Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment - Second Reading

I will continue my remarks on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Mental Health and Other Measures) Bill 2014. '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.'

PTSD is one of the most common psychiatric disorders in Australia. The Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health says that between five and 10 per cent of Australians are likely to experience PTSD in their lives, while up to 12 per cent of serving and ex-serving members will be affected by PTSD in any given year. The Department of Veterans' Affairs says that 1,713 veterans of recent conflicts are suffering from PTSD —it is a huge figure—and, of those, 955 are veterans of either Afghanistan or Iraq. However, in reality this number is likely to be much higher. Many sufferers often develop symptoms years after their service, and many more remain undetected because they never seek the help they need to treat their PTSD.

Of Afghanistan, General Cantwell says, 'We have exposed thousands of young and old Australians to some pretty brutal experiences.' The numbers of returned soldiers suffering PTSD will 'grow, and grow exponentially'. As policymakers, we must be ready. It is our responsibility to ensure that the system— Defence and Veterans' Affairs—is ready.

Families too must be ready and aware of the risks of PTSD. One thing Scott Hannaford does very well in 'The silent war' is detail the fact that PTSD affects not only returned service personnel but their families as well. He tells the story of Rebecca Clark, who calls herself a 'second generation veteran'. Rebecca has never been to war. She has never had a gun pointed at her face, never had to take a life or endure any of the unspeakable horrors of combat. But, as the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, Rebecca not only had to deal with her own father's undiagnosed PTSD and the resulting volatility, temper and mood swings but she herself developed PTSD in her early 20s.

As our soldiers return from Afghanistan, families must be on the lookout for signs of stress in their returned loved one and among themselves. Some signs of PTSD to watch out for include trouble getting along with colleagues, family or friends; angry or violent outbursts; increased alcohol or drug use; more physical complaints than usual; and poor performance at work. As the wave of sadness approaches, to use General Cantwell's phrase, it is all the more important that the government does everything in its power to ensure we are ready.

I also want to take this opportunity to mention The Long Way Home, a play that was showing around Australia earlier this year. Just as media has an important role in raising awareness, so too do the arts—and this was achieved through this wonderful production, The Long Way Home. The play was written by Daniel Keene in collaboration with the Australian Defence Force, and it takes the words and experiences of soldiers and builds them into a work that acknowledges the damage of conflict alongside the mundanity and sometimes thrill of soldiering. It highlights the unique challenges faced by our service men and women in their return to everyday life after operations around the world.

I was fortunate enough to see this play when it was in Canberra earlier in the year. The play actually sold out across the country, as it did here in Canberra, so I do feel really honoured and privileged to have seen it. It was an incredibly moving experience. What really touched the audience was that it showed not just the experience of combat in Afghanistan but also the soldiers' experiences at home, so it provided the opportunity to get a glimpse into the domestic environment and what women in particular face with the return of their loved ones in terms of the stress, the lack of communication. These men wanted to completely isolate themselves, to hide from the world. It sent a very powerful message about the fact that these are damaged people and that we do need to care for them. It also underscored the enormous strain it puts on relationships and those back home, the loved ones who are trying to support those who have experienced combat.

The play received a standing ovation here in Canberra. At some points, there was not a dry eye. The play also highlighted the camaraderie among the troops and that they provide a strong support network for each other. But, in a way, they just hunker down among themselves and do not actually share the grief and depression they are going through. That is why it is so important for not just the families but also the soldiers themselves to be aware of those PTSD symptoms.

It was a very powerful production. I commend the Sydney Theatre Company for putting it on. I think it was Belvoir Street who actually produced it. I thank them for producing them for producing this incredibly powerful work and I also thank the ADF for sharing and divulging their knowledge of and the experiences of soldiers. It was a story that had to be told, it was a story that was incredibly timely and it was a story that resonated with everyone who was in the audience, as well as those who read about it. So I commend all involved, particularly the actors, because a number of them were amateurs and a number of them were from Canberra. They did a great job. You could tell who the professionals were, but the amateurs did a very, very good job; they almost appeared to be professionals. So I do commend them for donating their time, as much as anything else, to the production.

There are also a number of community organisations, such as Soldier On and Young Diggers, that provide support for returning soldiers, and a number of Defence and DVA programs that are designed to assist in the transition, and I urge returning soldiers and their families to make the most of these.

