Monday, 22 February 2021
Private Members' Business
Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention
That this House:
(1) notes that:
(a) it is now more than a year since the Prime Minister announced a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention;
(b) many veterans and families believe the Prime Minister's national commissioner will not be 'better than a Royal Commission' and risks making things worse; and
(c) the Government was forced to withdraw the enabling legislation for the national commissioner at the end of 2020 after failing to get the necessary support in the Senate;
(2) recognises that suicide by current and former defence personnel continues to claim at least one life a week, and nothing less than an independent, open and transparent investigation is required to address this crisis; and
(3) calls on the Government to establish a Royal Commission into defence and veteran suicides as a matter of urgency.
It's now more than a year since the Prime Minister announced a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention with much fanfare. The more Labor looked at it, the more we realised that it was just a cynical exercise, designed to placate mothers like Julie-Ann Finney and Karen Bird, who tragically lost their sons to suicide, and avoid any proper investigation into these needless deaths.
The overwhelming feedback from veterans' families and partners, veterans' advocates, military lawyers and mental health experts is that the national commissioner simply won't have the independence, powers or resources to ask the really hard questions that only a fully empowered royal commission with broad terms of reference can. This message came through loud and clear in the Senate inquiry into the legislation last year, when a majority of witnesses at the public hearings emphatically said it would not be better than a royal commission, whilst some feared it would in fact make things worse.
That's why Labor and a majority of crossbenchers lined up to oppose the national commissioner legislation in December last year and forced the government to withdraw it. Prior to this humiliating defeat, inexplicably the government actually appointed Dr Bernadette Boss as interim national commissioner in October without the enabling legislation in place. Many in the defence and veterans community simply don't trust the interim national commissioner and feel she's not independent enough given the fact she's a former senior army officer recommended by her friend of 20 years, defence minister Senator Linda Reynolds, to investigate the minister's own department. She's a glorified federal coroner doing desktop reviews at best!
Since the failure of the government's legislation, the interim national commissioner has been stung into action and has been running around the countryside doing closed-door meetings with select veterans groups in a desperate bid to justify the role. The problem is the meetings have been so secret the government's own members have not been told about it, such as the member for Herbert when she was up in Townsville. And just today we hear the interim national commissioner has invited veterans and families to a symposium in March but is asking them to pay $100 for the privilege. It is a disgrace. Not surprisingly, it's caused massive outrage amongst the veterans and defence communities. Fancy asking someone who's lost a loved one to fork out $100 to meet the interim national commissioner? I continued to speak with veterans and families in recent months, and the feedback is they want a royal commission instead.
Last week I was honoured to present silver Australia Day awards to two longstanding veteran advocates in the Ipswich RSL Sub Branch, Michael Blaine and Ross Wadsworth. I also met with Korean veteran Matt Rennie OAM, who is involved in a project to name a number of unmarked graves of First World War servicemen in Ipswich, many of whom died with so-called shell shock in a mental asylum. I can tell you, these veterans and advocates, young and old, are deeply concerned about mental health and wellbeing, and they're saying we need to do more.
Meanwhile, the problems seem to get worse with reports of one defence or veteran suicide a week and a spike in recent months. Anecdotally, many in the various communities believe the actual figures are much higher and the problem is exacerbating not abating. It's clear we need a fully independent, open, transparent investigation into defence and veteran's suicide to shine a light on the issue and deliver justice for veterans and their families.
I note that the government plans to bring back its national commissioner legislation to the Senate this week. Nothing's changed, and the Labor and the crossbench senators remain solidly opposed. The Prime Minister needs to swallow his pride and do the right thing: abandon his flawed and failed national commissioner legislation and establish a royal commission as a matter of urgency. This is a government that seems to love announcements but never delivers. I can assure all defence personnel and veterans and their families that Labor support a royal commission. We will do this in office. The government needs to do the right thing. They need to be on the side of the veteran and defence communities. I say to the veteran and defence communities: Labor's on your side. If elected, an Albanese Labor government will call a royal commission.
