House debates

Monday, 22 March 2021

Resolutions of the Senate

Consideration of Senate Message

12:26 pm

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

The Speaker has received the following message from the Senate:

The Senate transmits to the House of Representatives the following resolution which was agreed to by the Senate this day:

That the Senate—

(1) notes that Australian Defence Force personnel have a suicide rate of less than half that of the wider Australian community while serving but nearly twice the rate of suicide after leaving the Australian Defence Force; and

(2) calls on the Morrison Government to establish a Royal Commission into the rate of suicide among current and former serving Australian Defence Force personnel.

The Senate requests the concurrence of the House of Representatives in this resolution.

Ordered that the message be considered immediately.

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party, Deputy Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the House concur with the resolution of the Senate.

First of all, I recognise all serving members in this place and anyone viewing this debate at home today who put on the uniform of the Navy, the Army or the Air Force and, on behalf of the parliament, I extend to them a simple thank you for their service to our nation.

The closing sentence of the veterans' covenant, which passed with unanimous support in this House in 2019, says: 'For what they have done, this we will do.' It's an obligation for those of us who have never put on the uniform to ensure, on behalf of a grateful nation, that the services and benefits provided to our serving community flow to them when they need them and as they need them after their period of service has concluded. I do hope that after today we will continue to move forward in a very bipartisan manner on an issue of public policy that has always enjoyed incredible support across the chamber.

The government do understand the very strong feelings about this issue across the chamber and do not oppose a royal commission. We—and I think this parliament—have a proven track record of taking this issue seriously and we will now move to carefully consider the views of the parliament. This is a complex and sensitive issue of public policy where I believe it's entirely reasonable to have different views on the potential solutions, but first of all we need to define the problem we're talking about.

As a father, as a member of parliament, as the representative of the seat of Gippsland and as a minister in the Commonwealth of Australia it appals me that more than 3,000 Australians take their own lives each year. Sadly, our veterans are not immune from that scourge. In the order 35 to 40 veterans take their lives each year. No number of suicides is acceptable to me as a minister. No number of suicides is acceptable to the Australian public.

I stress that today's discussion should not result in any politician or any political party trying to claim any win for themselves, because none of us will win until the number of suicides in our community is zero. This is not a competition about who cares the most, who's got the most compassion, because we all care and we're all compassionate about this cause. But it is certainly a competition about how we develop the best possible policies to support our veterans and their families. We need to focus on developing policies which deliver support services that actually make a difference on the ground and prevent suicide in our community.

I must stress that service in the Australian Defence Force is overwhelmingly a positive experience for the vast majority of individuals who serve. I've had the opportunity over the past seven years to meet with many serving men and women, whether in training or on deployment, and the passion they have is hard to describe. They develop skills which set them up for life—teamwork, leadership, problem-solving, resilience, skills that make an enormous contribution to our community when they return to civilian life. But it is true that for some their service can have significant physical and mental health impacts. And I refer again to the veterans' covenant, which won bipartisan support in this place: 'For what they have done, this we will do.' That is our obligation to ensure we continue to provide the support services our veterans and their families need upon transition.

To be fair, and I think those opposite would largely agree, there has been a lot of action taken over recent times to work in partnership with the ex-service community on practical solutions—for example, the response to the Bird inquiry, referring to the tragic loss of Jesse Bird, who took his own life many years ago. Again, that won the support of the House. A young soldier was seeking help, and the delays in receiving that help led to him taking his own life, with just $5 in the bank. The House and the Senate agreed on the introduction, for the first time, of a veteran interim payment to be made available to any veteran seeking support for mental health issues while the claim was being processed. That was a reform which came about through constructive dialogue across the chamber.

The request for a royal commission that we're talking about today is not a new request. It's not something that has sprung out of the blue; it's been discussed for many years now. In fact, back in late 2019, I met with families of members who had taken their own lives, I met with veterans' groups and I met across departmental boundaries to develop a model which I believe would overcome some of the shortcomings of a royal commission. And that was the introduction of our policy to provide a national commissioner with all the powers of a royal commissioner. That policy was developed over a period of months in late 2019 and 2020. It was well received at the time; it was well received by veterans' organisations. The policy that the coalition has taken for the past 15 or 16 months now on the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention is still, I believe, a very good public policy. It's been strongly supported by key veterans' groups and mental health experts throughout Australia—and I'll get to that in just a moment. But the federal government does understand that some veterans and grieving families want both: they want a royal commission first and then a permanent national commissioner to provide enduring support. I think it is a complex issue that does require that enduring focus.

