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Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Page: 14699

Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle) (19:18): I am very pleased to be able to take the opportunity this evening to speak on the Australian Veterans Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. As we've heard in some of the contributions this evening, this bill will create a new act which will provide an important framework for government, business and the community to really recognise and acknowledge the very unique nature of military service and support for veterans and their families.

Importantly, as we've heard, this bill establishes the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. As members in this House would well be aware, Labor announced the establishment of a military covenant in September last year. So this is clearly something that has our support, although I note that Labor's military covenant—and this is an important distinction—would have covered both current and ex-serving personnel and their families, recognising the immense commitment they make to our country and formalising our nation's commitment to look after those that have sacrificed for our nation. Labor is very pleased to see that the government is adopting the covenant via this bill. It is certainly welcome news from our side of the parliament.

I note that there has been some debate around the coverage of this covenant. We would like to expand it. The decision to include both current and ex-serving personnel in the Labor version of the covenant came from the evidence that was brought before the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which had an inquiry into this legislation. There were some important observations made by the Labor senators during that inquiry. These comments that I'm about to pass on come from the additional comments of the Labor senators there. It was our wish to acknowledge the importance of families in the lives of both current and ex-serving members. That was a reoccurring theme throughout the submissions that were made to the inquiry. We knew that, when an individual serves in the Australian Defence Force, in many ways the entire family serves with them. We recognise the role that families play in recognising the unique nature of military service and the sacrifices made by those who serve.

I know, as the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, just how true that word is. I, to this day, live with the ramifications of my father serving in the Australian Army. He wasn't a national serviceman; he was a regular Army sergeant. It is very difficult for many of us to get our heads and our hearts around the unique service that ADF personnel provide, but I, like any family member, am acutely aware of the lifelong implications of that service. There are many, many good things to be praised in terms of that service to the country, but, certainly as a family member, my personal experience is that there is often a very high price to pay for that, and the whole family pays for it. In my view and Labor's view, it is absolutely essential that we acknowledge the ongoing support that is required for both current and ex-serving personnel, and indeed all the families that are providing wraparound supports for those men and women for life.

Labor senators, as I said, continued to prosecute the argument of considering the benefits of including current serving members within the covenant. I understand it is the case that the United Kingdom's Armed Force Covenant includes current serving members. It was noted, certainly by the Defence Force Welfare Association, the peak body representing current serving members, that that would be their preference, too. They were one of the only submitters to the inquiry that were able to represent current serving members. We forget that those current members are so often gagged in participating in these debates that have so much of an impact on their lives and conditions both now in the workplace and in the future. It was certainly the current serving members and the chief advocate who articulated a need for this military covenant to apply to the existing members.

Finally, I note that Labor senators noted the comments made by the Secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs in relation to reporting, who stated that the minister provides an annual statement regarding the efficacy and benefits of the covenant. But it was Labor senators' and members' view that there would be benefit in considering ways to strengthen this reporting element, including a legislative requirement to report to this parliament rather than an obligation to report through an annual reporting system. I think both of those suggestions have great merit and are very worthy of this House considering and supporting. Certainly, rather than the annual reporting, if we had a form of statement to this parliament, I think it would hold this place to account. It is so easy for our annual reports to slide by and not really be as effective as they might otherwise be. I think governments need to be held to account in terms of their obligations to current and ex-serving personnel and whether they're meeting the standards that we set in this House and in the other place. That level of accountability is absent from this bill, and I'm sad to say I think this bill is much weaker for it.

As I said, Labor has some concerns about the omission of these two elements—the lack of rigorous reporting to the parliament and the exclusion of current serving members. That's why we referred it across to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, to ensure that members of the ex-serving community had an opportunity to be consulted and were comfortable with the provisions in the bill. That being said, Labor is acutely aware that we are on the eve of an election. We are not naive about just how little time this parliament has to deal with this bill now. We do not wish to be holding up the good aspects of this bill by any means. We've got the report from the committee, and we're not in a position to move amendments to this bill without endangering its passage here. But we continue to believe that there is great merit in including current serving members in this bill and in strengthening the legislation by including a reporting-back element to this parliament. They are really two very key and essential things that would lend a lot more gravity to this bill.

In addition to the introduction of the covenant, this bill inserts a general recognition clause which acknowledges the unique nature of military service, the demands that we place on those who serve, the additional support they may require postservice and the Commonwealth's commitment to supporting veterans. Labor wholeheartedly supports this recognition—I wish to be very clear about that—and our ongoing obligation to supporting those who have put their lives on hold in order to serve this 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.

I would like to pick up on a comment made by my colleague the member for Macquarie earlier on about the rejection from the veterans community around any proposal to smash Defence and Veterans' Affairs into one portfolio. Likewise, the relocation of DVA officers and services is welcome, as long as they're not, again, forced to be merging in with Centrelink or other government services. It's critical that we take the mental health and wellbeing of our service men and women seriously—both current and ex-serving personnel. I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to speak on this bill. I lend Labor's support—albeit not as strong as we might like—to the bill and I commend the bill to the House.