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Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Page: 14686

Dr MIKE KELLY (Eden-Monaro) (18:23): I would like to commend my colleague on her speech, which preceded mine. Obviously, she has taken very much to heart the interests of her constituents. She has an electorate that embraces a critically important base for the Australian Defence Force, with a dedicated team who are serving there now, introducing the Joint Strike Fighter capability. The member has been extremely vigorous and forceful in representing the interests of her constituents to the Defence portfolio team in the Labor Party. She has been like a dog with a bone on not only their issues and interests but also those of the broader community, particularly on the longstanding PFAS issue. We all look forward to hopefully bringing that to a satisfactory conclusion for all involved. I want to commend the member on her advocacy, her passion and her commitment to those interests.

I've also been fortunate to follow my good friend and colleague the member for Solomon with his own extremely fine record of service. He has delivered on his commitment to represent the interests of veterans in this place. There has been no more forceful advocate in our party room in that respect. I know he will continue that great work. I think the people of Solomon should be proud of sending a person like the member to this chamber and to our party. He is doing them proud. He is an extremely fine representative for the electorate of Solomon, which I know also has a hugely significant component of the Australian Defence Force.

I've lived through the process of moving the army up there in the so-called APIN program—the Army Presence in the North. It has made a huge difference to the community and the economy up there. It has been very, very warmly embraced by the community. It has also has dealt with a lot of issues over time, as we've had returning veterans from a period when the operational tempo was intense. That has brought to light a lot of the problems and the issues that we've been seeking to address and, I have to say, there's been a lot of goodwill on both sides of the chamber to try and get this to point.

I think we've had a little bit of a problem with consistency in the portfolio, through no fault of any of the ministers that have served. But I do hope that, after the election, whoever wins—

An honourable member interjecting

Dr MIKE KELLY: I know the current minister is very keen to continue in the role, but I do hope that after the election, whoever wins, there is consistency in the ministry that gives us a chance to really build that deep bipartisan cooperation across the chamber on the further issues that we need to resolve. There are things that have emerged from the Senate inquiry into mental health issues in Defence that we really need to pursue, follow-up and implement carefully.

I'm very pleased to see, in particular, this bill brought forward by the minister in relation to the covenant. It was an issue that was first brought to me by members of the Defence Force Welfare Association when we were first in opposition. I can see no reason why we shouldn't be going down this road. It had been done in the UK with no budgetary problems or consequences, or in any other legal or liability respect. In some ways, you could sum up the commitment in the simple words of President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address in 1865. Modifying that for what should be gender-neutral terms these days, he said that the purpose of government should be 'to care for those who shall have borne the battle and for those left behind'—in effect, the widows, orphans and spouses they left behind. That sums it up quite pithily, but there is a degree to which we needed to spell that out. Perhaps it was worthy to have a review to include serving members, because I understand there are whole legislative regimes around them, but what we're looking at here is a value statement, a value proposition, and for completeness we do need to address that in the statement. We won't be moving any amendments, of course, but we do think that there is merit in that.

I think what we're asking here is important, the general recognition of these members who have served and who are serving. I've spoken before about the fact that it is not just the operational context that has created lots of these legacy issues for our veterans in terms of not only the physical wounds of what they might be doing but also those mental scars. The day-to-day service that a member renders also contains hugely significant risks. I don't know how many times I've been involved in looking into incidents where we've lost members for one reason or another.

We had a grenade range practise once where there was an unfortunate incident where a private had crimped in the diamond crimp in his grenade pin, which then forces you to exert a certain amount of pressure to pull the pin on the grenade. This had been a little bit of a practice of trying to do this to speed up the process of throwing grenades. It was an exercise on a range. Unfortunately, a pin came loose from his grenade, setting off two other grenades in his pouch. Literally, the member was blown to pieces—leg on the wire et cetera. Those who were there had to witness that and clean it up. That is just one example of countless incidents where the risks involved in training to be a member of the Defence Force are something you will not find in any other walk of life. So it is important to consider the whole service of a member in relation to the things we should acknowledge, understand and thank them for. So I look forward to perhaps refining this as time goes by. Nothing is ever completely perfect. Even that statement by President Lincoln was the subject of issues that were raised recently. That was about changing that gender biased language that was in the original quotation. So there is always a need to look back at what we do, what we express and what we legislate.

I would also ask the minister to maybe look into and perhaps address the issue that seems to be apparent from the budget of a $171.6 million cut to DVA. We'd like to get some further comments on that. We need to understand where this issue is happening and what the implications are of that. One thing I am proud about in Labor's period in government is that we took spending on veterans to a record level—$12.5 billion—and that has never been matched either before or since. I was proud of that.