Soldier On is a Canberra based organisation that facilitates Australians coming together to show their support for our physically and psychologically wounded soldiers. It is a great outfit. I remember going to the launch a couple of years ago, down at the returned services club site—'site' because the club burnt down a few years ago. It was in a tent and there was great attendance by a broad range of the community but particularly returned soldiers. Again, it is a timely organisation in that soldiers returning felt they needed a support network among themselves and hence they set up Soldier On.

Founded in 2012, it was inspired by the death of Lieutenant Michael Fussell, who was killed in an IED blast in Afghanistan in 2008. His friend John Bale looked for a way to support those who survived the blast. He quickly realised there was no easy or accessible way for members of the defence forces, or the public, to show their support for those wounded in battle. With his wife, Danielle, they reached out to his fellow soldiers and enlisted the help of Cavin Wilson, who had been posted in Afghanistan, involved in returning soldiers killed or wounded in action. Together they decided it was time to start an organisation that connected these men and women to the wider public, ensuring these brave men and women could be cared for and lead fulfilling and successful lives.

Since then, Soldier On has worked tirelessly to ensure our wounded are able to overcome the obstacles caused by their injuries; enjoy happy, fulfilling lives; and feel proud of the sacrifices they have made. Soldier On also serves as the link between wounded Australians and their communities, allowing people from all walks of life to support our wounded men and women and help them succeed in their rehabilitation and beyond. Community organisations such as Soldier On play a vital role in supporting our physically and psychologically wounded soldiers and their families, and I commend them for this work.

It would be remiss of me not to note that, while this legislation makes good changes, really worthwhile changes, that will make a real difference to the lives of veterans and their families, through its budget the Abbott government has attacked our veterans community. Prior to the election, the government said:

The Coalition is committed to ensuring fairness for our retired military personnel and easing the pressure on their cost of living.

And Senator Ronaldson said on the day of the budget:

The Government will continue to respond to the changing needs of veterans and their families.

However, when the budget was delivered, it was clear that the Abbott government had walked away from these commitments and shamefully betrayed Australia's war veterans by slashing the indexation system for Veterans' Affairs pensions.

The budget contained changes to the current indexation system for pensions meaning that, from 1 September 2017, indexation will be linked to the CPI only. The current indexation system links pensions to whichever delivers the higher pension rate out of the CPI, male total average weekly earnings or the Pensioner and Beneficiary Living Cost Index. This current indexation system was introduced by Labor to better reflect the actual daily cost of living for those on Veterans' Affairs pensions and to help veterans keep up with the cost of living. It has been a proven success, with pensions increasing by up to $5,300 per year under Labor. By contrast, if the changes to indexation made by the Abbott government in its budget had been in place for the last four years, a veteran on a single pension would be $60 a fortnight worse off or $1,560 a year worse off over four years. Veterans and veterans' organisations say this change will cost them thousands annually.

The very great irony is that, at the same time the Abbott government are cutting indexation to the veterans pension, they are improving the indexation to military superannuation. We were very pleased to support the Defence Force Retirement Benefits Legislation Amendment (Fair Indexation) Bill 2014 which allowed the triple-indexing of the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits and the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits military superannuation pensions for those aged over 55.

I say again, Labor supports this policy. But what we do not support is the fact that this is paid for by cutting the indexation to veterans' pensions, which the budget has revealed to be the case. When it comes to veterans, the Abbott government is robbing Peter to pay Paul. The coalition's policy for veterans and their families in the September 2013 policy document states that the government does not increase Centrelink pensions just by the CPI so it is not fair to apply only that index to the pensions of those who have risked their lives for our country. Yet that is exactly what the Abbott government has done—reduced the indexation of veterans' pensions to be CPI only, cutting the veterans' pension in real terms. The Abbott government's budget of broken promises cut funding to veterans' affairs also by more than $100 million—down from Labor's record $12.5 billion in our 2013-2014 budget. There is a great deal of distress emerging from veterans' groups about this budget and, while I commend the government for the legislation we are debating today, I ask them to look at their policy toward veterans as a whole and to realise that cuts to veterans' pensions are unfair. They are a broken promise and must be reversed.

It is impossible to exaggerate what we owe to our service personnel and their families. In thanking them for their sacrifices and showing our gratitude for the work they do in securing our nation and preserving the democracy here, we have to ensure that we provide the highest standard of care for them when they return.

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