importantly, this bill establishes the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. In September last year, the Australian Labor Party, under our leader Bill Shorten, announced the establishment of a military covenant, and I commend the many who were involved in that process including the member for Corio and the shadow minister at the table, the member for Lingiari.

Our proposed military covenant would cover both current and ex-serving personnel and their families, recognising the immense commitment they make to serve their country and formalising our nation's commitment to look after those who have sacrificed for their nation. And that is something that every new politician would recognise when they come to Parliament House and stand at the steps and turn around and look down Anzac Parade towards the War Memorial. The designers knew we should always have that ultimate sacrifice and the danger we put our military in in our mind when making our political decisions. So Labor is pleased to see the Morrison government adopt the covenant via this bill.

That said, we do note that the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant covers only those who have served—past tense—and their loved ones. By leaving out the currently serving members, the Morrison government is missing a significant element. While it's important that we acknowledge those who have served, we believe that this is only part of the picture. In addition, Labor's military covenant included annual reporting in the form of a statement to the parliament on how the government of the day is meeting its obligations to current and ex-serving personnel. Sadly, this is also absent in the bill before the House today. The Labor Party has some concerns about the omission of these two elements. Why forget those soldiers, sailors and airmen who are wearing uniform today? In relation to the other element that's missing, why be scared of publicly stating whether the government of the day is meeting the KPIs that it has set itself? As such, Labor referred the legislation to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to ensure that members of the ex-serving community had been consulted and were comfortable with the provisions of the legislation brought into the chamber today.

That said, Labor is acutely aware that there are perhaps not many more sitting days before we will be in the middle of an election campaign. Being pragmatic, we therefore requested the committee return its report before we resumed sitting. That committee reported on 22 March and recommended that the bill be passed. Therefore, Labor will not be moving any amendments to the legislation. However, we continue to believe there is merit in including current serving members and in strengthening the legislation by including a reporting back element. There's a saying in business: 'If it's not measurable, it doesn't exist.' In addition to the introduction of a covenant, this bill inserts a general recognition clause which acknowledges the unique nature of military service, the demands we place on those who serve, the additional support they may require post service and the Commonwealth's commitment to supporting these veterans. This is why we have a different military justice system: there is a different expectation in the military in terms of things like honour, service, commitment, bravery and sacrifice—concepts that there is not always an oversupply of in this building perhaps, and perhaps in every other workforce.

In addition to the introduction of a covenant, this bill inserts a general recognition clause which acknowledges the unique nature of military service. Labor wholeheartedly supports this recognition and our ongoing obligation to support those who have put their lives on hold in service to our country. As an extension of this general recognition, the bill also includes an overarching statement in relation to the beneficial nature of the Veterans' Affairs portfolio legislation, making it clear that the Veterans' Affairs legislation has a beneficial purpose and should be interpreted accordingly. This is a clear message to those dry economists and cold-hearted bean counters, who might perhaps be working at the Productivity Commission. I mean no disrespect to them—they do good work—but I question some of their recent analysis when it comes to veterans and the special place they have in Australian society.

This section will provide 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 purpose of the provision. The intent of this section is to state that, where a provision in the acts and instruments under these acts can be interpreted beneficially, it should be. Of course, not all provisions in these acts and instruments are intended to be beneficial in nature. Obviously, if the Commonwealth is coming after a person to recover debts, that's not particularly beneficial for the person owing the debt, but it is beneficial for the Commonwealth. That also applies to provisions protecting the Commonwealth from fraud and the like. Departmental training will be developed to ensure decision-makers understand and appropriately apply the beneficial legislation to support the intent of this clause.

In addition, a paragraph will be inserted that will provide that claims decisions will be made within a time that is proportionate to the complexity of the matter. That said, I have certainly had constituents sitting in front of me who have had complex claims that involve old military records that may be missing—lost or misplaced—or misunderstood, so there is always going to be a difference in time lines. But, as any MP who has represented their constituents would know, justice delayed can be justice denied, and that concept can also apply to low-level administrative decisions, which can have big implications for veterans and their families.

One of the most common complaints about the Department of Veterans' Affairs is the lengthy and complex claims process. We have seen many white hairs handed out to people at RSLs around the country as they support their members to go through that process. So a commitment to timeliness will be welcomed by the veteran and ex-serving community, I'm sure.

Finally, this bill will also provide recognition to veterans and their families in the form of lapel pins, cards and other such items. Fundamentally, this bill seeks to provide greater recognition for veterans by the government and acknowledges the unique nature of military service and our obligation to those who have served—and, as I said, it should extend to those who are serving. Labor's commitment to those who serve or have served is rock-solid and, as such, we welcome changes that increase recognition for veterans and their loved ones.

