By James Unkles
Mark Schröffel’s insightful editorial, ‘A community divided cries out for leadership’, was a reminder of the effort of some veterans several years ago to take a stand and create a political party to serve and advocate the interests of veterans and their families.
The short-lived Australian Defence Veterans Party was registered in June 2015 and voluntarily deregistered in February 2017.
I recall the effort to create the party on a wave of determination to give veterans a voice free of bureaucratic and Australian Defence Force interference.
As the dust settled and despite the best intentions, the initiative was a failure, plagued by infighting and disagreements brought on by interest groups within the veteran community. Detractors were successful in bringing the initiative to an end, no doubt to the relief of the defence establishment.
So what’s next and what should veterans do? The need for action is clear but the veteran landscape remains divided and leadership elusive.
One aspect remains certain: if the veteran community does not find consensus the two major political parties will continue to make decisions for veterans without their best interests in mind.
The Coalition government’s announcement of a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide – driven by the risk of losing a vote on the floor of Parliament – exposes what many argue is a bias to protect the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) by placing DVA in a position to structure and influence the commission’s terms of reference.
The Labor party, meanwhile, after decades of neglect on the issue of veterans, has announced its policy to overhaul DVA’s bureaucracy.
Clearly, both parties are running a determined campaign to win the votes of veterans and their significant community of families and friends.
So where does that leave the issue of leadership for the veteran community?
The answer won’t be settled while Australia heads to an election. In the stampede of electioneering and national and international distractions, the leadership question risks being silenced. Whoever wins the election, veterans and their supporters risk being dominated by the agendas of the major parties and meaningful representation by veterans for veterans will remain an illusion.
Mark Schröffel concluded his article: “The urgent need for action – to ensure justice and a fair go for veterans and their families – cannot be properly addressed by relying on the tenacity and goodwill of a few. It is time for a new brand of leadership in the veteran community: more principled, more visible and more representative.’
His timely call for leadership is a call for reform and for veterans to use the skills and character that has defined their service in Australia and around the world.
The successful development of a political party drawing on those who believe that an independent party dedicated to veterans without the internal controls and influences of the major parties will be the catalyst for meaningful change. Such change will not happen behind closed doors and the pages of social media. Successful leadership will only come from representation in Parliament.
The concerns and issues of veterans deserve to be advocated by a party devoid of the dictates of the leaders of the opposing major parties or left to chance by the cross bench.
If parliamentary representation is to be achieved, veterans must pick up the pieces for a renewed effort to form a party. That will require inspiration to achieve goals that matter to the veteran community. The conundrum is how those goals are to be defined.
Leadership to map and drive those goals, to build on previous calls for meaningful change, is the answer.
James Unkles, CMDR Rtd, is a lawyer and former Crown prosecutor. He is the author of Ready, Aim, Fire: Major James Francis Thomas, the Fourth Victim in the Execution of Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant. He is writing a book on the history of Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton and the case for judicial review. For further information visit his website: www.breakermorant.com