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Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Veteran-centric Reforms No. 2) Bill 2018 - Second Reading - House of Representatives, Canberra - 31.05.2018

June 01, 2018

Thank-you Deputy Speaker.

It is no secret in this place that I am immensely proud to present the largest garrison city in the country.

Our men and women fought hard to protect our country, and I have and always will continue to ensure that I fight hard for them in this place, as they deserve no less.

And what has been most important to me is that I demonstrate my support and that is why I work WITH the veteran and ex- serving personnel community in my electorate.

In order to ensure that I started out in a collaborative manner I formed the Townsville Defence Community Reference Group within the first month of being elected.

The Reference Group comprises all ESOs, current serving ADF and RAAF members, family representatives and other relevant stakeholders.

The Reference Group has been integral in ensuring that our veterans get a strong and committed voice in this place to ensure that their voices are heard.

I have spoken in this place on all veterans’ bills and spoken about the necessary changes that our current serving, veterans, ex-serving personnel and their families need.

What has been most important about the work undertaken by the reference group is the fact that a trusting and collaborative environment has been created in less than two years and as a result the support for the Townsville defence community has gone full steam ahead.

Together, we fought for the suicide prevention trial to be led and developed from the ground up.

This is why; Townsville’s suicide prevention trial is leading in the nation.

We drafted the terms of reference, we drafted the job description, we appointed the steering committee and chair, and the Reference Group continues to feed into the development of the trial and the establishment of a veteran’s hub.

Before being elected to Parliament, I worked in the mental health sector for 15 years.

And in that time, I have evidence to a defence mental health Senate Inquiry.

I have meet with veterans whose wounds from war are a lot deeper than those that can be physically seen.

In my previous employment I have stood up on a state and National stage to advocate for the voices of so many who are in the shadows, suffering in silence.

This is my passion and I bring these years of experience and advocacy into this place for veterans.

The suicide prevention trial, now called Operation Compass, has been just one of the many channels were advocacy was needed in this place.

I want to particularly recognise the hard work and commitment of retired lieutenant general John Caligari, Ray Martin, Floss Foster and Padre Stephen Brooks for their strong leadership.

Aside from mental health the number one issue raised with me by the defence community is transitioning from defence to civilian life.

Townsville is a garrison city, and when I visit schools and speak with students, there are many students who aspire to be like their mothers and fathers and join the defence after school.

It is their dream job and there is no thought given to any other career prospects.

When I speak with personnel who have transitioned, they reflect on these moments as children.

For these young people there is no other career path, and when they came of age joined the army or the RAAF.

What they weren’t foreseeing were the possibilities of injuries, and that they could leave their dream job earlier than expected or planned.

It is difficult to cope with the loss of your dream job, especially if it is due to an injury, people of struggle to cope and they are also hit by the huge financial impact.

There is the loss of benefits such as rental assistance, super and healthcare, the security of having a fortnightly pay-cheque to the insecurity of unemployment.

This is particularly stressful on partners who may be in a situation where their wages or salary might not be able to make up the difference.

These stresses grow and often lead to mental health issues.

For many ex-serving members and veterans employment is the number one issue that they face upon leaving the defence force.

Further education and training is important, particularly when the individual has had no choice but to leave the ADF and needs to reorient his or her live.

Veterans’ unemployment is a serious issue with best estimates citing that 30.2% of those who leave the ADF fail to find employment.

This means that of the approximate 5,500 veterans who leave each year, roughly 1,600 individuals fail to move into employment.

For those who do, 19% are underemployed in jobs beneath their capabilities and on average, for those who are employed, they experience an average of 30% drop in income from their ADF wages.

It is for this reason that Labor has committed to a $121M veterans employment program, which seeks to ensure veterans are best prepared to move into meaningful employment and employers are able to gain the many advantages of hiring these highly skilled individuals.

This has been welcomed by my defence community.

Part of our plan involves working with States and Territories to expand the Queensland Tertiary Admissions Scheme, which takes rank and length of service and translates it to an automatic entrance rank allowing easier access to University.

Education and reskilling can be an important part of transition for those leaving the ADF but for those who have left due to injury or illness, reorienting their lives is even more important.

And that is why this Bill is important.

Schedule one recognises the importance of education and retraining for those whose service has had a greater impact on them.

Under the changes proposed in schedule one, individuals in receipt of an incapacity payment who are undertaking full time study via a DVA approved rehabilitation plan will have their incapacity payments maintained at 100% for the duration of their study.

Currently, the majority of these payments reduce to 75% of their normal earnings after a period of 45 weeks; this change will provide financial security to both the veteran and their family while they undertake study.

Providing this support will ensure greater outcomes for veterans and their families and assist to move veterans into meaningful employment post service.

