Wednesday, 27 May 2015

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


Can I thank you most sincerely for the invitation to be here today. This is my fifth conference I think from recollection, so I’ve lost some skin over that five years, but I’m still intact so I thank you for that. To the gentleman with The Cavalry Charge on his mobile phone, sir you’ll either have your membership withdrawn or you’ll get life membership. I’ll leave that up to the committee to make a decision about that.

Can I start off by thanking everyone in this room on behalf of myself, the Prime Minister, the Government and indeed the Parliament. The success of Anzac Day this year, with huge numbers, were a great testament to the dedication of patrons in this room, at sub-branches throughout New South Wales and throughout Australia and I do want to thank you most sincerely. Our nation looked at the ex-service community to support us in that regard and not surprisingly, the leadership was not found wanting and I do want to thank you most sincerely and I think you should all give yourself collectively a round of applause.

You know better than anyone that as a community we must never forget the service and sacrifice of our veterans and their families. I want to convey again today my deep commitment not repeating the mistakes of the past and to provide the support to our returning men and women.

We must all do this to ensure that future generations understand this service and sacrifice and the contributions made to the way of life we all enjoy today and this is a very, very significant motivating factor for me as the Minister and as a person and also underpins the Centenary of Service commemorations.

I want to speak today about some of the budget initiatives and I do want to touch on some of the recent commemorations of the Centenary of Anzac and the Centenary of Service and where we intend going with that over the next 12 months. While there has been some publicity and press about this I do want to personally confirm to you today we will not be proceeding with the changes to pension indexation proposed in the 2014 budget, which I know will be welcomed by all of you and I do want to thank the RSL for its constructive input into this decision and the feedback that I received and the Government received in relation to the views of the RSL and the entire ex-service community. I thank you for that feedback.

I do, before I speak about a number of matters, I want to take a moment to talk about the most important challenge and issue facing Australian veterans and that is mental health.

Mental health has long been a significant challenge for our community and Australians as a country has learnt valuable lessons from the past, a message that will continue to inform our approach for today, even with a significantly new social environment of the 21st century.

As you all well know some of the things that we’ve done to address the terrible mistakes our nation made at the time our Vietnam Vets returned home, have left an important legacy for contemporary veterans. This legacy includes the establishment of the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service.

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

High Res is one such app. Launched recently it works alongside traditional support services to provide tools to manage stress, build resilience and optimise performance for current and ex-service people as well as their families.

Ladies and Gentleman, just in relation to the 2015-16 budget, if I can briefly address that please.

This budget provides $12.1 billion, Twelve thousand one hundred million dollars, to provide service and support to Australia’s veteran community, including some $6.5 billion for income support and pensions; $5.5 billion for health care treatment and $88.7 million for commemorations and the maintenance of war graves.

It will support some 316,000 veterans and dependants who are the clients of DVA.

Average spending per DVA client is now at its highest level on record at $40,650 which is up 1.8% on last year. New spending in the portfolio in this budget has been offset with the continuation of a pause in fees paid to dental and allied health professionals.

This measure was first introduced by the former government in 2013 and maintains consistency in fees paid to doctors and dentists and other health professionals.

I want to assure you that despite some recent media coverage, which in the main has been politically motivated, this is a measure affecting providers and not a cut in service to veterans.

Some of the new initiatives in the budget are as follows:

$10 million over four years to increase the number of dedicated case co-ordinators to improve service delivery to clients with complex claims.

The number of complex claims from returning veterans has been increasing in recent years with more veterans having multiple conditions, with at least one mental health condition. The needs of these veterans have also required greater interaction with DVA to navigate relevant compensation, health and welfare entitlements.

This initiative is not taken in isolation. It comes on the back of the Government’s concerted effort to reduce the time taken to process claims for compensation. It comes on the back of our pre-election commitment to restore the funding cut by the previous government to the BEST programme.

We’re providing $700,000 over four years to improve the operation of the Veterans’ Vocational Rehabilitation Scheme.

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 per week before their disability pension is affected.
This is the most significant change in this area in more than three decades. As you’re all aware I’m deeply and personally committed to giving veterans every opportunity to return to work. Employment provides the veteran with added self-esteem, and their family with additional support and this investment is aimed at helping veterans returning to work to step down with the ongoing support of their compensation pension if they do require it.

Let me repeat that again.

This investment ensures that (inaudible) the need to step down, given they’ll have a continuation of their pension. This is quite a significant issue for many of the veterans’ community.

$3.7 million over two years has been provided to extend the trial for in-home Telehealth for Veterans for a further 18 months.
This trial is aimed to test if in-home telemonitoring is a safe effective and efficient way to complement face-to-face consultations with GPs and whether it can help veterans stay in their homes for longer and reduce unplanned hospital admissions.

We’re also providing $35.5 million over four years to continue to deliver significant domestic and international commemorations in the context of a Century of Service. This funding will enable solemn, dignified and respectful commemoration of significant military anniversaries in the wider context of the Centenary of Service.

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

This validation was denied to Vietnam Veterans and the ramifications of that are still here today.

Many of you would have heard me say that the commemoration next year 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 to the Centenary of Anzac as is the First World War.

It is vital we honour our living veterans in the same way we honour those veterans who forged the Anzac legend 100 years ago.
Yesterday the Government confirmed our plans to support the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam campaign in honour of those men and women from the Army, Navy and Air Force, who served their country so well.

