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Standing up for veterans and their families

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 25 Mar 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (17:20):  I rise to support these disallowance motions. Put simply, these motions would block the government's attempts to cut income support to the children of veterans. The Australian Greens are resolute in our support for these disallowance motions because we consider it crucial to support veterans and their families. The impact of military service extends far beyond its enormous impact on the Defence Force personnel involved. It has an impact on their spouses, their families and their children.

These motions would disallow two instruments-the Veterans' Children Education Scheme (Income Support Bonus) Repeal Instrument 2014 and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act Education and Training Scheme (Income Support Bonus) Repeal Determination 2014. The Veterans' Children Education Scheme (Income Support Bonus) Repeal Instrument is intended to repeal a scheme which established an income support bonus for certain veterans' children. The second repeal instrument is intended to repeal a scheme which paid $211.60 per annum for unexpected expenses to recipients of education allowances under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004.

As we have already heard, these payments only cost the government about $260,000 a year. They are payable to a very limited number of students who have met quite high eligibility requirements-students with veteran parents who died during war service or who have qualified for pensions at rates adjusted for their impairment.

This amounts to only about 1,240 students across Australia who are eligible for these payments. The payments were introduced in March 2013 at a cost of $260,000 per year, funded by the mining tax. There is a good rationale for these payments from the Department of Veterans' Affairs; they are to help eligible children achieve their full potential in education or career training. On the other hand, the government's rationale for repealing the benefits is that it has decided to repeal the mining tax.

Many groups, very understandably, do not consider that to be good enough. As we have already heard, the New South Wales state president of the Returned and Services League, Don Rowe, said he was 'absolutely disgusted' by the government's decision. The Australian Greens too believe that it is a mean-spirited act, to take money away from veterans' children with one hand and return it to the shareholders of wealthy mining companies-80 per cent of whom live overseas-with the other.

Rather than cutting support for veterans' children and partners, the Australian Greens have consistently been calling for greater recognition and support for families. Veterans' families are in a unique circumstance. They provide a huge service to us all but often end up disadvantaged by their loved ones' own personal military service. They move around a lot; their employment and schooling is disrupted; they endure long absences, sometimes with family members in situations of great danger and conflict. And then they pick up the pieces afterwards if their loved one is injured or affected badly by the experiences they have had. And, of course, some partners, children and families lose their loved one forever. So the Australian Greens know that families play a crucial role in caring for veterans, and we want to support families in this.

It is really as simple as this: if we are prepared to send people to serve in conflict on our behalf, it is only right that we treat them fairly and we look after them properly when they return. Military service extends beyond Defence Force personnel to their families, and the Greens are committed to caring for veterans' families. The income support bonuses to be repealed by these instruments are inexpensive, practical ways to benefit veterans' student children in difficult circumstances. There is no rationale for taking these away.

As the Australian Greens spokesperson for veterans affairs, I have met extensively with the partners and families of veterans. I have spoken to wives, partners and offspring. And I have heard firsthand many stories about the long-term and debilitating impacts of war and war service. I have heard accounts, from myriad sources, of veterans suffering for years without diagnosis or treatment, with conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, or other disorders that make life a misery for them, and sometimes for their families as well.

I have heard the accounts of partners who have been disbelieved in the early years about the experiences they had living with their partners. I have heard about children, cowering and hiding. 'Walking on eggshells' is a phrase I commonly hear because of the debilitating consequences on veterans who return from high-conflict and danger. These accounts are actually alarmingly common.

Frequently I meet with partners and hear their stories. And these are often heartbreaking stories about partners who have known their veteran partner since before they went into military service; and about the changes in personality and the changes in outlook that they have experienced over the years since then. I have heard that post-traumatic stress disorder can commonly manifest as depression, rapid and severe changes in mood and behaviour, terrifying nightmares, hypervigilance and, in some cases, violence. I have heard how some people end up self-medicating through alcohol or other drugs. These symptoms alone can have enormous impacts on veterans and their families.

There is clear evidence now that it is not just the health of veterans which is affected by military service; there are studies which show that there are significant health risks for veterans' partners and their families, relating to their caring role. Professor Brian O'Toole from the Brain and Mind Research Institute has reported that partners of Vietnam veterans have mental illnesses at levels 20 to 30 times higher than the general population. Similarly, in 2005 Dr Hedley Peach, of the University of Melbourne, reviewed various studies and reported that psychological disorders affect partners and children of veterans at substantially higher rates than the non-veteran population, and carry an associated risk of cardiovascular and other physical diseases.

