Bernadette Boss appointment underscores weakness of Morrison’s RC-lite response to veteran suicides

By Leo D’Angelo Fisher

Prime Minister Scott Morrison contends that the reason he has failed to make good on his promise to establish a national integrity commission is that his government has had its hands full dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such wholehearted dedication to a single challenge might explain how the Morrison government has so utterly failed on the issue of defence and veteran suicide.

The defence community knows there is something seriously wrong, culturally and systemically, within the Australian Defence Force (ADF), the Department of Defence (DoD) and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) that is badly letting down serving personnel and the veteran community.

The government being ever so frightfully busy might explain how it came up with the half-baked office of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. The recent appointment of Dr Bernadette Boss as interim national commissioner was further illustration of how out of touch this government is on this vital issue. More on that later.

The idea that a government can only handle one policy task at a time – even when its most pressing challenge is as momentous as a once-in-a-century pandemic – is of course preposterous. It does not excuse the Morrison government’s inaction on a national integrity commission and it certainly cannot explain the government’s wholly inadequate response to crisis-levels of suicide among serving, and in particular ex-serving, ADF personnel.

As it happens, the government has made no such claim of distraction or impediment in relation to the creation of the national commissioner’s office. The Morrison government is in fact inordinately proud, not to say typically smug, about its ham-fisted and tin-eared creation.

The principal purpose of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, announced in February, was to side-step calls for a royal commission into veteran suicides by the veteran community, including the bereaved families of veterans who have taken their own lives.

The Morrison government’s mantra – parroted by Veterans’ Affairs Minister Darren Chester and Attorney-General Christian Porter, in whose department the national commissioner’s office sits – is that the commissioner will have powers “broadly equivalent to a royal commission”.

But there has been no explanation why the real thing was dismissed out of hand. The Morrison government felt it appropriate and necessary to appoint royal commissions into the disability sector, the aged-care sector and the Black Summer bushfires. There was no question of the RC-lite option in those cases. Similarly, as Treasurer in the Turnbull government, Scott Morrison presumably did not believe the appointment of a national commissioner was the way to go.

Morrison considers the ADF a sacred cow

Somehow, when it came to defence and veteran suicides the urgency for a royal commission was less compelling. Why is that the government’s view? We don’t know because it has been singularly unable to explain why a royal commission was not warranted.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Prime Minister, with his Boy’s Own reverence for the ADF, considers the military a sacred cow whose reputation must be protected at all costs. In this, the ADF leadership and the increasingly irrelevant RSL are complicit. More prosaically, Scott Morrison is in no hurry to face the political firestorm that a royal commission would ignite. We are already familiar with his reluctance to brandish a hose in harm’s way. This aversion obviously applies to figurative as well as actual fires.

According to the latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report on defence suicides, between 2001 and 2018 there were 465 certified deaths by suicide among serving and ex-serving ADF personnel: of this total, 267 (57%) occurred among ex-serving personnel. During this period, 36 deaths by suicide were women, 25 of whom were ex-serving personnel.

Between 2007 and 2018 the rate of suicide in ex-serving males who discharged on medical grounds was higher than in Australian males generally, while among those who discharged voluntarily it was similar.

The AIHW data is harrowing enough, but there are also the suicides we don’t know about, the suicide attempts that go undocumented and a legion of mentally anguished veterans who live with thoughts of suicide. The AIHW only presents the tip of this deathly iceberg.

The Morrison government would have us believe that a bureaucratic apparatus will unravel the history of institutionalised neglect, inertia and indifference that has devastated the lives of thousands of serving and ex-serving ADF personnel. The government proposes a bureaucratic solution to what is a bureaucratic failure – whether it’s the hidebound and secretive bureaucratic mindset of the ADF, or the bureaucratic toxicity of the DoD and especially the DVA.

Christian Porter coos that the national commissioner’s office 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”. The national commissioner will be “an enduring institution”, will make recommendations to the government about “actions and strategies” to prevent future suicides and will report to parliament once a year.

Self-interest and institutional collusion

Except that the national commissioner’s office is a creature of government. The government can misrepresent or undermine its findings and recommendations, or simply ignore them. It can decrease funding, sack the commissioner at will or sideline the office in any number of ways. What is politically done can be undone.

The first role of the national commissioner will be to conduct an Independent Review of Past Defence and Veteran Suicides, the government’s alternative to a royal commission.

The government’s RC-lite option lacks the gravitas and public standing of a royal commission. A royal commission would stand above the political fray, beholden to no one. Its findings would be beyond reproach and its recommendations would be ignored at the government’s peril.

A royal commission would also give the public – and the veteran community in particular – the confidence and assurance that there are no favourites or vested interests.

The veteran community is deeply suspicious that when the ADF investigates itself it is immediately compromised by self-interest, institutional collusion, prevailing cultures and a less than rigorous determination to arrive at the truth.

Which brings us back to the appointment of the interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. Why the government felt compelled to make this interim appointment is a mystery given that the Senate may yet reject the legislation to establish the office of the national commissioner.

But that appointment – announced by the Attorney-General on 30 September, mostly to the sound of crickets – confirmed the worst fears of the veteran community.

The appointee, ACT magistrate and coroner Bernadette Boss, was a legal officer in the Australian Army from 1996 to 2002 and until her resignation from the ADF on 28 September held the rank of Brigadier in the Army Reserve.

The integrity of Dr Boss is not at issue but her appointment again exposes the Morrison government’s tin ear on the issue of suicides in the ADF and veteran community.

What the veteran community did not want was an ADF “insider” looking into the institutional and cultural deficiencies of the ADF. While Dr Boss’s deliberate decision to resign from the ADF ahead of Christian Porter’s announcement was a commendable act of propriety the perception of her as an insider remains.

At the time of her appointment Dr Boss said it was an honour to be tasked with “addressing this important issue which is disproportionately impacting Australia’s defence and veteran community”.

“I know many families, serving and ex-serving ADF members and others who have been calling for action in response to these tragic deaths,” Dr Boss said.

But they have not simply called for “action”, they have called for a royal commission, in great part to ensure that an inquiry would be completely independent of the ADF.

In recent days Senator Jacqui Lambie, an indefatigable campaigner for a royal commission into veteran suicides, has caustically noted in a series of tweets that Dr Boss is Defence Minister Linda Reynold’s “best mate” of 20 years’ standing and that the minister “personally recommended” her for the appointment.

Regardless of the exact circumstances of the friendship – revealed in Senate Estimates hearings this week – the perception of a conflict of interest stinks to high heaven. It is precisely such concerns about the ADF fraternity investigating itself that throws the independence of the national commissioner’s office into doubt.

It is not too late for a royal commission and Senator Lambie vows that the national commissioner’s office is dead in the water and that a royal commission will yet happen. Let’s hope Dr Boss left the ACT magistrates court on good terms.

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

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