By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
There is something deeply perverse about the federal Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Darren Chester, having a hand in the framing of the terms of reference for the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide reluctantly announced by the Morrison government.
The dreaded Department of Veterans’ Affairs – infamous for its byzantine bureaucracy – will surely feature prominently in the deliberations of the royal commission.
The arcane and impenetrable inner workings of DVA have long frustrated veterans but now it seems the department itself is buckling under the weight of its own bureaucracy. According to the Community and Public Sector Union, as reported by The Guardian, DVA has a backlog of 25,000 unprocessed compensation claims under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, which provides support to injured veterans.
But even as criticism of DVA mounts the minister in charge of the department has been given a primary role in setting the terms of reference for the long overdue royal commission into veteran suicides.
Chester has urged veterans, family members, service personnel and ex-service organisations to “have your say” on the terms of reference. To that end, according to a media statement released on 21 April, two days after the royal commission was announced, Chester would spend two days in Townsville to commence his consultation roadshow.
“As Australia’s largest garrison town, Townsville is the right place to commence consultation with the broader military community,” Chester explained.
“The Member for Herbert, Phillip Thompson, has invited me here to meet with veterans and their families to discuss the royal commission and other significant issues.”
Governments of all political hues are predisposed to spin, but the Morrison government is more addicted to the practice than most, and Darren Chester is no stranger to spinning up a storm.
Chester had already announced his impending visit to Townsville, at the invitation of local member Phillip Thompson, himself a veteran, in a media release dated 9 April. By this stage Prime Minister Scott Morrison had declared himself open to a royal commission following a threatened backbench revolt, but there was no mention of a royal commission in this routine media release. (Thompson will be known to many for his moving speech in the House of Representatives calling for a royal commission.)
"I would like to thank Mr Thompson for the invitation and look forward to hearing directly again from people in the serving and ex-serving community about what we are doing right and where we could be doing more,” Chester gushed in the original media release.
Where Chester could be doing more is to be straight with the veterans.
By all means update the announcement but it was disingenuous of Chester to recast the visit to Townsville as part of the process of gathering input into the royal commission’s terms of reference. Chester appears to have a genuine regard, even affection, for veterans, but his mania for PR spin places a cloud over his every utterance, and that is certainly the case when it comes to the royal commission.
Chester stands exposed
One might ask as Chester prepares to listen intently to the views of veterans, why was he not listening before? Why did veterans’ pleas for a royal commission count for so little until now? Can he honestly claim that whatever feedback he gathers in Townsville and elsewhere – including about his own department – will be news to him?
Chester stands exposed by the government’s grudging about-turn on the royal commission, a change in policy not down to his advocacy on behalf of veterans, but only because a group of rebel backbenchers stood up to Scott Morrison. Far from being shame-faced about his failure to reflect the voice of veterans – consistently supporting Morrison’s refusal to hold a royal commission – he now presents himself as a champion of the royal commission.
No explanation, let alone contrition, has passed Chester’s lips for the unforgivable delay in calling a royal commission and his role in supporting the government’s intransigence on the issue. Instead, now that the royal commission has been called, he has joined in perpetuating the blatant fiction that Morrison had never actually ruled out a royal commission.
Such a claim is utter tosh. Despite the desperate cries for a royal commission by the veteran community, including families of veterans who have died by suicide, the Morrison government, including Chester, insisted on pursuing its preferred option to a royal commission: the creation of a National Commissioner Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention.
When Scott Morrison announced his plan to establish a national commissioner in February 2020 he assured veterans and their families that “I have thought long and hard about the best response to this issue”.
“I have spoken to veterans right across Australia and I have met with their families and also local, state and national organisations,” Morrison said.
“I believe what we have developed addresses the needs of those veterans, their families and our serving men and women.”
It was news to the grassroots veteran community that it had been consulted, let alone that it had endorsed the RC-lite option. Veterans and their families had been verballed by Morrison who was implacably opposed to a royal commission.
In August of that year then Attorney-General Christian Porter introduced the legislation to establish the office of the national commissioner, stating that the commissioner would have powers “broadly equivalent to a royal commission”.
“But unlike royal commissions…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.”
This was the nonsensical line also maintained by Chester in his many statements supporting the creation of the national commissioner’s office.
The government withdrew the legislation to establish the national commissioner’s office in December last year rather than face defeat in the Senate, which refused to accept the national commissioner as an alternative to a royal commission. Even then the government was determined that a royal commission would never see the light of day.
Morrison only changed its mind when his government faced defeat on the floor of the lower house.
Tin-eared to the last
It is of course unthinkable for this government to admit that it made a mistake in resisting calls for a royal commission. Had the government announced a royal commission in the first place, instead of seeking to foist the unwanted and widely disparaged national commissioner’s office on sceptical veterans and their families, the royal commission would have been well underway by now. And very possibly lives would have been saved.
But tin-eared to the last, having announced the royal commission, Darren Chester has been charged with leading the public consultation process on the terms of reference, despite his department almost certainly being in the firing line.
“Over the coming weeks I will be undertaking a public consultation process to ensure the royal commission is focused and based on the experiences and perspectives of those who have been impacted by Defence and veteran suicide,” Chester said when announcing thecommencement of the consultation process.
“Any member of the community or any organisation is able to provide their input regarding the broad themes released on Monday 19 April and I would encourage them to provide their feedback.”
The broad themes of the royal commission include “systemic issues” and “contributing risk factors relevant to defence and veteran death by suicide”. While they do not expressly name DVA, the themes do cover “the engagement of defence members and veterans with Commonwealth, State and Territory governments about support services, claims or entitlements”.
On that score alone Chester faces at the very least the perception of a conflict of interest.
This is especially relevant given that many in the veteran community are deeply suspicious that when the defence establishment – including DVA –investigates itself it is immediately compromised by self-interest, institutional collusion and prevailing cultures.
Popular confidence in the standing, independence and incorruptibility of royal commissions is why a royal commission into veteran suicides was the only credible path to substantive change and why so many fought so hard to have one. Honouring that confidence starts with the framing of the terms of reference, a process which must be as unimpeachable as the royal commission itself.
The drafting of the terms of reference will ultimately fall to the Attorney-General’s department. The department should also be responsible for gathering feedback from veterans. Neither DVA, nor Darren Chester, should have any role to play in that process.
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