QLD RSL – Annual General Meeting
25 June 2016, Townsville QLD
Senator Chris Ketter
It is a pleasure to join you today.
As a national body I also congratulate you on a centenary of fierce advocacy and service to our current and former ADF personnel.
These are challenging time for everyone who works in veterans affairs, as the demographics and therefore the needs of the veterans’ community change, it is critical that we respond to those changes.
I know the QLD RSL has been particularly active and innovative in reaching out to contemporary veterans, including through social media.
Innovation, an open minded approach to new initiatives and flexibility will likely be critical for ESO’s and policy makers as we move into the next 100 years of supporting our veterans’.
That being said, Labor believes it is also important to ensure the foundations of our veterans’ affairs system is strong, effective and providing positive outcomes for veterans.
Australia has a strong record on veterans’ affairs – but not a perfect one and there remains work to be done, particularly in relation to the delivery of government services.
Whether its overpayments, the unauthorised sharing of personal information, processing delays, lost documents, a complex and difficult to navigate legislative regime, administrative errors or a lack of communication – time and again we have heard the personal stories of veterans whose lives have been turned upside down by the system.
In the recent Senate Inquiry into the mental health of ADF members and veterans, claims processing was described as everything from ‘chaotic’ to ‘combative’ and an ‘unsuitable hybrid of fragmented national and dispersed business lines’.
There are so many beneficial programs, services and entitlements available in veterans’ affairs but over the years there has been a breakdown in how those services are accessed and delivered.
Labor believes that systemic change is required.
That is why a Shorten Labor Government will commission a First Principles Review of Veterans’ Affairs - to address these challenges and make sure the Department has the structure and the capabilities they need to meet the requirements of current and future veterans.
The First Principles Review will deliver an end-to-end, holistic examination of veterans’ affairs, based on the outcomes required of the Department and focused on agreed upon first principles.
This comprehensive process will ensure that issues are not viewed in isolation. Rather the resulting recommendations will work together to create a veterans’ affairs system which is effective, efficient and in the best interest of veterans.
Labor knows that this process must be followed by implementation and we are committed to making that a reality because we simply cannot continue on as we are now.
A First Principle Review is not an attack on DVA employees or their commitment to the important work they do every day.
Labor will also continue to support the modernisation of DVA’s ICT system and the full digitisation of their records as a critical element of this reform process.
In addition, Labor remains committed to the streamlined single appeals process for the MRCA. We will make the passage of the legislation, which lapsed when Parliament was prorogued, a priority in Government.
The First Principles Review is about making sure the systems we have in place work for the people they were meant to serve rather than against them. This is about making sure the foundations of our veterans affairs system is strong so we can build into future.
I would like to offer my thanks, on behalf of Labor, for the input and feedback the RSL provided during consultation on this important measure.
The data we are collecting on veterans’ homelessness and suicide rates is patchy and incomplete.
This shortfall of critical information undermines our ability to understand the scale of the problem as well as the progress we are making to address it.
This problem has been identified in the past, but it has proven stubborn to address.
If a veteran is not a client of the Department, it is difficult for it to record information about them, to say nothing of their partners or children.
As a result, in some areas we are missing necessary data simply because it does not exist. In other areas, if it is recorded, it is not complete.
Labor will work with States and Territories to introduce an ‘ADF Flag’ into key National Minimum Data Sets on homelessness and suicide.
National Minimum Data Sets are minimum sets of data elements agreed for mandatory collection and reporting at a national level.
As part of Labor’s already announced policy on suicide prevention we have committed to building an accurate picture of deaths by suicide and suicide attempts through an agreed national minimum data set on suicide.
Labor will ensure the inclusion of an ‘ADF flag’ within this data set.
This variable will allow Government and the Department to identify whether an individual has served in the ADF, or was a spouse or child of someone who has served in the ADF – regardless of whether that death is the subject of a DVA claim.
Including the families of ADF members in this record is important. We know the scars of conflict don’t just impact ADF members - they can also impact partners and children.
Intergenerational monitoring allows for intergenerational support. It bridges the gap between the good work being done by the Department and the good work being done by the public, by veterans’ organisations and by not-for-profits –
So that we can better track ongoing support outcomes and better pick up red flags when they occur and act on what we have learned from past experience.
Because sometimes our scars outlive us.
From previous studies we know that the children of the Vietnam conflict cohort are particularly vulnerable when it comes to suicide.
Importantly, our data sets are an ongoing measure which goes beyond a one-off, time-limited study, providing an enduring measure by which we can judge the effectiveness of our programs and improve them into the future.
Labor will also work with states and territories to include an ‘ADF flag’ in the existing Specialist Homelessness Service Collection which records and collects data from frontline homelessness services across the country.
In addition to rectifying the shortfall in accurate data on veterans’ homelessness, this measure will help identify members of the veterans’ community when they present to frontline services so they can be connected to veteran specific services where appropriate.
If we can improve the identification of veterans and their family members by frontline services, we can help ensure they are connected with the DVA so their eligibility for payments and other services and programs is assessed as soon as possible.
We recognise these are long-term challenges without easy quick fixes. But we make the job harder for ourselves when we work without all the tools and the information we need.
Too much of the problem we seek to solve remains hidden from view.
That’s why Labor will complement the introduction of this ADF homelessness data set with a focused study into veterans’ homelessness.
The study will centre on the identification of members of the veterans community who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness as we speak.
It will also provide recommendations to address factors that increase the risk of homelessness and solutions to how we can best help those currently affected.
It is vital that we do what we can to identify members of the veterans community who are homeless in QLD and across the country so we can connect them to the DVA and peer support services.
We need to make sure that no veteran is left out in the cold because they were out of our sight.
Labor also recognises that mental health is a serious and prevalent challenge in the veterans’ community and we remain committed to supporting programs and initiatives that provide for the mental and emotional health of our current and former ADF personnel.
That is why Labor will establish an Australian National Veterans Arts Centre in Melbourne.
Currently derelict, the St Kilda Road facility was formerly a repatriation centre used by World War I veterans as the Repatriation Commission Outpatient Clinic.
Labor will not proceed with the sale of this heritage listed site. Instead, following the remediation and restoration of the site by the Department of Defence, the building will be returned to its original purpose as a caring centre for veterans. The facility is superbly located for this purpose, being proximate to the Shrine of Remembrance, Victoria Barracks, public transport links and the Melbourne CBD.
Specifically, the ANVAC will host veterans’ groups, programs and initiatives for a new generation of veterans seeking support for mental health and PTSD, including through arts therapy.
Veterans have long engaged in the arts for a range of reasons including for rehabilitation from wounds, injury or illness, or as a form of therapy to capture their lived experience and to stimulate morale within peer groups.
While this centre will primarily assist Victorian veterans, we believe exploring the positive potential of arts therapy for veterans struggling with mental health is worth doing and will provide important lessons we can build on in the future.
It goes back to that necessity for innovation, new ideas and flexibility.
It has been a turbulent couple of years within veterans’ affairs with Labor and veterans themselves having to fight against cuts to pensions, disability pension backdating, cuts to war orphans and a freeze on the indexation dental and allied health payments. While we have been able to prevent some of these Government measures going ahead, others have been pushed through.
Labor wants to see the foundations of our veterans affairs system strengthened, our vulnerable and homeless veterans supported and essential entitlements protected.
Thank you once again for the opportunity to join you here today and I look forward to continuing to work with the QLD RSL and my local sub branches in the future.