Media Releases


November 18, 2018

I rise to speak in support of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment (Defence Force) Bill 2016. I'm pleased that the government has committed to improving services for veterans and their families by providing a military-specific compensation scheme. I accept and applaud the government's statement that eligibility and benefits under the standalone Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment (Defence Force) Bill 2016 will be the same as those under the current act available to serving and former members of the Australian Defence Force.

In general terms, the new bill strips all Defence-Force-specific legislation from the existing SRCA to create the DRCA. The DRCA will cover only Defence Force members and their families and will apply specifically in relation to injury, death, disease, loss or damage that relates to certain employment in the Defence Force—in other words, military-specific compensation and rehabilitation schemes. This is entirely appropriate and affords our service people the tailored service and respect they deserve.

Labor does have some concerns with the bill, as pointed out by the shadow minister for defence, the member for Corio. One of them is the proposed Henry VIII clause. The government argues that this is being inserted into the act as a safeguard to ensure no-one is worse off. That may well be, but I believe that any regulations introduced in this manner should be subject to rigorous scrutiny. If the normal parliamentary process is removed, we must ensure that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs consults with relevant ex-service organisations and the veteran community before introducing changes, and releases the full text of any proposed regulations subject to the clause for public scrutiny. But, overall, I'm greatly heartened to see the welfare of our Defence personnel, both active and non-active, brought front and centre.

In my electorate of Paterson, we've heard many concerns from veteran communities regarding their experiences engaging with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. This organisation should exist specifically to support those who have served our country at home and abroad, at war and at peace; those who have spent time separated from their loved ones and support networks, who have missed the birth of children or who have been absent during significant family milestones; those who have been unable to be part of their families' lives to the degree that you and I, Mr Deputy Speaker, take for granted.

In addition to the separation from their support network, many of our Defence personnel will experience and witness things that injure them mentally and, in some cases, affect them for the rest of their lives. The DVA exists to support these people and their families, yet time and time again my office hears from veterans who, once they leave active service, feel the gate is shut behind them. Their dealings with DVA leave them feeling broken, unwanted, unimportant. We must ensure we consider the way interactions with DVA can impact on our veterans, making them question the value that our nation places on their service and enormous contributions.

Even with the government's new legislation in place, I fear that the reform of the Department of Veterans' Affairs does not go far enough. The government has chosen to allocate 85 per cent of the funding in the budget for the next financial year. A great portion of this will, no doubt, be devoted to the department's ageing and inefficient computer systems. In Labor's opinion this is simply not a whole or holistic solution to a complex and pervading issue. Prior to the last election Labor threw its support behind a first principles review of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I truly believe it is still desperately needed. This review was intended, first and foremost, to help re-establish veterans' trust in DVA. It is that trust that is so critical—knowing that the Department of Veterans' Affairs is truly working and advocating for veterans. This, I believe, is the best response to grave concerns—concerns that veterans feel the need to fight to have their claims recognised, are being made to feel like malingerers, believe that they're being perceived as broken or terminally damaged, or are finding that the process of seeking compensation is inherently humiliating and that this dehumanising process greatly exacerbates existing mental health issues.

In the business world it's widely accepted that the greatest cause of lost-time injuries is depression, caused by a loss of routine, a breakdown of social networks or a loss of the sense of self and of self-esteem. This can be a by-product of the isolation caused by injury or illness. To borrow from the civilian workforce: it's not a broken leg that sends Bob the Builder into a spiral of depression or makes him anxious and unable to engage with friends and colleagues; it's being unable to operate as he once did, disenfranchised from that which defines his professional competence, and feeling disconnected from workmates. By the time the leg heals, the heart and mind are injured. Our veterans experience this, amplified, and for those with an existing mental health issue it is so much more fraught—because being part of the ADF is not a job; it's a vocation, a life choice and, very importantly, a creed.

I had a glimpse into the microcosm that is the world of Australian Defence Force personnel when I recently took part in the week-long ADF Parliamentary Program at the RAAF Base Williamtown. I was the on-base residential guest of base commander Air Commodore Craig Heap. I ate and slept on base, wore the uniform and was given access to the people, experiences and technologies that keep Australia safe. While this in itself was fascinating and inspiring—and I did get to fly a Hornet—I found there was a whole culture within the base: a whole family, if you will. I found a lot of good people, many of whom are quite young, cooperating to work as a team on very complex ideas and on solving problems. I found a cohort that carried with them an overwhelming sense of service to their country that went far deeper than the uniform they donned every morning. I found a community that supported one another through the migratory nature of the role and its impact on their families. I found a place where many felt they were home, even though they'd inhabited many different addresses.

Choosing to serve in the ADF is, for many, the only constant in a world of change and sometimes stress, fear and threat. When that world disappears, particularly when the separation is involuntary, through injury or incapacity, it is a huge shock. The one gateway back into this world is, for many, the DVA, but sadly, when they knock on the door, many of our veterans find that they are no longer part of that Defence family. Somehow, they've become the enemy. They're no longer part of the Defence community, no longer part of the team. In many cases, they are forced to relinquish their homes and stripped of their jobs—their means of financial independence and, for many, a defining factor in having a sense of competence, achievement and contribution. This can be incredibly traumatic, even for those lucky enough to have escaped physical or mental injury during service.

I've been contacted by veterans in the electorate of Paterson asking for help navigating the transition to civilian life which is neither seamless nor well supported. The issues they raise are varied, but they all boil down, really, to the same theme. When personnel leave the Defence Force, the gate to the base shuts behind them and it stays shut, never to be opened again. We must find a way to help our personnel transition from the ADF to civilian life, especially if it was not their choice to leave.

So, while I believe that the government's DRCA safety, rehabilitation and compensation legislation bill is a positive step in the right direction, there is, we all know, a great deal more to be done for those who have served our nation so valiantly.