By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
The Morrison government’s botched attempt to circumvent veteran community calls for a royal commission into veteran suicides has come to an inglorious close with the surreptitious dispatch of the interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, Dr Bernadette Boss.
To date, there has been no official announcement from the government as to the fate of Boss, the former ACT magistrate who was controversially appointed interim national commissioner in September last year. Not even a thank-you-for-your-service.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, implacably opposed to a royal commission, instead proposed the creation of a standing national commissioner’s office in February last year. This was a calculated gambit to circumvent the bereaved families and veteran groups that had long pleaded for a royal commission into veteran suicides.
But instead of silencing the calls for a royal commission the momentum for a royal commission was intensified thanks to indefatigable campaigners such as Julie-Anne Finney – the mother of former Navy officer David Finney, who took his life in 2019 – and independent Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie, bereaved families and a growing chorus of veteran voices that refused to be silenced.
With his trademark deafness to opposing points of view, Morrison was unmoved by the pleas for a royal commission and in August 2020 then Attorney-General Christian Porter introduced legislation for the creation of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, insisting that the commissioner would have powers “broadly equivalent to a royal commission”.
This was always a preposterous proposition. As a creature of government, to be located with the Attorney-General’s department, the proposed national commissioner’s office would have neither the independence nor the credibility of a royal commission. As was observed in these pages: “The government can misrepresent or undermine its findings and recommendations, or simply ignore them. It can decrease funding, sack the commissioner at will or sideline the office in any number of ways. What is politically done can be undone.”
And then, with breathtaking arrogance, even by the standards of the Morrison government, having introduced the legislation in August, the following month the government announced the appointment of an interim commissioner, Bernadette Boss, even as it became clear that the Senate was poised to reject the legislation.
This cynical move reflected the truculence of a government determined to have its way, democratic processes be damned, presenting dissenting crossbench and Greens senators – galvanised by Lambie – with what it considered a political fait accompli. But if the appointment of an interim commissioner was meant to force the Senate’s hand, that hand rose with a defiant middle finger. By December, the government withdrew the legislation, ostensibly for another day, leaving the interim commissioner in a precarious state of limbo.
From tactical retreat to ignominious defeat
But come the new year the government’s tactical retreat soon turned to ignominious defeat. First, the Senate unanimously called on the Morrison government to establish a royal commission into veteran suicide. That might not have been enough to sway Morrison’s boneheaded opposition to a royal commission until it became clear that a group of Coalition backbenchers was prepared to cross the floor of the lower house in support of the Senate motion.
By March, forced to capitulate, Morrison signalled that he was prepared to establish a royal commission into veteran suicides, but wanting to give every impression that this was a considered decision of his own making, did not announce a royal commission until April.
This inelegant about face placed further doubt on the future of the interim commissioner, who was now placed in an increasingly invidious position of legislative and practical limbo.
But Morrison gave every impression that he was not intending to forsake either his precious national commissioner’s office or its interim incumbent.
"I'm sure these two things [the national commissioner and a royal commission] can come together and we can come to some agreement over the course of this week," Morrison told 2GB in March.
If “some agreement” was reached, it did not include an honourable outcome for Bernadette Boss.
A report by the ABC on 7 July revealed: “It is understood Dr Boss has also expressed her willingness to join the panel of royal commissioners which will soon be confirmed publicly by the Morrison government.”
The following day, a joint media release issued by Scott Morrison, Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, and newly appointed Veterans’ Affairs Minister Andrew Gee, announced that it had formally established a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.
The release announced that the royal commission would be headed by former NSW deputy police commissioner Nick Kaldas. Former Queensland Supreme Court judge James Douglas and psychiatrist Dr Peggy Brown were appointed fellow commissioners.
If Boss did have hopes of being a royal commissioner – not an unreasonable expectation – they were not shared by the government. And if the government had alternative plans for Boss, they were not revealed on the day. Instead, every indication was that the interim commissioner would be accommodated in an interim-interim role while the royal commission conducted its business:
“The National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill, currently before the Parliament, will be amended to ensure that the National Commissioner will complement, and not duplicate, the Royal Commission’s important work,” the media release explained.
Boss clearly did not expect that her role would be suspended while the work of the royal commission was done. A statement released on April 19 by Boss expressly indicates her understanding that she would have an ongoing role in the course of the royal commission’s activities:
‘Ongoing’ role short-lived
“I am pleased that the Prime Minister has today announced that the important work I have commenced as the interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention will continue concurrently with the work of a new Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicides. I look forward to working together to tackle this problem, and reduce the rate of suicide in our Defence and Veteran community.”
However, an announcement on the Office of the National Commissioner’s home page, posted on the day the government announced the formation of the royal commission, was less certain about an active role for Boss and her fledgling office:
“On 8 July 2021 the Government announced the commencement of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran suicide. To avoid duplication with the Royal Commission’s work, the Office of the National Commissioner is not taking new enquiries. However, our Office will continue to engage with people who registered their interest to participate in the interim National Commissioner’s work prior to the Royal Commission commencing on 8 July 2021.”
And then the ABC’s bombshell report on 13 July:
“The woman hand-picked last year to investigate the spiralling rates of suicide in the military community has been dumped, and it could be two years before her role is filled,” writes the ABC’s defence correspondent Andrew Greene. “The ABC can reveal Dr Boss was last week told her tenure in the role would soon end, but the reasons for the decision are not entirely clear.”
According to the ABC, Boss was informed that her contract would be terminated on the day Morrison confirmed details of the royal commission.
A spokesman for Attorney-General Michaelia Cash confirmed Boss’s departure to the ABC but did not explain the circumstances of her departure. The spokesman said that a new national commissioner might not be appointed for two years.
"The interim National Commissioner has been asked to provide a report to government on the work completed on the Independent Review to date," the spokesman told the ABC.
"The government is in the process of confirming these arrangements formally. This report will form an important foundation for the work of the royal commission."
Since the ABC’s report, no official announcement has been forthcoming.
The Morrison government is not given to transparency. This has especially been the case with the protracted saga of the royal commission into veteran suicide. It never convincingly explained why it rejected a royal commission for so long, nor why it favoured the creation of a national commission in its stead.
Ironically, we now have no explanation as to the fate of the national commission it had so doggedly insisted on, nor of its interim commissioner.
If the government has plans for Boss – particularly in relation to the work of the royal commission – it should reveal what those plans are.
And if the government has simply cast Boss aside as so much political detritus, it must be held to account.
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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