By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie has not given up on a royal commission into veteran suicides despite the Morrison government proceeding with its preferred option of a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention even before Parliament has approved enabling legislation for the position.
“They’re pretty sneaky like that,” says Lambie in a no-holds-barred video interview with Australian Veteran News editor Mark Schroffel.
The firebrand senator – herself an Army veteran – has described the government’s alternative to a royal commission as a “farce”.
“We do not want this,” she states flatly, adding that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s refusal to appoint a royal commission has been “a kick in the guts” for the veteran community and grieving families.
“It’s just excuse after excuse why they won’t have a royal commission…they’re disgusting,” Lambie says.
Morrison’s defiant stand has not been without political consequences and Lambie has flagged that already prickly relations between the government and the crossbench senator could further deteriorate over the issue.
“It’s probably hurting the government with their negotiations with me at this point in time, I’ll be brutally honest about that,” she says. “[T]hey might want to have a bloody good think about what they’re doing.”
The government relies on crossbench support to get bills through the Senate.
Morrison has stared down long-standing calls from the veteran community, including the families of veterans who have died by suicide, for a royal commission. In February, Morrison announced the creation of the office of the national commissioner to inquire into suicides of serving and former Australian Defence Force members, to be located within the Attorney-General’s department.
The PM, Veterans’ Affairs minister Darren Chester and Attorney-General Christian Porter routinely tout their checklist of benefits for the new national commissioner: the commissioner will be “truly independent and deliver genuine transparency”, it will be an “enduring body” and the commissioner will have powers “broadly equivalent” to a royal commission.
Lambie is having none of it. She is scathing of the government’s refusal to appoint a royal commission, and especially of its alternative.
“It’s not a royal-bloody-commission…it’s not independent…the commissioner can have its money reduced, they can be sacked…so basically the government is controlling the commissioner,” Lambie tells AVN.
“Why aren’t we good enough, those people who have served, why aren’t we good enough to have a royal commission? Why aren’t we good enough, those of us that have put their lives on the line, why aren’t we worthy of a royal commission?”
Lambie is incensed that the government has opted for a national commissioner rather than a royal commissioner.
“They didn’t do this over pink batts, they didn’t do this over banking, they didn’t do this over aged care – so we’re not as important as all of that? There’s suicides going on on a weekly basis and we’re not important enough to have a bloody royal commission?”
Lambie says the decision not to have a royal commission amounts to a cover up at the expense of veterans.
“We’re being sold out like a pup, that’s what the prime minister is doing to us, and Chester, they’re selling us out,” she says.
“I feel it’s humiliating, and so do so many others out there, that we’re not good enough to have a royal commission because you [the government] don’t want your departments trashed, and they will be trashed [by a royal commission] – that’s the Department of Defence and DVA – because they’ve been in this culture of bullshit for so long and it’s taking lives.”
Porter introduced legislation in the House of Representatives for the establishment of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention in August. A four-week public consultation process on the legislation was also announced and a senate inquiry into the legislation closed on 9 October.
But even before this seemingly thorough legislative and consultative process had run its course – and before the Senate has voted on the legislation – on 30 September the attorney-general announced the appointment of an interim national commissioner, ACT magistrate Bernadette Boss.
Boss was a legal officer in the Australian Army and currently holds the rank of Brigadier in the Army Reserve.
Lambie regards the appointment as a conflict of interest that opens the office to perceptions of an “institution-first” bias. She also accuses the government of breaking its word that it would not appoint someone from a military background to the commissioner’s position.
“You [the government] put in a former military person into this job when you gave me a guarantee, two ministers gave me a guarantee, that you would not do that, after [me] explaining to them what angst this would cause the veteran community and that straight away you would lose your credibility and any trust that we may have had left [in assurances] that a commissioner would work.”
Lambie believes Morrison wants to avoid the departments of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs coming under the scrutiny of a royal commission.
“He doesn’t want all this playing out in the [public] arena,” she says.
“The public needs to hear what’s going on [in those departments] …they’ll be absolutely shocked to hear what is going on in there because it’s absolutely disgraceful.”
And to Scott Morrison this suggestion from the senator:
“Bloody grow a set, mate, because we don’t [just] want a royal commission, we bloody well need it; we need that royal commission [because] we’re losing them [veterans] and we’re going to continue losing them [without a royal commission].”
Lambie vows that the bill for the creation of a national commissioner will be rejected by the Senate.
“We deserve nothing less than a royal commission,” she insists.
“I need Labor to stay on the line, I need Labor to say ‘get stuffed, we’re not voting for your half-baked bullshit’…Labor needs to stay firm because if the Greens and Labor stay firm, and obviously Centre Alliance and Rex Patrick, they [the government] won’t get their commissioner up.”
Lambie is critical of One Nation for supporting the government on the issue of a royal commission and blasts the national RSL for agreeing to the government’s national commissioner alternative: “You have let us down.”
She saves some of her strongest criticism for the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.
“Darren Chester should grow a spine and stand up and be bloody honest and say, ‘Actually, PM, I don’t agree with you, we need this royal commission’…If Darren Chester can’t see that it’s about time he put his resignation in.”
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.
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