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Thursday, 4 July 2019
Page: 365

Defence Personnel


Mr THOMPSON (Herbert) (15:20): My question is to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and defence personnel. Will the minister update the House on steps the government is taking to prevent suicide and improve mental health of our Australian Defence Force and veteran community?


Mr CHESTER (GippslandMinister for Veterans and Defence Personnel and Deputy Leader of the House) (15:20): I want to thank the member for Herbert and also congratulate him on his inaugural speech this morning where he spoke about his lived experience and his service in uniform to our nation. He spoke about the teamwork, he spoke about mateship but he also spoke about the sacrifice of his comrades in arms. I want to recognise all members of this place and in the Senate who have served in the Australian Defence Force and say quite simply to them all: thank you for your service.

The member for Herbert asked me about veterans' mental health and suicide prevention measures. I want to stress that the only acceptable number for me as minister is zero, the only acceptable number for the Australian community is zero and I'm sure the only acceptable number for this entire parliament is zero when it comes to veteran suicide. It is a tragedy indeed that more than 3,000 Australians take their own lives each year, and unfortunately there is no simple answer to this rather sad and complex issue.

I want to congratulate the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health for their renewed focus on the issue. Let me please quote from this morning's speech by the member for Herbert, where he said:

Mental illness and suicide prevention is our responsibility; we are all responsible. Suicide is not just a veteran issue and not just a Defence Force issue; it's a societal problem. We can and must do more.

I want to assure the House and I want to ensure Australians listening at home that help is available for our veterans who are struggling or experiencing poor mental health. The government has listened to the concerns of the veteran community and we have taken action, I must say, with the complete support of those opposite. We have introduced free mental health care for all veterans. We have invested in improvements in Open Arms, a free counselling service which is available on 1800011046. It was relaunched last year by Mark Donaldson VC, quite an extraordinary Australian in his own right. We provide now more than $230 million per year in terms of veterans mental health support. We are trialling new and innovative approaches, including the use of psychiatric dogs, and six new wellbeing centres are being established, including in the member for Herbert's own electorate.

I want to say too I'm working with the ADF service chiefs in terms of the important transition process, which has proven to be one of the most difficult aspects for some of our veterans leaving the military and re-joining civilian life, and also working with the ex-service community and the corporate sector to make sure we are supporting veterans into employment.

I know, the government knows and I'm sure those opposite know as well that there is more to be done. Just last week, I hosted a national Veteran Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit, where we brought together some of the leading experts in Australia. In the coming weeks I will be meeting with veterans and their families to discuss what else we can be doing as part of our national veterans mental health action plan. I have also written to all members in this place with military experience, from both sides and from the crossbench, and offered them direct access to me and my office to provide their input from their own lived experience, which I think is going to be very important as well.

When it comes to suicide prevention and mental wellbeing, I think we all have an important role to play and I again urge those who are experiencing difficulties who are listening today to please seek help, to contact Open Arms on 1800011046.