| May 31, 2018

Veteran's Affairs Bill 2018

 It is great that we're now able to stand in this parliament as one and look for future ways that we can improve the lot of our veterans, and make sure that we have a greater affinity with the issues and problems that are faced by our returned servicemen.

This bill, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018, has six schedules, which I will get to shortly. What each of these schedules do is to highlight their plight and that we need to be doing as much we possibly can to look after our returned servicemen. The seat of Murray has some 903 veterans who live and prosper there, to varying degrees of success. As I've said before, many of our returned servicemen have returned in fantastic condition and are not affected at all by their service. But at the other end we have people who have struggled to resume civilian life and there's everybody in-between as well—those who have some good days and some bad days. We need to be able to cater for the whole spectrum of our returned servicemen.

I've had a great opportunity to work with Bob Wilkie from the RSL in Shepparton, and I commend him for the work that he does, and also Peter and Margaret Martin for the work that they do in helping the veterans around the Echuca-Moama region. And I want to thank the former Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Dan Tehan, for the just under $7,000 that he provided for the Echuca-Moama Veterans Support Centre with the Building Excellence in Support and Training grant they received around July last year. It certainly made a big difference. I would also like to acknowledge Ken Jones from the Vietnam Veterans' Association's Echuca branch and the work that they're doing in trying to eliminate the many suicides that we have been witnessing with our returned servicemen.

As the former Minister for Veterans' Affairs in Victoria, I got the opportunity to have firsthand experience with the RSL and the cohort that we're talking about today, our returned servicemen. In that instance, we put together a range of programs. One that comes to mind was a five-unit facility in Richmond, where we invested a couple of million dollars, along with the RSL. We listened to the RSL about where the need was. We asked where the demand was that wasn't being met by government, or where the demand was that the RSL were unable to meet. At that stage, they were saying it was in medium- to short-term accommodation. This could be for individuals who were struggling to get on with their family or who were struggling to get on with their living experience, maybe taking them out of that experience for a little while and putting them into a unit in Richmond where they had a whole raft of services available to them. But it was also to have some accommodation services there for small families, so that a veteran needing the support of his wife and children could have that while also getting the additional services that he needed to cope with some of the issues he was going through. We were able to build that facility, which today is making and will continue to make a significant difference for those servicemen suffering from the pressures of fitting in with civilian life.

We also need to be cognisant that it is not just about the returned servicemen supposedly affected by PTSD or suffering all forms of trauma. We can be in the company of returned servicemen that have come back totally normal, unaffected by the conflicts they've been involved in overseas, but we have to understand that they have spent the last maybe 10 to 15 years in a very structured and strict, command and control environment, dislocated from their family in many instances. When that comes to an end, and all of a sudden these people are put into less formal workplaces where the language around who's doing what and who's responsible for certain jobs is very casual, it becomes tough, because they have been used to a totally different dynamic within their work environment. We need to offer these people support, and that's why schedule 1 is critical, because of its ability to assist with the training. Training is such an important part of it, and I'm so glad that it has been put into this bill. We need to offer these skills to these people in the most affordable and diligent way we possibly can.

In this role as a member of federal parliament I've also had the opportunity to meet a chap by the name of Barry Gracey, who is doing a whole raft of work commemorating the sacrifice at Pozieres. Whilst it is not affected by this bill, I acknowledge this recognition of the sacrifice our returned servicemen made and have been making ever since the First World War. Pozieres sometimes tends to be forgotten, because it wasn't a glamorous, fantastic win for this nation. We lost over 7,000 men at Pozieres, and over half of them are still lying in the battlefields where they fell, because by the time we had the opportunity to retrieve their bodies, effectively there was nothing left. I would like to acknowledge that on the other side of the world right now Barry Gracey is trying to build a rose garden to commemorate the great sacrifice of the our First World War veterans in the Somme region.

We can now look back at those stories that we grew up with about people like Uncle Sam—who sat on the veranda when he came back, because he was suffering from shell shock; we weren't quite sure what the problem with him was, but he turned to the bottle—and know they were suffering from PTSD. They were suffering all kinds of things but at the time were more or less shunned and pushed aside. We looked after them, but we didn't really know what was going on. Now we have such a better understanding, we need to put in place the services to match our much clearer understanding of what these people are going through.

