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Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Minister for Defence Personnel, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC and Deputy Leader of the House) (17:02): I welcome the opportunity to consider in detail the Veterans’ Affairs budget and note at the outset the shadow minister, the member for Kingston, is not here with us this evening. She’s been unwell, and I wish her well in her recovery. It’s important to note that the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio does enjoy largely bipartisan support, and I recognise that the shadow minister, just like me, wants to make sure we’re putting our veterans first and putting our veterans’ families first.

In this year’s budget, the government is continuing to invest in veterans and in their families to make sure we are providing the essential services they require. There’s in the vicinity of $11.2 billion worth of expenditure committed to the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio. I would note we’ve secured around $100 million in additional funding in this year’s budget to continue our work on the DVA reform agenda, upgrading our internal IT systems, and ensuring better and faster delivery of services to veterans and their families.

I’ll talk briefly on a couple of key points from this year’s budget before allowing more time for questions from both our side and those opposite. I would note that the transformation of DVA is ongoing, and we are continuing to see further investment to provide more timely and easier access to services for our veterans and their families. By the end of the next financial year, veterans will benefit from easier access to services through the online door MyService. There will also be expanded access to information to reach out to veterans who may not be aware of the DVA services and programs which do exist and of the improved income support systems put in place.

We’ll see as a result of this year’s budget the removal of the stepdown for incapacity payments. We’re investing $10.8 million over the forward estimates to support former members of the ADF with incapacity payments at 100 per cent of their normal earnings while they stay as part of DVA-funded return to work rehabilitation plan.

Another reform announced in the budget relates to the Long Tan bursaries, which will see an extension of the eligibility criteria for a Long Tan bursary to include not only the children of the Vietnam veterans but also their grandchildren so that we continue to provide assistance to the descendants of Vietnam veterans.

In terms of mental health care, which is clearly a focus of this government, it’s important to note that the budget recognises that, not just in the wider community but also in our the veteran community, there are concerns about how we provide for mental health support services. In fact, DVA provides up to $200 million a year to support our veterans with their mental health concerns. In this budget we’ve provided $2.2 million to expand eligibility for mental health treatment to those reservists with domestic or international disaster relief or border protection service, or those involved in a serious service-related training accident.

In terms of our veterans’ mental health care, it’s important to note there is a non-liability health care system in place, in the sense that veterans will receive free mental health care regardless of how their situation develops. It doesn’t necessarily need to be related to their military service. A key focus, which has been the subject of great discussion between myself and the shadow minister, relates to the transition of veterans out of the ADF and into civilian life. It’s important to note, and I do so at every opportunity, that the majority of people who leave the Australian Defence Force, on an annual basis somewhere in the order of 5,500 to 6,000, make a successful transition with very little need for immediate support, but others do need additional support, and we need to work with them very closely to make sure that transition is as easy as possible.

It’s also critical that we assure the broader Australian public, the corporate sector and business community that hiring a veteran is good for your business. They have great leadership and teamwork skills developed over a period of time in the services. Many have learnt skills that are easily transferrable to civilian life. Explaining to the business and corporate sector and the broader public about the easy employability of veterans is something I’m determined to do in my time in the role. A feature of our work, in terms of transition, is the Prime Minister’s Veterans’ Employment Program, which features the employment awards, which were held this year for the first time and were successful. We’ve seen an additional $8.3 million allocated to that program to further develop, promote and implement the program to support veterans as they transition to civilian life.

I’m conscious there’ll be plenty of questions from those opposite and probably from this side, so I’ll close with one last point about two very important inquiries that are underway at the moment. One is the Productivity Commission inquiry into the compensation and rehabilitation system for veterans. I encourage those who are interested in veterans issues to make a submission to that inquiry. This will be a comprehensive inquiry considering how the system works now, whether it is fit for purpose and how it should work into the future. The second bit of work is with regard to the Veterans’ Advocacy and Support Services Scoping Study, which will be undertaken by Robert Cornall on behalf of the government.

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Minister for Defence Personnel, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC and Deputy Leader of the House) (17:26): I thank the members for Herbert, Grey, Gilmore and Solomon for their questions. I’ll endeavour to get through as many as I can right now. In relation to any questions I don’t get to, I do have department staff available who have been taking notes and will respond in writing. They’ve taken note of some of the concerns as well.

I agree from the outset with the member for Herbert that the transition period is a critical period for any of our ADF personnel as they move to civilian life. I reject the suggestion that no assistance is provided, but I do acknowledge there’s more work to done in that regard. In terms of how many businesses are participating within the Veterans’ Employment Program through the Prime Minister’s initiative, I’ll get back to the member for Herbert in more detail. It’s important to note, though, that, while many members transition very successfully, for some it is more difficult, especially for those who’ve been medically discharged from the ADF.

I would note that there’s an often-quoted figure that’s been put forward in recent times that the unemployment rate amongst veterans is 30 per cent, which is not consistent with the latest data from the Defence transition team. In fact, the latest research on veterans’ unemployment indicates that, in the first 10 months into civilian life, the unemployment rate is about eight per cent. That is still too high, I acknowledge, but it is nowhere near the 30 per cent figure which is often quoted.

I thank the member for Grey for his great interest and insights into how the mental health of veterans impacts on their transition into civilian life. In relation to his questions regarding mental health, we must acknowledge in this place that suicide remains the greatest cause of death of young males. Unfortunately, our ADF personnel and veterans are not immune from that. DVA now spends about $196 million per year on supporting the mental health of its clients. Funding for mental health treatment is demand driven, and that means it’s not capped. It’s important that we recognise that. For anyone who’s listening today who may be struggling with their mental health, I simply encourage them to get in contact with the Veterans and Veterans Family Counselling Service. The service can be contacted 24 hours a day by ringing 1800 011 046. The Veterans and Veterans Family Counselling Service provides a great service. In relation to the specific question of the member for Grey regarding how many individuals have accessed the non-liability health care, in the last financial year the number was 3,732. We expect to see more people contact us for mental health care as people become more aware and as there is less stigma in relation to mental health and wellbeing in the general community.

Regarding access to allied health services, which was raised by the member for Solomon and also the member for Herbert, I want to ask anyone in the veteran community who’s turned away from a health provider to please contact the department, and we’ll make alternative arrangements for them. There is no question that, in some of our regional communities—and the member for Herbert comes from a regional area—access to health services, allied health services and professional specialists can be challenging. If anyone is turned away who needs help, we can help them make alternative arrangements. I give her that assurance, but we’ll follow up more directly on any specific requests she has in that regard.

Finally, in the time I have allotted, I note the member for Gilmore’s outstanding advocacy on behalf of the Korean veterans in her community—and I note the former Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is here today and the work he did in providing for the wearing of the Republic of Korea War Service Medal. If she has any concerns in that regard, we’ll continue to work to overcome any issues surrounding the eligibility to wear that medal. In terms of commemorative activity, I note that on 27 July, which will mark the 65th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, it is recognised by DVA and Century of Service domestic program for this period. A commemorative service will be held at the Australian Korean War Memorial on Anzac Parade in Canberra and will mark this very significant anniversary.

I will conclude by simply saying one thing: we thank those Korean War veterans for their service. We thank all veterans and current serving personnel for their service. It is a unique contribution they make to our nation, and I will undertake to follow up on behalf of other members the questions they’ve raised this afternoon.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Consideration in Detail

Social Services Portfolio

Proposed expenditure, $10,047,572,000

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