4BC, Neil Breen interview discussing the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide

Friday, July 9 2021

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

Neil Breen: The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has officially launched a royal commission into veteran and defence personnel suicides. The royal commission will examine systemic issues and common themes related to Defence and veteran suicides, head by former Deputy Commissioner of the New South Wales Police Force Nick Kaldas, supported by former Queensland Supreme Court Justice James Douglas QC and psychiatrist Dr Peggy Brown. An interim report due August 11 next year and a final report, June 15, 2023. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is Andrew Gee. Minister, good morning.

Andrew Gee: Good morning; great to be on 4BC this morning with you.

Neil Breen: Great to have you here. The Prime Minister first announced this Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide in April. Why did it take until yesterday to be finalised?

Andrew Gee: Well, look, you’ve got to go through the motions of getting the commissioners sorted, you’ve got to get a budget appropriation to actually fund the royal commission. So there’s about $150 million of funding for the commission itself. There’s more funding for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. So it’s around $180 million or 175, $180 million all together that’s going to fund this royal commission. And so there are quite a lot of moving parts to it. Then you’ve got to go out to public consultation on the terms of the royal commission. Now, there have been thousands of pieces of feedback which have come in on that, and I know that the Attorney-General’s Department has received thousands of pieces of feedback. I know that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has also received feedback. So over 3,000 pieces of individual feedback all in all. And also the veterans and veterans’ groups have to be consulted. So it’s a big job putting a royal commission together. But I took the paperwork over to Government House and saw the Governor-General yesterday. He is a veteran. He signed off on the letters patent which started the royal commission and it is now open. So you can actually make submissions to the royal commission by going on to the website. It’s Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide. And I would encourage anyone with an experience or a point of view to make use of that and make their voice heard.

And we’re going to hear some very difficult and tragic and traumatic stories, I believe, in the days and months and weeks and years ahead. But I think we have to go through this in order to make life better for our veterans and their families both for now and in the present but also into the future. It’s a really important piece of national work that we are undertaking here.

Neil Breen: Absolutely. And you’re right, it is going to be troubling. It is going to be triggering for a lot of Defence personnel and former Defence personnel who’ve been to too many funerals of their friends and colleagues. I’m hoping that you’ve got some extra support ready to go to deal with that and that consequence, I guess, of the commission.

Andrew Gee: Yeah, the Prime Minister has made that very clear. And so if you’re going to be a witness at the royal commission there is financial support. There is also counselling support there for folks who are making submissions. And the Prime Minister said yesterday that we’ll be guided by the commissioner. So if more resources and help is needed, support people who are interacting with the royal commission, then we will certainly put that into place. But also for veterans and families, there’s the Open Arms counselling service on 1800 011 046 that they can call. And also for serving ADF members and their families members there’s a support line, all hours, 1800 628 036. I would encourage anyone who is feeling distressed by the commencement of the royal commission or feels distressed and under pressure and needs help to take advantage of those lines. Because we are here to assist people and get through this as best we can.

We understand that we need to hear this evidence, but we’re going to try to do it in the most sensitive way possible for our veterans and their families

Neil Breen: I’ve got 30 seconds, Minister, and I need to cover off on this: how will whistleblowers be protected

Andrew Gee: Whistleblowers will be protected. So the commissioners have full discretion to take evidence confidentially and identities can be protected. So that’s provided for very well I think in the terms of reference. I’ve been through them with a fine-tooth comb before they were released publicly. And I’m satisfied that those protections are there. So if there are folks that have difficult stories to tell, there may be stories involving wrongdoing, I would just encourage those people to come forward and let their voices be heard, because that’s what this process is all about. And I think the cold, hard truth is that we ask so much of this young men and women that we send out into harm’s way. They give us their best. They are our best. But the reality is that if you look back through our history, we haven’t always given them our best in return. From the Vietnam era, for example, right down to the present day where, even with the best will in the world and all of the government support, you’ve still got veterans feeling like numbers, feeling that they aren’t valued. That has got to change. We’re going to get cracking on reforms, not wait until after the royal commission finishes, but beforehand, and we’re going to take a whipper snipper to some of this red tape which is holding up some of these claims.

Neil Breen: All right. I did only have 30 seconds, but I gave you a minute. Thank you, Andrew Gee, the Veterans’ Affairs Minister. And if this story has affected you at all or you need someone to talk to, 13 11 14, or that Defence number, 1800 628 036.

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