House debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

Private Members' Business

Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention

6:48 pm

Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) it is now more than a year since the Prime Minister announced a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention;

(b) many veterans and families believe the Prime Minister's national commissioner will not be 'better than a Royal Commission' and risks making things worse; and

(c) the Government was forced to withdraw the enabling legislation for the national commissioner at the end of 2020 after failing to get the necessary support in the Senate;

(2) recognises that suicide by current and former defence personnel continues to claim at least one life a week, and nothing less than an independent, open and transparent investigation is required to address this crisis; and

(3) calls on the Government to establish a Royal Commission into defence and veteran suicides as a matter of urgency.

It's now more than a year since the Prime Minister announced a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention with much fanfare. The more Labor looked at it, the more we realised that it was just a cynical exercise, designed to placate mothers like Julie-Ann Finney and Karen Bird, who tragically lost their sons to suicide, and avoid any proper investigation into these needless deaths.

The overwhelming feedback from veterans' families and partners, veterans' advocates, military lawyers and mental health experts is that the national commissioner simply won't have the independence, powers or resources to ask the really hard questions that only a fully empowered royal commission with broad terms of reference can. This message came through loud and clear in the Senate inquiry into the legislation last year, when a majority of witnesses at the public hearings emphatically said it would not be better than a royal commission, whilst some feared it would in fact make things worse.

That's why Labor and a majority of crossbenchers lined up to oppose the national commissioner legislation in December last year and forced the government to withdraw it. Prior to this humiliating defeat, inexplicably the government actually appointed Dr Bernadette Boss as interim national commissioner in October without the enabling legislation in place. Many in the defence and veterans community simply don't trust the interim national commissioner and feel she's not independent enough given the fact she's a former senior army officer recommended by her friend of 20 years, defence minister Senator Linda Reynolds, to investigate the minister's own department. She's a glorified federal coroner doing desktop reviews at best!

Since the failure of the government's legislation, the interim national commissioner has been stung into action and has been running around the countryside doing closed-door meetings with select veterans groups in a desperate bid to justify the role. The problem is the meetings have been so secret the government's own members have not been told about it, such as the member for Herbert when she was up in Townsville. And just today we hear the interim national commissioner has invited veterans and families to a symposium in March but is asking them to pay $100 for the privilege. It is a disgrace. Not surprisingly, it's caused massive outrage amongst the veterans and defence communities. Fancy asking someone who's lost a loved one to fork out $100 to meet the interim national commissioner? I continued to speak with veterans and families in recent months, and the feedback is they want a royal commission instead.

Last week I was honoured to present silver Australia Day awards to two longstanding veteran advocates in the Ipswich RSL Sub Branch, Michael Blaine and Ross Wadsworth. I also met with Korean veteran Matt Rennie OAM, who is involved in a project to name a number of unmarked graves of First World War servicemen in Ipswich, many of whom died with so-called shell shock in a mental asylum. I can tell you, these veterans and advocates, young and old, are deeply concerned about mental health and wellbeing, and they're saying we need to do more.

Meanwhile, the problems seem to get worse with reports of one defence or veteran suicide a week and a spike in recent months. Anecdotally, many in the various communities believe the actual figures are much higher and the problem is exacerbating not abating. It's clear we need a fully independent, open, transparent investigation into defence and veteran's suicide to shine a light on the issue and deliver justice for veterans and their families.

I note that the government plans to bring back its national commissioner legislation to the Senate this week. Nothing's changed, and the Labor and the crossbench senators remain solidly opposed. The Prime Minister needs to swallow his pride and do the right thing: abandon his flawed and failed national commissioner legislation and establish a royal commission as a matter of urgency. This is a government that seems to love announcements but never delivers. I can assure all defence personnel and veterans and their families that Labor support a royal commission. We will do this in office. The government needs to do the right thing. They need to be on the side of the veteran and defence communities. I say to the veteran and defence communities: Labor's on your side. If elected, an Albanese Labor government will call a royal commission.


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