Press Conference - Announcement of National Commissioner for defence and veteran suicides

05 Feb 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning everyone. I’m sorry we were delayed by the Labor Party pulling stunts in the Parliament.  What we’re about is the issues that absolutely matter to the daily lives of Australians. 

Too many Australians take their own lives. And one Australian who takes their own life is too many. This is one of our government's most important focuses. A towards zero policy on suicide, preventing suicide, it's why we appointed Christine Morgan, it's why we're taking actions on suicide prevention right across government, it’s a whole of government approach. And we've been able to enlist the support of just so many organizations to achieve that. 

Too many veterans take their own lives. And one veteran taking their own life is one too many. 42 veterans took their life in the last set of figures, annually that we have received, but we know many more have since then. Too many Indigenous Australians have taken their own lives. Too many young Australians have taken their own lives. And we need concerted action in all of these areas to ensure that we're doing everything we possibly can to prevent this. 

Over the summer, I made a commitment that I would be considering carefully our next steps when it came to suicide prevention for veterans and in our defence forces. There were proposals to have royal commissions and they were being put forward, had already been adopted, adopted by some, but working particularly with Minister Chester and Minister Reynolds and the veterans in particular who make up those who serve in this Parliament, of which Phil Thompson has been such a wonderful advocate. There were many issues to consider. I didn't think a one off review into the past was enough. Because the challenge we have is ongoing each and every single day. A royal commission that looked into those past cases was not enough because sadly, we know there will be more. We needed a solution, we needed a response that was ongoing. If you go to any RSL around the country, you will see the plaque - the price of peace is eternal vigilance. We must be eternally vigilant about the welfare and care of those who've served in uniform. Even more so when they leave their service and they leave the protection and supports that often exist within our defence forces and they go on to the next phase of their life. And let me stress this, those men and women go off to lead successful, vibrant, positive, major contributing lives. Let's not for a second conflate the issue and the tragedy of the terrible outcomes of veteran suicide with the suggestion that veterans are broken. They're not. They're champions. They're heroes. But some struggle, some are in a daily battle and they’re the veterans that we have in mind here in the announcements that we're making today. So I thought we need to do more and Darren thought we needed to do more, so did Linda and so did Phil and all of our team. So we worked steadily over the summer. We listened. I listened to families. I listened to veterans. I listened to the RSLs locally in my own electorate wherever I could bump into someone who would have some insight into this, I listened. And I want to commend Darren Chester for the excellent proposal that he brought forward and was considered by Cabinet on Monday of this week. And in response to that, we can announce, as you would have seen already referred to today, that we are establishing a National Commissioner for Defence and Veterans Suicide Prevention and they'll be empowered with the authorities of royal commissioner-like authorities to compel evidence to be provided. To sit independently, they'll ultimately sit within the Attorney-General's Department. They'll have the ability to call witnesses, compel evidence and have the remedies available to those who won't cooperate. It'll extend out into the private sphere, whether that be associations, whether it's the Defence Department itself, whoever needs to be asked of a matter in relation to one of our veterans who have taken their own lives, they'll be asked those questions by that independent National Commissioner. And that role will go forward into the future. I think that's a wonderful tribute to those who've campaigned on this issue. I spoke to Julie-Ann Finney last night and she told me after I relayed the news to her that she was going to tell her son what had happened. It was a, it was quite a touching moment. And she will, I'm sure, hold us to account on this, like all of those other parents will and all those other veterans will. They certainly will and they should, and we’ll continue to listen carefully as to how we implement this. 

The other announcement we have today is that we're establishing a Families Advocate within the Department of Veteran Affairs. This was also the other important lesson I learned listening carefully, these families, our veterans policies focus rightly on our veterans. But we've got to remember the families, too, and we've got to hold their hands to when they're dealing with these issues. And I've heard much about their frustrations and I think this advocate position will be very important in supporting them as they deal in so many ways with the impacts of these issues and how it falls to them. They support their family members in service and we need to support those families who are providing that support. 

So I'm pleased to be able to make this decision. I'm pleased that our Government was able to come to this view, and I thank very much Minister Chester and Minister Reynolds for the great work they've done together to ensure that we can show the same commitment and duty to those who have served us, that they have shown to this country. Linda.

SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Prime Minister, thank you very much. The mental health and wellbeing of all of our serving ADF members and also our veterans is an issue of enduring national importance and as the Prime Minister has said, one of eternal vigilance. These are very comprehensive and carefully calibrated measures that have been developed with a singular focus to find the most effective and enduring way of responding to suicide and the risks of suicide. But I'd also like to sincerely thank the officials of the Department of Defence and DVA for their expertise and their dedication and their passion for developing this policy package over the summer months, because it means now that the Government can quickly put in place all the necessary arrangements for the National Commissioner to get straight down to work. This is the government's priority and it is important for our nation. As the Minister for Defence I warmly welcome these measures. They are important. And I know the CDF and all of the service chiefs embrace and welcome these measures for the welfare of their personnel and for our veterans as they transition, and once they have transitioned into a civilian career. 

