Monday, 22 March 2021
Resolutions of the Senate
Consideration of Senate Message
It's with some joy, but also some reluctance that I make this speech about the motion to support a royal commission into veteran suicides. First and foremost, I absolutely commend the speakers, particularly the members who have served in the Defence Force and who spoke before me. I commend their passion and their commitment to this cause. But this is a job which, at the moment, is half done. We need to get this job completed and we need to have the Prime Minister and the executive establish this royal commission. We need to know the terms of reference. But I am encouraged about where we are so far.
There is a problem. It's an obvious problem. It's a problem that's borne out by the statistics. It is the deep-rooted and long-term problem of suicides in the veteran community. The statistics speak for themselves. Veterans are twice as likely to take their own life once they leave the Defence Force after serving. These are things we need to act on quickly because there are people suffering now. People are watching us. People feel that the government and the system have let them down. They don't have the trust that they deserve. I believe that to restore that trust we need to apply the highest standard in a review of veteran suicide, and the highest standard that we have is a royal commission.
Only somebody who has served in war or has served in the Defence Force can understand the pressures and the associated feelings that go with that. I certainly can't. I haven't done either of those things, but, as a former police officer and first responder, I do have an understanding of service, I do have an understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder and I do have an understanding of suicide. The lead-up to suicide is a living nightmare. When it occurs it is a nightmare to respond to. For the family members who are left it is an ongoing nightmare. These are the reasons why I support this motion.
We as an Australian people entered into a covenant with our veterans. As part of that covenant we pledged to give them the highest level of support and care post their giving their highest level of service to our nation. This is something that I take seriously. We need to look in a holistic way at how we can ensure that the welfare of our veterans is maintained.
In this place I have spoken before about some of the areas where I think we can already make some positive changes. I've spoken about the DFRDB fund. I've spoken about occupational therapists. Occupational therapists working for Veterans' Affairs are being paid, on average, half or a third of what occupational therapists are being paid in the NDIS. This is causing people to leave that sector.
I've spoken about this in the chamber and I've spoken to the relevant people in government, but I'm starting to feel like my pleas are falling on deaf ears. We come in here with all the will to improve the circumstances of our veterans but there are glaringly obvious things we can do immediately, like ensure those providing services to our veterans are being paid properly, and we're not doing it. I make that call again. This is something that needs to be fixed.
On Wednesday I informed the Prime Minister's office that I had formed a view and changed my position to support this motion and to support a royal commission into veteran suicide. The subsequent discussions were not easy. It shouldn't be so hard to do something that is so glaringly obvious and the right thing to do. It shouldn't be that hard. I'm glad that the decision to establish a royal commission has been made by the Prime Minister.
Australia has a long and proud history of commanding officers and soldiers looking after their men and their mates, not only in battle but afterwards. In this category I put a fellow called Harry Smith, a bloke who commanded his men at the Battle of Long Tan. He did a sterling job there. But some of the greatest contributions that he made were post his military service, when he continued to fight for their needs until he had a win. I put Heston Russell in that category, a man who looked after his men in battle but is making some of the greatest contributions to this nation post wearing a uniform.
To Mrs Finney: when I met you the other day in Senator Lambie's office, and you showed me the photo of your beautiful son, I told you that I would do my best. I give you a pledge that I will continue to do my best until this matter is completed.
Last Thursday the Senate passed a motion calling on the Morrison government to establish a royal commission into veteran suicide. The mental health of Australians who have served our country should be of paramount importance to us all. I commend those in this place and in the Senate who have championed their cause. The physical health and mental health of veterans is an issue that is important to all of us but particularly to me, as my community is a defence community. Serving and former members of the Defence Force are important to our area—to the electorate of Paterson, to the Hunter, to Port Stephens.
It is a disgrace that the coalition government has taken so long to recognise the price some veterans pay for their service. It is truly a national disgrace. We shouldn't have to fight those opposite on this issue; we just shouldn't. If ever there was anything that was deserving of the highest commission, a royal commission, it is this very topic. This is about our servicemen and women. This is about the trauma they are living with every single day and about our duty to help them recover both physically and mentally. Our servicemen and women deserve better than eight long years of neglect under this government, to be quite frank with you.
Together with we can show the families—and I recognise Julie-Ann Finney, here in the gallery today, and those that have supported her—of those who have tragically taken their own lives that we will learn from past mistakes. Together, as a parliament, we can fix this. We must fix this. As the people who make the decisions to send our service personnel, our defence personnel, into harm's way, we must make a decision to investigate this harm. No life should end prematurely. No veteran should feel alone and unwanted, yet this is clearly the situation many veterans find themselves in. We have a veteran suicide rate nearly twice that of the general population, and the problem is getting worse. It's critical now that we get to the bottom of these tragic deaths.
My electorate is home to RAAF Base Williamtown, and not a day goes by that I don't think about every single family in my community who makes the personal sacrifice to service our country and keep us safe. I feel a great responsibility to ensure that every veteran in my community and every veteran that comes off that base is supported enough and respected enough to live a long and healthy life after that service. Meeting with veterans and hearing from veterans was one of the first things I did on being elected to this place in 2016, and I continue to support them and to advocate. The battle veterans face to have their voices heard, to have their claims taken seriously and acted on in a timely fashion, is very real, as I'm sure every member of this place will know and attest. Veterans' Affairs must be an agency that is resourced to deliver a high-quality service with fast turnaround. Delays and red tape often wear people down to the point of despair.
I want to tell you about Barry, who's 72. He waited over a year for his extra disability allowance claim to be processed. Barry fought with Veterans' Affairs for a year before finally reaching out to my office for support. Barry, like so many other veterans, doesn't understand why he is left to feel like a burden. Barry wasn't asking for much, just some support that he's due and that he deserves. At the height of his anxiety trying to resolve issues with Veterans' Affairs, he was promised that he would receive a call back from Veterans' Affairs representatives on numerous occasions and was told that a representative would check up with him weekly after he flagged his mental health concerns. Not a single call came from the department to Barry. Every week Barry was left to feel more and more alone. This is just devastating, and it speaks to a culture of an agency that is underfunded and understaffed from a government that just doesn't seem to care enough. I followed up with Barry after making representations on his behalf only to find out that the department had rejected his claim. I did encourage Barry to appeal the decision, but he said he just didn't have the energy. Imagine this from a man who had fought for his country. After waiting 12 months for a simple extra disability allowance claim, he was exhausted mentally and physically. Is it any wonder veterans are on the brink?
