House debates

Monday, 22 March 2021

Resolutions of the Senate

Consideration of Senate Message

5:06 pm

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

It's obviously very disappointing—and, in fact, for many veterans and their loved ones it has been very distressing—that it has taken so long to get to the stage of having a royal commission into veteran suicide and serving members as well. It's even more disappointing when we boil this down and realise that we have only reached this point because of the numbers in the House. The motion only passed the other place because the numbers were there to push it through the other place. We're only going to ultimately vote in favour of this motion here in the House because the government has lost the numbers on this matter. That's the reality of it, and that's very disappointing. It calls into question whether the government collectively has its heart in having a royal commission and whether there will in fact be a royal commission. The alternative is that we all come in here and wring our hands and give great speeches and say all the right things and give veterans and serving members, and their loved ones, false hope.

We must not give serving members, veterans and their loved ones false hope. It is important for the government and the Prime Minister personally to very quickly—today ideally but in days at most—move to give certainty to this motion, either here or in front of cameras or in front of a group of veterans, to say that the government will act on this motion, that the government will organise for a royal commission to be held into serving member and veteran suicides. The government should very promptly appoint an eminent person to be the head of that royal commission—and not an ex-senior defence officer, because anyone who has served in the ADF will be to some degree conflicted or at least at risk of being seen to be conflicted. So it must be an eminent person, someone untarnished by the practices in the ADF, the DVA and elsewhere that have got to us this stage. And that commissioner must have the broadest terms of reference to go down rabbit holes, to chase leads and to hold people to account. Ultimately that's what we need to see here—not just to make bland planned findings but to hold people to account so they can explain themselves and say why, in 2021, we still have such a horrific rate of suicides among serving members and veterans. And then we need hard recommendations from that royal commission, and the government needs to act on those recommendations. Sadly, this country has a woeful track record of actually acting on the recommendations of royal commissions. So I say again: let's not give serving members and veterans, and their loved ones, false hope. They're listening to this right now and many of them are thinking that we are voting for a royal commission. Well, no, we're not. We're not establishing a royal commission. That job is still for the government to deliver on. So, let's hope they do.

Part and parcel of this—and many of my honourable colleagues have spoken on this point already—is to fix DVA and to fix that whole network of organisations and services that will support our veterans and our serving members. I'm not going to criticise individual officers in DVA. There are a lot of good people in DVA. In fact, my late father was treated very well by DVA. I am treated very well by DVA, because I'm in fact covered for a number of conditions under the Veterans' Entitlement Act. I have no complaints personally. But, still close to home, my brother, a Vietnam veteran, was treated appallingly by DVA, and there are so many people in in the community right now who are being treated appallingly by DVA. Let's clean up the mishmash of legislation—the VEA, the DRCA, MRCA, CRCARRCA? I don't know—I don't know what's next. We're running out letters to have more 'erka's. Let's clean up the legislation, and let's give DVA the resources it needs. And let's put some flexibility into the system. Let's not have a repeat of an episode that occurred quite recently with one of my constituents, who was getting tens of thousands of dollars of support from DVA for a range of ailments but just wanted one little thing that was just going to cost a couple of hundred bucks, because that's actually what he needed, and the system said no, because the rules did not allow it.

It's actually easy to send people to war. Well, even if they don't go to war, it's actually easy to have a standing defence force. It's easy to have people in uniform within Australia. It's easy to have them in training in Australia. It's not that difficult to deploy them on humanitarian missions, peace-keeping missions, peace-making missions or offensive operations. What's hard—and what this motion goes to, in essence—is looking after those people, perhaps while they've still got their uniform on or often after they've taken their uniform off. As one of my honourable colleagues said in here, in the example they gave, once someone goes to Kapooka, to the recruit training centre, or to any number of other training institutions, including the Reserve—once they sign on the dotted line and put that uniform on—they've made a very powerful commitment to this country and to the government of the day. They've made a commitment that they will, in extremis, fight for and die for this country.

Well, it's a two-way deal, and we have an obligation to those people, while they're in uniform and until their end of days, if they've been injured or hurt in some way—we have just as much an obligation—to care for them as much as we can. And as we now understand so much better in this country, we have not been caring for a lot of them as well as we could. How else to explain that the rate of suicide amongst serving members is markedly lower than the national average and thumpingly high once they take their uniform off? So, the real challenge is after they serve. This is personal for me, because, as a representative of Tasmania, I'm very mindful that the recruitment or enlistment into the ADF is markedly higher, on a pro rata basis, among Tasmanians. And it's reasonable to assume that the downsides of service are markedly more prevalent in Tasmania. I suspect that I speak for all members here when I recount that so many people have come to see us since we were elected to public office. Often it's veterans, but do you know what's more upsetting? It's when the loved ones of veterans come and talk to us—the mum, the dad, the sibling or the friend, who are beside themselves with worry about what has become of their loved one, or the fact that they have suicided or have just disappeared, literally gone bush. Who is looking out for them?

I'll wrap up by saying that there's nothing hard about this. There's nothing hard about having a royal commission. Sure, we shouldn't have a royal commission at the drop of a hat. But we must have royal commissions for the most significant and serious matters. By any definition, the alarming rate of suicide among serving members and veterans is as serious a matter as could possibly be contemplated by the members of this House and by the government of the day. I say to the Prime Minister: don't just wave this motion through. If you do that, you'll be giving false hope to so many people in this country—people who are listening to us or watching us tonight on their iPad or on their computer. They are hearing us say that there will be a royal commission, yet the government has not agreed to a royal commission.

Let's end the uncertainty. Through you, Deputy Speaker, I say to the Prime Minister, to the minister and to the government: end the uncertainty and say something tonight before we rise or first thing tomorrow in front of the cameras or as soon as the parliament sits at midday tomorrow. Let someone like the PM come in here and say: 'We hear you. What we said last night wasn't hollow. Our hand wringing wasn't theatre. There will be a royal commission with an eminent royal commissioner and with powerful terms of reference. We will act on the recommendations and we will find the money to deliver, because our veterans and those still in uniform and all those who love them—many of whom have lost loved ones—deserve nothing less.'


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