Australia Today, Steve Price interview discussing the commencement of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide

Thursday, November 25 2021

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

STEVE PRICE: The veteran suicide Royal Commission starts hearings in Brisbane tomorrow. Veterans’ Affairs Minister Andrew Gee is on the line. Thanks for your time, Minister.

ANDREW GEE: Good morning, Steve. Good morning, everyone. Great to be on the show.

STEVE PRICE: Just before we get to the Royal Commission, that Heston Russell petition, we spoke to him on the program about it last week. He and his group were obviously involved heavily in that operation in Afghanistan and they were most disappointed that the ABC put to air a story based on evidence from someone in a helicopter not seeing what happened but saying they heard a pop. Did you have anything to do with helping that petition get up and able to be signed now?

ANDREW GEE: No, not personally. But I would make these general observations, that when there is reporting on issues like this we need to keep in mind that there is a presumption of innocence in Australia. There is a clearly defined legal process which allegations need to go through, and when allegations are made in the media they can have a devastating effect on those concerned and they can have a devastating effect on people’s health.

So I think that when these issues are reported we’ve just got to understand that they are very serious allegations, that they can be defamatory and that they need to be sent through the proper processes rather than tried through the media. I’m not making any particular comment on the facts of this case, but we need to keep in mind that there is a presumption of innocence whenever there is reporting on this because there are people’s lives that we’re talking about here, and the effects can be devastating. So we’ve just got to be very careful about that.

We have the Office of the Special Investigator that has been put in place to deal with any of these types of allegations. They have a big team of investigators, and that is the appropriate body to be investigating it and, if necessary, airing these allegations and weighing any evidence. But Defence is not currently conducting any investigation into that matter. What the Office of Special Investigator is doing is up to it. But we just need to be very careful – everyone – when we’re talking about these types of allegations.

STEVE PRICE: It’s been a long time coming, this Royal Commission. It will be a ceremonial opening tomorrow and then public hearings will take place from Monday. It’s being held at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre in Glenelg Street. Why has it taken us so long to get to this point given the tragic stories that we’ve heard of veteran suicide post service in the Middle East? It seems to have taken an inordinate amount of time to strike up this Royal Commission and get it moving.

ANDREW GEE: Well, look, I think the important point is that the work of the Royal Commission has started. And I want it to be a watershed moment in how we look after our service personnel, our veterans and their families both now and into the future. What I want to see from the Royal Commission is that it is a catalyst for positive long-term change in the treatment of veterans and their families. It needs to be.

Our country asks so much of the men and women who serve us. We’re very proud of them, and we owe it to them to make sure that they get the best possible care and support they need and deserve and the best possible care and support that our country can provide. I think that over the course of the Royal Commission the nation will hear some very devastating and tragic stories, but they are stories that the nation has to hear and needs to hear.

From my point of view I won’t be waiting for the findings of the Royal Commission to get started on critical reforms that are needed. In fact, that work is already being done. But it’s very positive that this Commission is now underway and that the nation is going to hear this very difficult evidence.

I just want anyone in the ADF and also veterans to know that there is support out there. There’s 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a week support through Open Arms, which is the Veterans and Families Counselling service on 1800 011 046, or if you want to remain anonymous you can call Safe Zone Support on 1800 142 072. You don’t actually even have to seek counselling; you can just ring up and have a chat if you want to. There will be some very difficult evidence, but I think it’s vitally important work that the nation needs to hear. And good on everyone who’s been pushing for this Royal Commission.

STEVE PRICE: We’ve heard over the years from a number of family relatives – Julie-Ann Finney’s case is well known; her son Dave took his own life, medically discharged from the Navy in 2017 and just felt helpless and could not get any assistance and tragically took his own life. We’ve heard these stories, and there’s a commonality to many of them. So what are we attempting to achieve here with this Royal Commission? We already know that there are faults in the system and faults in the way returned veterans have been treated – lack of psychological help, a system that basically on discharge pays out returning veterans and then there’s little follow-up. If we already know those things don’t work properly, why have we had to wait to get a Royal Commission to make a change? I mean you – I’m not being critical of you, Andrew, because you’re a relatively newly appointed minister. But this has been going on now for years and years and years.

