Speech: National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention

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House of Representatives, Canberra, 21 October 2020
 **Check against delivery**

Thank you Speaker.

While every single piece of legislation that passes through this House is important, the opportunity to contribute to this Debate today is something I am particularly passionate about.

It is an honour to be a part of the discussion about this incredibly important issue.

When I first nominated to run in the seat of Herbert, the unacceptable rate of suicide in the defence and veteran community was unashamedly my biggest driving force.

As someone who has buried far too many mates and felt the tears and heart wrenching grief of family and loved ones who’ve lost someone, I say to this House that Governments – of all persuasions – had not done nearly enough to provide real solutions to this life and death issue.

I hope this Bill changes that forever.

Speaker, after sitting on the sidelines feeling furious about the lack of meaningful action, I recognised that throwing rocks from the sidelines was easy but at the end of the day, it didn’t change anything.

The only way to be part of the solution was from inside the tent where the decisions are made.

I’m privileged that the people of Townsville have allowed me that seat at the table and in this House.

Today it is an honour to stand in this House and be a part of the Government that is providing those solutions that we in the defence and veteran community have been seeking for many years.

Mr Speaker, we talk about the fact that there have been more than 400 suicides within the defence and veteran community in less than 20 years.

It is important to me that we take the time to reflect that those people are so much more than another statistic.

More than 400 people who were husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, best friends.

More than 400 people for whom the lives of their family, friends and loved ones will never be the same.

More than 400 people who had already contributed so much to our nation and who had so much more before them.

Unfortunately, as I am sure we will all agree, a flawed system let every single one of those people down.

When they couldn’t find the help or support they needed, they eventually succumbed to the war within.

That includes 10 mates who were very dear to me and who I mourn the loss of every single day.

I would like it on the record that these people were strong, motivated, confident, charismatic and amazing people who had their entire lives in front of them.

Unfortunately, on a given day, at a given moment, they just couldn’t see past the darkness that tormented them.

When I moved the Private Members’ Motion on the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention – originally seconded by a colleague on the opposite side of the house, the former Member for Eden-Monaro a Labor Member – Mike Kelly – I could finally see a light at the end of what has been a very long and tragic tunnel.

At last, there was a focus on meaningful change that would shine a light into the darkest corners of what can only be described as a national shame where our defence and veteran community didn’t feel supported in the way they needed.

Since I moved that Motion on the appointment of a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, I have been contacted by many hundreds of people.

I would like to thank each and every one of those people for their contribution and welcome their engagement.

Speaker, while the majority of people who have contacted me support the introduction of a National Commissioner, I would also like to acknowledge in this House those people who do not.

I would like to assure those people that they too have a voice and it has been heard.

I understand their concerns and would like it noted in this House that my decision to support a National Commissioner is not something I have taken lightly.

I feel the weight heavily and know I must do everything within my power to honour the memory of the hundreds of men and women who are no longer here with us today.

To the families, loved ones and friends of the defence personnel and veterans who have died by suicide- I say to you that I support the National Commissioner for one reason.

I truly believe it is the only avenue that will provide the ongoing powers and obligations that are necessary to help eliminate defence and veteran suicide.

The Commissioner will start work immediately with an Independent Review of past Defence and Veteran suicides.

This is an extremely important step if we are to ever truly fix this devastating issue.

Under the legislation, the Commissioner will not be constrained by a certain endpoint in time.

They will be able to investigate suicides that have occurred in the defence and veteran community for those who have served one day or more since the 1st of January 2001.

This is extremely important – and this is one of the key reasons that the establishment of the National Commissioner is a step in the right direction.

This will be a rolling, ongoing, process, looking at each and every incidence as the Commissioner sees fit.

There should be no inhibiting factors that will prevent them investigating whatever they deem necessary to prevent another life being needlessly lost.

It is also imperative that families and loved ones are not forced to wait years on end for the results of these investigations to be released.

Time is of the essence and that is why an interim report will be drafted within 12 months of commencement, with a final report due within an 18-month period.

