15 May 2023

Wagga veterans left out in the cold as budget offers 'Band-Aid' solutions

| Chris Roe
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Pro Patria Centre sign

The Pro Patria Centre has called on the Federal Government to fund Riverina veterans’ services. Photo: Pro Patria Centre.

Veterans’ support advocates in the Riverina have expressed disappointment at being overlooked for a second time in the wake of the Federal Budget.

Wagga’s Pro Patria Centre works with veterans and first responders to provide long-term health solutions and has again missed out on Commonwealth support.

“There is nothing in the budget for the important work that Pro Patria Centre is undertaking for veterans in the Riverina,” board director Jacqui Van de Velde said.

“There is a lot of money being allocated to medications and nothing obvious on the alternative and researched therapies we know are making a difference to health and life outcomes of veterans and their families.”

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RSL LifeCare veteran services executive general manager David Anderson said the Riverina could continue to “access free services and support from the Riverina Veteran Wellbeing Centre”, adding that they do not “rely on funding from the Australian Government”.

“RSL LifeCare is committed to working with the Australian Government and our partner charity, RSL NSW, to open additional Veteran Wellbeing Centres in townships and communities with high populations of veterans and current serving members of the ADF.”

Matt Keogh

Veterans’ Affairs Minister Matt Keogh said the portfolio had been underfunded by the previous administration. Photo: Supplied.

In Question Time on Thursday, Veterans’ Affairs Minister Matt Keogh was spruiking a $328.1 million investment on top of the $537.5m invested in October.

“The Albanese Government is getting on with the job of building stronger foundations for a better future for our veterans and families,” he declared.

In particular, he said the Government would focus on reducing the backlog of veterans’ compensation claims, allocate $64.1m to retaining more than 480 DVA staff, $254.1m to upgrade the IT system and $2m for mental health awareness and suicide intervention training for volunteers.

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A glance through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs budget reveals that the Health and Social Services Departments are the lead agencies on the majority of initiatives, and Ms Van de Velde says the Government needs to take more than a “Band-Aid” approach and be proactive in its care for veterans.

“The need is for holistic, veteran-centric, mental and physical treatment and psychosocial programs that help veterans and their families support their own health and wellbeing,” she said.

“It’s about more than just providing an information hub with military compensation advocates. To be honest, that can be done and is being done online.”

There are more than 3800 veterans in the Riverina and more than 1500 in Wagga, which is home to all three arms of the Defence Force at Kapooka and RAAF Base Wagga.

Before the 2022 election, the Coalition pledged $70m to fund 14 Veterans Wellbeing Centres across the country, with the Pro Patria Centre a hopeful candidate in Wagga.

Matt Keogh with two other men

Veterans’ Affairs Minister Matt Keogh meeting with former Defence Force members on the NSW Central Coast following the budget announcements. Photo: Matt Keogh (Facebook).

Under the Albanese Government’s revised plan, however, Labor will invest $42.9m to develop a total of 10 veterans’ hubs and Wagga was cut from the list.

The Nationals’ Federal Member for Riverina Michael McCormack was scathing of the decision, accusing Labor of playing politics.

“It was a commitment that we made, not on a partisan level, not on a party level, it was made for the veterans, and for Labor to take that money away and then to just provide it to Labor seats, quite frankly, it’s disgusting,” he said.

In response, a Government spokesperson said that “the announcements of veteran hub locations by the Coalition in the 2022 election campaign were not linked to any funding in the budget”.

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A total of eight locations were culled from the Coalition list, including Wagga, Mackay, Wide Bay-Burnett, Sunshine Coast, Mid-North Coast, Wagga Wagga, Greater Melbourne and Mornington Peninsula.

Seven of the eight were Coalition seats.

Of the revised list of 10 funded veterans’ hubs, two were the continuation of projects already underway in the North Brisbane-Moreton Bay region and Tasmania.

These are the only two remaining centres not exclusively held by Labor.

The remaining eight locations of South West Perth, Northern Adelaide, Ipswich, Queanbeyan, the Hawkesbury region, the Hunter, the Tweed and North Coast region, and the Surf Coast and Geelong region, are all in Labor-held seats.

Carmelite monastery

Wagga’s Pro Patria Centre has begun operating in the former Carmelite Monastery site. Photo: Supplied.

In response to Region’s inquiries into the criteria used to determine the 10 locations and a request for clarification as to why Wagga Wagga was deemed unsuitable, the spokesperson responded: “Wagga Wagga was not a location identified in the Government’s 2022 election commitment and subsequent budget measure.”

Ms Van de Velde said it was frustrating that Wagga was excluded and Pro Patria was offered the vague explanation that the new administration’s decision was based on “population numbers and need for services”.

She said that while Wagga had a functioning veterans’ service in dire need of funding, other locations on the list were not in a position to make use of the funding.

“As recently as March of this year, not one organisation had put in an EOI to be the service provider in the planned Ipswich veteran centre,” she said.

“And here we are, already up and running, delivering services that are arguably the responsibility of the Government to fund. We should be funded.”

The Government spokesperson said that they were “aware that the Pro Patria Centre and RSL LifeCare’s Riverina Wellbeing Centre are providing valuable services to the veteran community in Wagga Wagga, and has undertaken to advise these organisations if suitable funding opportunities become available in future”.

The statement concluded: “Processes are currently underway in each of the eight new Veterans and Families’ Hub locations to identify a suitable lead organisation that will be invited to prepare a business case. The business cases are expected to set out detailed plans regarding the establishment and ongoing operation of the hubs.”

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