Defence, Veterans’ and Families’ Acute Support Package Bill 2022 Bills

I, too, rise to address the Defence, Veterans’ and Families’ Acute Support Package Bill 2022. This bill, as has been stated, was originally brought in by the former government, but in large part it is in response, by both the current government and the former government, to an inquiry that was undertaken by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, which issued a report in 2017 called The Constant Battle: Suicide By Veterans. That report made 24 recommendations after a fairly extensive period of engaging with veterans and, particularly, families around the nation and hearing about the various aspects of interaction with the military, particularly post military life, and some of the frustrations with the different legislation, the bureaucracy and the lack of resources, which had a significant impact on the mental health of veterans. I’d like to talk a little about the background to some of these measures, because it highlights the role that individuals have played in bringing about change and highlights that our parliamentary democracy does work.

First off, the chair of that committee was the late Senator Alex Gallacher. Senator Gallacher did a power of work in this area, and it’s a highlight of how the different political parties in this place, including the crossbench, can work very constructively on issues that are of national significance. That’s not the impression the Australian public often have, but the reality is that, in some of these areas, this work is very constructive. So I thank Alex for his leadership of that committee.

I want to touch very briefly on some of the statements in the chair’s foreword to this report:

For modern veterans, it is likely that suicide and self-harm will cause more deaths and injuries for their contemporaries than overseas operational service.

That’s a pretty stark observation on the situation facing some people. The foreword goes on to say:

However, it is also important to recognise that the majority of ADF members will leave their service enriched by the experience and will go on to be successful in their civilian endeavours. The members of ADF receive some of the best training in the world and leave service with valuable skills and experience that can be transferred to benefit the Australian society in a broad field of endeavours. Veterans are an essential part of the fabric of our society. The inquiry has highlighted the number of persons with military experience contributing in politics, business, health services, public service, charities and civil society.

Not all the examples provided to the committee have been negative ones. There have been many instances of veterans pulled back from the brink by partners, friends, advocates and health professionals. DVA clients have expressed their gratitude with the assistance they have received from DVA and other agencies.

I think it’s important to highlight that, because often when we talk on these issues people will get the sense that to be part of the military and all it does for Australia is overwhelmingly negative, whereas that is not necessarily the case. I certainly speak from experience, having had over 20 years in the regular Army and another period in the active reserve. I believe that it has provided a fantastic foundation for many of the things that I have subsequently undertaken in this place and beyond.

For those in the veteran space, the last part of the foreword I would like to quote, which goes to the two pieces of legislation we’re considering today, is a paragraph that says:

A unique aspect of this inquiry has been examining the framework of military compensation arrangements and their administration through the lens of the issue of suicide by veterans. This focus has highlighted the burden of legislative complexity and administrative hurdles on veterans who are often seeking support at a vulnerable period of their lives.

I would add to that that often those hurdles exist for the families of veterans as well as veterans themselves, which brings me to this bill.

As has been outlined by my colleagues, this bill seeks to implement some of the recommendations of that Senate report, particularly on harmonisation of those three pieces of legislation, but also remove some of the hurdles that have faced people. ‘Warlike service’ is an example. For many years, you had to have actually served in a war or warlike service, whereas we see some veterans and their families who are facing significant issues because of accidents and issues that occur during training and in peacetime. In South Australia just recently a veteran, Mr Darren Harvey, led an effort to get recognition for veterans who were training at Singleton more than 30 years ago. He, along with his fellow recruits, was on a range at Singleton. A recruit kicked a grenade which was unexploded, and it exploded and resulted in Mr Harvey being in hospital for an extended period of time. He still has physical issues from that. Thankfully, the Army has, after 30 years, provided recognition to those recruits for their service. But this indicates that there are people who haven’t necessarily conducted warlike service but have received injuries and need the support of the government.

Specifically, this bill responds to recommendation 19 of the report, and it’s around the ways to support families. It includes, amongst other things, expanding the eligibility of those who can receive support. Importantly, the bill also ensures that payments to veterans and their families are exempt from income tax and are not included as income for the purposes of social security determinations. That has been a bugbear for veterans for many years.

Going to the point that I made at the start, I’d like to highlight that the parliamentary process works, in that representative democracy works. I’d like to highlight here, particularly, the role of Ms Ellen Gillespie, a lady from South Australia who brought to our attention the effect of the rules and guidelines which are currently in place. You could be the spouse of a veteran and support that veteran for decades—giving up your career, travelling, moving, nursing, supporting through post-traumatic stress and a whole range of issues. But then, if that relationship broke down, the veteran would move on and continue having the support of the community, but, if the spouse were now, perhaps, at the end of their working age, the spouse would be left with little or no superannuation and no entitlement to benefits, after supporting a veteran for all those years. This situation would be particularly exacerbated if there was domestic violence involved in the break-up of that relationship.

Ellen’s advocacy and her willingness to talk about her story, have brought about changes that have already been put in place. I thank, in particular, the Deputy Commissioner of DVA, Ms Janice Silby, in South Australia, who engaged and listened and brought Ms Gillespie into various opportunities to explain, so that the bureaucracy could understand the situation for what is a relatively small group but a group that we, all the same, should be looking after. I’m pleased to see that this bill recognises that eligibility should be expanded to family members of working-age veterans who are at risk of, or in, crisis, along with working-age widowed partners of deceased veterans and former partners, under certain circumstances. I wish to thank Ellen for her courage in speaking up. I thank her for her care of her former partner over all those years. I also want to highlight that our parliamentary democracy works. Our representative democracy works, and this is a good example of it, so I am pleased to lend my support to this bill today.