Standing up for Canberra

Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment

I am very pleased to be standing here tonight speaking in favour of this legislation. This legislation builds on the work Labor did in government to reform mental health services for current and former members of the ADF and their families. I am very pleased that the Abbott government has chosen to proceed with these reforms and that they now have bipartisan support.

Labor has a proud record in Veterans Affairs. Our 2013-14 budget contained a record $12.5 billion investment in the Veterans Affairs portfolio. Part of this record investment was $26.4 million for new mental-health initiatives, which had been outlined in our 2013 white paper. These initiatives included extending non-liability health cover for certain conditions to more former Vet members of the ADF, and expanding access to the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Services to veterans involved in high-risk peacetime service and their families as well as the families of veterans killed in operational service. Both of these initiatives are included in this legislation. So, again, I thank the government for continuing these important reforms.

Under this legislation, from 1 July 2014, access to treatment under non-liability healthcare arrangements will be expanded to include diagnosed conditions of alcohol-use disorder and substance-use disorder, regardless of whether the condition is service related. From 1 July 2014 eligibility for treatment under non-liability healthcare arrangements, for members of the ADF with peacetime service only, will be expanded by removing the current cut-off date of 7 April 1994. This means that all those with at least three years continuous full-time peacetime service will now also be eligible for non-liability health care for PTSD, anxiety and depressive disorders and alcohol and substance use disorders.

Mental health services for veterans, members and their families will be further improved through the expansion of the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service. This is great. From 1 July 2014, current and serving members with certain peacetime service will be eligible for counselling through the specialised services of the VVFCS. It is a great service. This includes border protection service, service in a disaster zone, either in Australia or overseas, service as a submariner and personnel involved in training accidents and members medically discharged. Access to counselling services from the VVFCS will also be extended to partners, dependent children aged up to 26 and parents of members killed in service related incidents. These changes recognise that military service in peacetime also risks exposure to traumatic events and impact on mental health.

The government has a fundamental role in maintaining and enhancing the wellbeing, be it physical, financial and emotional, of veterans and their families. Last year, as a member of the Joint Standing Committee of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade, I was involved in the inquiry into the care of Australian Defence Force 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 vets, with medical professionals, with Public Servants and with serving soldiers. Most importantly, we heard evidence of terrible hardship and unhappiness among our service people. These are people who have fallen through the gaps, despite the best efforts of the ADF and DVA.

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 and return to work and their transition out of the ADF and the impact on their families. The inquiry noted that in recent years there has been an increased awareness of the effects of depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and indeed PTSD and issues surrounding suicide rates amongst current and former service men and women. This increased awareness is of course a good thing, but it must also result in a more responsive policy environment and, ultimately, better support, treatment and prevention.

The report that resulted from the inquiry covers a broad range of areas—from the immediate action following an injury; aeromedical evacuation; rehabilitation and support following physical injury; mental health concerns, including PTSD; return from operations; and post-service issues, including veterans' affairs and veterans' support structures. The report highlights a number of gaps, of areas where we need to be doing more to support the health of our returned service people. These include mental health, and specifically female veterans' mental health, and improving communications between Defence and DVA in the management of post-service transition. These are just some of the areas.

There has been progress and recognition of the need to support those with mental health issues. Steps have been taken to make improvements in terms of streamlining the Veterans' Affairs-Defence processes and streamlining the information on injured soldiers. We were impressed by the work of General Cantwell and community organisations such as Soldier On and Young Diggers, who work in the area of mental health and who are doing great things in terms of changing the culture of stigma and shame that still exists in the Australian Defence Force. Sadly, returning soldiers, unfortunately, are still ignoring the signs of mental health issues and other injuries.

The report also highlights the post-service life adjustment and how hard it is for a wounded or injured soldier to adjust from being a highly skilled member of a professional force—a warrior, so to speak—to a seemingly constrained civilian, nor not necessarily a civilian but a former warrior. The inquiry grappled with this issue. In our report we highlighted the need for greater continuity in the transition from Defence to Veterans' Affairs and we have recommended expediting or streamlining information technology connectivity and a unique service veteran health ID number. That is extremely important and it is a theme that ran through a number of the presentations in the inquiry's hearings.

DVA still faces dissatisfaction from the veteran community, although we found the department is doing much to improve client service, particularly in having a single point of contact for case management, moving to a single electronic claim process and free treatment for PTSD, depression and anxiety. We recommended that the department try to be less prescriptive, as well as monitoring its performance through periodic publication of claim processing times and claim success rates. This will need constant attention, but I hope the work of the committee will help to bring about improvements and make for better lives for our service people and their families after suffering physical or mental injury.

I am very proud to be associated with this inquiry and with the report, which was tabled in June last year. I note that the government has now responded to the report and has supported around two-thirds of our recommendations. I look forward to seeing these recommendations implemented in the near future.

The media plays a very important role in both increasing awareness and de-stigmatising mental health issues facing our returned service people. Pleasingly, in recent years, there has been increased media attention on this issue. In February of this year there was an excellent Fairfax feature on posttraumatic stress disorder, beautifully written by Scott Hannaford. I have spoken about this feature before but I would like to raise it again here because I think it is both a powerful and a sobering insight into the world of returned soldiers, peacekeepers and police officers suffering PTSD and their families—and, I would like to add, civilians as well. It details the feelings of guilt, at having left friends behind; of grief, from having lost friends and colleagues; of fear, from having witnessed so much horror; of shock and trauma at the transition back from service to peacetime existence. The feature also serves as a warning to Australia, to our leaders, our governments, to our people. I quote:

With Australia's decade-long war in Afghanistan coming to an end, all but a handful of the troops are returning home. For most who made it back in time for Christmas it will mean a welcome return to the routines of family life and work. For others, it will mark the start of a new, silent war that they cannot return from, played out in the homes they find themselves unable to leave, medically discharged from the jobs they love in their early 30s, and wracked by night terrors, panic attacks and isolation.

Major-General John Cantwell, former commander of Australian forces in the Middle East, says of Australia's withdrawal from Afghanistan: 'There is a wave of sadness coming our way, and the system—DVA and Defence— needs to be ready for it. I wonder whether we are.'

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