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Ministerial Statements – Veterans - Federation Chamber - Canberra, 16.08.2017

June 15, 2018

On Friday, 18 August we will acknowledge the end of the Vietnam conflict. I would like to pay my respects to the Defence personnel who lost their lives in this conflict. I acknowledge their families who also pay the ultimate price of losing so many loved ones. I also acknowledge the Vietnam vets in my community in the electorate of Herbert. My electorate of Herbert is home to one of the largest populations of veterans, ex-service personnel and their families in Australia. Townsville is also home to the largest defence presence in the country. We welcome and value Defence personnel and their families to our community because they significantly contribute to both the social and the economic fabric of our great city. I am proud to stand in this place and fight for support for veterans, ex-service personnel and their families in my electorate of Herbert and across the nation.

I believe the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, said it best when he said:

... as a nation we have been better at honouring the memory of our dead, than offering decent support for the living.

I was also privileged to hear the Hon. Jeff Kennett's very passionate address on 11 November last year at the War Memorial, where he clearly stated the devastating reality of mental ill-health in the veteran and ex-service personnel communities. I would be the first to acknowledge that we have a long way to go in supporting veterans and ex-service personnel when they return from overseas deployments or are transitioning from the defence forces to civilian life. Because Townsville is home to the largest defence presence in the country, and also due to our glorious weather and relaxed lifestyle, many personnel choose to retire in our community. Defence personnel, veterans, ex-service personnel and their families make up about 20 per cent of our population. Townsville is home to approximately 5,000 DVA clients, as well as up to 9,000 family members. However, these figures do not include the potentially thousands of veterans who are not registered with DVA but reside in Townsville with their families.

In recognising that our veterans, ex-service personnel, their families and the broader defence community play a vital role in the Townsville community, I established the Townsville Defence Community Reference Group. This high-level and committed group was established to ensure that federal government policy reflects the needs of our defence community. Since setting up the Townsville Defence Community Reference Group last year, we have had many successes. We have successfully lobbied for changes to the National Mental Health Commission review panel to include a young veteran and family representative. We have successfully lobbied for community consultation to occur in Townsville with the relevant ministers, and late last year Minister Ley and Minister Tehan hosted a forum in Townsville. We successfully lobbied for the National Mental Health Commission review panel to come and consult with the Townsville defence community, and a private meeting was held with the Townsville Defence Community Reference Group as well as a public hearing.

The reference group has been very active in working collaboratively with the Northern Queensland Primary Health Network in initiating the veteran suicide prevention trial, with the following activities undertaken in January and February this year. We drafted the terms of reference for the steering committee, nominated members from the reference group to participate on the steering committee, selected the chair of the steering committee—who reports to the reference group on progress—drafted the project officer's job description and participated on the interview panel for the recruitment of the project officer. The veteran suicide prevention trial is the most advanced in the country, and this is due to the grassroots collaboration and hard work done by the members of the Townsville Defence Community Reference Group.

Supporting veterans, ex-service personnel and their families should not be embroiled in politics, especially considering that we are talking about people who have given courageously and selflessly to ensure that we enjoy the freedom that Australia offers to each and every citizen. Labor will always encourage and support measures designed to ensure that existing programs have a strong focus on mental health needs for veterans, ex-service personnel and their families.

Before being elected to this place, I was CEO of two community-managed mental health organisations operating in north and west Queensland. I worked in the mental health sector for 15 years, and, during that time, I gave evidence at a number of Senate committee hearings. The evidence I provided related to how well-established government policy could ensure the development of contemporary mental health services and supports. Mental ill health affects one in five people in any 12-month period.

The impact of mental ill health does not discriminate, and we see this in the defence population. To date, there have been 57 suicides that we know of in the veteran and ex-serving personnel communities across this country, and that is simply unacceptable. Stigma is one of the greatest barriers to people seeking help, and the only way to address this significant barrier is to develop a strong, contemporary, national stigma reduction campaign.

Veterans and ex-service personnel living with mental ill health and distress are not the only ones bearing the impact of this dreadful health condition. It also has a significant impact on family and friends. As a result of mental ill health, many veterans and ex-service personnel are also not engaged in meaningful work. They are often homeless, living in poverty and experiencing family breakdown. This is simply unacceptable when we consider that these people have put their lives on the line to serve our country. Our veterans, ex-service personnel and their families deserve nothing less than world-class, contemporary physical and mental healthcare support.

The Leader of the Opposition was in Townsville at the end of the 2016, where he hosted a town hall meeting. At the meeting, Bill Shorten was asked by a veteran if he would fight for veterans. The Leader of the Opposition did not hesitate to declare his support for veterans and ex-service personnel, and that is just what Labor has done. Bill Shorten has kept his commitment with the announcement of federal Labor's policy for veterans and their families. A Shorten Labor government will develop a family engagement and support strategy for defence personnel, veterans and ex-service personnel to provide greater support to our military families.

ADF families play a vital role in supporting our current veterans and ex-serving ADF men and women. These men, women and their children are the unsung heroes of our defence forces. Greater support for our military families is greater support for our serving and ex-serving personnel. Developing a family engagement and support strategy will enable us to identify where we can provide greater support to military families, those who matter most to our ADF personnel, veterans and ex-service personnel—their wives, husbands, sons and daughters.

Labor's announcement would implement a key recommendation of the National Mental Health Commission's review of services available to veterans and current serving members of the Australian Defence Force in relation to the prevention of self-harm and suicide—to develop a strategy that will provide greater support and resources for military families. Labor's commitment to develop a family engagement support strategy in government would, importantly, be co-designed with Defence, veterans and ex-serving families and communities, and focus on the known stress points for families, including transition of defence members into civilian life.

The National Mental Health Commission's review highlighted that there is currently a lack of emphasis on the critical role that family plays in the lives of current and former serving members. Families play an especially unique role in military life and service, making many sacrifices. Our ADF personnel, veterans and ex-service personnel look to their families for support while they are serving and while they are transitioning to the challenges of civilian life. There is no doubt that families also play a critical role in providing support for our serving and ex-serving personnel suffering from mental health issues. Developing a family strategy acknowledges the important role that families play in the rehabilitation of ADF members and veterans from physical and mental health injuries and illnesses. Families can be the greatest support when dealing with life-challenging events that occur throughout and after military service.

When it comes to our current and ex-service defence personnel, Labor will always prioritise the role military families play, and our commitment to developing a family strategy will ensure that they are not forgotten. As I said, supporting veterans and their families should not become embroiled in politics, especially considering we are talking about the people who have fought and given their lives to ensure we can live in the freedom that we do. Just as our veterans and ex-service personnel stood up and fought for us, it is now our turn to stand up and fight for them and their families.