1206 2CC, Stephen Cenatiempo interview discussing the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, protection visas for Afghan support workers

Friday, July 9 2021

The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel

Stephen Cenatiempo: Yesterday the Prime Minister formally announced the establishment of a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide following approval by the Governor-General. This has been a long time coming, and I’ve got to say I’m impressed by the fact that former New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Nick Kaldas is going to lead the inquiry, with the help of former Supreme Court judge James Douglas and psychiatrist Dr Peggy Brown. Normally these royal commissions are headed up by a retired judge. I like the fact that there is a bit of variation here, particularly given the importance of this. It’s going to look into some systemic issues and common themes related to defence and veteran death by suicide and any previous suspected deaths. The minister who is going to have to oversee all this is the newly appointed Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans’ Affairs, Andrew Gee. He joins us now. Andrew, good morning.

Andrew Gee: Good morning, Stephen. Great to be back on 2CC.

Stephen Cenatiempo: Now, sadly the government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this, but we finally got the right result. As I mentioned, it’s unusual that you would have people of the — not the calibre but the expertise of Nick Kaldas and Peggy Brown leading a royal commission. I think it’s a refreshing change. What led to that?

Andrew Gee: Well, the feedback through the consultation process, particularly from veterans, was that they didn’t want someone from the Defence establishment overseeing or running the royal commission. And I think that in appointing these commissioners — and I took the paperwork over to the Governor-General yesterday, and he’s a veteran himself and signed off on them — I think that there is a really good balance here on the royal commission. You’ve got Nick Kaldas, as you’ve said, who is a distinguished police officer, former Deputy Commissioner of the New South Wales Police Force. He’s investigated weapons of mass destruction in Syria. He’s been the Deputy Chief Police Adviser in Iraq. He’s an investigator. And I think for an inquiry like this you need someone who has that investigative background. It’s like having a blood hound on the job, can follow the evidence trail, knows where the evidence needs to go or what he’s looking for. So, I think that’s very positive.

I think that given that this royal commission is all about mental health, you’ve got Dr Peggy Brown AO as one of the commissioners. She’s a psychiatrist and a very distinguished career in mental health. I think that’s really important that you have someone with that expertise there. And then, of course, you’ve got former Supreme Court judge from Queensland, James Douglas QC, distinguished jurist and barrister. I think you do need someone on the commission who’s got that legal background and that is very familiar with the rules of evidence and knows what the legal ramifications of certain evidence is. And he'll be able to help ensure that that’s treated in a very sensitive way and appropriate way, so I think you’ve got a very good balance here.

And the feedback that I’ve had from most people — now, I have to say, it’s not everyone; I’m not sure that with an inquiry like this, a royal commission like this, you’re going to get a hundred per cent agreement — but the feedback that I’ve had from veterans so far has been very positive about the choice of these commissioners. And I think it’s a really well-balanced commission.

Stephen Cenatiempo: Well, I imagine that some of the issues that our veterans and our defence community are facing would not be dissimilar to what frontline police experience on a day-to-day basis, too. So, I mean, in that sense, Nick Kaldas would probably have an understanding of the day-to-day issues that he’s dealing with here. My concern is how this is going to tie in with the standing commission and the permanent commissioner that’s been — well, is it established yet? Is that actually happening? How are things going to work in together?

Andrew Gee: Well, we’ve got an interim commissioner for defence and veteran suicide prevention, and so the idea is that that office will complement and not duplicate the work of the royal commission. And so, we’ll be guided by the royal commission on how that pans out. Now, if the royal commission says that it wants the commissioner on the ground working with it before the royal commission ends, then that will be possible. But otherwise, what will happen is that the smaller office of the national commissioner will continue to operate for the duration of the royal commission as part of the Attorney-General’s Department, and then the work of the office will increase following the conclusion of the royal commission or at an earlier point of time if the royal commission wants that work to commence. So, it will be up to the royal commission, but once the royal commission concludes that national commissioner for defence and veteran suicide prevention will be instrumental in implementing the recommendations from the royal commission. And so, it’s a very important office.

But having said all of that, Stephen, the point that I want to get out there is that we don’t want to wait until the end of the royal commission to implement change. There will be things that we will be able to do much sooner. So, we’ve got an interim report due in August next year and the final report due in June 2023. But we want to get — we want to get cracking on this, and we want to be implementing change before the conclusion of the royal commission. We need to get it moving.

Stephen Cenatiempo: Andrew, how broad are the terms of reference, and who was consulted in the process of putting that together?