Our veterans are dying at unprecedented rates, and we can do something about it if we have the will. We must have a royal commission. Today, veterans held a rally here at parliament to call for action on veteran suicide, and we cannot let this call be in vein. I commend any member brave enough to cross the floor on this issue today, because, when it comes to veteran suicide, you have to vote with your conscience. This issue is too important for party politics and too important for excuses. The time for humanity is now. It is clear that now there is overwhelming support for a royal commission into veteran suicide in the broader community. We shouldn't need to debate this issue. We shouldn't need to put our veterans through any more than they have already faced. We need a royal commission.
I begin by acknowledging all of the veterans in this place and also the families of veterans, including those who have died by suicide. I acknowledge the serving veterans in this place and in the house just down the corridor as well. I also congratulate those who have contributed to this debate today already. I'll pick on the member for Herbert for your deeply impassioned speech earlier. I know that this issue touches you personally in a very deep way and that you're a fierce advocate for veterans' health and wellbeing. However, you did get something wrong that I need to pull you up on. You said during your speech that, because you were a digger and not an officer, you don't belong in this place, and I just wanted to say you are wrong. You're very welcome in this place from all sides and very well respected.
The member for Braddon also made some comments which I think we must all continue to reflect on as well. He said diggers are not all broken and we should have no perception that they lack great value. I have seen this in business where there are some people who are a little bit worried that, if they hire a veteran, the veteran might go postal, they might cook off in the workplace, they might lose their temper or experience some sort of mental health episode. I have got a great deal of experience in business. For the last 14 years I have worked in mining and oil and gas in consulting and then as a full-time employee in a crisis management role. I've seen so many veterans, alongside people who have served in our police forces and in our fire and emergency services, bring massive value. They bring solutions. They have skill sets and attitudes around discipline, leadership and integrity, and these are things that every workplace values. So I echo comments from the member from Braddon, who said that hiring a veteran is frankly good for your bottom line. Also, employing veterans is one of the ways that we can help people who have been through a unique work environment and a very challenging one to continue to contribute to society.
A move towards wellbeing is incredibly welcome, not just in providing treatment services but also in looking at ways we can help veterans leverage their skills and attitudes in our community, both in work and in other voluntary capacities. Sadly, like everyone in this House, probably, and everyone across Australia, my family has also been directly touched by suicide, so I empathise with the sadness and the sorrow that accompanies every single suicide, including those of veterans. That's why I remain, as do many others here, a passionate advocate of doing everything we can to support improved services in mental health right across the community, including for veterans and doing everything we can to prevent every suicide.
I also want to speak on behalf of our Prime Minister. Many people are probably not aware, but, during the third week after the 2019 election, when I was almost brand new in this place, the PM invited me, other veterans, the Chief of Defence Force, the Minister for Health, the head of Open Arms and a range of other stakeholders to meet with him in private inside the cabinet room, which I'm sure you don't normally get to see until much later than three weeks into a parliamentary career. The question was quite simple. The PM got us around the table and said, 'What more can we do for our veterans?' So I would feel uncomfortable if anyone had a viewpoint that was other than that the PM is dedicated to supporting our veterans. That is why there has been a great deal of effort going into ways we can do that. Certainly we are not opposed to the initiation of a royal commission. I will echo what the member for Braddon said. I believe it's incredibly important that, as well as the establishment of a royal commission, we also have what has been proposed in the form of a rolling royal commission. Many of the issues that we face will not yet have been uncovered, and we need to be both future-looking and looking at where we currently are and where we have come from, so I advocate for the importance of those two measures being conducted in parallel. We do need action right now. Indeed, the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention is already up and running, and we need to make sure that we continue to lend our support to the national commissioner.
We heard earlier from the member from Paterson, who made some commentary about a poor gentleman who faced some struggles when he presented to DVA, articulated his struggles and sought help. My wife was also an ex-serving Australian Army officer, and she went through a process that took five years. I can attest directly to the emotional strain that that places on an individual. Initially, her conditions were rejected by DVA. One of the reasons for one of the claims being rejected was that it was under the wrong act. As we all know, there are three acts that govern defence veterans, and they seem to be growing, as Senator Lambie has pointed out. But we do need to take up the recommendation that we simplify those acts of parliament, as well as continuing with practical reform. During that five-year journey through the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the Veterans' Review Board, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal my wife also said: 'Vinny, I'm not going to the AAT. I cannot go through this anymore.' I said: 'Leave it with me. Sign me off as your representative,' and I continued the fight along with her.
It is pleasing to see that there has been such an investment in improving DVA, because that is one of the steps that needs to occur. Of massive importance is that anyone who has pulled on a uniform and served a single day in full-time service is now entitled to lifetime care for mental health issues, as and when they may present. You don't need to do paperwork; you don't need to do anything. You can access that care straight up. I think that was an incredibly important step because I know that people had to fight to even be recognised as being able to access services. I think that is one of the most important things that has been done recently. I could talk about the dollar figures, but what I think is more important is that I have sat with the secretary to DVA, and she has undertaken—I believe, very genuinely—to continue the journey of continuous improvement, to make things faster and simpler and to be more effective in carrying out processes which support our veterans. That work needs to continue. The work of the national commissioner, as it deals in a private but also a very powerful way with veterans and their families, also needs to continue.
In closing, I welcome all of the contributions that we have had today. I am pleased to have made my own contribution and to assert that I and this government will continue to do everything that we can and that we must to support veterans and their families.
I too would like to thank everybody who has contributed to this debate. This is a debate and an issue that crosses all political divides, and I want to thank all members who have spoken on this debate. The speeches that we have witnessed are some of the most remarkable speeches I have seen, and I really want to thank you for that. I want to thank the community advocates—Julie-Ann Finney, veterans, everyone in the community—who has pushed for this for so long. It's been a bumpy road, a traumatic road, a rocky road, but to get to where we are today is one of the most pleasing things that I have seen in this parliament. I'm standing here today because I know that it is absolutely critical that we do have that royal commission into veteran suicide. The delay and the uncertainty on this issue for so long are certainly impacting so many families, and local families in my electorate. The New South Wales South Coast has a big Defence presence and we are very, very proud of it. We celebrate Defence at every opportunity. Only two weeks ago, I helped to welcome in the new cadet officers at HMAS Creswell, a wonderful occasion and one I was proud to be a part of. We also commemorate and acknowledge the sacrifice of our Defence personnel on solemn occasions, never forgetting those who have given their lives for us, so this is an issue that is close to everyone's hearts.
Labor has supported a royal commission into veteran suicide since 2019. Veterans want a royal commission, their families want a royal commission and advocates want a royal commission. Just this morning, I attended the rally out the front of Parliament House with veterans and their supporters to call for action. This morning we heard from Julie-Ann Finney, and I talked with veterans. They are very, very brave. They might not call themselves that but they are. They are heroes. They are there setting the standards for our future veterans. Their message is clear: the time is now and veterans have waited far too long.
