By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
It was not Darren Chester’s finest hour as he struggled on live television to explain to the mother of a veteran who had died by suicide why the Morrison government has unaccountably refused to hold a royal commission into veteran suicides.
The occasion was this week’s QandA program on the ABC; the mother, angry, composed and courageous beyond all human understanding, was Julie-Anne Finney; and Darren Chester was the hapless federal Veterans’ Affairs minister who took a bullet for Prime Minister Scott Morrison who has been immovable in his opposition to a royal commission.
Morrison has never been able to explain his refusal to hold a royal commission into veteran suicides. Instead he opted for the creation of a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, which he insists is as good as a royal commission, and which of course invites the rejoinder: so why not a royal commission in the first place?
It seems counter-intuitive that a prime minister with an almost child-like veneration of Australia’s military should not wish to get to the bottom of the systemic failures causing hundreds of veterans to take their own lives.
But it’s precisely because of his overwrought devotion to the men and women of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) that Morrison considers it his duty to protect the reputation and standing of Australia’s military; that no good can come of shining a light into the darkest recesses of the ADF and government itself. What amounts to a cover-up has the active support of Australia’s military leadership and service organisations such as the RSL, both of which should be screaming for a royal commission.
The Morrison government’s decision to create a new bureaucratic apparatus to deal with veteran suicides was a rebuff to bereaved families and veteran groups that had long pleaded for a royal commission. It was also a blatantly political decision.
A royal commission would pose not only a reputational risk to the ADF it would also present the government with a political minefield. Nothing about this decision was about the best interests of veterans. It was only ever about the best interests of the Morrison government and the sensitivities of the military establishment.
On Monday night, Darren Chester demonstrated that he was woefully at a loss to explain the Morrison government’s aversion to a royal commission.
As ministerial performances go, it was a shocker. We shouldn’t doubt that Chester genuinely cares about veteran suicides, but in seeking to defend the intransigence of his boss, he came across as patronising, tin-eared and insensitive.
Chester was asked a question by Julie-Anne Finney, the mother of David Finney, a former Royal Australian Navy officer, medically discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder, who took his own life in 2019. Since her son’s death, Julie-Anne has campaigned for a royal commission into veteran suicides.
Arguing that “current solutions are not working, current legislation’s not working and the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide [Prevention] does not go far enough”, Julie-Anne reiterated the need to “investigate what has gone wrong so that current veterans can have wellbeing, accountability and justice”.
“What is it that your government is afraid of in having a royal commission into past suicides?”
Chester’s response to a powerful question was mealy-mouthed.
“For the vast majority of men and women who serve in the Australian Defence Force it is the proudest moment of their life,” he explained.
“For the majority of them they transition well [to civilian life] with those skills of leadership and resilience and team-work and problem-solving, but for some, and it is only some, they have physical or mental health issues which demand our support.”
“It is only some”? What the hell does that mean? Those “only some” are subject to enormous and very context-specific threats to their wellbeing; some die by suicide when they can endure no more, many more live in their own private hell. Their situation is magnified by the institutional indifference and arrogance of the ADF and the incompetence and bureaucratic heavy-handedness of Chester’s own department.
That’s why a royal commission is needed: these are specific issues – and shortcomings – that have been allowed to fester over decades and which continue to hang over veterans and their families.
Chester was unconvincing as he sought to defend the Morrison government’s creation of “a new independent agency [with] the capacity, the same powers as a royal commission”, which he described as “an enduring legacy to these poor souls who somehow lost hope, who somehow didn’t have the support when they needed it”.
The “somehow” is what a royal commission would get to the bottom of. That would be a far more fitting tribute to the “poor souls” he refers to.
It is a pity that Darren Chester has chosen to represent the interests of his prime minister rather than the interests of the veterans who look to him as their champion in Canberra.
Veterans’ Affairs is not a ministerial portfolio that should be dictated by politics, particularly not of the toxic kind practised by Scott Morrison. Unlike most portfolios, the minister has a direct and finite “constituency”, with specific needs and concerns to be addressed.
Chester is of course bound by collective ministerial responsibility, but in failing to secure a royal commission for his constituency, and in proving so lost at sea in his defence of that decision, he has good cause to wonder if he is serving the best interests of veterans by remaining in the portfolio.
Many veterans are asking that very question.
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