Monday, 9 November 2020
Private Members' Business
I'd like to thank the member for Herbert and the member for Braddon for two wonderful speeches, and I thank them for their service. In two days and seven minutes we will mark Remembrance Day with one minute's silence. We take this minute to commemorate the more than 102,000 men and women who have given their lives in the service of this nation and to honour the almost two million who have served in our defence forces since the First World War, including those who serve today. In my thoughts will be Teddy Sheean, a labourer's son from Lower Barrington who strapped himself to a gun aboard a sinking ship to fire at Japanese warplanes that were strafing his comrades in the water. The 18-year-old knew that by strapping himself to that gun he would die that day. His sacrifice saved more than 40 men. Teddy's actions were always worthy of a Victoria Cross. After a campaign that took far too long, that was finally acknowledged this year.
As a nation, we generally do well at memorialising sacrifice on the battlefield, but we do less well at looking after those who come home damaged in mind, body and spirit. A short distance from this place is a monument to our fallen that we have all agreed to spend around half a billion dollars on expanding so that we can extend exhibits and better tell the stories of our military history, and many of us will be there on Wednesday. I cannot help but think that we should be putting at least as much effort into assisting those who return as we do into remembering and honouring those who do not.
I thank the member for Herbert for bringing on this motion and acknowledge his service and his long campaign for better mental health support for returned services personnel. He knows all too well that the rate of mental illness amongst veterans is much higher than that of the general Australian population. Australian male veterans are 21 per cent more likely to die by suicide than other Australian men. Australian women who have served die by suicide at twice the rate of other Australian women. Forty-one ADF personnel and veterans have taken their own lives this year. More Australian service personnel are dying by suicide than in armed conflict.
These are staggering statistics that none of us should be willing to accept. Often, the challenging transition back to civilian life is compounded by the frustration of dealing with the Department of Veterans' Affairs, with long delays for claims and payments, unexplained or incomprehensible rejections and an unfriendly and impersonal bureaucratic interface. Veterans are waiting for three months to access counselling and they can't see a psychiatrist until next February. None of it is conducive to the mental and emotional wellbeing of people who can be suffering with a variety of issues.
Labor acknowledges the government's release of an interim response to the 2019 Productivity Commission report on the veterans' support system. The response and additional funding for mental health, transition and employment in the budget are welcome, but more is needed and more must be provided. We note that of the 69 recommendations made by the PC, the government committed in the budget to implementing just 25. Labor also notes the government's decision to create a national commissioner for defence and veteran suicide prevention. We are concerned that creating this office essentially puts the cart before the horse. That is why we have asked to refer it to the Senate inquiry.
It appears, for example, that the national commission does not have all the powers of a royal commission—some, but not all. We would prefer that a royal commission be instituted. It would ensure accountability, such as holding public hearings, and be able to compel witnesses to testify and produce evidence. Importantly, a royal commission would have the power to refer charges of criminal or official misconduct. It may well be that out of such a royal commission a key recommendation would be to institute a standing national commission like that which the government proposes. But a royal commission may well also uncover other essential information, leading to other important recommendations. We won't know if we don't hold one.
Nikki Jamieson, from Northern Tasmania, told The Examiner newspaper that a national commission doesn't go far enough. Her son, Daniel, died by suicide while serving. She now has lots of qualifications in this area and is working on her PhD. She says:
… all of my participants came to my research because of the horrendous experiences [they had] within Defence and Veterans' Affairs.
Horrendous experiences. We must do better; we must have a royal commission that will get to the bottom of these issues once and for all. Our veterans deserve no less. Lest we forget.