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Media releases

The Hon Darren Chester MP
Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel

MEDIA RELEASE

16 October 2019

Ministerial statement — third annual statement on veterans and their families

PDF version of this Ministerial Statement (PDF 77 KB)

I ask leave of the House to give the third annual Ministerial Statement on Veterans and their Families.

I begin by acknowledging all those in this place who have served in the Australian Defence Force and those listening by broadcast by saying simply, thank you for your service.

Following the Federal election, I was honoured to be reappointed to the Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel portfolios — a responsibility I take very seriously.

I have met with thousands of serving personnel, veterans, and their families. I have listened to their stories — what's working and what needs to improve.

The Department of Veterans' Affairs has recognised that some veterans and their families do not have the best experience when they leave the Australian Defence Force.

However, I do want to correct some of the ongoing myths surrounding service in the ADF.

Not everyone who leaves the ADF is broken, busted and bad. 

For the vast majority of people, serving in the ADF is overwhelmingly a positive experience. It's good for the individual, it's good for our community and it's in our national interest.

They leave the ADF and transition into civilian life successfully, having had a career that has set them up with the skills, training and attitude to succeed. 

This is clearly shown through the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program, which has showcased the drive, entrepreneurship and leadership of our veterans.

Take Chris Mayfield OAM as an example. He is a third generation professional soldier, who transitioned in 2014 after 26 years of distinguished service.

Last year Chris won the Outstanding Contribution by an Individual to Veterans' Employment, at the Prime Minister Veterans Employment Awards.

He transferred his skillset to help Fortescue Metals Group set-up a veteran's employment initiative to help other veterans transfer their skills to the sector. 

To date, Chris has influenced FMG to engage 92 veterans and the feedback on the skills, attitudes and contributions of the veterans has been outstanding.

Chris has not only found himself a new career, but he has also helped others to do so — good for the individual, good for the community and in the national interest.

We are also very privileged to have more than 20 Members and Senators in this place who are veterans and collectively, we are all here for the same purpose — to put veterans and their families first. 

And this Government has achieved a lot, introducing and building a range of programs and services to support the health and wellbeing of veterans and their families.

Transition

Just as enlistment and basic training is an important part of the ADF, transition back into civilian life is equally important. 

Every year, more than 5,500 people leave the military so improving the transition experience is vital.

The Defence post-transition survey indicates that 26 per cent of ADF members are looking for work prior to transition. 

At three months post-transition this is down to 12 per cent, and by 12 months down to 8 per cent. 

While the majority of personnel leaving the ADF are well prepared, it can be difficult for some and that is why from January this year, Defence has adopted a needs-based approach to individualised transition. 

Regardless of time served, members can now access coaching, including career planning, full service documentation, skills recognition, resume preparation, job search programs, and financial literacy education.

Former ADF members are able to access this support, including employment support, for up to 12 months after transition.

All serving ADF members now have access to the two-day Job Search Preparation program at any time in their career.

For those personnel leaving for medical reasons with complex circumstances, Defence has introduced tailored assistance to gain civilian employment through the Transition for Employment program.

This tailored approach also includes early engagements and case management with DVA to ensure they are provided with the best support possible.

It is also important for all of us to know that the traditional view of a veteran has changed. 

While some choose to stay in service for the majority of their life, the average career in the ADF is now around eight years, meaning some may be leaving at age 25 or under. 

This can be an incredible shock to some and is why in January we launched the Personalised Career and Employment Program.

This program is targeted at those categorised 'at-risk' in the 18–24 year old cohort, who have served for less than four years and are transitioning for administrative or medical reasons.

Finding a job in civilian life is a critical step to a successful transition and one we are investing in. 

I regularly see the professionalism, dedication, leadership, teamwork and the ability of our ADF personnel to work in high-pressure environments.

What employer wouldn't want those skills in their workplace?

We all need to get the message out that employing a veteran is good for business.

Through the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program we have introduced the Veterans' Employment Toolkit.

This provides information to veterans on how to translate skills based on their defence rank, prepare a resume and job application, prepare for interviews and adjust to the civilian workplace.

As part of the Program, the Prime Minister and I announced the Veterans' Employment Commitment last November, inviting businesses to make a public commitment to the employment of veterans. 

As of today, more than 150 organisations have signed this Commitment.

And almost 2000 vacancies have been advertised on the Government's JobActive website, flagging defence force experience as desired.