For the record, the Prime Minister himself has never ruled out a royal commission. He has been directly engaged with me as we try to address these difficult public health issues around mental wellbeing and suicide. We have endeavoured to listen to the ex-service community and to introduce free mental health care for life for all veterans and their families. We expanded at the Open Arms counselling service, including the provision of peer counsellors, to provide support for our veterans. We have, for the first time, funded psychiatric assistance dogs to support those veterans with mental health concerns and we've provided more than $230 million per year in mental wellbeing initiatives through the Department of Veterans' Affairs. So we will continue to listen to ex-service organisations and listen to our own backbench, particularly the veterans in our backbench. We will listen across the chamber and across the parliament as we deal with this particularly complex and sensitive issue of suicide in the military community. While we're having this conversation today, I must stress to anyone who is listening that the veterans counselling service, Open Arms, is available on 1800011046. Last year, during the peak of the pandemic, Open Arms received an incredible surge in calls from our veteran community and were able to cope with that additional demand quite admirably in the circumstances.

From my personal perspective, as the minister, I have tried to unite the various veterans organisations, with varying degrees of success, I must say. It is a community which has very strong opinions, a great deal of passion, and a great deal of determination to achieve good things for veterans across the nation. I do know, as a member of parliament, that language does matter, and I know that my words did cause some concern to some veterans when I said two years ago that I didn't see the point of spending millions of dollars on lawyers at a royal commission when I could spend that same money as Minister for Veterans' Affairs on medical specialists helping veterans. I was confident at that point that we could develop policies that would unite the veteran community, and I didn't mean to cause offence, but I do stress that I believe that a national commissioner for suicide prevention is good public policy and that that is still supported by key veterans groups and mental health experts.

The reason I make that point is that we would seek to provide an enduring national commissioner who will have the power to summon witnesses, hold public hearings, take evidence on oath or affirmation, compel the production of documents or witness statements, and receive information and evidence in private. Unlike a royal commission, it would be an enduring body, rather than a point-of-time inquiry. It would also provide an opportunity for families, ADF members and others affected by suicide to tell their stories and help, at an independent level, at arm's length from the Department of Veterans' Affairs, to develop recommendations to improve our delivery in this regard. It has won the support of key mental health organisations and ex-service groups, such as RSL National, Soldier On, Suicide Prevention Australia, and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. They are all supportive of that position. But, as I said just a few moments ago, I do understand that some veterans and grieving families want both: a royal commission first and then a permanent national commissioner. I reiterate, for the record, that the Prime Minister himself has never ruled out a royal commission. He has been very supportive to me as I have sought to address these complex public health issues around mental wellbeing and suicide. We will continue to liaise across the chamber to deliver the results that the Australian people are demanding.

I do offer, in that spirit of bipartisanship across the chamber, to the many members who are passionate about this issue and to the ex-service community itself, a little bit of advice around how we take this debate forward. Our job is to make sure that we continue to give hope, not take hope way from those who may be struggling with their mental health. We do need to assure our veteran community, our serving men and women, and their families that there are pathways to good health and that this parliament stands united in supporting them to achieve that pathway. Our job is very much to give hope to them so that they can recover from their difficulties. We need to reassure our veteran community and their families that we are working in their interests and that help is available to them. As a critical point, we need to reassure our veterans and their families that we are capable of working in their interests together and that help is available to them in their community.

We do know that early intervention on mental health issues is critically important to achieving the best possible outcome for the individual concerned. It is an enormous challenge to remove the stigma around mental health in this nation and to reassure our serving men and women that it is okay to seek help for mental health issues. You are not weak. You have not failed. It is okay to seek help and to reach out and get that help when you need it. Our challenge as a government—and, dare I say, the challenge for the opposition as well—is to make sure that, when people reach out for help, that help is available to them in their community in a timely way. That is an ongoing and difficult issue I'm dealing with through the Department of Veterans' Affairs, and I know the shadow minister is well aware of the challenge we are facing in terms of the increased demand for services, the increasing number of veterans coming forward who are eligible for benefits, and the need to get on top of the time taken for that process, which is becoming a great concern for me as minister. We're seeking to overcome that in partnership with the ex-services community. I stress again that it's okay to seek help for mental health issues; you're not weak and you have not failed. Help is available to you across our nation. Again, for anyone who is struggling with their mental wellbeing, please be assured that free support is available on 1800 011 046 to the Open Arms team. And I want to thank the Open Arms team for their incredible capacity to listen to stories and to help people on their journey back to good health.

