I rise tonight to address an issue which has increasingly concerned me and many within my community and was exemplified by an excellent investigation by Ruth Lamperd in the Herald Sun on 14 August 2016. Ruth’s article included the damning claim that 41 veterans—those who have served our country—have so far committed suicide this year, which is equal to the number of Australians killed in 13 years of combat operations in Afghanistan. The investigation suggested that young Australian veterans have returned to civilian life with depression and anxiety issues and post-traumatic stress disorder but have struggled to find assistance. I know that, in light of this investigation, the Australian government and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs have undertaken a review of suicide and self-harm prevention services available to veterans and to ADF members.
Let me make it clear—and I am sure this sentiment is echoed by those that sit in the chamber with me tonight—to any young Australian veteran who is listening to this speech tonight—I know a couple are—that in your heroism we see the enduring spirit of our country, Australia. I believe our nation has a sacred obligation to our veterans. So, just as you serve to protect us, we are obliged to take care of you and your families when you come home. As a legislator, I deeply feel that this pledge has not been fulfilled. If you look at this report, 41 veterans have taken their own lives. This year, a register that people have kept conservatively estimates that there have been 295 military or ex-military suicides from the start of 2000. It leads me to wonder: did those people feel supported by our country when they came home?
In one instance, I was appalled—and remain appalled as a legislator and as someone that knows the individual in question—to hear that the DVA is making a concerted effort, by setting a case precedent, to remove special forces allowances that form part of an incapacity payment for our special forces, by the establishment of a case precedent for an injured commando soldier covered under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004. It is in the case—and we cannot name this person—WFLT v Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. It is rather Orwellian in terms of the latter. The case has been classified, and that is why I will not read that person’s name into this place, but the Afghanistan veteran commando we have to call WFLT appears to have been singled out by the DVA as the only medically discharged commando who is not able to work. He is being refused the allowance as part of his incapacity payments.
In addition, the DVA is running the case in an extremely adversarial manner and belittling the veteran’s service to the point where he required hospitalisation to prevent suicide on the fourth day of the hearing. Any fair-minded person in this place listening to that—particularly given that I know the service that this individual has given to his country, I know how he was injured, and I know he rightly asked for some form of compensation. I also know, but cannot say in this place, what was said about this veteran’s service that led him to think about committing suicide on the fourth day of the hearing into his compensation claim. It says a lot about the maladministration of justice for veterans in our country. I will keep on coming back to this particular case.
It is clear to me, as you probably gathered, that I find this disturbing. After raising this matter—which has been raised separately by this person’s advocate with Senator Jacqui Lambie, and which has been raised with my office separately by the individual in question—I am concerned that this veteran, who killed for this country and was prepared to die for his country, stands to lose $750,000. I further note that if the precedent is set and applied, every SASR and commando officer under 35 years old who cannot work due to their service will lose something roughly like a million dollars in compensation. Multiplying this case across the multiple deployed special forces community, we could potentially be talking about the removal of possibly $500 million to our veterans in compensation. There is a word for that. It is often used in this place. It is called a scandal; it is called a national scandal.
This very fine individual, who I am honoured to know, who is called WFLT in this place now, also believes that the DVA has singled his case out in the hope of beating him in court so that they can remove the allowance from all injured special forces officers and save around $6 to $10 million a year. This individual has also stated—in his words, because I asked for his words so that I could read them into this House—that there are no common forms or one-stop shops for his era of Defence members who are covered under all three acts. In his words, everyone is looked at in isolation, claims officers are only conversant in their legislation and no-one can advise how a decision under one act impacts you under the other acts.
This one case clearly shows how veterans are being treated right now by the DVA. We should be supporting our veterans, not forcing them through a four-year legal battle where they stand to lose $750,000 rather than being paid what I believe is the appropriate compensation and not forcing them to comply with three separate acts. Why should three separate acts prevent people from getting support? We need to take a different approach. The DVA should exist to support our veterans and not to make life difficult. In the words of those returned service people, it should also create a new mental health service, as too many veterans still struggle to get the care that they need. When you have an urgent need for mental health care, you should be able to get the services you need when you need them, particularly when you have been serving your country.
In the words of these veterans, they feel that after World War II Australia truly valued our veterans by establishing the gold health care card, which entitled veterans to first-class health care. Australia understood that those Australians who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our nation should be rewarded with certain privileges, such as first-class health care for the rest of their lives. We still have the gold health care card. Now, there is apparently a white card and an orange card with reduced privileges and a complicated system for submitting claims with the Veterans’ Affairs, because there are apparently too many veterans who are suffering. They have to fight for their privileges rather than being granted them. We must make changes. I am also aware of the limited time that I have. There are many other things that I could say.
On a more positive note, I want to talk about some great work that is being done by some outstanding veterans. In the electorate of Holt, there is a group called the Young Veterans RSL, which was started up by Chris May, Sven Thompson and Scott May. The Young Veterans RSL started when three mates and fellow veterans realised there was a lack of social welfare groups providing activities for the growing number of young veterans and ex-serving Defence members across Australia. According to one of these men, Chris May, who is one of the founders:
Young Veterans will enable those people affected by war, to return to activities they have not conducted since their enlistment into the services. It will provide a means for today’s veterans to openly discuss their individual war experiences in the hope that it will assist them, and other veterans, into reintegrating into the civilian population.
The Young Veterans RSL carries out some amazing activities which raises funds and increases awareness of the contribution made by our veteran community. The Young Veterans are also attempting to raise funds to rehabilitate, retrain and re-educate Defence personnel when they leave the Defence forces.
Last year, in conjunction with Dandenong RSL, the Young Veterans RSL purchased three ex-Defence Land Rovers—I have seen a lot of them—and drove them from the southernmost point of the Australian mainland, Wilsons Promontory, to the northernmost point of our great country, which is the tip of Cape York. The Young Veterans have visited many schools and engaged as many RSL sub-branches along the way. They are wonderful young men. There is another event that will be coming up very shortly, which is the Land Rover Outback Challenge. The members of that veterans’ RSL team include Mathew Keene, Navy, retired; Millyssa Johnston, RAAF, current; Scott May, Army, retired; Shane Dixon, Army, retired; Kathryn Batham, Navy, retired; and Jye McManus, civilian. I wish you all the best for the Outback Challenge.
There is one thing in particular that my friend who I mentioned earlier on said on the worth of this organisation:
Many veterans who are medically discharged and are unable to work have lost all sense of purpose and dignity and struggle to feel accepted in today’s society. Hence why suicide is high. If I hadn’t found Young Veterans RSL I may have taken my own life. I cannot work, I struggle to socialize or hold a relationship and my interaction with young veterans RSL is all I have.
What has happened to this man is an outrage. It must be stopped. DVA must be stopped from persecuting someone who is prepared to lay his life on the line to protect our country.