Parliament – annual statement to Parliament on veterans

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

I rise today to speak on the annual statement to parliament on veterans and their families. As shadow minister, it’s an absolute privilege to spend so much time with veterans right around this country, listening to their stories but also listening to their concerns. As the minister has done, I want to recognise the sacrifices made by those currently serving, those who have served before and their families that support them. We must ensure that they know we value the sacrifices they made and continue to stand with them and their loved ones. To do this, governments and communities must ensure that veterans and their families are supported during their service, through transition to civilian life and beyond.

Our commitment to those who have served has long been implicit, as governments of all political persuasions have sought to provide support and assistance to those who have put their lives on the line in service of our country, especially those who have been wounded, have been injured or have become ill as a result of their service. However, to formalise this understanding and recommit to this effort and task, Labor have announced that, if elected, we would commit to developing a military covenant. This will ensure that our serving men and women know, in no uncertain terms, that we value their service and remain committed to looking after them.

Similar in nature to the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces Covenant, Labor is proposing that a military covenant signed by the Chief of the Defence Force and the Prime Minister of the day will be accompanied by legislation which will ensure regular reporting to the parliament on how we are meeting our commitment to those who have served. I welcome the minister’s comments just made in his statement that the government is also exploring the idea of a military covenant, and the opposition is absolutely willing to work with the government to progress this issue.

A commitment to a military covenant builds on previous announcements that Labor have made, such as our $121 million commitment to veterans’ employment. Finding and maintaining employment after serving is important for so many reasons. It’s not just about financial security; it is important in providing structure, community and a sense of purpose and belonging—something that many of our ex-Defence personnel say they miss when they leave our ADF. However, many veterans do not immediately find a meaningful career post their time in the ADF. These are highly skilled and desirable employees who make a valuable addition to any workplace, but what the statistics show us is that these skills are not necessarily acknowledged or valued by civil society, and these skills are being lost in translation.

If we want veterans to know we value the sacrifice they have made, we must do better. We must ensure that veterans are best poised to move into employment post service and that businesses understand the many benefits of employing a veteran. As the minister has mentioned, the government has developed the Prime Minister’s Veterans’ Employment Program, and Labor has continued to offer support to this program. But we do believe we can do better in this space. There are roadblocks which see veterans’ skills being lost in translation from military life to civilian life, roadblocks which see veterans discounted before reaching the interview stage because they don’t meet the tick-and-flick process, and roadblocks which ultimately fail to recognise the many skills that our ADF members have.

It is for this reason that Labor has announced a veterans employment program. This program—if we are elected—will ensure that veterans’ skills are not lost in translation and encourage businesses to benefit from employing these highly valuable employees. There are four key elements to our program. The first targets businesses by providing training grants of up to $5,000 to address specific short-term skill gaps which may act as a barrier to businesses employing an otherwise very suitable veteran. I’ve heard from veterans who have applied for hundreds of jobs and, in some cases, have never gotten to the interview stage. This process is demoralising and doesn’t value the many skills and the experience of our ex-ADF members. While there could be many reasons for this, I want to assure people that, if this is because a veteran is, for example, one unit shy of a qualification or fails to meet the ‘two years previous experience’ essential criterion but is otherwise suitable, these grants will go a long way to ensuring that these gaps are met and will be an incentive to get rid of those barriers and those roadblocks to employing a veteran.

In addition, we’ve announced that we will provide $30 million to the industry advisory committee to fund and develop a national campaign which will highlight to employers the many skills of former ADF members. We will also establish an employment and transition service for transitioning members, which will provide greater individualised and tailored support to veterans over a longer period of time. This service will work with individual veterans to identify career goals, audit the skills that those veterans have acquired over the course of their career and make sure that they obtain civilian recognition. This service will also work with veterans to identify other potential barriers to employment, such as housing, health and community support that they may need to ensure that they can also find fulfilling employment.