This leads me to Kristy Jefferis and her husband, Shane, friends of ours from our time living in Bendigo. Kristy is very direct and would often—sometimes on the phone; sometimes coming to see me directly—say: 'My husband and I are sick of catching up with our friends at funerals. There are just too many. We have another funeral to go to next week. We went to one two weeks ago.' Shane had seven years in the 5RAR in Darwin. As a government we have to do more. I acknowledge Kristy, Shane and their group, because they're living this every day. The difficulty faced by many of our veterans is something this bill is trying to work its way through.

Schedule 1 deals with the capacity of a veteran whose payments step down to 75 per cent after 45 weeks in receipt of incapacity payment. That's going to change now. While they are studying full time, they will receive 100 per cent of their normal earnings. These payments will not be reduced after 45 weeks, provided that they are studying full time. This is something that we think is going to create further incentive for our returned soldiers to continue to study, to continue to retrain and to ensure that they are better equipped to move into full-time, meaningful employment that's going to give them the excitement that they need to face the challenges into the future.

Schedule 2 deals very clearly with the Mental Health Clinical Management veteran suicide prevention pilot, which is going to be held in the Brisbane region. Nine hospitals, both public and private, are going to run this pilot. It's expected to support over 100 ex-serving ADF members over two years. This is going to give us, hopefully, the data that we need so that we can make sure that we can reduce suicide among the veterans. Certainly the budget allocation in the 2017-18 budget is going to provide funding for this pilot program to support these vulnerable veterans, and this is something that we think is absolutely critical. Whilst this is going to happen in the metropolitan area of Brisbane, we are hoping that the data that we receive from this pilot will enable this program and like programs to be rolled out right across Australia.

Schedule 3 is for compensation for members' death for wholly dependent partners. At the moment, wholly dependent partners have to make a decision as to what they're going to do with their supposed pension within a six-month period. As we can well imagine, for people going through the trauma of losing a partner who himself or herself may have had a whole raft of issues in relation to their service, we need to give these fully dependent partners the opportunity to get on with their lives in the best and most supportive way possible and give them the time that they need to work out what's best for them financially, whether that is to continue to receive the full pension, to take a part pension and a part lump sum, or to take the full lump sum and do away with the pension. This is something that can only be achieved over a period of time. At present, we're expecting dependents to make this decision within six months. What we're doing with schedule 3 is rolling that out to a two-year time frame. Hopefully that will assist with that work as well.

Schedule 4 has to do with the Long Tan Bursary, which is 37 positions that were made available for the children of Vietnam veterans. Obviously we're in a situation now where most of our Vietnam veterans are in their 70s or older. Their children are well and truly past university stage. This bill will not increase the amount of bursaries but will simply enable eligibility for those bursaries to proceed down the chain to grandchildren. Again, it's a commonsense approach to what we best do with the Long Tan Bursary, and that is something that I think will be well received by a raft of grandchildren. They'll be very appreciative of the opportunity to take up these bursaries. That will come into effect by 1 August 2019.

As also mentioned, schedule 5 will bring into line those people that served on submarine special operations between 1 January 1978 and 31 December 1992. There are around 900 submariners that will benefit from this change, and they will also become eligible for the support that is available under this bill. Again, this will take effect from the day after royal assent.

The final area here is claims for compensation. Currently, the legislation requires that these claims be put in in writing, whereas the bill will enable these claims to be done both orally and in writing. Again, it is predominantly allowing people to lodge these claims over the phone, something that again is commonsensical and will make it easier for veterans in isolated areas or people who may not be au fait with technology. It will give them the opportunity to simply make the phone call, lodge their claim and—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms Claydon ): I thank the member. The debate is to be interrupted now in accordance with standing order 43. You have a little bit of time left on the clock, so the debate will resume at a later hour and you'll be given leave to continue to speak when the debate is resumed. If you'd like to reclaim your 45 seconds then, Member for Murray, you're welcome to.

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