Saturday, 20 June 2015

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


[Greeting omitted]

It is a great pleasure to join you again today, you know better than anyone that we must never forget the service and sacrifice of our veterans and I want to again convey to you my deep, personal commitment to ensuring that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past and that we do provide the support needed for our returning men and women.

We must also do whatever we can to ensure that the future generations of young Australians understand as well what that service and sacrifice is for them in a personal sense. The freedoms that we enjoy today have come at a huge price. It is incumbent on you and I to ensure that our kids understand, the next generation of young Australians understand, what their responsibilities are as well as what their rights are, because, without responsibility, there are no rights and that’s been an important part of the Centenary of Anzac and Century of Service commemorations.

I am going to touch on the budget today, as it relates to you and also about the commemorative events that lie ahead.  I have said before we have a huge opportunity over the next four years to engender in our kids a level of understanding that one of your former Queensland federal members of parliament, Con Sciacca, did with the Australia Remembers program. This is an opportunity that you and I, quite frankly, must ensure that we maximise with another generation of young Australians who understand.  I think we can be rest assured that they will reward us accordingly.

There has been in the press I acknowledge that, and you’re probably all aware but, we did in this budget, not proceed with proposals on indexation that were in the 2014 budget. So that basically means that DVA pensions and DVA support payments will continue to be indexed twice yearly, on the best of the MTAWE, PBLCI and CPI as has been the case for a number of years and indeed this is consistent with our pledge before the last election in relation to indexation of the DFRDB and DFRB pensions.

That decision has come on the back of considerable feedback from you and your strong views about that indexation issue.

Before I talk about some of the budget matters, I do want to talk, briefly at the moment, there will be more about this later on, about one of the most important and challenging issues that you and I face and that is veterans’ mental health and the potential ramifications of that. Of course, it is well known to each and every one of us in this room. It is a significant challenge for the veteran community and indeed it is a challenge for the wider community.

We have learnt important lessons from the past. They continue to inform our approach today and this is a completely different and new social environment of the 21st century. You know as well as I do, support and mental health services for our Vietnam veterans has also left an important legacy or contemporary veterans and that legacy includes the establishment of the VVCS.

You and I know also that contemporary veterans are technology savvy, sourcing information online, often using mobile devices and the range of online platforms available to them to promote mental health support, including social media channels such as Facebook and YouTube, as well as online and mobile apps.

I recently launched the ‘High Res’ app, with the Assistant Minister for Defence and it has been launched alongside more traditional support services, to provide tools to help manage stress, build resilience and optimise performance for current and ex-service men and women as well as their families.

Just briefly with the budget overview. There is $12.1 billion in the DVA Budget; about $6.5 billion of that goes immediately out in income support and pensions. $5.5 billion of that goes out in health care treatment and there was an allocation of about $88.7 million for commemorations and the maintenance of the war graves.

That budget will support 316,000 veterans and dependents and clients of the department.   Out of interest the average spend on DVA clients now is at its highest level on record at $40,650 per annum, which is marginally up and that reflects, I think, the changing nature of the department and the requirements of the department to start engaging further with our contemporary veterans.

New spending in the portfolio was offset by a continuation of a pause in fees paid to allied health professionals. This measure was first introduced by the former government in 2013, we have continued that, and I just want to assure you that despite some recent, I think politically motivated, media coverage, this measure is affecting providers and is not a cut in service to veterans.

Some of those new initiatives include the following:

There’s an additional $10 million over the four years, to increase the number of dedicated case coordinators to improve service delivery to our clients with complex claims.

The number of complex claims for our returning men and women is increasing. Many veterans have multiple conditions and at least one mental health condition. The needs of these veterans also require greater interaction with DVA, to navigate compensation, health and welfare entitlements.  This initiative is not to be taken in isolation. It comes on the back of my real and concerted effort to reduce the times taken to process claims for compensation, which has been an issue I know, particularly for the advocates in this room, for a long time and of course, on the back of that, we will also restored the BEST funding of $1 million, which was removed by the former government about three years ago.

We’ve put an extra $700,000 into the Veterans’ Vocational Rehabilitation Scheme to improve its operation.

This funding will help veterans receiving a disability pension to increase their participation in the workforce through a range of measures, including allowing intermediate rate veterans to work up to 20 hours before their disability pension is affected.

This is the most significant change in this area in three decades and I think you know that I am deeply and personally committed to provide veterans with the opportunity to work. It provides self-esteem and it provides families with additional support.

This investment is aimed to help veterans returning to work to step down if they are required to do so, while still maintaining ongoing support.

We’ve also introduced, well we’ve extended the former government’s Telehealth for Veterans trial, for a further 18 months. We want to test if in-home monitoring is a safe and efficient way to complement face-to-face consultation with GPs and help veterans stay at home longer and reduce unplanned hospital admissions.

There has also been $35.5 million in the budget to enable solemn, dignified and respectful commemoration over the Centenary of Anzac and Century of Service.

As part of that funding, I am very pleased to announce today a partnership between the RSL, the national RSL and indeed the state RSL, to deliver the 70th anniversary of VP Day and the end of the Second World War.

This is a very important commemorative event. More than one million Australians served in the Second World War. Now, 70 years on, there are fewer than 50,000 of these remarkable Australians still alive.

The $200,000 grant that I have given to the national executive will enable us to support an appropriate commemorative event.

