By Shayne Neumann MP
Australian veterans and defence personnel should be under no illusions that Barnaby Joyce’s reshuffle of the Nationals frontbench was about better serving their interests. Make no mistake, it was all about political payback and rewarding his supporters.
Andrew Gee, the new Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel, is the sixth veterans’ affairs minister in eight years under the Liberal-National government.
Such a high level of turnover simply highlights that this portfolio is not a priority for the Morrison government and that they are taking our current and ex-service men and women for granted.
While Darren Chester was hardly a policy innovator or departmental reformer, it’s not clear if Gee has any particular interest or experience in the portfolio.
What is clear is that he has a huge job ahead of him and is inheriting a veteran support system that is broken and not fit-for-purpose.
Firstly, Gee needs to fix the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) and end the culture of delay, denial and dysfunction within the department.
The government has presided over a huge blowout in wait times and a backlog of compensation claims, which has led to dangerous delays and a mental health crisis for veterans trying to access support.
This is all because of a misguided public service staffing cap that has forced DVA to rely on record levels of labour-hire workers to manage its workload.
Secondly, the new minister will need to oversee the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.
The royal commission is something the government was dragged kicking and screaming to after veterans, their families and Labor had been calling for it since at least 2019.
During the public consultation phase for the royal commission, Labor colleagues and I consulted widely with veterans and their families, ex-service organisations in our electorates and experts and other stakeholders across the country.
This included meeting with Julie-Ann Finney, who tragically lost her veteran son David to suicide two years ago, and an advisory committee she assembled to provide input on the government’s consultation themes.
The strong feedback we received from them and others was that the royal commission can’t just take an individualised approach but needs to look at a range of systemic issues, including:
The role of institutions like Defence, DVA and ex-service organisations.
The complexity of veterans’ legislation and long delays with compensation claims.
Transition issues like veteran employment and homelessness.
The role of, impacts on and support 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 inquiries such as the 2019 Productivity Commission report on the veteran support system.
The impact of ADF anti-malarial drugs and prescribed medications.
The merits of alternative therapies such as medicinal cannabis, assistance dogs and art therapy.
On top of this, Labor has called for the royal commission to hold both public and private hearings as many veterans and families have told us they want to have a public platform to tell their stories.
Labor also believes it is critical that the royal commissioners have the powers to make findings of civil or criminal wrongdoing, and about individual suicides, and be able to refer these to the appropriate authorities, such as the police or public prosecutors, for action.
The commissioners appointed must be of the right standing and be independent from the ADF in order to ensure trust and confidence in this process – current or former senior judges, for example.
Labor along with Julie-Ann Finney and her expert committee put forward some recommendations for suitable candidates that we think the government should take on board.
At the same time, Labor and many veterans have serious concerns about the government’s proposal for the flawed National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention to operate in tandem with the royal commission.
We are open to the idea of a permanent body to implement the recommendations of the royal commission, but only if this is a recommendation coming out of it.
Labor provided all of this feedback as part of a comprehensive submission to the government to inform the royal commission terms of reference based on our consultations over many months.
It’s now up to Andrew Gee to take this feedback on board and work with Attorney-General Michaelia Cash to come up with strong and broad terms of reference, and ensure that the voices of veterans and their families are heard.
The new minister needs to get this right. He can’t afford for this to be another whitewash or political fix.
This royal commission is a one-in-100-year opportunity to fix our broken veteran support system – to identify problems and solutions, listen to the ideas of veterans, defence personnel and others, and implement changes that will save lives.
Labor wants to work with the government to ensure this process delivers enforceable recommendations that will prevent these tragic deaths from happening in the future.
But for this to happen, we are going to need a lot less navel gazing and infighting within the government, and more leadership and focus on the needs of our veterans and defence personnel.
Shayne Neumann is the federal Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel.