Standing up for Canberra

Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2014

I am very pleased to be speaking on the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment Bill 2014, which is part of Labor's proud record in supporting our Defence Force personnel. We cannot exaggerate what we owe our service personnel, and ensuring they are properly supported when they return from service, especially in the case where there is an injury or illness, is one of the most important responsibilities of government. This bill will enable a relatively minor technical correction. It will enable the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission to retrospectively apply the methodology for calculating permanent impairment compensation to claims that have been the subject of claimant-initiated reconsideration by the commission, a review by the Veterans' Review Board, or a review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

But this is part of a much bigger reform process that is about ensuring the government is providing appropriate support and compensation to Australia's veterans and ex-service personnel. As I have mentioned, the bill we are now debating is part of a reform process initiated by Labor, and I commend the government for continuing these reforms. On 8 April 2009 the then Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Alan Griffin, announced that there would be a review of military compensation arrangements to ensure the government is providing appropriate support and compensation to Australia's veterans and ex-service personnel. The review was conducted by a steering committee chaired by the Secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Ian Campbell PSM. The review report was released on 18 March 2011 and found the military compensation system to be fundamentally sound but noted that certain improvements could be made, particularly to permanent impairment compensation.

Labor's response to the review was announced in the 2012-13 budget. Labor committed $17.4 million over four years to implement 96 of the 108 recommendations of the review. The majority of these changes were implemented from 1 July 2013. They delivered improvements to the arrangements for compensation in health care, increased financial compensation for eligible members and families, and improved training for those who provide advice to veteran communities on entitlements. These were important reforms and I am pleased to say that they have maintained bipartisan support throughout. They were aimed at ensuring a more holistic and timely approach was taken to the support provided to veterans who are wounded or otherwise injured during their service.

What does this legislation do? When the commission commenced its review of transitional permanent impairment calculations to apply the new methodology, a technical barrier in the existing legislation was detected. This barrier had the effect of preventing the retrospective recalculation of transitional permanent impairment compensation in certain circumstances. The provisions of this bill operate so that the commission is able to retrospectively apply the methodology for calculating permanent impairment compensation to claims that have been the subject of claimant initiated reconsideration by the commission, a review by the board or a review by the AAT. I commend the Abbott government on this bill and in continuing the important reforms that Labor started in this area.

The government has a fundamental role in maintaining and enhancing the wellbeing, physical, financial and emotional, of veterans and their families. As a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in my first term, I was involved in the inquiry into the care of ADF personnel wounded and injured on operations. The inquiry was a comprehensive body of work which involved hours and hours of discussions and hearings with people from all over Australia—with families, with veterans, with medical professionals, with public servants and with serving soldiers. Most importantly, we heard evidence of terrible hardship and unhappiness among our service personnel. These are people who have fallen through the gaps, despite the best efforts of the ADF, the DVA and the Department of Defence. Participating in this inquiry had a profound impact on me and I am now acutely aware of the challenges surrounding the treatment of personnel wounded and injured on operations, their repatriation to Australia, their ongoing care, their return to work or their transition out of the Australian Defence Force, and the impact on their families. That is why this legislation we are debating today is so very, very important.

On Friday night, I had the pleasure of attending the first major fundraiser conducted by Soldier On, at the Hyatt Hotel in my electorate. It was just extraordinary. I have had a number of conversations and meetings with Soldier On over the years since its formation, but it is extraordinary to see the transformation of that organisation. The first Soldier On event I went to was the launch event. About two years ago—from memory, it was in the middle of winter—I went to that event, in a tent on the site of what was the old Canberra Services Club in Griffith. Canberrans will remember it was burnt down a few years ago and now it is just a big patch of dirt with an old cannon out the front. It was almost like the phoenix rising because there was this patch of dirt with this tent pitched on it, as I said. It was freezing cold and that was the launch of Soldier On.

When attending this event, I did not know anything about Soldier On; in fact, most of us in the tent did not really know anything about Soldier On. My colleague the member for Lingiari, who was a minister at that stage, was also present, as was, from memory, the former member for Eden-Monaro. We were all standing around saying, 'What does this Soldier On group do?' The group had spoken about the fact that returned soldiers, particularly wounded soldiers, need support. We asked, 'Isn't that support already being provided?' So it was with great interest that we all went to this event. From memory, we also had to pay for our drinks because there was no money around. After that night, I had a very clear understanding about what the organisation was designed to do. It was set up to provide empowerment to those who had returned who were suffering from PTSD and other conditions—those who had been wounded.

