Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019

My speech on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019, which sees the establishment of the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant:

I rise to speak on the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill 2019, which sees the establishment of the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. I'd like to commence by acknowledging all those who have served, and are serving, and their families for the sacrifices that they make so our freedoms go forth into the night. We can sleep safely in our beds because of the work and the service of these men and women.

I've long called for the introduction of an Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant to more formally recognise and articulate the valued contribution that current and former members of the Australian Defence Force and their families make, and have made, to our nation. In 2014, I foreshadowed in my maiden speech the need for a covenant based on the principles of the covenant in the UK, and I have repeatedly pushed and advocated—and made myself a bit of a pest in the offices of certain ministers—for such an important reform and acknowledgement of the service and the sacrifice that is made by those who have served and are serving.

After my maiden speech in 2014, I wrote to the Prime Minister, to Mr Shorten, the then Leader of the Opposition, and to relevant ministers and shadow ministers. I wrote to all senators in this place, regardless of their political colour—Labor, Liberal, Nationals, Greens and the various Independents—asking for multiparty support to bring forward such a covenant. This covenant, and this idea of how we acknowledge those who have served, is beyond party politics. It should be beyond the madness that sometimes envelopes this building and this chamber, and it's something that I think we all agree on. Sometimes we just find it hard to find that agreement.

As part of this push, I convened roundtables with the various ex-service organisations—and there are many of them. I met with relevant members of the government and other stakeholders to try and find a pathway towards getting this covenant established here in Australia.

In 2015, I launched a petition to engage with the broader Australian community to try and build support for the covenant, because, if you want to achieve change, you've got to sometimes bring the community with you. In terms of the covenant as an issue—those who have a little understanding of this area know that it can work in Britain, but Britain does have a different system to how we treat our veterans here. The Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant, as set out in this bill, is supported by the Veterans' Recognition Program, which includes three parts: the veterans' card, lapel pin and oath.

The first, the veterans' card, is a redesign of the existing white and gold health cards issued by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The veterans' card will make it easier for Australians to recognise and respect the contribution that veterans have made to our country. Some veterans will receive their new-look cards as their existing card expires, and all other cards will be replaced by the phased implementation process that is currently underway. Businesses will acknowledge the current health cards during the transition, as will healthcare and service providers. The new-look veteran card will continue to provide access to health services and benefits as well as to additional concessions and benefits from businesses, organisations and community groups which chose to support the covenant.

At this point I would encourage those who are in business, whether as small business owners or who work in larger businesses, to understand and to think what they can do to support those who have served and are serving, not just in terms of a card or concessions but in terms of the benefits of employing those who have served our country. Over the coming months, each business, organisation and community group will receive an information pack outlining how they can support the covenant and connect with the veteran community. If you are part of a business, an organisation or a community group and would like to show support for veterans by offering benefits or concessions for veteran cardholders, you can do so by registering your interest on the department's website. It should be stressed, and I will stress it with emphasis, that any benefits or concessions provided will be at the discretion of the participating businesses and organisations, and I would stress to those organisations, whether commercial or NGO, to really push the barrow out in terms of what you can do to assist veterans.

The second, the lapel pin, may be worn to help identify veterans when they aren't wearing their uniform or medals. The veteran lapel pin and reservist lapel pin provide a way for the public to recognise and connect with veterans and acknowledge their service to the nation. The pins will be distributed in the coming months.

The third, the oath, is a commitment of respect to our veterans in addition to the oath traditionally recited on Anzac and Remembrance Day. The Australian community is encouraged to pledge the oath at community commemorative events in recognition of our veterans and their families. Veterans will be able to apply for their card, oath and lapel pin via MyService or the department's website. However, it must be acknowledged that we all know we can do more and we should do more.

It should be also acknowledged that the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant is only part of the government's commitment to putting veterans and their families first. In this year's budget, the government committed to investing more than $11.5 billion in services and support for our 280,000 veterans and their families. As the son, grandson and great-grandson of men who served—in particular, Dad, who receives support from the government because of his time in the Australian Army—it is something we gratefully receive. This is a real increase in funding of more than $300 million from last year. This includes funding for veterans' mental health and suicide prevention, funding to support grants for organisations that help veterans to find meaningful employment, funding to extend the Provisional Access to Medical Treatment trial, funding for family violence victims who are former spouses or de facto partners of veterans, amongst other things.

