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Previous Ministers' releases and speeches - Senator The Hon. Michael Ronaldson

Senator the Hon. Michael Ronaldson
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC
Special Minister of State

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Wednesday, 20 November 2013

OPENING STATEMENT BY SENATOR THE HON. MICHAEL RONALDSON MINISTER FOR VETERANS’ AFFAIRS, MINISTER ASSISTING THE PRIME MINISTER FOR THE CENTENARY OF ANZAC AND SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE.
SENATE FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE COMMITTEE SUPPLEMENTARY BUDGET ESTIMATES WEDNESDAY 20 NOVEMBER 2013

Chair,

I welcome the opportunity to make an opening statement as the new Minister and thank the committee for its indulgence.

Having been the shadow minister for three years – including conducting more than 100 veterans forums across the nation and nine Senate Estimates hearings - it could be said that I am no stranger to the portfolio, however as committee members will appreciate the challenges facing a Minister take on a completely different perspective.

Prior to the election, the Coalition announced a detailed policy document and agenda for Government.  Underpinning these commitments was our four pillar approach to veterans’ affairs:

  1. Recognising the unique nature of military service;
  2. Maintaining a stand-alone Department of Veterans’ Affairs;
  3. Tackling mental health challenges for veterans and their families; and
  4. Supporting veterans through adequate advocacy and welfare services

We will deliver each of our commitments set out in our Plan for veterans and their families..

Last week, the Coalition delivered on our election commitment to deliver a Ministerial Statement in relation to the Centenary of Anzac.  That statement detailed progress on Centenary preparations to date and I do not propose to revisit those matters in this statement tonight.

Chair,

The challenges facing the Department cannot be underestimated.

Nor can the need for appropriate responses be overstated. 

As generally acknowledged this nation has one of, if not the best, repatriation systems in the world.  It has been built on by successive governments of all political persuasions over many decades.  We can be proud of that but never use it as an excuse not to do more in order to meet future challenges.

I have spent considerable time with the new Secretary, Simon Lewis, along with senior staff since my swearing in to take stock of where we are and what will be required in the short, medium and long term.  I do not underestimate the impact of ever reducing resources brought about by the previous government’s failures to properly manage our nation’s finances.   As such, the Secretary and I are focussed on the need to do more with less.

Over the past three years, I have repeatedly said that if we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past then we have learned nothing.

The face of the Department is set to change at a rate not seen in its proud history.  My challenge, and that of the Secretary and every staff member is to best prepare ourselves for that.  Having now met so many people throughout the department I am impressed by their level of dedication and I am sure that they are equal to the task that lies ahead.

When I spoke at a recent staff function shortly after my appointment I spoke to them along the lines that we must not be fearful of the challenge but rather be fearful of failure.

To put the changing face of the Department and the urgent requirement for a significant shift in approach into context, I would like to detail the Department’s expectation of our client base over the next five years.

Over the past twelve months, the sad but inevitable decline of our World War Two veteran population has continued.  As we speak, more than 63 per cent of the Department’s more than 300,000 clients are aged 70 and over.  In the last fifteen years, as many young men and women have served their nation overseas as served in Vietnam – therefore, we must prepare ourselves to meet their challenges, and the challenges faced by their families, at the same time as continuing to provide services for older veterans and their families.

Of the Department’s current clients, more than 90 per cent are clients covered by the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, or VEA, with an average age of 76.3 years.  In ten years time, the number of VEA clients is projected to decline by more than 40 per cent.

On the other hand, clients covered by the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act – the MRCA -  which provides compensation for illnesses and injuries sustained after 1 July 2004, has 14,412 clients with an average age of 36.4 years.  This will only increase in the years ahead. 

The community must accept the changing face of our veteran community as much as the Department must continue to adapt to it.

I have said before, and the Department agrees, that we will face an increasing number of claims and this Department and Government more widely must be ready to respond quickly and effectively.

Just as the Department faces a rapid shift in needs of those that it serves, so too do the nation’s ex-service organisations and particularly the RSL.  The latter’s challenges, I know, are acknowledged by them and the RSL is moving to address them.

For all involved there must be an increased sense of urgency while at the same time not responding in a knee-jerk manner which would put at risk sensible decision making.

While the Department has done much to elevate this issue, it is remarkable that after so many years the mental health issues confronting veterans of all conflicts and their families are still spoken of in hushed terms.

The time has now come to stop treating this issue with kid-gloves and get on with identifying its causes, its effects and, equally importantly, what may be exacerbating its symptoms.  If it is good enough for people like John Cantwell and Keith Payne VC then it surely must be similarly so for the rest of us.

Can I also say that addressing the mental health needs of veterans is a challenge not only for this Department, but for all governments as well as for veterans and their families.  Early intervention is undoubtedly the surest way to minimise the risk of escalating symptoms which in the worst cases can lead to tragic loss of life.

The challenge for the Department is to have in place access to the services required for early intervention.  The challenge for veterans and their families is to acknowledge their health issues early rather than later; when the challenges are multiplied and the opportunities for recovery are minimised.

As many veterans and current serving members have said to me, the reluctance to seek assistance or acknowledgement of mental health issues can be motivated by many factors, including fear of failure, an overwhelming feeling that they are letting down their mates and families and, also, the potential impacts on their careers.

I acknowledge all of these concerns without hesitation.

Anecdotally, a successful first interaction between a veteran or their family and the Department could be the difference between a productive relationship or something which becomes more challenging for both concerned.

Can I now detail the direction I have asked the Department to take which is both a mixture of proactive and reactive measures.

The Department must, as a matter of urgency, address claims processing times.  It is my long-held and very strong view that this can potentially be a contributing factor in escalating the challenges faced by veterans in the transition and early post-transition stages.  The current processing times are unacceptable and the Secretary is personally committed to addressing this.  He knows and shares my strong views on this matter and while they cannot be addressed overnight, addressed they must be.

Over the last six weeks the Secretary and I have been discussing the ongoing roles and responsibilities of the many groups advising the Department and the Minister to better focus that advice on meeting future challenges.  I hope to be in a position earlier in the new year to announce possible changes in this area.

Chair, as I have said before: I have not served and I do not pretend to know what it is to have served.  Similarly, unless you have served in the ADF, or are the family of someone who has served, it is difficult to fully understand the impacts of military service.  In acknowledging that, I do have a very clear understanding that ex-service people will often prefer to deal with their own because it is often someone with a shared experience who can better understand the outcomes of that experience.

It is for this reason that the Government will be restoring funding for advocacy, welfare and training services in the BEST programme by $1 million per annum, to take the funding back to where it was prior to the former government’s inexplicable slashing of resources for these services in 2011.

My view in Opposition about the need for a greater presence by veterans in the Department is well known.  So too are my views about staff training and interaction with veterans in the training and engagement process.  In the very early stages of my Departmental briefings, I requested the Department come back to me with solutions, not suggestions, to action this.

In closing, Chair, can I ask the veteran community to work with myself and the Department to help meet the enormous challenges that we face.  While not of its making, the current Government has again inherited an extremely difficult financial situation.  Whilst we will maintain entitlements, and meet in full all election commitments, including to deliver fair indexation from 1 July 2014 for DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants and their families aged 55 and over, this financial situation will impact on the Government’s ability to extend current entitlements or address unmet expectations.

I welcome with open arms those who want to be part of the way forward and hope that those who wish to comment from the sidelines will accept that to constructively participate is to help drive change.

I thank the Committee for its indulgence.

Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) and Veterans Line can be reached 24 hours a day across Australia for crisis support and free and confidential counselling. Phone 1800 011 046

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