National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill 2020


Peter Khalil: I rise to speak on the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill. Like many of the previous speakers, and in agreement and accordance with them, I believe that this is such an important issue for all of us and for the nation and that it is one that deserves our full attention. As our shadow minister, the member for Blair, said earlier, too little has been done on this historically. That is a big part of why we have been calling for a royal commission into veterans’ suicides and why we joined in the chorus of calls from veterans and the families of veterans in support of a royal commission. I don’t think that is necessarily playing politics, as the previous speaker, the member for Fisher, said. It is an acknowledgement and recognition of how important this issue is and of the need to deal with it. That is what we’re debating today, what the government has proposed in this bill.

Much of the work around this issue has been done by veterans, some of them in this chamber, including the member for Solomon on our side and members on the government benches who also have served. I acknowledge their work on this. The member for Solomon has done a lot of work, calling for a royal commission publicly, and has rightly pointed out that it is an urgent moral imperative that we call for one, because, in a historical sense, nothing else has worked. Despite the clear consensus from stakeholder groups, from veterans themselves and from the broader public, the government has gone a different way, and that’s what we’re debating with respect to this bill today.

Labor cautiously welcomed the announcement in February of the new National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, believing it to be a step forward. We didn’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It was about being bipartisan on this issue so as to get the outcomes that were needed in respect of veterans and their families. Since then, Labor along with many veterans and families of veterans, such as Julie-Ann Finney, have become increasingly concerned that the national commissioner won’t be better than a royal commissioner, as the government has claimed. It has become clear that the government has a lot of work to do to convince not only themselves but also the broader public that they are genuine in wanting to tackle this issue. In saying that, I don’t deny the genuine motivation of speakers on the government benches. There is a genuine motivation there to address this issue. What we’re debating is really the substance of the bill and whether that achieves what we all want to see in getting outcomes that are necessary.

In a sense I say, and I plead with the government, that this cannot simply be just another marketing exercise. The government knows this and many of its speakers know this. As much as we’ve been critical of the government in the past for the way it has conducted the politics around various bills and legislation, we do believe that a royal commission would be substantially better. There are clear-cut arguments around that, some of which we’ve heard. We are concerned that the government’s national commission won’t or can’t accomplish what a royal commission would be able to accomplish, because it simply won’t have the resources and the independence from government to ask the really hard questions. We know that only a royal commission would have the unambiguous powers to hold public hearings and the ability to summon witnesses, to compel the production of evidence, to pursue disciplinary proceedings, to refer charges of criminal or official misconduct to appropriate authorities and to make recommendations for compensation. Only a full royal commission with clear start and end dates will achieve this and will shine the light where it needs to be shone. Otherwise the national commissioner runs the risk of being little more than a federal coroner in that kind of role. We know only a royal commission will provide the much-needed closure, healing and restorative justice to the Defence and veteran community. We have seen this in other areas in public life, whether it be in mental health, child sexual abuse, aged care or disability services.

The royal commission would allow us to really listen to the community—listen to the parents and families of veterans who have suffered with their children—and assure them in a public way that we are doing everything possible to prevent these tragic deaths from happening in the future. This is so important. It’s so important, because from 2001 to 2019 there were 419 suicides of serving, reserve and ex-serving ADF personnel—those who have served since 2001. We lose one veteran a week by suicide.

According to research by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, in a 12-month period 5,800 ex-serving men and women are homeless. These are the men and women who serve our country. We spend so much time acknowledging, celebrating, noting and putting up for the public to see the great sacrifice and service that they give out country, and yet we have almost 6,000 ex-servicemen and women who are homeless. This rate is significantly higher than for all Australians. These numbers don’t speak to the individual human stories behind them. They’re statistics, yes, but there are stories of people who are suffering now and who are vulnerable to all of the risk factors that lead a person to suicide.

I have some idea of the turmoil that veterans go through. I’ve seen it firsthand. I have worked closely with ADF personnel throughout my working life. I have called, and still do call, many friends. I was posted to Iraq in 2003 and 2004 by the Department of Defence to work on national security issues, and I worked alongside many of our finest ADF personnel, including the former member Colonel Mike Kelly, and many others. When you work with ADF personnel, particularly in operational theatres, you see firsthand that there are real psychological impacts of the work that they do when they are in conflict and when they are in those war zones, in those theatres, with the stressors, the pressures, the psychological impacts and the physical impacts. You see the scars that it leaves on so many ADF personnel, because they are on the frontline.

