3 August 2023

I rise today to speak to the report on the inquiry run by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee into the Adaptive Sports Program for Australian Defence Force veterans. I begin by thanking all of the individuals and groups that took the time to make a submission to this very important inquiry, and particularly those who attended the two public hearings in Canberra and in Sydney. It was wonderful to hear from everyone who made a contribution to this inquiry, particularly veterans, and those who are involved in supporting our veteran community. We all owe our veterans a debt of gratitude and we should be supporting them in their transition to civilian life every time we can, as well as supporting their families and their support personnel.

I also want to pay tribute to the four Army soldiers who died recently in that crash up in Townsville. It was sad news. I want to pay tribute to them, to their families and to all of their mates who are currently going through quite a bit. It’s fair to say everyone in this place does send out the most heartfelt condolences to all those involved.

This was a wonderful inquiry to see the work between both major parties and the crossbench. It was a unanimous bipartisan report. We were able to work together in a positive role to encourage government, particularly the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Department of Defence, to look in a much more positive way at how adaptive sports can play a role in the lives of our veterans.

As the report notes, all those who made a submission were ‘unanimous in their belief that adaptive sports are beneficial in aiding the wellbeing of veterans’. Benefits that we heard about included ‘lowering of stress and anxiety, ease of socialisation and boosting self-esteem’. Sport offers a kind of common language that allows veterans to reconnect with the community and mitigate feelings of loneliness and lost identity. The Department of Defence’s submission noted several international studies that showed the benefits of sport for veterans. They said that there is a:

… growing body of evidence supporting the positive effects of exercise and sport on the veterans’ mental health, including for improving post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, social wellbeing, sleep quality and improvement in the quality of life.

The evidence we received was particularly moving. It was really good, as Senator Cadell, another member of that inquiry, also knows, to be able to hear first-hand that raw evidence about how engaging sport can be to help draw veterans away from what many described as internal pain and back to connecting with other people and their community. I think a quote included in the report from Sailing On’s submission really sums up the positive impact sport can have on the lives of veterans. A family member who took part in Sailing On’s program said:

My daddy came back from Afghanistan but when we went sailing, he really came back.

I think it is fair to say a lot of us didn’t understand or appreciate the role that sailing had on a number of the veterans that we met initially, but, by the end of the day, we were all in agreement that not just sailing but any kind of sport is good, is positive and will help address a lot of the issues that many members of our veterans community go through each and every day.

With that quote in mind, we should be looking at how we can better integrate sport into transition to civilian life. While there are sports progress in Defence, in their submission, they noted that there is no formal mechanism or pathway to involve sport as part of the transition plan. We know that transition out of service can be very difficult, and we know from the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide that there is an increased risk of suicide among those who have recently transitioned out of service. With this in mind, we should be seriously looking at everything that we can in this place to be of assistance to veterans throughout their transition period. This includes adaptive sport programs.

Like many on the committee, I support all the recommendations in the report, and I really want to call out a couple in particular. Recommendation 2 recommends that the focus of veterans’ sport should be on rehab and should be about supporting transition from service. This reflects a desire to ensure sports are inclusive for all veterans that can benefit from participation—not just those who may seek to succeed in a form of competition. Recommendation 4 calls on the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to align their policies to support the Joint Transition Authority in facilitating veteran sports programs that support transition from service into civilian life. The role sport can play in this transition period was called out several times by multiple submitters and witnesses that appeared before the inquiry. I think this recommendation is particularly important and worth noting in this place. Again, I want to thank everyone who took part in this inquiry, particularly those who took the time to make a submission or attend one of the public hearings. I know it can be quite confronting for many of the veterans who did appear before us, particularly those who were suffering from severe anxiety, but I want to say to them: thank you so much for making the time for sharing your experience, because everything that you have said and submitted to this inquiry not only has been noted but I also am fairly confident that many in government will be taking note of, especially given the great media coverage that we also had and the positive remarks that we’ve seen from government to date. The welfare of our veterans should always be a priority of this place. I do look forward to continuing to work very closely with our veterans community for many years to come.