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Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Page: 2362


Mr ENTSCH (Leichhardt) (10:42): I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 1) Bill 2018 and support it. It's one that I think is long overdue and one that will make a real difference to the lives of thousands of Australians.

There is no greater honour than to serve your country. The sacrifices that Australian men and women make for our country are truly remarkable. In fact, in some cases, unfortunately, there is the ultimate sacrifice. All too often they are away from their loved ones for long periods of time, missing birthdays, missing anniversaries, missing family gatherings and so on. I would like everybody in the chamber here just to think about that. The reality is that they spend a lot of time away from family, missing all these milestones, and it's very hard on both the serving member and, of course, the families and friends. Imagine having to say goodbye to your loved ones—your wife, your husband, your partner, your children, your parents, your friends—every three, six or 12 months, not knowing whether you will actually see them again or whether they will see you. This is a reality. This is what we're asking our men and women in our armed forces and their families to do on a very regular basis.

I certainly proudly served in the Royal Australian Air Force between 1969 and 1978. I know there are other members in the House that have served a little bit more recently than me, but nevertheless those nine years were very special to me. It was a time when men like me weren't encouraged to talk about our feelings in our time in service. You were simply told to suck it up. Thankfully, the times have very much changed—and so they should. I have to say, however, that it was a time in my life I was extremely proud of and have fond memories of, especially of the mateship and the camaraderie during that period of service. But what happens when your mates aren't there anymore 24/7 and you find yourself back in a life that you really don't recognise? It is a far too familiar story for many veterans as they return from active service.

I have to say that active service has changed dramatically over a period of time. If you go back to the early days of the Australian Defence Force, people went on ships to the Boer War, the First World War or the Second World War. They would be away for a year or sometimes longer, and, if they were the lucky ones that returned, that would be it. They would have had their service, whatever that period of time was, and they would settle back into their lives. I remember great-uncles of mine that came back that were gassed in the First World War and the challenges that they had. They had their family with them for the rest of their lives, albeit lives that were cut quite short because of their experience. Going to Vietnam was a different situation again. Those that served in Vietnam went over there generally for six months, a year or two years. It was unusual to do two or three rotations; generally they would do one and they would come back, and that was their service. Again, they were faced with a lot of difficulty, a lot of hardships and a lot of things that people shouldn't have to see, but nevertheless they were home with their families.

In these more modern conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are asking people to go back not just once or twice; they are getting seven or eight rotations. Just imagine how that impacts people. It hardens their thoughts—the things that they see and the most difficult of experiences. I have been fortunate enough to go over to the Middle East and see some of the areas where we are sending our troops—the most inhospitable of areas. No level of support while they are over there can really compensate for what they see and what they experience. They come home for short periods of time and then they are back there again. So it is backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. This is bottled up inside them. I have to say that, for the time they are there, the comradeship is so important because they are totally relying on their friends to have their back.

Many struggle now when they come back. They did in the past, but it is even more profound now because of the multiple experiences. They really struggle to adjust to normal life. They are unable to get their heads around many of these trivial issues that society is consumed with at the moment, like traffic congestion, petrol prices and who won the footy. These things are really quite irrelevant to them. How could they not be? They witnessed firsthand the brutal horror of war. They feel very much out of sync with society. Many believe that the hardest thing about war is coming home and trying to adjust. Many of them have lost their mates, many were horribly wounded and many have witnessed things that those back home simply could never, ever fathom. Sadly, many come home broken people. Many come home different people. Many simply just don't come home. I see it often. People disappear as far as they can, away from civilisation, to try and come to terms with their experiences. This is where we as a government need to step in and give those veterans and, importantly, their families a helping hand.

This legislation is part of the significant work the Turnbull government is undertaking to make things better for our veterans and their families. I would like to focus on two of the initiatives contained within the legislation. Firstly, the family support aspect is a critical aspect that will allow families that are going through a tough time to keep their heads above water. Families and loved ones are often forgotten and silent victims in all of this, and they deserve the same support that we offer our veterans because in many ways they are also veterans in this experience. They're the ones who have to deal with the stranger, in many cases, who is living under their roof. The measures contained in the legislation recognise the crucial role of family in supporting veterans in transition back to civilian life. The legislation will deliver improved family support to veterans in receipt of an incapacity payment. It will include key psychosocial interventions, such as greater access to child care and counselling, to enable the family unit to maintain its connections to community and employment and also social interaction. More importantly, spouses of veterans who have been killed in recent conflicts or who take their own lives following their service will be eligible for childcare assistance, household services and counselling to assist them to adjust to life after the death of their partner. Under this legislation, they will receive childcare assistance until the children have completed primary education. Importantly, they will also be able to access counselling for a period of up to two years after their partner's death.

The second aspect of this legislation that I would like to talk about today is the veteran payment initiative. Approximately 830 veterans and their partners across the country will benefit from this payment in the first year, including those living in my electorate of Leichhardt. Under this legislation, the government will introduce a new income support payment to assist vulnerable veterans until their claim for liability for a mental health condition is fully determined. This payment will allow our veterans early access to financial support and provide them with vocational and psychosocial rehabilitation, including financial counselling and budgeting. This is so very, very important for people coming back and for families identifying that stranger who has come back, who is certainly not the same person who went across to serve, and who is trying to come to terms with their experience. Sometimes there is quite a long gap, and its important that during this process they get some sort of support, because a lot of these experiences are very, very debilitating for those involved. The fortnightly veterans payment of $994 for singles or $774.20 for each member of a couple will provide a source of income—relatively modest but, nevertheless, a source of income—that they can access until their claim is determined and ongoing support is arranged. In addition, eligible veterans will be able to receive rent assistance of $133 per fortnight. Those with dependent children will receive family tax benefit from the Department of Human Services without having to satisfy the means test applying to those payments. Again, it is very important that we have this support accessed very quickly and without complexity, because they are already dealing with a lot of challenges within their own home. It's my belief that these payments are particularly important because they give our veterans and their families a financial security while they deal with more important and pressing issues. The last thing these families need at this time is to deal with bureaucracy.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. Not a truer word has been spoken, and it's extremely relevant when we are talking about those Australian men and women who have bravely served our country and might need a little help when they come home. I commend this bill to the House.