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Previous Ministers' releases and speeches - 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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Friday. 23 May 2014
MINVA034

REMARKS AT THE VIETNAM VETERANS’ ASSOCIATION NATIONAL CONGRESS, SYDNEY

[Greetings omitted]

You know better than I do, that this nation has to ensure that those who have served are appropriately recognised and I think you know of my personal, deep commitment to not repeating the mistakes of the past and I will make specific reference to that during my contribution.

You also know that I am also passionately committed to ensuring that the next generation of young Australians understands what that sacrifice is as well and knows the when, where and why – I will again go through that later on - when we fought, where we fought and why we fought; the Centenary of Anzac is particularly important in that regard.

Clearly there has been a lot of discussion about the budget and I’m happy to talk about that both in the speech and after. I do say this in relation to the Budget: there was a requirement to take a lead in taking action - I think everyone acknowledges that.

There is some discussion in the community about how that has been done and I understand that and I’m sure that conversation will continue. But to do nothing was simply not an option. To do nothing would have in my view left our kids and grandkids with a legacy that, quite frankly, none of us in this room could have looked our kids and grandkids in the eye had we done that. I think it’s fair to say that if you don’t control debt, then debt starts to control you. There are many countries around the world that you’d be aware of, where debt has controlled them. The ramifications of that are significant.

Now I’m not going to make overtly political comments but I do need to put this debt into some context. There’s been accumulated budget deficits that were $191 billion, that’s $191 thousand million. Had we not done anything, there would have been further cumulative deficits of about another $123 thousand million.

Now sometimes these figures sort of roll off the tongue. The impact of that would have been about $25 000 for every man, woman and child in this country and we are currently borrowing $1 billion a month, that’s $1,000 thousand million a month.

Now, that is unsustainable. I know there are some issues in relation to indexation that you’re concerned about. But this budget was actually about ensuring that we could sustain that level of commitment both to those who have served, but also the wider community. Quite frankly we could not have guaranteed the sustainability of that if something was not done.

It is across the board, as you know, high income earners have got a surcharge, politicians have had their wages frozen for twelve months and things like the gold pass have gone.

Can I please confirm again as I have done publicly that there will be no co-payment for gold and white card holders. There will be no co-payment. The current pharmaceutical reimbursement arrangements for those who are accessing it will not change. So, they have been taken out of what was happening with the general community and then been set aside as part of that recognition of the uniqueness of military service.

And the other issue is the DFRDB. At Tweed Heads and at Geelong, I looked you all in the eye and I said ‘we will do something about the DFRDB’. I think there was a degree of cynicism, I understand that. But it has been delivered. The indexation arrangements that I came to you three years ago and said I promised that we would put into place, we will keep. The legislation that went through two months ago, having been knocked back in the Senate by the Labor Party and the Greens and others and then we tried again in the House of Representatives… common sense finally prevailed and the other parties accepted the legalisation and passed it two months ago. Those arrangements will not change - the indexation arrangements in that legislation will not change.

The budget for this year is just over $12 billion. $6.5 billion, that’s 6 and a half thousand million dollars for pensions, and health services about $5.4 billion. You need to put that figure into some context, that we’re actually borrowing that same amount at the moment to service debt. You need to put that figure into context, to see what it actually means. What $12 thousand million or $1,000 million a month borrowing actually means, it is the same as the Veterans’ Affairs budget.

Now, you’ll make your own views about this but what I ask you please is to look at this in a wider context and not just about how it impacts on us individually. As I said before, to do nothing was simply not an option. I said to you in Tweed Heads and Geelong that I was deeply concerned about the slashing of the BEST funding and the impact that had on not just this organisation but other ESO’s around the country. I said to you, I think the BEST funding is the glue that holds the ex-service community together and we’ve kept our promise in relation to that. We have put an extra $1 million into it. The applications have just opened and they’ve only just opened because there was a delay, by design. I went to the Ex-Service Organisations Round Table and said, ‘I’m not the one delivering this, you are the ones delivering it, you tell me how you want that extra $1 million spent. It’s not for the Minister to tell you. You’re the ones who are delivering it; you come back to me and tell me how you want it spent’. There were some discussions about that, that led to some slight delay in the opening of the applications and I’m sure that you will understand why.

We will be expanding access to the VVCS, where the VVCS is for ex-service members and their families and that’s an important focus and that was commenced under the former government – I will acknowledge that that was started by them – we do have the Anzac Centenary Local Grants Program which we’ve increased from $100 000 to $125 000.

Can I just talk to some more specific matters for you. Now I want to start with the Vietnam Veterans’ Family Study. As you know this was going to be 2016 and the former government said it would be in 12 months’ time. It was delayed again, now my understanding is it’ll be released later this year. This will be, as you know, a defining study. What I’ve clearly committed to doing is, before there is a government response, that we’re going to consult widely with the ex-service community about what the findings might be in that report. I’ve said to you what I would not do is to get the report and respond without actually engaging with those who have extraordinary interest in this and many of whom have participated.