Recognising the important role played by ex-service organisations, the most recent Budget provided $16.2 million to support SoldierOn, Team Rubicon and the Returned and Services League Australia to deliver programs to assist veterans find meaningful employment.  

The Government is also building on the Veterans' Employment Program by implementing a Support for Employment Program, which will support veterans who have not secured employment 12 months after separating from the ADF.

Mental health and wellbeing

The mental health and wellbeing of all Australians is a priority for this Government, and we have committed to meeting the mental health and wellbeing needs of those who have defended our nation, and their families.

Mental health is a complex issue, but one that is everyone's business — families, friends, employers, community organisations, governments and the ex-service community. 

In this year's Budget, the Government provided more than $11.5 billion to support more than 280,000 veterans and their families across Australia.

This includes more than $230 million in funding to support the mental health needs of veterans and their families. This funding is uncapped — if there is a need, it will be met.

All veterans are eligible to access mental health care for life for any mental health condition and we have expanded the veteran specific lifeline Open Arms — Veterans & Families Counselling, which provides professional mental health and wellbeing support to veterans and their families. 

These supports save lives, are needs-based, uncapped and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to any veteran who has served a single day in the ADF.

Separate to treatment of any mental health condition, we have made immediate income support available for those veterans with compensation claims for mental health conditions which are caused by their service. This is known as the Veteran Payment and includes access to whole-of-person rehabilitation for those with extra needs.

Building on current research commissioned by Government into the benefits of assistance dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we are now providing psychiatric assistance dogs to eligible veterans. 

This is an area where a number of veterans have told me first-hand the benefits of an assistance dogs — this is real action that responds to the needs of veterans.

We have established an initial panel of providers of psychiatric assistance dogs, which will be further extended through an open approach to market where other organisations will be able to apply to part of the panel.

A lot has been achieved in treating mental health and supporting veterans as they transition, however, some veterans have and do slip through the cracks and are victims of the scourge that is suicide.

When it comes to veteran suicide, the only acceptable number is zero.

Mental health and suicide prevention are very complex issues, and one of my priorities when I was re-appointed was to convene a Veteran Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit, bringing together experts from around Australia to plan the best way forward.

The Summit identified four priority areas — health care, transition, partnerships and engagement, communication and education. 

The Summit was the first step in a broad consultation process we have been undertaking to help reshape the Veteran Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy and develop a National Action Plan to improve veterans' mental health and wellbeing, and to prevent suicide.

We are consulting closely with veterans and their families, and across government, peak bodies, ex-service organisations, researchers and service providers.

Our discussions are taking place in parallel with the National Mental Health Commission's consultation on mental health, and the 10-year 'Towards Zero' National Action Plan being led by the Minister for Health.

I intend to release the Strategy and Action Plan by the end of this year.

DVA is also piloting two important suicide prevention initiatives to support vulnerable veterans.

The Veteran Suicide Prevention Pilot provides assertive outreach, follow-up care and practical support to veterans following their discharge from hospital for a suicide attempt, ideation or risk of suicide.

Support Coordinators work with individual veterans to develop a personalised safety plan, which links them to support provided by DVA and ex-service organisations. 

Under our second Pilot—the Coordinated Veterans' Care Mental Health Pilot—veterans receive coordinated care from their GP to help manage mild to moderate mental health concerns and pain, complemented by a self-help coaching app.

This early intervention aims to promote better mental health outcomes for veterans, especially those who live where mental health services may be difficult to access. 

The community plays an important role in supporting veterans and their families and this training will help ensure there are caring and trained people available to provide that initial support when and where it is needed by veterans.

At the election we committed to investing $30 million in a network of Veteran Wellbeing Centres in partnership with ex-service organisations and state and territory governments.

The centres will be located in six locations across the country — Nowra, Wodonga, Darwin, Townsville, Adelaide and Perth — providing local solutions to local communities. 

The Centres will act as a one-stop-shop for government and non-government services, including connections with local health services, community organisations, advocacy and wellbeing support.

The Wellbeing Centres are part of the Government's commitment to changing the focus of the veteran support system from an illness model to a wellbeing model, empowering veterans during transition and into their new life beyond service.

In the last Budget, the Government provided an additional $4 million for a partnership between Open Arms and the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL) to deliver a national program of mental health training to up to 7,000 people across Australia.

Open Arms is also partnering with Defence and Phoenix Australia in three innovative clinical research programs.

The Government has extended the Provisional Access to Medical Treatment trial allowing veterans to continue to have access to treatment for specified conditions before their claim is approved.

