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Thursday, 21 June 2018
Page: 3587

Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (12:45): I rise today to make a contribution to the debate on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018, a very important piece of legislation which contains several measures that seek to improve outcomes for those who have served and their loved ones. When an individual undertakes to serve their country, we in turn make a commitment to them and their families that we will support them post their time in the ADF. Labor supports the measures in this bill because they're a step towards recognising this commitment. Schedule 1 recognises the importance of education and retraining post service, particularly for those whose service has had a greater impact on them. These changes will provide financial security to those on incapacity payments undertaking further study as part of their rehabilitation plan with DVA. Currently payments reduce to 75 per cent after 45 weeks; this measure will maintain these payments at 100 per cent while they are undertaking approved full-time study. This change will mean that these individuals can focus on their education without worrying about their finances.

Further education and training can be very important, particularly in circumstances such as these when the individual has had no choice but to leave the ADF and reorientate their lives. The support will make a difference for these individuals, assisting them to retrain and find meaningful employment post service. Finding and maintaining employment after leaving the ADF is important for so many reasons. Employment is much more than simply financial security; it provides structure, community, a sense of purpose and belonging. However, the statistics show us that, of the 5,500 veterans who transition out of Defence each year, about one in three fail to find or maintain employment. Best estimates cite the total unemployment rate of veterans as approximately 30 per cent. Even those who didn't medically discharge face a jobless rate of 11.2 per cent, which is almost twice the national unemployment rate. In addition, those who do find employment have experienced an average drop in their incomes of about 30 per cent, and 19 per cent are underemployed in jobs that don't meet their capabilities. Veterans have a large range of skills and set of experiences, but these figures show that these skills and experiences of great value that they bring to our local communities upon return from service are simply, practically, not adequately valued by civil society.

It's for this reason that Labor has committed to a $121 million veterans employment program. Our program is not about charity; it's about ensuring the wealth of skills and experience that a veteran has is not lost in translation to civilian life. There are four elements to our program which will assist those transitioning out of Defence. Firstly we will provide eligible businesses with training grants of up to $5,000 in order to help veterans gain the skills and experience that they need to obtain a civilian job. While businesses are at least notionally open to employing veterans, there can be specific short-term skill gaps or a lack of specific experience, which can act as a barrier to employment for an otherwise suitable veteran applicant. For example, the veteran might be one unit shy of a certificate or fail to meet the minimum two years prior experience, meaning they won't meet an arbitrary tick-and-flick assessment of their capacity in the job-and-person process and will be immediately discounted. These $5,000 grants are designed to overcome this barrier. In addition, Labor will work with the industry advisory committee to develop and provide proper resources to a national campaign which will highlight the many benefits and transferable skills of those leaving the ADF and encourage businesses to employ veterans.

Secondly, Labor will establish a service which will provide greater individualised and tailored support to transitioning veterans over a longer period of time. This service will provide one-on-one support and advice to transitioning ADF members, including a comprehensive audit of the skills they have obtained during their service, and ensure appropriate civil recognition is obtained. It will also work with veterans to identify other barriers to a successful transition to employment, such as secure housing and psychosocial supports. Importantly, this service will continue to be available to those who have left the ADF for a period of five years, enabling veterans to return to the service if their circumstances change and they need additional support.

Thirdly, our plan will reduce the length of service required to access the higher levels of support through the Career Transition Assistance Scheme. Labor's proposal reduces the qualifying period for the extra education or training assistance down from the current requirement of 12 years service to five years service and the top-up level of assistance down from 18 years service to 15 years service. In addition, we will increase the funding available to individuals and allow for greater flexibility in the way members use this funding, such as enabling multiple qualifications, to achieve their career goals.

Lastly, we will work with the states and territories and peak industry bodies to identify opportunities for greater recognition of the many skills of our ADF members. The program run in Queensland which translates rank and length of service into a university entrance rank is one of these opportunities. While not every member who leaves the ADF will want to go to university, this program smooths the processes for those who are wishing to pursue further study and, importantly, recognises their experience and skills.

The changes in schedule 1 align well with this element, which would then provide greater financial security to those who are undertaking this study as part of a rehabilitation plan with DVA. Labor understand that this schedule is expected to assist 150 people per year, including those who are already undertaking study as part of their rehabilitation plan. Labor support this schedule that will provide greater financial security for veterans on incapacity payments and their families while they complete their studies.

Schedule 2 of the bill will create a new suicide prevention pilot which will provide greater support to those who have been hospitalised after attempted suicide. Those with suicidal ideation or who might be at increased risk of suicide are also eligible because of their mental health or other factors. This important pilot will provide coordinated support to ensure veterans are accessing treatment and social support to reduce their risk of suicide and enhance their quality of life. It will provide intensive and assertive management services to support a veteran after they have been discharged from hospital. The type of support that is being offered would include support to access other relevant government entities and non-government treatment and services. The aim, of course, is to reduce risk and to massively improve outcomes for those who are involved.

The two suicide prevention trials being coordinated by the Department of Veterans' Affairs are a result of both the National Mental Health Commission's review of services available to veterans and members of the Australian Defence Force and the recommendations made during the Senate's inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel, which was completed last year. The National Mental Health Commission recommended step-down services that take into account factors that may lead to suicide, such as primary health, financial stress, lack of housing and lack of employment. These factors were considered heavily during the Senate inquiry, which received 458 submissions from the ex-service community and other interested parties. I take the opportunity to thank each one of those members of the ex-service community, in particular, for their contribution to this important debate.