Veterans' children are reported to be at risk of higher rates of various congenital birth conditions and health problems. Long-term studies show that being the partner or child of a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder is a predictor of suffering from a mental disorder which can in turn affect grandchildren. It is reported that suicide levels among veterans' children are up to three times higher than the rest of the Australian population.

The need to support veterans and their families with adequate mental health services and other supports is much broader than income support, and I look forward to working with the government on these complex issues. However, decent support with education and a livelihood for veterans' children is the least that we can do.

When I spoke about the mining tax repeal bill last week, I cited the payments under the Veterans' Children Education Scheme, and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act Education and Training Scheme, as prime examples of that bill's short-sightedness. The Greens want to strengthen the mining tax, not repeal it. We want to share the profits from our nation's mineral wealth among our community-the community that owns these shared resources and the community that contributes to the society that makes this mining and this wealth possible. This government's move to discontinue these payments to veterans' children, because it is hell-bent on repealing the mining tax, is mean-spirited and bloody-minded.

We demonstrate our values by the choices we make. We do not have an infinite source of revenue but we can choose to have the revenue that is available to us from things like sharing the wealth that is generated by our shared resources. So do not tell me that we do not have sufficient wealth in Australia-one of the most wealthy nations in the world-to properly look after those who are the most needy. Education, health, mental health-how we look after the most vulnerable is the sign of how civilized we are as a nation.

In this case, we have a government that is choosing to look after its mates and to repeal the mining tax legislation-a decision that will directly see more money in the pockets of its wealthy mining company mates, wealth which is generated from the resources that we all own and that belong to all of us-and choosing, at the same time, to take away money from the children of veterans who have died or who are disabled.

The Greens took a fully costed proposal to support veterans' families to the federal election last year. We know that, as a community, we owe the partners and families of veterans a huge debt. Government decisions have sent their loved ones to serve on our behalf, as a nation, into hazardous and often highly distressing situations. So it is only right that we care for them properly and care for the families who support them.

I would just like to give an indication of some of the initiatives that we developed, took for costing and took to the election. These were based carefully on the listening I have been doing over a period of years with veterans and their families. We would allow children of veterans who are acting as a carer for their veteran parent and the parents and siblings of veterans killed in service to access counselling through the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service. The provision of counselling services is a tangible way to support them. We would grant bereavement payments to partners who have separated from their veteran partner where it is established that the veteran's mental ill health played a part in the separation. This initiative would recognise the unique pressures that veterans' partners experience through living with a veteran, which can affect their lives or their relationship and are often directly attributable to the military service.

Our initiative would have increased funeral benefits under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 from $2,000 to $4,000, subject to review every five years to keep up with increasing costs. Our initiative would make the Department of Veterans' Affairs the responsible department for assessing the eligibility of veterans' carers for the Centrelink carer allowance, because it is that department that has a much better understanding of the nature of the condition experienced by veterans and the consequences and effects of caring for someone with that condition by their partners.

We would change the current situation regarding carer allowance so it is no longer cancelled after the veteran has been hospitalised for six weeks, which requires partners and carers to reapply. We would review the carer supplement every five years to ensure that the payment is adequate. We would increase veterans' home care respite services to 260 hours per year. That is merely 10 hours per fortnight, but I have heard time and time again from partners of veterans that that precious 10 hours-when they are looking after a veteran and often cannot leave the house or, if they can leave the house, often cannot do so with any certainty that they will be able to stay away without getting the call that they are required back home-would give them the chance to go and get a haircut, to go and have a cup of coffee with friends, to see family or to do some shopping.

We would also establish and maintain a jobs for Defence families website that would assist Defence families-who are often uprooted and moved around-and their partners to find employment with people who have an understanding and a respect for the Defence Force, so that they can be partnered up or given the opportunity to find out about employers who would make jobs available for them. I have been told the nomadic existence, in some ways, that veterans and partners experience is one of the great pressures on veterans' relationships. We would fund the Defence Community Organisation to provide enhanced induction and support seminars for Defence families before their loved one enters Defence service and also when they are leaving, so that they can be alerted to the things to look out for and be advised about the programs and assistances that are available for them.

So the Australian Greens oppose the repeal of the mining tax because, if the tax were implemented properly, it would share the wealth from our minerals among the community and it could fund worthy projects and initiatives just like those that I have outlined. So we are supporting this disallowance motion, because it is just not good enough to take away benefits for veterans' children just because this government is intent on repealing the mining tax. On behalf of the Australian Greens, I will continue to advocate to care properly for the people who do military service on our behalf and for the families who support them.

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