Speeches

DEFENCE LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL

May 14, 2020

It's fitting that the first bill that parliament will be debating after discussing the resignation of Mike Kelly is a bill around veterans. I, too, want to associate myself with the fine remarks from the Leader of the Opposition and the minister, the member for Wright. I think it is a testament to Mike's service to his nation that there was such uniformity in respect and affection for him, and, I too, want to join in wish him the best in the next stage of his life, given the fact that his parliamentary career was cut short, sadly, due to his military service.

I'm pleased to speak on the Defence Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020. At the outset, Labor recognises the unique nature of military service, the sacrifice of current and former ADF members and their families, and the outstanding contribution they make to our nation. Our Defence personnel, veterans and their families often have complex needs and require special support, and the Australian community has an expectation they'll be looked after.

Labor joins with the government in continuing to support our former, current and future Defence personnel. To that end, this bill includes two measures. The first measure will open up the Australian Defence Force Superannuation Scheme, ADF Super, so that members who have left the ADF and who provided at least 12 months of service can continue to make contributions to the fund. ADF Super is the current default superannuation fund for new ADF members and for the new eligible ADF members who have elected ADF Super as their fund of choice.

Military superannuation is a vital component of our ability to attract and retain talented ADF personnel, so Labor was happy to support the scheme when it was established in 2015. ADF Super introduced greater flexibility and portability than was available under the Military Superannuation and Benefits Scheme, also known as the MSB Scheme or military super—the previous seem, which applied to serving members of the ADF.

Currently when a member of the ADF Super leaves the permanent forces they must change to a new superannuation fund. The purpose of the amendments in this bill is to make it absolutely clear that ADF members can choose to continue to contribute to ADF Super when they separate from the ADF. These changes will align ADF Super with superannuation arrangements available in broad industry and public sector superannuation schemes, including the Public Sector Superannuation accumulation plan. The amendments will also require ADF super to obtain relevant insurance products for scheme members who are no longer serving in the ADF. These changes will not affect existing arrangements for the other now closed military superannuation schemes, namely the MSB Scheme or the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme, DFRDB.

The second measure in the bill expands access to the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme, DHOAS, for ex-ADF members or veterans after they've completed their service. Labor has always understood the importance of housing as a Defence recruitment and retention tool. The original Defence Home Owner Scheme, along with the establishment of Defence Housing Australia, were both Labor government initiates. DHOAS assists current and former ADF members and their families to own their own homes through access to housing and finance markets. At present, a former member must apply for a subsidy certificate within two years of leaving the ADF; although, there is discretion to extend this period if the member has a condition that led to their failure to apply for the subsidy within two years. The amendments will extend the time, after a member separates from the ADF, when they can apply for a subsidy certificate to five years. This will assist veterans transitioning to civilian life by giving them more time to look for suitable accommodation before applying and accessing their DHOAS and will allow veterans and their families to make the best choice for themselves. The intention is to ensure that all veterans will be able to carefully consider their options after leaving the ADF, without being rushed into purchasing a home for fear of losing their entitlement to their subsidy.

Labor has supported previous reforms to this scheme, and we will be supporting these improvements. Both measures in these bills are consistent with the broad aims of Project Suakin, an initiative of the former Labor government, but one which enjoys bipartisan support. This is about creating a more modern and flexible Defence workplace environment that reflects a mobile workforce and the changing circumstances and priorities of an individual ADF member's life over time. All up, these amendments will deliver better outcomes for our Defence personnel and veterans and their families, and Labor supports them.

While Labor supports this bill, I wish to take this opportunity to briefly raise our concerns with the government's failings in a number of areas affecting veterans. Firstly, while the measure on the ADF Super in this bill is to be commended, the same can't be said of the way the government has handled a number of other area of veteran superannuation and service pensions. Last year, just before the election, the government announced twin reviews into the commutation arrangements under the DFRDB I referred to earlier, as well as the above general rate component of the totally and permanently incapacitated, TPI, pension in response to longstanding concerns from the veterans community.

In December last year the Commonwealth Ombudsman released its inquiry into the DFRDB, which included the damning finding that some members had been given misleading and incorrect advice by Defence about their options under the scheme and this constituted defective administration. I'm pleased the government, through the Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel, and the Department of Defence apologised for the dodgy advice ADF personnel received and admitted this has caused a lot of confusion and distress for people over the years. However, the Ombudsman decided it was unlikely that members experienced a financial loss as a result of this bad advice and that therefore this did not warrant financial compensation. We know many veterans are unhappy with this finding and saw this as a cop-out. I understand a small number of veterans have applied for compensation through the government's Scheme for Compensation for Detriment caused by Defective Administration, and Labor encourages all members who believe they've suffered financial loss to do so.

