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Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Page: 14690


Ms O'TOOLE (Herbert) (18:38): I am very proud to stand in this place as the representative of the defence personnel in the largest garrison city in this country. I'd like to start with an example of how incredibly fortunate the people of Herbert are to have such a strong defence presence in our community. As people would be aware, Townsville recently suffered the worst natural disaster in our recorded history. We saw more than 22,000 homes impacted by an extreme weather event and many businesses suffered damages and losses.

On Sunday 3 February, the Ross River Dam reached 244 per cent, and the Townsville Local Disaster Management Group advised the community that the Ross River Dam gates would automatically open at 43 metres. The Townsville Local Disaster Management Group worked with local experts and experts in Brisbane to manage this extreme weather event as best as possible. However, on Sunday, 3 February, at approximately 8 pm, the Ross River Dam opened, releasing 2,000 cubic metres of water per second.

Prior to opening the dam gates, the Townsville defence personnel, emergency services and SES were out knocking on doors in the anticipated flood-affected areas, suggesting to people that they may be wise to evacuate or move to higher ground. My husband and I received a knock on our door to evacuate, and we took the advice of our defence personnel and left. The Townsville Local Disaster Management Group sent out numerous texts to residents throughout the days of torrential rain, issuing regular warnings of what was coming.

I have lived in Townsville all of my life, and I have never witnessed or experienced anything like the magnitude of this extreme weather event. The mood in our city as we prepared for the impending flood on Sunday evening, 3 February, was indescribable. People were anxious about leaving their homes and their pets, and I know I certainly was. On the night of 3 February, the emergency radios and call lines were ringing off the hook as so many residents were inundated by water and needed to be rescued. The ADF, police, ambulance, firefighters and the SES answered those calls in the most selfless manner. Not only did they answer the calls that evening, but for days after and throughout the clean-up process.

Veterans and ex-serving members were also out helping stranded people, some in their own boats, assisting with the many rescues and putting their own lives at risk. Team Rubicon was on the ground in Townsville. This created an organised and effective space for veterans and ex-serving members to continue their service throughout the immediate disaster response. Many of these men and women from the serving ADF had left their own homes and their families to support the community, and many of them, when they got home, found their places had been flooded and their families had to be moved. Townsville, as I said, is the largest garrison city in the nation, and it is also home to thousands of veterans and their families. I can assure you, the Townsville clean-up would not have happened so quickly and efficiently if it had not been for the outstanding work of the ADF, veterans and ex-serving members; Townsville would not be in the shape it is today, in terms of the clean-up and the progress to recovery.

The recent extreme weather event has clearly demonstrated to the people of Townsville that the serving ADF, veterans, ex-serving members and their families are committed to our community, and I want to thank each member and veteran for their dedication and assistance in our time of need. I know that, for some of you, it meant putting your own personal flooding issues on hold whilst you helped in the community, as I have said. These selfless actions are yet another reason why I am proud and honoured to represent the current and former ADF community in Herbert.

I have spoken in this place on every single defence or veterans bill, because our currently serving veterans, ex-serving personnel and their families deserve the strongest representation from a member who stands up for them in this place. I stand here again today, as I have done many times before, to support a bill that supports our defence personnel. Our veterans, ex-serving men and women, and their families have always put the needs of our nation first. They have fought for our country, and now it is time for us to fight for them, for their needs to be met.

I rise today to speak on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. The 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 to support veterans, ex-serving personnel and their families. More importantly, the bill establishes the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. Whilst I welcome the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, I don't believe it goes far enough and I ask why it has taken the government so long to enact this bill, particularly when Labor announced our commitment almost six months ago.

On 5 September 2018, federal Labor announced that we would establish Australia's first military covenant if elected. The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Amanda Rishworth, and Labor's candidate for Dawson, Belinda Hassan, and I met with local veterans, ESOs and currently serving defence personnel in Townsville to announce our commitment. Labor has listened to the calls from the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations and other ex-serving organisations that have been working towards this for many years. The difference is that Labor is completely committed to recognising both our current and ex-serving Defence members, veterans and their families. Labor's military covenant would cover both current and ex-serving personnel and their families, recognising the enormous commitment they make to serve this great nation. Labor's commitment formalises our nation's commitment to look after those who have sacrificed their lives so that we can live in the freedoms that we experience in this great nation. Labor's military covenant will include annual reporting, ensuring accountability in the form of a statement to the parliament on how government is meeting its obligation to current and ex-serving personnel.

Whilst I stand with Labor and I'm pleased to see the government adopt a covenant via this bill, I am a little disheartened that the bill has omitted the service of our current serving men and women. As I mentioned at the beginning of this speech, we have witnessed the extraordinary efforts of our ADF in recent weeks in my community. In Townsville, we continually see the hard work and dedication of our current members and their loved ones, not only through disasters but through their community engagement from both a social and an economic perspective. I do believe these men and women deserve to be recognised as well. Leaving out current serving members is not fair and thus government is missing a significant part of the ADF family. Whilst it is critically important that we acknowledge those who served, we cannot afford to tell only part of the story. I am concerned that, by omitting the service of our current ADF members and the lack of accountability by way of annual reporting to parliament, this is more about the government offering symbolic words rather than meaningful and genuine support.

To be very clear, Labor fully supports the introduction of a covenant which formalises our commitment to those who have served and those who continue to serve, including their families. It is critical that this bill genuinely reflects the needs of all our current and ex-serving members, veterans and their families. Whilst governments have failed before us, we now have the opportunity to get this right. There is far too much at stake here, and our current and ex-serving men and women, veterans and their families deserve to have their voices included in this legislation. The covenant is a solemn oath to those who have served or continue to serve, and we cannot get this wrong. I encourage all interested parties to participate in this process and provide their feedback. The covenant is above politics, and our personal party views need to be put aside in the interests of our current and ex-serving Defence community and their families.

I have met with many families and veterans and ex-serving personnel. One of the most common complaints I hear about is the lengthy and complex claims process associated with the Department of Veterans' Affairs, which I believe has just taken a $171.6 million cut. I'm certain any commitment to timeliness would be welcomed by the veteran and ex-serving community, particularly in Townsville.

I will always stand in this place and support greater recognition for our Defence community by government. Labor's commitment to those who are serving or have served is rock solid and, as such, we welcome changes that will increase recognition for veterans and their loved ones. We await the outcome of the Senate inquiry with interest; however, I support the principle of this bill, which is acknowledgement of those who have served and their families. Thank you.