Dr HAINES (Indi) (19:10):

Anyone who has visited Wodonga knows that it’s shaped by the Australian Defence Force communities in Bandiana and Bonegilla, which have been around for more than 80 years.

What visitors to the region often don’t know is that Indi is also home to a thriving defence capability industry that spans much further south, from Wodonga to Wangaratta and Benalla.

According to a recent assessment by Regional Development Australia, the industry pumps over $185 million into the local economy each year and supports more than 5,600 jobs. Pentarch Industrial in Wangaratta, for example, provides essential defence materiel services like ammunition box refurbishment.

Another great example is Scientific Management Associates in Wodonga, who deliver highly complex logistics solutions for the ADF. The success of important ADF training bases like Bandiana is heavily reliant on businesses just like these.

Defence spouses are also critical to the economic success of our local defence industries and the region. Much like in many other ADF towns across the nation, there are new defence personnel and families arriving every week.

According to a recent study undertaken by Defence Families of Australia, 50 per cent of defence spouses experience challenges looking for work in Wodonga; that’s double the percentage seen in larger metropolitan areas. What a massive missed opportunity for local employers who are crying out for skilled workers!

As the Deputy Prime Minister is wont to remind us, there are 66,000 jobs available right now in regional Australia, which is more than there were during the mining boom.

Defence spouses are often highly skilled and educated, from teachers to contract administrators, accountants and health professionals. There are also excellent community builders and participators. You only have to attend an Australian Military Wives Choir recital in Wodonga or turn up to a social arts and crafts session run by the Bandiana Neighbourhood House to see the community spirit on full display.

According to Business Wodonga, defence spouses often bring excellent defence industry knowledge, having lived in ADF towns right across Australia for many years. This is a tremendous asset that the government should be doing all it can to capitalise on.

If the government can spend $270 billion upgrading our defence capabilities and supply chains, then surely it has the resources to invest heavily in the spouses of those who work in the sector. The new one-off $1,500 payment through the Partner Employment Assistance Program is a good first step, but we could be doing so much more.

Uprooting family life every few years can be incredibly daunting and draining for young defence families. Feelings of dislocation, isolation and being an outsider are common. Networking or employer speed dating programs are often intimidating. Defence spouses are often juggling other stresses, like finding housing and enrolling children in new schools. Sadly, many recruiters put these spouses in the too-hard basket, knowing that they may have to leave a job at short notice if their partner is redeployed again.

It has been great to see the local business community in Wodonga step up to the plate where the government has dropped the ball. Recently, Business Wodonga and Impressability, a career service just down the road from my Wodonga electorate office, partnered with Wodonga TAFE and defence community support groups like Soldier On to launch a unique defence spouse careers program. Running over six weeks, the program covers a whole range of important skills from cover letter writing and digital branding to strategic interviewing and networking. Business Wodonga and Impressability have gone above and beyond to make the program free, even covering any childcare costs associated with taking the course through the Bandiana Neighbourhood House.

I applaud their initiative, and I invite the government to take a really good look at what communities like Wodonga are doing. The government could be pitching in so much more. It’s truly time to value and invest in the economic potential our defence spouses bring to the regions.

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