House debates

Monday, 22 March 2021

Resolutions of the Senate

Consideration of Senate Message

3:35 pm

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | Hansard source

Last Thursday the Senate passed a motion calling on the Morrison government to establish a royal commission into veteran suicide. The mental health of Australians who have served our country should be of paramount importance to us all. I commend those in this place and in the Senate who have championed their cause. The physical health and mental health of veterans is an issue that is important to all of us but particularly to me, as my community is a defence community. Serving and former members of the Defence Force are important to our area—to the electorate of Paterson, to the Hunter, to Port Stephens.

It is a disgrace that the coalition government has taken so long to recognise the price some veterans pay for their service. It is truly a national disgrace. We shouldn't have to fight those opposite on this issue; we just shouldn't. If ever there was anything that was deserving of the highest commission, a royal commission, it is this very topic. This is about our servicemen and women. This is about the trauma they are living with every single day and about our duty to help them recover both physically and mentally. Our servicemen and women deserve better than eight long years of neglect under this government, to be quite frank with you.

Together with we can show the families—and I recognise Julie-Ann Finney, here in the gallery today, and those that have supported her—of those who have tragically taken their own lives that we will learn from past mistakes. Together, as a parliament, we can fix this. We must fix this. As the people who make the decisions to send our service personnel, our defence personnel, into harm's way, we must make a decision to investigate this harm. No life should end prematurely. No veteran should feel alone and unwanted, yet this is clearly the situation many veterans find themselves in. We have a veteran suicide rate nearly twice that of the general population, and the problem is getting worse. It's critical now that we get to the bottom of these tragic deaths.

My electorate is home to RAAF Base Williamtown, and not a day goes by that I don't think about every single family in my community who makes the personal sacrifice to service our country and keep us safe. I feel a great responsibility to ensure that every veteran in my community and every veteran that comes off that base is supported enough and respected enough to live a long and healthy life after that service. Meeting with veterans and hearing from veterans was one of the first things I did on being elected to this place in 2016, and I continue to support them and to advocate. The battle veterans face to have their voices heard, to have their claims taken seriously and acted on in a timely fashion, is very real, as I'm sure every member of this place will know and attest. Veterans' Affairs must be an agency that is resourced to deliver a high-quality service with fast turnaround. Delays and red tape often wear people down to the point of despair.

I want to tell you about Barry, who's 72. He waited over a year for his extra disability allowance claim to be processed. Barry fought with Veterans' Affairs for a year before finally reaching out to my office for support. Barry, like so many other veterans, doesn't understand why he is left to feel like a burden. Barry wasn't asking for much, just some support that he's due and that he deserves. At the height of his anxiety trying to resolve issues with Veterans' Affairs, he was promised that he would receive a call back from Veterans' Affairs representatives on numerous occasions and was told that a representative would check up with him weekly after he flagged his mental health concerns. Not a single call came from the department to Barry. Every week Barry was left to feel more and more alone. This is just devastating, and it speaks to a culture of an agency that is underfunded and understaffed from a government that just doesn't seem to care enough. I followed up with Barry after making representations on his behalf only to find out that the department had rejected his claim. I did encourage Barry to appeal the decision, but he said he just didn't have the energy. Imagine this from a man who had fought for his country. After waiting 12 months for a simple extra disability allowance claim, he was exhausted mentally and physically. Is it any wonder veterans are on the brink?

Our veterans are dying at unprecedented rates, and we can do something about it if we have the will. We must have a royal commission. Today, veterans held a rally here at parliament to call for action on veteran suicide, and we cannot let this call be in vein. I commend any member brave enough to cross the floor on this issue today, because, when it comes to veteran suicide, you have to vote with your conscience. This issue is too important for party politics and too important for excuses. The time for humanity is now. It is clear that now there is overwhelming support for a royal commission into veteran suicide in the broader community. We shouldn't need to debate this issue. We shouldn't need to put our veterans through any more than they have already faced. We need a royal commission.


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