Speech: National Commissioner For Defence And Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill 2020

Speech: National Commissioner For Defence And Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill 2020 Main Image

Mrs PHILLIPS (Gilmore) (16:43): I want to thank the Member for Shortland for that really important contribution. I've been in this chamber for many of the contributions today, and I've got to say it was an absolute honour to be here to listen to the Member for Herbert, the Member for Braddon, the Member for Solomon—everybody. Everybody's contributions were extremely special. What our veterans spoke about was raw; it was real. I really do thank everybody who has contributed to the debate on this really important issue.

I want to start by acknowledging all our Defence Force members and our veterans. Our Defence Force members and our veterans are so important in our community.

I also want to thank the many veterans who have contacted me through my office and urged me to support a royal commission, which is something Labor supports.

I am pleased to speak on the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill 2020 and the amendment today because this is a really serious issue in my electorate on the New South Wales South Coast. On the South Coast we have a lot of defence members. We are home to HMAS Albatross and, nearby, HMAS Creswell. In everything we do in our community, we have the Defence Force—the Navy—embedded as part of our community. It's something we are really proud of. On top of that, we have the most wonderful veteran community in terms of our RSLs up and down the South Coast and a lot of different veterans organisations. I want to say thank you to all those organisations that work so hard to support our veterans.

Over the years, I have taken part in many celebrations with our veterans and Defence Force members, and each one of those events makes me proud. People who sign up to the Australian Defence Force do it for the love of their country. They sacrifice time with their families. They sacrifice their health and their lives. They put it all on the line—for us. They have so many amazing and varied skills. They are hardworking people who want to make a real contribution. But then, when they have finished their duty to us, too often the system they meet on the outside lets them down. They struggle to find jobs. They struggle to find support. They simply struggle. They have given us everything but, too often, we let them down when they need us most. It is heartbreaking.

I reiterate that Labor supports a Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide. We need to be better at supporting our ADF members as they transition to civilian life. This can be a very challenging time, and I've heard many advocates say there is simply not enough support available during this time. Veterans feel alone and struggle to manage the change in their life that comes with leaving the Defence Force. And it isn't just elderly veterans. Young veterans find it particularly challenging. I thank again the many advocates who have come to see me in relation to this issue, particularly those young veterans themselves.

I find it disappointing that the government has refused to support a royal commission, going against the views of many in the veteran community. What we don't want to see in supporting this bill today is a national commissioner that won't be “better than a royal commission” as the government has claimed. We need to make sure that any commissioner has the resources and the independence from government that it would need to achieve real outcomes for local veterans. We need to give parents and loved ones an opportunity to be heard, and show them that we are truly listening.

I want to see real change in the way we deal with veterans who are undertaking that transition out of the Defence Force. I want to see real change in how we manage and deal with mental health and suicide in the ADF and after. That's why I have supported the establishment of a veterans wellbeing centre in Nowra. As I said, we have a strong defence presence in my electorate. HMAS Albatross and HMAS Creswell play a pivotal role in our community. The bases and their members are embedded in everything our community does—from celebratory events to commemorative occasions, markets and more. They are steadfast and loyal in support of many local causes—causes like Noah's fundraiser, which is raising funds to help young children with disabilities. Everywhere I go, the Navy and Defence Force members and their families are there.

During the last election campaign, Labor committed to seven veterans wellbeing centres, including one in Nowra, and the government is following through on the Nowra centre. Just this week it was announced that RSL LifeCare will lead and deliver the Nowra veterans wellbeing centre—wonderful news and definitely a positive step forward. The centre will act as a one-stop shop for support services, meaning veterans will not have to spend hours searching for where to get help. It will all be there for them to make that process as easy and smooth as possible.

RSL LifeCare has a long history of working with and supporting veterans. They already run the Jonathan Rogers GC House in Nowra, a community with 68 seniors with a range of care needs. The staff at this centre already do a fantastic job supporting their residents; providing fun activities, social outings, themed days and more, as well as 24-hour nursing care and specialist services. I know they will do a fabulous job at running this centre and I'm very excited to see it finally moving forward.