The rate of suicide among our veterans is nearly twice that of the general population. I was absolutely devastated to learn that, over the last three months alone, 18 Defence personnel and veterans have taken their own lives. That is twice the number of the three months before. This is a problem that is getting worse, not better. Our veterans dedicate their lives to serving our country. They put their lives at risk to protect ours but, when they return, we just aren't doing our bit to help and support them. We aren't doing what's needed to help make sure they can transition back to civilian life. We are letting our veterans down and it is a national tragedy. The least that we can do is give veterans and their grieving families a voice through a full and open royal commission. I have heard from so many local veterans. They find it too difficult to talk to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. They tell me how they have had to fight and struggle to get help, and many say they are lucky to have had advocates who can do this on their behalf. But what about those who don't? That just isn't good enough.
I regularly attend events in my electorate that celebrate and commemorate our veterans and I talk regularly with veterans' associations and advocates. Advocates on the New South Wales South Coast tell me they are completely overwhelmed with work. There is such high demand and they just can't keep up. These advocates are veterans themselves, volunteering and doing what they can to help others but struggling to get support. They, too, want to see a royal commission.
Just last month, I attended an event to commemorate the 57th anniversary of the HMAS Voyager disaster. There I met a survivor who wanted to tell me his story and ask me to support a royal commission into veteran suicide. Everywhere I go, veterans, their families and their advocates tell me the same thing. People ringing my office or emailing me want a royal commission and they want it now. When the government has lost the trust of a community, there is only one way to get it back: transparency and a clear and unequivocal dedication to hearing the truth.
Only a royal commission can do that. Only a royal commission will have the necessary resources to shine a light on this critical issue. Only a royal commission would have the independence needed to see real change. Only a royal commission can give families the closure, healing and justice they deserve. It will give them a voice. It will give their lost loved ones a voice. It will make sure that everyone in Australia knows their story and knows their heartache. The case is so clear. There is overwhelming support for a royal commission. We need to end the uncertainty, end the deferrals and get on with a royal commission now. I commend the motion.
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.
Firstly, I acknowledge the contributions of all those who have spoken in this debate thus far and those to come—I will be listening to the member for Solomon in particular. I also want to acknowledge, of course, all of those in this parliament—in the Senate and the House of Representatives—who are veterans and thank them for their service. And I really want to acknowledge the contributions made today by the member for Braddon, in particular, and by the member for Herbert, and for the heartfelt ways in which they expressed their views. Most importantly, they made significant, informed and revealing speeches, not only about the issue but about themselves. For that, I say thank you. They have given us an insight into their own lived experience and the experience of so many other men and women in uniform. I can't imagine the pain of Mrs Finney.
But I stand here, proudly, as a former Minister for Defence Science and Personnel and as a former Minister for Veterans' Affairs. I say that because I got to meet the most outstanding people in the Defence Force and in the veterans' community. They were inspirational in almost every way. The sadness, to me, was always about, 'How the hell do we attempt to fix those who are broken?' Significantly, I think we have collectively failed. I say that as a former minister; I'm not saying this is the responsibility of any individual. But we have failed, collectively, and the evidence is there. The evidence is in what we're seeing now in terms of suicide rates for veterans.
As others have said, when they're in uniform it's half the suicide rate. When I was the minister we did a review of mental health in the Defence Force. It became very clear that when people were in uniform they were strong; they had their team mates and they were supported. That was part of the reason why we could say, proudly, that the impact on the mental health of our serving men and women was what it was. The member for Braddon pointed out that when he was in uniform it's what he was doing every day and he had the surety of it all. The thing that vexed me most though was what happens. Remember, this was up to 2013, from about 2009 or 2010. So we were in the middle of the war in the Middle East and Afghanistan, we were seeing high levels of rotation, particularly of special forces people but also across the services, and what worried me then as it worries me now is what was the impact of those high levels of rotations on the mental health of those people once they separated from the Defence Force? No-one's been able to give us a solution. The separation, the leaving, for many—most—it's not an issue. They're proud of their service, they wear it with pride, they value their team mates and they value what they've achieved. But there are some who, when they leave, over a period of time become very troubled, and we haven't been able to identify them before they take extreme measures.
This is an issue which I'm not sure we can comprehend properly. How do we do it? How do we get to everyone who's been in uniform and say, 'We're here to help you,' even though we know there are some who, when they leave, say, 'We want nothing to do with you anymore.' They've had enough. They don't want the uniform, they don't want to acknowledge you as our former comrades and they head bush or wherever they go. At some point things change, and we've lost them. We've lost them from contact. We can't support them because we can't see them. We've got to make sure we see them.
I say to Liz Cosson and her team at the Department of Veterans' Affairs: despite the brick bats you get, I totally value the work you do, your commitment and that of your teams, to the betterment of the veterans community and veterans—individuals and their families—a point which was most strongly made by the member for Braddon. We have an obligation. Once someone goes to Kapooka, puts on that uniform, we're obligated to look after them for life. With that obligation comes an obligation to look after their families. It means post-service that obligation remains and that's the challenge. That is the challenge.
I acknowledge the minister's contribution and that of the members for Blair for Gorton. I say to the minister: this royal commission is an opportunity. It's not an attack on you or an attack on the department. This is an opportunity to get things fixed. One of the inevitable results I see will be greater support for the department, for the work they're doing and for the veterans' community. We have the time to do this. It is the moment. There is bipartisan support—and the support in the Senate from Senator Lambie's work has been outstanding—as others have said. But we can do this if we're prepared to work together.
I say to the Prime Minister: the second part of this motion today calls on the Morrison government to establish a royal commission into the rate of suicide among current and former serving Australian Defence Force personnel. To say you won't oppose it is one thing. What we need you to do, Prime Minister, is come into this parliament and say that you'll sit down with the members of the Defence Force community, the veterans and the opposition to work out the terms of reference, the time scale for the royal commission and who the commissioner or commissioners might be. Let's do it. We can do it. We should do it. If we do that, we'll get the outcome that people are after. But when we stand here with sadness, when we lose someone—yesterday, a month ago, or in your case, Mrs Finny—we wreck the world. What do we do? We can't just say we're sorry. And we are sorry. We've got to do something about it and by doing something about it we have a legacy for your son. That's what we have the responsibility to do in this place. And for those others who have sadly taken their lives, we have a responsibility to give them the legacy that is their due. I'm confident that, given the will of the parliament and members of the parliament, the Prime Minister will see the importance of doing this, that it is the right thing to do and that now is the time to do it. I commend the motion and again say how outstanding this debate has been. I thank all members who've made a contribution. I'm waiting fervently to hear the contribution from the member for Solomon. Thank you.