The Senate inquiry process was particularly important as it enabled veterans and their loved ones to highlight the issues they have experienced and to identify what we can do better to support them post their time in the ADF. Labor supported the establishment of the Senate inquiry. We're pleased to see these recommendations being progressively implemented, and we urge the government to maintain the momentum. Labor is supportive of measures which seek to provide greater assistance to veterans, particularly those who are struggling in their time post the ADF. As such, we offer our full support to the establishment of this trial and we look forward to seeing the results of both this trial and other trials currently underway.

Schedule 3 of the bill seeks to assist those recently widowed by providing them additional time to make a decision about how they would like to receive compensation. Currently, partners have six months to decide whether they would like to receive their compensation as a weekly payment or convert the whole or part of the payment into a lump sum. Where there is the ability for the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to make an extension of time, this requires an application in writing. The change that is proposed in schedule 3 will give partners two years to make this decision, giving these individuals in very difficult circumstances sufficient time to decide. The commission will also be able to extend this time for consideration beyond two years where they deem it appropriate. That will be subject to application. For example, such a situation might be where there are complicated family law issues to be resolved. The government have advised this came about during conversations with ex-service organisations. It is a logical and compassionate change, and we offer our full support to it.

Schedule 4 amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act, the VEA, in order to extend the eligibility of the Long Tan Bursary scheme to the grandchildren of Vietnam veterans. The Long Tan Bursary scheme offers 37 scholarships of up to $12,000 over three years to the children of Vietnam veterans to assist with post-secondary school education and training. While the criteria for applications won't change, this amendment will enable more individuals to apply for that support to help those students continue their study. Priority will be given to supporting those children of Vietnam veterans. Labor is supportive of this measure, which recognises the sacrifices that our brave men made in Vietnam and assists their descendants to undertake further study.

Schedule 5 makes a provision to ensure that a submariner who served on a special submarine operation between 1 January 1978 and 31 December 1992 is deemed to have operational service for any period they served on a submarine during this period. This will simplify the support available to those individuals who served during this period and who have a claim with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. We are also supportive of this measure because it formally recognises the service that these individuals undertook during the period.

The final schedule of the bill simplifies the process for veterans applying for compensation under the MRCA during a needs assessment. Under the MRCA, a claim for compensation is distinct from a claim for liability. In many cases, compensation is claimed concurrently with the liability by a member or former member indicating on the liability claim form that they're seeking compensation. However, in some cases, a claim for liability will be made without an application for compensation. During this process, a needs assessment will be carried out. These are often conducted over the telephone. During this call, a member or former member will sometimes state that they would like to seek some form of compensation under the MRCA. This currently requires the individual to put in a separate application. Under the changes in the piece of legislation being discussed here this morning, a verbal indication that they are seeking compensation under the act will now be considered an application. That being said, they will still be able to make a claim in writing should they wish to do so.

Labor is supportive of measures which make the claim process easier for veterans, as long as it doesn't disadvantage them. Issues around information provided during this needs assessment have been raised with the shadow minister for veterans' affairs by advocates and members of the ex-service community. These individuals have raised concerns about the needs assessment being used to determine compensation claims. According to advocates, in their experience, information provided during this assessment has been used to decline the severity of claims further down the track. For example, the assessment will ask a veteran if they can still mow the lawn. The veteran replies that they can, without detailing that, following this activity, they experience several days of restricted or no movement. So while the veteran may technically be able to mow the lawn, they are severely impacted by doing so. According to advocates, a simple answer to that question is then pointed to further down the track and used to assert that the veteran is able to undertake the activity, which is simply not the case.

Labor has raised this issue with the government and requested that it ensure that it is clear to those applying what the answers to these seemingly innocuous questions will be used for. Subsequently, the government has advised that the needs assessments are not used by the DVA to determine compensation but, instead, are used to identify forms of support and assistance that the veteran may be eligible for or benefit from, such as household assistance or rehabilitation. That being said, the government has taken this feedback on board and will be providing further clarification to veterans applying online that this assessment will not be used to calculate compensation rates. It is these assurances that enable Labor to support this measure, which seeks to make the complicated claims process easier for veterans and their loved ones.

Labor is supportive of this bill, which seeks to improve outcomes for veterans and to smooth processes. As I said at the beginning, when an individual undertakes to serve in the ADF, we in turn commit to looking after them and their loved ones. These measures, in particular those aimed at providing increased support for those whose service has had a greater impact on them, seek to ensure that we recognise this obligation to our ex-serving community.

I take the opportunity in the time remaining to me to speak with pride about knowing a former veteran, who was a former student of mine as well: a great man by the name of Mark Lang, who lives on the Central Coast in the same community in which I live. I still run into his mother, Debbie; I remember first meeting her at parent-teacher interviews. Mark has served for a very long period of time in the Australian Defence Force, and in fact he made an effort at one stage to return to me and showed up at school in his uniform with great pride in his service. Mark has met with me on a number of occasions in my office. He's a powerful advocate for his mates who have served this nation with pride and distinction in many theatres overseas. At this time Mark is particularly unwell, so I want to recognise his service. I want to recognise his advocacy and the advocacy of men, women and families across this nation who continue to make sure that those who return from serving this country are treated in ways that engender further respect for the service that they've given and give them access to the services and opportunities that they need. I give our full support to this bill, and I commend the bill to the house. (Time expired)