RECOGNISING AND SUPPORTING OUR VETERANS

Ms Bird (Cunningham) (12:47): I start my contribution to the debate on this bill by taking the opportunity, like the member before me, to acknowledge the veterans who live in my own community. We are obviously out at all sorts of events and occasions where we meet people in our community who are veterans of both military and peacekeeping activities—far fewer, obviously, from very early conflicts, but particularly ranging from Vietnam veterans to veterans of current, modern-day conflicts. We see them and their families out and about in our communities all the time. I think it is a significant and important thing, where we can, to take the opportunity to thank them for their service, both the service personnel and the families that support them. In that spirit, I want to indicate my support for the bill before the parliament today, the Australian Veterans' Recognition (Putting Veterans and their Families First) Bill 2019.

The intention of the bill is to provide a framework for government, business and the community to recognise and acknowledge the unique nature of military service and to support veterans and their families. I believe a very important part of the bill is to establish the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant. As members in this chamber would be aware, the concept of a covenant was announced by our side of the parliament, by Labor, in September last year. Our proposed military covenant would cover both current and ex-serving personnel and their families, recognising the immense commitment that they make in serving our country and formalising our nation's commitment to look after those who have sacrificed for the nation.

We're pleased that the government has adopted the covenant via this bill. That being said, we note that the Australian Defence Veterans' Covenant as proposed in the bill only covers those who have served and their loved ones. We feel that, by leaving out those currently serving, the government is missing a significant element.

Whilst it's obviously important that we acknowledge those who have served, we believe that's only part of the picture. Labor's military covenant includes an annual reporting mechanism in the form of a statement to the parliament on how the government is meeting its obligations to current and ex-serving personnel. Sadly, that's also absent in the bill today. So we have some concerns about the omission of those two elements. In that spirit, we have referred the legislation to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. The intention of that is to ensure that members of the ex-serving community have been consulted and are comfortable with the provisions.

Having made the point about those two particular aspects, we were very acutely aware of how much or how little sitting time the parliament had before a likely election, so we requested that the committee return their bill quickly. It reported back on 22 March, recommending that the bill be passed. So, on that basis, we will not be moving any amendments to the legislation; however, we do continue to believe there is merit in including current serving members and strengthening the legislation by including a report-back element.

In addition to the introduction of a covenant, the bill inserts a general recognition clause, which acknowledges the unique nature of military service, the demands that we place on those who serve, the additional support that they require post service and the Commonwealth's commitment to supporting veterans. We wholeheartedly support this recommendation and this recognition and our ongoing obligation to support those who put their lives on hold for service to our country. As an extension of this general recognition, the bill also includes an overarching statement in relation to the beneficial nature of Veterans' Affairs portfolio legislation, making it clear that the veterans' affairs legislation has a beneficial purpose and should be interpreted accordingly. This section will provide that the Commonwealth be committed to decision-makers interpreting legislation in a way that benefits veterans and their families, where that interpretation is consistent with the purpose of the provision, while the intent of this section is to state that where a provision in the acts and instruments under these acts can be interpreted beneficially it should be.

Of course, not all provisions in the acts and instruments are intended to be beneficial in nature—for example, the recovery of debts to the Commonwealth and provisions protecting the Commonwealth from fraud. Departmental training will be developed to ensure decision-makers understand and appropriately apply the beneficial legislation to support the intent of this clause. In addition, a paragraph will also be inserted that will provide that claims decisions will be made within a time that's proportionate to the complexity of the matter, acknowledging the variety of complex client claims and that there will be differences in time lines. One of the most common complaints about the Department of Veterans' Affairs is the lengthy and complex claims process, so any commitment to time lines will be welcomed by the veteran and ex-serving community.

Finally, this bill before us provides recognition to veterans and their families in the form of a lapel pin, cards and other artefacts. Fundamentally, the bill seeks to provide greater recognition for veterans by government, and it acknowledges the unique nature of military service and the obligation to those who have served. Labor's commitment to those who have served or who serve is rock solid, and, as such, we welcome changes which increase recognition for veterans and their loved ones. Of course, we await the outcome of the Senate inquiry with interest; however, we support the principle of this bill and the acknowledgement of those who have served that it encapsulates.

I have to say that, after the budget last night, I had hoped that the government would give more explanation of the fact that the budget has made a $171.6 million cut to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I think people will, quite rightly, be wanting to know how that will impact on veterans and ex-service personnel. Within the context of the bill before us, I put the question: should there be an explanation of what the implications of that cut are?