Speaking with veterans, I know that many leave with very clear goals in mind about what work they might want to do after they leave the ADF. But it doesn’t always work out. As such, we are proposing that this service would remain available to veterans to return over a five-year period, after they have left the ADF, just in case extra advice or service and support is needed. Our plan will also reduce the length of service required to access the additional support from the Career Training Assistance Scheme, as well as provide a more flexible way to use it. Our plan will bring the qualifying period for extra education and training assistance down from the current requirement of 12 years to five years and the top level of assistance down from 18 years to 15 years. Given our understanding that, on average, members serve for 7.5 years, the change would mean the majority of those who leave the ADF would be able to access the assistance. In addition, our plan increases the amount of funding available to individuals to allow for greater flexibility in the way transitioning members can use this funding, such as obtaining multiple qualifications that are required for employment. Finally, we want to work with the states and territories and peak industry bodies to identify opportunities for greater automatic recognition of skills.

As the minister said, employment for veterans is not about charity; it’s about ensuring that the many skills a veteran has are not lost in the transition to civilian life. We believe this is the first step to ensuring that those working in the Defence Force can move to meaningful employment, a key element of successful transition from the ADF to civilian life. When an individual serves, in many ways their family serves with them. Serving families are routinely faced with the choice of packing up their lives to move with a loved one or spend significant time apart. Post-service lives are changed again as individuals and their loved ones reorient their lives. This is felt more acutely by those who are medically discharged, with family members often taking on a carer role.

We have certainly welcomed and supported the government’s initiatives when it comes to supporting families, but we do think that developing a national family engagement and support strategy is critically important. This is a direct recommendation from the National Mental Health Commission’s review into suicide and self-harm in our military personnel. As the Mental Health Commissioner has identified, this strategy will give families a voice and provide a national blueprint to include the engagement of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Defence with military families. Importantly, it will address what has sometimes been a lack of engagement with families and acknowledge the critical role they play.

As the minister mentioned, commemorating is a critical way that we ensure we send a message that we appreciate the service and sacrifice made by our many service men and women. It has been so for over a century. It is to remember those who have died in service of their country, those whose service has changed them forever and those who have been affected—whether that be family or friends—through the generations. And we know that, in many ways, every community is given the opportunity to commemorate because of the work of ex-service organisations around the country. We can all go down to a local memorial and pay our respects on Anzac Day, on Remembrance Day or Vietnam Veterans’ Day because of the work of volunteers in many ex-service organisations. I want to thank them for allowing the wider community to make sure we do not forget, we do remember and we are able to pay tribute. On 11 November we mark the Centenary of Armistice. I join with the minister to encourage all members of the community to participate, if they can, in a commemorative service. That might mean taking part in the one-minute silence to recognise the guns falling silent on the Western Front after more than four years of continuous warfare. We will remember those in that war who sacrificed so much—and those who served in subsequent conflicts, and paid that ultimate sacrifice. It’s important that we do take the time to remember and reflect—and this will be an important part of our commemoration activities.

As the Centenary of Anzac draws to a close, it is important that we consider how we keep alive the memories of men and women who have served and who have died. While we no longer have the benefit of any of our World War I diggers with us, it is critical that we remember their experiences and their sacrifice. It is with this in mind that Labor has proposed establishing the Western Front Fellowship. This fellowship, based on the successful Canadian program, is proposed to support eight postsecondary students a year to work at the Sir John Monash Centre, acting as tour guides, presenting some of Australia’s most important history to visitors. This has been very successful from the Canadian perspective, and I know many Australians who have visited this Canadian program believe that it adds so much to that pilgrimage that people make. We believe that this is a practical and innovative way to continue to commemorate our Western Front story and keep the memories of these diggers alive.

Governments should continue to ensure that our veterans are receiving world-class care and support. We should be doing everything that we can to make sure veterans do not fall through the cracks. The Senate inquiry into veterans’ suicide, the Mental Health Commission report into suicide and self-harm and the ANAO report all provide clear recommendations on how we can do better, and I welcome the government’s commitment to implementing many of these important recommendations. We are also waiting for the outcome of the Productivity Commission review. The opposition are very keen to see what the final recommendations will be. However, we do not believe waiting for the recommendations should be a barrier to the government taking immediate action on the evidence provided to the commission on the impact that the Medicare rebate freeze is having right now. We have seen significant evidence presented—indeed, by the Prime Minister’s own advisory committee into mental health—saying that that freeze needs to be dealt with immediately. I urge the government to remove that freeze in all specialist areas.

In conclusion, as the minister has done, I would like to say thank you to all those who are serving or have served our nation and to those family members who do support and have supported them. We ask so much of you, and it’s incumbent on this parliament to continue to ensure that we demonstrate our gratitude.

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