Give the Royal Commission into Defence and Veterans' Suicide the information they need to do their job

The shoulder of an Army camouflage uniform with the Australian flag on it

This speech was delivered on 26/09/22

Here's the thing about the veteran suicide royal commission: it didn't come about because the Liberal and Labor parties woke up one day and realised we actually needed one; it didn't happen because Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs finally admitted they have a problem. 

It happened because our veterans and their families made it happen.

Our soldiers, our sailors and our airmen made it happen.

It took bravery, strength and a hell of a lot of resilience. It took years. Many, many people have had to bare their souls to strangers. They've shared their deepest sorrows and vulnerabilities to people who didn't want to hear them. They've had to do this over and over again just to prove how much we needed this. It has taken more than a decade, but at least we all got here in the end. It has taken 10 years, and finally the powers have sat up and listened to the men and women who live this every day of their lives. I can't tell you how many of these people from around the country, and some from overseas, have come through our office in Tassie during that period.

Do you know how many soldiers are being bullied to within an inch of their lives by their superiors in the Army? Do people know how many kids have gone in there hoping to do their country and family proud, only to come back out the other side physically broken and emotionally shattered by the people who were supposed to be their heroes? Do people know how many women have been sexually abused, harassed and hounded out around the military for no other reason than that they weren't one of the boys? I can tell you it has been thousands. Women are still dragging chairs up against their bedroom doors of a night-time, scared of the same people they're supposed to fight next to in a war.

I know senior people—majors, lieutenants, captains—who have spoken up about the bullying and abuse that is going on with their own diggers in their own units whose careers have been killed off. This is still going on today, even with a royal commission happening—20, 30, 40 years of service down the drain because they did the honourable thing and called out the unacceptable behaviour of their peers. They had courage, and they showed guts, and this is how we treat them and how Defence continues to treat them today.

I know smart, clever young recruits who have tried to look out for their mates, only to get chewed up and spat out by the power of the cover-up culture in Defence. That's what happens if you speak up in the Australian Defence Force. If you speak up, you're a troublemaker; you're a problem. It's as simple as that. What you do is you stay in the military institution. It is 'shame on you', apparently, because you must understand that it always is the institution first. Well, I have to say this to the institution: I reckon those days are all but over. And I'll make sure of it. I don't intend to go anywhere in the next three years and I certainly don't intend to go anywhere in the six years after that.

That cover-up culture puts you on the backside out in civilian life, away from the world you thought would be your own until you're old and grey. You put your country first, and that's what happens to you. Good strong men and women turn into shadows of themselves. They should be serving our country, but if they speak up they're more likely to end up on the dole. The families of these people, whose kids go in so hopeful and come out so lost—we leave the mums, dads, wives and husbands to pick up the pieces. That's what we've been doing. Over the 10 years that we've been fighting for this we must have seen the same thing over and over again, hundreds of times, maybe even more. If you heard the things we've heard in my office, if you heard the things I've heard out on the streets, if you heard the things I've heard—because I've got military mates who have served and are still serving—I can tell you now, it would absolutely make your heart break.

This royal commission has to change all that. It really is our last shot. We can't ask everyone who fought for this to keep going and do more. They've given every last drop of energy and fight that they have to do this. Even here, at the highest level of inquiry you could possibly imagine, the royal commission is being blocked by the same people who have fought against it for all these years. These are the people who didn't want a royal commission. It isn't getting the information it needs to do its job, and that is not fair on the royal commission. We're putting in millions of bucks, trying to save lives, and the institution doesn't want to pass over documents. Really? It's not that difficult. And the royal commission can't ask the hard questions that it needs to ask without that paperwork. It is simple. We've set up the strongest, most powerful inquiry we can, and we can't get more powers than a royal commission. Even here, the highest form of inquiry you can get, we're coming up against roadblocks.

Don't take it from me. Take it from the commission itself. This is what they've told us: 'We can't ask the hard questions.' They've told us they're unreasonably constrained. I know the government thinks the royal commission is wrong on this. They reckon there's no problem here. To that I say: when a royal commission tells you it needs information and it can't get it, I suggest you start listening. It obviously can't get it for a reason, and we need to fix that. We need to give them a solution. Otherwise we're wasting millions and millions of dollars once again on running some fantasy that's never going to come up with the answers we need, because we are blocking the information from them.

We have to take the royal commission seriously in what they're telling us. They say they have a problem, and it's up to us to fix it. That's what we're in here for. We debated my bill this morning to make this happen. It addresses one barrier to the royal commission's work: parliamentary privilege. You don't touch privilege lightly; I get that. I also get that I've never heard a royal commission—and correct me if I'm wrong—say that they are being blocked from getting information. Show me. Parliamentary privilege is an important part of how a parliament works. It's the thing that lets me stand here today and say what I need to say without being worried about being sued. It gives people legal protection when they come to me and say they have a problem. We've even used it to name and shame the bullies in the Australian Defence Force who are the reason we need a royal commission in the first place. But parliamentary privilege is getting in the way of the royal commission. That's because, if a report or paper is covered by privilege, that comes with a whole set of rules about how it can be used in a courtroom. A judge can't use it to make a finding. For example, you can't ask a court to use someone else's evidence in a Senate inquiry to decide if a crime has been committed. A lawyer can't use it to show you've broken the law or defamed someone.

Privilege stops the veteran suicide royal commission from using evidence from parliament. It stops the commission from being able to look at Senate inquiries and Auditor-General reports. It stops the commissioners from being able to use that information to make recommendations. They can't question government officials about what they've done with that information. Instead of protecting the people who come to me and ask for help, parliamentary privilege, would you believe it, is protecting the people in power who threw the abuse out in the first place. Government officials, ministers, politicians—that's who parliamentary privilege is protecting. The royal commission can't ask public officials the questions it wants to ask because of parliamentary privilege. It can't use the evidence to build a case on what the ADF and Defence have done to fix a problem that some in parliament have pointed out for years. All those Senate inquiries, all those reports, all that evidence people gave here in parliament? It is useless to the commissioners. They can't touch it. Instead, they have to go back and do all the work again. What a load of rubbish! They're just doubling up.

Parliamentary privilege shouldn't be used that way. That's not what it's for, but that's what's happening. Take this for an example: the legal officers who help the royal commissioners at public hearings wanted to ask Defence about the Auditor-General's report that looked into Defence's handling of some cultural change programs. The report was subject to parliamentary privilege, which meant the lawyers knew they had to be careful. They knew they couldn't ask the royal commissioners to use the report to make any recommendations or draw any conclusions. Like I said, you're not allowed to do that. But they really wanted to know what Defence had done in response to the report's findings. At first they tried to ask the officials broad questions about what the report said and they decided not to show any part of the report publicly, even though it's on the website for public consumption. They didn't directly quote anything that the Auditor-General said, but lawyers for the federal government didn't think it was good enough. They thought the commission would still fall foul of the laws on parliamentary privilege and be in contempt of parliament. And sure enough, a few days later the royal commissioners' lawyers had to back it down.

That's where we're at today. Something needs to be done about that. It makes no sense. This is why I've proposed a bill to reform the privileges act. We have to get to the bottom of this, and I'm very disappointed that Labor isn't listening to what the royal commission has said. We have no choice: we have to run a short Senate inquiry on this, and we need to find a way around this—now.

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