By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
It is a long list to draw from but three of the Morrison government’s most notorious hallmarks are its collective tin ear, arrogance and policy hamfistedness. These traits, routinely exemplified by Prime Minister Scott Morrison himself, all came into play in the course of the government’s dogged refusal to hold a royal commission into veteran and defence suicides.
Despite the pleas of grieving families, veteran welfare activists and the grassroots veteran community, the government, and in particular the prime minister, point-blank rejected calls for a royal commission for reasons never adequately explained.
That changed in recent days in part thanks to a rare display of backbone by Coalition backbenchers no longer willing to overlook their leader’s inexplicable and heavy-handed recalcitrance on the issue of veteran suicides.
The government’s change of heart on a royal commission was all but assured last week when the Senate unanimously passed a motion calling on the government to establish a royal commission into the rate of suicide among current and former serving Australian Defence Force personnel.
The motion noted that “Australian Defence Force personnel have a suicide rate of less than half that of the wider Australian community while serving but nearly twice the rate of suicide after leaving the Australian Defence Force”.
Had the motion passed without Coalition support the Senate’s motion would have been imperiously dismissed by Morrison, but the fact that Coalition senators voted with Labor, the Greens and crossbenchers ensured that the momentum for a royal commission into veteran suicides was now unstoppable.
Scott Morrison remains a reluctant convert saying only that "We won't be opposing the motion", when the motion calling on the government to establish a royal commission was debated in the House of Representatives today [22 March].
Liberal MPs Gavin Pearce and Phil Thompson, both ADF veterans, spoke in favour of a royal commission.
"I don't want to bury any more people. I don't want any more mums, fathers, brothers, sons and daughters to bury their family members," said Thompson in an emotional speech. The MP revealed he had lost 10 former comrades to suicide.
Tireless campaigner for a royal commission
Watching in the public gallery was a tearful Julie-Ann Finney, a tireless campaigner for a royal commission, clutching a framed photo off her veteran son David, who died by suicide in 2019.
With several Coalition backbenchers indicating they were prepared to cross the floor to support the motion, and former Liberal and now independent MP Craig Kelly also indicating his support for a royal commission, Morrison had no choice but to wave through the motion.
The government remains free to ignore the call for a royal commission: the non-binding motion only amounts to a request, it was not a bill to create a royal commission.
But not even Morrison’s tin ear can miss this latest clarion call for a royal commission.
Ever stubborn, however, Morrison pointedly did not announce the creation of a royal commission following the House of Representatives vote, as many had hoped. Instead, he sought to justify his stance to date.
"We've always thought you need something better than, and more than, a royal commission," he told 2GB.
"What we need is a permanent arrangement and that's what we've put into the parliament."
That was a reference to the government’s preferred alternative to a royal commission, the creation of a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, to be housed within the Attorney-General’s department. The government introduced the legislation in August last year, with Attorney-General Christian Porter insisting that the national commissioner would have powers “broadly equivalent to a royal commission” but as a permanent office would be “continually vigilant when it comes to the care and wellbeing of our veterans”.
As Australian Veteran News observed at the time: “If there is merit in the creation of a permanent national commissioner then surely that office would be much better armed to tackle the problem with the findings of a royal commission behind it.”
Government’s trademark disdain
Despite misgivings in the veterans community about the independence and effectiveness of the proposed office, and indications that the enabling legislation faced defeat in the Senate, the government, with trademark disdain, appointed an interim commissioner, ACT magistrate and coroner Bernadette Boss, before the Senate had even considered the bill.
Presumably that was a gambit to force the Senate’s hand, but legislation creating the permanent office of the national commissioner was withdrawn in December after failing to secure support from Labor and the Senate crossbench. The interim commissioner now sits in legislative limbo.
But Scott Morrison has a plan. It may turn out to be a good plan, but its immediate objective is to salvage a measure of prime ministerial pride in the wake of his near-death experience in the House of Representatives.
"I'm sure these two things [the national commissioner and a royal commission] can come together and we can come to some agreement over the course of this week," Morrison told 2GB.
"Royal commissions are fine but they're only temporary, they're not a silver bullet. You need permanent arrangements and support to address the root causes of these issues and that's what we're committed to doing."
Morrison claims that "I want to do what's right for veterans”, but had he listened to veterans in the first place and not been so doggedly and irrationally opposed to a royal commission, his eleventh-hour epiphany of combining the benefits of a royal commission with a permanent national commissioner would have been well advanced by now. And he would have saved grieving families the anguish of having to wage a campaign for a royal commission.
Veterans’ Affairs Minister Darren Chester, who has previously supported Morrison’s refusal to hold a royal commission, is attempting to rewrite history as the government prepares to save face: "The prime minister himself has never ruled out a royal commission," Chester told parliament with breathtaking chutzpah.
Morrison’s caveat of “com[ing] to some agreement over the course of this week” is not without menace, but the battle for a royal commission appears to be won.
It is a rare case of community activism paying off. Julie-Ann Finney has done her son proud and the indefatigable Jacqui Lambie deserves credit for galvanising Senate support for a royal commission and for raising public awareness for an issue that had largely gone unnoticed outside the tight-knit veteran and defence community. Kudos also to Labor for not taking no for an answer. And with all due humility Australian Veteran News has played its part as well.
It is an even rarer case of the parliament exerting its authority over the executive. Perhaps it should not have taken as long as it did for Liberal MPs to slap down their stubborn prime minister, but what’s important is that when the opportunity presented itself they took it.
Against the odds, a royal commission into veteran suicides is in sight. Let’s believe it when we see it, but all up, a good result.
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.
If you or someone you know need support you can contact:
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
ADF All-hours Line (for current ADF personnel and their families): 1800 628 036.
Open Arms Veterans & Families Counselling (for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families): 1800 011 046