In addition, this measure will assist those who are currently undertaking full time study as a part of a DVA rehabilitation plan, who will also be entitled to have their payment paid at 100% from the commencement of these amendments.

It is anticipated that these changes will assist approximately 150 people per year.

I fully support this amendment as it will ensure that those who are on an incapacity payment can focus on their future without worrying about finances.

Schedule two will create a new suicide prevention pilot, which will provide greater support to those who have been hospitalised after attempted suicide, suicide ideation or those who may be at an increased risk of suicide because of their mental health or other factors.

This is one of three current suicide prevention trials aimed at providing targeted support for veterans.

The first of these, Operation Compass, is part of a Department of Health initiative, is based in my electorate working with the Northern Queensland Primary Health Network.

The legislative basis for the second trial passed the Parliament earlier this year and created a Coordinated Veterans’ Care model which is aimed at mental health support for veterans in rural and regional areas.

This third trial uses this coordinated approach and places the GP at the hub, working with veterans and facilities.

The pilot will provide coordinated support to ensure veterans are accessing treatment and social support to reduce the risk of suicide and enhance the quality of life for participants.

It will provide intensive and assertive management services to support a veteran after they have been discharged from hospital, which includes support to access other relevant government and non-government treatment and services, aiming to reduce risk and improve outcomes for those involved.

The changes in Schedule Three are logical as they will provide greater support to those recently widowed.

Schedule Three will amend the amount of time wholly dependent partners have to make a decision about whether to receive their compensation as a weekly payment or convert it, wholly or partly, into a lump sum payment from six months to two years.

Partners of deceased members who have been granted compensation following a member’s death under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act (MRCA) are eligible to receive weekly payments for life or may convert 25%, 50%, 75% or 100% of this weekly amount to its lifetime equivalent as a lump sum.

Currently, partners have six months to decide whether they would like to receive their compensation as a weekly payment or convert the whole or part of the payment into a lump sum.

While there is the ability for the Military Rehabilitation Compensation Commission to make an extension of time, this requires an application in writing to seek the additional time.

This amendment will ensure that those individuals, in these difficult circumstances, have sufficient time to make this important decision.

The Commission will also be able to extend this beyond two years where they deem it appropriate, subject to application.

Schedule Four amends the Veterans’ Entitlement Act (VEA) in order to extend the eligibility of the Long Tan Bursary to grandchildren of Vietnam Veterans.

The Long Tan Bursary offers 37 scholarships of up to $12,000 over three years to children of Vietnam Veterans to assist with post-secondary school education and training.

I have many proud Vietnam Veterans in my community and I am sure that they along with their families will be very supportive of this measure.

In speaking with ESOs and veteran advocates, the complexity of the processes and issues around the information provided during the needs assessment has been raised regularly.

Veterans have raised concerns about the needs assessment being used to determine compensation claims.

According to these veterans experience information provided during this assessment has been used to decline the severity of claims further down the track.

This is in part due to the questions and answers provided by the veterans.

For example, the assessment will ask if a veteran can still do yard work.

The veteran replies that they can without detailing the impact of this activity, where they experience several days of restricted or no movement.

According to advocates these answers are referred to further down the track and the veteran is determined as being able to undertake the activity, which is simply not the case.

Labor has led the charge regarding this issue.

Labor has raised this issue with the Government and requested that they ensure it was clear to those applying the impact of their answers.

After this push by Labor, subsequently, the Government has advised that needs assessments are not used by DVA to determine compensation but instead used to identify forms of support and assistance that the veteran may be eligible for/benefit from, e.g. household assistance and rehabilitation

Thankfully the Government have taken this feedback on board and will be providing further clarification to veterans applying on line that this assessment will not be used to calculate compensation rates.

These assurances enable me to support this measure, which seeks to make the complicated claims process easier for veterans and their loved ones.

This final schedule, simplifies the process for veterans applying for compensation under the MRCA during a needs assessment.

Under the MRCA, a claim for compensation is distinct from a claim for liability.

In many cases, compensation is claimed concurrently with liability by a member or former member indicating on the liability claim form that they are seeking compensation.

However, in some cases a claim for liability will be made without an application for compensation.

During this process a needs-assessment will be carried out.

These are often conducted over the telephone and during this call a member or former member will sometimes state that they would like to seek some form of compensation under the MRCA.

Currently, this requires the individual to put in a separate application.

Under these changes, indicating verbally that they are seeking compensation under the Act is considered an application.

I fully support these measures which make the claim process easier for veterans, as long as it doesn’t disadvantage veterans.

I will always support measures that seek to improve the lives of our veterans and their families.

Veterans have fought to protect this country, and I will fight to protect them every day in this place.