House debates

Monday, 22 March 2021

Resolutions of the Senate

Consideration of Senate Message

5:36 pm

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I, too, rise to speak on this very important motion that's been referred to us from the Senate. I have spoken on this issue a number of times in this House, and, along with a number of my colleagues from the crossbench, from this side and from the Senate, I have been saying that I cannot understand for the life of me why, with a growing number of suicides, with the epidemic of veteran suicide, this government hasn't acted on calls for a royal commission into this particular issue. I'm glad that this motion has been sent here to us to debate, but it is just that—a motion. Without the government acting, it will remain just that. We need the government to establish a royal commission into the rate of suicide of former veterans, veterans and people serving in the Australian defence forces.

I'd like to start off by paying tribute to Julie-Ann Finney, who is a constituent of mine and lives within the electorate of Adelaide. She's been a tireless worker on the front line, trying to get focus on this issue. Without the outstanding work of her and others, we may not be here today discussing it. There is also Angela McKay, in my electorate, who lost a son to suicide as well. It must be horrific to know that something within service in the Defence Force brought someone to that point. As a mother, you can just imagine how these people feel.

I think this government owes it to those mothers who have lost sons and daughters to suicide to get to the bottom of it, and the only way we can get to the bottom of it is through a royal commission. Sure, it's great to establish a commissioner but the commissioner will not have the same abilities and powers as a royal commission. The whole idea of the commissioner is to look at ongoing issues, to develop a whole range of things. But you need a royal commission to get to the underlying facts of why this is taking place. Then you fix it with legislation or through regulations, and then you have a commission that works under the recommendations that have been given by that royal commission.

As we heard the member for Melbourne say, we send these people to combat areas. Governments of either persuasion, both sides have done it, have declared that we are going into Iraq or Afghanistan, and we owe it to those people we send there that we keep them as safe as possible. I know our Defence Forces are doing a great amount of work. They are total professionals. But we also have a duty as a government to look after them when they come home.

I visited Afghanistan on one of the Defence programs in, I think, 2011. They flew us out from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt, which was front-line basically. In Tarin Kowt we had a briefing. At that point, one of our Defence Force personnel had been blown up in a landmine by a suicide bomber in Tarin Kowt. They briefed us on the situation, what took place. One of the Defence personnel there was a young person, about 25 or 26. His job was to do the investigation of that particular incident. He explained to us how, after the bombing, their priority was to try and do everything they could to save the Australian soldier. But then his job was to put the pieces together and work out who, what, why. He explained to us how they started picking up body parts and putting the body back together to see who it was or what it was, and they discovered it was a young boy—the suicide bomber—who would have been no older than 14. This young Australian soldier explained to me how he had to pick up the head, the arms, the body parts and put them together on the table so they could examine them. He was being released to come back to Australia in approximately a month's time, he told me. For the life of me, I thought: when he does come back, after what he's been through, what would he do on the weekends with his mates who perhaps would have no idea of what he was doing over there? Talk about football? Go for a beer at the pub? You can imagine the support that these people need. There'd be hundreds like this young man that I spoke to in Afghanistan in Tarin Kowt in 2011.

So we need a royal commission. We need this royal commission to see what is causing men and women to suicide after they've served in the Defence Force or while they are in the Defence Force. I've got to say if this was another type of epidemic in another industry, in another type of situation, there would be an uproar by the public, demanding that people receive the services that they require, the help that they require to ensure that this stops. Our servicemen and women deserve better. Their families deserve better. People in my electorate like Julie-Ann Finney and Angela McKay, who both lost sons under these dreadful conditions, have been calling and shouting for a royal commission. They deserve better, and we owe it to them. Our servicemen and women put their lives at risk every single day for us so we can live the lives that we live—free, in a good democracy, able to speak out and do as we basically please within the law. These people protect that for us. It is one of the greatest honours to protect the pillars of our democracy and that's what they did. Julie-Ann Finney's son and Angela McKay's son were deployed to all different places around the world to protect the foundations of our democracy, and we owe it to them to ensure that we get to the bottom of why this is occurring.

We heard the government announce a new role, the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, but I've got to say that is inadequate. That is inadequate. You need the royal commission to do the review, to look at what is causing this, to get into the intricate details. We on this side have repeatedly stated that we would prefer a royal commission into veteran suicide. The commissioner may assist but you need to get to all the details. As I said, this is because an investigation by a royal commission will have better powers. It will have better funding. It will result in clear-cut recommendations that can then be implemented. It would be more thorough and there'd be more accountability. We don't need a royal commission five years down the track or next year or the year after. We need a royal commission now.

I'm very pleased that we're debating this motion, but, as I said, without the Prime Minister coming out and calling for a royal commission this remains nothing but a motion that has just passed the House of Representatives. I'm so pleased that members on the other side are starting to see how important this is. We heard that there are members who may cross the floor, and rightly so they should, because this is not a political issue. This is not about Labor or Liberal or Greens or Independents or Callithumpians. This is about the defence forces of our nation that protect us every day and protect the pillars of our democracy.


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