I’d like to thank the Chief of Army for his very kind invitation to join you this morning. And firstly let me acknowledge and thank those of you who have served, those who currently serve and the families that serve with you. On behalf of not just the Government but frankly on behalf of millions and millions of Australians who enjoy peaceful nights’ rest because tough men and women actually go out there and serve our nation, protect our borders and serve our national interests. Thank you most sincerely.
I also acknowledge the Chief of Army and his substantial leadership in this area and the four of these such forums that he’s led under his personal leadership. And I thank Rear Admiral Walker who is here, the Head of Defence Health, and I thank the various Commanding Officers here that have joined us; staff from multiple agencies that have come along, but most importantly those who served and the families who served with them.
Thank you for the opportunity for inviting me and the Senior Leadership team along, to actually hear your stories and to learn from them. This is about continuously improving the care and management of our wounded, our ill and our injured and their families. Now the Chief of Army is fond of saying Army is a family – he’s said it often and he is right. I joined this family of Army 25 years ago. I loved it then – I love it now as the Assistant Minister for Defence. And families quite rightly take care of their own, they always have. Which is why this initiative enjoys not only my personal support and that of the Government, but clearly the support of the Chief of Army who’s initiated it.
Today participants, you guys and girls in the room, have the opportunity to speak very frankly and fearlessly to the Senior Leadership and service providers about issues that affect your health and your recovery. It’s an opportunity to recommend improvements to make our system better.
Today, like all these forums that are run we are all ears. To take a management term ‘there are no sacred cows, everything is on the table’. Because ours is a big system and I acknowledge we don’t always get it right. But it’s not because our intentions aren’t good, it’s just because we’re big. And like all systems we accept that it’s big but more importantly we have a personal belief that we want to make it better, and the way we make it better is by listening to people’s personal experiences, with personal journeys, with personal injuries and personal recoveries.
You’re joined by other organisations that together want to see things continually improve. The last part of the parliament finished an enquiry into the care of ADF personnel wounded and injured on operations. I was intimately involved in that as the senior Shadow Minister for Defence in the House of Representatives. The report made 25 recommendations. I’m looking forward to sensibly getting on with the bulk of those, to ensure we can join with you and improve our system of care.
The recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee came from people like you. Perhaps many of you contributed. They came from soldiers and commanders, they came from veterans and families and community organisations - a range of people with a stake in improving our system. So if we can validate our support systems and if we can improve them, if we can identify the areas to enhance, to fix, to replace – all the better. So its a bit like my kids at the dinner table, my kids are eight, six and four, which means they are painfully honest. If we can be like our kids at the dinner table and roll the issues out in a very frank way and say ‘this is the problem – how can we fix it’?
Can I reiterate that the Government as a whole recognises the unique demands that military service plays on lives. I can attest to it first hand. The injuries and illnesses suffered by our soldiers due to those demands that service life puts on us are not just limited to injuries in the physical space. Mental health injuries, PTSD, depression and anxiety are very real, and they are the same as a physical injury. The Government is very clear in terms of its view – that there is no stigma in a mental health injury. Whether we are injured physically, whether we are injured mentally – we are injured. And the way we break down those barriers in society is by doing exactly what we do here today. And as we talk about it openly, honestly, raise issues that need to be fixed, and that is one of the great things about what we are doing today.
A few months ago when I was sworn in as a Minister my first act was to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. My first official duty was actually to walk with a wounded Digger as he was walking from Canberra to Sydney. I joined him on his last leg. My first official military base visit was last week to 7th Brigade to join Commander 7th Brigade looking at the Soldier Recovery Centre. And I purposely made sure that the first acts I did as a Minister was to go and hang out with soldiers, sailors, air men and women – injured and not injured, to reflect the priorities of not just myself as a Minister, but the priorities of the Government as a whole.
When the Prime Minister called me, it’s one of those moments you see in Yes Minister for those who watch it, everyone waits by the phone for the PM to call and invite them into the ministry, lucky the PM called early. And in typical Prime Minister style, he just rolled out what his expectation was, "Stuart I invite you to be the Assistant Minister for Defence and I expect you to make sure that the welfare of my soldiers, sailors, airmen and women is taken care of; that they have the best conditions of service possible, that they have the best equipment to fight the nation’s war and they love the Government." I said "yes boss I can do that".
My priorities are a reflection of the Prime Minister’s priorities. And can I say travelling around the country as I do, the Prime Minister’s priorities on caring for Diggers is a reflection of our nation’s priorities. That’s why the Army’s current framework on mental health seeks to address the whole range of operational burdens imposed by the military on members, families, commanders and peers. It’s a good framework; it’s specific to the unique nature of military service. It’s about strengthening resilience, it’s about enabling recovery, and it’s about taking care of soldiers.
This year’s forum I hope will review the effectiveness of the whole continuum of treatment, rehabilitation and recovery from your perspective, perspective of that of soldiers and their families suffering with mental health injuries. The outcomes of the forum will give a better understanding of the complexity of issues that affect our members, families and commanders.
It will confirm priorities for Army; it will confirm priorities for the Government. So it’s a great initiative. It’s a real pleasure for me to come here this morning and just share the Government’s profound view of how important this is to us and how much support you will receive from us. So thank you for your willingness to step up today and to be frank and fearless in your advice to our senior leadership in terms of the issues that affect you. Courage has always taken many forms, today is one of them. Thank you again.