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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, 26 November 2014


[Greetings omitted]

Thank you very much Mark. Can I particularly welcome Vice Admiral Russ Crane, the chair of the Prime Ministers’ Advisory Council on Veterans’ Mental Health and can I particularly welcome Dr Graeme Killer, who is the principle medical advisor for DVA. Graham is retiring on the 18th of December and I suspect this will probably be his last official function. I just ask you ladies and gentleman if you can join me in thanking Graeme for a lifetime of dedication.

Can I also welcome the other members of PMAC, and we have members and representatives from the National Aged Care and the Consultative Forum, the ESO Round Table, Younger Veterans Forum. And by the look of it we have got lots of members of the general community here, which I am very grateful for.

Ladies and Gentleman, I think it goes without saying that the Department is probably now in the process of undertaking the most dramatic change in its long and proud history. The face of the Department over the next five years will change as it has never changed before.

That is very much driven by the sad but inevitable decline of the number of our Second World War veterans and their widows and the rapid, increased number of contemporary veterans.

It is not well known that there are now well in excess of 72,000 men and women who served this nation since 1999, which is more than Vietnam, Korea, Malaya and Borneo combined. Business as usual is not an option.

If we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past, particularly as we did post-Vietnam, then we have enormous challenges, but I think even greater opportunities. I thank Russ and PMAC for hosting todays forum and, as Mark said, this is the start of the process and I am very pleased that you are here at the ground level.

A number of you heard me talk about mental health challenges that our ex-service community and indeed current serving community face. It was actually brought home to me on Sunday, when I had a phone call from my son-in-law who was talking about his cousin, who is based in Mildura. He served and is now a firefighter and he suffered a very, very serious bout of depression about five months ago. This was an active young man who almost overnight, found himself in a diabolical situation and with the support of his family, of his friends, of those he served with, the firefighters, his ex-service friends, he is now embarking on a walk from Mildura to Adelaide, I think just before Anzac Day next year. He is showing his support for his colleagues and he is getting enormous support, right around Australia, and that is what peer support is about.

Departments, governments, ministers do not create peer support. That is something that everyone in this room does. But what Governments can do is till the ground. Help plant the tree. Help stake it, help water it and help it to maturity and that is why I am so deeply honoured that so many of you here today are here to start this process.

We have got to be innovative. We can not be reactive. Everyone in this room knows what the outcome of being reactive is and that means you are addressing an issue after the horse has bolted. I am determined as Minister to as far as possible ensure that we are being proactive and minimise the risk of it not working, because failure is simply not an option for any of us. I know that Russ and the Council and my Department are acutely aware of that.

I was asked the other day how much we spend on mental health as a department and it is $179 million and I think last year it was $166 million. This is uncapped. There is not a cap on the mental health services that we provide and as you know we provide a comprehensive system which includes online mental health information, support, GP services, psychologists and social work services, trauma and recovery programs and in-hospital patient treatment. We are always looking for new ways to get the message out. I think it would be a great tragedy for us as a nation if someone who was serving or ex-serving suffered through lack of knowledge about what is available and quite frankly that is one of the greatest issues we have at the moment.

You might not be aware of this but on transition, I am only aware of about one in four people who are transitioning. Why? Because at the moment, until they make a claim, I do not know who those men and women are. This has got an historical background, and I am absolutely determined to lance the boil, because we have got to have a seamless transition between Defence and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. They are the same person who goes in at 18, who is still being cared for by my department when they are 80. We are trying to address what I see as a massive gap, driven by privacy reasons which I understand, but nonetheless, it is a matter that we do need urgently to address.

Yesterday I announced the launch of a program where DVA and Defence have joined together to start a new conversation with the ADF community and creating awareness of what is available. We released an education video, if I can read some of the words in there. The video aims to reinforce to current serving members, and I quote because: “No matter which stage of you’re at, it is DVA and Defence’s job to look after your family now and into the future,” and that is what is underpinning everything we are now doing with Defence and I want to acknowledge my colleagues in Defence, both Ministers and the Defence department, who have been very willing participants in changing the way we do things.

Yesterday I also launched, in Question Time, a program called Support when you need it. Now this is a part of the VVCS – it is about letting people know what services VVCS offers. We will be distributing laminated cards to ESOs and other organisations to get out to their members, so people understand what those services are. It is a matter that is deeply concerning to me that the VVCS emergency assistance helpline is under-utilised. It is under-utilised and I do not think there is a more vital service than the VVCS emergency line. This is about ensuring that people understand what help is there. You and I can not force people to access services, but you and I have got an absolutely pivotal role in ensuring that there is a level of knowledge out there with people who need services, to know where they are and how they can access them. We did some work about six months ago and we were horrified at the lack of knowledge about DVA services and that is why we are changing our approach.

The greatest challenge for me as Minister is that historically our engagement with the ex-service community has been via the VANs. It has been via those DVA shopfronts. The contemporary veterans do not use those shopfronts. The contemporary veterans interact with each other through the internet and through other mediums. The Department is absolutely acutely aware of this now, it has got to respond to a modern situation, and that is why I said to you before that business as usual is simply not an option.

Under the former Government, and I will give them due credit for this, which was in our Budget this year, was an extra $26.4 million over four years to go into mental health services and that includes non-liability treatment, which I think is equally important so there is assistance available whether it is service-related for PTSD, anxiety and other mental health issues.

It is a matter that I, as a civilian, can never really understand. The closest I have got to it is my son, who did his gap year in the army. That was five years ago. I was at the tail end of the Vietnam War and friends and I sat around because we were expecting that our number would be “rolled around that barrel” figuratively speaking, at some stage over the next couple of years. It did not occur, but we were in a situation where we needed to think about what lay ahead.

My son was in the ADF five years ago, on a gap year. He is still in regular contact with those men and women he went through Kapooka and Singleton and up to Palmerston with. Now I do not understand that because I have not served. What I do understand is that those bonds are strong from day one and as we said earlier on, this is not about changing the peer support among the ex-service community, it is about you and I adding value to what they are doing naturally through shared experience.

If I can finish on this note please: I do not think there is any greater obligation and responsibility that this nation faces at the moment. If we can get this right, if we can use opportunities like today for people who understand, who want to share and want to see the right outcome, then I think we can do really good things. Like you, I believe that failure is simply not an option. I thank you sincerely for being here today and the opportunity to speak to you.

Again, can I thank Russ and the Council for initiating this today. They are a source of fantastic advice to me. PMAC has only been going for six months, already we are starting to see some really good things. So Russ, thank you to you and the Council and thank you to the representatives of the Department who are here today and are an absolutely fundamental part of this as well. They, like me are determined to make sure we make the right changes for the future.

Thank you.


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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