The Hon Darren Chester MP
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel
I seek leave of the House to deliver the fourth Annual Ministerial Statement on veterans and their families, and my third as the responsible minister.
I would like to first recognise those members in the Chamber who have served in our Defence Forces and say, ‘thank you for your service’.
But more than that, thank you for your ongoing input, perspectives and passion on how we best support veterans and their families.
Part of our success is thanks to the partnerships we have with ex-service organisations, which recognise our shared responsibility in supporting our veterans and their families.
Service in the Australian Defence Force is a positive experience for the overwhelming majority of our personnel.
Today’s Veteran Community
More and more Australians are choosing to start their careers in the ADF, gaining valuable skills and experience, before moving back into civilian life.
Today, the average defence force career is less than seven years, meaning many of our veterans are in their mid-to-late 20’s or early 30’s with their whole life ahead of them.
Transformation of DVA
That is why the Government has continued to invest in better support for veterans and their families — to ensure our services and support remain relevant to the veterans of today, as it did for those of the First World War 100 years ago.
Since 2017, we have invested nearly $500 million in the most significant transformation of DVA in its 100-year history.
Modernisation of the Department is making it easier for veterans and their families to access services and support.
And for the first time in many years, the number of DVA clients has increased rather than decreased, moving from 280,000 in 2017-18, to almost 330,000 in 2019-20.
The online MyService has streamlined claims for many common conditions, with more than 127,000 claims submitted online.
More than 390,000 veteran files have been digitised, representing 80 million pages of client information.
The phone system has been consolidated from 179 telephone lines and veterans only need to call a single number for assistance — 1800 VETERAN.
DVA staff now use a system to bring all relevant client information together so they are not just looking at a single condition or a claim, reducing the time taken to respond to queries from veterans and family members.
In recent years, there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of claims received by DVA, from 47,500 in 2015-16 to more than 121,000 in 2019-20.
In the Budget, the Government allocated $59.8 million in supplementary funding to boost DVA’s claims processing and support services, building on an investment of $11.6 million earlier this financial year.
Timely processing of claims leads to better health and wellbeing outcomes by enabling earlier access to rehabilitation, compensation, funded health care and other services.
In June, we extended the Provisional Access to Medical Treatment Trial, which provides medical treatment to veterans for the top 20 most commonly accepted conditions while their claim is being considered.
More than 15,000 eligible veterans have benefited to-date.
As part of DVA’s transformation, the Productivity Commission undertook the most comprehensive review of veterans’ support and entitlements in a century.
The Government tabled its interim response to the Productivity Commission’s report in line with the Budget, which addresses 25 of the report’s 69 recommendations.
The interim response included funding for measures focused on supporting priority areas of mental health, wellbeing, employment and transition support — many of which I will detail.
Importantly, the Government did not accept the recommendations to limit the future eligibility for the Veteran Gold Card and to restrict extensions of the Gold Card to new groups.
The Government will continue to work with DVA, Defence and the ex-service community to consider and address the remaining recommendations as part of its final response in the 2021-22 Budget.
We know more than ever before about our veterans and our understanding will only be bolstered by the data we will get from the 2021 Census, which will include for the first time a question about ADF service.
And most recently, the National Cabinet reaffirmed this commitment through the establishment of the Veterans’ Wellbeing Taskforce as part of the revised Commonwealth-state relations architecture.
This will ensure the Commonwealth and jurisdictions are working closely together on issues affecting veterans – homelessness, employment, incarceration, mental health, transition – among other things.
Support to veterans and their families during COVID-19
This year has been challenging, but I am proud of the way this Government has supported veterans and their families during the coronavirus pandemic.
From the outset, the veteran community was reassured that DVA remained ‘open for business’.
Telephone support replaced face-to-face contact to ensure that veterans were not at risk, while additional precautions were introduced where services were delivered face-to-face.
Telehealth arrangements for accessing services by general practitioners, medical specialists, nurses, allied and mental health providers have supported more than 96,000 individual clients.
