Monday, 22 March 2021
Resolutions of the Senate
Consideration of Senate Message
Like so many speakers who have gone before me, I want to acknowledge members of this House and, in the other place, Senator Lambie and other senators who have represented their country in uniform for the ADF. I have never served in the ADF, but I had the privilege of being the chair of the government's backbench committee into defence and veterans' affairs and also I'm the chair of the Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.
I have a great and abiding respect for those men and women who have served our country in uniform in peacetime and in wartime. My grandfather served in the Navy in the Pacific. My dad was a nasho. I tried to join the Air Force as a young fellow, but they didn't want me. I'm not quite sure what that says about them or me! There's so much to say on this issue.
I also want to acknowledge those present in the chamber who have also represented this country and Ms Finney, who's lost her son. Whilst I haven't served in the military, I have been touched by the issue of suicide at a family level. It is heartbreaking, to say the least. This issue about whether we have a royal commission or we have the commission that is currently on the books before the parliament is one where reasonable minds will differ. I see the member for Solomon over there, and I thank him for his service. The member for Solomon and I have had very strong words on opposite sides of this viewpoint. I have spoken very strongly for the proposition of the continuation of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. I'm not here to say that Veterans' Affairs is without blame or that it is a perfect organisation. I can name many people who I know have had the royal run-around from DVA. One in particular that comes to mind is Bernie Verwayen, who was serving on HMAS Voyager when she went down on that fateful night. Bernie had the right royal run around from the Commonwealth for many decades. The fact that he's still with us today is testament to his strength of character.
Another one is Kevin Beasley, who I have taken the fight for as a member. He is a constituent of mine, as is Bernie Vanwayen. In DVA's infinite wisdom they gave Kevin Beasley a set of teeth at the bottom but not at the top. I don't know what you're supposed to do with one set of half teeth. I'll continue to fight for Kevin on that issue.
We know that veteran suicide is a real problem in this country, as it is in much of the western world. We know that since 2001 roughly 10 times the number of servicemen—because that's predominantly who it has been, although there have been a number of women as well who have taken their own lives—have taken their lives since 2001, compared with the number of men who were killed in Afghanistan in the same period. It is clear that there is something terribly, terribly wrong.
I've spoken a lot about this issue. I come at it from speaking with veterans. I don't have the intimate knowledge of having walked in your path so I acknowledge that. But what veterans tell me is that transition from military life to civilian life is very difficult for some. That loss of the sense of tribe, of purpose is very difficult and for some it is unbearable. We know that the younger the person who leaves the ADF the greater they are at risk of harming themselves. We know that when men and women who are currently serving for the ADF have around approximately half the risk of suicide of the civilian population but when they leave that increases by 21 per cent compared to the civilian population.
It's important to recognise that every single day five men and around three women take their own lives. And for every person who takes their life there are around about 24 people that attempt it. These are extraordinarily sobering figures.
It's wrong to suggest that DVA is the enemy of veterans. I have had the privilege of going overseas and looking at other countries and the way that they look after their veterans. I've been to Canada. I've been to Sweden. I've been to the UK. They have said to me that they look to Australia as being a leading light in the way that we look after veterans. Now, I'm not saying it's perfect. I'm not suggesting that for a second. But this government spends $11.5 billion a year on veterans' affairs.
We are conscious that some, but not all, men and women struggle on this. I couldn't agree more with the views expressed by the member for Braddon, that one of the great difficulties we have in this discussion is that the more we talk about veteran suicide and veterans' mental ill health then we run the risk of great problems for all veterans in getting jobs when they transition. I am a very firm believer that the best way to transition into civilian life is to find a good job. I understand that it's good to talk about mental health but that it's a double-edged sword, because the more we talk about veterans and mental ill health then the more we set up a misconception amongst employers and civilians that if you employ a veteran you're employing someone with bad or ill mental health, and nothing could be further from the truth.
I've been on the record as supporting the national commissioner. I still support the national commissioner. The national commissioner provides us with a path looking forward; a royal commission will look backward. Unfortunately, this issue, like many others in this place, has come down to politics. I think it's sad, but I recognise that at all times we must keep the interests of veterans at the forefront of our minds.