In that same vein I need to thank my own staff in my ministerial office, who have been with me now for three years in this role, and also the staff at the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The Department of Veterans' Affairs is going through a massive transformation. In the order of $500 million in additional resources have been provided to try to transform DVA into an organisation that is fit for purpose for the next 100 years. It is an organisation exclusively established to support our veterans and their families across the Commonwealth of Australia. It is proudly led by a veteran herself in Ms Cosson, the secretary of our department. She is the first female secretary of that department and I believe she does an amazing job in seeking to develop public policies and to resolve difficult and challenging issues with the beneficial approach that we expect in managing some of these tough issues. I want to thank Secretary Cosson and her staff for their determination, their compassion and their resilience in delivering those outcomes across our veteran community. I'm proud to work with them all.

For the record: I commenced my comments here today by thanking our serving men and women for their service. The government understands the very strong feelings about this issue across the chamber and does not oppose a royal commission. We do have a proven track record of taking this issue very seriously and will now move to carefully consider the views of the parliament. I thank the House.

12:41 pm

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Veteran suicide remains front and centre for far too many Australian families. Around 600 veterans have died at their own hand over the last two decades—600! And there has been an epidemic of at least 18 defence and veteran suicides over the last three months, nearly twice the figure of the previous three months. Two ex-service personnel took their own lives over three days in the first week of this month.

This is a national calamity. Australian men and women who wear our uniform in our name deserve our respect and our support. This deserves the closest attention of the government. I think the minister is a good man who genuinely cares about veterans, as does the shadow minister. On this, though, I have sat down with veterans, including people like Heston Russell and Julie-Ann Finney, who I was with again today—Julie-Ann, of course, lost her son. They convinced me that a royal commission was the right thing to do. It was the first royal commission that I called for as the leader of the Labor Party, and I did not do so lightly. I sought, and will continue to seek, support from across this parliament for our position.

I'll say, with respect to the minister, that he needs to do a bit better than just say he will carefully consider the views that are about to be passed unanimously by the Senate and the House of Representatives. What our veterans—every one of them—have fought for is our democracy and our way of life. This isn't a committee passing a motion, this is our national parliament. The Senate did it last week and the House of Representatives is going to do it today, the government has indicated. If that's not binding on the government then I don't know what is; I don't know why we're here, frankly—all 225, or thereabouts, members and senators. It's not a talkfest. We make decisions to reflect national opinion—and national opinion says that we need a royal commission. That is what the families are saying. That's what veterans are saying. We have had so many reviews, so many inquiries, but the situation has not got better.

It is more than a year since the Prime Minister responded to our call for a royal commission by announcing a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, claiming at the time that it would be better than a royal commission. The Prime Minister said on the Today show on 5 February last year: 'I spoke to Julianne Finney last night, who's been an advocate with this for many times, and she couldn't be more pleased that we're taking this step. It's bigger and better than a royal commission, beyond what she had hoped for. We can't just look back. We've got to look forward. I think we've come up with a better way that brings everybody together.'

Labor, at the time, indicated that we were prepared to examine this proposal, which we weren't consulted on beforehand it must be said, and whether indeed it would have the powers of a royal commission and be appropriately structured and staffed to deliver the kind of results which I think we all would hope for. Everyone wants to see this scourge end. We can all accept that; this isn't a partisan issue. But the more we looked at it the more we agreed with people like Julianne Finney that this simply wasn't enough, that this was a watered down version of a royal commission which would do little more than the work of a coroner—as important as that is—that it wouldn't have the potential with the resources you'd normally see allocated to a royal commission, that it wouldn't have the independence, wide scope or terms of reference of a royal commission, that it wouldn't deliver a final list of recommendations that pressure is then placed on the government to implement. It is a completely untested model, which is why we need a royal commission first. And then perhaps this sort of model, as a long-term standing organisation, may well advance the cause which we all hope it would.

But that doesn't mitigate the need for a royal commission; and that's why so many veterans and their families have actually said that, faced with the government's proposal or nothing at all, they would prefer nothing. That's been the response in the inquiry that was established in the Senate. And people across the chamber who take these issues seriously, including the former veterans who grace us with their presence here in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, need to be listened to as well. I would have disagreements with Jacqui Lambie on some issues, but on standing up for veterans she is just so fair dinkum and so passionate. She deserves credit for continuing to advocate so unequivocally for a royal commission.

