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Monday, 22 March 2021
Page: 49

Mr CHESTER (GippslandDeputy Leader of the House, Minister for Defence Personnel and Minister for Veterans' Affairs) (12:26): I move:

That the House concur with the resolution of the Senate.

First of all, I recognise all serving members in this place and anyone viewing this debate at home today who put on the uniform of the Navy, the Army or the Air Force and, on behalf of the parliament, I extend to them a simple thank you for their service to our nation.

The closing sentence of the veterans' covenant, which passed with unanimous support in this House in 2019, says: 'For what they have done, this we will do.' It's an obligation for those of us who have never put on the uniform to ensure, on behalf of a grateful nation, that the services and benefits provided to our serving community flow to them when they need them and as they need them after their period of service has concluded. I do hope that after today we will continue to move forward in a very bipartisan manner on an issue of public policy that has always enjoyed incredible support across the chamber.

The government do understand the very strong feelings about this issue across the chamber and do not oppose a royal commission. We—and I think this parliament—have a proven track record of taking this issue seriously and we will now move to carefully consider the views of the parliament. This is a complex and sensitive issue of public policy where I believe it's entirely reasonable to have different views on the potential solutions, but first of all we need to define the problem we're talking about.

As a father, as a member of parliament, as the representative of the seat of Gippsland and as a minister in the Commonwealth of Australia it appals me that more than 3,000 Australians take their own lives each year. Sadly, our veterans are not immune from that scourge. In the order 35 to 40 veterans take their lives each year. No number of suicides is acceptable to me as a minister. No number of suicides is acceptable to the Australian public.

I stress that today's discussion should not result in any politician or any political party trying to claim any win for themselves, because none of us will win until the number of suicides in our community is zero. This is not a competition about who cares the most, who's got the most compassion, because we all care and we're all compassionate about this cause. But it is certainly a competition about how we develop the best possible policies to support our veterans and their families. We need to focus on developing policies which deliver support services that actually make a difference on the ground and prevent suicide in our community.

I must stress that service in the Australian Defence Force is overwhelmingly a positive experience for the vast majority of individuals who serve. I've had the opportunity over the past seven years to meet with many serving men and women, whether in training or on deployment, and the passion they have is hard to describe. They develop skills which set them up for life—teamwork, leadership, problem-solving, resilience, skills that make an enormous contribution to our community when they return to civilian life. But it is true that for some their service can have significant physical and mental health impacts. And I refer again to the veterans' covenant, which won bipartisan support in this place: 'For what they have done, this we will do.' That is our obligation to ensure we continue to provide the support services our veterans and their families need upon transition.

To be fair, and I think those opposite would largely agree, there has been a lot of action taken over recent times to work in partnership with the ex-service community on practical solutions—for example, the response to the Bird inquiry, referring to the tragic loss of Jesse Bird, who took his own life many years ago. Again, that won the support of the House. A young soldier was seeking help, and the delays in receiving that help led to him taking his own life, with just $5 in the bank. The House and the Senate agreed on the introduction, for the first time, of a veteran interim payment to be made available to any veteran seeking support for mental health issues while the claim was being processed. That was a reform which came about through constructive dialogue across the chamber.

The request for a royal commission that we're talking about today is not a new request. It's not something that has sprung out of the blue; it's been discussed for many years now. In fact, back in late 2019, I met with families of members who had taken their own lives, I met with veterans' groups and I met across departmental boundaries to develop a model which I believe would overcome some of the shortcomings of a royal commission. And that was the introduction of our policy to provide a national commissioner with all the powers of a royal commissioner. That policy was developed over a period of months in late 2019 and 2020. It was well received at the time; it was well received by veterans' organisations. The policy that the coalition has taken for the past 15 or 16 months now on the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention is still, I believe, a very good public policy. It's been strongly supported by key veterans' groups and mental health experts throughout Australia—and I'll get to that in just a moment. But the federal government does understand that some veterans and grieving families want both: they want a royal commission first and then a permanent national commissioner to provide enduring support. I think it is a complex issue that does require that enduring focus.

For the record, the Prime Minister himself has never ruled out a royal commission. He has been directly engaged with me as we try to address these difficult public health issues around mental wellbeing and suicide. We have endeavoured to listen to the ex-service community and to introduce free mental health care for life for all veterans and their families. We expanded at the Open Arms counselling service, including the provision of peer counsellors, to provide support for our veterans. We have, for the first time, funded psychiatric assistance dogs to support those veterans with mental health concerns and we've provided more than $230 million per year in mental wellbeing initiatives through the Department of Veterans' Affairs. So we will continue to listen to ex-service organisations and listen to our own backbench, particularly the veterans in our backbench. We will listen across the chamber and across the parliament as we deal with this particularly complex and sensitive issue of suicide in the military community. While we're having this conversation today, I must stress to anyone who is listening that the veterans counselling service, Open Arms, is available on 1800011046. Last year, during the peak of the pandemic, Open Arms received an incredible surge in calls from our veteran community and were able to cope with that additional demand quite admirably in the circumstances.

