The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel
Mark Gibson: But right now let’s kick things off with the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, the details of which were unveiled today by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison. We know now that three commissioners will be in charge of this chaired by former New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Nick Kaldas, who led the United Nations investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria; James Douglas, a former Queensland Supreme Court judge; and, importantly, Dr Peggy Brown, a psychiatrist and mental health policy leader. This is a very important area — defence and veteran suicide. Veterans are over represented in this area, and we’ve really got to do something about it. If this is something that impacts you or your family, let us know — 133 882. Are you or were you a veteran or someone in your family who’s looking for answers in this very sensitive area?
In a moment I’ll be joined by a retired special forces major, but first up let’s go to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Andrew Gee. Welcome to Perth Live.
Andrew Gee: Thanks, Mark, great to be on the program.
Mark Gibson: Important issue, isn’t it? We’ve got to get this right.
Andrew Gee: Absolutely. This is a vitally important piece of national work which has commenced today. I took the paperwork over to the Governor-General earlier this mourning and he signed off on all of the commissioners and the commencement of the commission’s work. And I think it is a seminal moment in Australia’s treatment and care of veterans and their families, both for now in the present but also for future generations as well. And I’ve had already so much feedback — I’ve only been in the job less than a week — but I’ve already had a huge amount of feedback on how important this body of work is going to be and the evidence, traumatic though it will be, that this commission will receive and hear.
So I think that we need to use this opportunity to hear the evidence but then bring in lasting change for our veterans and their families because the truth of the matter is that we have always sent out Australia’s best and they have always given their best. But I think the reality is that our country and Australia hasn’t always given its best in return in terms of the care and treatment of our veterans. Look at the Vietnam War, for example, the way our veterans were treated when they came home. That was absolutely appalling. My uncle was a nasho or went and did his time in Vietnam. And then move to the present day where you’ve got veterans telling me that they often just feeling like numbers, totally demoralised by a system and a bureaucracy. And I can understand it. And I think we’ve got to make changes, and I don’t think that we need to wait until the end of this royal commission to make those changes. I think we’ve got to move on them as soon as this evidence comes in. We’ve got to be thinking about what changes that we can implement to make life better not only for the veterans but also their families. Because for a long, long time it’s been the families that have been left to pick up the pieces from shattered lives. And I think as a country we can be doing better. We have to give them our best, and there’s money in the budget to get this royal commission going straight away. There’s money in the budget for more claims processing officers. But I think the key that we’ve got to really turn to unlock some of this stuff is cutting through the red tape and the bureaucracy and making sure that this money is well spent, that the resources are being wisely deployed and that, for example, the 440 new claims processing staff that we’re going to put on are actually going to get the job done and assess these claims fairly but, more importantly, faster as well. Most importantly faster. Get that job done and get the help to where it’s needed quickly.
Mark Gibson: All right. So focusing on this royal commission then, we’ve seen the Terms of Reference now. We can sort of get a sense of how this is going to play out. Systemic risk factors will be examined. Just elaborate on this. What are they looking into? What are they hoping to find and uncover and improve?
Andrew Gee: Well, I think they’re going to be hearing of individual experiences. And a lot of those experiences are going to be very, very traumatic and heart breaking. There’s no two ways about it. But I think what the royal commission will then do is from these awful experiences try to make recommendations to improve the lives of veterans and their families. And the commission is unfettered in the issues it can look at, so it will be guided by the evidence it hears and the directions that it wants to take. And one of the things about this commission is that the veterans have said that they didn’t want people from the Defence establishment running the commission. I can understand that. They wanted it to be at arm’s length. And I think in Nick Kaldas and in Peggy Brown, who has the eminent background in psychiatry and James Douglas, who’s an eminent former judge and jurist, I think between the three commissioners you’ve got a very solid and sound balance between mental health, the legal aspect of it but also the investigative aspect of it as well. And I think having Nick Kaldas there who is a former Deputy Commissioner of the New South Wales Police, he’s investigated weapons of mass destruction in Syria, I think you need an investigator on board for this. You need a blood hound that can follow the evidence. So I think there’s a real good balance there and it will be up to the commission to follow that evidence, get those recommendations that will make life better for our veterans and their families, because they deserve nothing less.
