By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
The federal Opposition has stepped up its criticism of the Morrison government for its refusal to call a royal commission into veteran suicides.
Speaking in the Senate on Tuesday night (2 February), Senator Raff Ciccone described the rate of suicide among veterans as a national tragedy.
“Australia has lost more Defence Force personnel to suicide than we have lost on the front line,” the senator said.
“It is a national tragedy and it's a national tragedy that this government is failing to act upon.”
Ciccone, Labor senator for Victoria and the deputy Opposition whip in the Senate, referred to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data showing that the rate of suicide among male veterans is 21 per cent higher than it is for the general male population while for ex-serving women the rate of suicide is twice as high as it is for the general female population.
“For every veteran who has died there are families left behind who are grieving,” Ciccone said in an emotional speech.
“For years now, veterans and their advocates have been raising with the Australian government concerns about the level of suicides. People have shared their stories about the sons and daughters that they have lost, and they have asked for a royal commission.”
Ciccone described the Coalition’s alternative to a royal commission, the widely panned National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, as “flawed and inadequate”.
The proposed office of the national commissioner, announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in February last year, has been in limbo ever since.
Attorney-General Christian Porter introduced legislation for the creation of the national commissioner in August. At the time he attempted to explain why the national commissioner was “broadly equivalent to a royal commission” but better.
“[U]nlike royal commissions which examine issues at a fixed point in time, the national commissioner will be a permanent office that can continually monitor the implementation of its own recommendations to ensure long-term solutions are delivered, while also being able to examine new issues which may arise over time,” Porter said.
"The national commissioner will be truly independent and deliver genuine transparency as it helps to uncover the root causes and contributing factors in ADF-member and veteran deaths by suicide."
Facing certain defeat in the Senate, in December the Attorney-General, in whose department the proposed office would be housed, announced a series of 23 amendments aimed at “further reinforc[ing] the independence of the national commissioner”.
“The Morrison government has listened to families and veterans' groups and agreed to further strengthen the design of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention,” Porter said of the amendments.
But critics of the two enabling bills argued that the prime minister was not listening at all: families and veteran groups believed the proposed national commissioner, with or without amendments, was a poor substitute for a royal commission.
Shadow minister for Veterans’ Affairs Shayne Neumann said the amendments “do nothing to address the fundamental flaws” with the legislation and derided them as “window dressing”.
“They do nothing to boost the independence or resources of the national commissioner or come anywhere close to the powers of a royal commission into veteran suicide,” Neumann said.
“All these proposed changes do is clarify what is already there in the current bills.”
Crossbench senator Jacqui Lambie, who served in the Army for 11 years prior to entering Parliament, described the national commissioner position as “a dog’s breakfast”.
Lambie has been scathing of the government’s refusal to appoint a royal commission, and especially of its alternative, as she told Australian Veteran News last year.
“It’s not a royal-bloody-commission,” Lambie told AVN in anticipation of voting against the national commissioner legislation.
“It’s just excuse after excuse why they won’t have a royal commission.”
Labor and crossbench resolve to defeat the government’s legislation held, striking a bitter blow to Porter in his bid to attract the necessary votes to establish the national commissioner role.
Despite that political humiliation always being on the cards, in September the government appointed ACT magistrate Bernadette Boss as interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention.
If the move was intended to force the Senate’s hand it failed miserably.
Senator Ciccone was unsparing in his criticism of the Morrison government over its handling of calls for a royal commission and signalled that the Opposition would continue to oppose the permanent creation of the national commissioner.
“The Prime Minister said that the national commissioner would be bigger and better than a royal commission, but it turned out to be nothing more than an empty promise,” Ciccone said in his Senate speech.
“The government offered less than half the resources that would be allocated to a royal commission—less funding, fewer staff and less power. Now veterans and their families will be forced to wait even longer for answers as the Coalition government has withdrawn its national commissioner legislation.”
Ciccone told the Senate that he had personally received requests for a royal commission from veterans, advocates and bereaved families,
“I've had so many people call my office and share their stories of losing loved ones, sadly, to suicide, especially those in the veteran community, who have served our nation with great distinction,” he said.
“They have come to this place here in Canberra. They have stood on the lawns of Parliament House, directly above this chamber. They have shed tears under the roof of this building. They have asked us, as representatives of the community, to prevent any further loss of life.”
Ciccone said those pleas had gone unanswered, describing the government’s continued opposition to a royal commission into veteran suicides as “just another example of this government's failure to act”.
The government has yet to indicate its intentions for the future of the enabling legislation and the future of the interim national commissioner.
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.