The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel
Federal Member for Calare
The announcements of Australia’s new security partnership with the United States and United Kingdom, and that we will be working with them to build nuclear-powered (not nuclear armed) submarines in Australia, is the most important defence initiative of our time.
We know that the security outlook in our region is changing quickly. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to ensure that the decisions taken today provide them with the highest possible safety and security.
History has taught us that the best way to meet threats is to be prepared.
When World War Two broke out, in almost every respect Britain and Australia were not ready.
However, there was one technical innovation that was to prove critical. When hostilities commenced Britain had developed the world’s best fighter plane in the Spitfire, and it was to prove decisive in the Battle of Britain and in preventing a German invasion.
The French submarine deal has now been scrapped. We shouldn’t mourn its loss.
By the time those submarines came into service, they would have been technologically obsolete.
Future generations would not have thanked us for passing them down to them.
With so much coastline to defend and so much uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific, Australia can’t afford to gamble with something as crucial as our national security.
Nuclear-powered submarines are the best technology available.
This is the right decision for Australia, our national security, and for future generations.
By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
Defence Minister Peter Dutton has overruled proposed Australian Defence Force (ADF) reforms that would have removed the ability of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) to select who gets to serve in its “elite” ranks, despite the cloud hanging over the SASR since the release of Paul Brereton’s damning report into alleged war crimes by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan – principally by SASR members.
As reported by The Australian’s defence correspondent, Ben Packham, the proposed reform – a direct response to the Brereton report – would have merged the selection courses for the Perth-based SASR and the Sydney-based 2nd Commando Regiment from next year.
The proposal for a joint selection course, aimed at addressing the “intense tribalism” and “toxic rivalry” between the units identified by Brereton and supported by Chief of Army Rick Burr and Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell, was bitterly opposed by SASR veterans, including Assistant Defence Minister Andrew Hastie, a former SASR captain.
It is not the first time that Dutton has overruled reforms stemming from Brereton’s four-year inquiry. In April, Dutton reversed Campbell’s decision to strip meritorious unit citations from 3000 special forces soldiers who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013 as a “collective punishment” for alleged war crimes.
Scott Morrison’s initial posturing on the Brereton report was that given the gravity of the findings the response needed to be a military one, not political.
Morrison, the model of propriety, declared at the time: “We haven’t seen, nor do we wish to have provided to us, the detailed [unredacted] report…That, we think, would compromise the process. That is something for the ADF to address internally.”
Which is why in November last year it was Campbell, not Morrison, who released the redacted report and fronted a media conference to promise that the 143 recommendations of Brereton’s report would be followed to the letter, so damning and compelling was his report.
Campbell, visibly shaken and angry at that Canberra press conference, described the alleged conduct uncovered by Brereton as “shameful”, “deeply disturbing” and “appalling”.
Front and centre was the issue of culture.
“The report finds that some Special Air Service Regiment commanders in Australia fostered within the SAS what Justice Brereton terms a self-centred warrior culture, a misplaced focus on prestige, status and power, turning away from the regiment’s heritage of military excellence fused with the quiet humility of service,” Campbell said.
“What also emerged was a toxic competitiveness between the Special Air Service Regiment and the 2nd Commando Regiment.”
Morrison publicly humiliated Campbell
Campbell accepted and promised to proceed with a recommendation from the Brereton report to write to the Governor-General requesting that he revoke the meritorious unit citation for the Special Operations Task Groups that served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013. But Morrison was not true to his word.
Sensitive to criticism that 3000 soldiers were being punished for the misdeeds of a few – and conveniently overlooking that a unit citation is by definition all or nothing – Morrison did what he said he would not do: politicise the response to the Brereton report, in the process publicly humiliating the Chief of the Defence Force by overruling him.
And just in case Campbell was of a mind to assert his authority and approach the Governor-General anyway, Morrison issued this unambiguous threat: “Governors-General take advice from their prime ministers.” Dutton’s predecessor as Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, meekly endorsed Morrison’s intervention, despite earlier supporting Campbell’s decision to accept Brereton’s recommendation, and joined with Morrison in shoving Campbell under the nearest military transport vehicle.
In April, Dutton gave force to Morrison’s earlier intervention and announced that the meritorious unit citation would not be revoked.
“My judgment was that we shouldn’t be punishing the 99% for the sins of one per cent,” Dutton explained.
This was a spurious argument.
As Chief of Army Burr observed when supporting Campbell’s decision to adopt the Brereton recommendation, “if we knew then what we know now, the unit would not have been put forward for a meritorious citation”.
