ABC News Breakfast, Michael Rowland interview discussing the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide

Monday, November 29 2021

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

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Change of gears, the long-awaited Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide begins public hearings in Brisbane today. Veterans Affairs minister Andrew Gee joins us now from parliament House in Canberra. Minister, a very good morning to you.

ANDREW GEE: Good morning to you and also all of your viewers.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: It's a very important day, a long-awaited day for so many families and friends of veterans who have taken their lives. What do you hope this commission will provide to them?

ANDREW GEE: Well, I think we want this Royal Commission to be a watershed moment in the treatment of ADF personnel, veterans and their families. I believe that the nation is going to hear some very devastating and tragic stories, but they are stories that our nation must hear because we want to make things better for veterans and their families. I think a lot of the families who will be giving evidence - and I've spoken to quite a few of them - they want to make sure that no other family members have to go through what they went through, so it is going to be very difficult, it is going to be very traumatic in many ways - both for serving ADF personnel and veterans, and many others - but this is a very important piece of national work that we are undertaking. It is going to be a watershed moment. We need to make sure that this Royal Commission delivers lasting results in the treatment of veterans and their families and serving ADF personnel.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: And just on that front, Nick Kaldas who as you know, is the commission's chair says he hopes this Royal Commission is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for lasting, fundamental change. Are you hoping that there will be, I guess, systemic changes to the defence forces as a result of whatever the commission comes up with?

ANDREW GEE: Absolutely. We want this to be a catalyst for change. As a government, we cannot be waiting for the Royal Commission to conclude to get cracking on reform. Indeed, that reform process is already under way. We're trying to get rid of, for example, the backlog of claims, get veteran compensation claims working more efficiently and in a better way to serve veterans and their family members.

Because for too often in the treatment of veterans, and veteran welfare, it's been the families that have been left to pick up the pieces. Sadly, you know, it's been that way for generations. Since Australia was first sending men and women into harm's way, I don't think this is something that the nation has ever really got on top of. When veterans came back from past conflicts, they were basically left to fend for themselves, their families were too often left to pick up the pieces. Look what happened to our Vietnam Vets, not only did they have the trauma of war to deal with, they had the trauma of coming back and a nation turning its back on them and throwing things at them as they marched through the streets, being locked out of the RSL's. It's been something that this nation has not been able to come to terms with for a long time. I think we're getting there now. But I think this Royal Commission really needs to be the watershed moment and the landmark moment for lasting change. And we will make sure that it is.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Lot of families remain unhappy, as you'd be aware, with some of the answers they have got from defence about the death of their loved ones. Does the commission, minister, have the power to coerce senior defence departmental officials to appear before it?

ANDREW GEE: The Royal Commission has got broad-ranging powers. So, they have immense power, but where they need more power, then we should be working to give it to them.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: So, you'd welcome the power to ask, instruct even, defence department officials to appear to be cross-examined?

ANDREW GEE: Well, I think you're going to see that there will be officials appearing before the Royal Commission. I think that's a given. But where we can do more to help families get information, and in some cases get closure, then we should be doing it. A good example is helping them get documents which they need to give them some sort of closure. And I think that where governments can be doing that, and being open and providing families with that information, we should definitely be doing it.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: A very important, if not a very solemn, day for so many veteran families. Minister, I appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for coming on.

ANDREW GEE: Thank you Michael. I just want folks to know that if any ADF personnel, veterans or their families need any help out there in terms of counselling or support, we've got Open Arms 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or Safe Zone Support, which is the anonymous counselling service. It is there if you need it.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Appreciate that, Minister. We're just putting those numbers up on the screen for our viewers now.

 ** End of transcript **

Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling provides 24/7 free confidential crisis support for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families on 1800 011 046 or the Open Arms website. Safe Zone Support provides anonymous counselling on 1800 142 072. Defence All-Hours Support Line provides support for ADF personnel on 1800 628 036 or the Department of Defence website. Defence Member and Family Helpline provides support for Defence families on 1800 624 608.