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Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Page: 14696

Ms TEMPLEMAN (Macquarie) (19:03): One of those unusual but deeply satisfying situations we have when we are here talking about veterans' affairs is that we are often in furious agreement about the objectives that we have for this group of people who have served our country. It's very pleasing to be able to support this bill. However, as has been pointed out by previous speakers, there are other things we would have liked to have seen in a piece of legislation which is called the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. Let me go through a few of the elements of that.

Of course we're very supportive of the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, which recognises the special contribution that members of the Defence Force have made and that their families have made in serving this country. But it is disappointing to see that this covenant, which is copied from Labor but doesn't pick up all the elements that Labor would like to see, only talks about those who have served and veterans—people who are no longer serving personnel. We would very much have liked to have seen serving personnel included in this covenant in much the same way they are in similar sorts of legislation in places such as the United Kingdom. By leaving out those who are currently serving, it really is missing a very significant group of people—those who have not yet thought about what it is to have left Defence but who will face the consequences of the decisions we make. So I really want to put on record my disappointment about that.

I also think that what we're missing really crucially is that element of reporting. It is all very well to have a piece of legislation that sets out certain objectives but, unless those objectives are reported on, it is going to be very hard to measure the effectiveness of what we are talking about today. It would not have been difficult to include that in this legislation, and I don't understand why it's not there. The other thing we're very aware of is that it is really important to get this legislation through in the life of this parliament, imperfect as it is. I thank the government for having brought it forward and I'm grateful that we can support it.

Other issues that have come up that fit within it are probably things that my former Defence personnel will be wondering about—just what will this mean in practical terms? I note that it will mean that veterans and their families will have a lapel pin, cards and other paraphernalia that goes with it. But what has come through to me in conversations with veterans is that what they're really looking for is respect and recognition that for a period of their life—sometimes a short period of time and sometimes a longer period of time—their whole world revolved around their work as a member of the Defence Force. And not only did their whole world revolve around it; so did the lives of their families—their parents, their partner or their children. And their focus shifted. From what they tell me, it was not until they left the Defence Force that they realised the impact that it had. I'm sure, Deputy Speaker, you will have your own deep thinking around those aspects.

So one of the things I did recently was meet with my RSL members, my Vietnam Veterans Association members, the families of past-serving personnel, war widows, serving members and families of serving members to have a conversation about other things that are being talked about—not just about the department and how it serves them, not just about the policies we have in place, but a broad and wide-ranging conversation around, in particular, some of the recommendations of the Productivity Commission in its draft report 'A better way to support veterans'. That conversation leads me to feel very strongly that, as we move forward, in turning a covenant into something practical which will play out in the policies we will bring in, we must be very careful about changing the structure that we have.

I'm sure that people will be aware that one of the recommendations of the Productivity Commission was to establish a single ministry for Defence personnel and veterans. But when I spoke to veterans about this they were very much against the idea; it is not something that any of them want to see; the concept of a single ministry was rejected out of hand. I look forward to seeing the government's response and sharing our view that it is not something that should happen. They also don't want to see veterans' affairs politicised. They respect that we in this place work collaboratively on veterans' issues, and they want to see that bipartisanship. As one participant said, 'Veterans are proud that the importance of service is recognised. Australia is one of the only countries with an independent department to serve veterans and widows. The government should be committed to maintaining a standalone department for veterans.' That is just extraordinary to hear, even though in the same breath you hear concerns about some of the treatment that people get from the department. But the very fact that it exists is incredibly important.

Of course, the way the department implements the legislation that they are provided with has raised some concerns. One of the very telling comments during my conversations was that it would be great to know that people who work in that department either themselves had an experience of working in the Defence Force or had at least been exposed to it. I described to them our Defence Force Parliamentary Program and how that exposes those of us who haven't served to just a taste of some of the commitment and the skills development that happens for serving personnel.

