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Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Page: 2381


Ms HUSAR (Lindsay) (12:09): To be a member of the Australian Defence Force is to dedicate your service and your life to the care and defence of this country. Like everybody in this place, I'm incredibly grateful and thankful for the work that they do. I saw this firsthand on my deployment last year to the Middle East—which I was, by the way, very terrified to visit. I got a firsthand look at the anxiety that runs through you when you are going into a war zone. Our defence personnel have a rich and defining history in helping shape what it is to be an Australian. Mateship, a fair go, courage and sacrifice are all the hallmarks of what you'll find in any of our defence personnel.

As those people return to civilian life, we owe it to them and to their families to ensure that we can offer the best possible service and care. They deserve nothing less than our support on their return. For veterans who have served, there might be fewer deaths in modern warfare now than what we have seen in times past, in World War I or World War II, but there is still a high level of conflict and engagement that happens on the ground there that you don't see in normal life. It is a place like no other. They have stood on our front lines and they've defended our nation, and they've helped other countries to be secure and independent. We owe it to them to provide absolute care and support.

We're supportive of the amendments that are proposed in the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 1) Bill 2018, which address some of the recommendations out of the Senate inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel. Their wellbeing and obviously the care of their families are paramount. For some, their service and the circumstances that they served in may have a greater impact on them. We have a duty of care to ensure that they receive all of the support that we can offer them to live full and productive lives post service. We believe that one suicide is one too many.

There are currently just under 60,000 Australians serving in our defence forces, and the estimated number of living veterans is 316,900—not a huge number compared to the size of this country. The Department of Veterans' Affairs is currently supporting about 221,000 veterans. In my electorate, we have just under 1,000 receiving assistance through the department, and 502 are receiving a disability pension. In addition, there are 306 war widow pensioners. They are not massive numbers. They are not massive numbers of people who deserve our complete and utter respect and support. They are not huge numbers compared to some other groups that we have to look after in this country, but they are very, very important. And I say that they're not a massive group because the level of support they require, if we get it right, will not continue to increase. The level of support that they need will decrease when we do get it right, but we don't get it right.

From the discussions that I've had in my community and when I was in Afghanistan last year, they want the support to transition when they get back home. Overarchingly, that was the thing that the serving men and women talked to me most about when I was in Afghanistan. They didn't talk about the day to day; they talked about their families back home, and they talked about how they would reintegrate—that was an anxiety that ran through all of them: how they were going to do that. They talked constantly about how much money is put into getting them battle ready but how very few resources are put into them when they return.

We are obviously committed to supporting our current and ex-service personnel. Some veterans find it difficult to re-engage with communities, and they're often affected by physical health issues, deterioration of mental health, lack of financial support and difficulties in finding a meaningful job—that is, obviously something that they are qualified to do so but also something that's going to provide them with the stimulation and the engagement to use some of the skills that they have spent part of a lifetime in developing.

It's difficult to estimate the number of veterans who are homeless. We know that we estimated the number as about 300 people, back three years ago, but it's pretty raw data, as with collecting any homelessness statistics. More needs to be done to understand what that is and how that's driven.

We think that the veterans have been through enough, and they have done everything that we have asked of them and then more. We support all veterans, and that's why Labor supported the establishment of the Senate inquiry a few years ago to explore the issues facing ex-service men and women. A number of issues were highlighted through the Senate inquiry, including the impact of financial stress, the adversarial and lengthy claims process and a lack of support for partners of veterans. I've seen firsthand the stressful and difficult work of defence personnel. I studied at university with a Raafie's wife who had four children and saw just how difficult it was for her to move into various communities over their lives. I think they're currently deployed—I lose track—up near Tamworth. Thank goodness for Facebook because it means I'm able to keep up to date with where they are. Taking a family and moving them just a couple of postcodes away is one thing, and it can be quite traumatic for a family to do that. But to be uprooted every couple of years the way defence families are is another thing entirely, and we need to make sure that we are providing that support to those families. It takes a village to raise a child and, if you're constantly uprooting children and partners of serving personnel and re-placing them in other areas, you don't have much time to create much of a village around you. So I'm pleased to see that, in these recommendations and in this legislation, we will do more to support those families.

When I had the opportunity to spend time with troops in Afghanistan, they all talked about their partners back home. Overarchingly, they want to know that their families will be taken care of but also that their contribution is supported and, more importantly, valued. Some of them said that they feel a bit forgotten in the current battle because most Australians wouldn't know that we've got so many serving in other countries right now. It's our duty to recognise them.

The Senate report, The constant battle: suicide by veterans, made 24 recommendations, and the government has accepted 22 and supports two in principle. We're pleased to see the action being taken to ensure these changes are implemented. We've offered our support to the government to ensure the recommendations don't just sit on a shelf. One of the surprising things when I came into this place was seeing how many inquiries have been done, how many lovely, bound books there are prepared by committees and secretariats and how very few of those recommendations are actually acted on. The bill seeks to address two of the Senate inquiry recommendations by establishing an interim incapacity payment for mental health and increasing support for families. We believe that support is absolutely critical and Labor have already agreed that, if we're elected, we will develop a family engagement and support strategy for defence personnel and veterans. The strategy would provide a national blueprint to include engagement of DVA and Defence with military families. It would also ensure that the best-practice support for families of serving personnel and ex-ADF members is consistently available across the country.