And that's why the national commissioner legislation was defeated in the Senate last year. It's a big call to vote against that; it's a call that we didn't make easily. Well, the government withdrew it because it didn't have support. But that's just a political manoeuvre, which is typical of this government, frankly—a political response to something that was an issue of substance. The fact is that the interim commissioner, also a friend of the current defence minister, is investigating the defence minister's own department. That doesn't give any faith to those who want to see real change. The interim commissioner actually invited veterans and families to a meeting in March and asked them to pay $100 for the privilege—just extraordinary! So having delayed and ducked and weaved, it then launched its own preferred scheme in the face of the legitimate concerns that were put forward. Of course, the Daily Telegraph announced on its front page that it was a royal commission on the day of the Prime Minister's announcement. When we examined it, it simply wasn't there.

The government is agreeing to this motion today. But you can't agree to a motion and say you oppose a royal commission; it's weasel words. The time for politics is over. The House of Representatives will speak, as the Senate has spoken. It can't be resisted anymore. The government should be calling a royal commission today given they have known that this has been coming for a long period of time. You can't have the defence minister's friend investigating the minister's own department. We know that a similar thing happened with regard to 'Teddy' Sheean and the VC. This is a tired eight-year-old government with an ear of tin sometimes and a heart of stone at others. It needs to actually listen and act. If it does that, it will be welcomed by us on this side of the chamber, by crossbenches, by those people like Julie-Ann Finney and others, who fought so hard for this royal commission.

I also pay tribute to Shayne Neumann, our shadow minister, and others who helped to make this call and campaigned so strongly for it. This should be a moment of unity for the parliament but it has to be one that does not oppose the motion; it has to support the motion. That's an important distinction and one the government should acknowledge and should commit to here today.

12:52 pm

Photo of Gavin PearceGavin Pearce (Braddon, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm proud and honoured to speak in favour of this motion this morning. I do so not only as the member for Braddon but as an ex-serviceman. I'd also like to welcome the families and the ex-servicemen and women that we have in the gallery today. You are very welcome here. I was just a young kid, 18 years old, true of eye and straight of limb—as they say—when I joined the Australian Army. I was a very different person 20 years later as a 38-year-old, somewhat worse for wear. But along the way, I had an incredible journey, an incredible life. I had a life that was filled with purpose, with teamwork, with mateship. Anyone who's ever served with know the military is a big family and we stick together more than most.

However, the rigors of that service life have an effect. It's had an effect on me, not only physically but mentally. I said before in this place that I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and I'm treated daily for that. I said when I mention it in this place that I don't mention it for pity. I mention it to let all veterans know that, yes, you may suffer the same thing that I suffer but there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and you can get help. Help is there today, tomorrow and it'll always be there. We need to make sure as a collective that that help is always there and it's always strong.

The royal commission is going to be tough. It is going to have a very critical tough look at a very tough subject. It's going to be tough on the families. It's going to be tough on the mates of those involved. It's going to be tough on units, on the chain of command and on families. I think during this process everyone involved is going to require support at the highest level. They're going to require that support on the ground as this royal commission is going on.

When I was a digger, I used to pride myself on the fact that I was a soldier's soldier. I always stuck up for my diggers. I never left one behind. I maintain that today. As this royal commission goes about its very critical job that it has to do, I want to make sure that those diggers out there, those veterans out there, and those families that I talked about earlier are protected not just today, tomorrow, next year or at the completion of the royal commission. I want to make sure that there is help there every day for them. I think it behoves us all to ensure in a bipartisan way that that help is provided. I echo the words of the minister and his focus on that support.

I also want it very clear to everybody involved how much emphasis I place on families. Families play an important part in the important transition process between defence and civilian life. Often—and I know this in my own case—if you suffer from one thing or another along the way from the rigours of service life you'll strike out at the ones closest to you, your family. I see heads nodding. I've seen this along my journey as well. People can take it out on their families. What invariably happens is the spouse packs up the children and leaves. Then there's another issue. Then the bills for the child support come. Then there's another financial issue. Then there's an alcohol issue or a drug issue. We start putting on weight and injuries that we picked up along the way in our service life get worse and are exacerbated by that. Depression sets in. No-one's there. The big family that we had as part of the military isn't there any longer. Why is it worth it? As far as I'm concerned, that answers a lot of questions as to why we go through this. I know because I've been through this. I want families protected in this. I want those kids to know exactly why mum or dad is feeling the pain that they're feeling and maybe why they act the way that they do. I think families are important, and I want families looked at and supported throughout this entire process. I mean that so sincerely.

