Oct 21, 2020

BILLS – National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill 2020, National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2020 – Second Reading – Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (10:23): Official figures show that 33 serving personnel or veterans took their lives in 2018. Those same official statistics show 465 Australians who had worn our uniform or were still wearing our uniform took their lives between 2001 and 2018. If anything, those statistics underestimate the real figure—of that we can be certain. They are minimum figures. That’s why this debate is so important, behind this legislation to create a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, something that was announced by the Prime Minister earlier this year. It was announced after a concerted campaign by the families of veterans, supported very strongly by media outlets, including the Daily Telegraph in my city of Sydney. It was a government responding, belatedly, to public pressure, but it was also a government which, once again, had an inadequate response.


When the government made the announcement, they implied that this was what the community were campaigning for. Indeed, they contacted advocates like Julie-Ann Finney and told her that that was the case. In this government’s style—prioritising media advertising and spin—they implied that this was what they were calling for. The reason my colleague the member for Blair has moved an amendment to this legislation is that the response of those advocates, many of whom have been grieving loved ones for a long period of time, was support when they got the call from the Prime Minister’s office, going to confusion when they first looked at the detail, to anger when they actually looked at the substance of what this government was proposing, as included in this bill.


We should be discussing here the process of the royal commission—a royal commission that was required to get to the bottom of so many issues. We have royal commissions at the moment into aged care and into disability care. They are very much issues that we on this side of the chamber support and have called for. But we also made the considered decision—the considered decision—to call for a royal commission into veteran suicides. When you are losing more men and women to suicide than you are losing on the field of battle, that is something that requires a response. When you are losing many more times that, then it absolutely demands a response, and it demands the strongest response. It demands a royal commission. That’s what Julie-Ann Finney and veterans organisations have called for. That’s why the shadow minister and people like the member for Solomon and others with that experience advised me very strongly that this was something that we should call for, and we didn’t call for it lightly. I was convinced by them but also by the families. Julie-Ann Finney is a very strong advocate, a strong and proud woman from Adelaide who has campaigned so strongly because of her loss, her lack of understanding of the details of what happened with the loss of her son. And families are entitled to get those answers and to have that detailed examination that only a royal commission can bring. But of course it isn’t just about analysing the past, as important as that is. It’s because if we don’t understand how we got to these circumstances we will have no hope of moving forward in the future. This is not an academic exercise we are seeking here. This is an exercise in giving the respect that those who bravely serve us in uniform deserve and that their families deserve. It’s about honouring them.


A royal commission wouldn’t exclude the possibility of a bill such as this, but it would avoid the contortions that are involved in the appointment of an interim national commissioner before this legislation has even been adopted. We have grave doubts about the independence of the interim commissioner and whether she will be able to answer the questions it is so important that we answer. We’re discussing a bill that does not enjoy the support of the entire veteran community, including those whose loved ones have been a part of the terrible tragedy of suicide. We must listen carefully to the families who have lost veteran sons and daughters and ensure that the legislation which is ultimately adopted is owned and trusted by all. That is why we’ll give consideration to the Senate processes that will be established, before we determine a final position on this legislation.


I don’t understand, frankly, why the Prime Minister didn’t just adopt a position of support for a royal commission. I don’t get it. I know that there are advocates on both sides. The member for Herbert, I know, has been very engaged on these issues as well. He is very sincere in his advocacy for families, and he’s here in the chamber for this debate. But with this Prime Minister it seems that if there’s a proposal or an idea from anyone but him then it’s a bad idea. He can’t just embrace the ideas and the capacity of this parliament, let alone the capacity of the great Australian nation.


We’ve seen this sort of process before. It’s like you want to get to the end of a road but you’ve got to go down every cul-de-sac to get there. We saw it with Teddy Sheean. We had an independent recommendation that he be given a VC, and that was rejected by the Prime Minister and rejected by the defence minister. The campaign went on, with a broad consensus from anyone who looked at the extraordinary contribution of this brave 18-year-old Tasmanian who went to his certain death as a conscious decision to save others who were in the water, tying himself to a gun to shoot at those Japanese fighter planes. Then there was a review of the review to do what everyone knew was going to be the end point, but it was at a cost of $90,000, at a cost of delay and at a cost of making it a political issue when it shouldn’t have been.


I predict a similar path here. I say that there will be a royal commission. There will be a royal commission formed by an incoming Labor government if this government doesn’t do it this term. It requires nothing less. This Prime Minister just seems incapable of doing anything other than looking for a detour. Just like the Teddy Sheean issue, this proposal before us today has the Prime Minister’s fingerprints all over it. There are reports that the Prime Minister found the idea of a royal commission into veteran suicide too unpalatable and that he wanted to put a more positive spin on the issue rather than get to the heart of why we have this absolute crisis.


You only have to look at the testimony of Departments of Veterans’ Affairs officials at Senate estimates earlier this year. They revealed that, despite the groundswell of support for a royal commission into veteran suicide, the government was determined to avoid one at all costs. It’s pretty clear that the government wanted to avoid the cost of a royal commission in favour of a cheaper in-house approach, which is what this legislation is before us today. But for a government that’s racked up $1 trillion of debt—racked up $98 billion of new spending with no saves, except for the Australian National Audit Office, which was cut in the budget of this month for doing its job—to be concerned about the difference of an in-house operation and a royal commission just shows a complete lack of priorities. This will deny justice that has been called for, from the families of veterans. The problem is that, because this was announced in its usual style—a front page splash with no-one told in advance and no comments sought except for supportive ones—it breaks down the trust that’s there. I directly sat down with family members, as has the member for Blair, our shadow minister on this. It is unfortunate that that trust has been broken down so much, because people like Julie-Ann Finney show such quiet dignity in the way they’ve gone about these issues.


The government has been in such a hurry to avoid a royal commission that the national commissioner was to be appointed even before there was legislation. It’s just extraordinary. It’s unwise. We will, therefore, subject this legislation to the scrutiny that is required. I am very disappointed that we don’t have a bipartisan position on this. I accept that everyone would consider that one loss is one loss too many. We do need to listen to the families of these veterans who’ve lost their lives, and these families are saying they want, and in my view they deserve, a royal commission—nothing less.