But, of course, putting money into veterans' issues is not the whole answer. It is about the quality of the response as well. There are so many things that are quite simple that in fact have massive consequences. One of those is the process of equipping our soldiers, sailors and airmen. I was really proud to have been part of the discussion and then the formation of a policy which we've labelled the soldiers choice program that addresses the issue that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to equipping a soldier, sailor or airman. The consequences of not getting right the basic footwear for a soldier or the configuration of individual load-carrying equipment can be enormous. The costs that are caused by providing the medical treatment and solution to longstanding problems that are caused by ill-fitting boots and ill-fitting load-carrying equipment are enormous.

I have been fortunate to have benefited from the observations and advice of Peter Marshall of the Crossfire company. He has an operation in my electorate. He's often used by Defence to help fix broken soldiers who may be going through ADFA or RMC and have been rendered unfit because of ill-fitting boots and equipment. What he does is basically bespoke a solution for an injured soldier. He also has countless people coming to him with the long-term consequences becoming apparent of bad decisions made in equipping these soldiers earlier on in their careers.

I must say I was very sympathetic to this because in my venerable years now, at the age of 59—it's 59; let me get the record very straight on that!—a lot of things are coming home to roost for me from 20 years in the Army and numerous deployments and playing service rugby as well on top of that. I now have issues with early-onset osteoarthritis. It is affecting pretty much every joint in my body these days. I have a situation in my shoulder with a tendon that is hanging on by a thread. I'm really not interested in having surgery. I don't have time for that. But all of this involves physiotherapy and remedial action. I thought, 'I will have a crack at looking into how you get into the DVA system to get some of these issues supported through podiatry and forms of clothing that might help, such as shoes et cetera.' Looking at that process, it is horrendous. The biggest problem that our veterans face is getting through that portal. The paperwork that's involved is incredible. For something like osteoarthritis, in effect you have to put in a separate application for every joint—the whole process, with doctors' reports, X-rays and the association with your service for your toe, your ankle, your knee and your shoulder. Every single joint has to have a completely separate process. I wasn't aware of that. I'm grateful that I did have a crack at this to see exactly what was involved. I think we need to review that. If a veteran meets the criteria of a certain amount of activity that you can establish—in terms of running around in boots, up and down hills, with backpacks in their service, what they've done in their service and what sort of service they performed, even when they're back in Australia—and there is a generic acceptance it's highly likely that any osteoarthritis issue they're facing in their body is as a consequence of that, that would make life a hell of a lot easier for our veterans in that space. I think that's worth looking at.

The Veterans' Choice Program is a great way forward as a preventive measure. It will enable soldiers, sailors and airmen to get the appropriately fitted boots, and we're also looking at solutions in terms of greater choice of packs as well—individual load-carrying equipment—to see what we can do in that space. We'll enter into consultation if we come into government. I encourage the current government to look at that as well, and we can maybe talk about that as a bipartisan commitment.

I'm really pleased with the measure in relation to the issue of the transition of veterans to civilian life. I've commented before about how difficult that can be for many soldiers, sailors and airmen. It's a complete culture change, a whole different lifestyle. Various members in this chamber who have had that experience will understand that completely. I'm joined by the new Deputy Speaker, who has been through that himself in this political space. This ain't nothing like Defence, that's for sure! I was just saying to the minister that I only regret leaving the Army every five minutes! Certainly, having watched the shenanigans in politics over the last few years, with the leadership stuff that's gone on on both sides, it's not something that you experience in Defence. That's one example, but we take that on the chin—that's what we signed up for. But there are a lot of veterans out there who don't get the same sense of esprit de corps, teamwork, mutual support and the ethos that goes with being in the Defence Force. Even with the language that you use, you find yourself feeling a bit like an alien.

This transition policy is fantastic. It really takes seriously the job of owning our transitioning members through a few years after they leave the service. This will enable them to not only be supported and have somewhere to go but to also have the training that's necessary to achieve that transition. When you've got many small and medium enterprises who can't afford to pay for that kind of training, they need support to make sure that they're getting the best out of a member. We need employers to also understand the value proposition a former defence member brings to their enterprise. There is the instilled leadership and the training throughout a career that a defence member gets. How do you deal with people who are working for you or are serving in your unit under your command? Even if you're not in that command relationship, you also get to learn the principles of how to work in a team and your individual responsibility. The Defence Force is also fantastic at encouraging initiative, at least in the Australian Army, Navy and Air Force. I think this is a great step forward. I thank the minister for bringing this forward. We have a bit more work to do, but I'm really happy to support this.