Speeches

Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019

April 03, 2019

I rise today to speak on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019. The bill creates a new act which will provide a framework for government, business and the community to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service and to support veterans and, importantly, their families.

This bill establishes the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant.

Labor doesn't just announce policies on the eve of an election; we've been announcing policies for years, and this is one of them. Labor announced the establishment of a military covenant in September last year in response to the need and the calls from our community. A military covenant is a very explicit promise. It's a set of words signed by both the Prime Minister of the day and the Chief of the Defence Force, promising that we will look after our defence personnel, both those serving and our veterans after they have left the Defence Force. That is what we on this side of the House require.

We ask an enormous amount of our defence personnel and their families. We deploy them to serve in often dangerous and hostile environments away from their support network. We post entire families to other parts of the country, or the world, for years at a time, forcing them to pack up their lives and rebuild again, again and again. When an individual serves in the ADF, their family serves with them. That is why the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant also recognises the immense commitment from defence families, because their dedication is often the backbone to members of the Defence Force.

I would like to reiterate the words of my colleague, the member for Solomon, who paid tribute to families of the defence forces and thank him for his service and his family's service in support of our nation and for the things that he has done. Good on you, Luke. You are a good bloke. Thank you.

As the federal member for Paterson, I am committed to honouring and serving those who have served Australia through our defence forces. The Williamtown RAAF Base is in the epicentre of my electorate. It is the workplace for thousands of my constituents and their families, and this number is made larger by the Singleton Army Base which sits nearby in the member for Hunter's electorate. It's not uncommon to see a mum in her RAAF uniform at the coffee shop or a dad with his zoom bag picking up the kids from school. Yes, pilots pick up their kids from school. The RAAF base and its crew, past and present, are important parts of my community.

Another important part of my community is the veterans' services that support the defence personnel and their family when they have finished serving. National services like the Returned Services Leagues and Legacy have a strong presence in my electorate, and their dedication to the community really is remarkable. There are at least 11 RSL sub-branches doing incredible work for our veterans all over my electorate, and I'm often fortunate enough to attend events with them or for them. I really look forward every year to catching up them on Anzac Day. It is truly a fantastic event in our community. Organisations such as the Port Stephens Veterans and Citizens Aged Care and the Women's Veterans Network Newcastle and Hunter Valley are also important support networks for Australians who have sacrificed so much for the peace and prosperity of our nation.

Recently, I was pleased to present Saluting their Service certificates to a group of veterans. It was a wonderful morning. What I thought would be a fairly simple little ceremony in my Raymond Terrace office turned into something that was truly moving. I presented Saluting their Service certificates to David Paix, from Raymond Terrace sub-branch; Mervyn Hesketh, from Louth Park; Colin Cliff, from Raymond Terrace; John Hill, from Kurri Kurri sub-branch; Eric Keygan OAM, from Kurri-Kurri sub-branch; Murray Dodds, from Kurri-Kurri sub-branch; John Farmer, from Anna Bay; Richard Kidd, from Telarah; Allan Nicholson, from Anna Bay; Geoff Beiger, from Kurri-Kurri sub-branch; Anthony Mulquiney, from Rutherford; and Neville Jelfs, from Salt Ash. The look in those men's eyes when I gave them their certificate told me so much. They were so incredibly grateful and honoured to receive it. It was really just a simple act on my behalf, but they were so appreciative. As I thanked them from the bottom of my heart for their service, I will never forget the look that they give me, as if to say, 'It is so lovely to have this recognition.' I commend those responsible for the Saluting their Service awards and I thank the government for organising that because it has been a great thing.

Veterans' services are an important part of my community. I say to those people who are working really hard in this space that I know that it can be incredibly difficult at times. Sometimes people come home changed and, sadly, sometimes broken—never to be mended again. Many of those services work very hard.

The member for Eden-Monaro sits before me in the House. He is another veteran who has served their country. Good on you, Mike. You're a good bloke too. We've got plenty of them.

Labor is pleased to see the government adopt the covenant, via this bill. That being said, we note that the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant only covers those who have served and their loved ones. By leaving out those currently serving, the government is missing a significant element. While it is important we acknowledge those who have served, we believe this is only part of the picture. Labor's military covenant included annual reporting, in the form of a statement to the parliament—a powerful statement—on how the government is meeting its obligations to current personnel and ex-serving personnel.

This is a way to bring all of us to account about what we are actually doing in government to meet the needs of these people, who have given so much and who currently give so much to us. It is a shame that those currently serving are not covered off by this bill. I hope that that changes.

This is an important part of our policy. The government of the day must be held accountable to this measure. This means that they should report to parliament on an annual basis about how they are looking after veterans, how they are reducing unemployment figures for veterans, and how they are doing in reducing mental health issues and addressing issues of suicide amongst our veterans. I can't help but think of that quote: 'Politicians start things that soldiers must finish.' Well, we owe it to these people to stand and be accountable every year in this House. These are the things that would have to be reported to parliament on an annual basis to make sure that we're living up to part of our promise that we will look after the Defence Force, those currently serving and the veterans who have served us so well.

Despite Labor's concerns about the missing pieces to this bill, we understand how important it is to make a start, so we're not getting in the way of that start. We want it to happen. Labor will not be moving any amendments to the legislation. However, we continue to believe there is merit in including current serving members and strengthening the legislation by including a reporting-back element.

In addition to the introduction of a covenant, this bill inserts a general recognition clause that acknowledges the unique nature of military service, the demands we place on those who serve, the additional support they may require post-service and the Commonwealth's commitment to supporting veterans. Labor wholeheartedly supports this recognition and our ongoing obligation to supporting those who have put their lives on hold in service to our country. This bill seeks to provide greater recognition for veterans by government and acknowledges the unique nature of military service and our obligations to people who have served.

Labor's commitment to those who serve or have served is rock solid. As such, we welcome changes, with increased recognition for veterans and their loved ones. Labor is the only party that will look after our veterans. Our dedicated shadow minister, the member for Kingston, has worked tirelessly on this portfolio. She has put forward terrific policies. I've personally welcomed her to my electorate of Paterson. She has sat down and met with veterans and really heard their stories and has taken them away and come back with action in the form of a covenant and this bill. I again pay tribute to and give my thanks to the member for Kingston, who has worked tirelessly on this. A Shorten Labor government will commit $121 million over four years to address veterans unemployment. A Shorten Labor government will establish the Western Front Fellowship, located at the Sir John Monash Centre in Villers-Bretonneux.

In response to continuing concerns of members of the ex-serving community, Labor established a Senate inquiry into the use of antimalarials in the ADF. The inquiry is currently taking evidence and is due to report back at the end of November. Labor has backed-in the calls of the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations and the National Returned and Services League of Australia for the royal commission into banking, superannuation and financial services industries to include Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation.

This bill is so incredibly important to our nation and my community, I feel proud to stand here and commend it to the House. I look forward to it progressing but also to it being improved if we were to take government.

WE'LL PUT PEOPLE FIRST