We need to make sure that the establishment of the wellbeing centre considers the views and experience of the organisations who are already delivering services on the ground. We need to be following a collaborative approach to ensure we get the best outcome for local veterans, and so far we have seen positive progress in this light. RSL New South Wales has been leading that charge and doing a wonderful job, along with some amazing local veterans like Lee Cordner, who oversaw the steering committee. I want to thank all of the local partners, local RSL sub-branch members and service providers for their hard work getting the centre to this point. I am looking forward to seeing this centre finally up and running. I urge the government to move this forward as soon as possible. Local veterans can't afford to wait. The need for support is urgent and critical.

Recently I attended a Nowra RSL Sub-Branch meeting to present some World War II commemorative medallions and certificates to local veterans. I was proud to present these medallions and it was lovely to see so many in the sub-branch there to recognise the amazing contribution these veterans made to our community. While I was there, I heard from local RSL advocates about the massive volume of work they are doing to support our local veterans. These advocates are retired volunteers. They are veterans themselves. They are doing it because they truly care about making a difference in the lives of their fellow servicemen and women. But they are overwhelmed and overworked. I heard firsthand from them about their enormous workload supporting local veterans, linking them with services, being someone who can listen to what they are going through and giving them advice on where to get help. They are relentless in their help in supporting their fellow veterans. It is inspiring work, totally worthy of recognition, but they certainly need more help. What they don't want to see is more work created for local advocates and fewer resources as they get diverted elsewhere. These advocates also need to play a critical role in how these centres will be shaped and they need to form part of that make-up.

I want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank, from the bottom of my heart, all our veteran advocates throughout the South Coast community. Your work is absolutely invaluable. It is seen and it is acknowledged. I know it is making a difference to the lives of so many so thank you.

The veterans wellbeing centres have come about from listening to the concerns of the veterans community. In Nowra that charge was led by the South Coast Veterans Motorcycle Club and the local RSL clubs. Their input and ideas are critical to making sure we get this right, to making sure the centre will do what it is supposed to do, to making sure that support will get to where it's needed, and that's what we need to be doing now as we try to tackle the terrible national tragedy that is our veteran suicide rates. Families want to see a royal commission. They want their voices heard and they want real action now.

I have stood in this place before and called the families of veterans our unsung heroes and that remains true. Organisations like the Shoalhaven Defence Families Association, who I have spoken about in this place many times before, are doing incredible things to support families. It is critical and important work and it is making a significant contribution to our community. It is making a difference in the lives of local veterans' families. Thank you, again, to them for this work.

Families of veterans go through so much. They uproot their lives time and time again to suit the new deployment of their partners. They feel the stress and the worry whenever their loved ones are on duty, never knowing what the next day might bring. And when retirement comes, for whatever reason, they are there to try and help in any way they can to navigate the complex process and emotional roller-coasters that come with it.

They know more intimately what works and what doesn't, what is needed and what will help. They have a wealth of knowledge and a huge contribution to make to this discussion. They deserve our support. They deserve our respect. They deserve our faith in them and they deserve our help. Only a royal commission can achieve this. Only a royal commission can give them a full and public deep dive into why these tragic deaths keep happening. This is where we need to start. Too many local families have told me that they feel they are going it alone, that no-one is listening to what they have to say. It is simply heartbreaking.

Today, I want to honour all of our local Defence Force members and veterans and all of their families and friends. I want to honour all of our local RSL sub-branches, advocates and support services. The community has opened up space where government should be, supporting veterans and their families and putting together wonderful programs like Operation Walk to Talk, Defence Surf Therapy and many others and organisations like the Keith Payne VC Veterans Benefit Group and so many more.

There is no doubt that veteran suicide is a crisis in Australia. We need a royal commission now. So why is the government stalling on this? I will always welcome any positive move forward for our veterans, but I also want to make sure we are getting it right. I don't want to let down local families. I don't want to let down local veterans. I want to provide closure, healing and restorative justice to the defence and veteran community, and that starts with a royal commission.