That report is only final in the sense that it is the final report of the interim review – not the final report of the National Commissioner.

That is because there won’t be a final report of the Commissioner. Unlike a Royal Commission which has a clear end, the National Commissioner is a rolling appointment and will report back to Government and the Australian people every year.

The annual report will be tabled in the Parliament and may draw on any or all aspects of the National Commissioner’s functions or powers.

The Commissioner will also have the freedom to address urgent matters as they see fit.

For example, if they believe not enough action has been taken on a particular issue, they’ll bring an additional report to the Australian Parliament.

The Government of the day will be held to account for its actions or inactions, by being required to respond in writing to those reports, and table those responses in Parliament.

Importantly, the National Commissioner’s job never stops. It keeps going, it keeps investigating, it keeps reporting, it keeps assessing.

Mr Speaker, in memory of and respect for every single defence member and veteran who has succumbed to their war within, nothing less will do.

The National Commissioner must also have teeth.

Something I am incredibly proud of in this Bill is the very extensive powers that it outlines, including conducting inquiries, holding hearings, requiring the giving of information or production of documents and applying for search warrants.

For inquiries, the Commissioner can look into the person’s service in the ADF, including their training or transition out of the ADF and the issues connected to when they entered and when they left.

They can investigate the availability of the health, wellbeing and counselling support at the time and their effectiveness, as well as the quality and effectiveness of responses to any complaints made by them or their family.

And key to this function will be looking into whether the circumstances of a tragic death reflects broader or systemic issues contributing to defence and veteran suicide rates.

Hearings will be public – except in very specific and extenuating circumstances – and held in a manner which the Commissioner sees fit.

Another power is that which allows summons of a person to give evidence or produce documents.
Not doing so will be an offence and subject to prosecution and punishment.

People may also be required by the Commissioner to take an oath or affirmation – and if they’re not willing to do so, that will also constitute an offence.

The Commissioner can also apply for search warrants – effectively giving them and their authorised members the power to undertake investigations to get the full picture surrounding a death.

There are also provisions in the Bill to enable the Commissioner and the state and territory Coroners to work collaboratively by sharing certain information, but without duplicating or replacing their role.

The Commissioner, Dr Boss has significant experience in both the legal field and military.
She also started her career as a nurse, which means she knows what it’s like to be at the coal face of this issue.

The fact that she has already held inquests and hearings into suicides allows her to come to the role with a deep understanding and knowledge of the very heart of the issues at hand which is going to be vital in getting this process right.

Since standing alongside the Prime Minister earlier this year and announcing the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention – I have told people that it is their job to hold us all in this place, and in the new office of the Commissioner, to account.

It is something we must never forget, and I make the promise to all Australians that the honour and privilege of being in this House and representing them will remain front of my mind today and every day.

Tuesday was my “Alive Day”.

It was the day, 11 years ago, that I was blown up by an Improved Explosive Device in Afghanistan.

That day changed my life forever. I went to a very dark place and almost lost everything and everyone that I hold dear.

The war within and long battle back from PTSD was a living nightmare. I did things and acted in ways that to this day, I am not proud of and would undo in a heartbeat.

My saving grace was the love and support of my wife Jenna and our network of family and friends who helped bring me back from the darkness.

Today, I am married to the love of my life, have two amazing young daughters and get to represent the wonderful people of Townsville in the House of Representatives.

I do not take a single moment of that existence for granted.

Every day, I think about those 400 plus defence members and veterans who aren’t here to have the same opportunities and feel devastated at that loss.

I’m devastated for them, their families and loved ones, and our nation more broadly.

While there is no one silver bullet, the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention is a monumental step in the right direction.

We must keep going with this fight for change until those who are in the darkness within our defence and veteran community feel supported enough to find their light again.

In honour of the mates I have lost, their families, friends and loved ones who grieve that loss daily- and the many of hundreds of others who share that pain – I commend this Bill to the House.

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