This trial allows veterans to get the treatment they need faster and reduces the risk of further deterioration of their condition.

Australians can be assured that this Government is working with veterans and their families every day to improve services and support.

I encourage anyone in the veteran community who is struggling with their mental health to engage with DVA and Open Arms on 1800 011 046. That's 1800 011 046.

Women and families

The contribution of women who serve in the ADF, but also the contribution and sacrifice of women whose partners serve is immeasurable.

And families are the primary support network for members throughout ADF service and beyond and while we ask a lot of our Defence personnel, we also ask a lot of their families.

It is important we recognise — and seek to better understand — the service and sacrifice of women and families, and actively seek to improve the support provided them.

In 2016, the Government established the Female Veterans and Veterans' Families Policy Forum, which provides a platform to generate ideas to address issues facing their communities; to co-design DVA policy and services; and to build networks.

One of the issues raised at this Forum was the inequity between former spouses and former de facto partners of veterans around the Partner Service Pension. 

In the last Budget, we allocated $6.2 million over four years to remove this inequity and I am proud the enabling legislation passed this Parliament just a few weeks ago.

Another idea generated by the Forum was to create a Council for Women and Families United by Defence Service, which was established last December.

The Council is chaired by Army veteran and current Chief Executive of BAE Systems Australia, Ms Gabby Costigan.

Its role is to make a difference for veterans and their families by providing timely informed advice to the Government, driving policy outcomes and advocating on behalf of women and families united by defence service. 

Transformation of DVA

Under our Government, DVA is changing for the better.

DVA acknowledges that in the past some veterans have had difficulty dealing with the department, but it is changing to meet the needs of veterans of all ages and their families now and into the future.

The Government has committed nearly $500 million to-date to improve DVA, by building a better client experience, making it faster, simpler and easier for veterans and their families to access services, whenever and wherever they need them. 

DVA is listening to veterans and their families to understand how it can do things better, and involving them directly in those changes. 

DVA is now better connected with Defence, sharing data and enabling it to develop more robust policy based on evidence and respond more effectively to needs of veterans.

This is why I support a question in the 2021 Census regarding ADF service. The data would help DVA and ex-service organisations improve and better target services and support — particularly to the large proportion of veterans currently unknown to DVA.

DVA has consolidated its telephone numbers, making it easier for clients to speak to the right person at the first point of contact.

DVA's partnership with the Department of Human Services is also providing more opportunities for veterans and their families to connect with DVA through the DHS Mobile Service Centres and agent networks.

Under this Government, DVA has developed and introduced an online service portal, MyService, which has streamlined processing for 40 of the most commonly claimed conditions, with some conditions instantly approved. 

I am advised around 100,000 veterans have signed up for MyService and this number continues to grow.

MyService also enables DVA clients to apply for free mental health care, update their details and view digital versions of their Veteran Card with a list of accepted conditions online.

DVA is also continuing to digitise its files with more than 300,000 veteran files, or the equivalent of more than 8.6 kilometres of veteran records, already digitised making it faster and easier to process claims.

Productivity Commission

DVA's transformation has been informed by a number of reviews into how services and support are delivered to veterans and their families.

As a result of a recommendation of the Senate Inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel, the Constant Battle, the Government asked the Productivity Commission to initiate an inquiry into the veteran compensation and rehabilitation system.

The Productivity Commission's final report, A Better Way to Support Veterans, was provided to the Government on 27 June and tabled on 4 July.

The Government acknowledges this report is of great interest to the ex-service community, and since its release my office has received considerable feedback from individuals and organisations. 

The report offers the Government a unique opportunity to consider fundamental reform of the whole veterans' support system to improve outcomes for veterans and their families.

It is some 900 pages, has 69 recommendations and 26 findings.

The key recommendations are far-reaching, proposing major changes to fundamental aspects of the current system of support to veterans and their families — across structures, governance, legislation, policy, delivery operations and services.

I look forward to the Government's response to this report in due course — which will include our response to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade report on its inquiry into transition from the ADF report, and the Veterans' Advocacy and Support Services Scoping Study report. 

Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant

Australians are rightly very proud of our current and former serving personnel and the Government is committed to ensuring they are appropriately acknowledged and supported for their service to Australia.

Last year the Prime Minister and I announced that the Government would develop an Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant to be enacted in legislation, so the nation can recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service and support veterans and their families every day of the year.

