Australian Defence Force Covenant

Today I wish to talk about a recent trip to the Middle East, but more importantly I wish to revisit the issue of an Australian Defence Force covenant. The memory of the Gallipoli landings 100 years ago and the ongoing commemorations of the Anzac spirit have brought the valour and service of the Australian Defence Force to the forefront of our national consciousness. The Australian Defence Force is a contribution, like no other, by brave men and women charged with defending the freedom and liberties that Australians enjoy and take for granted, be that at home or much further abroad. I have spoken previously in this place about the establishment of an Australian Defence Force covenant to recognise and to support the contribution that Defence Force personnel and their families make to our nation.

Before I focus on the covenant, I want to talk about my experiences in July when I travelled to the Middle East with fellow Queenslanders, Senator Barry O'Sullivan and Warren Entsch, the member for Leichhardt, as part of the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program. The opportunity to witness and experience the work of our Australian Defence Force personnel has reinforced to me the need for a Defence Force covenant in Australia. Our visit to the Middle East permitted us the opportunity to meet and speak with men and women serving overseas from the Navy, Army and Air Force. We were very fortunate to visit the Newcastle along with the Al Minhad and Al Dhafra air bases.

I do not think I can name names, but I say to all those that helped organise the trip and look after us in Australia and in the Middle East and who showed us how they served our country, that I am both thankful and humbled by what you do and how you do it. We sleep soundly in our beds because of you and your service. Everything that my colleagues and I saw clearly demonstrated the focus of the Australian Defence Force in fulfilling their obligations to all Australians by their defence of Australia and its interests. Whatever your views on the world at large, you should be proud of the character of the men and women who serve and have served our country in the Australian Defence Force.

Being nosey-parker politicians, we spent our time asking members of the ADF while overseas about their service, what we should know and what we could do to help them. To a man and to a woman, none complained about their living conditions or the toughness and isolation of family separation, but all focused on what tools or resources would help them to do their job better. To me, what stood out was that the sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen who serve in the ADF are deserving of formal recognition by the Australian parliament on behalf of the Australians that we represent.

Since I last spoke on this issue, I have continued to liaise with defence and ex-service organisations and government and other stakeholders on a pathway towards an Australian Defence Force covenant. As a reminder, in October last year I went to Brisbane and convened a round table of ex-service organisations including Legacy, the RSL, the Defence Force Welfare Association, the Queensland Veterans' Advisory Council, the Royal United Services Institute, the Partners of Veterans Association, and Mates4Mates. There was unanimous in-principle support for a Defence Force covenant, although the RSL did reserve its position. The consensus agreed upon was that any covenant should be a statement of principle rather than a statement of benefits, acknowledge the sacrifice of those who serve and have served in the Australian Defence Force in peace and war, and outline the obligations that the Australian government and the Australian nation have to this unique group of citizens and their families. The National President of the Defence Force Welfare Association, David Jamison, said today:

The time for adopting an Australian Military Covenant has now arrived. It flows from an understanding of the unique nature of military service, a concept now widely accepted in the wider community and universally by all sides of politics.

Shortly after last year's meeting I wrote to all senators and members, regardless of political persuasion, outlining the views expressed and seeking their support. I thank the Prime Minister and all those who responded—including you, Mr Acting Deputy President, in terms of your support—noting the ongoing work being done on this initiative to support our Defence Force personnel and their families.

In March this year, I met with Defence Minister Andrews to discuss the proposal. It was a constructive meeting and I thank the minister for the good work he is doing. The minister has since advised that the government is disinclined to adopt a formal covenant at this stage. I disagree and intend to continue to push the covenant as I believe it is in the best interest of this country. The concern that some have raised has been about the financial implications of a covenant. By way of comparison, the United Kingdom Armed Forces Covenant recognises that the UK government and nation have an obligation to the armed forces community and establishes how they should expect to be treated. It does this through a differentiated approach based on personal circumstances. The UK covenant provides for support to families and reservists, personnel and veterans, and injured personnel and veterans which ranges from recognition and gratitude through positive measures to prevent disadvantage to financial support and special treatment.

The preliminary consensus expressed at the meeting I held last year was that an Australian covenant should first and foremost be about respect and acknowledgment. Given this, and the higher standard of the Australian system compared to that in the UK, there is no need for any covenant to become a document of financial benefits. There is some local precedent in this space. The Australian Defence Force Family Covenant was first launched in May 2009 and re-signed in May this year by the Chief of Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin AC. It articulates to families how highly their contributions are valued by Defence and it also outlines mutual expectations.

This is a start, a good base from which to continue to work towards an Australian Defence Force covenant, but I think we can do more. As such, today I am launching a petition at www.defencecovenant.com to engage with the broader Australian community on this issue. Please visit and sign this petition so that we can build support for the Australian Defence Force covenant.

Defence Force personnel and their families make and have made a unique contribution to the nation, a contribution that needs formal support and recognition by Australia's parliament. The men and women of Australia's Defence Force make a contribution like no other, defending our freedoms and liberties at home and abroad so we can all sleep safely in our beds. Whether it is leading a multinational humanitarian task force in East Timor, fighting militant jihadists in Afghanistan, being part of other operations in the Middle East region or responding to disasters like the Black Saturday bushfires, the Australian Defence Force serves our nation valiantly.

The idea of an Australian Defence Force covenant is essentially based upon the notion that the entire country has a moral obligation to the men and women who serve and have served in our armed forces, and to their families. I will continue to work with stakeholders and the government to support the hard work and sacrifice of our Defence Force personnel and their families.

I would like to place on the record my appreciation to Graeme Mickelberg, from the Sunshine Coast; Colonel David Jamison and Alf Jaugietis from the Defence Force Welfare Association; and the many others who have helped bring this petition to fruition. I acknowledge Alf, as well as Les Bienkiewicz—also from the Defence Force Welfare Association—who are in the gallery today.

I remain committed to working with ex-service organisations, who represent hundreds of thousands of Australians, to secure formal recognition of the unique nature of military service. Please sign the petition at defencecovenant.com and send the link on to your friends and families.