Peter Dutton is the Defence Minister’s Defence Minister. The Defence Minister from central casting. One might even say he is the General George Patton of Australian defence ministers, to whom he eerily bears not a little resemblance. And we shouldn’t discount the possibility that the take-no-prisoners Dutton would relish the legendary general’s moniker of “Old Blood and Guts”.
Dutton is determined to demonstrate that he is not a captive of his department nor in the thrall of his military brass. As he would have it, his first loyalty is to the serving men and women of the ADF.
It was in this vein that in May Dutton issued a directive that events such as staff wearing “rainbow clothing” to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia must cease.
‘We are not pursuing a woke agenda’
“I’ve been very clear to the chiefs that I will not tolerate discrimination. But we are not pursuing a woke agenda,” Dutton told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Our task is to build up the morale in the Australian Defence Force and these woke agendas don’t help.”
Most ministers, whatever their personal views, would look the other way in the face of such workplace observances, but not Old Blood and Guts. As a minister, when Dutton runs a department, he absolutely runs it. And as the Defence Minister he is single-minded in what his department’s priorities should be and woke morning teas don’t come close.
Unlike the fickle Morrison, whose every move is guided by the day’s headlines, and anticipation of the morrow’s, Dutton, for good or ill, is a conviction politician.
That may be an admirable trait in a Defence Minister, but it doesn’t mean that Dutton’s halo of certainty delivers the soundest judgements.
Which takes us back to Dutton’s decision to reignite, as The Australian’s Ben Packham colourfully phrases it, the “beret wars” between the SASR and the 2nd Commando Regiment.
The elitism of the SASR – in both its literal and pejorative meanings – has been a concern in sections of the ADF long before the Brereton inquiry but those longstanding concerns came home to roost in the most damning circumstances.
In 2016, Paul Brereton, a judge of the Supreme Court of NSW and a Major-General in the Australian Army Reserve, was appointed to head an inquiry by the Inspector-General of the ADF into possible war crimes committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.
Brereton investigated 57 incidents of alleged misconduct by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and found there to be “credible information” to substantiate the alleged unlawful killing of 39 Afghan prisoners, detainees and civilians – all non-combatants. Nineteen Australian special forces personnel, predominantly from the SASR, will be investigated for the alleged murders.
Brereton was scathing of a “self-centred warrior culture” that informed the alleged war crimes.
But the politicisation of the Brereton report throws serious doubt on whether necessary reforms will ever take place.
Campbell was initially, albeit very briefly, given every assurance that he had a free hand to implement the recommendations of the Brereton report and to undertake the necessary reforms that would lead to cleaning up the toxic cultures that led to this darkest chapter of Australian military conduct in a theatre of war.
Worst fears realised
For sceptical observers of an Australian military establishment which has historically talked big on reform while delivering very little in reality, the fear was always that the root-and-branch cultural and institutional changes that have been promised would come to nought. Those fears look like being realised, but in this case it’s the government not the ADF leadership which has been found wanting.
The Brereton report – exhaustive, forensic and beyond reproach – leaves no doubt that extensive change needs to occur in the ADF, and in particular in its special forces. The real risk is that the cultural and systemic shortcomings unflinchingly exposed by Brereton will simply go into hibernation to rise another day on another faraway battlefield.
The Morrison government simply lacks the moral fibre and political will to ensure that real change can occur. When the politics of revoking the meritorious unit citation for Special Operations Task Groups threatened to upset Morrison’s focus groups he unblinkingly nobbled Angus Campbell.
A political leader worth his salt could have explained that revoking the citation was not a rebuff to the overwhelming majority of soldiers who did the right thing. It was also open to the government to delay – rather than overturn – a decision pending ongoing reform processes and deliberations within the ADF in the wake of the Brereton report. Would it really be so difficult to sell the need for a cautious response in light of Brereton’s damning report?
Dutton has likewise compromised the ADF’s response to the Brereton inquiry. While he has not acted with Morrison’s craven aversion to political heat, Dutton is clearly more interested in preserving the status quo than providing the ADF’s leadership with the support to achieve real reform.
Dutton may have his adoring troops cheering on the sidelines for staring down his defence chiefs but at what cost?
Scott Morrison has argued that if Australia cannot emerge from Covid lockdowns when we reach a vaccination rate of 80%, then when? It might also be argued that if Australia’s special forces are not ripe for reform when an inquiry has uncovered the alleged murder of 39 Afghan non-combatants, then when?