I want to acknowledge the work that is already being undertaken by the RSL and the Vietnam Veterans’ Association and Federation to prepare for this anniversary and I know there is an expectation the Government will support the return of a number of Vietnam Veterans to Vietnam for Vietnam Veterans Day next year.

Our agenda will include a service in Canberra at the National Vietnam Forces Memorial on Anzac Parade. Subject to final negotiations, we will also conduct a small commemorative mission to Vietnam. As you’d be aware there are some sensitivities with the Vietnam Government in relation to these matters, and therefore it’s a necessity the issue is likely to be (inaudible).

There will also be a small grants program to assist with commemorative activities.

Also yesterday, the Prime Minister and I announced plans to give families of our Vietnam Veterans buried at Terendak and the one individual buried at Kranji in Singapore, the chance to bring them home.

This rights a long-term policy wrong, perpetuated by governments of all persuasions that treated our dead of the Vietnam War differently.

I’m proud that after extensive investigation, the first such investigation undertaken by any Government, we are able to proceed with this.

This decision has brought enormous comfort to many families. Indeed, there were very few dry eyes in Canberra yesterday when, in the company of the three widows of men buried at Terendak, the Prime Minister made the announcement in the House of Representatives and very ably supported by the Leader of the Opposition.

50,000 surviving veterans of the Vietnam War deserve to be honoured by their nation for their service and sacrifice which, as I said before, was in the finest tradition of the Anzacs.

The taxpayer support for the Centenary of Anzac, spread over more than 10 years, was consistent with the community’s desire to honour those who served our nation.

Spending in measured, it is not excessive.

Constant commemorations are shared with Defence, for example we will be funding the Sir John Monash Centre in Villers-Bretonneux.
Annually, Government spending on commemoration represents less than one per cent of the $12.1 billion budget of the department.

The ongoing support of the Centenary of Anzac and the Centenary of Service is in no way in expense of the on-going support of the veterans and their families.

Every year we spend at least $179 million on dedicated mental health treatment and support for veterans and their families. This funding is demand driven and is not capped.

If I could just briefly go through what the last 20 months, since I’ve had the honour to be the Minister.

We have delivered on our long-standing commitment to deliver fair indexation for military superannuants.

We have restored $1 million in BEST funding, (inaudible).

We’ve expanded services by providing VVCS to more veterans and their families.

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

We have launched a dedicated website and Facebook page for the VVCS and expanded e-health services for veterans and service providers, and we are broadening our reach on social media through dedicated YouTube channels and Facebook pages, as well as releasing short videos focussing on the services provided by DVA to veterans and their families.

We are reducing the time taken to process claims and I acknowledge there is still much work to be done in this area.

We now write to ADF personal when they discharge to advise them of the services and support available to them from DVA.

You’ll probably be shocked to know that when these young men and women are transitioning out I only know, the department only knows one out of six. The other five have not made a claim to the department and we don’t know who they are. We have had to be proactive, we’ve had to engage with these contemporary veterans in a manner that suits them and the realities are, for those of us of my age, 60 plus, it is an entirely different world for the contemporary veterans. The department cannot stand still in that regard. They have different needs, they have different methods of access, the department simply must move forward to accommodate those needs.

We have begun a pilot veterans’ employment rehabilitation programme, encouraging wounded, ill and injured personnel to find a way back to work as part of their rehabilitation.

We’ve released the Vietnam Veterans’ Family Study, the Peacekeepers Study and the Rwandan health study, which I acknowledge were commenced under previous Governments.

I’ve also refreshed the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council and given it a renewed and dedicated focus on mental health issues facing veterans and their families. Russ Craven, who would be known to many of you, is chairing that committee and they’re doing fantastic work.

We’ve also tried to cut red tape for veterans to make it easier to prove their identity when making a claim with DVA.
As part of our ongoing requirement to understand what our clients need, particularly our future clients, we are, through a $5 million Transition and Wellbeing Study, in partnership with Defence, researching the effects of military service and a special focus of the impact on families.

As you’ve heard me say before families are an absolutely fundamental part of our long term future of engaging with the veteran community.

We provided funding to the Australian War Memorial to complete official histories of the conflicts in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ladies and Gentlemen, as I said to you before the last election, that unique nature of military service must be acknowledged across governments and by the parliament. We have done some things that I wanted to do in the last 20 months. We have much more to do and I’m the first to acknowledge that.

Over the coming year we will continue to work hard to support the veteran and ex-service community, building on our commitments to veterans and ensuring that services will be available when they are needed.

Together, you and I, we need to identify these young veterans in need and put them in touch with the services they require.

Prevention is better than cure. That’s why we’re prioritising early intervention in mental health through expanding services to meet the needs of those veterans returning from recent conflicts. Early intervention through complex case coordination and early interventions through reductions in the time taken to process compensation claims, I make absolutely no apology for making that a priority.

By giving these young men and women the right services to support them, not just back into the workforce, but to treat and manage their conditions is vitally important and as always, the support of the RSL and the entire ex-service community is indeed vital in those endeavours.

I am privileged to be the Minister in times of very dramatic change. I am honoured to have the relationship I do with not only state RSLs but the national RSL. As I say, we’ve got many challenges, but I believe by working together we can achieve them and I thank you most sincerely, it’s a great honour to be here today.

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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