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Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Page: 14681

Mr GOSLING (Solomon) (17:57): Now that this parliament is witnessing perhaps the final days of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, it's timely to look back over the past three years that I've been here and reflect on what has been achieved and on the opportunities that have been lost. We have seen the cuts and chaos of this hopelessly divided coalition government continue apace whilst, at the same time, we've seen a united Labor Party under Bill Shorten's leadership holding the government to account and putting forward policies which we are putting to the electorate. We've put many of them to the electorate already and will obviously put more to the electorate between now and election day.

Our policies demonstrate that Labor is united and ready to govern. It's been a privilege to be part of Bill Shorten's team as we've worked together over the term of this parliament. When I first spoke in this House as the new member for Solomon at that time, I said that I would do all I could to represent the serving military personnel and veterans and their families who are my constituents in Darwin and Palmerston. I'm particularly proud to have been working with the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, the member for Kingston, knowing that I had the backing of the leader and the shadow minister. That enabled me to commit to, at the end of last year, a veterans and service men and women centre. I'm now very pleased to be able to say that Labor is committed to building the Scott Palmer service and veterans' support hub in Darwin. As some honourable members may remember, we are going to name the hub for Darwin soldier Private Scott Palmer, who died in Afghanistan in 2010. I'll return to this great initiative later in my speech, after consideration of this bill.

As its name says, this bill, the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019, recognises and supports veterans and their families, so Labor supports it. The bill will allow government, business and the community to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service and to support veterans and their families. The most critical element of this bill is the introduction of the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. The covenant will provide an opportunity for Australians and the business community to recognise veterans, and their families, and the service and sacrifice they have made as members of the Australian Defence Force.

I think it's worth reading the proposed covenant into the record:

We, the people of Australia, respect and give thanks to all who have served in our defence force and their families.

We acknowledge the unique nature of military service and the sacrifice demanded of all who commit to defend our nation.

We undertake to preserve the memory and deeds of all who have served and promise to welcome, embrace, and support all military veterans as respected and valued members of our community.

For what they have done, this we will do.

In September last year, Labor announced its support for a military covenant as a set of words which acknowledges the obligation we have to support both those who have served and those who continue to serve. It was to cover both current and ex-serving personnel and their families, recognising the immense commitment they make in serving our country and formalising our nation's commitment to care for those who have sacrificed for our nation. This announcement was strongly supported by the ex-serving community, who recognise the need to cover both those in the ADF and those who have left, and their loved ones. However, the proposed Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant in this bill does not cover those currently serving.

In addition, Labor has proposed a reporting element be legislated to require an annual statement to the House in relation to veterans and their loved ones. This statement would detail how we are meeting our obligations to those who have served and their families. This bill does not include such a statement. We were concerned about these omissions and we referred this bill to a Senate inquiry to give veterans a chance to view the wording, provide input and be comfortable with the proposed language. The Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade reported on 22 March and recommended that the bill be passed. While we will not be moving any amendments to the bill, we continue to believe that current serving members should be included in the covenant and that a reporting element should be included.

In addition to the covenant, the bill also inserts a general recognition clause which will, amongst other things, allow the Commonwealth to provide general recognition for veterans, given their military service, and the families who support them. The bill also includes an overarching statement in relation to the beneficial nature of Veterans' Affairs portfolio legislation, making it clear the Veterans' Affairs portfolio legislation—the VEA, the DRCA and the MRCA—has a beneficial purpose and should be interpreted accordingly.

Labor is pleased to see that, by this bill, the government will adopt the covenant. As I've said, the proposed covenant in the bill only covers those who have served and their loved ones. By leaving out those currently serving, the government is missing a significant element. Words are important. Symbols are also important, and recognition of our serving personnel, our veterans and their families is very important indeed. But actions are also needed, and that is why, as I previewed earlier, a Shorten federal Labor government has committed to establishing the Scott Palmer Service and Veteran's Support Hub in Darwin. Labor will build this service centre to support current and ex-serving defence personnel and first responders and their families. As I mentioned, it will be named for Scott Palmer, a commando and the son of Ray and Pam Palmer. Scotty was the only born and bred Territorian who was killed in Afghanistan serving our country.

