Monday, 22 March 2021
Resolutions of the Senate
Consideration of Senate Message
I rise to make a few brief remarks about this very important motion. I support this. The Greens supported the motion when it was moved by Senator Lambie in the Senate. I'm glad that this motion is now going through, it seems, with the support of everyone in this House. There will need to be action. I'll talk about that in a moment.
It's critical to support this royal commission call, and it's something that we've supported for some time. We might have differences and discussions in this place—the Greens will often be critical—on decisions that the government makes to engage in conflict or to send troops to war. We've brought, to this place, a number of bills to reform that. And we have the debates here when we can about the decisions that the Australian government have made—many of which have been very bad decisions that have put people in harm's way unnecessarily often with long-lasting consequences. But none of that should affect the support that is provided to the people who do go and serve. We've always been very steadfast in making the point that, while these conflicts are ongoing, the criticisms that are made are criticisms of the government and are not criticisms of the people who serve on behalf of all of us—every one of us in this parliament. But that's got to extend also to when veterans return. This has become crystal clear over the time that I've been in this place. I have engaged with good organisations in my electorate that I want to particularly mention, including groups like the Flemington/Kensington RSL, who have taken on the RSL. People may have certain views about RSLs and what RSLs used to be like, but these are young veterans. The average age of these veterans is probably in the 30s. They have taken over and revitalised their RSL in large part—they've told me from the time that I've spent there talking to them and talking to the members there I know—because it is so critical to the welfare of service people who have returned.
One of the things that has become crystal clear is that really—and I agree with the way the member for Kennedy put it before, this is an area where the government has dropped the ball. They're very keen to invest in other areas of Defence spending, and they're very keen to talk about commitments to sending troops off to fight, but less so about the services and supports that are provided afterwards.
The veteran community have been very clear that there's something that all Australians should agree on, which is that the level of suicides is completely unacceptable. We've heard that message from veterans and their families, and we in the Greens agree. The question is: what can be done about it? The call that has come from the community, families who have lost loved ones and associations is that we need a royal commission. The government came here previously with something that tried to walk, talk and quack like a royal commission but was not a royal commission.
The proposal that had been put forward previously by the government for a commissioner was met with some pretty strong resistance from the veteran community, and rightly so, because they told us that it could and would have had the effect that the people who have been left behind and veterans themselves would go through the traumatic process—and, in some instances, the retraumatizing process—of telling their stories only to find out that they were talking to someone who didn't have the power to do the investigation required and make the recommendations needed. So they said very clearly: 'That is not good enough. What we need is a proper royal commission.' That was the view of the people I talked to on the ground, and that is why the Greens argued at the time that that bill was not enough and instead what was needed was a royal commission.
I am glad that Senator Lambie brought the motion to the Senate. We're debating it here today. I'm pleased that the government has given us a significant amount of time to debate it here. It's testament to what happens in this place when you have procedures that allow people who aren't being heard to bring their concerns to parliament. This motion passed the Senate and is now here, and the government has said it's important enough for us to have a long debate about it. If it wasn't for the capacity of other voices to bring these things to the parliament, the government may not be facing this at all—the government may not be having to deal with the fact that it isn't just one odd voice in parliament but a really strong push coming from the whole community. I think that's worth remembering in this place.
Often there are proposals in this place to streamline things and not take up as much time as we need to talk about these things, and the government just says, 'Let's get on with government business.' It was not the government that brought this issue to the parliament. It is the government that has allowed us to have the debate today, but it was not the government who brought this to the parliament. For most of the day the government has allowed debate on this critical matter, which is literally a matter of life and death. Now it is up to the government to act. It would be incredibly disappointing if, after this, we move on to the next thing and leave the community with the impression that somehow we've resolved to proceed with a royal commission, because the government hasn't yet agreed to that. The government has not agreed to that. The government should agree to that. Just as it has sat, listened and understood that there is a growing groundswell of voices to make a royal commission a reality, now it needs to act on it.
It is the government that has the power and the capacity to call a royal commission. The government should do that because the government should remember the path that the banking royal commission followed before the government had to call it. The Senate moved motions that came here. The government realised it had to get on with it. Not only that but bills were brought into the Senate to say to the government, 'If you're not going to do it, we're going to make you do it and we're going to set up a parliamentary commission of inquiry.' That got support there as well. Eventually the pressure became so overwhelming that the government realised, 'Well, hang on, if there's actually such widespread support in the parliament, we'd better get on and do it ourselves.' That's what the government should do this time. If it doesn't do that, this will happen again. If the government follows the path of the banking royal commission, then it is going to be dragged kicking and screaming to do that.
I would say: don't put veterans and their families through months and months and months of making us come back here to do this again and again and again. Just accept the will of this place, as expressed by a motion passed by both houses of parliament, for a royal commission. Just accept it and do it. The flipside is: why would you drag it out for longer, knowing the harm and the stress that that's going to cause? To the government: you don't need to do it, and you shouldn't do it. You should just accept that it is very rare that the House and the Senate concur in something that is not government sponsored but brought to this place by other voices, and that when that happens it usually results in change.
The question for the government is: are you going to be dragged kicking and screaming to that change or are you going to get out ahead of it and just call for the royal commission? I would urge the government to say, 'Having let this debate have the time it deserves, knowing that this motion is now going to be passed, that both houses of parliament are going to concur in it, we will now move to do something about it.' If you don't, if you don't do it in a timely manner and if you put veterans and their families through more stress, expect that this will happen again and again and again until you finally do it.