House debates

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Grievance Debate

Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide

4:50 pm

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

Labor welcomed the Morrison government's announcement on 19 April of this year of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide. It was about time. After all, veterans and their families and Labor have been calling for this since 2019. Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, we have lost more veterans to suicide than soldiers killed in combat, and the problem is not getting any better. The public consultation phase for the royal commission terms of reference concluded on 21 May. Labor was concerned about the short consultation period. There was a risk that many veterans would not have the opportunity to provide feedback and have their voices heard. Of course, many veterans simply didn't trust the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and the Department of Veterans' Affairs to lead the consultations, because both the minister and his department had been vehemently opposed to a royal commission for such a long time. The Department of Veterans' Affairs has been such a big problem in the issue.

For our part, in recent months, I and a number of my Labor colleagues have been getting out and about. We have done forums from Townsville to Tweed Heads—Tweed Heads with the member for Richmond—and the Blue Mountains as well as Adelaide and a number of other constituencies and places across the country. These included having a discussion with Julie-Ann Finney and the expert advisory panel which she chaired. Julie-Ann tragically lost her son, David, a veteran, to suicide a couple of years ago. To her credit, she formed an advisory committee, which she assembled to provide input on the government's consultation themes.

The strong feedback that Labor received, particularly me as the shadow minister, is that the royal commission can't adopt an individualised approach but needs to look at systemic issues. They include the role of the Department of Defence, DVA and ex-service organisations; the complexity of the legislation; the delays with the claims process; key transition issues from Defence to civilian life; the impacts of supports for Defence and veteran families; the impact of abuse in the ADF, including sexual assault of women and discrimination towards LGBTI personnel; previous reviews and reports, like the 2019 Productivity Commission report on veteran suicide support, which the government hasn't fully responded to; the impact of ADF anti-malaria drugs and prescribed medications; and the merits of alternative therapies, including medicinal cannabis, assistance dogs and art therapy. They are a number of the issues that we think the government should look at in the royal commission.

The government has failed to make access to DVA services faster and easier. Instead, it has presided over massive delays in claims processing, with a huge backlog of claims. It's no wonder that veterans are concerned. The dysfunction, delays and denials are evident in the Department of Veterans' Affairs. It has failed dismally in its commitment to make it easier and faster for veterans to access services. As a direct result of the government's misguided staffing cap, DVA is forced to rely on poorly trained labour hire workers to manage the workload, leading to dangerous waiting times and mental health crises for veterans trying to access support. We have seen labour hire rise to 42 per cent across the department and to 50 per cent in claims processing in recent years. It's not good enough. The issue needs to be addressed fairly and squarely by the royal commission.

For our part, an Anthony Albanese Labor government would commit to issues concerning veterans' homelessness and treat it seriously. The government has not addressed in the budget—and I made this point to the minister in consideration in detail—issues of veterans' homelessness. We think that should be looked at by the royal commission. Labor have committed $30 million, to be spent if we are elected, to housing and specialist services for veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness as part of the $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund.

There are issues in relation to female defence personnel and veterans. We're very upset with sexual abuse in the military, and this should be looked at as well. We've seen the incidence of sexual assault in the ADF at record levels, with 161 sexual assaults reported to military police in 2019-20. The latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures show that ex-servicewomen have a suicide rate twice that of the general female population, with a majority of female veterans who've suffered mental health conditions being victims of sexual abuse in the ADF. In recent months, there have been numerous reports in the media and elsewhere of female veterans who've experienced horrific sexual assault, bullying and discrimination in the ADF. On top of this, many women have reported a lack of support or victim blaming when they have reported it, issues that they believe have been swept under the carpet. Indeed, their perpetrators have been promoted. These issues have all been reported publicly, which is why we think it's very important that a royal commission is able to have public and private hearings.

Many veterans have told us they want a public platform to tell their stories. We think it's critical that the royal commissioners be independent of the military, independent of the ADF, and we have recommended to the government these people be senior or current judges with expertise in areas of evidence and be independent so there's integrity in terms of the personnel appointed. We believe it's critical also that the royal commissioners have power to make findings of civil or criminal wrongdoing about individual suicide cases and are able to refer to this to the appropriate authorities where the royal commissioners believe further investigation should be undertaken, with prosecution undertaken if necessary. We think it's crucial that the government have broad and strong terms of reference appointed in the royal commission. They should not be narrow in any way at all.

We on this side of the Chamber are also concerned about the government's persistency in wanting to pursue its flawed model of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention in tandem with the royal commission. The reality is many families of veterans do not want the proposed national commissioner legislation. It is stalled in the Senate. Labor, along with many in the veterans community, have said we're open to a permanent body to tackle this problem in relation to the implementation of a royal commission but only if it comes out of a royal commission. I note that the feedback given by the Department of Veterans' Affairs to the Attorney-General was that the community consultation undertaken by officers of the department and Minister for Veterans Affairs' makes it crystal clear that the national commissioner process should be discontinued by the government.

I want to raise another issue before I finish which I think is really important and the government has failed on—that is, the issue in respect of Afghan interpreters. It's absolutely critical that we do the right thing. We have a solemn duty to look after our veterans and their families, so we have a moral obligation to protect those who kept our defence personnel safe when they were deployed overseas. Labor, along with many defence experts and veterans, have called on the Morrison government to fast-track visas for all Afghan interpreters and their local staff following the announcement of our embassy closure and in light of the direct threats against their safety by the Taliban. We have a narrow window of opportunity, perhaps until mid-July, and the government needs to do more faster to help these people and their families by the time the last remaining troops leave Afghanistan in September.

During the recent Senate estimates, the foreign minister could not even give any assurances that these visas would be processed with any urgency whatsoever. This stands in stark contrast with plans by the USA, UK and coalition members to evacuate thousands of local staff to safety, with widespread troop withdrawals planned. We have a duty of care to Afghan nationals who were vital to Australia's operation over the last 20 years. We know these brothers in arms are facing real risk to their safety now and can't afford a year-long wait for a visa. Many veterans have said this issue is exacerbating their existing trauma because they see it as leaving their mates behind. This is not just a moral obligation; this is a strategic imperative for us as a nation, and it's in our national interest. Make no mistake: if we can't help those now then it sets a bad precedent. It will compromise our capacity in future conflicts and in peacekeeping operations to recruit local staff as interpreters.

Recent reports suggest that, after long waits, a small group of interpreters have had their visas approved and have been told to prepare for an evacuation flight later this month. But there are hundreds of interpreters and local staff seeking our protection. What's more, recently officials told Senate estimates that local staff would have to find 'commercial options' to get to Australia once their visas and exemptions were processed. It is simply not good enough. This is a government that touts its national security credentials every day of the week.

The government needs to act. We have a duty of care for these people. We have a duty to get them and their families out of Afghanistan and to Australia. We need to do the right thing. We need to get these people who have risked their lives for our defence personnel to Australia safely and to welcome them. As brothers and sisters in arms they helped our comrades in the Middle East and pursued their national interests aligned with our national interests. They deserve to be permanent residents in this country and become citizens of this country in due course.