It is no doubt a poignant day. I look behind me, and probably one of the strongest things that was said to me was, 'I can't go to the grave, because my son's only six feet away.' What a terrible indictment. There is nothing that we can say that takes away the pain of people who have lost a son, a daughter, a father, an uncle—someone they love—for a reason they wish they had the opportunity to resolve. They wish they had an opportunity to go back and speak to that person. No doubt they go over it again and again in their minds thinking: 'Why didn't I pick up on that sign? Why didn't I realise it was going to go from an imminent threat to an actual threat, that something was going to happen? Why wasn't I there?' And the answer is that you can't pick that and, unfortunately, you're probably looking at a problem that started years before the tragic event actually occurred.
I want to compliment Heston Russell, who's also behind us, for the work he's done. He has been resilient, he has had resolve, he has walked up to the fray and starting with basically nothing, from a point of zero, has been able to drive an agenda. All we do in this chamber is create the numbers that resolve the problems of other people. Other people do the footwork. The footwork was done predominantly by those behind me and those representing the people behind me.
I don't for one second pretend to the gallantry and the service of the member for Braddon, the member for Townsville or the Assistant Minister for Defence. For my small part, I was in the reserves and I'm a member of the RSL. But my family has a very long history with the services. As I've said a number of times, tragically my seven great-uncles were all killed—that meant issues pertinent to people who have served and basically at times the anger people have about being cast out. My father was repatriated after being smashed up, as he called it. For while a there, I used to argue with him over why he got so upset about a paltry change in his Vets' Affairs payment. I don't know what it was—$30 or $40. And it wasn't worth anything; he'd become a successful man. I couldn't work out why he would worry about it. But he would say, 'Give me back my leg and I'll give you back the money.' He was just trying to square up with something in his life which he couldn't quite square up with. The story he always gave me was: 'You don't know what it's like. After you've been smashed up and you've been through the repat hospital, you're sort of just kicked out onto the street. You wander around and try to find a home. You try to find someone to mix with. Your mates are still in the services. You go to places and you just become a kind of inconvenience to them, and you know it and you feel it.' He said you feel like your physical ability has been taken away and your support structure has been taken away. I can only imagine that that's a minor form or a similar form to what's felt by so many people who come out of the services and, after doing so much for that nation, are trying to find that space where it all makes sense.
For someone in the services, it's not just that they offer their life in whatever form it is to their nation; they also step away from other opportunities which they would have had if they'd stayed at home. They might have married that girl who left. They might have been able to build up that business that never happened. They might have been able to be around their parents when they passed away. Their life would be different. Instead, they picked up the gauntlet and they did what our nation asked them to do. We all get very patriotic and jingoistic about it. They go out, seek out the enemy, kill or capture them, by day or by night, regardless of the season, weather or terrain. Out they go in whatever form that engagement and that process requires of them. And we go, 'Rah rah, isn't it wonderful.' We wave the flag and turn up to the Anzac Day march, but after that most people go home and forget about it. And other people are left there, and for some there's that ticking time bomb. There's that monkey that they just can't get rid of, and there's the issue that they can't resolve. What I hope, in the substance of this, we create the venue that fleshes that out and hopefully come to some form of process where we can deal with it in a better way. If it saves one life, it was worth it. If it saves one person's life, it was worth it! The big thing in trying to convey this in discussions with the Prime Minister and others—in the politest form—it's not about what we want; it's about what they want, because they're the ones that are close to the pain and to the hurt and to the loss. We can't explain to them why our position is better than theirs. If this is what they want, then this is what you give them.
I'd like to also thank the other members of the defence committee, of which I am a member. I'd like to also acknowledge the dignified way that the member for Braddon and others have pursued this. They're doing this to bring a resolution, not to bring accolades and laurels onto themselves. They want to bring about an outcome. They don't want to bring about something to go on a corflute or something to go in a brochure they send out to their electorate. They did it because they think it's the right thing. I want to commend members of the opposition who have contributed. I know that the member for Hunter is very proud of his son. I go into his office and he's got his photos up there. I know he's a warrant officer—first class or second class?
He's gone backwards since I saw a photo of him! Anyway, these are things that are so important. There are so many people in this room who have the heritage. If my son joins the services, they'll be the fourth generation, and I want to make sure that, if that happens, he has the structure around him—or my daughters—that gives him some form of support, because they offer enough when they offer their life for the protection of this nation. That is it. What we have to offer them when they come home is basically the sandpit so that they land softly and so that they can progress back to civilians in such a form that they're embraced, so that there is meaning, so that there is purpose, so that there is a sense of opportunity and so that there is a vision splendid that goes far beyond and for longer than the service they gave. That, for me, is what this is about.
In closing, I hope you can convey to all those in the RSL, your colleagues, that we're in there batting as hard as we can. I'm not a fool; I'm not saying we've got there. We're not stupid. We'll achieve the objective when we see the royal commission—that's when we're there. But, by gosh, it's a long, long way away from where we started. The thing you always have in your favour for people who are ex-service men and women is, if you're going to argue against them, you'd better have a bloody good argument.
I just want to start by saying that I commend the motion. I want to thank all those who've spoken on behalf of the motion—those present and from every side of politics who are speaking in support of a royal commission into veteran and Defence suicide. A Vietnam War veteran in my electorate said to me recently that a royal commission will be too late for so many of his mates and so many of his mates' kids who also served, but it will be a life saver for so many others going forward.
Whilst a lot of the conversations have been about contemporary veterans who have served since Vietnam, where the rates of suicide are so high, I think it's important to remember Vietnam veterans and their families have a saying, 'Honour the dead, and fight like hell for the living.' It's so important. They weren't welcomed back like they should have been after serving our nation. A Vietnam veteran's child is three times more likely to take their own lives. That's significant. It's shocking. It's a national shame. I just want to thank all those people—that is, all those advocates and all of those members of ex-service organisations over the years that have given their heart and soul to keeping those Vietnam vets and the veterans that came after them—but also those that came before them, like the World War II veterans and the Korean veterans. This royal commission has been a long, long time coming.
It's great that we've arrived at a place where the Senate has passed a motion that has come here to this place and has the support of so many, including those who have served but also those who haven't served but that see, because they know their electorates, it's well past time for us to have an arm's length review of the veterans support system so that we can fix it and save the lives of our brothers and sisters—Australians.
Another veteran mate of mine said that the core behaviour of an Australian soldier, sailor, airman or airwoman, is to win for our country, to serve our country and to protect our country and its interests. It's to fight, to win, to do the hard training and to put their lives on the line to win.
So, it's with great pleasure that we're at a point where we're hoping the Prime Minister stands up and says, 'Australia will have a royal commission.' We hope that happens today. It needs to, because the job's on. And veterans around this country, and their families, are waiting to hear that he has heard the message from the federal parliament. As they wait, I want to pay respect to all those who have served, particularly those who have given all. And I pay my respects to the families. I pay my respects to all those who have been fighting, regardless of their politics.