ANDREW GEE: It’s been going on for generations, since we’ve been sending men and women into harm’s way. And if you look at what has happened through the years, our returning men and women have basically, over a long period of time – not always – but they’ve often had to fend for themselves. You look at the way the Vietnam Veterans were treated, for example. It was often – and still is – it’s the families who have to pick up the pieces. I think the families of loved ones who’ve been lost to suicide, I think they want to have their stories told. They want the nation to hear these stories so we can make things better.

For example, there’s a whole lot of practical things we can be doing, and I’m trying to move heaven and earth to get them done. One thing we can be doing is getting this backlog of claims, getting it sorted out. I mean, there are tens of thousands of claims jammed up in the system at the moment. I’ve got people in there now trying to clear the backlog. We’ve got hundreds of new claims processing staff on board. I’m trying to get a plan together, and I’ve got people in there now who next month are going to tell me how we can make this whole system and the production line more efficient.

So there is work going underway. The work on the transition from military to civilian life and how we make that better – that work is underway. But, you know, it’s an ongoing piece of work. So, for example, as soon as someone comes into the military – and the average career is seven to 10 years – we need to be thinking and they need to be thinking about, well, what does life look like when you transition out and how do we give our veterans that sense of purpose.

It’s often described, being in the military, as being an elite sportsperson – you’re in a close-knit environment, it’s very much a team environment, there’s a high sense of mission and purpose. But if, for example, suddenly you’re taken out of that through, for example, injury, what support is there and how do we actually get that transition process working better for veterans but also their families who I’ve said have too often had to pick up the pieces from all of this.

So getting that work going is another really important thing that I’m working on at the moment. We’ve got different pieces of veterans’ legislation so we’ve got all these different acts when you put in a compensation claim. They’re hard to understand. I don’t know how our veterans understand it. I mean, you know, I’ve practiced as a lawyer and I struggle with it to be honest with you. So I’m trying to get all of that harmonised. There’s a lot of stuff that we’re working on.

I think that we have made some good progress in recent years, but make no mistake about it, we’ve still got a long way to go and a lot of work to do, and we shouldn’t try to play that down. There is a long way to go. But we are moving on it. I think that veterans can take some comfort from knowing that that work is underway.

If you look at where we were a few years ago to where we are now, there have been some really positive advances. A lot of our veterans are doing well. Not every veteran has had a bad experience. Our ex-service organisations want the country to know that. But by the same token, these stories – and you speak to the families of them – and they are heart breaking stories. And I agree with you and I agree with the families. I listen to them and I just think it should never have got to this point. That’s the cold, hard truth of it. We’ve got to do everything that we can. It’s a national mission. It crosses party lines.

It is going to take a long time as we move forward to put these processes in place. But the work has started and we are making progress. But, as you say, it is a shame that through the generations we haven’t been able to get on top of this. But this Royal Commission process is an important part of this national project, and it is a national project. So this evidence that we’re going to hear is vitally important.

As I said, it’s going to be tragic and devastating, but the families and the veterans, they want their stories told and their experiences told, and we have to hear it. So I would just encourage as many people to engage with the Royal Commission as possible. There are still way thanks you can make a submission and have your voice heard. Again, there is plenty of strong support, both legal support but also counselling support, out there for anyone who needs it.

STEVE PRICE: More power to you. Let’s hope that we do get a positive result out of it. It will be difficult to listen to. We will keep reporting on it right through the whole commission. Thanks for your time, Minister.

ANDREW GEE: Well, thank you for your support for veterans, Steve. I really appreciate it, and I know the public does as well.

STEVE PRICE: Good on you. Veterans’ Affairs Minister Andrew Gee. If you want to watch the start of the Royal Commission from Monday you can go to the Royal Commission website or their Facebook page. Hearing block 1 will be livestreamed on that website.

** 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.