Committees - Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee - Report

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (17:46): This is a very useful report with a number of very useful recommendations, and the government will, no doubt, look at them and respond in due course. I congratulate the chairman, Senator Gallacher, and deputy chairman, Senator McKenzie. I also pay tribute to former senator Chris Back, who played a very big part in this inquiry and the report.

While the report does have a lot of useful information, the government has already worked very significantly on addressing the welfare of veterans. This has been going on for quite some time now under the Turnbull government. Indeed, in the last budget there were a significant number of new initiatives to address many of the matters that were raised before this committee.

I remind the Senate that the Department of Veterans' Affairs currently supports about 291,000 Australians. Just over half of these people are veterans or currently serving members of the ADF. Around 48 per cent of them are women. Around 82,000 are widows or widowers, and I'm aware of that because my sister is one of those who receives wonderful treatment from the Department of Veterans' Affairs. There are around 2,500 children of veterans who are also supported. Interestingly, about $6.2 billion, or 54 per cent of the department's budget, will be spent on providing for veterans and their families with income support and compensation. About $5 billion, or 44 per cent of the department's budget, will be spent on meeting the healthcare needs of veterans and their families. And around 0.8 per cent of the department's budget is spent on commemorations and maintaining memorials and headstones. So it's a significant contribution by the Australian taxpayers, through the Australian government, to support people who have done so much for this country over years past.

We all know that one suicide in Australia is one too many. Suicide affects all areas of our community. Eight Australians a day take their own life, sadly and regrettably, and it remains the greatest cause of death for men between the ages of 14 and 44. Sadly, our veterans and members of the ADF are not immune from those statistics. The government's determined to address suicide in our community, and we all have a role to play. We're committed to serving all Defence personnel, veterans and their families. We have introduced free and immediate treatment for all mental health conditions for any veteran with one day's full-time service. The government has held the first Female Veterans and Families Forum. We're committed to the Prime Minister's veterans' employment initiative to find out how we can ensure that employers know the benefits of hiring a veteran. We've committed the largest investment in the Department of Veterans' Affairs systems and processes to cut the wait times and make their services more focused on veterans. I know this figured prominently in the committee's report. As a government, we have initiated and hosted the first meeting of state and territory veterans' ministers to provide input on how we can work together across all levels of government on issues such as veterans' homelessness.

Just a few days ago, the minister provided in a statement a confirmation of the government's commitment to a standalone Department of Veterans' Affairs—a department that focuses on needs of veterans first and a stronger voice for the veterans' community. The first one I mentioned is the standalone Department of Veterans' Affairs. Unfortunately, with social media there are a lot of furphies and mistruths and a lot of misinformation that go around, particularly amongst the veterans' community. This is unfortunate because they upset, needlessly, many veterans who naturally believe some of the rubbish that goes around on social media because they are sourced in a way that looks valid. But any early inquiry will show that they are completely fake, so to say. One going around last week was that the Department of Veterans' Affairs was going to be abolished and that the Department of Human Services was going to take over the role. I know that a lot of constituents of mine were concerned when they read this rubbish, and I was only too pleased to be able to confirm that it was nothing more than fake news. But it is unfortunate that that does permeate the social media because it does worry, needlessly, a lot of our veterans.

I just want to briefly mention again some of the support the government is giving. A lot of this has been referred to in the committee's report and a lot of it is already happening. Senators will know that the Turnbull government invested an additional $350 million in this year's budget to support veterans. There were focuses on two strong issues: mental health support, which we've been discussing; and reform of the department's processes and systems, which we've also been discussing in this debate and which the committee made reference to.

We are expanding the program of free and immediate—I stress 'immediate'—mental health support to current and former ADF members. This treatment is currently available for five specified mental health conditions. The government is expanding our Non-Liability Health Care Program so that it will be available for any mental health condition, including phobias, adjustment disorders and bipolar disorders. Just 12 months ago, anyone who had served one day as a full time Australian Defence Force member had to prove that any mental health condition was linked to their service. After suffering these conditions, they would have to wait to have their eligibility and claim approved by the department. The wait times would see their mental health deteriorate or they would not receive the support that they desperately needed. So last year, the government provided a new approach of free and immediate treatment for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse and substance abuse without the need to prove the condition was service related. In this budget, the government has gone further. We now commit to provide this for all mental health conditions. It will mean that from now on veterans and defence personnel can get free and immediate treatment without a burden of proof and without the need for a bureaucratic barrier. Most importantly, this policy is completely uncapped, so whatever the demand it will be funded from somewhere in government. The government is also expanding eligibility for the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service, which we think is a very important service that does, in fact, save lives. I return to what I was speaking about before: that suicide prevention is a complex issue and, as reports have shown, there's no simple solution. It requires a multifaceted response, and we have provided about $10 million to pilot new approaches to suicide prevention and to improve the care and support available to veterans. This is a useful report, and I have no doubt that the government will appreciate the recommendations and the thought and effort put into it. I do want to emphasise that the government is well aware of them, and that many of the issues that were spoken about in the inquiry are already being dealt with by the government with considerable extra funding and rearrangements in the department taking place.

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