I think veteran Heston Russell said it very well this morning. He's sitting up there in the gallery with his comrade, a comrade who has lost her son. They're sitting there together as comrades. I was so proud of them this morning. I'm so proud of the fight they have put up. And they know that we're not there yet. I want to thank the Leader of the Opposition for speaking so powerfully and consistently on this need. I'm not politicising it, but I think it's important to say what we stand for. Heston said that the royal commission is about three things: accountability, recognition and respect. Well, it's time to be accountable to the countless people, Australian patriots, who have felt that they had no other option but to take their own lives. It's time to recognise that we have a big problem here and that we need a big action—for this royal commission to address it. And it's time to show respect to those who have served this country and have felt let down, and to their loved ones—people like Julie-Ann Finney, who has represented all those mums and dads so well. I'm so proud of you.
It's clear that there is now overwhelming support for a royal commission into veteran suicides. It's what veterans and families want. It's what hundreds of thousands of Australians want. And it's now not even an issue of what the government's own members or senators want, because they're saying it clearly. So, it's time. It's time for that leadership. It's time for the Prime Minister to call this royal commission. That won't be the end of the work that we need to do. That work goes on every day. So, in finishing, I want to thank every single Australian out there who has worked to help our veterans and their families—because if it occurs today, if it's called, it is thanks to you and your advocacy. Lest we forget.
I certainly rise this afternoon to support this motion seeking to establish a royal commission into veteran suicide. I absolutely support this motion. The sacrifice that these men and women make for our country is truly remarkable and in fact in many cases is the ultimate sacrifice. I proudly served in the Defence Force as well, with the Australian Air Force, between 1969 and 1978. It seems like a lifetime ago now. Many of my colleagues have served as well, a lot of them—I think all of them—much more recently than my service. And I have to say, my service was at a time when men like me certainly didn't talk about their feelings. You were told simply to 'suck it up'. Thankfully, times have somewhat changed.
I have to say, it was a time in my life that I am extremely proud of, and I have memories, particularly of mateship and camaraderie, that I've never, ever been able to replicate in civilian life—ever. There's something about the service there that doesn't exist anywhere else, in anything else you do. But what happens when that mateship isn't there anymore—that 24/7 support you get—and you find yourself back in a life that, often, you don't really recognise? It's an all-too-familiar story for many veterans when they return from active service. I say this very deliberately, because my time in the military was well before that of many of my colleagues—and it's so great to have so many here; I think eight of us have served in the defence forces. I'm the only Air Force guy and the rest of them are all Army, and we compete quite well in that area. Nevertheless I think it's a record number—for many years—of people here who have served, and it's great to have them here.
Many veterans struggle to adjust to normal life. In my view there's a reason for this. Prior to my service we had Korea and Malaysia, and then during my time we had Vietnam. Most people called to serve did one rotation. They might have done six months. Some of them did two months. It was rarely more than that. The difference today is that we have people going over to some really inhospitable places and serving not one, not two, not three, not four but multiple rotations—six, seven, eight. The impact that has not only on themselves but on their lives and their families is quite profound. They come back home, and many of them—so many of them, I know, up in my region—are often unable to get their heads around trivial issues that society is consumed with, like social media, traffic congestion, petrol prices, who won the footy et cetera. They struggle to come back into that system—and how could they not? Many of them have witnessed firsthand the brutal horror of war. They feel out of sync with society. I have spoken to many friends who have said to me the hardest thing about war is coming home and struggling when they get here. Many of them have lost mates. Many of them have been wounded. Many of them have witnessed things that those back home could never even fathom. Sadly, many come home as broken people. Many come home as very different people.
There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that the current system has failed our returning Defence Force people. The conflicts at the time I served were very different to the conflicts of those that served in the Second World War, which were different to the conflicts of those that served in the First World War. Each one is very different. You can't model a service or a support—PTSD has only been recognised in more recent times—based on what's happened in the past; you've got to do it based on the present, and you've got to offer that support for them. The system has failed our returning defence personnel very badly, especially those who really need that extra help. It has also failed the families, who are at the front line when our personnel come home, in having to deal with people that they no longer really know. It becomes a real challenge.
You're going to ask the questions; it's not rocket science. Why is it that ADF personnel have a suicide rate less than half the wider community rate while serving but nearly twice the general population rate once they leave the service? You don't have to be a rocket scientist to work these things out. There are certainly issues there. Over the past few decades, more ADF personnel have died after returning home than in actual conflict. These are alarming statistics, and we need to act on them. We expect our ADF personnel to travel to lands far away to protect us, our freedoms and our interests, but who protects them and their interests when they come home? That's a good question to ask.
As I said at the beginning, I absolutely support this motion. I also fully support giving the necessary powers and resources to the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention to ensure a future ongoing body once the royal commission has been completed. But I think we do need a royal commission. It can be relatively short. It can be sharp. It's going to give us a lot of answers to questions that we need. We need to know those answers. We need to get this done, and we need to get it done sooner rather than later. We need to identify and work towards delivering real and effective solutions for veterans past, present and future as well as for their families. Don't forget families and loved ones in this. They are absolutely critical. It's incumbent on every single person in this House to support this motion and support those who would give their lives to protect our freedom and interests. It's about time we started protecting and helping them as well. I'll absolutely support it when it comes back.
I acknowledge all those who serve or have served, including those with us this afternoon, including the member for Braddon, who is still in the chamber. Of course, I too acknowledge Heston Russell, Julie-Ann Finney—who has had to leave us—and Sapper Tim Lowe, who have been maintaining a vigil in the Speaker's gallery throughout the course of this debate. I also, too, as others have done, acknowledge Senator Jacqui Lambie, who has been on a real crusade with respect to veterans' issues and in particular the atrocious level of veteran suicide. It reminds me never to get on the wrong side of Jacqui!
A commissioning certificate hanging on the wall in my office reads as follows: 'I, Phillip Michael Jeffrey, Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, pursuant to section 64 and 65 of the Constitution, hereby direct and appoint the Hon. Joel Fitzgibbon MP a member of the federal executive council to hold the office of Minister for Defence and to administer the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs.' Unsurprisingly, I occasionally pause to read and reflect on that certificate—what it means and what it meant to me. Unsurprisingly again, these private moments bring different emotions at different times. Sometimes it's pride. Sometimes it's regret. And, sometimes, it brings great sorrow. On days like today, it's a mix of regret and sorrow. I regret I missed an opportunity to do more for our veterans, and I think we all take collective responsibility for that. I, of course, feel sorrow for those who have paid such a terrible price, whether it's because they've lost their lives in theatre or after serving they've taken their lives or they've suffered disability.
