By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter has introduced legislation to establish the new office of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention and in doing so he persisted with the Morrison government’s mantra that the commissioner will have powers “broadly equivalent to a royal commission”.
So why not a royal commission in the first place? It’s a question that has been asked ever since the Morrison government announced in February that it would create the office of the national commissioner to inquire into suicides of serving and former Australian Defence Force (ADF) members. Far from being a breakthrough the announcement was a rebuff to the bereaved families and veteran groups that had long pleaded for a royal commission into veteran suicides.
Six months later, Porter betrays a lingering sensitivity to criticism of the government’s refusal to call a royal commission. The Attorney-General, whose department will house the new office, continues to parrot the line that the office of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention is a de facto royal commission, only better.
“[U]nlike royal commissions which examine issues at a fixed point in time, 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,” Porter states.
"As the Prime Minister said when he first announced this important initiative, this is about being continually vigilant when it comes to the care and wellbeing of our veterans, as well as those serving men and women who protect our community and our freedoms.
"The national commissioner 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."
Shaky claim to virtue
The government’s shaky claim to virtue reinforces the perception that the decision was always political and never about the best interests of the veteran community.
If there is merit in the creation of a permanent national commissioner then surely that office would be much better armed to tackle the problem with the findings of a royal commission behind it.
The Morrison government trumpets that it is “delivering on its commitment to address the unacceptably high rates of suicide among ADF members and veterans” but it is doing no such thing. It has failed miserably in fulfilling its commitment to veterans and their families.
Royal commissions, far from simply examining issues at “a fixed point in time”, strive to gain a forensic understanding of prevailing systemic, cultural and institutional conditions that provide the context in which matters under investigation have occurred.
We know that there have been 400-plus known cases of suicide among serving, reserve and veteran personnel since 2001 (419 between 2001 and 2017, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) and that the suicide rate for ex-servicemen is 18% higher than the national average for Australian men, while ex-servicewomen are twice as likely to take their own lives compared with the general Australian female population. The figure of 400-plus is just one terrible yardstick of veteran anguish and despair; it does not include attempted suicides or the agony of living constantly with thoughts of suicide (so-called suicidal ideation).
When Scott Morrison announced his plan to establish a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention he assured veterans and their families that “I have thought long and hard about the best response to this issue”.
“This is about being forever vigilant for the care and wellbeing of our veterans,” he said in February.
“I believe what we have developed addresses the needs of those veterans, their families and our serving men and women.”
Morrison’s very deliberate decision
One can believe that Morrison “thought long and hard about the best response to this issue”. But placing his faith in a bureaucratic apparatus, no matter how ostensibly independent, shows not vigilance for the wellbeing of veterans but political expedience at its most cynical.
The Morrison government took a very deliberate decision not to hold a royal commission into veteran suicides. Morrison, who considers himself an unflinching ally of the ADF, a patriot in the overwrought American tradition, no doubt believes he is protecting the sacred reputation of the ADF by keeping the forensic scrutiny of a royal commission at bay. The top military brass would doubtless concur with this evasive action.
Every time the government insists that the national commissioner’s “primary role” will be to “inquire into the factors and systemic issues contributing to these suicides and to recommend actions and strategies to support the prevention of future suicides”, there is only one question to be asked: how can this not be a matter for a royal commission?
The new commissioner will also “provide an ongoing investigative function of individual cases of suicide, working with each state and territory coronial office, making recommendations to government”, which only means that the commissioner will replicate the existing powers and function of state and territory coroners.
The Morrison government has also promised to establish “an immediate, independent review of historical veteran suicide cases, conducted by the commissioner, focusing on the impact of military service and veterans’ post service experience”, with an interim report to be delivered within 12 months.
In addition to the interim report the commissioner will deliver an annual report to Parliament, including an update on the implementation and evaluation of measures to reduce suicide risk factors.
Families have little reason to be comforted by the Morrison government’s bureaucratic alternative to a royal commission.
In the best (which is to say, worst) traditions of bureaucratic responses to solving a problem, there is the constant threat of arcane processes and meaningless gobbledygook – which veterans and their families will be all too familiar with – such as the bewildering reassurance that “families and others affected by these deaths will be supported in a trauma-informed and restorative way to contribute to the national commissioner’s work”.
‘Independent’ reports are political playthings
There is also little comfort in promises of an annual report to Parliament by the national commissioner.
Such reports, no matter how independent and “transparent”, are political playthings, to be ignored, misrepresented, manipulated, spin-cycled and generally honoured in the breach. Trusting the accept-no-responsibility, the buck-stops-somewhere-else, I-reject-the-premise-of-your-assertion Morrison government with an independent report is a leap of faith too far.
A royal commission – an institution that is untainted by the political process and remains Australia's highest form of public inquiry – would pose a potential risk, for the Morrison government an unacceptable risk, to the sanctity of the ADF and the reputations of its leaders, not to mention its own. The findings of a royal commission would be a political minefield, impossible to sidestep, even for the twinkly-toed Morrison government.
An office located within the machinery of government might offer resistance but it will remain, if not a political instrument, subject to political interference.
The Morrison government has nobody to blame but itself if there is a sense in the veteran community that the office of the new commissioner will be compromised from day one. This is a government that has by its actions won a reputation for being untrustworthy and without scruple. One might even say “mean and tricky”.
When Julie-Anne Finney wrote to Australian Veteran News pleading for a royal commission into veteran suicides she echoed the voices of many in the veteran community who believe that successive governments – and other parties – have a vested interest in keeping a lid on a dysfunctional system of care that has failed veterans and their families.
A mother’s battle not yet won
Julie-Anne is the mother of David Finney, a former 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 called for a royal commission into veteran suicides. Some might say that the creation of a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention is her reward. But Julie-Anne’s battle is not yet won. She still wants a royal commission.
“I will not give up this fight until we have that royal commission, because like every mother I will fight for my child,” Julie-Anne wrote in her letter to AVN. “If this government or even previous governments took the issue seriously, would I still have my boy?”
Scott Morrison’s RC-lite is not the answer to the endemic problem of veteran suicides and Julie-Anne, along with much of the veteran community, is right to insist on a royal commission, rather than making do with a commissioner with powers “broadly equivalent to a royal commission”.
The veteran community deserves the real thing and Scott Morrison has failed to explain why he does not agree.
Please add your voice to the discussion on this important issue in the comments section at the bottom of this page
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher
Feedback on the Bills to establish a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention is invited through a public consultation process that closes on 24 September 2020. Further information about the Bills and the consultation process is available at National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention and National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention – Public Consultation on the Bills.
If you or someone you know need support you can contact:
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
ADF All-hours Support 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