While Labor welcomed this inquiry, given the government announced it just before the election, we suspect it was just a cynical ploy to placate veterans before the election and kick the can down the road, hoping they wouldn't have to deal with the issue. Also, the government has shown bad faith with Australia's 28,000 TPI pensioners, with its review of the TPI pension or special rate of disability pension, which seems to have been quietly shelved. This review, conducted by David Tune in the Prime Minister's department, was another marketing exercise announced before the election. But we know from Senate estimates that the Prime Minister received the review in August last year and has been sitting on it ever since. This is an absolute disgrace and an insult to the 28,000 TPI veterans across the country who deserve to know the outcomes of this inquiry. The Prime Minister needs to release the Tune review and the government's response immediately.

Moving on, it must be said that the measures in this bill that help boost home ownership for current and ex-service personnel stand in stark contrast to the government's complete failure and inaction when it comes to the plight of homeless veterans.

As the shadow minister for veterans' affairs and defence personnel has mentioned previously a number of reports released last year revealed alarming levels of homelessness among veterans. For example, an Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute report showed veterans are almost three times as likely to experience homelessness as the general population with 5.3 per cent of veterans homeless in any 12-month period compared to the national average of 1.9 per cent. That is a disgrace, an absolute disgrace.

We've also seen previous figures that one in 10 people sleeping rough is a veteran, while RSL NSW have noticed a 25 per cent increase in the number of veterans seeking their help. This is an indictment on the way we treat struggling veterans, many of whom find themselves living in poverty. The current pandemic has only highlighted the fact that far too many people are falling through the cracks and support services are failing some of our most vulnerable people. Now, more than ever, people need access to secure accommodation in order to keep themselves and the community safe. All homelessness where it exists is a national shame, and the government needs to do more to tackle this crisis.

This leads me to the issue of the government support for veterans and their families during the current coronavirus. Labor welcomes the health and financial assistance that has been provided already in response to the COVID-19 health emergency, including taking up Labor's proposals around telehealth and mental health coverage. However, more needs to be done to assist veterans and the ex-service organisations that support them, particularly in the case of older and vulnerable veterans who may be self-isolating at home and at greater risk of experiencing loneliness. ESOs and health professionals have been telling us that they are seeing very high levels of demand for allied and mental health services at this time and that more resources are needed for frontline mental health and welfare services. Stakeholders have told us one of the best things the government could do here is urgently increase the Department of Veterans' Affairs fee schedules for health services, including psychologists and psychiatrists, to reduce the long wait times for veterans seeing mental health professionals.

It's concerning too that the government's stimulus packages have not included more substantial support for charities and organisations as this could affect many smaller ESOs and their volunteers. We know many RSL sub-branches rely on fundraising from selling badges and pins through annual Anzac Day appeals. With the cancellation of Anzac Day services this year, many have been struggling to generate the income to fund vital welfare and advocacy services for local veterans. Many of the RSL and service clubs who support these sub-branches and other charities financially have had to close their doors due to the pandemic, resulting in a significant loss of revenue and thousands of staff being stood down, furthering impacting services. My electorate of Shortland is no stranger to this crisis and the experience being suffered by RSL sub-branches and the RSL clubs that support them. On top of this, while changes to the threshold of JobKeeper payments for registered charities are welcome, this is no use to many small ESOs and RSL sub-branches, which are mostly volunteer run and don't qualify for the payment.

Even before the coronavirus emergency, there were a number of initiatives affecting the veteran community that were well behind schedule. Last year the minister committed to provide a response to the July 2019 Productivity Commission report on the veteran support system as soon as possible. He also committed to deliver a new Veteran Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy and National Action Plan by the end of last year. Then there was the much vaunted announcement of a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. It's now May, and we've seen little or no progress on any of these fronts and no explanations for the delays. I remind the government they committed to deliver these initiatives well before the coronavirus started. All governments have a variety of responsibilities, and there is simply no excuse for further delay to these important announcements.

I can assure the House that Labor stands ready and willing to work with the government at this challenging time, but where there are gaps or where more needs to be done we'll continue to hold them to account and make constructive suggestions so we get the best possible care and support for veterans and their families. It was in this spirit that the shadow minister for veterans' affairs and defence personnel wrote to the minister to raise all these issues on 8 April—more than a month ago—but is yet to receive a reply. For the information of the House, I seek leave to table a copy of the letter the shadow minister sent to the minister.

(Deputy Speaker) Leave granted.

I thank the assistant minister. It is very disappointing that there has been no response, and I can only hope the minister will rectify this situation and respond as soon as possible.

So, in conclusion, we have a special obligation to help our veterans. We trained them. We asked them to put their lives at risk for us, and yet we find them sleeping rough and not receiving adequate support in their retirement. As I've said the government needs to do more to address a range of challenges affecting our service men and women, especially when it comes to superannuation, homelessness and mental health and wellbeing during the current coronavirus emergency and beyond. Notwithstanding this, the bill currently before the House will mean better outcomes for our Defence personnel and veterans and their families, and Labor supports it. I commend the bill.

You can view my speech here.

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