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton at Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021 in Queensland in July. Picture: ADF
FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND DEFENCE CORRESPONDENT
Peter Dutton has reaffirmed the elite status of Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment, overruling a Defence plan to strip it of its ability to select its own recruits.
In a fresh intervention into Defence’s response to the Brereton war crimes inquiry, the Defence Minister blocked a move to merge the selection courses for the Perth-based SASR and the Sydney-based 2nd Commando Regiment from next year.
The proposal, aimed at addressing toxic rivalry between the units identified in the Brereton report, had angered many in the special forces community, particularly SASR veterans.
It is understood Mr Dutton ruled quietly in June that the planned joint selection course – developed by former special forces commander Adam Findlay with the blessing of Chief of Army Rick Burr and Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell – should not be implemented.
The move follows other interventions by the minister, including his reversal of General Campbell’s decision to strip meritorious unit citations from 3000 special forces soldiers as a “collective punishment” for alleged war crimes.
The four-year Brereton inquiry found “credible information” that up to 25 serving and former soldiers were involved in — and covered up — alleged war crimes in Afghanistan during the nation’s longest war. It recommended 19 face criminal investigations.
The allegations related predominantly to SASR soldiers, with no evidence of a pattern of unlawful killings by 2nd Commando Regiment soldiers.
The decision to shelve the joint selection course came after senior former military figures said the unit needed to be able to select the elite soldiers with the attributes necessary to be able to operate in small groups, in extreme conditions and under sustained pressure. Defence said on Friday the first joint selection course had been “suspended”, but declined to comment further.
Assistant Defence Minister Andrew Hastie, a former SASR captain, and Major General Duncan Lewis (retired), a former SASR commander and former ASIO director-general, are understood to have argued strongly for the separate selection courses to be retained.
Mr Hastie, who was a key proponent of recent SASR command and control reforms, said: “I want the SAS and the 2nd Commando Regiment, and the rest of the ADF, to be mission ready.”
Major General Lewis, who was the nation’s special operations commander when the SASR deployed to Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks, said it was vital that “the people coming into the unit meet the professional and personal standards that the unit demands”.
“The special forces organisations that I know best are all in control of their own selection processes, and I think that is very important,” Major General Lewis said.
Prospective recruits for both the SASR and 2nd Commando units must meet gruelling physical selection requirements during three-week courses, which only about 20 per cent pass.
The Commandos are typically trained for large-scale offensive, recovery and counter-terrorism operations, while SASR operators specialise in long-range “strategic reconnaissance” missions.
Major General Lewis, who now has the honorary role of SASR Colonel Commandant, said the regiment looked for recruits with a “suite of personal characteristics and strengths” in addition to “absolutely excellent” military skills.
“They need to have self-awareness, and have a degree of humility; they need to be clever, have an intellectual curiosity, have personal self-confidence, and the ability to work in a very small team – groups as small as five, for example,” he said.
“They need to be physically fit, they need to be committed, and they need to be willing to make extraordinary sacrifices to keep up the levels of performance required of them … in much the same way as an elite sports person would.”
Major General Lewis said the growing threat of “grey zone warfare” in the Indo-Pacific region below the threshold of armed conflict required an SASR that was “on top of its game”.
“We are going to need those capabilities perhaps more than we have even in the past,” he said.
He said that unlike the counterinsurgency role played by special forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, the SASR needed to be ready to operate in a more highly contested environment, with much greater risk of detection.
“With the enhanced technologies available on the field of battle these days, small numbers of soldiers can have much greater effect, down to and including the individual,” Major General Lewis said.
The Australian reported last year that the proposed joint selection course would be “regiment agnostic” to break down the intense tribalism between the two units. It would have combined the application, screening, fitness test, and basic special forces training, before putting recruits through more specialised courses.
Mr Hastie discussed the decision to overturn the joint selection proposal with Jack Watling, a research fellow with Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, who argued in a recent paper that modern special forces operations required an increasingly demanding skill set for the new era of great power competition.
The proliferation of battlefield sensors required covert forces that could “build an active cover and plan operations over a much longer time frame” than during the war on terror, Dr Watling said.
“For this reason, covert strategic reconnaissance and enablement is likely to need to increasingly be carried out by dedicated units with differentiated selection processes,” he said.
He said special forces would “need to conduct operations against strategically significant targets while fighting unplugged, from both communications and supporting echelons”.
The head of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, James Paterson, observed the final days of the last three-week SASR selection process in May.