It is important that this parliament and all Australians recognise the unique nature of military service. We know that it is challenging. We know that it causes extra stress. We should not be complacent about our defence forces and those who are called to serve—the soldiers, sailors and airmen. We need to look after them while they're serving and obviously we need to look after them—and all those associated with their service—when they return.

I'd like to particularly mention our Returned and Services League, and its many associated entities, and the great work it does in supporting both current and ex-serving members of the Australian Defence Force and their families. I've got five RSL clubs in my electorate of Moreton: the Sherwood-Indooroopilly, Salisbury, Stephens, Sunnybank and Yeronga-Dutton Park branches. There are a few other returned service associations as well. I've spent quite a bit of time with the men and women associated with these clubs over the years, especially in the lead-up to the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings and a couple of other community projects that I've been proud to be connected with.

The RSL has a proud tradition of helping, going back over 100 years. It has been one of our most respected national organisations ever since it was founded, back in 1916. As well as supporting and serving our ex-service men and women, the modern RSL also promotes a secure, stable and progressive Australia. We are indebted to the RSL for the services it continues to provide, not only directly to the returned service men and women but indirectly through the great community work that it does—not just a quiet listening ear but also that helping hand.

In particular, I'm going to mention my Sunnybank RSL and the great work that they do with their local community, which has seen an influx of Chinese Australians, a Chinese diaspora, over the years. As the make-up of the community changed, they decided to create a memorial for all the people of Chinese heritage who have served Australia in past wars—soldiers such as Billy Sing and Caleb Shang, who fought in World War I and sometimes had to lie about their citizenship to actually put on their soldiers uniform, and Jack Wong Sue, who served for Australia in World War II. That's just to name a few brave service personnel. Often these people were shot at and put in harm's way but, when they returned, weren't even able to vote in the country they called home. These are great stories of courage and bravery from the Chinese Australian diaspora, and they've been commemorated by this memorial at Sunnybank.

I've told the story in this chamber before, but I'll tell it again because it's important that we always remind those who try to divide that we have never, ever had a monocultural Australia. We've always had people from a variety of different nations who have come together to form this modern Australia. Private Billy Sing was a sniper with the 5th Australian Light Horse Regiment. He was a kangaroo shooter from Northern Queensland originally. He went over to Gallipoli and is conservatively credited by military historians with killing more than 150 people at Gallipoli. He was known to his fellow soldiers as 'The Assassin'. He was known throughout the world, in fact. He was quite a celebrity at the time and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous gallantry, as a sniper, at Anzac. To this day, the Australian Army snipers recognise the skill of Billy Sing.

So we built a physical memorial, and there's also one on the north side of Brisbane at the Nundah Cemetery. It was a labour of love for people of Chinese-Australian heritage in my community, and it has contributed to stronger links between that community and the local RSL—recognising that things have changed. It is a great physical reminder, but there is also an ongoing bursary. The diversity, cooperation, understanding and friendship that exists on Brisbane's Southside goes a long way to recognising some of the slights and racism that existed 100 years ago, when people were allowed to fight and die for their country but were not able to own land if they were not seen to be British—or Australian, I suppose, but British was actually the law of the land. Why? Simply because they looked Chinese. So, whilst this is just a physical memorial, the ongoing bursaries—connecting with local school students, where they enter an essay competition and tell their own family story—are recognised every year on Anzac Day, and there is a cash prize.

I also want to point out that the success of the Chinese war memorial has flowed elsewhere and has inspired commemorations and contributions from other communities. Now we've seen the Indian community come together with a project to erect a memorial for the Australian-Indian service men and women who have contributed to Australian war efforts in the past and who continue to do so. The Indian-Australian community and the Chinese-Australian community are helping to tell those stories of their service personnel. There will be bursaries associated with that. It is important that we show this permanent respect for those brave Australians who put on military uniforms. Sadly, military service personnel are not always shown the respect that they need. We've got a bit more work to do there, but we do have a modern military that looks more and more like modern Australia. I've mentioned the Sunnybank RSL in particular and I commend Hugh Polson, the president, and all of his team for the great work they've done working with Chinese-Australians and Indian-Australians and the service men and women who are part of that organisation.

Returning to the bill currently before the House, I do look to put on the record clearly that the Labor Party does support this bill, but I do say that the acknowledgement of those who have served and their families is something that both sides of the chamber will always support. I'm happy to commend this bill to the House.