Committees - Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Joint Committee - Government Response

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (18:07): I, too, would like to commence my contribution to the discussion of the government response to the review of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade of the Defence annual report 2013-14 by congratulating the chairman, Senator Fawcett, on the work he is currently doing and the work he did in relation to this particular review. I note with some interest that four senators are intending to speak on this particular report, from the government side at least, and all four of us—Senator Cash, Senator McKenzie, Senator Fawcett and I—are actually members of the joint standing committee and were involved in the preparation of this review of the Defence annual report 2013-14. The report was tabled some time ago. Since then the government has responded to the report and in the time available to me I want to address just a couple of the recommendations and the government's response to them.

Those of us involved in and around our defence service personnel understand the importance of mental health programs. Indeed, we do understand that active service in the military forces of any country, since time immemorial almost, does have an impact on the mental health of many of the participants in combat and combat operations. I am based in Townsville, in North Queensland, the home of Australia's largest army base, Lavarack Barracks. From Lavarack, almost since its inception in pre-Vietnam war days, troops from Townsville have gone overseas to be engaged in active combat situations. They return, and very often in the community we see the results of the difficulties experienced by serving members of the Defence Force coming back from those engagements.

One of the recommendations of the committee, recommendation 5, was that the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs report progress and results on their mental health programs, including the longitudinal Australian Defence Force study Evaluating Resilience. The committee went through this issue at some length and made that recommendation. The government's response to that recommendation has been that the government agrees. In its agreement, the government says this in its response:

There are a range of mental health programs which are conducted jointly and separately by Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA). The Departments will report on the progress and results of these mental health programs through the following reporting mechanisms.

Then the response by the government goes through those. They include Defence programs, joint programs and DVA programs. The government's response indicates how that happens in each case. In relation to Defence programs:

Defence provides a comprehensive range of mental health programs that are available across the career lifespan of a member from enlistment through to operational deployment through to transition from the military. These include programs which are designed to: increase mental health awareness; provide skill-based training to Defence personnel on the management of mental health in Defence; provide clinical up-skilling to Defence health professionals on the assessment and treatment of mental health conditions; and the delivery of mental health and psychology services to Australian Defence Force members. The progress of these initiatives are reported against the Australian Defence Force Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan and in the Joint Health Command Annual Review.

In addition to the above, progress against mental health research projects are reported to the relevant approving ethical review bodies and results are disseminated through specifically designed communication strategies.

I thank the government for its comprehensive response to that recommendation dealing with Defence programs. In relation to joint programs, the response says:

Since 2013, Defence and DVA have operated under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the Cooperative Delivery of Care and Support to Eligible persons. Collaborative projects are managed under the MoU, with Defence and DVA maintaining a strong joint approach to mental health programs and research including the Transition and Wellbeing Research Programme, Defence referrals of Australian Defence Force personnel to the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) for counselling, and the development of a range of e-mental health smart phone applications—

That is an innovation which will become more and more useful as the years roll on—

The progress and results of these programs are reported to the Defence / Department of Veterans' Affairs Executive Committee as well as other relevant groups such as the Department of Veterans' Affairs Research Board or the Joint Health Command and VVCS Agreement for Services Steering Committee. Progress and results of joint programs are also reported against the Australian Defence Force Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan—

that I mentioned previously.

In addition to that, as the government's response shows, the Department of Veterans' Affairs also purchases and provides a range of mental health services for its clients. Online mental health information and support through the At Ease mental health portal is also available. There are GP services, psychologist services, social work services, psychiatric services, pharmaceuticals, post-traumatic stress disorder programs and hospital services for those who need them. This program also provides counselling and group programs to veterans, peacekeepers and eligible family members. Of course, family members are an important element of these programs in the understanding of the issues faced by some of our returning and even current Defence Force members.

There are 24-hours-a-day phone lines to help with any problems that might need addressing at all hours of the day and night. DVA can also pay for certain mental health treatments, whatever the cause—whether or not the condition is related to service—and conditions covered by PTSD, anxiety, depression, alcohol-use disorder and substance-use disorder. From July this year, eligibility for these non-liability mental health arrangements will be available to anyone who has had permanent service in the ADF, no matter what the service or for how long.

The government indicates in its response as well that it is committed to an annual ministerial statement to parliament on key issues impacting upon the veteran community and the performance of the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

I have just mentioned elements of this response at length because it does show that the government, indeed, as it should, on behalf of all Australians, does whatever it can to assist those who have served their country but who may be suffering some sort of mental health issue. Sometimes in this chamber we hear about those things, but we do not often hear about the extent of the provisions that the government has developed to do everything possible to address some of these issues. I am delighted that it has done so. As I say, as a nation that is grateful for the work that our service personnel have done, they should expect nothing less and neither does the nation.

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