“It really is an utterly gruelling process – very little sleep, very little food, and being asked to do almost mindless physical tasks day after day to test that resilience,” Senator Paterson said.
“It’s all kinds of basic military exercises and tasks, but under really tough conditions like doing things at night without light, in the cold without heat, lifting heavy things over long distances, and then putting them under extreme pressure to simulate a battle.”
The axing of the joint selection process follows an unsuccessful campaign by some SASR veterans and their supporters to overturn the abolition of the regiment 2nd Squadron, which Lieutenant General Burr said was “a nexus of alleged serious criminal activities” uncovered in the Brereton inquiry.
Major General Lewis, who once commanded 2 Squadron, said its abolition was sad but necessary.
“The regiment is a capability that the Australian Defence Force needs, that Australia needs, and that is the price that sadly and regrettably had to be paid to ensure it continues, and continues to prosper,” he said.
FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND DEFENCE CORRESPONDENT
Ben Packham has spent two decades in journalism, joining The Australian as a political reporter in 2011 after working at the Herald Sun and AAP. He rejoined the Canberra bureau in 2018 after four years in Papua…
For about 36 years the famous Self Loading Rifle has been out of circulation, now it is due to return to service for British Army Troops.
The SLR-A2, a 7.62mm weapon, will feature a fully modernised rail system and extended 30-round magazine.
This change comes after years of continuous failings of the Army’s current weapon system, the SA80, which was found to be much less powerful.
“We had a major issue with stopping power with the SA80” said Lt Gen Ian Wallace, Deputy Director of Defense Armaments, “The weapons system was simply not powerful enough to put down the enemy. With the new SLR-A2, you can guarantee that it will not fail with that task.”
There is currently no date announced for its integration, the news of the SLR’s return has been met with strong approval by both serving soldiers and veterans alike.
“It’s good to have a real man’s weapon back in the army” said Gary Lavelle, 64, a veteran of the Light Infantry.
I’m sure most Australian soldiers would like to see the return of the 7.62 SLR.
Extract from Defence News, https://news.defence.gov.au/international/diggers-mission-no-other on 10 September 2021
Photo: Major Tim Glover assists DFAT members to locate Afghan Australian visa holders attempting to enter the congested Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport. Photo by: Sergeant Glen McCarthy
Personnel from 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR), have reflected on the important role they played during the Afghanistan evacuation efforts.
They were given the short-notice task to deploy to assist in the non-combatant evacuation operation in mid-August.
This was the activation of the Combat Ready Team, an element of the Australian Army on call to support the government’s objectives anywhere in the region or globally.
Supported by sailors, soldiers and aviators already deployed on Operation Accordion, three platoons of soldiers from 1 RAR were flown to Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA), Kabul, for the urgent mission.
Working with personnel from the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and Home Affairs, the soldiers were tasked with identifying and protecting Australian nationals and approved foreign nationals so they could be safely evacuated to Australia.
Officer Commanding B Company 1 RAR Major Timothy Glover said the arrival in Kabul was eye-opening.
“We got off the plane late at night and were met by an advanced team which had already been there for a day or so,” Major Glover said.
“As we walked through the terminal there were hundreds of evacuees lying around waiting to get on a plane.
“It really hit home that this was bigger than anything we were expecting.”
Private Carl Von Stanke performed several different roles at the airfield, one of which was to assist pulling people over fences from a dirty, crowded canal to have their documents assessed by DFAT and Home Affairs at checkpoints within the perimeter of the airfield.
He had previously been deployed to Kabul just months earlier and said the airport was unrecognisable.
“It was very chaotic,” Private Von Stanke said.
“There were thousands of people around the airport trying to get in.”
Major Glover said the conditions were trying but the soldiers worked hard to ensure the process ran as smoothly as possible.
“The soldiers were operating for 18 to 20 hours a day every day to get these evacuees processed,” Major Glover said.
“The team I was with down at Abbey Gate were pulling people out of some really horrible conditions and our guys showed a lot of resilience under pressure.
“They were tired, but were still able to make sound decisions.”
Lance Corporal Aaron Gould said he and other soldiers stayed focused on the task by watching the number of evacuees they had assisted grow each day.
“We wanted to get as many people out as we could, so that’s what was driving us forward the whole time,” Lance Corporal Gould said.
“For the short amount of time that we were there, I feel like I did more work than I did in four and a half months on my last Afghanistan deployment.
“It was definitely a lot harder.”
