22 June 2019

Thank you for the invitation to speak today. It’s a pleasure to be here.

I’d like to begin today by acknowledging the Traditional Owners, the Turrbal and Jagera peoples, on whose land we meet, and pay my respect to their Elders, both past and present.

I’d also like to acknowledge:

  • RSL Queensland State President Mr Tony Ferris as our host today;
  • RSLWA State President Mr Peter Aspinall AM;
  • RSL Victoria State President Mr Robert Webster OAM;
  • Distinguished guests, including the numerous representatives from the Federal electorate of Blair; and
  • All members of the RSL QLD who are here today.

This is my first address to the QLD State Congress and my third State Congress as the new Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel – the ACT and WA preceded you.

We have a strong tradition of military service in Queensland, and I’m very proud to be attending this event in my home state. We also have a significant Defence presence – from Amberley RAAF Base in my electorate, to Gallipoli Barracks, Enoggera in Brisbane, to Lavarack Barracks in Townsville, and others – and we’re home to more than a quarter of Australian Defence Force personnel.

Indeed, here in Queensland we’re as much about the military as mining. Historically, Queensland has contributed numbers to our ADF personnel significantly in excess of our proportion of the Australian population.

So it’s an honour and a privilege as a Queenslander to be appointed to this position and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to work with our veterans, including organisations like the RSL, which is a real pillar of the Queensland community.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessor Amanda Rishworth, who did an outstanding job working with the veterans’ community to develop a platform on how we can better support our current and former serving personnel and their families.

I look forward to building on the great work she’s done.

As the Federal Member for Blair for the past 12 years, I’ve had a longstanding relationship with RAAF Base Amberley in my electorate, the largest Air Force base in Australia, and have been proud to advocate for the interests of the many Defence personnel and veterans who live in the region.

I grew up with the sons and daughters of Defence personnel and have had many Defence personnel as friends and acquaintances.

Annually, I attend the Bomber Command Commemorative Service at Amberley.

While at this year’s service a few weeks ago, Labor’s Deputy Leader and Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles was on the phone to me confirming my appointment as our new Leader Anthony Albanese was announcing it.

The Defence and veterans’ community is a very important part of the fabric of life in Ipswich.

Even our sporting teams reflect this theme – our Rugby League side is called the Ipswich Jets and our senior basketball teams are known as the Ipswich Force.

In conjunction and collaboration with Logan and Toowoomba, Ipswich has been pushing for a new NRL team from South East Queensland for a few years now.

If Australian Rugby League Chairman and former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie announced this, I reckon the new team should also have a Defence moniker – the ‘South Queensland Jets’ perhaps? Peter, if you’re listening!

In Ipswich and the surrounding area alone, there are some 17 RSL Sub Branches and they make a huge contribution to the local community, as they do right across the state and country.

As the Opposition spokesman for Veterans’ Affairs, I can assure you I’m making a point of listening to our former service men and women about what they think is best for them, their families and their communities.

I’ve just come back from two days in the garrison city of Townsville talking to veterans and veterans’ groups, including meeting with Townsville RSL President Bill Whitburn, who tells me they have 18 Sub-Branches in that part of North Queensland.

I had an opportunity to visit Zac’s Place, a fantastic facility operated by the Vietnam Veterans’ Association of Australia that provides short-term accommodation for serving or ex-service personnel and their families who are visiting Townsville.

I thank Peter Hindle and the team for the work they are doing in North Queensland.

I also caught up with The Oasis Townsville, a really innovative collaboration between Ex-Service Organisations, the Queensland Government and Townsville City Council that will aim to be a referral hub to help veterans' access services in the area so they can better transition, connect and integrate into the community.

I commend Ray Martin and his team and the members of the North Queensland Primary Health Network who are doing such fine work with Operation Compass to help veterans deal with mental health and other issues as they transition to civilian life.

Their ‘Check your Mates’ program should be expanded to other parts of Queensland and nationally.

It’s great to see local grassroots organisations like this, as well as groups like Mates4 Mates and Soldier On, coming together to deliver practical, tailored services to our veterans when and where they need it, sometimes with the support of various levels of government.

I note the support of the RSL and its members in many of these initiatives.

An excellent example of this is the QLD RSL’s sponsorship of the RSL RAEMUS Rover off-road racing team, based at Willowbank Raceway, whose members recently competed in the 2019 Finke River Race.

There is another great organisation called Bootstraps, set up by Army Reserve Corporal Sam Kavanagh at Hatton Vale in the Lockyer Valley, that encourages veterans to be involved in leatherwork to help them with physical and mental health and recovery.

On a similar note, before the last election, Labor proposed grants for art therapy programs based on evidence that this complementary therapy can provide great solace for veterans and their loved ones.