I have sorrow for the families who have been affected by loss, disability or any consequence of the service of a loved one. The grief of parents who have suffered the loss of a child when wearing the Australian military uniform is unimaginable to those who haven't experienced it. The member for New England and others have acknowledged the fact that I have a son who served. Even with that, I cannot imagine—and don't want to imagine—how terrible that must be. Next week I'll officially launch Hugh Poate's account of the murder of his son, Robbie, and two other Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, and it will be a great honour to do so. Hugh's account of that loss and the family's search for honesty, transparency and closure is a very, very powerful one indeed.
Each year the government allocates $11.5 billion to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Some $230 million is dedicated to mental health. We may need to spend more; we may just need to spend better. I don't think any of us are sure. Certainly, we have to commit the resources necessary to fix this terrible problem we have, which is surely an embarrassment to our nation state. We should not lecture others in other countries about human rights and the extent to which they respect and protect their people while these numbers are so horrifying. It's time for a royal commission. Too often there are calls for a royal commission, and each of the causes is worthy, but we all know we can't have a royal commission into everything. Royal commissions must be reserved for the most serious of matters, the most complex matters, and those matters requiring interrogation of people under oath. A royal commission must be the foundation for the beginning of the journey—the beginning of fixing this problem. The proposition put forward by the government is a good one, too. We should have both. We should have the royal commission, helping us to learn about the mistakes, and we should have the commissioner taking us forward to oversee that we are doing the right thing and the only thing to do into the future.
I began by reflecting on my time serving as defence minister. One emotion that never leaves me when reflecting on our commissioning certificate—the one thing that never changes—is my high regard and respect for all those who serve, particularly those who go beyond the wire. While my memories of being defence minister are mixed, one thing that left me with overwhelmingly positive memories was getting to know and understand those who do go beyond the wire—those who, when they go out, don't know whether they're coming back and who know that they may never see their families again. It's a powerful thing to stand alongside those people in the theatre—not beyond the wire, in my case—and, although we don't fully understand, we better understand what they go through. I send them all a message with respect to the Brereton report. The Brereton report is a very, very serious one. Those who have acted unlawfully will need to be held to account. There can be no walking away from that. But there are enough of us here on both sides, I think, to allow me to say to the overwhelming majority that we have your back and that we all fully appreciate and understand and highlight the mitigating circumstances—the fact that we sent them to war without a plan to win and we sent them there under the command of others. We sent them to fight an enemy that neither fights to any rules nor serves in uniform while at the same time they were expected to comply with both domestic and international law, regulations and the like—the list is very long. We sent them to do all that without properly resourcing them. That is the truth of it. They didn't always have the medevacs they needed. They didn't always have the close air support they required. That is a terrible thing. And when we start to see those things flow from the Brereton report, all of us will have to be held to account. Those who served as defence minister, those who served in the National Security Committee of Cabinet, those who served as CDF and those who served as chiefs are all responsible. Many of us in this place, if not all of us in this place, will ensure that the fallout from the Brereton report is not something that will just fall on them but will fall on all those who were responsible in some way, in any way, for a culture that developed in Afghanistan and all the consequences that flowed from it. The most important point is that we need to stand behind our men and women in the Australian uniform.
I stand here today with all the veterans and Defence families who came to Canberra this morning. We need a royal commission into veteran suicide. It's what veterans and their families want, it's what thousands of Australians want and it's what a number of the government's own MPs as well as those on our side of the House want. Today veterans held a rally here at Parliament House to call for action, so the message is loud and clear: with a veteran suicide rate nearly twice that of the general population, we need to get to the bottom of what is behind these tragic deaths.
The Prime Minister needs to do the right thing and give these grieving families of veterans the royal commission that they not only deserve but that all of our current serving personnel also need. It is a national tragedy that more veterans have taken their lives than we actually lost in our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clearly, this is not an issue that will go away either. I would like to pay tribute to the extraordinary courage of women like Julie-Ann Finney, who I had the pleasure of meeting this morning. She has campaigned on behalf not only of her late son but of families who have lost their loved ones through veteran suicide all across Australia. On their behalf, she has shown resilience, she has shown courage, and I respect and applaud her today. I also had the honour of meeting with a number of veterans this morning who have lost mates and who continue to carry heavy burdens themselves but who also continue to fight not just here but across Australia to make sure that this royal commission that is so desperately needed is actually instituted by this government.
We in Labor called for a royal commission into veteran suicide because we had listened to families of veterans and we responded. That's not to say that we don't need the commission that the government has also established but it can't do its work alone. It needs to see a royal commission first.
These suicide figures are double the rate of the normal population. Losing more people from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts once they've returned home than we lost in the field are figures that we can't ignore. They're not figures that we can turn our faces away from, that we can let go unanswered. They should be a glaring light to government, to all of us in in parliament, that there is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed and not just for any sector of our community but for a segment of our community who take on our challenges as a nation and fight on our behalf, who go into the ultimate of harm's way. Those who I have had the honour of standing with, as the member for Hunter just said, behind the wire, I know, had to go beyond the wire in the work that they did on behalf of our nation.
Let's also remember the critical role of family members in supporting our current and ex-serving Defence personnel. It's not often acknowledged or appreciated as much as it should be. When a person serves in the ADF, their family serves with them. Military families make many sacrifices. We know that many servicemen and women are deployed internationally for many months, or nearly a year at a time, with this separation causing emotional stress for those deployed as well as for their partners and children remaining here in Australia. And when personnel are not deployed, they're on regular re-postings to different bases around the country, many just this year having to spend over a year away from families who they had left in a different state to where they are currently posted.
Posted service, particularly in the circumstances where someone is medically discharged as well, can have a significant and ongoing impact. Indeed, when we consider it, what we're seeing in the suicide emergency being confronted right now is really a result of injuries upon returning from service. These are not obvious injuries, like loss of a limb, but they are clearly deadly injuries being inflicted on our veterans through their service. When someone is medically discharged it is often the family who becomes their carers. It is the family who helps and supports them. It is often the family who can identify the first signs of mental illness and it's also the family who can recognise the signs and symptoms of poor physical health. But they also need support.
For too long now there has been stigma around mental illness and suicide, particularly for our ex-service and, indeed, serving personnel. This has meant that many veterans have been reluctant to come forward and ask for the help that they need, leaving them feeling isolated and alone. A particular friend of mine—a former colleague—was partner to a serviceman who fought in Iraq. The mental health trauma that he was suffering upon his return from deployment to Iraq ultimately led to the end of their relationship. It was a very sad circumstance, because from where he stood he didn't feel that he could go and ask for support. He didn't want to go and ask for support; he thought it was a sign of weakness to ask for that support. Overcoming stigma is integral to ensuring that those suffering know they can talk about how they're feeling, to prevent tragedies from occurring. Of course, that's always easier said than done.
