Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020

18 June, 2020


This bill, the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020, creates a new position for the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to represent the families of veterans. It also enables the provision of assistance or benefits to former Australian Defence Force members to assist them in that transition to civilian life, and it extends the eligibility for the quarterly energy supplement to holders of gold cards, who had previously been excluded. These are important changes that I very much support.

Warringah has a strong community of veterans with over 1,300 veterans and over 2,500 clients of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Some of the most iconic sites in our electorate are dedicated to and commemorate our diggers—the Mosman War Memorial, Poppy Park in Forrestville, the North Head memorial and the Freshwater Anzac Precinct incorporating Soldiers Avenue and Jacka Park. These are important monuments and services for our veteran community. The recognition of veterans' service brings us together as a nation each year on significant days like Anzac Day. The Australian Defence Force serves as more than a job. It is a part of a veteran's identity, community and extended family, and is often their home.

I wish to make comment on the importance of the bill in giving prominence to veterans' wellbeing and to the significant role that families play in supporting veterans through their transition. I also wish to highlight the efforts of local veteran support centres in the Warringah community. A report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released late last year found that there were 419 suicides in serving reserve and ex-service ADF personnel between 2001 and 2017. That is far too many. The rate of suicide for ex-servicemen was 18 per cent higher than in civilian Australian men. Similarly, the rate of suicide for ex-serving women was also higher than in the civilian population. The rate of suicide in serving men and reservists, though, was 48 per cent lower than in the general population. This data clearly shows that the transition point from service life to civilian life is a pain point in the journey for a veteran.

It is not only suicide that plagues our veterans. Compared with those who haven't served, our veterans are also twice as likely to be imprisoned. These are very concerning statistics. Further, veterans are 2½ times more likely to experience homelessness than the general population. All these statistics point to a problem and I certainly look forward to the government focusing on the problem to find solutions. We need to improve the support provided to our veterans to ease this transition and help them redefine themselves outside the military. It is such a substantial change to their way of life that it must be done with assistance and with better support.

I welcome the appointment of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. This role is important in drawing attention to, and working through, the key issues faced by veterans in their transition and throughout their lives post service. I also welcome the establishment of the Veteran Family Advocate through this bill. There is no doubt that families are on the front line of this problem and, in dealing with this transition, they are the first to experience mental health struggles of veterans. They need assistance too. The family advocate will directly engage with the families of veterans to improve the design of all veteran programs and services, including, and very importantly, mental health supports and services. We need to support families, integrate them in the support structure and empower them to assist veterans with their transition. We need everyone to be on board. These two roles will work together to reinforce the work already begun by the Department of Veterans' Affairs through the Veteran Centric Reform program. I encourage the government to continue with the full implementation of this program to realise the benefits of the reform. Putting veterans and their families at the heart of the services that the government offers is essential to the success of any measures to improve the mental and social outcomes of veterans in their transition.

Locally, I am very proud to talk about the Veterans Centre Sydney Northern Beaches and to report on the efforts that the centre goes to in supporting our veteran community. This centre continues to support many current and former ADF personnel and their families. Through the COVID-19 lockdown, the centre has developed a rapid response plan and proactively intervened in high-complexity cases. The handover between the ADF and the DVA rehabilitation teams can often be a long administrative process. In some cases, it can take up to four weeks before a client will be contacted by a new DVA rehab consultant. In certain instances, this can be too long. The veterans centre offers to bridge this gap to ensure that the transitioning member is not left unsupported whilst they navigate their way out of the service environment and into civilian life. They currently serve 137 veterans and have about 20 on the waiting list. They have reported a quite considerable increase during this COVID-19 lockdown, with a 25 per cent increase in the number of inquiries during recent weeks. As with the rest of the community, the centre has not been immune to the economic impact of the COVID-19 restrictions. So, moving into next year, funds to support veterans in significant distress are limited, and they will be seeking additional funding from both fundraising and public funds to continue their support.

Locally, there is an interesting project that I have brought to the attention of the minister which I would commend for further consideration. That is the 10 Terminal project, which is quite appropriate today in the context of the release of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust review that relates to this location. Locally, it's a very important project and has considerable support from the community in Mosman. It is a proposal for 10 Terminal facility at Middle Head to be a transition hub providing a live-in, integrated, wraparound service to support transition from service to civilian life. It is located in an iconic, beautiful bushland area but close to the urban centre of Sydney and can be the ideal stepping stone into civilian life. The proposed transition hub would be located at a historically important military site with connections to the ADF to this day through HMAS Penguin. I acknowledge the correspondence received from the minister. I thank him for considering this issue and urge him, on its behalf, to continue. The transition hub concept remains on the table and we will be working with the relevant parties to further the concept through applications for veterans and community grant funds.

Finally, I commend this legislation and the attention devoted to this important issue of veteran wellbeing. It is essential for the strength of our community that we continue to support the men and women who have served in the Australian Defence Force and their families.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Dr McVeigh ): The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.