Mark Gibson: Sure do. And the very best that we can give them. Australian Andrew Gee’s the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, newly appointed. Minister, one of the areas that really affects veterans when they finish their service, they seem to slip — another area they’re over represented in is homelessness. And I read a figure today that said one in 10 rough sleepers is a veteran. I found that a little hard to believe, but, you know, is that an area that, for instance, will be addressed in the royal commission? I couldn’t really see anything specifically in the terms of reference.
Andrew Gee: Yeah, the terms of reference do actually refer to housing issues. I haven’t got them just in front of me, but I can get that for you. So, yes, the royal commission will be able to look at that fact. That is something that I raised with the department here and I wanted to make sure that that was ticked off on. So, yes, that is something that can be dealt with and can be looked at. And so obviously we’re trying to get some visibility at the moment on how widespread this problem is. The figures vary, so it depends who you talk to as to what the level of homelessness is. But definitely there is a term of reference in there that deals with the issue of housing for veterans and as the Minister it’s something that I will be getting some visibility on as well because I want to know the extent of this problem and if there is a large problem what we’re going to do to fix it. So the royal commission can certainly look into that issue.
Mark Gibson: Busy time to be taking on this portfolio. So just give us a time frame, finally. What’s the time frame here for sitting, reporting? How’s this going to play out?
Andrew Gee: Well, the website’s up and running now, so if veterans or their families want to make a submission, there is the ability to do that. I think it’s www.royalcommission.gov.au/veterans. So I would encourage any veteran out there or family member that wants to share an experience or a story or make a submission and have their voice heard to do so. I think it’s really important that we take this opportunity to get as many submissions as possible. And that will also help guide the commission and the work of the commissioners.
The interim report is due on the 11th of August next year and then a final report on the 15th of June ’23. Now, so it’s a two-year time frame, but one of the things as Minister that I don’t want to see is us standing still and saying, “Well, we’ve just got to wait until the end of this royal commission until we actually do something.” I think that as the evidence as comes in, there are things that we can be doing here and now. And one of the things that I want to be looking at as the Veterans’ Affairs Minister is also how we make the Department of Veterans’ Affairs faster in terms of its response times for treatment. So I think I’m going to have a look at whether we need more clinical expertise within the department, what we need to do to take clinical advice.
I also want to actually make sure that when new treatments are proven — and there are some very promising new treatments out there for example, for PTSD — how we get that to veterans quickly and that we don’t just get tangled up in red tape. And I think the extra funding in the budget — I think we got an extra $775 million in extra funding in this budget — which is great, but we’ve just got to make sure that we’re not creating layers and layers of bureaucracy and that our veterans feel that they are treated as humans in this system. And I think sometimes — look, with the best will in the world, the government’s been trying really hard to help veterans, but the feedback that I’ve had for some veterans — not all — is that when they come off active duty and they are put into the DVA system and they need to seek treatment, sometimes they are shunted from case officer to case officer. There is a backlog of claims that needs to be cleared up. That needs to happen as soon as possible. We don’t need to wait for the royal commission to do that.
Mark Gibson: Yeah.
Andrew Gee: We’re putting on 440-odd new staff to help process veteran compo claims, which I think is really positive. But that’s the first part of the equation. The second part of the equation is making sure that those people are working as effectively as they can be for veterans and their family members. That’s the key. We’ve got to take the whipper snipper through the red tape and get help where it’s needed quickly.
Mark Gibson: Thanks, Minister, appreciate your time.
Andrew Gee: Thanks for having me on the show, Mark.
Mark Gibson: Andrew Gee, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs in Canberra.
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