• John McDonnell

Morrison wedged on Vets royal commission

At the end of last week’s parliamentary session, the senate voted unanimously for a motion calling on the government to establish a royal commission into veterans and defence suicides. The government senators were in a clear minority and decided it wasn’t worth the political ignominy they would incur if they opposed the bill.

The government’s preferred position is to have a standing commissioner, who would have all the powers of a royal commission and who would exist in perpetuity to examine every suicide on a case-by-case basis. Veterans' organisations oppose this because they want the public attention and broad recommendations a royal commission will deliver.

The prime minister is boxed in. The motion will come back to the House of Reps this week and cross benchers Bob Katter and Craig Kelly have said they will vote for it. In addition, several Nationals backbenchers have said they will cross the floor. Rather than lose a vote on the floor of the house, the government will probably pass the motion on the voices.

This will still leave the timing of the royal commission in the hands of the government and the tip is that it will be announced close to the election.

The motion notes Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel have a suicide rate of less than half that of the wider community while serving, but nearly twice the general population rate once they leave.

It calls on the Morrison government to establish a royal commission into the rate of suicide among current and former ADF personnel.

Tasmanian independent senator Jacqui Lambie has been among the loudest advocates, saying on Thursday night:

"Literally every single senator - Labor, Greens, every crossbencher and every government senator - just voted to call on the prime minister to establish a royal commission into veteran suicide."

Bob Katter says soldiers and veterans should be the pride of Australia:

"If any of the government's north Queensland MPs are thinking about voting against this royal commission, then they should think again.
"My electorate has many retired soldiers and navy personnel in the southern Cairns area and Townsville's northern beaches.
"I am losing sleep at night over this suicide crisis."

Ironically, one of the recommendations likely to be put forward by a royal commission is the establishment of a standing commission to examine each veteran’s suicide on a case-by-case basis so that remedial action cam be refined over time.

At the moment there is no proposal before parliament to establish a standing commission. The government quietly shelved plans to do so late last year.

Legislation underpinning the national watchdog was withdrawn in December after failing to secure support from Labor and the Senate cross bench.

Opponents described the proposal as a "glorified coroner" and a dog's breakfast.

They argued it fell far short of what is needed to address the unacceptably high rates of suicide among serving and former ADF members.

At the time, Attorney-General Christian Porter said the government remained opposed to launching a royal commission, saying:

"We have committed to this model because we think it is a superior approach and in the better interests of the people it is meant to serve.
"It can do everything that a royal commission does except it goes on into perpetuity. It can look into the past, it can prepare and make policy changes for the future."

This is another situation where good policy, recommended by experts, is likely to be rejected in favour of a political fix driven by raw emotion.

Anyone looking for information, support and guidance from mental health professionals can contact the SANE Help Centre on 1800 187 263 or helpline@sane.org from 10am-10pm AEST Monday to Friday. For anyone in crisis, please call:

  • Lifeline 13 11 14

  • Suicide Call Back Line 1800 659 467

  • Mensline 1300 789 978

  • KidsHelpline 1800 551 800