Twenty-five years ago Australia deployed 1,800 defence personnel to the first Gulf War to assist the US and several other countries push Iraq out of Kuwait. There were 146 casualties from the coalition, but Australia was fortunate enough not to lose one digger in this particular war. In the public gallery watching this debate today is a group of veterans from the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans Association, one of whom, Rod Thompson, is an Australian Gulf War veteran who served on HMAS Adelaide. Thank you all for your service.
Tomorrow these veterans will join with hundreds of their fellow veterans—brothers and sisters—to rally on the lawns in front of Parliament House at 10am. They will protest at the dysfunctional way they are being treated by this government's Department of Veterans' Affairs. They will protest at the lack of respect shown by the Prime Minister and other senior government politicians. I urge all senators who are supportive to join the veterans and hear what they have to say. They have been ignored for far too long. They will suffer in silence no longer. Too many of them have taken their own lives. So it is time that the Canberra politicians and media listened.
The 1,800 Australians who participated in the Gulf War faced a more devastating battle with their minds and bodies after the Gulf War. A Monash University study, the Australian Gulf War Veterans' Health Study 2003, has shown that Gulf War veterans suffered increasing psychological conditions in the years following the Gulf War—and not just PTSD either. The study showed the Australians deployed to the Gulf War were also suffering from anxiety disorders, depression and increasing problems with drinking as well.
This information is not new to the government. The Department of Veterans' Affairs had this report—and, for that matter, the follow-up report—but sought 'independent' review from an 'independent' epidemiologist of their choosing. And these health problems are not exclusive to the first Gulf War. I do not need a university to tell me that war or warlike service can cause crippling psychological damage on top of physical damage.
The things the government expects these people to do are inhuman—fair enough, that is what they sign up for. But what they do not sign up for is being kicked to the kerb and put through the bureaucratic wringer. Veterans do not sign up to poor treatment by the government. They fight—sometimes to the death—to receive the necessary health care they require. A government needs to step up to its responsibility and make sure the people it is training to deal with the extreme circumstances that are likely to arise during war have the best physical and mental health care available to cope with those extreme situations when they leave the Defence Force.
So why haven't the government and the Department of Veterans' Affairs implemented changes surrounding the results of the Monash University's Australian Gulf War Veterans' Health Study 2003? When you reflect on the fact that the total number of Australians who died in combat overseas for the last 15 years is approximately 49 and the total number of Australian former diggers who have committed suicide is 241 the enormity and weight of the tragedy sinks in. It causes in me a terrible dread. That is obviously not a feeling shared by the major parties, who voted against my private members bill which would have granted an automatic gold card to diggers, peacekeepers and peacemakers who had been in a war or warlike conditions.
Making access to a gold card a tick and flick exercise would allow the most vulnerable and often damaged people to bypass a traumatic and further damaging administrative process and immediately receive the relevant medical care they need. An automatic gold card does not just benefit the digger who receives it. It also reduces the administrative burden for the Department of Veterans' Affairs and alleviates the rate of homelessness and suicide, which translates to a greater number of people being healthy enough to contribute to society and the tax base.
These deaths are avoidable. The bureaucratic fight with the Department of Veterans' Affairs to obtain the benefits and services of a health gold card is responsible for killing our veterans and carving a trail of destruction through their families and friends. You people in here have still not learnt anything from the way you treated our Vietnam veterans and their families and the impact it has had on them.
Last week, for political gain, the coalition government and Labor voted down my legislation. While Labor opposed my legislation for the automatic issue of a gold card to veterans, I can report that today I have had an encouraging meeting with the Labor shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Mr Feeney. After listening to members of the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans Association he has a much better appreciation of the minimal costs of implementing this system.
I am double checking the costings I received from the PBO and its view that the cost will be less than half of what the government is trying to say it will be—with the added benefit that it will save lives. What cost do you put on the life of a veteran—$100 million, $1 billion, $2 billion, $10 billion? Anytime you work that out, please let me know.
I am also working on a private members bill which will provide retraining for diggers leaving the Australian Defence Force after a number of years of warlike service. The 'Diggers' Bill' will provide a smooth transition for diggers from the Defence Force to civilian life. It will be modelled on America's famous GI Bill, which helped build America and properly rewarded veterans for their service to their country. Put simply, the GI bill provided free university education for their former warriors. Why can't we do the same for our veterans?
The Defence Force is all many of our diggers know. Without education and a transition pathway many will not have transferrable skills and many of them will not know where they can get help. The 'Diggers' Bill' will make sure that their potential is captured and utilised in the civilian world. If every one of our diggers is retrained and placed in the workforce again, our rate of homelessness drops and their sense of purpose is maintained, which will decrease the rate of suicide. It will also broaden the tax base, as the 'Diggers' Bill' will see a rise in work place participation and again reduce the administrative burden that is on the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
So I say to the government: if you are not prepared to look after the men and women of Australia's military— who have pledged undying loyalty to Australia, trained for war, followed politicians' orders, bled, sacrificed and protected our world famous Anzac legend—then don't bloody well send them in the first place!
My network supports fair pensions indexation for veterans and former ADF members, including those who have been physically and psychologically wounded or harmed. ADF members who are totally and permanently injured should be treated fairly and respectfully. We will introduce legislation that will protect the purchasing power of all former ADF members by linking their pensions and entitlements to the rising cost of average Australian weekly wages.
The JLN has introduced and had passed by the Senate legislation which guarantees fair pay and pay rises for all members of the ADF and a wage rise safety net by linking our diggers' pay increases to the increases given to Australian politicians or to the CPI—whichever is higher. That bill now sits in the lower house of the parliament awaiting debate. Bring that on any time you like. The only person who has the power to bring that debate on is Prime Minister Turnbull, who has been under a bit of pressure this week.
As I have outlined, there are many positive policies that this government can implement to improve the lot of our veterans. However, to immediately help those who are still serving in the ADF the Prime Minister can authorise the debate of my private member's bill in the lower house. I would love it if the government members voted for it, but I am not holding my breath. But all I ask is that for tomorrow we get a commitment to just have a debate. I would like to know the names of the politicians who would vote against a bill that links their pay to the pay of our diggers.
In closing, I ask that all people who support our veterans and their call for the automatic issue of a gold card wear a gold ribbon tomorrow to show their support. Today, I also put it out there that I will be issuing those gold ribbons for Anzac Day. One way or another, these people will receive the physical and psychological treatment that they have earned. As a matter of fact, you people in there did a deal with them. Part of our service for signing up in the first place was that you were to look after us if we were hurt or injured. You have failed to get the job done. In this parliament, the major parties have failed to get the job done. That is why we have had over 250 suicides—and still counting. I can tell you now that you might as well double that number, because they are only the ones that we know of.
Question agreed to.