Andrew Gee: They’re very broad. I’ve been over them with a fine-tooth comb. And there was a very extensive consultation process. I think there were over 3,000 submissions, pieces of feedback were received. So, I think the Attorney-General’s Department took in about 1,800 submissions. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs took in over 1,300. And then as I’ve spoken to veterans yesterday after the announcement was made, a number of them were actually consulted and were familiar with them. So, they are very broad terms of reference. And I’ve taken a really strong interest in what the inquiry can look at.

And the commission basically has unfettered discretion to look into whatever matters it deems relevant or are relevant to the inquiry. So, I think that’s really important, that it can follow the evidence. And think you’ve got this balanced commission and, look, a lot of the evidence is going to be very traumatic and it’s going to be heart breaking and devastating to hear. And it’s obviously going to have to be treated in a very sympathetic way and there are counselling and support services available for witnesses and people making submissions. But I think as a nation we have to hear it because I think the truth is that these young men and women we place in harm’s way, they give Australia their very best, but I think if you look at our history, despite some good intentions, we haven’t always done our best in return for our veterans. You look at the way our Vietnam Vets were treated when they came home; it was absolutely appalling. The wounds from that are still there. And they’re still very raw for many veterans.

And if you look to the present day where you do have a lot of support for veterans — I mean there’s $11.7 billion in the budget for veterans and their families, but the reality is that you still have a backlog of claims, you still have veterans telling me that they feel like a number being shunted around from case officer to case officer. And we have to do better, because they give us our best and they deserve our best in return, our very best. The very best that we can give our veterans, they deserve. And so, I’m hoping that we can get lasting change from this royal commission. It will be a seminal moment in our treatment and care of veterans, not only for the present day but also for future generations and also for the families. Because so often it’s the families that have to pick up the pieces of shattered lives. And we need to be doing better and we must do better, and we will do better.

Stephen Cenatiempo: Which leads me to my next observation: there’s been a lot of criticism about the lack of continuity at a ministerial level when it comes to veterans affairs, but given that we are trying to put a new broom through the joint and we’re kicking off this royal commission process, probably good idea to have a fresh set of eyes like yours on this?

Andrew Gee: Well, look, Darren Chester approached the job with enormous dedication, and he was very committed to the job. And look, I think what is important here is that the job gets done. And I’ve spoken with veterans and defence personnel in the one week since I’ve been the minister and what they want to see is results. So, it’s not so much who’s in the chair — they want action on the ground. And they want to actually see things moving and things changing and things happening. I think there’s a lot we can do. It’s a vast body of work that we’re about to undertake with this royal commission, make no mistake. It’s a vast body of work that I’ve got on my desk, getting a handle on all of the moving parts of the legislation and the department. But that work has now commenced, and I think that this is a vitally important piece of national work that we are undertaking. And it’s very important that we get this right. So, I’m looking forward to it, but be under no illusion that this is a huge piece of national work that we all have.

Stephen Cenatiempo: One last thing before I let you go — and it’s not directly related to your portfolio but is kind of related in the sense that we’ve got a lot of our allies in Afghanistan that are in desperate need of visas, emergency visas, to get them out of harm’s way. These are people that fought alongside our diggers in Afghanistan, alongside our DFAT personnel. They are now in danger of a resurgent Taliban. Their lives are literally in danger. Why are the Defence, Foreign Affairs and Immigration Ministers dragging the chain on this and not expediting their removal from Afghanistan and giving them these emergency visas that they need?

Andrew Gee: Well, look, firstly, can I say we do have a moral responsibility to help these folks. They’ve put their lives on the line for us —

Stephen Cenatiempo: Yeah, I keep hearing that, but no action.

Andrew Gee: Well, I’m not sure that there is no action. I think that the relevant ministers are working on it. And they understand the need to get this process cracking and get it expedited. So I’m not sure that it’s right to say that nothing is happening. What they are saying is that they’re on the job. Each case is being considered quickly and those at risk of harm will be resettled to Australia as soon as possible. So, I think we’ve just got to keep our eye on this, and I think you are going to see results from this. But we’ve just got to be a little bit patient while these applications are processed, and they work through the system. But make no mistake — everyone in Parliament House is very aware of the need to get these folks out safely because they have done everything they can for us, and there is a huge moral responsibility on our nation to make sure that they are safe. So, everyone here is very aware of it, and I am assured that that process is being considered and acted upon swiftly. So, let’s hope that that process continues, and we get these folks out over here asap on the double.

Stephen Cenatiempo: Andrew Gee, thanks for your time this morning.

Andrew Gee: Thanks for having me on the show.

Ends

Open Arms — Veterans and Families Counselling provides support for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families. Free and confidential help is available 24/7. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546) or visit www.OpenArms.gov.au