Shopping assistance was provided to older, at-risk veterans, major supermarkets recognised the Veteran Gold Card for priority shopping, veterans were able to order their prescriptions online and have medicines home-delivered, Economic Support Payments of $750 benefited around 225,000 veterans and their families, with the Budget providing two further payments of $250 for eligible veterans and their families.
Suicide prevention, mental health, wellbeing
Over successive budgets we have worked in partnership with ex-service organisations and achieved a lot in mental health support.
We expanded access to free mental health care to include anyone who has served a single day in the full time ADF, and made immediate financial support available to veterans who have lodged a compensation claim for a mental health condition.
This year the Government continued to invest in mental health support, providing $101.7 million in the Budget for a one-off increase to fees paid to psychiatrists, allied mental health, social work and community nursing providers; expanding eligibility for the Coordinated Veterans’ Care Program; and expanding Open Arms programs and services, particularly in rural and regional areas.
For those vulnerable veterans who are most at-risk, we’re providing intensive case management and wellbeing support through the Coordinated Client Support and Wellbeing and Support Programs.
And while we have invested heavily in this space, sadly, we know that many Australians become overwhelmed with life’s challenges and tragically take their own lives, and the men and women who serve or have served in our defence force are not immune.
Suicide prevention is one of this government’s highest priorities.
Research shows that current serving men and women have lower rates of death from suicide than the general population, but those who transition for medical reasons have a higher rate compared to the rest of Australia.
The sad reality is that suicide is a very complex issue and prevention is a difficult and unrelenting challenge for all Australians.
It’s because there is often no single cause or event that leads someone to take their own life, but a combination of life events which may include: relationship breakdown, unemployment, injury, isolation, drug and alcohol dependency and, financial hardship.
There is no question that service in the military and exposure to trauma can be a contributing factor, but we need to try and understand all the factors, not just one.
This is why the appointment of the interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention is so important.
The Prime Minister and I have met with family members of young veterans who have taken their own lives along with mental health experts and veterans groups.
We have listened to the call for a Royal Commission, but believe that the National Commissioner will provide a more enduring and comprehensive response to tackle this complex problem.
The strength of the National Commissioner is that it will have the powers equivalent of a Royal Commission but it will endure for years to come.
Rather than be a point in time review of our system, the National Commissioner is effectively a standing Royal Commission and will inquire into past and future deaths, learn from these tragic events, and make recommendations to Government on an ongoing basis.
The National Commissioner is independent of the Departments of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) and will hold each of them to account, to the Parliament, the Australian people, and most importantly to the families.
It will ensure that families of those defence personnel and veterans who have experienced the suicide of a loved one benefit from powers equivalent to that of a Royal Commission, and complete transparency.
Complementing the National Commissioner is the Veteran Family Advocate.
Ms Gwen Cherne has been appointed as the first ever Veteran Family Advocate to place the perspective of veterans’ families at the heart of policy and decision-making.
Ms Cherne—a defence spouse, a war widow, and the mother of a current serving ADF member—will work closely with the National Commissioner so that any findings can be rapidly translated into action to mitigate suicide risk factors for veterans and their families.
We have also appointed Mr Stuart Smith AO DSC as the Commissioner for Defence Engagement who will advise on the current path of the ADF, ensuring future veterans have the support they need, when and where they need it.
Mr Smith will work closely with Ms Cherne and Mr Don Spinks who has made great progress engaging with our ex-service community.
This is just one way the Government continues to work with Defence, DVA and the ex-service community to better support veterans’ mental health and wellbeing.
Psychiatric assistance dogs program
After announcing the program in late 2019, I am very pleased that we provided our first psychiatric assistance dogs to veterans in this year to help them manage their PTSD .
It is an innovative and practical way of treating PTSD for our veterans and one I championed.
These dogs are already making an amazing difference.