These are the precisely the types of organisations, activities and programs the Federal Government and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs or DVA need to be supporting.

I look forward to working with the Government and the Minister in a bipartisan way to ensure our ex-service personnel have a strong voice in Parliament, and get the best possible care and support.

However, I’m sure we’ll have some points of disagreement from time to time.

Obviously the issue of veterans’ mental health and suicide rates has been receiving a lot of media attention lately – and rightly so.

The high number of veteran suicides is a national shame and a personal tragedy.

This is an issue that has been the subject of many reviews in recent times.

This includes the recent Transition and Wellbeing Research Program report – part of an ongoing longitudinal study – and the Productivity Commission review into compensation and rehabilitation for veterans’ interim report, both of which made strong recommendations.

We have identified the issues. We know what the problem is. And yet we see little progress.

So much so, the Prime Minister recently admitted the system was broken and his government’s agencies are failing our most vulnerable veterans.

We spend $13.2 billion a year on DVA – or about $47,000 a year per DVA client – and it’s simply not working.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to fix this and Labor is willing to work together with the Government to address this crisis.

I understand the Minister is briefing the Prime Minister on Tuesday and some of you here today will be attending the Minister’s roundtable on Wednesday.

I hope something worthwhile emerges out of it.

The current Productivity Commission review, A Better Way to Support Veterans, would be good place to start and could provide a real blueprint for reform.

The quite damning draft report released at the end of last year found the veterans’ compensation and rehabilitation system is not fit-for-purpose, is out of date, convoluted and hard to navigate, and does not serve the interests of veterans, their families and the Australian community.

There are a number of recommendations in the report that should be given serious consideration, such as moving to a simpler system, and a lifetime and wellbeing approach to supporting veterans and their families.

We will await the final report, which is due to the Government by the end of this month, and will continue to hold them to account to ensure key recommendations from this and other reports are implemented.

What has become clear in conversations with veterans and the ex-service community is that military and veterans’ families are not always being heard when it comes to discussions of support and assistance.

The critical role families play in supporting and caring for their loved one can’t be overstated, but the nature of military life is unique and families can also be deeply affected by military service.

This is why Labor took to the last election a policy and funding for a National Family Engagement and Support Strategy to better engage and support families who experience suicide, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress disorder and major issues pre and post military service.

This is because the latest research – particularly from the recent Transition and Wellbeing Research Program report – shows that mental health issues during service are the best predictor, and often a precursor to, mental health issues post-service.

This important longitudinal study also highlighted the need for early intervention as well as ongoing monitoring of current veterans and further research into long-term trajectories as they return to civilian life.

This is why Labor has also committed to improving access to mental health treatment and boosting research into veterans’ mental health.

Further, Labor committed $31 million to develop seven veterans’ wellbeing centres across Australia, including in Townsville and Ipswich.

The Government seems to have embraced this policy with its six veterans’ wellbeing centres, although the details remain sketchy.

However, I note Ipswich was left off the latest list of centres after the Government reneged on an earlier announcement at the 2016 election to deliver one there.

The health and welfare of our veterans is a high priority for Labor.

We owe a duty of care, not just for the time these people serve, but it needs to continue beyond people’s service.

To that end, there was another extraordinary admission from the Government last week that we don’t know how many veterans there are.

We need to have the best information available if we’re going to provide the best possible care and support for our ex-service personnel.

This is why before the election, Labor committed to improving recordkeeping, data collection and information sharing to address current gaps in the health of our personnel and veterans.

I note the calls from some State Governments like Western Australia for the next national Census to include a question on military service to better inform delivery of support services to veterans.

I think this is worthy of support.

Our veterans need a system that works for them.

It’s time for action.

I should note while the PC review interim report had a number of worthy recommendations, it also included other recommendations around governance, namely dismantling DVA and moving policy into a division within the Department of Defence.

This should be immediately ruled out.

Many veterans who access services through DVA have expressed their concern to me over this, so I’m calling on the Minister to stand up for the veterans’ community and ensure DVA continues as a standalone entity.

Secondly, there are the reviews currently underway into DFRDB commutation and the above general rate of the Special Rate Disability Pension.

While Labor supports these reviews, it’s incumbent on the Government to treat their release and response as a matter of priority.

These are significant issues in the veterans’ community and veterans deserve to know the outcomes, and what actions will be taken, as soon as possible.

And the Minister should prioritise legislating the Military Covenant, which was introduced into the Parliament before the election, but lapsed when Parliament was prorogued.

In closing, as a Queenslander, I look forward to working with you to deliver better outcomes for our Queensland veterans.

I want to assure you all that Labor has your back and we will fight for a fair go for our returned service men and women always.

Thank you.