Morning Show, Mark Rorke interview discussing the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide

Tuesday, November 30 2021

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

MARK RORKE: After a long and winding road last Friday, finally the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide began with all of the families and ex-service personnel starting in Brisbane to share their stories yesterday. Joining us to cover what the Royal Commission is hoping to achieve, what it will achieve and how those can be a part of it is the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel, Andrew Gee. Andrew, as always, thank you for your time. These stories will be hard for many to hear, certainly very hard for those to retell. But they really are the stories that the nation needs to hear. Good morning.

ANDREW GEE: Yes, good morning, Mark. They are heart breaking and tragic stories. They’re stories of loss and anguish and pain. And, as you said, difficult though these stories are to hear, our nation must listen to them and must hear them. Because those stories are being told in the hope that our country will ensure no one else has to go through what these veterans and their families have endured. We can’t let them down.

I believe that mistakes and failings must be acknowledged, the truth must be told and action must be taken. This is the moment. It’s a crucial piece of national work, and it is my hope that this Royal Commission can be a catalyst for positive change in the treatment and care of men and women of the ADF, veterans and also their families.

MARK RORKE: One way to look at this, Andrew, is that they are stories that are being told privately or perhaps not being told, those that are keeping the matters well within themselves. But can you take us through in a broad sense what the Royal Commission will actually be taking a look at?

ANDREW GEE: Well, obviously the Royal Commission is separate to the government. So the government doesn’t direct them.

MARK RORKE: Sure.

ANDREW GEE: But they’ll be looking at issues such as claims processing and the impact that processing veterans’ compensation claims has had on veterans’ welfare and how we can make that better. They’ll be looking at issues such as the harmonisation of these different pieces of veterans’ legislation that’s out there. They’ll be looking at the causes of Defence and veteran suicide and what we can do to prevent that from happening. They’ll be looking at transition – the transition between military and civilian life. And they’ll also be looking at issues such as new medical treatments, issues such as assault and sexual assault in the armed services and the impact that has had on veteran health and wellbeing and suicide.

So it is broad ranging. The government doesn’t tell the Royal Commission what to do; it’s totally up to them. But they are some of the issues that I believe the commission will be looking at.

MARK RORKE: Andrew, one thing that the government has facilitated is a way for those who do wish to engage with the royal commission. So can you tell us a little bit about the free legal advisory service that is up and running for those who would like to come forward and possibly be a part of what we’ve been talking about this morning?

ANDREW GEE: Yes, so those who are wanting to engage with the commission can do so. So there is a free legal service available for veterans or families or people wishing to engage with the commission. People can still make a submission, and the Defence and Veterans’ Legal Service is a free national service that provides independent information and legal advice to assist ADF personnel and veterans and their families to engage with the commission. That is funded by the Australian Government. You can call them on 1800 331 800. We’re also providing legal financial assistance for people giving evidence or other forms of formal engagement with the Royal Commission.

You can still send in a submission to the Royal Commission or you can actually book a private session. So people are invited to share their experiences and register for a private session if you so choose, and the Commission may hear your evidence publicly as well.

MARK RORKE: Andrew, the Royal Commission’s Interim Report will be released in August 2022 and then their final report almost a year later in July 2023. Is the government planning to wait for all of the reporting to come out, or as you see bits and pieces coming through start working on implementing any recommended changing immediately?

ANDREW GEE: Look, I think it’s very clear that the government’s got to get cracking on change straight away. There is a sense of urgency about this and we can’t wait for the Royal Commission to do that. So, for example, with claims processing, there’s a backlog of – 55,000 to 60,000 claims.

MARK RORKE: Wow.

ANDREW GEE: We need to clear that backlog with compassion and empathy and sympathy, and it needs to be done ASAP. So I’ve got people in there at the moment working out the most efficient way of doing that. You know, why is it taking so long to brief specialist doctors, for example? That's one bottleneck we’re looking at. We’ve got to get the claims backlog down.

We’ve got to get the transition peak down as well, this transition between military and civilian life. It has been described to me being in the ADF as being like an elite sports person – you’re in a highly focused group environment, very task orientated, and if you are suddenly taken out of that, for example, if you’re injured and suddenly your career is over, it can be very confronting. We’ve got to make sure that when our veterans exit the system they are as well prepared as possible. So as soon as you come into the ADF you’ve got to start thinking about what happens when my clear is finished. The average career lasts seven to 10 years.

But I think we’ve got long way to go, and we’ve got to make this transition courses compulsory. So, you know, when you’re young you think that nothing bad is ever going to happen to me. But we have to make these courses compulsory so when they come in they are forced to actually think about it and what happens when they leave. You know, there’s a lot of work to do. They’re just a couple of examples.

MARK RORKE: Yeah, and some great stuff there you mentioned, Andrew, particularly that forward planning aspect of it because, as we all know, seven to 10 years can go by very, very quickly. Well, the Royal Commission is happening right now. It will unfold over the next couple of years as the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide hearings have begun this week.

And a reminder, if you do need support or anyone in your family that’s doing it a bit tough, a couple of places you can reach out to: Open Arms Veterans’ and Families Counselling. That’s a free call, 1800 011 046. And you can remain anonymous by contacting Safe Zone Support, 1800 142 072. Those calls are confidential and never recorded. I’ll give you those numbers again in just a few minutes in case you missed them.

But, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and also the Minister for Defence Personnel Andrew Gee, always a pleasure. Some tough work ahead, but it is very important work for the nation. Thank you so much for your time.

ANDREW GEE: Thanks for having me on the show, Mark. Thank you for your support of veterans, and I just wanted to give my best wishes to everyone in the Hunter – the mighty Hunter where I grew up – who may be struggling with rising flood waters at the moment. I hope you’re getting through it okay.

** 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.