Mark, a 20-year veteran of the ADF, recently welcomed an assistance dog Murphy into his life says:
“For me an assistance dog has been a life changing event. My confidence is improving and I am able to manage my anxiety better at times. Murphy has helped me transition back into the community and has reduced my self-isolation.”
And it’s not just the veteran’s benefitting, it’s their families too, with one partner, Brooke, sending me the following:
“I wanted to reach out and let you know my fiancé was the first veteran to receive one of the assistance dogs.
This little mate has made such a difference.
As a partner to PTSD, I am forever grateful to DVA and all the people involved in the program.
You are saving veterans lives with this program.”
68 of these life-saving dogs are now in training to meet the growing demand, with four registered providers nationwide.
Veteran Wellbeing Centres
The Government is delivering on its election commitment to establish a national network of Veteran Wellbeing Centres, which will connect veterans and their families to core services such as transition, employment, health and social connection.
Each centre is at a different stage of development and we’re working closely with the veteran community to maximise benefits.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ model, and these centres are all about finding local solutions, driven by organisations that have the local knowledge to best support our veterans and their families in Perth, Adelaide, Darwin, Townsville, Nowra and Wodonga.
We’re also working with the ACT and Tasmanian Governments looking at similar support services in these jurisdictions.
Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling
As many of you would be aware, Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling provides 24-hour free and confidential, specialised mental health support to veterans and their families.
Open Arms now supports more than 30,000 current and former ADF members and their families across Australia.
In last year’s Budget, Open Arms were provided with an additional $4 million to deliver mental health and suicide awareness training to members of the veteran community.
More than 1,400 people have now completed this training.
Significantly, Open Arms has integrated Community and Peer Workers into their workforce nationally over the past year.
As former serving ADF members and family representatives, lived-experience peer workers understand how important it is to reach out for help, and how difficult it sometimes is.
They bring a first-hand perspective on recovery that engenders hope, reduces stigma, and empowers others and will be extended to new areas.
Open Arms was founded by our Vietnam veterans and continues to grow, providing life-saving support to veterans and their families.
This is their enduring legacy, and to the Vietnam veterans – thank you.
I would remind veterans and their family members who may be struggling with their mental health that help is available now and can make a real difference.
Please reach out to Open Arms on 1800 011 046.
Transition and Employment
As I mentioned earlier, the average career in the ADF is around seven years and that service for the overwhelming majority is a positive experience.
Talk to the men and women that serve like I have, and you will hear stories about mateship, a sense of purpose and developing skills like leadership, teamwork, resilience and problem solving.
But we know that the transition to civilian life is a critical point in a young person’s life.
Every year, around 6,000 people leave the ADF and we are committed to ensuring they have the best possible transition.
In the Budget, the Government provided $23.7 million to increase transition and employment support, including $17.7 million to establish a Joint Transition Authority.
Making that transition as smooth as possible has long been an area of focus for this Government and the JTA will ensure all services and supports are working together as members transition from military to civilian life.
To aid the transition process, Veteran Support Officers are located on more than 50 ADF bases around the country, providing face-to-face, personalised advice to support members with their transition.
Part of that transition is finding meaningful employment in the civilian workforce.
Governments at all levels are working together to promote the message that ‘hiring a veteran is good for your business’ and there are thousands of success stories every year.
You just have to look at the contribution veterans and ADF members made assisting their fellow Australians during the bushfires last summer.
Parts of my electorate of Gippsland in Victoria were devastated by the fires and I know the people and communities will be forever grateful for the assistance they received during this difficult time.
Take for example, Gary Sturdy, a veteran who was as an Army cook.
During the bushfires, he volunteered with Operation Veteran Assist – a veteran-led response in East Gippsland.
After getting enough field equipment to set up a kitchen, Gary cooked meals for a detachment of the 7th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment and a group of volunteers who were working on bushfire relief in Orbost.
For a week, Gary and his team worked 19-hour days feeding more than 250 people a day. After the experience Gary said:
“Never underestimate the power of the veteran community. We’re just as much an asset to the broader community as serving ADF.”
