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Monday, 7 September 2015
Page: 6039


Senator REYNOLDS (Western Australia) (11:56): I too rise to speak in support of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015. This bill will give effect to a number of the veterans affairs 2015 budget measures to do three major things: firstly, to enhance the Veterans' Vocational Rehabilitation Scheme under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986; secondly, to create a single path for the review of original determinations made under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004; and, thirdly, to expand the war graves regulation, making power under the Defence Act 1903 to include graves of service dependents buried in Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia.

I think it is very important, when having a look at bills such as this, that we take a step back and have a look at the context of these proposed changes. This bill, like all bills relating to Defence Force personnel and also to our veterans, should be looked at through the lens of the Defence covenant, which is the framework that guides how a government supports its men and women—and their families—who serve and have served in the Australian Defence Force. That is the obligation that all Australians, through our government of the day, owe these men and women. This Defence covenant should not just be seen through a single lens focused on the Department of Defence itself and what the department does on our behalf; it should really be a multifocused aperture that defines and influences the machinery of government right across the broad spectrum of policy and decision making in the various tiers of federal, state and local governments and also, of course, out into the many community organisations that support our Defence personnel and our veterans.

In an Australian society that relies today on a voluntary Defence Force, I think that the best way of describing the defence covenant is summarised in the words of George Washington where he states:

The willingness of future generations to serve in our military will be directly dependent upon how we have treated those who have served in the past.

While those words were said a few hundred years ago, I think they are just as relevant today in Australia. It is not a surprise that this quote is a foundation of the Defence Force Welfare Association, which lobbies governments for improved support to Defence families and other organisations that continue to do wonderful work on behalf of our veterans community. I think the essence of George Washington's words go well beyond this. In order to provide the framework to support those who serve and have served and to encourage others to enlist in the future, it is absolutely critical that they have reassurance that they will be provided with the necessary means not only to prosecute the political directions of the elected government of the day but also to make sure they really understand that they will be looked after when they serve and after their service and that their families will also be looked after. It really is a two-way contract between those who have put their hand up to serve our nation and all Australians.

The conclusion I have come to is that the defence contract really is about how we look after our people, and it is one aspect, but a very important aspect, of the moral obligation we all owe our service men and women. It is a framework—a very broad framework—that covers areas of equipment, training, infrastructure support, industry involvement and also the many aspects of welfare support to our Defence personnel, our veterans and their families. The opportunity to define any government, including this government, is demonstrated through how we implement the defence covenant and our moral obligation to our service men and women. Together, as a government, as a Senate and as a parliament, we have a responsibility to support our men and women in uniform, current and past, in a clear and cogent way right across all levels of government. I really believe that that ultimately defines who we are as a people and who we are as elected representatives. When looking at legislation such as that which is before us today, this is the lens that we should always keep coming back to: where does it fit in to our defence covenant and to our moral obligation to our service men and women and to veterans? That is the lens through which I would now like to look at this current legislation.

Obviously when looking at current legislation, it is also important to look at what it builds on. In that way it is now very germane to look at what these three key provisions are building on for this government. What have we as a government done for veterans since our election two years ago? We have delivered on our longstanding commitments to deliver fair indexation for military superannuants. We have restored $1 million per annum in funding for advocacy and welfare work through the Building Excellence in Support and Training program. We have prioritised early intervention to ensure early treatment for conditions to minimise their long-term impacts on veterans and critically also on their families. We have expanded services provided by Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service to more veterans and their families. We have improved access to treatment for certain mental health conditions, such as PTSD, anxiety and depression, including making it easier to seek treatment without the need to lodge a claim. We have also launched a dedicated website and Facebook page and expanded e-health services for veterans and service providers to access information and to make it easier to get the support that veterans need. The government has also worked with the Australian College of General Practitioners to improve materials available to GPs to better identify service related conditions. We have also broadened DVA's reach on social media through a dedicated YouTube channel and Facebook pages, as well as releasing short videos focusing on the services provided by DVA to veterans and their families. Again, that is making services more accessible.

What else have the government done? We have also reduced the time taken to process compensation claims and we have reduced permanent impairment claim processing times by more than 40 days—again, practical assistance to help veterans and their families. But more work is still needed to drive further improvements. We have written to ADF personnel upon discharge to advise them of the services and support available from DVA. We have begun a pilot veterans employment rehabilitation program. This is important because it is encouraging our wounded, ill and injured personnel to find a pathway back to work as part of their rehabilitation. We have also released the Vietnam veterans family study, the peacekeepers study and the Rwandan health study to further identify any requirements needed by veterans of those conflicts. We have refreshed the prime ministerial advisory committee and given it a renewed and dedicated focus on the mental health issues facing veterans and their families. Again, as we all know in this chamber, it is a critically important issue and something we have to keep striving to do much better at. We have also in other ways cut red tape for veterans to make it easier to prove their identity when making a claim under DVA—again, practical implementation of a solution to a problem that really should have been dealt with a while ago. What else have we done? We have also been researching the effects of military service through a $5 million transition wellbeing study, in partnership with Defence.

We conducted a ceremony at Gallipoli on 25 April this year, attended by more than 10,000 people—including me and my family, who celebrated my own grandfather's service at Gallipoli—which marked the 100th anniversary of the Anzac landing, an absolutely defining moment in Australia's history. That again is something incredibly important not only for veterans of Gallipoli and particularly now their families but also as we move through the Centenary of Anzac, acknowledging the stories and the contribution of all of our veterans through the many conflicts that we have served in.

