Prioritising the wellbeing of veterans and their families
Life has been challenging for our veteran community since December 2019, but Australians are at their best when they come together in times of need. I am proud that we have all supported one another and that the federal Government has put in place measures to ensure we are in the best possible position post-pandemic.
Since December 2019, when the devastating bushfires hit, to the ongoing support through the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen the single largest domestic effort by our Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel since the Second World War.
As Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel, I have been privileged to see the passion, dedication and resilience of our ADF personnel, veterans and their families during this time.
The ADF has been there to provide us with the care, assistance and assurance to keep us safe. Meanwhile, veterans have been out helping the community and we have put in measures to ensure they continue to be looked after.
Last year many of us needed additional support to keep on top of our mental health. I am proud that in 2020, the Government made a record investment in funding for mental health services and support for those in the ex-service community. This included more than $100 million in additional funding through the 2020–21 Budget to further bolster mental health support, increasing fees for mental health service providers and expanding Open Arms — Veterans & Families Counselling. These are initiatives that will benefit veterans and their families for many years to come.
We have continued to increase our focus on the crucial period of transition from military to civilian life, with $17.7 million allocated in the last Budget for the establishment of the Joint Transition Authority, providing greater support during this critical time.
The vast majority of the 6,000 ADF personnel who leave the military each year will have a smooth transition. There are countless stories of veterans who use the skills they developed in the ADF to go on to do great things for the community, whether that is starting their own business, working in private enterprise, or volunteering.
I am certainly aware of the challenges many veterans face, but the Government has been listening to the concerns raised by those who have not had the best experiences with the departments of Veterans’ Affairs and Defence.
Research shows that veterans under 30 who discharge involuntarily can have a more difficult time transitioning. This has been a focus for the Government, and we have bolstered support for younger at-risk veterans during transition, including an additional 10 case coordinators to provide guidance to a further 170 young and vulnerable veterans leaving the military each year.
On 29 March, I launched the Support for Employment program, which will provide specialised one-on-one support for veterans who have left the ADF to help them find employment. This program builds on existing DVA and the Department of Defence programs and will deliver pre- and post-employment assistance.
The Government provided its interim response to the Productivity Commission report A Better Way to Support Veterans as part of the 2020–21 Budget. The final response will be delivered in the upcoming 2021–22 Budget, but it is significant to note that the Government rejected proposed changes to the Veteran Gold Card, which I trust provides clarity and assurance to many.
The first of six Veteran Wellbeing Centres committed to at the 2019 election, which bring together a range of support services in one place, is already helping veterans in Western Australia. Work on the other five centres is progressing well.
Further supporting veteran wellbeing, the first DVA-funded psychiatric assistance dogs were provided last year to veterans to complement treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These dogs are specially trained to detect signs of distress and perform specific tasks to help alleviate those symptoms for their veteran handler. We are hearing stories frequently of how these dogs are changing the lives of veterans and improving their quality of life. So far, 24 psychiatric assistance dogs have been placed with veterans living with PTSD, and around 100 dogs are in training.
Demonstrating just how life-changing this program has been to both veterans and their families, I received the following note from the partner of one of the first recipients of a psychiatric assistance dog:
"I wanted to reach out and let you know this little mate has made such a difference. As a partner to [a veteran with] PTSD, I am forever grateful to DVA and all the people involved in the program. You are saving veterans."
Last year also saw the appointment of Australia’s first ever Veteran Family Advocate, Ms Gwen Cherne. Commissioner Cherne is working to ensure the views of those who live with and support our veterans on a daily basis are heard and factored into Government policy and decision-making.
I am also proud of the way the department has maintained its priority support for veterans and their families during the coronavirus pandemic. From the outset, DVA remained ‘open for business’ and staff proactively reached out to thousands of our most vulnerable veterans and their families to check they were okay and that they had the support they needed. They sent thousands of text messages and contacted doctors treating veterans to make sure they were being taken care of.
Two Economic Support Payments of $750 benefited around 225,000 veterans and their families, with two further payments of $250 provided to eligible veterans and their families toward the end of last year and on 1 March. Telehealth arrangements for accessing services by general practitioners, medical specialists, nurses, allied and mental health providers have supported more than 100,000 individual clients.
Lastly, one of the most important ways we show respect for our current and former ADF personnel and their families is through commemoration. Although Anzac Day and events to mark 75 years since the end of the Second World War were different last year, I am heartened by how people commemorated in their own way. So many Australians ‘lit up the dawn’ and some 4.8 million people tuned in to the live broadcast and livestream of the 2020 Anzac Day service. That represents almost 20% of our entire population. It’s an amazing, and telling, statistic. I encourage you to take part in this year’s Anzac Day with the same degree of dedication.
I am honoured and humbled to be part of a Government that puts such high importance on supporting veterans and their families, and commit to continuing to deliver outcomes for our veteran community regardless of any unforeseen challenges we might encounter in 2021.