Standing up for Defence Force Reservists
I rise to speak on the Defence Legislation Amendment (2017 Measures No. 1) Bill 2017. I want to commend the member for Herbert for her commendation and acknowledgement of the significant contribution that the Australian Defence Force makes to our community in securing our nation— and also their families: the significant contribution that the families who support the Australian Defence Force make.
They're often left on their own for very long periods of time. It's very stressful, because the ADF members are going into conflict zones or areas that are very, very dangerous. Can you imagine the stress and strain that puts on a family member, not just the partners of those members, but particularly the children? We cannot forget the contribution of the children.
The member for Herbert does a brilliant job of representing her community, particularly the significant ADF community that she has in Townsville—20 per cent. It's a community that's very engaged in the broader Townsville community, that's very much integrated into the broader community and that makes a significant contribution socially and economically to the Townsville community.
I know that the member for Herbert, even before she became the member for Herbert, was actively engaged with the ADF members at Lavarack Barracks and elsewhere and their families, in terms of understanding the issues and concerns they had. She was very actively involved particularly with ADSO on the methaqualone issue and the challenges that was creating for her community in terms of the trauma resulting from the methaqualone issue and the unresolved issues and challenges we had with that.
As I said, before she was the member for Herbert she was very actively involved in that. When I was up there during the last election campaign we spent a lot of time talking to the people who had experienced those dreadful side effects of methaqualone. Some were suicidal as a result. We were speaking to the families about their trauma in witnessing their loved ones going through these very, very difficult emotional and physical times—watching them go into significant depression and become completely different individuals from those who were deployed or those they had partnered with or married years before. I know the member for Herbert has been very actively engaged with ADSO and also the methaqualone community, for want of a better word. I have campaigned with her on the issue. Townsville and the electorate of Herbert could not have a better member in terms of advocating for her community and particularly for Australian Defence Force members and their families.
So, again, I commend and echo the words of the member for Herbert in acknowledging the significant contribution the ADF makes to securing our nation and ensuring that Australians are kept safe. That is vitally important. It's not just about our nation being kept safe but also about our region and our world being kept safe.
I am very proud to have worked in the Department of Defence for 10 years before going into politics. Someone who has just entered the chamber was a former workmate of mine and is a very close friend, and it is lovely to see her here. She works on a range of legislation in the legal area of the Department of Defence and, like so many public servants in Canberra, is deeply committed to ensuring that the Australian Defence Force is supported and has the legislation and the processes in place to ensure that they can do their jobs in defending our nation as best they can and ensuring that we have a safe nation. She does great work in that area. It is terrific to see her here —and it is a bit of a surprise, actually.
As we've heard today, this bill has four main schedules, and today I want to focus on schedule 2, which amends the Defence Reserve Service (Protection) Act 2001, to ensure that all Reservists would be eligible for the full range of protections under the act in respect of their employment and education.
The amendments are described by Defence as needed in order to mitigate some of the disadvantages that Reserve members may face when rendering Defence service because of their absence from the workplace, from their education provider and, in some cases, from Australia. A 2008 review of the Defence Reserve Service (Protection) Act 2001 concluded that the act was working well overall, but it made recommendations to improve its clarity and consistency and to address some gaps in available protections.
The amendments will expand the scope of the employment, partnership and education protections to apply to all defence service by Reserve members; expand the scope of the financial liability and bankruptcy protections to apply to all operational service by Reserve members; clarify the employment protections to give greater certainty about Reserve members' rights when they are absent from their employment to render defence service; enhance the education protections to create an obligation on education providers to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate Reserve members' defence service; introduce anti-victimisation and anti-harassment provisions to improve the experience of Reserve members in their civilian workplaces; and introduce a civil penalty regime throughout the act.
