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April 19, 2021

KIERAN GILBERT: Shadow Minister for Defence, Brendan O'Connor.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: We do welcome the announcement. This will be a great relief to the veterans, their families, and the many advocates that have been concerned about the very high number of suicides in the veteran community. We wished it had been earlier but we're very relieved that the government has finally seen sense and announced the Royal Commission.

GILBERT: And this combination of having the National Commissioner ongoing into veterans suicides to look at the implementation of a Royal Commission, this basically looks like the combination of the two ideas. First of all, the Royal Commission, the government has relented and will go ahead with that, but then continuing with a National Veteran Suicide Commissioner indefinitely. Is that is that a good approach?

O'CONNOR: Well, that may well be a good approach, Kieran. But let's be clear, we want a Royal Commission. The Royal Commission may actually reflect on whether there should be a standing commission and it may well be that that is a good way to proceed. What we'd like, though, is a Royal Commission and the reason why it distinguishes itself from a standing statutory body is that it has the sufficient powers, independence, resources and standing to do what the veteran community want seen done, which is ensure that we examine systemically this national blight.

The fact that we've had reportedly over 500 veteran suicides in the same time that we've been engaged in Afghanistan is quite shocking and we need to redress it effectively. The best way to do that would be to do that through the vehicle of a Royal Commission. What we say to that, though, Kieran, is there now is going to be a release of the draft terms of reference.

We want the government to genuinely consult with not just states and territories, but the veteran community, the Federal Opposition and others to get this right. We'd like to see not a former Brigadier, in the case of the interim National Commissioner that was in place, which was, I'm told, a close colleague of the former Defence Minister. We'd think that eminent persons, former retired judge or judges, would be the likely composition of this Royal Commission.

GILBERT: Do you recognise that the Prime Minister and the former Minister for Defence were adamant that with their original idea they weren't going to diminish what the veterans, or some of the veterans community, wanted in a Royal Commission. That, in fact, that proposal was a standing and ongoing inquiry with Royal Commission powers. That was effectively what they argued was the original plan anyway. They finally got around to agreeing, but they were actually proposing a fairly strong approach in the first place.

O'CONNOR: Well, look, I don't think I agree with that, with respect. I think that it may well be a very important body that could do good work. But frankly, it did not have sufficient independence. The interim Commissioner is very close friend of the former Defence Minister so a perceived conflict of interest arose even in relation to the appointment of an interim Commissioner. The powers, and the standing and its independence are not as sufficient as that of a Royal Commission. The Royal Commission, for example, can extend the Commission if required, or recommend terms of reference. And often governments conventionally would accept those types of recommendations. That's not what a statutory body would be able to do.

So we would say this, there may well be a role for National Commission, but we are relieved, and we welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has decided now to join Labor and others and support the Royal Commission to veteran suicides. And that is a good decision. Don't get me wrong, Kieran, it's a very good decision. It could have been made earlier. But it's been determined and we'll work with the government to make sure we tackle this issue.

GILBERT: Well, that's a good bipartisan note to finish a discussion on that. Let's look at this other issue that the Defence Minister's announced today, he's going to overturn the move by the Chief of the Defence Force to revoke the Meritorious Citation, a Unit Citation for Afghanistan for the Special Forces. Do you welcome that? Is that something you'd support despite the grave allegations against some that served?

O'CONNOR: Yeah, look I'm very deeply concerned about the grave allegations as would be anyone, including all of those that wear our uniform. The fact is, we need to make sure we deal with the serious allegations that have been cited in the Brereton report, but that doesn't mean we need to reflect unfairly upon those ADF personnel who put their lives on the line and have done nothing wrong.

I think the decision today again, was late but correct. I think that the former Defence Minister should have made that decision and frankly, at the time when I wasn't in this portfolio, I was surprised that the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Angus Campbell, was having to speak publicly on the release of the Brereton report without the accompaniment of his Minister. It was only much later did the Minister then speak publicly on the release of the Brereton report which I think, left unfairly Angus Campbell in a position to have to explain all the positions of government, which he wasn't in a position to do.

But again, the new minister, Peter Dutton, has said that new facts have arisen, which has led him to make this decision. I don't know what those new facts are, but either way, it was always important that we made sure that those defence personnel who have no allegations against them are not losing this citation.

GILBERT: Can you understand why the CDF had responded the way he did wanting to send a strong message in the face of war crimes allegations, and that the collective punishment was the course of action he saw fit at the time?

O'CONNOR: I can understand the Brereton report's recommendation, but having looked at it, it's a Unit Citation, so, I think that makes it complicated. But let's be very clear, there were serious allegations made against others and there was a review in process. There could have easily been a review here to distinguish those from those who have allegedly committed wrongdoing and those that haven't. And that's why Labor believes it's quite fair that unless you've been charged and convicted with wrongdoing, or unless you've been sacked from the Defence Force for poor conduct or misconduct, then the idea that you lose a citation was always unfair. Therefore Labor supports and welcomes the decision and I've been calling for that for some time, as has I might add, the Shadow Minister of Veterans Affairs and personnel, Shayne Neumann.

So we're happy to see that happen. Like today we've had on the eve of ANZAC, two decisions by government that Labor has been supporting for some time. And that's a good thing.

GILBERT: Shadow Minister for Defence, Brendan O'Connor. I appreciate your time on both of those matters. Thanks.

O'CONNOR: Thanks very much, Kieran.