In detail—and I do stress that we know we can always do more—we are continuing to fund the largest reform in the Department of Veterans' Affairs history. This will make it easier and faster for veterans to access the services they need when and where they need them.

We are also providing $16.2 million to support veterans' employment. We have seen many great examples of businesses benefiting from the skills and capabilities of the veteran community through the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Awards. Nevertheless, we know that there are some veterans transitioning from the ADF who require more support navigating the civilian job market and the ex-service community plays a critical role here. That's why we'll be providing grant funding to organisations across Australia to deliver and expand their innovative programs to assist veterans to find meaningful civilian work.

We're also continuing a substantial investment in veterans' mental health and suicide prevention, committing $4 million to provide training for up to 7,000 volunteers to better recognise mental health risks and provide intervention and support. This builds on the nearly $200 million in uncapped mental health support we provide every year, including free mental health care for anyone with a single day of full-time service.

Through the budget, the government has also responded to the concerns of those veterans who have taken anti-malarial drugs. The government has responded to the recent Senate inquiry on this matter and has agreed, or agreed in principle, to all of the inquiry's recommendations. As part of this, we've provided $2.1 million to deliver a national program for concerned veterans to undergo comprehensive health assessments to identify any potential service related illnesses, injuries or disease. Also, 225,000 veterans and widows are set to benefit from a one-off energy assistance payment of $75 per single and $125 for couples to assist with the cost of power bills.

We should acknowledge, and Senator Sterle mentioned this in his speech, that we would not be here today without the numerous Defence and ex-service organisations who work tirelessly for veterans and their families. As I said earlier, there are a lot of them. There is no way I can pay homage, thank all of them or name all those individuals who have continued to assist veterans and also continued to help provide counsel and advice to those of us who are fortunate enough to sit in this chamber. Over the past five years I've met with many of them, but some I'd particularly like to mention are: the Defence Force Welfare Association, DFWA; the Queensland Veterans' Advisory Council; Legacy; the RSL; the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations, ADSO; and Mates4Mates. They were very good—and I won't name those individuals who have made sure that I'm fully aware of their views in relation to different issues that impact upon the covenant and the wider Defence community. I would like to publicly thank them for their patience with me, for their counsel and for all of their work. In particular, I will name someone: I'd like to recognise Graeme Mickelberg, who is chair of the LNP's Defence and Veterans' Affairs Policy Committee, for his tireless advocacy on this issue. Graeme and I have known each other for some time, but we first talked about this issue in the pub at Palmwoods about why this covenant isn't here in Australia and why it should be here based on the covenant's success in the United Kingdom. The covenant has been Liberal-National Party policy thanks to Graeme and the efforts of the Defence and veterans' affairs committee. Many party members and many constituents, many who don't support the Liberal-National Party, have contacted me and my office about this issue and for that I am grateful.

At the beginning of my speech, I made a point of acknowledging those who have served and are serving. One of the things that I find strange in this country is that—and I raised this issue, I think, a year ago and some people shot me down in flames and some people said it was a good idea—when we board planes, we acknowledge those who have signed up to a frequent-flyer program. We give priority boarding to those who might have joined a frequent-flyer program yet we don't acknowledge those who have served or are serving. My friends say that often it's the small things, when it comes to how you deal with veterans and the community, and it is that simple acknowledgement. So I wrote to the various airlines saying that I can't understand why we can acknowledge frequent flyers but we can't acknowledge those who have served and are serving in the Defence Force.

Likewise, where it's become customary now that we do an acknowledgement of country, I make a point that if we're going to do an acknowledgement of country we should also acknowledge those who have served and are serving. The freedoms that we take for granted in this country come about because of the sacrifices that these men and women have made and will continue to make for us. This Defence Veterans' Covenant and this bill that is before the Senate go some way to that, and I commend the bill to the Senate.