I think the Productivity Commission's report was a really useful discussion point on a number of things. One concern was raised around the language used when talking about providing services to veterans, following their service. What concerned people was the phrase 'workers compensation and contemporary social insurance schemes'. There was a real pushback around comparing the services that you provide for veterans—the health services, the employment services, the family services—to an insurance and workers compensation scheme. Veterans felt that this language demonstrated a failure to understand the distinct nature of the Defence Force and the service and sacrifices that are made by personnel and their families.

When we move forward with a covenant, when we use it as a guiding force to implement policy, when we use it to make decisions about how we bring in improved health services, improved mental health services and improved transition services, we need to be very mindful of the language that we use to ensure that it is continuing to differentiate between what people who have never served have gone through and what those who have served have gone through. I think the individual comments certainly indicate that they have concerns that, more recently, people are feeling that when they work with the department, when they go to the Department of Veterans' Affairs to have a matter seen, they have been treated a bit in the manner of an insurance claimant or a workers compensation claimant. I think that is a very wrong approach to have. I would hope that, universally, we would consider that we are providing a service rather than processing a claim.

There is another point that came up during my discussions recently. These discussions were held both in the Blue Mountains and in the Hawkesbury, representing quite a range of people—I had people from the RAAF, from the Navy and from the Army. Their view was that the current system is administratively complex in dealing with veterans' affairs and they would like to see it simplified. But they really valued the guidance and advice of advocates in navigating the system and wanted to see them supported. The Veterans' Affairs case managers, the ones who have built up a wealth of experience, were also highly valued. And, not surprisingly, veterans were adamant that existing services to war windows must be maintained.

I think the most difficult conversations we had were around wellbeing, including mental health. There were certainly concerns about changes to access to physio and other wellbeing and rehabilitation services. But, when it came to mental health and the recommendations from the Productivity Commission, veterans were also unanimous in saying that we need a greater focus on supporting people's mental health. That tied in very closely to transitions and transitioning from the service to civilian life. Any of us who know anything about mental health know that often triggers are when you're changing something. I speak of this as a mother, watching what the triggers are to see signs of a crisis. It is often change, whether that's changing from school to uni or from uni to work. All those things trigger it. So we should know how carefully we need to support people in managing a transition to civilian life.

There is definitely support for the idea of Defence devoting much more attention to this area. However, the concern was about the concept of locating that service entirely within the Department of Defence. That idea was rejected, and it was felt that, in fact, the responsibility for transitioning people needed to be something that sat across both a defence department and a veterans' affairs department. That makes a lot of sense in terms of helping people move from one service to their post-service life as a civilian.

I don't think any of those things are radical or asking too much. The former airmen, Navy personnel, members of the Army, their families, their mums, and the serving personnel who came and shared their ideas with me are asking for something that is very reasonable and something that fits really neatly with this covenant that we are here today supporting. For me, it comes down to respect. It has been such a privilege to experience some of the activities that happen at places like Amberley and on my own bases, Richmond RAAF Base and Glenbrook, and get some insight into the incredible work that's done—the strategy that's thought through, the planning that's done and the exercises that take place—and to know that every one of those people I have spent time with has somebody on the outside who has supported them to be able to do that job of serving Australia.

As I say, I'm very pleased to see that this covenant is in place. I would hope that we can build on this—that this parliament doesn't do something that just has a full stop after it, but that it forms a basis on which we can build not just the services but also the broader community recognition of what happens inside our Defence Force. I think that's our next step. We get to see it. We are so privileged that we get to go inside and see what's involved. But there are millions of people who really don't have a lot of ideas about what happens, and I think there are some opportunities there. I particularly think about the small businesses in my community, who have access to really incredibly trained people but don't necessarily see the opportunities that are there.

I hope, over the next few years, to be able to continue working to build relationships between our civilian community and the many, many RAAF personnel—I have Army as well on my RAAF base at Richmond—and to build those connections so that the real skill, expertise and amazing values that are instilled in our service personnel can be transitioned and translated into the wider civilian world.