Our ESOs, ex-service organisations, play a critical role not only in the transition process between defence and civilian life but also in encouraging people to take up a new regime. Our diggers, at 7.20 every morning, get up and do PT. At 10 o'clock they have morno. On Thursday afternoon, they have sport. They get used to that routine. They're fit and young. They've got their mates around them. When they leave, there are no mates, no PT, no routine, no structure and no support, apart from the supports that we as a government put in. They're incredibly important. It's important that not only that veteran is looked at but that veteran's family unit is looked after. I want to see that happen from the get-go.

Private enterprises and businesses play an important part as well. I think over the years what has evolved in the veteran community is a broken digger mentality, whereby, irrespective of whether there is any truth in it or not, some employers think that if they employ an ex-defence person then that person will come with baggage. But I'm here to tell the story that employing a veteran is good for your business. Employing a veteran gives them a new purpose in life. We reconnect them with the purpose that they had. Their ultimate purpose in life was to defend their country and look after their mates. The sooner we can connect them to a new job, family and profession the better. A purpose is absolutely paramount and fundamental when it comes to reconnecting our veterans to their futures. If we don't connect them to a purpose, then we've failed them. To businesses out there: do the right thing and employ a veteran, because it'll add to your bottom line—they'll do your business the world of good. They come with a set of skills that is unmatched: they're confident, they have a mission focus, they can identify problems, they work well in big teams and small teams, and they won't stop until they get the job done. If an obstacle is put in front of a veteran, they'll look for a way around it. They'll identify the problem, identify the route, move around it and continue on their mission, and that's what all businesses need. Businesses out there need to play a part in that transition process also.

We sometimes do not have too much to do with our friends in the military, from time to time. We're not regular in our friendship groups. But when you meet one of your mates who you knew 20 or 30 years ago who you served with, it's like you haven't been away. It's like you saw them yesterday. We need to work on a network by which we can reconnect our friends that we served with. I want them to also make new friends, because we need to take those veterans, their families and their friends on that journey. As far as I'm concerned, this transition is absolutely paramount.

Whilst I support the royal commission, the only reservation I have—and I've alluded to it during my words this morning—is that I want something for our veterans tomorrow. With a royal commission, it's going to take 18 months before we start to see any action. What happens to the digger that's contemplating that tomorrow, on the weekend or next month? All I say, in closing, is that, as well as this royal commission, I want something to protect our veterans and their families now.

12:04 pm

Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

It is now clear there is overwhelming support for a royal commission into the scourge and tragedy of veteran suicide. The motion that came before the Senate, the resolution before the chamber today, will be passed with decent. If our democracy means anything, the government should act upon these resolutions today and, without procrastination, call for a royal commission. It is what veterans and their families want. It's what hundreds of thousands of Australians want—they signed a petition to that effect. It's what many of the government's own MPs want.

Today we saw a rally, small in number but strong in intensity and in deliberation, asking, urging and pleading for the government to do the right thing and call for a royal commission. I want to thank Heston Russell, Julie-Anne Finney and Karen Bird, who I've spoken to many times. And I want to pay tribute to someone, not on my side of politics but who I consider to be almost on my side of politics: Senator Jacqui Lambie. I think you have done a fantastic job, with the productive and constructive way you've interacted with our office. Your advocacy in this place is exemplary. Thank you very much, Jacqui. You have been fantastic to work with.

We shouldn't have to get to a point where this resolution is before the chamber. The Prime Minister needs to do the right thing and give the grieving families of veterans the proper investigation, the royal commission, they want. The government has said they will carefully consider a resolution, but that's not good enough. The Leader of the Opposition said that's weasel words, and I agree. It's simply shifting responsibility. It's important for us to look at why we're here today. Suicide amongst veterans has caused more death in ADF personnel who served in overseas operational service in the last 20 years. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says there is one Defence personnel or veteran suicide every 2½ weeks; although, anecdotally advocates will tell you it's more. There have been at least 18 defence and veteran suicides in 2021, over the past three months—nearly twice that of the previous three months. And the suicide death toll amongst veterans is 32.5 per cent higher in 2021 than it was in 2020. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says that the suicide rate amongst serving defence personnel is less than half that of the wider Australian community. So, something's happening in the transition in how we're treating veterans after they've served our country.

Like the Leader of the Opposition, I want to pay tribute to those on both sides of the chamber who have served and those who are continuing to serve in war-like situations and peacekeeping operations and around the country. But lest anyone think this is a male-only thing, I will say that it is not. That data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that the rate of suicide amongst female veterans was 127 per cent higher than the rate of suicide amongst females in the general population. So, there's a lot of work to be done.

