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April 19, 2021

BRENDAN O'CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Thanks very much for coming this afternoon. I just want to respond to the comments of the Prime Minister in announcing a Royal Commission into veteran suicides. Labor has been calling for a Royal Commission for veteran suicides since December 2019. It is a tragedy that we have seen so many deaths as a result of veterans self harming and suiciding since seeing active service and involved in the ADF. It's certainly therefore welcomed that the Prime Minister, belatedly, has chosen to make this decision.

Can I make it very clear Labor has been seeking a Royal Commission into veteran suicides for well over a year. The idea that this significant problem was to be dealt with by a standing commission that did not have the authority, that did not have sufficient independence, did not have the resources and the standing that a Royal Commission has was always flawed. It was for that reason that the legislation proposed by the government sat in the Senate friendless, without support from the crossbench, or indeed ultimately from any non-government senator.

It is for that reason too that on the 22nd of March the House of Representatives unanimously passed a motion to support the principle of the Royal Commission. But this was always going to be about the government taking action. And we are glad to see the government has made a decision, although it does seem it has done so begrudgingly, belatedly and because of the pressure that has been brought to bear upon them by the veterans' community, the veterans' families.

If anyone has spoken to Julie-Ann Finney, as I have, as many members of Parliament have and others have, about the tragedy of her son suiciding, David, and they would understand why she and other parents and family members of veterans needed to see this decision today.

If anyone has spoken with Heston Russell, a former ADF personnel in Afghanistan about his comrades and what has happened to many of them since they have left that conflict, they would be clear that this decision should have been made earlier. But we do support the decision because of the need to redress this national blight.

Think of it this way. We have had 41 tragic deaths in the Afghan war during the time of battle which is, of course, a great tragedy. It has been reported that over 500 veterans have suicided in that same time period, more than a tenfold increase than those who tragically died at war during the Afghan war. I think that underlines why it is so important that we see this matter dealt with.

It is also of concern to the Federal Opposition that the minister responsible for the consultation process did at some point in time say he could not see the point of this Royal Commission. So we do hope the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Veterans have changed their view on the need for a Royal Commission.

I just need to touch one other matter which was of course, the decision by the Minister for Defence this morning to not go ahead with the revocation of citations to a particular task force, as recommended by the Brereton report. I agree with that decision. Labor supports the notion that those ADF personnel that are free from wrongdoing should not be adversely affected by a recommendation, by that very important Brereton inquiry. We do believe it is possible to exempt from revocation all of those innocent ADF personnel and we only hoped that that decision to not proceed with the recommendation would have been made earlier.

We do believe that the Defence Minister made the right decision, but those ADF personnel, where a recommendation to remove their Meritorious Unit Citation have been waiting for almost five months and that is five months too long but we do welcome that decision.

I'm happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST: Cameron Gooley from the ABC here. I just wanted to start with the Meritorious Unit Citation issue this morning. So Labor is welcoming those, but what position do you this pushed General Angus Campbell, do think it's appropriate for them to overturn the recommendation that he made?

O'CONNOR: Well just a couple of things in relation to that. I noted that at the time of the release of the Brereton report, the CDF, Angus Campbell, was making the announcement without being accompanied by the Minister for Defence. Labor felt that was very odd at the time, that the first public comments to be made about significant inquiry was made with the CDF without the Minister for Defence accompanying the CDF.

So we would say firstly it seemed very unusual that the government chose not to be involved in the initial response to the release of the Brereton report and then of course subsequently, Angus Campbell was then in a position, it seemed, having to make further public comments and engage with the media, again, without the presence of the Minister for Defence or the Prime Minister which we found, I have to say, quite unprecedented. Therefore, a lack of leadership frankly, by the government not actually making comment about that report and leaving it entirely up to the CDF of the Australian Defence Force.

In relation to the decision today, the Defence Minister has said there are new facts that are now available to him for him to make this decision. Now, frankly, they did leave the CDF exposed unfairly by not accompanying him on public comments originally. And secondly if there are new facts that have now changed the government's mind in relation to this recommendation of the Brereton report, then those facts, as referred to by Minister Dutton today, should be presented publicly so that the public are aware as to what facts would have changed the mind of the government in relation to this recommendation.

To date, we have not been presented with any new evidence and therefore, we can only conclude that the Defence Minister has decided to make a decision at odds with Angus Campbell, the head of the Australian Defence Force.

JOURNALIST: So, then they technically overruled this recommendation, do you think that's appropriate?

O'CONNOR: Well, I note this, that the CDF, Angus Campbell, some couple of weeks I think after his initial comments made clear by press statement that none of the recommendations of the Brereton inquiry had been formally agreed to. So I think it is fair to say that on reflection, Angus Campbell made clear that whilst he had a certain view, he made clear that those decisions in relation to the recommendations of the Brereton inquiry were not decisions that had been made by government.

I have to say, it would have been fairer and expected that the Government make its decision and its view clear on this. We have a Defence Minister today saying something that is completely contrary to his predecessor, the former Defence Minister. So I think it is important to note that this portfolio area has been in a mess now for a very long time. We've had six Defence Ministers in eight years. We have issues with the largest contracts of defence assets in our history. We have contradictions between former and current Defence Ministers in relation to serious inquiries. The Government needs to get his house in order to deal with these issues.

JOURNALIST: The Government was saying that they're were opposed to a Royal Commission because they sought to achieve the same ends through their proposed National Commissioner. (INAUDIBLE)? What was the Labor's issue with the National Commissioner as it was (INAUDIBLE)?

O'CONNOR: Well as I made clear in my opening, there may be a role for a statutory body, but it was never going to have the sufficient powers, the sufficient standing, the sufficient independence from government to inquire properly into this significant issue. And without the standing, the authority, the powers that come with a Royal Commission, there are real problems that need addressing, would not be undertaken properly.

So, the Government stubbornly held onto a view that the National Commission, a statutory body, was sufficient. We were also concerned, quite frankly, that the appointment of the interim Commissioner was a former brigadier and a very close friend of the former Defence Minister which, at the very least, raised a perceived conflict of interest.

We do believe that the terms of reference on the Royal Commission that has been announced by the Prime Minister that is going to be subject to consultation must involve genuine consultation with the veterans, their families, community and other experts in the field. We also expect the Commissioner or Commissioners to be eminent people, preferably former judges, who are equipped with the skills necessary to understand this very significant task.

We would also hope that the resources provided to this Commission are sufficient so we can deal with the systemic problems that beset ADF personnel when they leave the force. That's one of the major problems we've had to date. There is not sufficient understanding of what happens after ADF personnel leave the Australian Defence Force because what is very clear is that the veteran community have suicides twice the number of the general community and that is not acceptable and whilst we are critical of the government dragging its feet in relation to this decision, we welcome it today.

Anyone else? Thank you very much.