Remembrance Day

Today is Remembrance Day, and I would like to pay tribute to all Australians who have served and sacrificed to ensure that we live in a beautiful and free democratic country. In relation to Tasmanian war casualties, Parliamentary Library research shows that 27 Tasmanians were killed in the South African Boer War. In World War I, 2,432 Tasmanians were killed. In World War II, over 1,100 Tasmanians were killed. In the Korean War, 22 Tasmanians were killed. In the Indonesian Confrontation, two Tasmanians were killed. In the Vietnam War, 17 Tasmanians lost their lives. According to biographies provided on the Department of Defence website, of the Australian Defence Forces' 41 casualties who died in the war in Afghanistan, two personnel are identified as having been born in Tasmania—Corporal Richard Atkinson and, of course, Corporal Cameron Baird VC MG, from my home town of Burnie.

As well as reflecting on the casualties of our states and nation, this is a day when we reflect on the sacrifice made worldwide by all who believe democracy, basic human rights, freedoms and liberties are values worth dying for. I am reminded that going into World War I there were only seven free democratic countries in the world—England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, America and Italy—who were prepared to shed blood in a worldwide fight against absolute sin. Then, again, in World War II there were only six democratic countries who were prepared to take on the dark forces of totalitarianism in a life-and-death battle. You will recall Italy had turned fascist between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II. Today, Freedom House says that in 2014, out of 195 countries in the world, 88 countries, or 45 per cent, were free; 59 countries, or 30 per cent, were partially free; and 48 countries, or 25 per cent, were not free.

It is at this point that I am reminded of the brutal lesson that each generation must learn—and pray it is learned from books, films, the internet or stories of the old warriors—that freedom is not free. History proves that freedom is a delicate flower that demands nourishment from a terrible fertiliser made from the blood and bones of those patriots who love basic democratic human rights and liberties so much that they are prepared to give their own lives in the protection of those values and political systems.

Today I will table a private member's bill which I am convinced will help reduce the suicide, self-harm and homelessness rates of the people that we paid tribute to: servicemen and servicewomen of Australia's armed forces. I ask all senators to seriously consider my private member's bill, which simply expands the range of service personnel who officially qualify free of charge for the health Gold card, which is the best medical treatment that Australia can provide.

An undeniable and unprecedented veterans' suicide and homelessness crisis grips Australia today. This crisis was created because of poor management of Australia's military resources and Defence personnel by successive governments. These governments compounded their error by attempting to cover up the true nature and scale of our veterans' suicide and homelessness crisis. The Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Expanded Gold Card Access) Bill 2015 that I will table in the Senate today will properly address our nation's shameful veterans' suicide and homelessness crisis. By guaranteeing with this legislation automatic free access to the best possible medical treatment in Australia for the men and women of our ADF and Federal Police who have served their country in war or war-like operations, this parliament will stop the harmful—and all too often deadly—bureaucratic fight our veterans are forced to undertake so that they can obtain a health Gold card.

As described in this legislation's explanatory notes, the purpose of the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Expanded Gold Card Access) Bill 2015 is to amend the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 so that all veterans, including peacekeepers and peacemakers or former members of the Australian Defence Force, who have served in war or war-like operations and for related purposes are provided with medical and psychological treatment free of charge as a right of service. They will be provided with the best medical treatment Australia has to offer—that is, health Gold card benefits. At present, there are three categories of repatriation, depending on service and medical needs: (1) the Orange card, which is for pharmaceutical benefits only; (2) the White card, which is for specific conditions; and (3) the Gold card, which is for all clinical health needs.

While repatriation efforts have improved in recent decades, there are still many people who have served Australia whose medical and psychological needs are not addressed, as witnessed by high rates of self-harm and homelessness. The Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Expanded Gold Card Access) Bill 2015 is an important first step in ensuring a more effective transition between national service and civilian life. The Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Expanded Gold Card Access) Bill 2015 broadens the terms of reference of the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 to ensure everyone who served in war or war-like operations receives vital, necessary and timely medical and psychological treatment, whether or not the condition or injury was caused by war or was contracted during war or war-like operations.

This legislation is a direct result of events that transpired at a meeting of veterans that was organised by Dr Raymond Huntley at Burpengary, Queensland, on Wednesday, 21 May 2014. At the gathering of veterans—consisting of former ADF members, mainly from the Army, who had served in Vietnam and younger veterans who had recently served in Middle East conflicts—Dr Huntley asked all the health Gold card holders to stand. About a dozen people stood. Dr Huntley then asked those who had obtained their Gold card in two years or less to sit. Two veterans sat. Though this process of gradually increasing the number of years it took to obtain a Gold card, questioning and then asking veterans to sit, it became very clear very quickly that most veterans had to wait about five years before they received a health Gold card. Two veterans had to wait over 10 years to access the medical benefits that the coverage of a health Gold card gives.

After Dr Huntley had finished that exercise—which in reality was for my benefit and that of two other Liberal politicians at the time—a former digger who had served in the Middle East spoke to the group. He had a tragic story, like many others. He said a number of his comrades that he had served with in war in the Middle East had taken their own lives. He said that one of the main reasons that had pushed his veteran friends to that terrible decision to kill themselves was the psychological harm that occurred to his mates while they fought the government to obtain a Gold card. The Middle East veteran said that many of his friends would have preferred to fight the Taliban rather than fight the bureaucrats that decided whether our diggers received the best possible medical care that Australia can provide to her wounded warriors.

Then from the floor of the meeting this younger veteran suggested that many lives could be saved if the Australian government automatically gave a health Gold card to all veterans who had served in war or war-like conditions. From that moment, my office has worked hard to present this legislation to the parliament in the unshakable belief that it will lessen the risk of further harm and will help stop our veterans from taking their own lives.

Just over a year ago this government, under the cover of the media generated by the Melbourne Cup, tried to get away with an announcement which effectively meant, taking into account inflation and the CPI, that all members of our Defence Force were to suffer a pay cut. I am happy to say that the Prime Minister responsible for that sneaky, low act has paid the price for his betrayal of members of our Australian Defence Force. Tony Abbott is no longer leader of Australia, and I am convinced that one of the reasons he is no longer in that privileged position is the disgusting, appalling and hypocritical manner in which he treated members of our Australian Defence Force. He was a politician who, by his own behaviour when it came to Defence pay, was shown to live off the Anzac legend and not up to it. I hope Prime Minister Turnbull learns the lessons and grants our ADF the fair pay rise of an extra one per cent that your predecessor so heartlessly denied the men and women of our Australian armed services.

In relation to the Tasmanian Victoria Cross recipients: as identified in the Parliamentary Library research paper 'Index of Victoria Cross recipients by electorate', there are 15 out of the 100 Victoria Cross recipients with a connection to Tasmania. These connections include being born in Tasmania, residing in Tasmania upon enlistment, and having Tasmania as the place of death or burial.

To all those men and women who have served and are currently serving our country, I sincerely thank you.