It is exactly what the Labor Party is doing. It is absolutely disgraceful. Do you know what the hypocrisy of this is? Those members opposite come into the chamber and talk about wanting an integrity commission that goes on and on and on as opposed to having piecemeal commissions or royal commissions. This is exactly on point, because this commission has all the powers of a standing royal commission. Name me one thing in this commission that the royal commission does not have!
Mr Gosling interjecting—
They don't know. This party, the Labor Party, is playing absolutely base political games with veterans, which is an absolute disgrace. There have been 400 members of the ADF or veterans that have died. Recently 10—
Forty-one members of the ADF died in Afghanistan, and we've had 10 times that many die by suicide. So we have a problem here. We are trying to resolve or assist this problem by the establishment of this commission. It would be well funded, with $42.7 million. It will go back to 2001. It will look at all of the suicides. It will work with all of the states' coroners. What is important about this is that is ongoing and it has all the powers of a royal commission. So when I hear those opposite say things, it doesn't point me to one aspect of it that it does not have the powers of a standing royal commission.
Look at things like the CCC, which is where the member for Blair comes from. The CCC has all the powers of a standing royal commission. Members opposite come in here and say that they want an ICAC at a federal level because it is an ongoing arrangement, and yet for veterans it's somehow not good enough. It is simply untrue when those members opposite say that the vast majority of ADF veterans do not want this commission but they want a royal commission. That is untrue.
There are 15,000 veterans on the Sunshine Coast, one of the largest veteran populations in the country. I'm very involved with all of my RSLs and all of my ESOs in my electorate. I can say hand on heart that the vast majority of veterans that I talk to don't want a royal commission. They don't want something that starts here and finishes here. They want something that will address this in perpetuity with all the powers of a standing royal commission. On that we agree that we need to be doing more, Member for Blair. We do not want to see one more needless death, but I plead with those members opposite to work with us. This is too important. The member for Solomon has passion for this issue. I plead with those members opposite to work with us and put aside the politics. Let's work with this so that we don't have any more needless deaths. I know that's what you want. That's what we want. But it's how we get there. A commission with all the powers of a standing royal commission is what will address this and how we will deal with this in the best possible way. I want to invite the member for Solomon in his speech to point to one thing that this commission does not have but— (Time expired)
I am very proud to second this motion, and I won't stop championing a royal commission for defence and veteran suicide no matter how much spin those in the federal government throw out there. I need to make it really clear, though, that more needs to be done now. That much we can all agree on. More needs to be done now, and we must commit the resources to doing what we need to do to keep our people safe and well. That all has to happen now.
What has really disappointed me recently, when I asked members of the federal government why they weren't supporting a royal commission into veteran suicide, is when they said, 'On our side of politics, we don't want one because it will cost too much.' Let me ask: at what cost are our veterans and our service people are dying? What is the cost to overall a system that is clearly broken?
Are those opposite really going to sit there and say that $100 million—which is what the Minister for Veterans' Affairs says a royal commission into veterans' suicide will cost—is too much? Are they really going to say that that is too much to stop those who have served our country dying by suicide? It's shameful.
Those opposite don't want to stand up for a royal commission into veterans' suicide. I understand that some are totally silent because of the shame that they feel in not standing up and representing the defence and veterans' community. I understand that shame. Some wanted a royal commission, but are being told to pull their heads in and fall back into line, because the Liberal Party doesn't want a royal commission into veteran suicide. Are they going to say that that's not money well spent? How can you put a price tag on getting the best recommendations from the most open, transparent and independent process that we can possibly have? How can you put a price on that?
The member who spoke before me, the member for Fisher, said that we've had 400 deaths since 2001. Official records say 500—just 100 off. What's a hundred veterans? What's a hundred patriots? But there have also been many suggestions from the veteran community that that figure is grossly understated. I know from talking to the veteran community that that figure doesn't tell the whole picture. What also doesn't tell the whole picture are the attempted the many attempted suicides—people who have impaired themselves for the rest of their life in an attempt to stop the pain. How many have been permanently impaired? How many families have suffered over the years? How many families continue to suffer?
