Time to properly support our veterans

Time to properly support our veterans Main Image

By Kristy McBain

29 November 2021

Towns and communities in Eden-Monaro greatly benefit from having Australian Defence Force bases or headquarters nearby, and thousands of Eden-Monaro constituents have had very fulfilling careers in the ADF. On top of this, when the bushfires hit communities across Eden-Monaro, the ADF was there to support and assist in recovery efforts. Army and Army Reserve personnel were on the ground throughout Eden-Monaro, and HMAS Adelaide provided logistics support to Eden. Following the fires, HMAS Supply crew travelled back to the Bega Valley to help rebuild fences that were lost and to rejuvenate a local oval that was used as an evacuation point. HMAS Supply has since made Eden its ceremonial port, further strengthening the bond between our communities and the ADF.

Closer to here, my electorate is also home to the ADF's Headquarters Joint Operations Command, near Bungendore. My electorate is also host to an impressive defence technology sector, filled with multiple defence technology companies located just over the border in Queanbeyan. For people who live in my electorate, a career in the defence industry is a realistic and viable career option. We know that people who join the ADF benefit greatly through the skills, education and experience that they get during their service. There are myriad well-known benefits to a career in the ADF.

But I do question the timing of this motion, because, while we are standing here talking about the benefits of a career in the ADF, this week hearings started in the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide. There is a time and a place for this discussion, but I wonder if it is now. Right now, we need to be listening. We need to be giving this royal commission the attention it deserves, and this government needs to be entirely focused on fixing the broken veteran-support system. Veteran suicide is a national shame and it's a national tragedy. Too many people have died by their own hand, and there are too many people in our defence and veteran communities that are living with mental health problems without adequate support.

We saw a report handed down last week by the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee that said there are systematic problems in the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The Morrison-Joyce government's privatisation of public sector capability in DVA is responsible for record waiting times and reduced services to Australia's veterans. In the 2019-20 financial year, 41.6 per cent of the department's workforce was labour hire, including over 50 per cent of frontline claims-processing staff. The report found that replacing experienced public servants with external labour hire contractors has had a disastrous effect on services for veterans. Higher rates of labour hire contractors lead to unsustainable case loads, high staff turnover and the need to constantly retrain new staff, creating significant delays. The average processing time for an initial liability claim is now 193 days. This means a wait of over six months—and we know that delays in processing compensation claims have a direct impact on the mental health of our claimants.

The Morrison-Joyce government is once again proving that it doesn't know how to listen. For years, our veterans, their families and DVA staff have spoken up to demand change, but this government continues to outsource its responsibility. This government has chosen to raise a motion today talking about the benefits of a career in the ADF, but it needs to focus on listening and the tale being told by veterans and their families across this country. I was recently in Googong, where I met a person who had served in the Middle East. That person couldn't talk about their experience and simply said the support received since their service was not enough. I had a similar experience talking to a veteran in Talbingo. That person had served in Vietnam and said that, frankly, he feels like governments have abandoned him. These stories aren't unique.

We need to do more to support our Defence personnel when it comes to transitioning out of the ADF and into civilian life. We need to do more because, when we don't, our veterans fall through the cracks. This is something that is already happening far too often, with thousands of our veterans sleeping rough across this country. In New South Wales, one in 10 people sleeping rough is a veteran. Around 5,800 ex-service men and women have been homeless in the last 12 months. It's a national shame that so many people who have risked their lives and have served our country are homeless. Those people who stand tall with their medals on Remembrance Day and who march the streets on Anzac Day shouldn't have to sleep there too. The devastating and stark reality is that, in our nation, we have failed too many of our veterans. It's time to not only spruik the benefits of ADF service but also ensure that our veterans are looked after when they leave that service. This should be the aim of all governments.