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E&OE TRANSCRIPT RADIO INTERVIEW ABC RN BREAKFAST MONDAY, 22 MARCH 2021

March 22, 2021

FRAN KELLY, HOST: Brendan O'Connor is the Shadow Minister for Defence, Brendan O'Connor welcome to breakfast.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Good morning Fran.

KELLY: The opposition has bided it's time before testing the government's control of the parliament. Why are you choosing this issue of veterans’ suicide to push the numbers?

O'CONNOR: Well, because it's critical. I mean, we've seen so many young ADF personnel suicide. We've seen, as you've just mentioned, more people die by suicide than in war in the last 20 years. It's time for a proper examination of what is going on here. 

I've met with parents of young ADF personnel who have taken their lives. We've spoken with a whole range of people, including ADF personnel, who have talked about their colleagues, and what has happened since they've left the ADF. It needs to be examined properly. The government should not be dragging its feet on this. 

We called for this Royal Commission in 2019. It's about time it happens. And I'm glad to say that there's more support growing amongst government members. And there's probably why the Prime Minister may be looking at of course, changing his position.

KELLY: Let's just look at that. Let's look at the numbers, deal with the politics at the moment before we get to the nub of this very important issue. You've got the crossbench on side with Labor, that makes 75 votes, which is half the numbers on the floor. But you need 76 and absolute majority to bring on this motion. There are reports that half a dozen MPs have told the Prime Minister they would be prepared to cross the floor and vote for this. How many government MPs have told you that they would do that? And in the end do you think they will have the courage to defy the Prime Minister on this?

O'CONNOR: I do because they're focused on the issue, to their credit. This motion is already passed the senate as you know, Fran. The matter is before the house today. And I'm assured that government members will cross the floor to support the Royal Commission into veterans' suicides.

KELLY: We've been at an impasse like this before with the banking Royal Commission. Then the Prime Minister also read the writing on the wall, basically told by some of his backbench they would cross the floor for a banking Royal Commission. There are reports now the Prime Minister is open to the same, to a royal commission on veterans' suicide. Would you expect the Prime Minister to announce it before this vote? Or would you expect the Prime Minister to allow this vote to go through?

O'CONNOR: Well, that's a very good question. It's up to the Prime Minister. But the real question here is not him changing his mind, but doing something about it.

You mentioned the Royal Commission into banks, we have not seen the recommendations of their Royal Commission acted upon sufficiently. You know, it's a big gap with this Prime Minister when it comes to the difference between announcement and delivery. We want to see real action. 

So firstly, the terms of reference of the Royal Commission needs to be outlined if the government's going to change its mind. We need to know the timeline, we can't have a Prime Minister make an announcement about the Royal Commission and then of course, put it in the bottom shelf and let it to disappear in the ether. That cannot happen. 

If the government truly is changing his position on this and the Prime Minister is now of the view the Royal Commission needs to be enacted by the executive government then we need to see terms of reference and in timelines and we then need to see actions with a response to the recommendations that are made by that Commission.

KELLY: The government hasn't been at a standstill on this. It has been trying to establish a National Commissioner for Defence and Veterans Suicide. It's even appointed and named the interim Commissioner, former ACT coroner and army Brigadier Bernadette Boss. As the interim commissioner of this, why do we need a Royal Commission and not an ongoing National Commissioner? Or in fact, do we need both? Is that your position?

O'CONNOR: Our position is a Royal Commission will do the job that is needed because there are systemic issues that really go to the heart of this problem. We need to ensure that the there's confidence, that those family members and ADF personnel who have been affected so severely by this feel that there really is a genuine, independent examination of this matter. Only the Royal Commission has the authority and power to do that. And for that reason, we believe the National Commissioner is not sufficient. 

It's been in the parliament Fran for 12 months. It's wallowed in the senate, it hasn't got sufficient support, as Senator Lambie and other crossbenchers have made that clear. Labor since 2019 has called for Royal Commission. We believe it's time and now government members of the house look like to very much agree with our proposition. And I think the government and the Prime Minister must change their position. But more importantly now outline the terms of reference, outline the timelines, and commit to responding to the recommendations if a Royal Commission is enacted.

KELLY: Why are so many of our servicemen and women taking their lives when they leave the ADF? The suicide rate once people leave the services is much higher than the death rate of when you're in the service. Is the issue, I mean, we've had overhauls of Veterans Affairs and the way defence personnel are dealt with when they leave the services, that seems to have been more streamlined. Is that the issue? There's not a proper transition process from military to civilian life? Is that what we could be doing better? Would that make the difference?

O'CONNOR: I think that is very much central to the problem, Fran. You're absolutely right, we don't provide sufficient support. There isn't sufficient pathways from ADF into the community. There are issues that confront ADF personnel, given their experiences that we don't always attend to as well as we could. But I don't have all the answers. Nobody has all of the answers. A Royal Commission is needed to provide those answers, provide recommendations in response to the problems and call upon the government of course to enact those recommendations

KELLY: As Shadow Defence Minister can I just ask you on another issue, the situation for the Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, she's been on sick leave for almost a month now, she's not due back at work until Friday week. She has a heart condition but she's also been under pressure over handling of the rape allegation by her former staffer Brittany Higgins. Do you believe that Linda Reynolds will return as Defence Minister, would you support that?

O'CONNOR: Well, we believe her position is untenable. It's not a matter of the health questions that she's had, it's more about the failure of the government, the Prime Minister, to show confidence in in her returning. We believe also her handling of the rape allegations in her office have been very bad. She's also not responded sufficiently to the huge contracts that we have in defence. There are concerns that they're going off the rails. We have a minister who won't return for senate estimates. Now, if that's for health purposes, I understand that, however, we need a Minister who can be transparent and accountable. That's why we've written to the government and said if we're not satisfied by the answers this week in estimates in relation to those very large defence contracts that are critical for our national security, we'll be calling on the Minister to attend a spill over senate estimates day in April because otherwise she will not be returning to Parliament until mid May.

KELLY: Just Finally, there is estimates all week, talking of estimates and Labor's strategy, what questions will Labor be asking? What are you wanting the answers to in terms of the Brittany Higgins affair? Will you get a chance, I would imagine, to talk to the head of the Prime Minister's department Philip Gaetjens, who's yet to report back on who knew what and when in the Prime Minister's office? Is that a key question?

O'CONNOR: Well, clearly there's an internal review that's been established by the Prime Minister, where he has his former chief of staff, the current PM&C Secretary examining this matter. We'll be asking questions of that Secretary about the breadth of it, who he's discussed the matters with, when is the report going to be provided to the to the government, and when is the government going to release the report? 

KELLY: Alright, Brendan O'Connor, thank you very much for joining us. 

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