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Speeches

The Hon Darren Chester MP
Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel

SPEECH

Friday, 18 October 2019

Legacy National Conference, Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo

Introduction

I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we are meeting today and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

I would also like to acknowledge:

  • Mr Rick Cranna OAM, Chairman of Legacy Australia
  • Mr Stephen Lee, President of Bendigo Legacy
  • Mr Scott Warr, Legacy Australia CEO
  • Club presidents
  • Legatees

I am delighted to be here at your national conference.

To those veterans and the family members of veterans in the room today – thank you for your service.

Over more than a century, hundreds of thousands of men and women who have served in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) have given their life or their health. Legacy has been there to care for their families, and for that, this Government is extremely grateful.

Legacy does a remarkable job assisting widows and families to get the support they are entitled to, as well as providing them access to education, medical and social support, and I want to personally pass on my gratitude to the work all of you here do in service of veterans and their families.

I had the privilege of being at the launch of Legacy Week this year at the Australian War Memorial and was touched by the story of a young woman who spoke there.

Kathryn Christie is a mother, an Army Officer, a war veteran and a widow.

She bravely retold her story — her trauma of experiencing domestic violence, her loss from her husband’s death by suicide, and her experience with Legacy.

Kathryn recalled how following her husband’s death, while already trying to cope with the grief and shock, she was confounded with paperwork and delays.

She found help from Canberra Legacy and importantly, she spoke of the profound restorative healing of the caring male Legatees who had helped her through this very difficult time.

It was a heart wrenching story, which reinforced to me why we are transforming DVA and the work still ahead of us in making sure the department is meeting the needs of veterans and their families, when and where they’re needed.

It also illustrated why organisations like Legacy are so important.

Take, for example, the story of Trent, the son of an ADF member.

His mother died suddenly when he was fourteen and his relationship with his father broke down to the point where he had to leave home at sixteen.

He couch surfed and occasionally slept rough.

Then in stepped Melbourne Legacy.

Trent now has a place to live and Legacy has provided him with a bed, a laptop and a phone. He has returned to his studies and he has access to mental health support.

A Legatee supports Trent and is there to assist and guide him. With the help of Legacy, Trent is building a positive future.

It is people like Kathryn and Trent and many other beneficiaries who are the unsung work of Legacy.

And none of it would be possible without the wonderful Legatees who give so much of their time and energy.

Here in Bendigo, Tom Iser—who sadly died last year—served as a Legatee for more than 70 years following his own war service. The dedication of Legatees across the country is second to none.

And then there’s my old mate Harry Robert in Sale who sends me a Legacy badge in the mail each year with an invoice!

Today I would like to talk to you about the work this Government is doing to improve the services and support we provide to veterans and their families.

Mental health and wellbeing

The mental health and wellbeing of those who have served is of enormous importance to this Government.

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.

The Government currently invests more than $230 million a year in veteran mental health. This funding is uncapped, meaning if there is a need, funding is available.

It’s a national tragedy that more than 3,000 Australians take their own lives each year and there is no single solution to this sad and complex issue.

In June, I convened a Veteran Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit that brought together experts from around Australia to inform the Government’s approach to veteran mental health, wellbeing and suicide prevention.

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

The Summit was part of a broad consultation process we have been undertaking to help the Government 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.

The Government is listening to the feedback we are receiving and I am looking forward to releasing the Veteran Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy and National Action Plan by the end of this year.

Assistance dogs

My department is also conducting a four-year trial of psychiatric assistance dogs for up to 20 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as an adjunct to clinical treatment in partnership with La Trobe University and the Centre for Service and Therapy Dogs Australia (CSTDA).

Evidence from the trial will help improve and inform future policy and contribute to the international literature in this space.

In addition, I am delighted that my department will soon be providing psychiatric assistance dogs to eligible veterans in addition to the treatment and management of PTSD.

I recently announced two companies, Smart Pups Assistance Dogs and CSTDA, have been chosen to be the first suppliers to provide assistance dogs to veterans.

It is my view that this program will change lives and save lives.