Australia hasn't had a royal commission into veterans' suicide for a century. The very first royal commission held by Australia was over what happened to one soldier's welfare after the war—one soldier. We've got 500, 600 or maybe 700 veterans' suicides, and those opposite, the federal government, won't act, and I don't know why. It's pretty clear that a permanent commissioner would become a very important recommendation of a royal commission, but there'll be so many other recommendations that come out of a royal commission. Yes, it'll be a good thing to have the permanent commissioner continue, but let's have that position informed by a full royal commission that's open and transparent and at arm's length from those that run the current system that people say is broken—not just me but also veterans and families. ESOs aren't able to coordinate their support as well as they should because the system is broken. The acts don't support our veterans in the way they should. There needs to be a royal commission, and that's why I support it has my support. The epidemic of veteran suicide is a stain on our nation—it really is—and we have the ability to fix it.
I spoke last week in parliament a couple of times calling on those opposite who have military experience to stand up—and I double down on that call today. They know that the system is broken. They know that a royal commission should be enacted to stop veteran and family suicides, but they're failing to stand up. So I ask again that they show some leadership and some solidarity with those that they have served with who are calling for a royal commission into veterans' suicide. (Time expired)
I'm very pleased to speak on this motion and to correct some misleading claims from the member for Solomon regarding the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. This is not a cost issue for the Morrison government. It is not about cost. It is about providing the best outcome and support for our veterans. I think the member for Solomon knows this. He was very quick to try and quote from private conversations without naming names and without giving people the opportunity to defend themselves. But I challenge him to name the name of anybody on this side of the chamber who doesn't want as much money as it takes spent on helping our veterans find peace and support within their community. That is what we are trying to achieve with the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention.
First of all, I want to take a moment to recognise all Australian veterans, both current and fallen, as well as their families, for the sacrifices that they have made and for their distinguished and selfless service to our nation. The dedication of these upstanding members of our community to defending Australia's sovereignty is something that we are all, and we all should be, thankful for and proud of. Our veterans know better than anyone how important it is to fight for the freedoms we enjoy every day in this country, and Australia would simply not be the place it is without them.
My electorate of Ryan has an immensely strong presence of current and former members of the ADF. In the heart of the Ryan electorate sits the Gallipoli Barracks, comprised of 200 hectares of major operational sites and home to three brigades. Currently serving ADF members live in the electorate, and, following their service, many veterans continue to reside in the Ryan electorate to live and raise their families. Due to the strong presence of ADF members, I've spoken to many of them, many veterans and many support organisations in my electorate about the design of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, across five sub-branches, as well as the Australian Army Aviation Association, the Veterans Support and Advocacy Service Australia, track to health, the Royal Australian Regiment Foundation, and 42 for 42, among others. Being in contact with these groups regularly, I know not only the distinguished service of our veterans but also the burden that they and their families bear.
We do have an unacceptable rate of veterans' and ADF members' suicide in our nation that we have to address. It's incumbent upon us as legislators and leaders in this place to make sure that the necessary levels of support are provided—that is, actually providing the support they need. It's not about virtual-signalling, it's not about calling for a royal commission because that's simply the thing to go to in these times, because the point that the member for Fisher quite eloquently made previously and that the member for Solomon failed to point out is the significant difference between the powers of a royal commission and what we are proposing—
A government member interjecting—
But there is one significant difference, Member for Fisher, and that is that what we are proposing will go on; it will continue far beyond the scope of a short-term royal commission. It will continue long term and it will be able to not only make recommendations but see those recommendations implemented, which at the end of the day is what we should all want for veterans, because those recommendations are what's going to provide the support that they need.
It's why the Morrison government has invested over $42 million to implement this national commissioner—to provide a targeted and streamlined version of what a royal commission could be to these veterans but to do it in a way that not only provides the recommendations but sees those recommendations delivered, and then can monitor the implementation of those recommendations by looking at future suicides down the track—though we hope there are none. The national commissioner is a critical reform that addresses this unacceptably high rate of suicide among ADF members and veterans. It is important that this investment reflects this priority, and that's what we've done. Each year the Morrison government invests more than $230 million to assess mental health treatment, which comprises more than $11.5 billion in overall funding to support veterans and their families. Following the May budget last year, the coalition provided over $100 million to improve the care agencies for veterans struggling with mental health and to train more psychiatrists in mental health.
