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Missing in action: the RSL’s curious resistance to a royal commission into veteran suicides

By Leo D’Angelo Fisher

RSL state branches, which have previously resisted or ignored grassroot calls for a royal commission into veteran suicides, have cautiously welcomed federal Parliament’s bipartisan support for a royal commission.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was forced into a humiliating backdown on his refusal to establish a royal commission when the Senate voted unanimously to pass a motion calling on the government to hold a royal commission, with the government then allowing the motion to sail through the lower house when several Coalition MPs threatened to cross the floor.

Parliament’s vote is non-binding but Morrison has stated that he is “open” to a royal commission. With gobsmacking audacity he now claims that he has never opposed a royal commission.

The RSL, like Morrison, thought the issue of a royal commission into veteran suicides was done and dusted. And like Morrison, the RSL in the past had been less than convincing in explaining its opposition, or indifference, to a royal commission despite the pleas of grieving families, veteran welfare activists and the veteran community.

It’s been a long time since the RSL, at state or national levels, has been in sync with its membership and this is no better illustrated than with its curious position on a royal commission into veteran suicides.

On the day before the House of Representatives voted, RSL national president Greg Melick dismissed a royal commission as “misguided” and a “blunt instrument”.

Melick believes Morrison’s alternative to a royal commission, the creation of a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, is a “far better” option.

In its public statements the RSL has generally been more effusive in its support for the national commissioner’s role than a royal commission.

RSL Queensland state president Tony Ferris has welcomed federal Parliament’s bipartisan support for a royal commission but calls for “urgent implementation of the recommendations of previous inquiries to enact substantive, immediate change”.

“Australia’s veterans need – and well deserve – immediate government action to address the many factors which lead to veteran suicides,” Ferris argues.

It’s a fair point. Many of the problems contributing to veteran frustration, anguish and mental ill-health are well known. However, a royal commission will go deeper into those issues and identify in far greater detail the systemic, cultural and institutional barriers to change.

“Immediate government action” does not necessarily lead to lasting change, especially for this government which equates holding a press conference with “action”.

In February 2020, when Morrison announced the proposal of a national commissioner, Ferris welcomed the announcement as evidence that the government was “prepared to act quickly to remedy issues”.

“The static nature and lengthy duration of a royal commission – which examines historical issues and is limited in scope by its terms of reference – was a concern. We have always believed that urgent action was needed,” Ferris explained at the time.

Consultation not an RSL strong suit

Ferris now says RSL Queensland will work with the government to ensure that a royal commission is “established quickly and that its terms of reference are appropriately framed.”

“We will actively canvass our members to assist the government in framing the range of issues to be considered by the royal commission, ensuring it has appropriate scope and powers,” he promises.

Seeking the views of veterans – not an RSL strong suit – is always welcome although it may come as a surprise to some that RSL Queensland is not already well versed on what those issues are.

Speed is also a concern for RSL NSW.

“Any recommendation that is made as a result of a royal commission into veteran suicide will be welcomed but this will take time and immediate action needs to be taken to support veteran wellbeing,” says NSW state president Ray James.

A royal commission has always been RSL NSW’s least favoured option.

In November 2019, while the Morrison government was going through the motions of considering calls for a royal commission, James expressed the view that implementing existing recommendations made in previous investigations – including a Productivity Commission report into veteran services – “should take priority over establishing a royal commission that will be expensive and take time to establish and report”.

RSL Western Australia has not issued a statement regarding Parliament’s support for a royal commission, but it has previously expressed its support for a national commissioner over a royal commission.

In February 2020, RSLWA state president Peter Aspinall welcomed Morrison’s proposal to create a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention as an initiative “that will help save lives into the future”.

“I congratulate Prime Minister Morrison for standing up for our veterans and serving men and women and thank him for listening to the veteran community,” Aspinall said.

We can only speculate on which veteran community Morrison was listening to, but Aspinall went on to express concerns that a royal commission would “get bogged down in looking backwards”.

“While well-intended, a royal commission would be like looking in the rear-view mirror. The appointment of an independent commissioner will have the power, as a permanent watchdog, to get on top of the appalling rate of suicides and be proactive in dealing with it,” he explained.

Being “proactive” may be fashionable but moving forward without occasionally glancing into the rear-view mirror is not without pitfalls.

Only RSL Victoria finds itself on the right side of history on the matter of a royal commission – and only just.

At the branch’s annual conference in November last year, members voted to adopt a policy of publicly supporting a royal commission. In what was considered a renegade move at the time, the motion was proposed by the Hawthorn RSL sub-branch and seconded by the Nathalia Picola sub-branch. Until then, RSL Victoria’s leadership had been silent on the issue of a royal commission.

‘The membership have spoken’

Following the successful vote, RSL Victoria committed to commence advocating to government and in the media for a royal commission. (RSL Victoria CEO Jamie Twidale kicked off with a moving personal account in Australian Veteran News of why he supported a royal commission.)

“The strength of the RSL lies within its people, the veterans for whom we exist and are governed by,” said RSL Victoria state president Dr Robert Webster in response to the vote.

“The membership have spoken and therefore we will now be publicly calling for a royal commission into veteran suicide.

“There are particular times in a veteran’s life when they can be more vulnerable than others. It is critical that we get to the bottom of the issues at hand quickly and put measures in place to substantially reduce the risk of suicide in the veteran population.”

Why it took a vote from the annual conference floor to come to this realisation is best left to the good doctor to explain.

The widespread attitude within the leadership of the RSL federation appears to be three-fold: that previous reviews have identified the problems to be addressed, that a royal commission would be unduly focused on the past and that action needs to be immediate.

The fact is that a slew of recent piecemeal reviews and “reforms” have not led to meaningful or sustainable change. The issues that need to be confronted – issues that have resulted in a higher than average rate of suicide among the veteran community – are immediate but in many instances they are rooted in generational institutional and bureaucratic cultures that verge on the bloodyminded.

What point “immediate action” if those actions are half-cocked?

We need to know why and how the Australian Defence Force is failing serving and former members. We need to understand the contribution of government policy and administration to the burdens faced by serving and former ADF members, and that especially applies to the notorious Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

It seems inconceivable that a government department could attract so much criticism as a principal contributing factor to veterans’ mental anguish and yet escape serious scrutiny or remedy.

DVA would almost certainly be eviscerated by a royal commission. On that score alone it is no wonder that the Morrison government, including Veterans’ Affairs Minister Darren Chester, has so vehemently opposed a royal commission.

Yes, time will pass as a royal commission conducts its business and before its recommendations are implemented. But there is nothing to stop the much vaunted “immediate action” taking place in the meantime.

A royal commission will lay bare the failings and attitudes that have been permitted to build over generations and provide an opportunity to hear the stories of individuals and families damaged by those failings. A royal commission will not only provide long-term solutions it will also hold agencies, institutions and individuals to account. It is a safe bet that a royal commission’s findings will be both comprehensive and damning; these are findings that only an independent royal commission can make.

Veterans are entitled to feel let down by the RSL’s failure to support a royal commission. On that score alone we may question whether the RSL is an institution that is well past its prime. Perhaps the royal commission will have something to say about that too.


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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