It's for all of these reasons that we need to see a royal commission into veteran suicide now, and why we support this motion calling on the government to bring that about as soon as possible.
I was sitting here and looking through my phone just before I was called. I was reading Save Our Services Australia, which is a local organisation run by Jeb Summers for veterans and first responders. Many of the issues that our veterans face are the same thing that our first responders face. I read something there and thought it was probably the most apt thing I've read, that it's not the person with PTSD who is refusing to let go of the past but it's the past that's refusing to let go of the person.
I think that's one of the things I've heard over this time in meeting with veterans' organisations and with veterans. They aren't just young blokes like those who are nice and fit, healthy and young. It's even when I sit back with a few of the old boys who I meet with—the Vietnam vets. These things don't go away. I think about when my grandfather was discharged after World War II after spending time at Tobruk and in the Middle East, and then in Papua New Guinea. He was discharged with what was called 'shell shock'. Shell shock is just another name for PTSD—we just didn't acknowledge it then. He was one of those World War II vets who we punished throughout their lives and just said to them: 'Toughen up, harden up and suck it up. Be a man and cop it on the chin.'
Really, it's a shame that has happened over a long period of time. What I think is so important now is that the door has been opened and we have the conversations. It doesn't matter which side of the parliament we sit on, we should all agree that we owe our veterans, at the bare minimum, the respect to listen to them, to understand them and to give them what is needed.
When I look through Facebook pages such as Save Our Services and the likes the thing that keeps coming up day after day is another veteran lost, another brother gone, another sister gone. Another family that's going to live with a scar that goes for the rest of their lives and that's knowing that they've lost their loved one, who was prepared to stand up in the name of our country and do the service that we asked them to do. We ask them to do that. This is the thing. It's people that sit in here that make the decision, when we send men and women off into harm's way. Sure, they're super trained. Having spent time in the Middle East and the likes you realise just how wonderful these men and women are. But if we're going to make the decision to send them into places—theatres of war—where they're going to put their lives on the line then the very least we can do when they get back is tell them, 'We've got your back' and do the right thing by them—not by us, not by anyone else, but by them.
The royal commission is something that they've called for. They want it because they're hurting. The Prime Minister said that the commissioner would be a bigger and better form than a royal commission. No-one believed that, because it's not right. We know that a royal commission is the most important thing that we can do for our vets. To the families that have lost loved ones nothing is going to return their sons and daughters, but at least we should be able to sit here hand on heart and say, 'Yes, we've done the right thing', because we owe it to them. In every single aspect we owe it to them. We train them. We send then off. We bring them home. We should do the right thing.
The most consistent thing I've heard in terms of issues when people come back from service or when they discharge from our armed forces are the problems of dealing with DVA. Let me tell you, having involvement through the stuff on Defence abuse I learnt very quickly just how bad DVA can be. And that's not to say everyone in DVA, but by jeez the way that they have done things to veterans—put them through extra mental pressure and torment just to save their own backsides—is almost second to none. When the member for Lingiari was minister I think I might have given even him a shock with the language I used when I was talking about DVA because of what they were doing to servicemen and servicewomen who had been abused. That is one part of the issue.
The main issue that remains steadfast is the need for a royal commission and the need for us in here to combine together to do the right thing by our veterans and deliver it. If we in this place are prepared to send men and women to war then we've got to be prepared to do the right thing. If we're prepared to listen to them, hear their stories and stand up and support them, then support them when they come home. Give them and their families the respect that they deserve and have earned. We make them put on a uniform. We make them go places. The least we can do is listen to their concerns. There should be no obfuscation about this at all. There's no, 'Yes, we won't oppose a motion'. Be buggered—we should be up here saying, 'We will be doing this'.
I think the right and honourable thing to do would be for the Prime Minister to come in now, stand here, look you fellows in the eye and say, 'Yes, it's happening. We're going to do it now. We're going to do it properly. We're not going to muck around with it. We're going to make sure that you have input into ensuring that the questions that are asked are the questions you need answered.' Anything short of that is appalling.
There are many veterans out there who will be listening to this, because I know from every conversation I've had, over the last few weeks particularly, that this is first and foremost on their minds. I think every speaker has gone through the facts of the people we've lost through suicide, but let's also think about the people that are back who are carrying the scars and the pain in their hearts. They might not be physical. You might not be able to see what people are going through. Quite often it's the strongest people we know who are the ones prepared to be out there helping others when they themselves are suffering. Through any form of disaster I've seen, through bushfires et cetera, it's the same thing: the people stand up, they are trying to help, but you know that, deep down, they are hurting. They're the ones that go home and can't concentrate on thinking. They can't sleep, can't eat properly and can't function properly because of the pain they're carrying. For God's sake, let's do the right thing and do it now. This should be passed today. We should have a commitment that it will be done. First and foremost, the Prime Minister should look you guys in the eye and tell you it's going to happen. That's what I'll be hoping for and that's what I hope every member in this place will stand up and do. I know it's not a partisan issue, not a party issue. I don't like to say nice things about government members, but I've got a few mates on that side and I know how much they support it. I know they want to get it done. It's now a question of getting it done sooner rather than later. With that, I wish this speedy passage. I hope it gets done and I hope that, next time, I can look you guys in the eye and say, 'Yep, we've got it. Well done, you men.'
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, CRCA—RRCA? 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.'
The member for Braddon spoke earlier today. I thought he was spot on, as was my learned colleague in front of me here, the member from Tasmania. One of the other speakers said, 'Help is there—great help.' Honestly, how can you say that? There have been 26 suicides in 11 weeks. That must be great help! I would hate to think what could happen if we didn't have that help. But that is not the nature of the problem. In fact, I went to great lengths to listen to a program—I can't remember now whether it was 60 Minutes or Four Corners. I think both of them did something on a suicide or on suicides. In both those cases, it was my own personal experience that people are sailing along alright when they get out and then they hit an anxiety period. Then they go and see the DVA and fall off the cliff. Whether or not that's related to them going to see the DVA, the time frame is most certainly straight after they go to see the DVA. That's not so in all cases, but it is in the cases that I have had experience with.
The member for Braddon said that you got your identity and it was your family. We had over a thousand people attend the meetings. I pleaded with Jacqui Lambie to come north and she came with Heston Russell in tow—two very great Australians—and they drew well over a thousand people to the fortress city of Townsville. I deeply regretted that people from the government weren't there. The member for Braddon said: 'I had a family, I had an identity, and I had an income.' That was what I took down and memorised and tattooed in my brain from listening to over a thousand people express their opinions to Jacqui, to Heston, and, to a lesser degree, to me. You lose all three. When you say 'family', as my great and wonderful colleague put it so well here, the Army is your family. You sleep with your rifle and you sleep with your mates out in the middle of nowhere. Though I didn't actually see combat, we were on 24 hour call-up to go and fight in Indonesia. The battalion was rated F1, ready for combat. I don't know about other people, but I was scared silly about going into combat. I went and saw my Uncle Allan, who fought at Aitape, and my Uncle Billy, who fought at Milne Bay, and I had long yarns with both of them. I was very, very scared, and I think that would be true of so many other people. When you leave the Army, you lose your income, you lose your identity and you lose the family that you've spent most of your time with. It's not actually your wife and your kids; it's your mates from your section or your platoon or your company. You lose all three.
