October 21, 2020

I want to start out by thanking and acknowledging everyone who has served this country who's either in the ADF now or a veteran. It's an immense privilege to have witnessed this debate in the national parliament and watched the contributions from some of our veterans who are members of parliament—the member for Herbert, the member for Braddon, the member for Solomon and the member for Denison. I had the immense privilege of sitting in the chamber for those four contribution, and I feel almost inadequate following those heartfelt, personal contributions.

I will spend my time talking about what veterans and their families have told me. I will start by acknowledging them and, especially, congratulating the member for Herbert for the anniversary he talked about. To come back from the dark place he was in, having served his nation, and to be such a leading voice in this debate is something that is really remarkable, and I congratulate him and thank him for what he's doing.

I only wish all debates in this place could be carried on in the manner in which this debate is being conducted. It is incredibly respectful. Everyone is acknowledging that everyone else contributing to this debate is coming from a good place and that everyone's focus is on how to look after Australia's veterans. We have a disagreement about whether we should begin with a standing commissioner or a royal commission. That's a fairly significant difference of opinion, but we've seen no over-the-top rhetoric and we've seen no disrespect to the other side. It's a genuine acknowledgement that people have different opinions about what should be done. I think this debate is parliament at its best.

There is a significant issue here, obviously. One suicide is too many and one suicide of a veteran is obviously of an order of magnitude more difficult for us to canvass. Without turning to clinical numbers, the stats are that in 2018 there were 33 veteran suicides and between 2001 and 2018 there were 465, and those are only the ones that are recorded. There are many, many more veteran suicides. The rate of homelessness among veterans is five times the national average. I had the wife of a veteran say to me that she knows many, many veterans who are medically discharged. Her anecdotal evidence was that every single medically discharged veteran had attempted suicide. So we should start by acknowledging what the problem is, and then we need to talk about how to solve it, how we can make a contribution in this place.

The member for Braddon, I think might have made this contribution, but it has been remarked often that, while veteran mental health has always been a massive challenge in this nation and in many other nations, it is getting more of a challenge as we get better at looking after the physical health of our veterans. Combatants in World War II, the Vietnam War or even Gulf War mark 1 who would have died had they suffered a blast are now surviving thanks to the great advances in military medical approaches and technology. But that, if anything, makes it a greater challenge to look after the mental health of veterans, because what they see and what they've been exposed to—the impact of percussive forces from explosions—are just a few examples of things that make this challenge even greater for us than it did perhaps for previous generations of policy makers.

We need to acknowledge that every family has some connection to a veteran in their community. Every family sees this challenge in different ways, from World War II veterans who came back from POW camps unable to talk about their experience, unable to really communicate what they saw, to modern veterans of recent wars. We now have more veterans from Afghanistan and Gulf War mark 2 than we do from Vietnam, for example.

This legislation is important, and I acknowledge that it seeks to help solve a problem, but I disagree with the basic contention that a standing commissioner is the best approach to this process. My firm view is we need a wide-ranging and well-resourced royal commission to look at the myriad of issues and to then guide and inform the establishment of a standing commissioner, if that's what the royal commission recommends. The truth is that the standing commissioner established in this bill does not have the same powers as a royal commission. In fact, the budget of the body in this legislation is half the budget of the average royal commission, just to give an indication of the different range of resources that are allocated to this. The commissioner is not independent. They are part of the Attorney-General's Department, which obviously makes it more challenging for them to really get to the nub of problems in particular government departments and the way that government departments serve our veterans.

And, as other people have remarked, some people think there's a fundamental conflict between having a serving ADF officer or a Reserve officer fulfil that function. That is no reflection on the nominated commissioner—absolutely not. It is merely the status of someone from the ADF who's task, quite frankly, is to look at how the ADF treats veterans—both serving veterans and people who've left the ADF.

Finally, a standing commissioner, as constructed in this legislation, does not have the range of inquisitive powers, to get to the myriad of issues that make our veterans' lives so much harder and challenging. I want to go to that in some detail. At a mobile office I held last Friday at Lake Munmorah on the northern Central Coast, I met the wife of a veteran. She came to me to highlight all the challenges that she and her family face because of the myriad issues returned veterans have. Her husband was medically discharged as completely, totally and permanently incapacitated. He has the gold TPI card. She highlighted some of the issues that they face, and they are not just about DVA. This is a key point she was making. Any reform or legislation that's focused on how the Department of Veterans' Affairs treats veterans will miss other issues. She gave examples. Access to home care for families of veterans is limited and very bureaucratic. She talked about the interaction of the veteran system with Service NSW. She gave an example: because her husband has a gold card TPI, they get one free car registration a year. But the way the classification works under her husband's particular TPI is that it's not an automatic process. Service NSW don't automatically say that her husband is entitled to free registration. They have to get a letter each year from the Department of Veterans' Affairs. They take that letter to Service NSW, who say that it isn't constructed in the correct way. They then have to go back to DVA, who say that it is. Then they have to manage this argy-bargy for months on end before they get the correct language to get one free car registration. This might seem a relatively minor matter, but if the person having to do this is suffering from PTSD, the last thing they want to go through is this bureaucratic wrangling.