It's a big task and we can't do it alone, which is why we're engaging many stakeholders. That includes Mental Health Australia, Suicide Prevention Australia, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and the Defence Force Welfare Association, just to name a few.
I encourage those on the Labor side to get behind this national commissioner, help us implement something that will help Australian veterans today but also in an ongoing way into the future, to see those recommendations implemented so we stop seeing the rate of veterans suicides that we see currently.
'I was only 19,' was the response, with tears in his eyes, when I asked a survivor of the HMAS Voyager disaster how old he was at the time of the tragedy. He was one of the last off the ship. 'I was 20,' said another. Yet another survivor was only 17 years old.
It was the evening of 10 February 2021, 57 years since the HMAS Voyager collided with the HMAS Melbourne off the coast of Huskisson on the New South Wales coast, the worst peacetime disaster in Australian maritime history. Organised by the HMAS Voyager Survivors Association, survivors and their families joined together at Voyager Park, Huskisson, for a commemoration service at 8.45 pm. The survivors lost 82 of their shipmates that night. They come together each year to remember their mates. The bow section of the ship sank in only 10 minutes that night. It all happened so quickly. But for these men and for the families of everyone on board, its impact has lasted a lifetime.
I would like to pay tribute to the families who lost loved ones and to the survivors and their families. Thank you also to the HMAS Voyager Survivors Association that works hard to help survivors. At the survivors get-together lunch the next day, I asked, 'What happened after the disaster?' I was told that survivors were dispersed to work on different ships, separated from those who understood what they had been through. Beyond a week's leave, there was no counselling or support for the emotional damage the tragedy inflicted. The emotional scars are still evident, because something like that doesn't leave you. That's the key message.
I have been contacted by many veterans and their family members who are calling for a royal commission into defence and veteran suicide. John, a survivor from that HMAS Voyager disaster, has also called for a royal commission into veteran suicide. John says, 'As a returned veteran who has had many dealings with the Department of Veterans' Affairs, I can understand the frustrations and disappointments suffered by veterans.' John also says, 'Despite all the wonderful speeches made by politicians when deploying us, it is an entirely different scene when we return from active service with difficulties, either physical or mental.' That is why it is so critical we get this issue right. These servicemen and women sacrifice so much for us, for our freedoms. They deserve for us to have their back when they have finished.
Yesterday I attended a Quilts of Valour award ceremony at Greenwell Point. Quilts of Valour Australia is a not-for-profit organisation providing quilts of valour to our veterans. The quilt is a powerful gift of love. The top of the quilt, with its many colours, shapes and fabrics, represents the communities the many individual veterans are in. The wadding, or the filler, is the centre of the quilt, providing warmth. The quilt represents hope that it will bring warmth, comfort, peace and healing to the recipient. The backing is the strength that supports the communities and our nation. Each stitch that holds the layers together represents love, gratitude and sometimes the tears of the maker.
Yesterday at the Greenwell Point Bowling and Sports Club, two much-loved local veterans were surprised with receiving their quilts of valour. 102-year-old Joyce Ferguson, Q142408, entered the Australian Army on 5 July 1942. Joyce, a corporal, worked in signals, before discharging on 6 July 1945. Gary Hastings, 2149002, a private in the Australian Army, was also surprised with a quilt of valour. Gary is a Vietnam veteran from the Royal Australian Infantry Corps 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. Both Joyce and Gary were surrounded by family and friends, including children and grandchildren, which was lovely to see in a very special ceremony. It was incredibly humbling to witness and shows the value we as a community can show to our veterans.
I would like to thank Quilts of Valour, in particular Stan, the New South Wales coordinator, and his wife, Sue, who volunteer and take the time in New South Wales to coordinate and present these beautiful quilts of healing to our veterans. Thank you to all the quilters and supporters. Thank you to Douglas Clarke, the wonderful emcee on the day.
Each and every one of these veterans deserve for our government to take the issue of veteran suicide seriously. Only a royal commission can do that. It's what veterans and their families want, and we owe them that much.