When the Broncos rugby league team was forming, Bernie Power said, 'They take these young boys in and then they just throw them away when they're no good anymore to the team.' He said, 'We have a program that puts them back into society as good, active people, with some money in their pocket and some businesses that they own or have big shares in.' The thing he most wanted to impress upon me was not that they were going to have a great rugby league team out of Brisbane, out of Queensland, but that they were going to look after the boys when they finished their rugby league career. All my life, I've been a player or an official in the rugby league, and I love the game. Bruno Cullen, when he took over the Broncos, as recently as three months ago was saying how well that program is still working—of transitioning them into businesses of their own and into semi-jobs of their own that they control. There's a pathway out. I remember when my son lost his contract with the Cowboys, five of them all lost their contracts with the NRL clubs at the same time. One went onto the hooch and one sat in front of the television, staring through it for most of the next year. Their whole lives collapsed. My son got through it alright, but others didn't, and it's infinitely worse for these people coming out of the Army.
One of the speakers said that the DVA gives them great help. I'm sorry but that's not my experience. In fact, my experience is just the opposite. If they go to DVA, then we've really got serious trouble. What really jarred me—I was campaigning down at the pub at Bushland Beach. I represent probably more retired veterans than anyone else in this place because I've got the northern beaches area of Townsville, where a lot of people retire to, and I represent the Atherton tablelands, one of the most beautiful parts of Australia, where a hell of a lot of them retire to. I was at the Bushland Beach pub and I ran into eight people there that night that had attempted suicide or whose closest friend or husband or wife had attempted suicide. I was quite staggered by it. They were so passionate about it. Then, a week later, I was up in the Atherton tablelands and there were two blokes there. John Hardie, who's got an OBE and is president of the conscripts' association of Queensland—I forget the name of the organisation. John was there, and I winked at him, and he nodded his head, meaning: 'Yes, I'm keeping an eye on both of them. They're in serious trouble, both of them.' One was a captain in the Army, a very young bloke, and the other was a corporal that had come out. In two weeks at two hotels I ran into these people. That will give you some idea.
I'm not trying to have a go at the government. I think every speaker here today has tried to be nonpolitical, but you are the government. There have been 26 suicides in 11 weeks. I am not filled with any sense that there is a serious problem out there. I don't know about other people, but I'm going to bed at night and I'm feeling comfortable about this. I wore the uniform for eight years on and off. I was in the militia, and we were on a war footing. We were at war with Indonesia at the time and then, later on, with Vietnam. We were rated F1. It was an entirely different militia then to what you see today I can assure you. Over a thousand people attend those meetings and only three voted against an inquiry. The three of them—well, two of them were on the payroll from the government, and I suspect the other one probably was as well.
Tim White must be singled out. Tim carries around—I hope he doesn't mind me saying this without his permission—a photograph in his shirt of his old patrol. I think there were 10 in the patrol. I might be wrong with the exact figures, but: two are still alive and well, two are in jail, two are hopeless alcoholics and the rest of them did away with themselves.
Tim takes his old buddy-buddy mates from the army out bush to look after First Australians. If I'm not sleeping well at night, it's because of the other problem I have, about First Australians. They are the other of the two groups of people who hold world-record suicide rates. I don't think, in either case, the government is coming to grips with this at all. If the Broncos rugby league team can do it, surely the government of Australia can do it. The Broncos go out there and bleed for Brisbane. These people go out there and bleed for Australia—and they seriously bleed.
I don't know whether the minister is a good or bad minister, but we've asking him to come up and visit the fortress city—if you want to know where the eye of the storm is—for nearly six weeks now. I remember former Minister for Mines and Energy, Ron Camm. We had a meeting at Greenvale, a big mining town, and there was a strike on. They were mostly striking in protest against the state government. Of course, who was the No. 2 in the state government: Ron Camm. I said, 'Mate, we're going to blow town.' He said, 'No, we don't blow town.' If there's a problem, that's where you go. (Time expired)
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.
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.
I don't intend to detain the House for too long, I just want to add my voice to this very important motion that I support a royal commission into veteran suicides. I want to be able to look the veterans in my community in the eye and say that when the opportunity arose I spoke on behalf of this motion. I'm pleased the minister's here now. Minister, the voice of the parliament is speaking to you and through you to the Prime Minister, the Senate—I see Senator Lambie is here. Given the work that she's done it's good to see her in the gallery again. It's good to see the two gentlemen up there, both veterans take it, who have been here for most of the afternoon listening to this debate. The parliament is speaking to the government. It is saying with one voice: we need a royal commission into this issue. It's not enough, Minister, that you say that you'll carefully consider the vote of the parliament, the vote of the House and the vote of the Senate. It's not enough. What we would like you to do, Minister, when you get to that despatch box, is announce a royal commission into veteran suicides. It's what all those veterans who came here this morning are asking. It's what the many thousands of Australians who have signed petitions are asking. We've all had our inboxes flooded from people. We need to be able to look the people—the veterans, their families, their loved ones—who have been left behind from far too many suicides in the eye and be able to say, 'Yes, we have heard you. We have listened. There will be a royal commission into veteran suicide.'
Like the member for Lyons, I shan't detain the House long. But I did want to add my voice to the many who've spoken in favour of a royal commission into the issue of veteran suicides. The number of veterans who have written to me on this issue is astonishing. A man who wrote to me on Saturday night said, 'As a veteran who served 30 years and did tours of Somalia, Afghanistan, two in Iraq, one in East Timor and one in Timor-Leste, I would like to thank the Senate for voting to have a royal commission into veteran and serving ADF member suicides. I have suffered from PTSD since 1994 and recently it became the catalyst for my medical retirement from the workforce. I implore my local federal members and the Senate to vote for a royal commission.' As other members have noted, members of the military are half as likely to take their own lives as members of the general community but veterans are twice as likely to take their own lives. We have lost many more veterans to suicide than we have lost serving ADF personnel on the battlefield. I am yet to receive a single piece of correspondence—a single letter, a single telephone call—from anyone opposing a royal commission. I want to be able to look veterans in the eye and say that I supported a royal commission. I hope every member of this House does so too.
Question agreed to.