I certainly welcome the opportunity to speak on this bill today. Australia’s veterans have waited a long time for this reform.
This government was elected with a four-pillar policy for veterans and their families, which included recognising the unique nature of military service, maintaining a stand-alone Department of Veterans’ Affairs, tackling mental health challenges faced by veterans and their families, and providing adequate welfare and advocacy support.
Underpinning this was our commitment to deliver fair indexation for the Defence Forces Retirement Benefit and the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefit for military superannuants aged 55 and over.
In Leichhardt we have 588 recipients who can take advantage of the new arrangements from 1 July. This bill recognises that those who have served our nation should not be treated differently from age and service pensioners.
Our determination to introduce our fair indexation policy delivers on a very legitimate grievance of the veteran and ex-service community and is a significant win for them. Mark Cernaz from Bayview Heights wrote to me yesterday and thanked the government for finally correcting this long-running issue but cautioned that there is a need to continually monitor Defence superannuation schemes to ensure that they comply with the intent of the original legislation and that appropriate and fair indexation methods always remain in place.
I would like to emphasise to Mark and others that this will continue to be a work in progress, particularly with the number of younger veterans returning from areas of conflict.
Unfortunately the past six years have demonstrated Labor’s lack of commitment to the veteran community, together with a legacy in the form of a budgetary mess. By ending the previous government’s wasteful spending, paying off debt and restoring the economy to a robust position, we will be in a far stronger place to consider better support for veterans and their families in the future. We are also undertaking a range of other measures now to show our support for veterans and ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen.
Firstly, the provision of mental health services is an issue that is very close to my heart. Each year the DVA spends about $166 million on dedicated mental health services. We have also reconstituted the Prime Ministerial Advisory Council on Ex-Service Matters, with renewed focus on veterans’ mental health.
Secondly, we will restore Labor’s $1 million funding cut from the BEST program, meaning that, as of 1 July, veteran and ex-service organisations will have up to $3.75 million to support advocacy and welfare services.
Thirdly, maintaining a stand-alone Department of Veterans’ Affairs is critical. The DVA is actively working to change the way it operates so that it better meets the needs of younger clients as well as its traditional clients.
Fourthly, the government remains committed to the Veterans’ Children Education Scheme and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act Education and Training Scheme.
Lastly, we are fast approaching the 2014-18 Anzac Centenary. I know there has been commentary in the media that the Anzac remembrances are coming at the expense of care for our veterans and their families. This is certainly not the case.
Over the four years of the centenary of Anzac we will spend $650 million on dedicated mental health services and $50 billion on providing support for veterans and their families. This is a very significant investment and certainly one that has been very well earned. Over that same time, financial commitments to the centenary of Anzac amount to $145 million. As the veterans’ affairs minister, Michael Ronaldson, said recently:
“By 2018, we must have left a legacy in the minds of younger Australians, in particular, about the service and sacrifice of past generations, of the responsibilities to care for those who have defended our rights and way of life.”
He goes on to say:
“… we must ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, particularly the appalling manner in which Vietnam veterans were treated upon their return.”
Here it is timely for me to mention that, as an ex-serviceman and a patron of the Vietnam Veterans’ Motorcycle Club in Far North Queensland, I have a very good knowledge of the needs of our older veterans, particularly our Vietnam veterans. I am also the patron of the Avenue of Honour at Yungaburra, which was recently dedicated by Gordon Chuck and his wife in commemoration of their son, Ben, who lost his life in Afghanistan. Ben was one of the 40 of our wonderful soldiers who lost their lives over there. It is a beautiful place of reflection and something very, very special. And I am very proud to say that I was a significant financial contributor to the establishment of this memorial on Lake Tinaroo.
I have got to say that Gordon and Susan Chuck have done a fabulous job in leading the campaign to have this established, and I am very proud to now be the patron of the Avenue of Honour at Yungaburra. It also provides me with an opportunity to work with and talk to a lot of our younger veterans.
For many of our veterans it is not about money; it is about recognition of service. That is why this bill is so important. We must never stop looking at ways to improve the support that we provide to those who have served our nation. I certainly commend this bill.
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