Senator the Hon. Michael Ronaldson
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC
Special Minister of State
**CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY**
It is a pleasure to join you in Glenelg today to open the 2014 National Conference of the National Servicemen’s Association of Australia.
Less than a month after National Servicemen’s Day, let me again place on the record my thanks to all of you here today who were called up for national service and served our nation with distinction.
You helped strengthen our defence forces and added vital capability.
You were prepared to go into action if, and when, required.
Between 1951 and 1972 more than 280,000 young men were called up for national service.
Some served in the Vietnam War, others served in Borneo, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.
212 Nashos died on active service.
We remember those who never returned home and who made the supreme sacrifice.
We also acknowledge the service and sacrifice of all those who were called upon to serve, your service perpetually honoured at the National Service Memorial at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Your contribution to Australia’s defence preparedness will never be forgotten.
Indeed as we approach Anzac Centenary, we enter a period of commemoration of 100 years of service, where the service of all veterans from all conflicts, including those who serve today in the Australian Defence Force, will be highlighted.
Government’s plan for veterans’ affairs
I was last at your National Conference in Canberra in 2011.
Since then, of course, there has been a change of Government and I speak to you today as the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.
At the last election, the Government was elected with a four-pillar policy for veterans and their families.
· Recognition of the unique nature of military service
· Maintaining a stand-alone Department of Veterans’ Affairs
· Tackling mental health challenges faced by veterans and their families; and
· Providing adequate welfare and advocacy support
Underpinning this was our commitment to deliver fair indexation for DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants aged 55 and over.
From 1 July this year the Government is committed to ensuring these superannuation pensions are indexed in the same manner as age and service pensions.
We will deliver this commitment and, in so doing, address a long-standing grievance of the veteran and ex-service community.
Maintaining a stand-alone Department of Veterans’ Affairs is critical if we are to ensure future generations of service men and women continue to receive the post-service support they deserve from the Australian Government.
Last week, the Government announced that DVA would be relocating its national office in Canberra from Woden to Civic.
This move is an opportunity for the Department to develop, to meet the challenges of the future and, more importantly, to re-dedicate itself to the service of those who have served their nation.
Our way of doing business is changing as the demands of our clients change.
Many of our younger clients prefer to deal with us online or over the phone and so we are adapting our way of doing business to meet these needs.
At the same time, our traditional ways of doing business remain as we continue to support older veterans, war widows and their families.
The fourth pillar of our plan recognised the role that veterans and ex-service people, themselves, play in the provision of support to their own.
After more than 100 veterans’ forums conducted right across the country, it became clear to me that veterans prefer to deal with their own when it comes to seeking advice about entitlements, assistance with transition or advice about where to seek support.
In 2011, the former government inexplicably cut funding for veterans’ advocacy through the Building Excellence in Support and Training programme by $1 million per year.
This cut was undertaken without consultation and mid-way through a grant approval round.
This Government promised to restore that cut funding, and restore it we have.
From 1 July this year, veteran and ex-service organisations will have up to $3.75 million to support veterans’ advocacy and welfare services.
As Minister, I have worked closely with the Ex Service Organisation Round Table to see that this funding is used where it needs to be used.
Further, and as part of this funding increase, I have tasked former Repatriation Commissioner and former Veterans’ Review Board Principal? Member, Bill Rolfe, with the task of reviewing the Training and Information Program which provides training to veterans’ advocates, pension and welfare officers.
As our client base changes, DVA must adapt its systems and processes to meet the needs of our clients.
This is no less true of the veteran and ex-service community.
Younger veterans expect that advocates are properly trained in the relevant compensation acts.
This review aims to identify how we can improve training for our veteran advocates, pension and welfare officers so that they can continue performing their invaluable work for the wider veteran and ex-service community.
Advocacy is the glue that holds the veteran and ex-service community together.
It was a Coalition government which created the BEST programme and it is this Coalition Government which is committed to see it prosper for the future.
Tackling the mental health challenges faced by veterans, and their families, is a key policy priority for this Government.
Much good work has been done in this area.
But much more can and should be done.
Every year, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs spends $166 million on dedicated mental health services for veterans and their families.
This is part of a $12.5 billion budget including income support, compensation and health care.
The Government continues to support the Veterans and Veterans’ Families Counselling Service, a confidential and free service which specialises in counselling support for veterans and their families.
Later this year, the Government will expand the services provided by VVCS to more ex-service people with specified peacetime service.
Mental health support, however, is not simply confined to the amount of money we spend.
Before the election, I nominated the issue of claims processing times as an area requiring urgent action.
In my first meeting with DVA Secretary, Simon Lewis, I made it clear that processing times at more than 160 days under the MRCA were unacceptable.
The Secretary and I are determined to reduce processing times.
By reducing processing times, we can reduce the anxiety faced by veterans, and families, waiting for claims to be determined.
The longer a claim waits to be finalised, the longer a veteran must wait to get on with their life.
There is a great deal of work occurring in this area and already progress is being made to reduce processing times by improving the way we do business.
I am confident that we can make a difference in this area and will continue to work with DVA to drive further improvements.
Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Veterans’ Mental Health
Ladies and gentlemen
Over nearly three and a half years as the shadow minister, and now the Minister, I have made consultation with veterans and their families a key priority.