From my personal perspective, as the minister, I have tried to unite the various veterans organisations, with varying degrees of success, I must say. It is a community which has very strong opinions, a great deal of passion, and a great deal of determination to achieve good things for veterans across the nation. I do know, as a member of parliament, that language does matter, and I know that my words did cause some concern to some veterans when I said two years ago that I didn't see the point of spending millions of dollars on lawyers at a royal commission when I could spend that same money as Minister for Veterans' Affairs on medical specialists helping veterans. I was confident at that point that we could develop policies that would unite the veteran community, and I didn't mean to cause offence, but I do stress that I believe that a national commissioner for suicide prevention is good public policy and that that is still supported by key veterans groups and mental health experts.

The reason I make that point is that we would seek to provide an enduring national commissioner who will have the power to summon witnesses, hold public hearings, take evidence on oath or affirmation, compel the production of documents or witness statements, and receive information and evidence in private. Unlike a royal commission, it would be an enduring body, rather than a point-of-time inquiry. It would also provide an opportunity for families, ADF members and others affected by suicide to tell their stories and help, at an independent level, at arm's length from the Department of Veterans' Affairs, to develop recommendations to improve our delivery in this regard. It has won the support of key mental health organisations and ex-service groups, such as RSL National, Soldier On, Suicide Prevention Australia, and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. They are all supportive of that position. But, as I said just a few moments ago, I do understand that some veterans and grieving families want both: a royal commission first and then a permanent national commissioner. I reiterate, for the record, that the Prime Minister himself has never ruled out a royal commission. He has been very supportive to me as I have sought to address these complex public health issues around mental wellbeing and suicide. We will continue to liaise across the chamber to deliver the results that the Australian people are demanding.

I do offer, in that spirit of bipartisanship across the chamber, to the many members who are passionate about this issue and to the ex-service community itself, a little bit of advice around how we take this debate forward. Our job is to make sure that we continue to give hope, not take hope way from those who may be struggling with their mental health. We do need to assure our veteran community, our serving men and women, and their families that there are pathways to good health and that this parliament stands united in supporting them to achieve that pathway. Our job is very much to give hope to them so that they can recover from their difficulties. We need to reassure our veteran community and their families that we are working in their interests and that help is available to them. As a critical point, we need to reassure our veterans and their families that we are capable of working in their interests together and that help is available to them in their community.

We do know that early intervention on mental health issues is critically important to achieving the best possible outcome for the individual concerned. It is an enormous challenge to remove the stigma around mental health in this nation and to reassure our serving men and women that it is okay to seek help for mental health issues. You are not weak. You have not failed. It is okay to seek help and to reach out and get that help when you need it. Our challenge as a government—and, dare I say, the challenge for the opposition as well—is to make sure that, when people reach out for help, that help is available to them in their community in a timely way. That is an ongoing and difficult issue I'm dealing with through the Department of Veterans' Affairs, and I know the shadow minister is well aware of the challenge we are facing in terms of the increased demand for services, the increasing number of veterans coming forward who are eligible for benefits, and the need to get on top of the time taken for that process, which is becoming a great concern for me as minister. We're seeking to overcome that in partnership with the ex-services community. I stress again that it's okay to seek help for mental health issues; you're not weak and you have not failed. Help is available to you across our nation. Again, for anyone who is struggling with their mental wellbeing, please be assured that free support is available on 1800 011 046 to the Open Arms team. And I want to thank the Open Arms team for their incredible capacity to listen to stories and to help people on their journey back to good health.

In that same vein I need to thank my own staff in my ministerial office, who have been with me now for three years in this role, and also the staff at the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The Department of Veterans' Affairs is going through a massive transformation. In the order of $500 million in additional resources have been provided to try to transform DVA into an organisation that is fit for purpose for the next 100 years. It is an organisation exclusively established to support our veterans and their families across the Commonwealth of Australia. It is proudly led by a veteran herself in Ms Cosson, the secretary of our department. She is the first female secretary of that department and I believe she does an amazing job in seeking to develop public policies and to resolve difficult and challenging issues with the beneficial approach that we expect in managing some of these tough issues. I want to thank Secretary Cosson and her staff for their determination, their compassion and their resilience in delivering those outcomes across our veteran community. I'm proud to work with them all.

For the record: I commenced my comments here today by thanking our serving men and women for their service. The government understands the very strong feelings about this issue across the chamber and does not oppose a royal commission. We do have a proven track record of taking this issue very seriously and will now move to carefully consider the views of the parliament. I thank the House.