A lot of people talk about the ‘frontline’. We use that word a lot, but the serving ADF men and women of Australia make a significant, special sacrifice in that their job is one where they’re putting their lives on the frontline, literally, for the defence of this nation. That is something special. It’s something we, quite rightly, highlight on many occasions, drawing attention to that special sacrifice. It’s significant, and, because it is that significant, it carries with it great risks to their health—not just their physical health but their mental health.

For many of us, when we left Iraq, both serving uniformed personnel and other, we got army psychologists to do an exit interview with us, which is, in many respects, the beginning and is important. Many of the effects of being in a war zone, an operational theatre, are long lasting. From talking to a lot of the vets that I knew in Iraq and who served in Iraq at the time, I know about the difficulty that they find in coming back to a normal life. I suspect it is the same—and I have spoken to many—for those who have served on multiple tours in Afghanistan or in East Timor. I recall the difficulty in coming back into what is a normal or civilian life, especially after being discharged. For many months, on my return, I recall trying not to jump the cover every time I heard a door slam or a car backfire. Just walking down a crowded street was difficult. There is a lot of hypersensitivity and it’s hard to adjust back to what most people would consider to be a normal life. As the previous speaker mentioned, after leaving that unit—that ‘tribe’ as it was described—it’s a very difficult transition. I remember in my exit interview I said to the Army psychologist, ‘I don’t really need this; there are a lot more uniformed ADF personnel who’ve had it much tougher.’ But she told me something really important, and I think it applies to ADF personnel across the board: everyone has their own experience in those theatres. Everyone has specific experiences that are particular to them, and these things can affect people in very, very different ways, and that needs to be dealt with. You can’t just sweep that under the rug. Because if you don’t address those issues that emanate from very extreme, abnormal experiences—being in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever in a war zone or in a theatre of operation is just not normal—those experiences can be exacerbated to the extent that they have impacts which make really significant ongoing problems, particularly for veterans trying to transition back into normal life.

And many veterans have difficulty talking about those experiences. The RSLs are still there for vets to meet and have a beer and maybe talk to someone who can understand them. I’m worried, too, that many of the younger veterans, particularly from the more recent campaigns, are probably not going to places like that as much as older veterans are from previous conflicts, like the Vietnam vets. They’re just starting to come in and spend time at the various sub-branches. I know it’s a small thing, but that ability to just talk to someone who understands you is of great significance, because those types of extreme experiences haunt a person throughout the rest of their life.

I remember we were working on training the Iraqi Army during that period in 2003 and 2004, and the ADF played a really critical role in training the new Iraqi Army. We had an interpreter there, Ali, who has half Sunni and half Shiite, and he worked with a lot of us and did the work there as part of a team. He was so excited that the Australians were training an Iraqi Army that did not see the difference between Sunni or Shiite or Kurd, and there was a vision for a security force and a defence force that went beyond the sectarian differences and the ethnic differences. That’s what Australia was doing: training that new army and creating that new esprit de corps. And Ali lost his life. He was beheaded by al-Qaeda in Iraq, because he worked with Australian forces and coalition forces. I still struggle with that memory, because he worked so closely with us. The ADF personnel who worked with him would probably think about him a lot as well, because he made sacrifices to work with ADF forces and coalition forces to do something—to make a better future for his own country. These are some of the experiences, even of people that you know have suffered, that linger with you and stay with you over the years. Sometimes people are overcome by that. Some veterans can’t deal with that, and we see the tragedy that occurs when those experiences can’t be addressed.

We know that the devil is going to be in the detail of the bill. We will study the legislation that is being introduced, and we have referred the bill to a Senate inquiry to allow proper scrutiny as well. We think it’s important to further consult with stakeholders and scrutinise as thoroughly as possible, to see if—as is claimed by some of the previous speakers—the powers within this bill for the national commission will have the same powers as a royal commission. We’re saying that, clearly, a royal commission would be better, given all the arguments around the importance of the powers of a royal commission. It’s important that we get this right. It’s not about playing politics; it’s about trying to get the best possible response to what is a significant problem that exists. We believe that this can be addressed through a comprehensive inquiry. For our veterans, our men and women who are currently serving and those who have served and come back into civilian life, with the sacrifices they have made and the impacts on their mental and physical health, the onus is on us to look after them. We need to recognise that they made the decision to do that job. We need to honour their sacrifice and service not just by words but by the substantive policy that we are debating today to make sure that when they return home they have the full support, services and resources they need to have a successful life for the rest of their lives. As a society, we should not just honour our veterans on Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and other occasions. We should honour them in what we do today in this debate. We should honour them fully by doing everything we can to prevent the terrible scourge of suicide and the risks they face. That’s what this bill should be about and that’s why we are doing what we are doing.