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Thursday, 25 October 2018
Page: 11235


Ms O'TOOLE (Herbert) (10:48): Townsville is a very proud garrison city, and as the elected representative for our community, it gives me great pride to stand here and speak to the veterans ministerial statement. I believe the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, said it best when he said, 'As a nation, we are better at honouring the memory of our dead than looking after the living.' These words are echoingly true when it comes to our Australian veterans. We can never fully repay our debt to our veterans, but we can give them our long-term gratitude, respect and support.

For many veterans, the freedoms that we experience in our nation are important enough for them to endure long separations from their families, miss the births of their children, freeze in subzero conditions, bake in the deserts and lose limbs. Far too often, sadly, lives were lost. Military spouses have had to endure career interruptions, frequent changes of address and a disproportionate share of parental responsibilities. The children often have had to deal with changes in schools, separation from friends and, hardest of all, the uncertainty of whether their mum or dad would return from their tour.

Warriors need advocates in parliament, and I am passionately one of the strongest advocates for veterans in this place. We are here to serve veterans, their families and our communities. Veterans need each other, but, more importantly, our country needs our veterans. Those who defend us must be supported. Whether their service was in Afghanistan or Vietnam, we need to serve veterans as well as they serve us. Veterans don't ask for much. They do not want to be a special class, but benefits are a mere drop in the bucket compared to the financial and human cost of war. While not all veterans see war, all who have served in the military have expressed a willingness to fight if called to do so.

Homelessness is another issue that affects veterans disproportionately. Too often today's tattered citizen on the street was yesterday's toast of the town in a crisp uniform, supporting a row of shiny medals. This is hardly the thanks of a grateful nation. We can do better and we must do better. We need to acknowledge their work, their sacrifice and its significance. Can any CEO or chairman of a bank truly claim to have more responsibility than a 21-year-old corporal walking on patrol in Afghanistan?

Veterans have given us freedom and security. It is impossible to put a price on freedom and security, but it is necessary to ensure that our support is readily available when needed. We must remember them and we must appreciate them, and that is partly what the annual statement on veterans provides. Every year the government provides a statement or an update in relation to our veterans. In preparing for my speech today I looked back on the speech I made last year regarding the veterans statement. It saddened me to see that in a year the issues are still pretty much the same: unemployment is still incredibly high in the veteran community; suicide is still occurring; and families are still suffering distress. These are not issues that will be rectified overnight, but the annual veterans statement holds the government accountable and responsible to those who have served this country. It's a chance for us to look back and reflect on the last year and genuinely ask: have we in this place done enough?

I have supported all of the government's veterans policies where the policies do make a positive difference, but I do not believe that their commitments go far enough to show our veterans that we are grateful for their sacrifice and service to this nation. However, I do believe that Labor's announcement to establish Australia's first military covenant does go further than just an annual statement. The annual statement is needed, but a legislated military covenant is critical. The military covenant will ensure that our serving men and women know, in no uncertain terms, that we value their service and remain committed to looking after them. A commitment to a military covenant builds on previous announcements that Labor have made, such as our $121 million veterans employment package.

Finding and maintaining employment after serving is very important to veterans for many reasons. It's not just about financial security. The dignity of work provides structure, community and a sense of purpose and belonging. It is a reason to get out of bed each day, and that is something that many ex-Defence personnel say they miss when they leave the ADF. Many veterans do not immediately find a meaningful career post their time with the ADF. These are highly skilled and desirable employees who would make a valuable addition to any workplace, but the statistics show us that these skills are not necessarily acknowledged or valued by civil society because many of these skills are lost in translation.

If we want veterans to know that we value the sacrifice that they have made then we must do better. We must ensure that veterans are best positioned to move into employment post service and that businesses understand the many benefits of employing a veteran. The government has developed the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program, and I support this program. We can absolutely do better in this space. Labor's veterans employment program does just that. Labor is the party of jobs and employment, because it's in our DNA. We understand the employment issues that veterans face and, more importantly, we are committed to addressing these issues.

There are roadblocks because veterans' skills are lost in translation from military life to civilian life, roadblocks because veterans are discounted before reaching the interview stage because they don't meet the tick-and-flick process and roadblocks because employers ultimately fail to recognise the many skills that our ADF members have.

It is for this reason that Labor has announced a veterans employment program. This program will ensure that veteran skills are not lost in translation and will encourage businesses to benefit from employing these highly valuable young men and women. There are four key elements to our program. The first targets businesses by providing a $5,000 grant to address specific short-term skills gaps which may otherwise act as a barrier to the veteran's suitability. I have heard from veterans who have applied for hundreds of jobs and in some cases have never gotten an interview. The process is demoralising and doesn't value the many skills and experiences of our ADF members. While there could be many reasons for this, one reason could be that the veteran is simply one unit shy of a qualification or fails to meet the two years previous experience criteria but would otherwise be suitable. These grants will go a long way to ensuring that these gaps can be addressed and that there will be an incentive to remove those barriers and roadblocks.

In addition we have announced that we will provide $30 million to an industry advisory committee to fund the development of a national campaign which will highlight the many skills of former ADF members to employers. We will also establish an employment and transition service for transitioning members, which will provide greater individualised and tailored support to veterans over a longer period of time. This service will also work with veterans to identify other potential barriers to employment, such as housing, health and community support, that they may need in order to ensure they can also find fulfilling employment.

From speaking with veterans, I know that many leave with very clear goals in mind about what work they want to do after they leave the ADF, but sadly it doesn't always work out. Labor is promising that this service would remain available to veterans to return to over a five-year period after they have left the ADF, just in case advice, services or support are needed. We will bring the qualifying period for extra education and training assistance down from the current 12 years to five years, and the top level of assistance down from 18 years to 15 years. On average, members serve for 7.5 years. This change would mean that the majority of those who leave the ADF would be to access the assistance, and that is a very crucial point. In addition, Labor's plan increases the amount of funding available to individuals and allows greater flexibility in the way transitioning members can use this funding, such as in obtaining multiple qualifications that are required for employment.

In noting the importance of the service of our veterans, we must also acknowledge the family sacrifices and commitment. Serving families are routinely faced with the choice of packing up their lives and moving or spending significant time apart a loved one. Post-service lives are changed again as individuals and their loved ones reorientate their lives. As the mental health commissioner has identified, this strategy will give families a voice and provide a national blueprint to include engagement of the departments of Veterans' Affairs and Defence with military families. As the Centenary of Anzac draws to a close it is important that we consider how we keep alive the memories of men and women who have served and who have died. While we no longer have the benefit of any of our World War I diggers with us, it is crucial that we remember their experiences. I believe that Labor's commitments to our veterans and their families show a clear plan and reflect the gratefulness and thanks we have for our returning soldiers. I conclude by congratulating the nine athletes from Townsville that are competing in the Invictus Games. They have won numerous awards.