I pay tribute to the minister. We've had a bipartisan and constructive relationship. It was challenging and difficult for Labor to get to a point where we felt that we had to depart from the government on the issue of the national commission. We listened to people like Julie-Ann, Heston, Karen Bird and others. We had those interviews. We had those meetings. We listened to their voices. And the government didn't consult—the minister didn't consult me—when they announced the national commission. But we did consult the government and say, 'If you're going to have a national commissioner, you want to make sure that that person is as independent as possible.' We suggested something like a Federal Court judge or a Supreme Court judge—someone independent of the military.

We were really shocked and disappointed with the government when they appointed someone who had been a friend of the defence minister for 20 years and a brigadier. We felt that that wouldn't create the independence needed. We did not want a friend of the minister to investigate this. We also felt very much that that role really was a glorified federal coroner. We really looked at it, particularly in view of this fact: that the person would be plonked in the Attorney-General's Department and would be doing an interim review, within 12 months, of at least 400 suicides. Any coroner, anyone who's been involved in coronial inquests, will tell you that can't be done successfully or be given the kind of effort that's needed to actually examine what happened.

So, the government also didn't provide the independence, the resources or the scope. And of course the government says to us all the time that this is better than a royal commission. Well, it's not. It's not the same, and it's not better than a royal commission. Just because it's permanent and enduring doesn't make it stronger or better—and it's not. If you look at the way the government has seen that national commissioner operate, that person hasn't acted in a way that we expected they would. So, we got to a point where we of course sent this national commissioner bill off to a Senate inquiry. The Senate inquiry saw many, many submissions, from RSLs around the country and from individuals, advocates and people involved in mental health issues, and the feedback overwhelmingly was to oppose the bill. We felt very much that we were fortified in coming to that position last year. The government knew they didn't have the numbers and pulled the bill in December last year. The minister said in an interview in January, I think it was, that they were going to bring the bill back on. They haven't brought the bill back on, because it's friendless, because no-one on the crossbench will support it. We won't support it over.

So, we're left with—and this is what happened today—sending a message to the government that not just the community but the Senate and the House of Representatives and their own backbenches want a royal commission. If ever there was a moral authority for the government to listen to, it's what the Senate, elected by the Australian people, and the House of Representatives, elected by the Australian people, have to say. There will be not one voice of dissent from those opposite. They will support it. So, I say to the Prime Minister: don't shift, don't blame; take responsibility and call it today. And deal with the opposition and the crossbench, like Senator Lambie. Speak to her, speak to us, speak to the crossbench and make sure that this royal commission has the support of the whole of the House and the whole of the Senate. Listen to everyone. Have the meetings. Don't make the same mistake when you call the royal commission. Make sure the terms of reference are broad and cover a whole range of areas. Don't cut it off arbitrarily like the national commissioner role has done. Make sure it covers the whole sweep, and look forward to where we can go. I say to the minister: please respond to the Productivity Commission report that came out in the middle of 2019. Only 25 of the recommendations in that voluminous report have been responded to. Can the minister please do that?

I understand that they've done things when it comes to mental health issues. But they are not even complying with the waiting times on processing. They have outsourced, labour hired and privatised the Department of Veterans' Affairs to the point where the arbitrary cap on staffing has meant that people are in a position where they are frustrated, anxious, concerned and suffering from issues that relate to their mental health, because the Department of Veterans' Affairs is not responding adequately to the processing. They've got middle-ranking public servants who should be there, but they've labour hired and outsourced those people. We get it every Senate estimates; Senator Ayres asks question after question on this issue, at my request, and the government comes back with the same response. The secretary of the department, Liz Cosson—and I pay tribute to her—says the same thing again and again—that she wants to lift the staffing cap, but the government won't let her. So, Minister, win the battle in the cabinet. Make sure the resourcing is there for the department to deal with veterans in a professional, competent, caring and sensitive way. That's the way you deal with the issues there.

I say to the minister and the Prime Minister: listen to the Senate and the House of Representatives. Listen to the voices of people like Julie-Ann. Listen to the voice of Karen Bird. Listen to Heston and his mates. Do the right thing. Listen to Soldier On, who have come out in support of a royal commission. Listen to the RSLs in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, who all support a royal commission. Do the right thing, act on it and call for it today.

1:12 pm

Photo of Phillip ThompsonPhillip Thompson (Herbert, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm sorry. I'm sorry for what you have had to go through—the loss of a son. I'm sorry for every mother that has had to bury their son, for every family member who has had to bury a loved one and for mates who are beside themselves. All I can say is: I'm sorry.