In the time left to me I want to acknowledge some locals who have spent decades upon decades at the front line supporting returning personnel, and that, of course, is our wonderful Returned and Services Leagues across the country. In the past few months I have had the immense honour to attend two centenary anniversary events of local RSLs. Firstly, the Wollongong RSL turned 100. We had a great lunch, organised by their executive. I want to acknowledge their president, Peter Poulton AM, who has been the president since 1997, Joe Davidson, who has been honorary secretary since 2008, Derek Howard, who has been honorary treasurer since 2010, vice-president welfare, Noel Jackson, and vice-president social, Darren Wheeler. This RSL was founded in 1915, but its charter was issued on 19 February 1919. The sub-branch is now located at the City Diggers club and they have current membership of 141. They're very busy in our community. Just during 2018, for example, they made 33 visits to ailing and sick members in hospitals, nursing homes and private homes, attended to 38 welfare and pension requests for assistance, conducted eight RSL funerals for deceased veterans and amassed volunteer hours totalling 2,432 in attending to those duties. They are now responsible for the Illawarra district Anzac Day commemoration march. The honorary secretary arranges and MCs the Anzac Day dawn service VP day, Remembrance Day and Anzac Day in Schools program. This is a really important and appreciated function for our young people in our schools. I've been to some of them and have seen how much they value that work. The sub-branch receives strong support from Bravo Company 4/3 RNSWR, based at Gwynneville. I acknowledge Captain Nick Kenter OC and Navy personnel from the Australian Hydrographic Office. I particularly acknowledge Commodore Fiona Freeman OC, based in Wollongong. Bravo Company provides personnel for cenotaph commemorative services and catafalque parties. Both arms support our Anzac Day activities. We are often able to arrange for a RAN ship to be berthed in Port Kembla for Anzac Day, providing one is available. The sub-branch sponsors patrol vessel HMAS Wollongong, based in Cairns, and 2nd Commando Regiment, when on deployment overseas. It was fabulous to come together to celebrate their 100th anniversary. I thank them very much for the honour of joining them. It has been my commitment to continue to work with them.

I also attended the centenary of the Woonona Bulli RSL, another fabulous local organisation. I want to acknowledge their executive: President Michael Paris, Vice-Presidents Garry May and Peter Pioro, Honorary Secretary Phillip Williams, Honorary Treasurer Leslie Ledwidge, welfare and pensions, Peter Pioro, welfare and assets, Peter Bailey and patrons Kevin Whitehead and Peter Bailey. We had a fabulous lunch with the Woonona Bulli RSL, which celebrated not only the achievements that they have made over 100 years, but reflected a very strong future for the RSL. Mr Craig Blanch, the curator in the Military Heraldry and Technology section of the Australian War Memorial was a guest speaker. He has curated the permanent exhibition of the Long Tan Cross at the memorial. We also heard from the RSL vice-president, Mr Ray James—two of the very welcome guest speakers on the day.

The centenary committee had three sub-branch members putting all the work into it, and what a fantastic job they did: Garry May AM, Michael Paris and Peter Pioro. It was lovely Uncle Richard Archibald and his nephew Peter were there. They conducted a welcome to country and played the didgeridoo. They are on a quest to have Aboriginal service men and women rightfully acknowledged at memorial services across Australia. That is a great initiative, and I certainly acknowledge the Australian War Memorial's work in that space, as well. In that respect, I want to acknowledge all of our Indigenous Australians who are ex-serving personnel.

The memorial club—the actual club—provided three members of their staff: Marcela Kohazy, Vanessa Borg and General Manager Michael Brennan. The committee was also helped along the way by various members of the sub-branch.

There was a significant number of official guests—and I was very honoured to be one of them—including, as I mentioned, Mr Ray James, the Vice-President of New South Wales RSL, and his wife, Pauline; Craig Blanch, a senior curator at the War Memorial; Cath Filan, chairperson of the WBRSL memorial club, and Michael Brennan, the general manager of the club, along with Mrs Natalee Brennan. Among the guests were executive members from the Wollongong, Corrimal, Coledale, Albion Park, Warilla, Dapto-Port Kembla and South Hurstville sub-branches, so it was wonderful to see all the sub-branches around the area come together and join with the Woonona Bulli RSL in celebrating this occasion.

Also present, I want to acknowledge, was Mrs Edna Wheatley. Edna is the widow of VC winner Kevin 'Dasher' Wheatley. Edna is a local resident and attends the auxiliary coffee mornings with other windows of our veterans. There is a fantastic display at the club telling the story of Dasher Wheatley, and I've been very pleased that I've been able to get some grants for the club to add to the wonderful exhibition that they have there.

The RSL was built in 1919, obviously to support those returning from war at that time, and it has continued to support people through many conflicts and peacekeeping activities. In 1919, women, unsurprisingly, led the way, through the women's auxiliary and the Regimental Girls, greeting soldiers as they return from war. They were led by Mrs Katherine Herring, who was the founder of the Regimental Girls. That was a core element of the RSL branch's activities—welcoming back veterans.

I want to acknowledge all of those who supported the club. The Woonona-Bulli ambulance division of the St John Ambulance Brigade in 1923 raised money running soup kitchens and so forth; the Diggers Rest Home, since 1959—all of these local activities supported our veterans, upholding that value that we pay honour and respect to them. I thank the House.

Watch Sharon’s speech here.