Other examples from this particular meeting I had involved psychiatrists. If you have PTSD and you're under a TPI, you've got access to psychiatric assistance. But the challenge in the Newcastle and Central Coast area is that there are no psychiatrists taking on new patients on the coast or in Newcastle. So there's a huge issue about access to mental health support. The person I had the meeting with also made the point that, even if you've got a gold card, the rates that the gold card pays health professionals is well under what they ask for normal consultations. So she was making the point that these health professionals really assist gold TPI recipients as a matter of giving something back to the nation. That's good, and we should applaud that, but we should fix this by paying appropriate commercial rates so those health professionals can get that support.

Another example is the vexed and challenging issue of child support, where many veterans go through a really entrenched process to get access to lump sum payments, and then, when that lump sum payment is paid, it comes into the child support system. That's not a reflection on the really important system that child support plays in this country in supporting kids and families. She was just making the point that the child support agency is not used to dealing with one-off lump sum payments, particularly for veterans who have received a TPI settlement. So that just adds to the stress and adds to the pressure on someone who is suffering from PTSD. Going through that process just makes it worse.

Another example is within DVA. DVA is now providing assistance with service dogs. I think everyone recognises the power of service dogs to really improve the mental health of returned veterans.

The issue is that they will pay for training only if the dog is provided through the Department of Veterans' Affairs, so if you have a service dog through an internationally recognised organisation like Whiskey's Wish you will not get financial assistance to train that service dog. Again, this is an example where the bureaucracy that's been put in place hinders a good intention. Mail redirection—and I'm sorry to go into the minutiae but I think it's really important for someone who is not a veteran to say, 'I've heard from veterans and their families.' A veteran on the TPI gets one free mail redirection, but if it has the wife's name on it, if they're married, it's not free. How does that actually provide a service? These are all the sorts of issues that exacerbate the challenge for veterans in this country.

I met with the mum of an SAS veteran. This mum is a schoolteacher in my electorate. Her son served this country in the SAS, which is obviously the arm of the ADF, the Army, that has probably seen the most intense and traumatic service. He suffers from PTSD, and that trauma is so great that he cannot live in his country. Everything in his country reminds him of his service and his trauma. So he moved overseas. The Department of Veterans' Affairs, as part of his support, pays for mental health counselling. Unfortunately, this was just another example of the bureaucracy—until my office intervened and DVA came through in the end. He wanted to continue, via Zoom, mental health counselling with his counsellor from Perth. Obviously, the SAS barracks is in Perth, so he had an existing relationship with that counsellor. Instead, they insisted on him paying for counselling in his host country in South America, even though the Zoom counselling sessions were cheaper for the Commonwealth and were with someone experienced with Australian veterans' affairs. It took about four months of wrangling before we solved that problem. Again, this is just a small example of these impediments that make veterans' lives harder.

I got an email from someone last week. I won't use her name, because I haven't had time to seek her permission. She said to me:

As a mother of a young veteran I'm begging you to jump on board and be part of this royal commission, we owe this to our children, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers but mostly our mates , there needs to be more done , they are left in the cold by veterans affairs, they leave the adf and they are literally on their own they don't have that support network anymore , they spend years waiting for specialists appointments in pain, they spend countless hours with paper work, phone class letters of rejection against claims they have been begging for , they have put their body and minds on the line for our country only in the end to have multiple doors closed in their faces , by a group of people who have never served a day in their life and have no knowledge of serving , my son joined when he was 18 he was so proud and committed and now his life is the great unknown his legs are full of scars from multiple operations, I hope as a mother I never failed him , and as his mother I expect the same from our politicians

I think that's a very important sentiment. I have not served this country in the ADF. I cannot imagine the challenges veterans face, what they have gone through, but it is my job, my duty—like it's the duty of every other member of this parliament—to serve these veterans, to fight every day to ensure that we support them, to make sure that we are partners with them in mental health issues, in making sure they get all the support they need. That is the greatest way we can honour their sacrifice and their mates' sacrifice. I commend the bill, as amended, to the House.