The Northern Territory lacks a dedicated service centre to support current and ex-serving Defence personnel and first responders and their families. At present, members have to deal with complex issues and a range of services, often at a very stressful time and often without support. Often, they do not receive the services they need and deserve. In saying that, I take nothing away from the services of the Department of Veterans' Affairs or Open Arms, formerly known as the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service. They do a great job but, outside of those organisations, we still need support. There are ex-service community organisations in Darwin but they're not well resourced. What we need is a hub such as there is in almost every other jurisdiction in the country.

The Scott Palmer Service and Veterans' Support Hub will be a one-stop shop for available services. It will link members and their families to a broader community of support services. It will bring people with similar experiences and needs together. It will provide opportunities for guest lectures, information sharing, community group presentations, music, art, fundraising, volunteering and socialising. It will indeed be a connector. We know that one of the big drivers of mental ill health and people taking that awful decision to attempt to end their lives by their own hands is often feeling disconnected. What this hub will do is connect. This proposal is the result of thorough consultation with veterans and ex-service organisations in the Northern Territory. It is long overdue and will bring tangible benefits for our veterans in Darwin, Palmerston, the Top End and the wider Northern Territory.

I've recently become aware of other initiatives supporting veterans and first responders, and I want to mention them quickly. I have met with Integra Service Dogs, who match veterans and first responders who are suffering from post-traumatic stress with a service dog. They then work with the new owner to train the dog through a skills based program. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress are reduced as new owners take on the responsibility of caring for and training their dog. Integra told me one story of a veteran who had not left the house for 12 years until his service dog gave him the confidence to go out again into the community. This is another reminder that we need to continue to look at ways we can assist our returned service personnel and those on the frontline of our emergency services, and this is another example of a referral pathway that the hub will bring into existence.

Currently, working with the ESOs and a Stronger Communities grant, we have given funds to the Darwin RSL to set up an interim drop-in centre. It is beside the RAAF base in Darwin. It's called Billeroy House. It used to be a community centre until it was defunded. It used to be a place where families could go and spend time together. What we're doing now with the Darwin RSL is reopening it as a drop-in centre. People can go there if they need a chat, and they'll be chatting to someone who understands service experience and can help with referrals to GPs, allied service professionals, Open Arms and also advocates who can help them with their paperwork to get their claims recognised through DVA.

I return to the specifics of the bill before us. It seeks to provide greater recognition for veterans by government and acknowledges the unique nature of military service and our obligation to those who have served. Labor's commitment to those who serve or have served is rock solid. As such, we welcome changes which increase recognition for veterans and their loved ones, such as this covenant.

I want to finish by speaking briefly about veterans and their loved ones. I'm a veteran who's a son of a veteran who's a son of a veteran. Often the families go through the trauma that is relived by the service member. The member for North Sydney gave a 90-second speech before question time and acknowledged Daphne Dunn. Daphne was the last surviving widow of a VC winner. Daphne, at 99, passed away this week. She had an extraordinary life. But wives and husbands, spouses, of serving members often have a very difficult time as their loved ones deal with the results of the member's service, and that needs to be recognised. In many ways, they're veterans themselves as part of the war, the conflict or the peacekeeping operation. The overseas service comes home to Australia. Even in training, there can be deaths. Those numbers are minimal, but there can be serious injuries. We need to continue to look after members and their families as best as we possibly can. I know that both sides of this House want to support veterans, their families and serving members as best as we can.

I note that there has been some talk about a reduction in funding for DVA. I hope this will not result in any decrease in services. I look forward to the minister explaining that. I have heard rumours that the Department of Veterans' Affairs may be moved under Centrelink. That's causing quite some distress in the veterans community. I look forward to the minister categorically ruling that out. We do need to provide the best possible service to the people who have served our country. We need to make sure that occurs, and I'm sure that we will do that in government.