After days of unrelenting work in the complex, high-stress environment, Australia’s flights from Kabul came to an end.
Reflecting on his departure out of Kabul, Major Glover said he had mixed emotions.
“There was a great feeling that we’d managed to do a good job on the ground,” he said.
“We recovered more than 4000 evacuees so we were able to save 4000 lives essentially and that was a good feeling.
“The thing that hit home for me were the conditions in the country.
“People would do anything to help their families, including throwing their babies to our soldiers to hold on to while they returned for the rest of their family.”
The 1 RAR soldiers who performed duties in Kabul were subsequently put to task coordinating the temporary safe haven established at Australia’s main operating base in the Middle East to house the evacuees before their onward movement to Australia.
The events in Kabul are a murderous atrocity and if anyone was ever in any doubt about the righteousness of the Australian mission in Afghanistan this is a brutal reminder of the terrorists and criminals we were fighting against and the threats they posed to our national security and security of the world.
I would like to acknowledge the men and the women of the Australian Defence Force, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Home Affairs and our security agencies that have done so much to evacuate Australians and visa holders from Kabul.
Over 4100 people have been evacuated, which is an extraordinary effort.
Today we grieve with the people of the United States and Afghanistan and condemn the callous attacks on innocent civilians and American service personnel who were there solely to guard and protect the international evacuation effort.
We extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to the injured and those who lost loved ones.
Given reports that ISIS-K militants have also attacked the Taliban, my fear is that once allied forces have left, the veneer of security will break down and Kabul will sink into lawless chaos.
Twenty years ago, Australia stood up to defend freedom. The men and women of the ADF who served in Afghanistan should take great pride in their achievements.
Our troops were respected by our allies, feared by our enemies, and greatly appreciated by the people of Afghanistan they gave so much support and assistance to.
Nothing more could have been asked of our Afghanistan veterans, and nothing more could have been asked of Australia.
I feel a great sense of sadness that Afghanistan is back in the hands of the Taliban.
I feel for the people of Afghanistan and the horrors they now face; I feel for the families of our fallen who will question the purpose of their sacrifice and I feel for the men and women who served their country with distinction throughout the Afghanistan War.
Only two months ago the current Chief of the Defence Force stated to a senate committee that he ‘did not believe the former Islamist extremist rulers of Afghanistan would overrun the entire country once NATO and its allies leave’.
Such a comment reinforces how far removed the leadership is and was from the realities of the situation in Afghanistan.
It also serves as a reminder of why our senior leadership was unable to provide a successful strategy for Afghanistan or to ever fully understand our enemy.
Australia’s most decorated soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith, has revealed his ‘great sense of sadness’ as the Taliban takes Afghanistan where his actions earnt the Victoria Cross.
Members of the Special Operations Task Group take part in a memorial service for SAS Sergeant Blaine Diddams who was killed in Afghanistan in 2012. Sergeant Diddams was a close friend of Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith
What is happening in Afghanistan today is not a surprise to the men and women who served there. It is just one of the reasons why today’s veterans are so disenfranchised with our senior military leadership.
Not because the withdrawal was ordered but for not giving us a chance to win.
The Taliban were never a rag-tag group of bogey men. They were a political entity with vast networks and resources who ruthlessly killed innocent men, women, and children.
It is time for our leaders to stand up and take responsibility for their failure of the Afghanistan people and their continuing failure of those who fought the war on their orders.
Forty one Australians died serving their country in Afghanistan. More than 500 veterans have taken their own life since returning home.
Ben Roberts-Smith says: ‘It is time for our leaders to stand up and take responsibility for their failure of the Afghanistan people and their continuing failure of those who fought the war on their orders.’
On 10/11 April we commemorate 80 years since the start of the Siege of Tobruk, a period in which around 14,000 Australian soldiers, along with four regiments of British artillery and some Indian troops, were besieged in Tobruk, Libya by a German-Italian army during the Second World War.
It was vital for the Allies’ to hold the town of Tobruk with its harbour to stall the enemy’s advance into Egypt and forced them to bring most of their supplies overland from the port of Tripoli across 1500 km of desert.
Tobruk was subject to repeated ground assaults and constant shelling and bombing for around eight months and the men who served there were dubbed as the Rats of Tobruk by the enemy, a term that was embraced as an ironic compliment.
The Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy provided the garrison’s main link to its supply base. They were dubbed the “Scrap Iron Flotilla” by German propagandists and referred to as the “Tobruk Ferry” service by the besieged soldiers.