In two years, from those very humble beginnings, Soldier On has gone on to become an absolute powerhouse. The Prime Minister has taken part in a number of their bike rides. Their bike ride around France was showcased at the event on Friday night, which was one of the gala events of the Canberra calendar—as I said, from those very humble beginnings to this extraordinary gala event. The CDF was there, the minister was there, the assistant minister was there, there were a number of VCs there, and there were a number of medal winners there. It was quite an extraordinary night.

Again, I take the opportunity to commend Soldier On for the great work they are doing. And the transformation in just two short years has been extraordinary, from having very little money—if no money—to now being very strongly supported by the community right throughout Australia, not just here in Canberra, and not just financially but also through other support services. I take my hat off to the team at Soldier On, because it is quite extraordinary, what they have managed to do. What is most important is the fact that they have provided incredible support to returning soldiers. On the evening, we heard from two soldiers. One of them was actually at my table. His name is Chad, and he talked about the fact that before he got involved in Soldier On—and, from memory, he was in the Army, but he is no longer in the Army—he was quite broken and was in a very fragile state. He started to cycle and then got involved in the Soldier On cycling, and he took part in this tour around France. He said that before and even during the tour of France he had a very bushy beard, which he hid behind. It was a way of covering his identity, because he was in such a fragile and broken state. At the conclusion of that bike ride through mountains and valleys—and it was pretty arduous, from what I could gather—he either went to a barber or did it himself, I am not sure, but he shaved off that beard and revealed his new self, his transformed self, his empowered self. That is what Soldier On did for him; it empowered him and gave him the strength to face life as his former self, as his clean-shaven self, and not to hide behind a beard anymore but to get out there and face the world without this beard, without this disguise, without this front.

So, it was an incredibly powerful speech. I sat next to his wife. They are the proud parents of a beautiful new baby. It was quite extraordinary seeing this man's transformation, thanks to Soldier On. Again, I take my hat off to Soldier On. I thank all the volunteers who worked with Soldier On on that night who made it possible —the hours and hours of work that Soldier On has obviously done for that fundraiser on a shoestring. Again, I commend them for their wonderful work.

On PTSD, I am sure that there were many in this room, as there were many in Canberra, who went to see The Long Way Home, the production by Belvoir. It was late last year, from memory, or early this year. Again, it was a very powerful production that profiled a number of soldiers who had just returned from Afghanistan, men and women. The beauty of the production was the fact that it did not expose us just to the torment that these soldiers were going through but also to the torment and the difficulty that the families go through and that the wives and the girlfriends and the friends go through and experience. I think that is something that Soldier On is very aware of. That is something that I know the Defence department is very aware of, that DVA is very aware of, that the ADF is very aware of—the fact that quite often the warning signs are first read or heard or felt by those families, by the wives, the partners, the husbands of those who have returned.

Those signs can come in many different forms, like someone drinking too much, trying to drug themselves— basically, trying to tune out life through too much alcohol or drugs. Quite often, they can get abusive. Quite often, people just remove themselves from engagement in society, as one of the individuals featured in this production did. It is so important that families act on those warning signs, because quite often the soldiers, sailors, air men and women involved are not capable or willing to acknowledge the difficulty that they are going through. Again, I take my hat off to the families in these difficult circumstances, because they do do it tough.

My father-in-law is a Vietnam vet, and I know that my late mother-in-law went through quite a bit of trauma and hardship when he returned from his tour in Vietnam. She had been left alone with, I think, five kids at that stage. She was left alone with four boys—four Uhlmann boys!—and a daughter, and she did it on her own. She did it tough. She also got a man back from Vietnam who, as she said, was very different to the one who left. She dealt with that in the stoic and strong way that she always did. I know that wives, girlfriends, husbands and boyfriends throughout Australia now face those same circumstances, although from a different war, but in a similarly stoic and strong fashion.

Before I conclude, I want to acknowledge that I attended the annual dinner of the Defence Families of Australia national conference on Thursday night. The Assistant Minister for Defence was also there. The spouses are largely women but there are also a number of men—extraordinary people who move around Australia constantly as a result of postings. They have to pick up and start new lives in different cities every two or three years, and settle the kids, who are quite often traumatised by having to move, into new schools. They are extraordinary women, all of them incredibly strong and articulate. It was incredibly powerful and it was a real privilege to spend the evening with them, hearing about their lives, hearing about their ambitions and hearing about how they want to improve the lot of Defence families—and doing it in a very positive way. They were not there to criticise. They were not there to complain. They were there to come up with solutions to the challenges that they face, from moving from not just Defence housing but also schools to immunisations and a whole range of other issues. Again, I take my hat off to those Defence families, particularly the husbands, the wives, the girlfriends and the boyfriends who are constantly supporting Australia through their support for members of the ADF.

Download a copy of this speech.