It is an important and historic step. The Covenant includes an oath, a new Veteran Card, a Veteran Lapel Pin and a Reservist Lapel Pin.

This legislation is currently before the Parliament and we stand ready to distribute the Veteran Covenant and Lapel Pins to the veteran community promptly once it is enacted into law.

Commemorations

One of the key institutions that ensure our veterans' service is appropriately acknowledged is the Australian War Memorial — it embodies our nation's promise to never forget. It's a place for all generations of Australians to come to honour, learn and heal. 

The Government has committed $498.7 million over nine years to a significant redevelopment of the Memorial.

This project will benefit veterans from more recent conflicts by greatly enhancing the Memorial's capacity to tell their stories in the same way it does the First and Second World Wars, Korea and Vietnam.

The new galleries will expand how the Memorial explores Australia's peacekeeping story and create, for the first time, a permanent display dedicated to showing what our nation does to prevent war in the first place.

Along with the Memorial, my department delivers a range of domestic and overseas commemorative activities to ensure the service and sacrifice of our service personnel is appropriately acknowledged and commemorated by the Australian community.

The centenary of the First World War Armistice last November officially concluded the Anzac Centenary period and I was privileged to represent the Government at events both here and overseas and I am proud of the way the commemorations were delivered during the centenary.

Since then there have been other significant commemorative events, including the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Binh Ba, the 75th anniversaries of the D-Day landings and the Cowra Breakout, and the 20th Anniversary of the deployment of the ADF contingent to International Force in East Timor (INTERFET)among others.

These commemorations offer Australians the opportunity to reflect on the service and sacrifice of our veterans, and their families.

As do exhibitions such as the 'Thank you for your service' photographic exhibition which I had the honour of launching in April at Sydney's Anzac Memorial featuring the work of 2018 Press Gallery Journalist of the Year, Alex Ellinghausen.

The exhibition showcased the diversity of current ADF members, veterans and their families.

Looking ahead, our attention turns to the Second World War. 

Last month we commemorated the 80th Anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War, signalling the start of important commemorative events over the next five years.

To mark this period in our history, the Government has committed $10 million to the digitisation of Second World War service records held by the National Archives of Australia.

The digitisation of service records from the First World War provided an invaluable resource for all Australians. Similarly, we will make the Second World War service records freely available to help educate current and future generations about the nearly one million Australians who served from 1939–45.

DVA is also working on the second stage of the Anzac 360 virtual reality app series, which will focus on Australians during the Second World War in South East Asia and the Pacific, with key stories including Hellfire Pass in Thailand and the Sandakan Death Marches in Borneo. 

Delivering on our election commitment, the Government is expanding the Saluting Their Service (STS) Commemorative Grants Program, by providing an additional $10 million over four years, with a particular focus on commemorating the Second World War. 

I am pleased to advise that the scoping studies to develop a new interpretative centre in Papua New Guinea and to replace the existing interpretative centre at Sandakan Memorial Park in Malaysia are underway. 

The interpretive centres will explore the Australian experience of the Papuan and New Guinea campaigns and describe the experiences of those who suffered and died while in captivity at the Sandakan Prisoner of War Camp or on the Death Marches during the Second World War. 

I can also advise the scoping study for a new interpretive site at Lemnos, commemorating the role of Australian nurses and doctors during the Gallipoli Campaign on the former site of an Australian field hospital is well advanced.

Our forward commemorative program will include the continued delivery of the iconic Anzac Day dawn services in Turkey and France, combined with nationally broadcast commemorative service events for significant military anniversaries within Australia.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this Government is committed to caring for those who have served our country and their loved ones, and to ensuring the flame of remembrance continues to burn brightly in current and future generations of Australians.

And all Australians can be rightly proud that the Government spends more than $11.5 billion a year to support our veterans and their families. 

Year-on-year, this Government has increased this support, and importantly, has made accessing services and support easier and quicker. 

While we have achieved a lot, there remains significant work ahead.

I look forward to continuing to work closely with veterans, their families, ex-service organisations, my colleagues and those Opposite to put veterans and their families first and further enhance services and support. 

ENDS

MEDIA CONTACTS:

Rachel Tharratt: 02 6277 7820
DVA Media: 02 6289 6466

Office of the Hon Darren Chester, Canberra ACT

Open Arms — Veterans and Families Counselling provides support for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families. Free and confidential help is available 24/7. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 1800 011 046 or +61 8 8241 4546) or visit www.OpenArms.gov.au