In my first speech upon entering the Senate, I named the support we give to Defence Force veterans as one of my top priorities. Of our servicemen and women, past and present, I said “To me, they represent everything that is good about Australia because they are Australian. I dedicate my efforts in this house to them”. These are not just words to me, and I have acted in accordance with these sentiments in all my dealings in the Senate and my personal dealings with individual veterans.
As a Senator and as a veteran, I have been closely following the development and progress of legislation to establish an independent National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention – a topic on which I have commented in recent days in the media. Although the Bill has passed the House, it was opposed in the Senate. These delays are highly disappointing, although their impact is somewhat mitigated by the Government’s appointment of an interim National Commissioner to “get on with the job”.
Some opponents of this Bill cite personal objections to the choice of interim National Commissioner (a matter unrelated to the Bill itself), a desire to expand an inquiry into many wider areas where individuals have been personally adversely impacted by Defence or DVA over many years, as well as the belief that a Royal Commission would be better for veterans than an ongoing National Commissioner.
I understand the emotion behind every issue of individual treatment that has occurred over many years in Defence and DVA, organizations which are far, far from perfect but which have improved over time. However, the issue before the Senate in the immediate future concerns suicide and its many causes and solutions.
I also respectfully suggest that those who for any reason are concerned over the person of the Interim Commissioner should separate that issue from the examination into suicide in this legislation.
From an examination of the respective powers of a Royal Commission and this National Commission, I disagree strongly with the view that a Royal Commissioner is better for veterans, and believe the proposed legislation’s approach to be in the best interests of our veteran community.
So having examined the Bill in detail, the reasons why I support this Bill, rather than a Royal Commission, are as follows:
- The Bill establishes a permanent National Commissioner as an independent, statutory office-holder. Its powers have been closely modeled on the equivalent powers of a Royal Commission, including powers to compel witnesses to give evidence – yet its scope is unbounded by time. The Commissioner can commence inquiries at any time, considering any past Defence member or veteran death by suicide, or attempt at suicide. In this way, it has a broader, and more permanent remit than a Royal Commission.
- Like a Royal Commission, the National Commissioner can make findings or recommendations, including identifying any policy, legislative, administrative or structure reforms that may be required. However, unlike a Royal Commission, which issues a final report then is disbanded, the National Commissioner has an ongoing role in monitoring the implementation of its recommendations. Under the legislation, the Commissioner also has a direct line to the Prime Minister and Attorney-General, if it considers that any Government Department or Agency is not taking appropriate action in response to a Commissioner’s report.
- Some argue that only a Royal Commission can deliver a transparent and independent examination of these issues. Having read the proposed legislation, I disagree. The Bill requires that hearings be held in public and recorded (except in limited circumstances, such as when personal and private information is being disclosed). Annual Reports, and additional reports which the Commissioner may prepare, are required to be tabled in Parliament and published. Provision is made to secure the independence of the Commissioner and staff from government or other influence, and the Commissioner would also be personally subject to disclosure of interest obligations. Overall, the Bill ensures that the National Commissioner’s independence, transparency and impartiality is legally entrenched.
Every suicide is tragic, and when these tragedies touch our Defence family there is an extra sense of loss. ADF members with whom I served have been affected by suicide, and I recognise that this is an emotional topic. However, in advocating for the best interests of veterans in my role as a Senator, I am guided by facts, not emotions, and by a desire to see what is best for the veteran community.
I encourage all those with an interest in this issue to read the detail of the proposed legislation and the Explanatory Memorandum at https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2020B00109. I welcome a discussion with anyone who, having considered the measures being proposed, believes that there is an alternative or better way to address this devastating problem. This is an issue on which government, and I personally, will continue to heavily engage.
Defence Force and veteran suicide is, sadly, an ongoing issue. We need a permanent framework and action to address it, not a once-off Royal Commission and recommendations.
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. There is also an anonymous online chat service available between 8pm and 4am AEST at Lifeline.org.au, or visit Beyond Blue’s website.
If you are a veteran looking for counselling or support services from Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling, contact them on 1800 011 046 for confidential 24-hour counselling service.