Similarly, Geoff Evans, the CEO of Disaster Relief Australia whose teams did great work in our bushfire-affected areas says of veterans:
“They’re just such a remarkable workforce. It really upsets me that when industry and business think about hiring a veteran, they think they’re taking on a problem. It’s the opposite.”
To employers across the country—small, large and in between—I say: never underestimate what employing a veteran can do for your organisation.
That’s the foundation of the Prime Minister’s Veterans’ Employment Program, and the annual Veterans’ Employment Awards showcase the talent pool that veterans offer.
More than 330 organisations have also signed the Veterans’ Employment Commitment, making a public pledge to support the employment of veterans.
At the last election the Government committed $15 million to support not-for-profit organisations, Soldier On, Disaster Relief Australia and RSL National, to expand their innovative veterans’ employment programs.
While these programs were affected by the pandemic, a total of 82 veterans and family members have now found paid employment and a further 196 are receiving ongoing employment assistance.
We’ve also boosted the Personalised Career Employment Program by $5.6 million and expanded eligibility to include another 1,600 ADF members each year who are looking for career development and job placement support as they set up for civilian life.
Commemorations / Recognition
This Government is committed to acknowledging and commemorating all those who served in past wars, conflicts, peacekeeping operations and, the more than 102,000 Australians who have lost their lives serving our nation.
In February this year, we held National Commemorative Services to mark the 50th anniversary of Operation Hammersley in Vietnam and the 25th anniversary of Operation TAMAR in Rwanda.
Due to the coronavirus, Anzac Day commemorations were much different this year — there were no marches, no games of two-up and no gunfire breakfasts.
But I was encouraged by the nation finding new ways to commemorate the day and honour those who have served.
1.8 million people watched the national service from the Australian War Memorial and another three million viewed the live stream.
And on 15 August, a COVID-safe commemoration was held at the Australian War Memorial to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
Although we stood apart, as a nation we stood together to remember the one million Australians who served during the war, including the more than 39,000 died.
This extraordinary generation of soldiers, sailors, air men and women, and nurses came from communities small and large across Australia.
Remarkably, more than 12,000 of them are still alive today.
To honour them, a Commemorative Medallion and Certificate of Commemoration was produced for every living Australian veteran of the Second World War. So far, we have received more than 5,800 applications.
And this week we will recognise the sacrifice of our service men and women on Remembrance Day.
I encourage everyone to buy a poppy and pause for a minute at 11am to remember those who served and died in defence of our nation.
Veterans’ Recognition Package
Last year when I delivered my Ministerial statement to this House, the legislation to enact an Australian Defence Veterans’ Covenant was before the Parliament.
The Covenant recognises and acknowledges the unique nature of military service and the contribution of veterans and their families.
Underpinning the Covenant is the Veterans’ Recognition Program, which includes the Veteran Card, a Lapel Pin for both Veterans and Reservists and the introduction of an Oath.
More than 105,000 applications have been received for the Australian Defence Veterans’ Covenant, Lapel Pin or Oath.
The Veteran Card also provides access to offers from more than 800 businesses nationwide, including access to more than 10,000 individual business offers through the Australian Partners of Defence Program.
It’s important to take stock and reflect on what this Government has achieved to improve the lives of veterans and their families in partnership with DVA, Defence and ex-service organisations.
Against a backdrop of significant challenges this year, we have continued to invest in key veteran services and deliver fundamental reforms.
The Government has stood by veterans and our ADF personnel; and veterans and our ADF personnel have stood by the nation, delivering vital support during the bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic.
I particularly thank the DVA Secretary, Liz Cosson, and the staff at the Department who have ensured our veterans and their families are well-looked after.
There remains important work to be done, but we are on the right track and only by working together can we ensure that we continue to deliver the best possible outcomes.
As a Government, we will continue to build on what we have already achieved.
As the Australian Defence Veterans’ Covenant accompanying oath states: ‘For what they have done, this we will do.’
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