There is another matter that I’ve raised briefly with you in the past but I do want to expand on – the mental health issue. Many of you may not be aware that since 1999 there’s been some 72 000 ADF members who have served overseas - 72 000. That’s more than served in Vietnam, Korea, Malaya and Borneo. So what obligations does that bring with it for me and for you? For the wider community? Well in my view the obligations it brings is to ensure that we don’t make the mistakes of the past, This is multifaceted, ladies and gentleman. I think one of the most important things is that where you suffered most was that there was no early intervention and there was no acknowledgement. Well I’ll be damned if that’s going to happen again.

The early intervention part comes in a variety of ways, from providing appropriate access to services and early. It’s about the issue of claims processing time. The Secretary is fully aware of this - it was the first thing I raised with him after I was sworn in. The current claims processing times are unacceptable. But there’s not a dispute about that, there’s not a dispute with me, there’s not a dispute with the Secretary. We moved very quickly to address some long outstanding claims that had the immediate impact of delaying some of the newer claims but in the last four months, having dealt with some of those, about a thousand of those older cases we’ve now seen an increase in the claims actually processed. If I did nothing else in three years - and I intend doing a lot more than this - I will get those claims processing times down, because that is very much an early intervention factor. If you’ve got people waiting 170 days then you are actually maximising the chance of things falling off the wheel, things going wrong and that is a huge challenge for us.

I’ve asked Vice Admiral Russ Crane to chair a reformatted, a revamped Prime Ministerial Advisory Council with a focus on veteran mental health. It’ll be co-chaired by Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG, and it will have various department representatives. One which I am very pleased about is Ryan Stokes - the Stokes family have been extraordinarily generous towards the ex-service community. I’m pleased that Ryan has come on board.

The biggest decision we have to make is how we’re going to engage with those contemporary Veterans. Now ‘business as usual’ was just not acceptable because, as you well know, their engagement is completely different to your engagement. They don’t, in the main, join ex-service organisations - that is just the way of the world. We have got to encourage them to do that but, equally importantly, we’ve got to find new ways of engaging with them. The social media that you and I do a bit of, these are other forms of modern communication now as pivotal to our focus to get to these young men and women so they understand what is there. They understand what DVA can do for them. I hope that will change the relationship between the contemporary veterans and the department - the spin off for that will be that they will get involved in ESO’s.

The other issue, and I’ll have more to say about this in the next month or so, is in relation to transition. What a lot of the younger guys and women have said to me is that if indeed they come out of the Defence Force, they want to transition into a job. That for them is the ultimate goal, because they know full well that for their family and for them that’s where they need to be as much as humanly and physically possible. I think it’s been, quite frankly, a very large hole in what we have been doing. I’ve instructed the Department to start to look at how we can have innovative ways of getting young men and women back into employment on transition. We’ve started that process and, as I say, I’ll have more to say about that in the near future.

On ANZAC Day this year, I had the extraordinary honour to represent our nation at Gallipoli. I had the great honour of speaking at both the Dawn Service and at Lone Pine - a very, very special time for me, in a personal sense.

The Centenary of Anzac is not going to be just about the next four years. It’s not just going to be about the memorials that we build or do up. It’s not just going to be about the community events that we’ve funded through the local community grants program, or through other DVA funded programs. It’s actually about whether, at the end of 2018, you and I have instilled in a new generation an understanding that the legacy is theirs to carry - that when you and I are no longer doing this, there is a generation of young men and women who understand what their obligations are. As I said, the when, where, why - the when we fought, the where we fought and the why we fought. The why we fought is just as important as the others, because why we fought are for the values that you fought to defend, that those who’ve served since you fought to defend and those who served before you fought to defend. I If we don’t come out of 2018 with those kids having an understanding that the freedoms they enjoy today were paid for in blood by others then we have failed. I am determined that that next generation who will be carrying the legacy, fully understand what their obligations are.

You’ve heard me talk about the contribution that Con Sciacca made with the Australia Remembers campaign - a pivotal and defining moment in this nation’s history in relation to the reengagement with young Australians. Con, as I’ve said before, can take enormous credit for what I think was a massive turn around in communities’ understanding of its obligations. And the young men and women who are there with their kids today at those dawn services in their tens of thousands are the kids that Con got to, through the Australian Remembers program. I’m determined to use the Centenary of Anzac to begin to engage that next generation so they understand what their responsibilities are.

In closing Ken, can I thank you for the great honour to open your conference and to be invited back again. I welcome the engagement with the Association which I have had both in opposition and in government. I understand that they’ll be things that we disagree on, in fact it would be unusual if there weren’t some things. Can I thank you for your contribution. Can I thank you for the work that you do for your colleagues around the nation. And again, collectively thank you very much for inviting me here today.

 

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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