Thank you for your service

The Morrison Government’s hypocrisy ranges across many areas but one of the most galling is the disparity between the protestations about thanking veterans for their service and how they allocate veteran related budgets.

For instance the proposed $500 million Australian War Memorial project, plus the $552 million spent on WWI Centenary commemoration (more than the UK and France spent), represents more than a billion dollars which could have been spent on veterans’ welfare in much needed areas such as homelessness and counselling services for PTSD sufferers.

The proposed AWM project has become controversial and two former AWM Directors are among the opponents, along with architects and historians concerned about the destruction of Anzac Hall.

The proposal allegedly aims to honour veterans involved in recent wars. It is partly justified as a means, not only of recognising these campaigns but also providing balm and solace, to those who took part in them. Whether the displays will include details of how the wars – Iraq, Afghanistan etc – were variously illegal or embarked upon under false pretenses is unknown. What is known, however, is that the displays will feature prominent displays of big boy toys military equipment produced by various arms manufacturers.

As well as those like the former AWM Director, Major General Steve Gower, who are opposing the plan there are a number of people and organisations who are vocal in their opposition to the glorification of war; doubtful about aspects of our military history; some who are sickened by Anzackery as some sort of defining aspect of national history; and, there is also derision about the ‘healing’ justifications proponents have used.

The Australians for War Powers Reform, for instance, emerged out of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry, established in 2012. That campaign called for an independent inquiry into the reasons behind Australia’s participation in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, to draw out what lessons can be learned for the future.

AWPR is now concerned that – as events in 2014 and 2015 have shown –  prime minister can still send Australian troops into action without democratic constraint, parliamentary debate, or public accountability.

IPAN, which comprises community, faith and peace groups, trade unions and concerned individuals – promotes the need for an independent foreign policy for Australia which plays a positive role in solving international conflicts peacefully with the obvious sub-text of not being a US lapdog.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a coalition of non-governmental organizations in more than one hundred countries promoting adherence to and implementation of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It was founded in Australia and was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize – although the Government has never offered any congratulations on the win nor has it signed the treaty.

Meanwhile the Government has been sitting on the Productivity Commission’s review of Australia’s veterans’ affairs system and its $13.2 billion annual budget since June 2019 and has said it won’t announce any response until the October Budget.  Admittedly there have been bushfires and a pandemic since it got the report and Productivity Commission reports often get mothballed but the real problem is that it is potentially very, very controversial.

The report argues that the current compensation and rehabilitation system requires fundamental reform as it is overly complex, difficult to navigate and poorly administered.

While most veterans would agree with this the most controversial will be the recommendation to amend the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 to remove eligibility for the Gold Card for anyone other than veterans with severe service-related impairments.

Unless they qualify through having severe service-related impairments, this would remove eligibility from:  all dependants, veterans over 70 years old with qualifying service, veterans on the service pension who meet the means test and veterans on the service pension who are also receiving a disability pension above the general rate.

It also recommended that eligibility for the Gold Card should not be extended to any new categories of veterans, dependants or other civilians who are not currently eligible for such a card. Currently some Gold Card holder’s widowers, widows or dependants can inherit their partner’s entitlement in some circumstances.

The Commission did concede that all current Gold Card holders should retain their eligibility which, without being cynical, would not be that expensive as most of us are likely to die in the not that distant future.

While some reforms would be great the fundamental problem is that more priority – and the $1billion spent on Anzackery – needs to be given to the immediate needs of veterans.

In May 2019 the Government got a report from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute which showed that a much larger group of veterans than previously estimated experienced homelessness. Over a 12 month period there are about 5,700 contemporary veterans who are homeless – a homelessness rate of 5.3% compared with the 1.9% rate in the general population.

Those veterans who sought help from mainstream services faced various barriers and there were high levels of dissatisfaction with the provided services.

The report concluded that: “Identified risk factors for veteran homelessness include: lower education levels; being single; being unemployed; experiencing financial strain; having mental health issues; having less contact with family/friends; engaging in risky behaviours; being arrested or convicted for a crime and experiencing a greater number of lifetime traumatic events.

“The military service and transition risk factors associated with increased odds of becoming homeless include: higher PTSD and psychological distress symptoms; higher alcohol consumption; higher anger levels; operational deployment; being discharged at a lower rank; being unemployed following transition; and, particularly, relationship breakdown following transition.

“Overall, the strongest risk factors for veteran homelessness were: higher levels of psychological distress during service; and relationship breakdown and unemployment following transition.”

…..and while the AHURI didn’t say it, some new government non-Anzakery spending priorities for veterans’ might make a difference to the problem.

Declaration of interest: The blog is a DVA Gold Card holder, an  IPAN and AWPR member and an ICAN supporter.