Under the model proposed, there will be significant event in Brisbane, as well as other events throughout the nation.  Because of the timing of this -  it was 12 noon Tokyo time when Japan signed an unconditional surrender – we will mark those time 70 years on, depending on where we are, so it will be 1 o’clock in Brisbane time, 12.30pm Adelaide time and 11am Perth time.  This will provide the Second World War veterans and their families with the opportunity to reflect on those 70 years at events both at home and at Brisbane.

I want to acknowledge and thank the RSL, I want to acknowledge and thank the state branch for making this work.

Ladies and Gentleman, you all know the validation of service and sacrifice is paramount to the mental health and wellbeing of all veterans, particularly our contemporary veterans.

Whenever you’ve heard me say that the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan and events at FSB Coral and Balmoral as well as Binh Bah are as important as the Centenary of Anzac as the First World War.

We must honour our living veterans as we honour those who have fallen, the Anzac legend 100 years ago.

We have recently announced our plans for next year and we will honour those men and women, in the Army, Navy and Air Force, who served this nation with such distinction during the Second World War.

I want to acknowledge the work that has been done by the RSL, the VVAA, the VVFA and others to prepare for this anniversary.

This will include a service in Canberra at the National Vietnam Forces Memorial and subject to final negotiations with the Vietnamese Government,  we will also conduct a commemorative mission to Vietnam. We all need to accept that, in all likelihood, the mission will be small, but those discussions are still continuing with the Government of Vietnam.

We will also be introducing a small grant program to assist with those commemorative activities at a more local level.

Ladies and Gentlemen, as part of next year, I was approached by a number of gentlemen in November last year, regarding bring home the member from Terendak.

I listened to what they said. And I listened to the rationale for bringing these men home. I went and looked closer, not to see why we couldn’t do it, but to see what would stand in the way of getting it done.

We have announced that we will be bringing them back. This rights a 50 year wrong.

It is completely untenable for this nation to treat those in the same theatre of war differently.  You’re probably aware that the Prime Minister, supported by the Leader of the Opposition, in Canberra several weeks ago made an announcement about this. I had the great honour to be with three of the widows whose men are coming home.  I was with a mission in Borneo last week and broke away from the mission at the tail end and went and met with the Malaysian Ministers and went to Terendak myself to see it.

I want these men home as much as you do.  They will be accorded full military honours on their return and the families will make the decision on where they go after that.

The only thing I ask is, as I asked Ken Foster and the late Tim McCombe and I asked your national president, I don’t want you, please, to put pressure on the families to do this. This is a deeply personal decision for them and we must respect those who want to leave those men and the dependants where they are. I personally spoke to all five widows, three of them want their men back, two do not and I respect that.

I think we probably have 20 approximately who will return, but we are still talking to a number of the families.  I want to make it quite clear to the families that everyone in the family, the siblings, must agree, because I don’t want to reopen old wounds if there is any dissention between the family members. I am confident that that won’t occur, but I wanted to ensure that it didn’t.

Our commemorative spend is not excessive. It is about less than 1 per cent of the whole of the budget of the department. It is not at the expense of the ongoing support of veterans and their families. We spent about $180 million per year on mental health for example. That is uncapped. Nothing we are doing about the commemoration is going to in any way impact on that, but I am determined to ensure, as I said before, that the next generation of young Australians understand what their responsibilities are.  The youngest client of my department is 4 and a half. My 30 year old, 29 year old and 26 year old children will have responsibility to look after that infant for the duration of their lives and if my children do not understand and if your children and grandchildren do not understand what their responsibilities are, then I think we have failed.

When a nation fails to remember, quite frankly a nation fails itself.

There have been some things that we have done over the last 20 months that I am pleased with. I do not for one minute say that the job is finished, but we have made what I hope are viewed by you as significant advances, with the understanding that as more needed to be done.

We did deliver the indexation for the DFRDB and the DFRD as I said before. We have restored the BEST funding of $1 million and I have a very strong view that BEST underpins everything that we do for the veteran community.

We have expanded the VVCS to more veterans and their families and some of this work was commenced by the former government, which I am very happy to acknowledge.

We have improved access to treatment for certain mental conditions including making it easier to seek treatment without the need to lodge a claim.

We have launched dedicated websites and Facebook page for the VVCS and expanded the e-health services and we have broadened DVA’s reach through social media, which I referred to before.

The way these young men and women conduct their personal lives is entirely different to the way a lot of us in this room have done so we need to acknowledge that, we need to provide services that they feel comfortable accessing.

We have reduced the times taken to process claims, we have a long way to go, which the Secretary and I discuss on a very regular basis.

We also are now writing to ADF personnel to advise on the services and support available. This is just a ridiculous situation ladies and gentlemen, where I, as Minister and the department, do not know those who are transitioning, unless they have lodged a claim. So we now have got some contact with them.

Can I just finish on this note. I am absolutely convinced that prevention is better than a cure. We are unapologetic for driving early intervention as the motivating factor in everything we do in the department. I am deeply hurt personally, as you are, when we see the ramifications of non-early intervention.

You and I have got to ensure that we do whatever we can to ensure that.

This organisation will be 100 years old next year. My department is a very, very old department, but the challenges for you and for me, are not at the tail end, but quite frankly, are just starting. You and I have an enormous responsibility to ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. My relationship with you, I can assure you, is vitally important to the work that I do. We have got a great challenge ahead of us.

I thank you for this really important partnership, and I thank you for the work that you are doing.  I thank you for what I am sure you will do in the years ahead.

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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