Their selfless sacrifice ensures our personal safety here. When I went to Afghanistan and visited all four bases, I learnt that there is a heightened sense of anxiety amongst personnel about what is going to happen on their return. I don't think that's something that we should take lightly. When they're over there doing their job, we want them to be able to be in the finest mental, physical and emotional state. We don't want them panicked about what's going to happen when they get back. We are well aware of the difficulties that veterans can face when they return home and the scars that they carry from traumatic experience. We know trauma can lead to suicide once veterans have returned home. Sadly, between 2001 and 2015, 325 veterans that we know of took own lives. It is a national tragedy that men and women who have put on that uniform and served our nation upon their return suffer such deep mental and emotional pain that they take their own lives. We need to do more. We need to find ways to support them and stop this from happening. I grew up with an uncle who was on HMAS Voyager and was left in the ocean for a couple of days. I know the night terrors that he endured, right up until when he passed away, and the fact that he couldn't sleep at night without a TV or a radio going because the darkness and the silence were just too much. That happened to him as a young man in his 20s; he passed away in his late 50s and that followed him right throughout his entire life. We don't want to see that. We don't want people to come back and be scarred or traumatised by things that they see while they're serving.

Schedule 1 of this bill seeks to provide additional support for current and former members by providing additional childcare arrangements, counselling, household services and attendant care. It's in direct response to recommendation 90 of the Senate report, which states:

The committee recommends that the Department of Veterans' Affairs review the support for partners of veterans to identify further avenues for assistance. This review should include services such as information and advice, counselling, peer support and options for family respite care to support partners of veterans.

Most of those men and women I met in Afghanistan would be very supportive and welcoming of that. They know their families are doing it tough back here while they are deployed for six months at a time, often with very little family support because, as I mentioned earlier, they are uprooted from community to community with not much opportunity to create that village that goes around you. The proposed amendments will enable the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to provide additional child care, day care and before and after school care, brief intervention counselling, additional household services, home care and counselling assistance. The additional childcare assistance will see families eligible for $10,000 for each child under school age and $5,000 for each primary school aged child. The assistance will help the families who support our veterans, and we absolutely welcome anything that can support these families.

Schedule 2 establishes the veteran payment, as the member for Wide Bay pointed out, the interim income support payment for those who are waiting. It is one thing to have a veterans' affairs department, but it is another thing to try to navigate it. I know at my local RSL there are dedicated volunteers whose sole job is to navigate DVA claims. I know of a former lawyer who now provides pro bono services for people who need to get access to DVA. That's an indictment of what's happening at the moment. Anything that can be done to support them in that interim period is incredibly important. The basic rate is $913 per fortnight for an individual, and $713 for a partnered person, subject to satisfying an income and assets test. They would be required to engage in vocational and psychosocial rehabilitation, including financial counselling. Partners of veterans may also be eligible for a payment. In addition to the basic rate, a person may be eligible for a pension supplement, rent assistance, remote area allowance and family tax benefit A. It is anticipated that about 1,500 veterans and partners will benefit from this payment from 2017-18, which raises the question: what did they do before? We know what happened before. These payments will continue while the claim is being determined and for a period of time following the decision to allow a smooth transition to both of those. We support those measures.

Schedule 3 amends the MRCA and the Veterans' Entitlements Act to create the new Coordinated Veterans' Care Mental Health Pilot program to improve the mental health support available in rural and regional areas. Schedule 4 amends the provisions relating to compensation for household and attendant care services where an ADF member sustains a catastrophic injury or disease under the MRCA. The provisions will allow the commission to approve weekly amounts of compensation for household and attendant care service. It considers reasonable, with individual circumstances being taken into account. Schedule 5 is the first legislative amendment supporting the implementation of veteran-centric reform. This amendment seeks to enable veterans to have an additional way for a qualifying determination to be made. It will remove a step in the process that a veteran must currently undergo, where there is data and a complete service record. We're supportive of these changes that simplify processes for current Defence personnel and veterans, as long as it doesn't reduce their entitlements. We never want to be in a position where we are going backwards in our support for our veterans. We welcome the amendment to give access to the gold card to people who served in Japan at any time from 16 August 1945 to the end of January 1946.

Earlier this month I had the honour, as a patron of the Penrith branch of the National Servicemen's Association of Australia, to attend the 12th anniversary memorial and tribute-laying ceremony. I make mention of patrons Jim Aitken and Ross Sinclair, who I share that privilege and honour with, the president, John Taylor, and the honorary treasurer, Reverend Harry May, who has a finger in about every pie in Lindsay that a volunteer could. He is an amazing man who makes an enormous contribution to my community, especially through the National Servicemen's Association, which plays an incredible role in supporting our national servicemen, veterans and their families. I thank the Nashos for all their work in my community. Organisations like this, and RSL sub-branches, do much to support our veterans and families that need support. Recently I went to the City of Penrith RSL sub-Branch drop-in centre to see the facility they have recently created to help some of those contemporary veterans to access free advice and advocacy referral services and to feel a little more comfortable coming into something they wouldn't be familiar with ordinarily. It's a commendable service for our Lindsay veterans and serving service personnel. I thank Mick McConnell, Brian Cartwright, Gary Scott and Mick Visinko at the City of Penrith RSL sub-Branch for this initiative. Local organisations and services in Lindsay provide critical support, and I thank them all. (Time expired)