As with the full-time ADF, our Reserve forces play a significant role in securing and defending our nation. The work that we did on the Solomon Islands, particularly towards the end of the mission, was largely done by Reserve forces. The Regional Force Surveillance Unit up in Cairns is largely a Reserve force. They are drawn from all over the country, and what they do is vitally important to securing our borders. The unit has a very large Indigenous contingent, because of their expertise in surveilling the environment, particularly the maritime environment up there—the mangroves and the waters up around Cairns, which can be infiltrated by drug smugglers, by people wanting to work around our import laws and by people wanting to break our customs laws. The borders are potentially porous; we've got a lot of country to cover and a lot of maritime border to cover. The RFSU does an extraordinary job in protecting that part of Australia that really requires an intelligence that is gained not just from looking at communication units and technology but an innate intelligence that you have from being so closely attached to the land for thousands of years. The RFSU are largely a Reserve unit, with a very large Indigenous community that has an extraordinary intuitive intelligence from being so closely connected to country for hundreds and thousands of years. They are playing a vitally important role with technology that, from what I saw when I went and spent some time with that unit, could be improved. Some of it was pretty basic. We're not talking really expensive technology. I think that some of their technology could be improved to enhance that intelligence and knowledge of the land and of the water that is the result of hundreds and thousands of years of knowledge and connection to country.
The amendments in this bill are long overdue. Some of them have been mooted since 2008, so we are talking nearly 10 years that some of these amendments have been in the making. Having worked in the Australian Defence Force Cadets area for a number of years, I know that sometimes changes in Defence legislation can go at a glacial pace. We introduced a range of protections, particularly after the Eleanore Tibble incident, when that young woman tragically committed suicide as a result of what happened in her cadet unit with her supervisor. I know that the consultation process on the legislation to change those regulations took time. The Australian Defence Force Cadets unit introduced a range of measures, in response to Eleanore Tibble and a number of other incidents, which took quite some time to finally reach that stage. It would be wonderful if this could happen at a faster space. We are talking potentially 10 years now since some of these amendments were first suggested, but at least we are debating them now, and I hope we will see some change, particularly with schedule 2.
As I mentioned, we had a significant contingent of Reservists involved in the Solomon Islands, particularly towards the end of that operation. We have a significant contingent of Reservists working with the RFSU up north. We also have a significant number of Reservists who serve as doctors in Navy. Navy can't get those specialist skills internally, particularly in the medical profession, so a lot of the doctors in Navy are in the Reserve forces. That's the beauty of the Reservists. They provide those specialist skills—like the Indigenous Reservists doing that surveillance work up north, those deployed to the Solomon Islands, and the doctors working in Navy today—that are difficult for the Australian Defence Force generally, Navy, Army and Air Force, to get on a full-time basis. That's the beauty of the Reserve system—it gives our ADF access to specialist skills. That's why we need to provide them with as much support as possible, which is what these amendments aim to do, and also as much flexibility as possible.
Just last week I met with a woman who is in the Reservists. She's having a real challenge in getting promoted; in fact, she has been at the same rank for her entire Reservist career, which, from memory, goes back about 15 years. Because of the way that the system is set up, the work that she has done isn't actually recognised in the way that the system recognises service, therefore she's not in that particular stream, so to speak. The work that she is doing is in a particular stream and, therefore, it is kind of invisible. Yes, it is Reserve work. Yes, she is doing work to serve and advance our nation from a national security perspective, yet she is in this stream that isn't recognised by the system. She is a single mother, so it makes it very challenging for her to be able to do the Tuesday night training and then do the weekend training. It makes it very difficult.
So, these amendments are welcome, but we still need to constantly ensure that the Reserve system acknowledges and supports those who want to serve their nation in a Reserve capacity but can't do so because, as single mothers, it's very challenging to take the weekend off every now and then to go and do Reserve work. So we need to explore other ways for Reserve service to be recognised that isn't just part of this particular stream.
Also, it's not just the recognition of service; service allows for promotions. Because this poor woman is in this system, she is, as I said, kind of invisible. Here she is at the same level, even though she has been highly commended in all the work that she has done, particularly in the women, peace and security space, yet she can't get promoted. She is at the same level that she was in the early days of her Reservist career.
These amendments are welcome. These amendments provide greater support to Reservists, but there is still more work to be done, particularly in creating a flexible environment for people's work as Reservists to be recognised, and, particularly, in creating a more flexible environment that provides opportunities for women to make a meaningful and recognised contribution in the Reserve system that will ensure that they can be promoted.