We have also been supporting more than $16 million of community based commemoration as part of the Centenary of Anzac through the Anzac Centenary Local Grants Program. All of us who have been out in the community know just how successful that has been in many wonderful ways for local communities to celebrate the service of community members in many conflicts. We are also commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan with special-purpose commemoratives grants, commemoratives events in Canberra and also a mission to Vietnam for up to eight veterans of the Vietnam War—again something that is long overdue but that this government is now delivering on. We are also constructing the Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux in France to tell the not well-known story of Australian service and sacrifice on the Western Front during the First World War, honouring our greatest citizen soldier, Sir John Monash. Again, that has very special resonance for me, because my grandfather served at Villers-Bretonneux.

And still it continues: the government is also funding a series of domestic commemorative events to honour our centenary of service during the Centenary of Anzac, including other anniversaries of key battles during the Second World War, the Korean War, the Malaya and Borneo conflicts, the Vietnam War and also the many peacekeeping missions that Australian men and women have served in over the years. But it does not end there. We are providing funding to the Australian War Memorial to complete official histories of the conflicts in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the last but also one of the most significant things for veterans is one that is not necessarily seen outside of Canberra. The minister and the secretary of the department together really have been driving a renewed focus within the department on the need for early intervention for existing veterans and for the veterans that will be separating from the defence forces and need their services.

So that is the context in which we now find ourselves today. This is a government that has done so much already for veterans, and not only for veterans but also their immediate family and also their extended families, and multigenerations of families of our veterans.

So what are the three measures that this bill now builds on? Right up front, I would like to acknowledge that it is very pleasing to see that all three measures have had very strong support from the veterans and ex-service community.

The first measure in the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2015 Budget Measures) Bill 2015 will benefit veterans through the enhancements to the Veterans' Vocational Rehabilitation Scheme under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. Notably, the scheme is voluntary, and it is designed to assist veterans to find or to continue in suitable employment. Again, it is a very laudable action that builds on some of the other measures that I have already talked about in this place. The scheme also provides incentives for participants in relation to the work thresholds for special or intermediate rate disability pension and the treatment of income from paid work on invalidity service pension. Again, it sounds a little bit bureaucratic, but, when you have a look at the detail of this program, it is overwhelmingly good news and another important step forward in the services that we provide for our men and women who have retired from the Defence Force. The enhancements to this scheme will expand the range of services to include medical management and psychological services. They will also result in certain special and intermediate rate disability pensioners having a smoother step down in disability pension whilst in the scheme, and they will encourage the veterans to remain or continue in the workforce—again, another very practical service—so that there is a more gradual, gentle and kind transition for those seeking to transition back into the workforce. So that is the first measure in this bill.

The second measure in the veterans' affairs legislation amendment bill will simplify and streamline the appeal process under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act by changing to a single appeal path. Currently, a claimant may seek a first-tier right of review from either the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission or the Veterans' Review Board but not from both. They then have a second-tier right of review to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Following the changes in this bill, the first-tier right of review will be to the Veterans' Review Board itself. The second-tier right of review, to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, is not changing.

The change to a single appeal path will avoid the complexities that claimants currently face relating to different time limits for the submission of appeals, different times taken to determine the review, and the choice they make impacting on entitlement to legal aid and the awarding of costs for appeals that eventually progress to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Again, that is quite a bureaucratic sounding change, but, again, it is one critically important to veterans who are going through this process so that it makes it easier and much more streamlined for them to go through the process, and I think that that is a universally good thing.

It was very interesting to read the comments of David Feeney, the opposition's spokesperson on this. In fact, I looked first at Graham Perrett's comments; he said that the change to be made to the review process under this bill would streamline the process into a single pathway and that that was a good thing. That is a comment from those opposite. This part of the amendment has the full support of the ex-service organisations. Also, Warren Snowdon noted that this amendment has the support of ex-service organisations, and he also commended the government for putting it into this bill.

The third part of this bill is an amendment of the Defence Act to enable the repatriation of the remains of eight service dependants buried in the Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia. Again, on any reading of this bill, this is a great thing. And it is the right thing for this country to do. It can only be done if requested by the families of the deceased. On 25 May this year, 50 years after the arrival of the first troops of the 1st Battalion RAR in South Vietnam, the Prime Minister offered to repatriate the remains of 25 Vietnam veterans from Terendak and also from the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore. He made that offer to the families of the deceased. This offer was also extended to the families of three other servicemen and eight service dependants also buried in the Terendak Military Cemetery, as I said, in Malaysia.

The background to this is that, until 21 January 1966, the bodies of Australians who died in war were buried in war cemeteries close to where they had fallen in service of our country. But, from that date on, remains were, with the consent of the families, repatriated to Australia. The decision was not retrospective. So, of the 521 Australians who died in the Vietnam War, 25 remain buried overseas under that provision.

The families of those 25 Vietnam veterans now all have the opportunity to bring their loved ones home. That is a good thing, and that is the right thing for this country to do. But, because of the limited access for families of the deceased at the Terendak Military Cemetery, due to the cemetery being on a large, high-security military base in Malaysia, the offer of repatriation has also been extended to the families of all Australians interred at that cemetery. This includes the families of the eight service dependants who died while accompanying their father or their husband on military service in Malaysia. The amendments in this bill will enable the war graves regulation made under the Defence Act to authorise the repatriation of these service dependents, as I said, if required by their families.

I note that the minister has said that the government acknowledges the Malaysian government's offer to provide any assistance towards repatriation and that the Malaysian government has also been thanked for the great care, maintenance and respect shown to these graves of Australian personnel and their families.

It is for all of those reasons that the three provisions in this bill are to be commended and supported. They are not just three stand-alone provisions. While they are three very different provisions, nonetheless they are three very important provisions that build on the nearly 25 separate measures that this government has implemented to increase support to veterans of all conflicts that Australia has been involved in and, most importantly, not only to make the process easier and fairer for them but also to ease the burden on their families and generations of families of those who have served our country. It is for all of those reasons that I strongly commend this bill to the Senate.