The introduction of assistance dogs will allow the Department to respond to the needs of veterans, while continuing to accumulate evidence through the separate work underway with La Trobe University.

RSL assist

In the last Budget, the Government provided an additional $4 million across the next four years for a new partnership between Open Arms and the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL) to deliver a national program of mental health training, to help volunteers recognise people at risk and offer intervention and support.

It is expected up to 7,000 people across Australia will have access to the mental health training.

Access to this additional mental health training will ensure there are caring and trained people available to provide that initial support when and where it is needed by veterans.

Wellbeing centres

In April, the Government announced an investment of $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— Wodonga, Nowra, Darwin, Townsville, Adelaide and Perth.

Last week I visited the Perth site where works are already well underway.

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 to achieve greater independence for themselves and their families.

Veteran Health Check

Also from 1 July this year, anyone who transitions from the ADF (with at least one day continuous full-time service, including Reservists), can access an annual Veteran Health Check from their GP each year for the first five years after transition.

Veterans are most at risk of mental and physical health conditions in the years after they first transition from the ADF. The Veteran Health Check will help veterans stay on top of their health and find out about any concerns early.

Transformation of DVA

Under our Government, DVA has—and is—changing for the better.

DVA acknowledges that in the past some veterans have had a difficult experience dealing with the department. To that end, DVA has been progressing a transformation program so it can meet the current and future needs of veterans of all ages and their families.

Over consecutive Budgets, the Government will be committing nearly $500 million to improving DVA, by making it faster, simpler and easier for veterans and their families to access services, whenever and wherever they need them.

DVA’s transformation puts veterans and their families at the heart of everything we do.

A great deal of work has been completed to date, however, there is still much more to do.

DVA is developing a better understanding of veterans and their families by analysing its data and expanding its data sharing capability with Defence.

It’s also 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’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 which go into communities that wouldn’t normally have access to a walk in office.

Under the Coalition Government, DVA has developed and introduced an online service portal, MyService, which supports clients lodging their claims online. In some circumstances, it provides an almost immediate decision on particular claims.

Streamlined processing is available via MyService for 40 of the most commonly claimed conditions, with some conditions able to be instantly approved through computer based decision making.

Productivity Commission

I would now like to turn to the Productivity Commission’s final report of its inquiry into compensation and rehabilitation for veterans, A Better Way to Support Veterans, which was tabled by the Government on 4 July.

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 over their lifetimes.

I am aware that Legacy provided two submissions to the Productivity Commission inquiry.

The final report contained some 900 pages, 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.

The Productivity Commission has recommended DVA be retained, but with a greater focus on strategic policy. The Government is committed to a stand-alone DVA to represent the needs of veterans and their families.

While significant progress has been made transforming DVA, more needs to be done.

The Government is carefully considering the report and listening to the views of the veteran community.

I look forward to announcing the Government’s response in due course.

Women and Families

Better supporting women and families has been an area of great focus for the Government in recent times and where we are making significant progress.

The contribution of women who serve and that of families to the defence of our nation is immeasurable.

Families are the primary support network for members throughout ADF service and beyond.

While we ask a lot of our Defence personnel, we also ask a lot of their families.

For women who wear our nation’s uniform, they are also mothers, partners, sisters and daughters. This brings with it its own set of unique challenges.

In the last Budget, the Government allocated $6.2 million over four years to remove the inequity between former spouses and former de facto partners of veterans around the Partner Service Pension.

Also, where special circumstances exist, including domestic abuse, former partners will remain eligible to receive the Partner Service Pension until they enter a new relationship.

I am very pleased that the enabling legislation passed the Parliament recently.

We’re also engaging with women and families through a number of important forums including the Female Veterans and Veterans’ Families Policy Forum and Council for Women and Families United by Defence Service.

Conclusion

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today.

I wish you a successful Conference. I understand you will be having some important discussions this afternoon about the future of Legacy as the organisation heads towards its centenary and beyond.

On behalf on the Government, I thank you again for the work you do to care for the families of those who have served.

I look forward to continuing to work with you in the months and years ahead to further improve services and support to veterans and their families.

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 8 8241 4546) or visit www.OpenArms.gov.au