I have all this paper to say how I feel, but I can't even read it. I want to talk to you, Julie-Ann. That's why we're here. I can't imagine the turmoil your life has had to go through, from the loss of your son, to coming to Canberra to meet with everyone, to working with Jacqui Lambie, Heston, Gav, me and those across the floor and on this side. And I wish Karen was here too. I love Karen Bird. She is the mother of Jesse Bird, who I served with, who I had the pleasure of living with, deploying with and fighting with. I take his death on my shoulders as my responsibility, even though it's not. The weight of the burden never goes away. The black hole in my heart, for my 10 mates who have died, is nowhere near the pain you must have been enduring this whole time. I'm sorry you've had to come all this way to sit in the chamber and listen to us speak again. That would only make you relive all these harsh times. I just wanted to say that to you.

I want to echo my mate Gavin Pearce's words, the member for Braddon. We argued about who was going to go first because I feel physically ill. I hate having to relive, re-talk everything. There is no weight off the soldiers standing at this dispatch box at all. Every day we have to live with the loss of our mates. Every day we have to live with the loss of people who have served. You have to live with the loss of your son. I think Gav did a really good job with such a tough—not a tough motion to talk about, not a tough royal commission or national commission to talk about, it's the talk about your loved ones. It's the talk about your friends. It's the talk about the member for Solomon's mates. It's the talk about not just the people who we represent in our electorates but the people who in my case I call brothers, my mates that've died, that's the bit.

I wasn't a senior officer in the Defence Force. I wasn't even a corporal. I was a private soldier. I'm not supposed to be in this place. My ilk doesn't come here. But I take my mates' voices—and some of them not so good, some of them troubled. I'm definitely not a saint either. I've done a lot of dumb things in my life. Every day I hear more of people that I know, people of my level, at the private level, who have died at their own hand.

When I was on operations in Afghanistan we accepted death. I didn't expect it or accept it when I came home. I didn't think that I would be going to funerals all the time. I didn't think that people who I called brother wouldn't reach out because their pain and the hole they were in was so dark. We've been there. I've been there. I spent years in that dark hole. My wife pulled me out of that hole and some good friends that gave me a good clip round the ear or a punch in the mouth. The hole was that dark that it felt like there was nothing else and that's why we're in support.

In my heart I think that—notwithstanding what we're talking about—an ongoing national commissioner can work. I don't believe that any level of government has done enough to stop all the suicides. It doesn't matter what colour shirt you wear. I couldn't care less. I really believe that. I will work with anyone. I don't care. I talk with Jacqui on the phone. I don't want to bury any more people. I don't want any more mums, fathers, brothers, sons and daughters to bury their family members. I don't want to get a phone call at 1 am saying, 'Your mate's died'. I don't want to have to call my wife and say the same thing either. The effect doesn't ever stop and the pain never will. We—when I say 'we' I am speaking of my veterans on this side of the House—are in support, and some of them sit here with me today. We'll support you. We will do what is right.

I will also be in support of the national commissioner—not just the royal commission but both. I think that is good ongoing. I don't want to get into a political point scoring thing. I think that's already kind of happened. I want to work with Shane, Darren, Stuey and Andrew. I'm not calling them by their seats and this will probably get me in trouble later. I don't know where their seats are and to be honest I don't care. I want to work with everyone—and Luke, and the former Minister for Defence, Joel, whose son is still serving. We all want to get to the same area and sometimes our roads are not going in the right direction. But they should.

On Wednesday or Thursday, when the motion was put into the Senate, I threw up. I threw up, not because I had to stand here and speak or because anyone was going to call me it was because I just felt it all in my stomach and in my heart. I spoke with the PM who, regardless of what anyone thinks, cares—he does. When I was in Townsville during the election campaign I got the phone call that Brad Carr had just died by suicide. I was standing next to the PM, and there were no cameras there—nothing. He put his arms around me and gave me a hug. He said: 'It's okay, you can go home. You don't need to do the rest of the day.' But I didn't, because I wanted to come to this place to be able to stand with my colleagues—with people who I don't always agree with, Jackie—to do the right thing for our veterans; to make sure that they and their families are best supported in the electorate. I think that the family advocate, with Gwen Cherne, is a fantastic idea because it's their voice that goes directly into changing how policy should be done.