The combined navies provided invaluable support and lost numerous ships, sunk and damaged during the siege.
Half of the Australian troops were relieved in August, the second half in September and October.
However, one unit, the 2/13th Battalion, was unable to be evacuated and remained in Tobruk until the siege was lifted in December 1941.
Throughout the siege, the 9th Australian Division and attached troops lost over 830 men killed, more than 2,170 injured and around 940 taken prisoner.
At this time we remember ‘The Rats of Tobruk’ — the service and sacrifice of these brave men will never be forgotten. Lest we forget.
Find out more about the Siege of Tobruk on the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Anzac Portal — Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941 – Anzac Portal (dva.gov.au)
Royal commission into veteran suicides is a matter of trust
By Jamie Twidale
As a veteran who has lost mates to suicide, like many veterans and their loved ones I live with the ever-present fear of losing more. My experience with suicide is not unique among the veteran community.
I admit that I do not have the answers on how to fix this appalling issue, but I do believe that a royal commission is an essential first step in rebuilding trust between the veteran community, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the government.
My first experience with suicide was as a 17-year-old soldier. On my first day after initial employment training, I was being shown to my live-in accommodation at my new Army unit. The area was cordoned off by Military Police who were finishing their investigations after a soldier had suicided the previous evening. Back then, people only ever spoke about these things in hushed tones and it was generally glossed over.
My next experience a few years later was more personal. While away overseas on a training activity, one of my best friends, who had discharged the previous year, took his own life. This shattered me, with questions floating around in my head for years about what if I had been home, what if I had called him more, what if….?
Another one of my wider friendship groups went the same way a year later.
In more recent times a former colleague committed suicide a few days after I saw him at a funeral.
I have close friends who are veterans of recent operations in the Middle East who I contact regularly because I worry that they are at risk; each have sought help and have support networks, but it remains a constant fear.
I share these stories simply to illustrate that as veterans we all have some experience with suicide or, according to the statistics, we are likely to. Suicide affects all ages and genders, all lengths of service, all types of service and not only those with mental health issues or warlike service, although the last two groups are much more at risk.
The statistics for in-service men and women are significantly lower than the general population, but this does not make it acceptable. However, the statistics for ex-service men and women are simply deplorable and a blight on society.
At the RSL Victoria Annual Conference the membership overwhelmingly voted in favour of a royal commission; and I say thank you to those that brought this motion forward.
I am in a privileged position in that I get to meet, talk with and hear from many serving and ex-serving veterans. What is clear is that while there is now consensus within the RSL in Victoria, there is not across the ex-service community nor across the RSL in other states.
I do not think we will ever get consensus; it is simply too complicated and emotive an issue. I personally have changed my own opinion on what is the best way to move forward.
Whether or not you are for an enduring National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention and whether or not the commissioner has the same or similar powers of a royal commission is not important. What has become clear to me is that there is a widespread lack of trust by veterans in the government institutions responsible for looking after the welfare of our serving and ex-serving people. This was made worse by the appointment of an interim national commissioner for suicide prevention without a transparent process and who was perceived to be too close to the defence establishment.
A royal commission may or may not find the answers we all seek, but what is certain is that a royal commission would go a long way towards rebuilding trust by giving mothers, brothers, partners and friends the opportunity to be heard in a forum that is truly independent.
Having a royal commission does not mean we cannot also establish the permanent commissioner for suicide prevention. But that commissioner can only start their work at the conclusion of a royal commission. The appointment of the permanent National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention must also be done through a transparent, merit-based process that ensures that the appointment is an appropriately skilled person who does not have recent ties to the ADF or Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA).
The arguments about cost are also irrelevant. Having a royal commission does not mean that funds are stripped out of DVA or away from veteran services. A portion of the money that will be wasted in the inevitable pork barrelling in the lead up to the next federal election would more that cover it.
RSL Victoria has now formed a shared view on this issue and in the coming weeks we will implement an advocacy strategy to call for a royal commission. This is what our members want, and it is what we will do. This campaign will include appealing directly to state and federal politicians and will seek to harness the voices of our members across Victoria in the lead up to ANZAC Day.
ANZAC Day is the day we pay our respects to those who have served and to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice; this year that will include raising a voice for those who have taken their own life as a result of their service.
Jamie Twidale is the CEO of RSL Victoria. He served in the Regular Army for 22 years both as a soldier and later as an officer. He served overseas in Afghanistan, East Timor and the Solomon Islands. He is also a serving Reservist.