I have not served.
I do not come to you as someone who has served.
Nor do I pretend to understand what it is to have served, to have a family member who has served, or who has come back affected by their service.
Consultation guided the development of our policy for the last election just as it will guide the decisions we make in Government.
Today, I am announcing a new way forward for consultation between the Government, veterans and the wider community about veterans’ mental health.
In 2008, a Prime Ministerial Advisory Council was established to provide feedback to government about issues affecting the ex-service community.
Over that time, it has provided advice to government about an enhanced focus on contemporary veterans and their families; further impetus for new research in Defence and overseas to look at blast injuries as a precursor to brain injury and implications on longer term health; ongoing research into the mental health impacts of military service, in both combat and training roles; and numerous other significant matters.
Today, I am announcing the reconstitution of the PMAC as the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Veterans’ Mental Health.
I have taken the decision that the PMAC needs a more dedicated focus specifically on veterans’ mental health.
The PMAC will consider high level and strategic issues – looking to identify gaps in available services and innovative approaches to address them.
It will provide advice to the Prime Minister and myself about future directions for veterans’ mental health policy.
This new PMAC will be chaired by former Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Russ Crane.
Russ shares my passion about the need to ensure that mental health assistance for veterans and their families is contemporary, relevant and achieving the right outcome.
The Deputy Chair of the new PMAC will be Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG.
As a former serving soldier, Ben brings the unique perspective of a younger veteran, with a small family, to the PMAC.
I am delighted that Ben will play a part on the Council.
Ryan Stokes will join the PMAC as a member of the business community.
The Stokes family has a long history of support for the veteran and ex-service community and I am very pleased that Ryan has accepted my invitation to participate on PMAC.
Other members of PMAC will include representatives from the Partners of Veterans’ Association, the Ex-service Organisation Round Table, the Mental Health Commission and the Departments of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs.
This new PMAC will be dedicated to considering the needs of veterans and mental health challenges they face.
It is an important part of the Government’s commitment to tackling mental health challenges.
In addition to the new PMAC arrangements, the Government has strengthened the broader consultation framework to provide enhanced feedback and engagement.
Until recently the Department of Veterans’ Affairs had a four-pronged internal consultative framework.
As Minister, I have streamlined this approach to two committees.
The first forum deals with the needs of our recently returned veterans.
The ‘Younger Veterans – Contemporary Needs’ forum has combined the old Emerging Issues Forum and the Operational Working Party to focus specifically on the needs of younger and recently returned veterans.
The other forum is the National Aged and Community Care Forum which specifically addresses the challenges facing older veterans, their health issues and those faced by their families.
State and territory consultative fora through Deputy Commissioners will remain in place to ensure specific local issues are not overlooked by the Government.
I am confident that this new approach will ensure the Government receives the very best, targeted advice about how we can tackle mental health now and into the future.
Centenary of Anzac
The Centenary of Anzac will be this nation’s most defining period of commemoration.
Many of you would be aware of recent commentary about the Government’s financial commitment to the Centenary of Anzac.
It has been suggested that commemoration is coming at the expense of care for our veterans and their families.
This is simply not true.
In fact, commemorating the service and sacrifice of those who served and served in the Australian Defence Force is no less important than providing income support, compensation and health care to our veterans.
As I mentioned earlier, every year the Department of Veterans’ Affairs spends more than $166 million on dedicated mental health services, research and assistance for veterans and their families.
Over the course of the Centenary of Anzac, this will amount to more than $650 million.
Every year, the Government allocates $12.5 billion to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to provide support to veterans and their families – from First World War Widows to our youngest client who is just a few months old.
This will amount to more than $50 billion over the period of the Centenary of Anzac.
To date, financial commitments to the Centenary of Anzac by this government and the former government amount to $145 million over that same period.
This is a very small investment in what I see as the building of a long-term legacy.
The Centenary of Anzac must be so much more than simply building or restoration of old memorials.
This is important, but it is not the end game.
By 2018, we must have left a legacy in the minds of younger Australians, in particular, about the service and sacrifice of past generations, of the responsibilities to care for those who have defend our rights and way of life.
In addition to understanding when we fought, where we fought and the values we fought for, the Centenary must teach a generation of younger Australians about our collective obligation to care for those who serve their nation at their nation’s request.
If we do nothing else, then we must ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, particularly the appalling manner in which Vietnam veterans were treated upon their return.
I hope we are entering a period of peace.
But the peace dividend must not be an abrogation of our national responsibility to care for those who serve and served in the Australian Defence Force.
The numbers of veterans in the future may be smaller, but our resolve to care for them and their families must not be diminished.
This is what I hope the Centenary of Anzac can achieve.
It is my great honour to serve as the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.
There is much that I want to do.
With your help and the support of the veteran and ex-service community, we can set about tackling the challenges facing the veteran and ex-service community head on.
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs is, over the next five years, set to undergo a major change as the sad but inevitable decline of our Second World War population continues.
These are opportunities, not threats.
We are unlikely to again see the Government introduce a formal national service programme.
However, as a nation we must ensure that young men and women can look to the Australian Defence Force as a career path, confident that their nation will care for them if they are wounded, injured or incapacitated as a result of that service.
Thank you for the honour of speaking to you today and I have much pleasure in declaring your 2014 national conference open.
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