I'm feeling a bit sick again, but I just wanted to say to you again, Julie-Ann, Karen Bird, Angela McKay and to everyone—the names just escape me—that I'm sorry you've had to come all this way and I'm sorry that this has happened. I support you and so do my colleagues. We support the motion; we're not opposing it at all and now we just need to put the wheels in motion and get things moving. On behalf of all the veterans, thank you, and on behalf of all my mates, thank you. But I'm sorry to all of them because we should not have to talk about suicides in our community. We will, and we must, do better. Thank you.

1:22 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

on indulgence—Just quickly, I've been talking to the acting Leader of the House. We're both very mindful of the fact that a number of additional people will want to speak about this and it's not a debate where I think it's fair to say that either of us want to feel it got cut short in any way. We did the sums as to whether or not it would be possible to suspend 90-second statements but we suspect that time wouldn't be enough anyway. It would be helpful for people to know that there's a level of goodwill for this debate to resume after question time once it gets suspended automatically at half past one.

No-one in the galleries should view that as meaning the debate is somehow lost. It will come straight back on after question time and will be dealt with and resolved today. I think that's a reasonable summation of the conversation.

1:23 pm

Photo of Peter DuttonPeter Dutton (Dickson, Liberal Party, Minister for Home Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

on indulgence—The words of the member opposite reflect our discussion. This is obviously an emotional debate and the contributions have been incredibly moving, and reflect well on those members who have provided their contributions so far. The debate will be interrupted at 1:30 for 90-second statements and then we'll move into question time. Off the back of question time, as the Manager of Opposition Business pointed out, there's agreement between both the government and the opposition that the debate will come back on. Those members who haven't been able to provide their contribution will be heard at that stage and then we'll move back to the program following that.

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

The member for Kennedy on a point of order?

Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Katter's Australian Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes. As I understand it the debate is still going until half past, so I have a chance to speak here before we close down and move on.

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

We are moving on, then, but the call is to the member for Gorton.

Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Katter's Australian Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That's not the nature of the agreement. Also, the crossbenchers have no say in this—

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

I am not privy to what agreements take place. That's between the parties, the crossbenchers and the government. The member for Gorton has the call.

Mr Katter interjecting

1:24 pm

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs (House)) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Kennedy will of course have an opportunity to contribute to this really important debate given the procedural agreement just made by the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business. I rise as the shadow defence minister and I haven't been in the portfolio for long. Only a few weeks ago I met Julianne Finney in my office. Many of you have met her and have known her longer than I have. That one meeting was all it took for me to understand not only the hurt, anguish and pain that she and many others like her have endured but also that it is critical that we move from the position of considering an independent commissioner to the position of considering a royal commission into veteran suicide. Nothing less will do. If you had any doubts, you need only listen to the member for Herbert, the member for Pearce or the member for Solomon. ADF personnel, who put themselves in harm's way with their colleagues, troops and comrades, are telling us we need to do better.

I believe the minister who rose to speak on this today has been doing the right thing. But the reality is that the bill before the Senate is not supported by the Senate. It is not seen as sufficient to truly and fundamentally examine the problems we are beset with in this area. As the member for Blair said, after leaving the defence force a person is nearly twice as likely to suicide than a person in the wider community. It is far more likely for a person to contemplate self-harm if they have left the defence force than it is for a person in the defence force. We need to get to the bottom of that. What is it that leads to this national tragedy, this national shame? Insufficient support? Our failure to provide assistance for the transition to a new life? A failure to find pathways into employment? Why are so many veterans homeless? So many veterans self-medicate, have family breakdowns and are not speaking to their family members because of the anguish, the hurt and the experiences they have confronted that we have not found a proper way to deal with.

It seems clear that the entire parliament agrees that a royal commission is necessary. I assume that nobody will rise in this place today and speak against the need for a royal commission. So the one question remaining is: what will the government do about it? The passing of this motion is very important—the bipartisanship nature of it, as the member for Kennedy said, across the spectrum. But it will amount to nothing if the government doesn't announce a royal commission, doesn't publicly release draft terms of reference, doesn't foreshadow the time lines that are required for a new examination of this absolutely critical matter, and doesn't ensure and make a commitment to responding properly and fairly to the recommendations of that royal commission.

This is a remarkable debate, one of the best I think we have seen for some time in this place, so compellingly argued by, in particular, ADF personnel. I want to pay tribute to Senator Lambie, who has been advocating in the other place on this issue for many months, if not longer, as she does on many defence issues. If this motion is passed today, it will amount to nothing if the Prime Minister does not indicate a royal commission is imminent, the terms of reference and the time lines.

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour. The member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.