It is a sad fact that our veterans are amongst more than 3000 Australians who take their own lives every year. This is a tragedy for their families, for their loved ones, and also it's a tragedy for our nation, and knowing that our veterans are at a much higher risk of suicide, we want to ensure that their families are engaged early and also engaged positively in this process. So as the Prime Minister has announced, the Veterans Family Advocate will be a crucial bridge for families and it will put their perspectives at the heart of policy and also at the heart of decision making. This will result in better health outcomes for veterans and also reduce the risk of suicide. Our serving ADF members and our veterans are truly remarkable Australians. As a government, we are committed to their mental health, their wellbeing and their care. It is our duty to do so. We owe them this and we owe them so much more. Thank you. 

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you Linda. Darren. 

THE HON. DARREN CHESTER MP, MINISTER FOR VETERANS AND DEFENCE PERSONNEL: Well, thank you, Prime Minister. Can I begin by firstly acknowledging the men and women of the Australian Defence Force and all those who served in uniform and say to them simply, thank you for your service, and to the families who've supported you, thank you for that service as well. 

Over these past couple of months, I've had the opportunity to see our Australian Defence Force in action in my own community, as they supported us with the tragic bushfires and right throughout Australia at the moment there are so many serving men and women who are supporting our civilian communities in extraordinary ways and it's a real privilege to see them in action and the work they're doing to help keep people safe. I also want to, Prime Minister, thank the grieving families that you and I have had the opportunity to talk to over the last few months. I want to thank them for their courage, their courage to come forward, to tell their stories on behalf of their sons and daughters whose lives have suddenly been taken. And this in many ways Prime Minister, I think is a victory for them, for their dedication to their sons and daughters. It won’t bring their sons and daughters back, but it will help save lives in the future. This is a complex policy area. We have made major changes as a government in the last few years. We've introduced free mental health care for all veterans and their families. We've introduced a veterans payment for veterans experiencing mental health issues, for the first time we’ve supported the purchase of psychiatric assistance dogs to support our veterans as they make the transition back to their communities, and the Defence Force itself has been heavily involved. And I want to thank the Minister for Defence for this who has been heavily involved in improving the transition arrangements for our serving men and women as they make that sometimes difficult move from military life to civilian life. And I acknowledge and and thank you, Prime Minister, for reflecting on the fact that the vast majority of our serving men and women will transition well, they'll transition well and make an enormous contribution to the Australian community. But for those who have physical or mental health issues, we need to be there to support them. And for me and for you, Prime Minister and the Minister and for Phil beside me, the only acceptable number of deaths from suicide is zero. The only acceptable number for our veterans community is zero. 

So I want to thank you, Prime Minister. I want to thank you, Linda. I want to thank our colleagues, Phillip and your mates who we we sat around and talked about this issue many times in Townsville over the last few months. I want to thank the veteran community, I want to thank the departmental staff in particular from many departments who worked together in a very collaborative way to come up with a policy position, which I firmly believe is better than a royal commission. The hard work starts now. We've set the broad framework in place. The hard work starts now. We'll fine-tune with the cooperation, I believe, of the states. And I expect in a bipartisan way with the Labor Party here at the federal level. The hard work begins now on implementation of this policy, which I believe is going to help save lives in our veteran community, and in our defence community. 

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks Darren. Phil. 

MR PHILLIP THOMPSON OAM MP, MEMBER FOR HERBERT: Thank you, Prime Minister. It's been an emotional kind of roller coaster for myself and my friends and the family members who have had loved ones who they've lost to suicide. And I know coming in this place with my background, I feel every single suicide on my shoulders and working closely with the Prime Minister and both the Minister for Veterans Affairs and the Minister for Defence and now to just talk openly, freely and frankly about how we feel, how I feel, how the loved ones and spouses and mothers and fathers feel, I think is extremely important. And I know that it's only a small cog in the wheel, but I'd like to to really feel like the voice from Townsville, the voice from Sydney, the voice from Western Australia, Tasmania, and Darwin have all been heard throughout this development and this process. And I know that this is not a political point scoring opportunity. This is every side of politics. It doesn't matter what colour shirt you wear, where you live, coming together to do one thing, and that's lower the high rate of veteran suicide. 

Now, suicide and suicide prevention and mental illness is not just a defence issue, veteran issue, it's a societal problem. The veteran community has a very high rate of suicide, and I know that mothers have buried too many of their loved ones. We have buried too many of our brothers and sisters, and this is a step forward in being a part of the solution and the prevention. Now, suicides, we need to be realistic, it is a hard thing to combat and it's a hard thing to fully get rid of. There is no acceptable number. But that's why every day that I will stand here, along with the Prime Minister and other Ministers and the colleagues and the other side of politics to work together to ensure we are always putting people before politics. And I stand here with tears in my eyes, and a heavy heart knowing that this is the right thing to do. This is not a one off thing that will give a report in 18 months or two years. This is something that will be rolling, concurrent and ongoing. And I'll look forward to working with the Commissioner. I look forward to working with the Family Advocate. The family members from around the country, my friends who are constantly calling and texting now, who are very, very pleased. And I’d just like to thank the Prime Minister from the bottom of my heart. 

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you. Darren, join me here. Questions on this matter first, please. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, will this new Commissioner have the remit to look at broader problems such as veterans’ homelessness, and what do you say to some advocates of- that we've spoken to already who fear that this may not have the punch of a royal commission because standing- processes just don't appear to have the same punch? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, on the second point, I'd say they are absolutely wrong. This has those powers and it has the powers to look into each and every single case and all the factors that may have been contributing in those cases. And it indeed could include the very other issues that you raised in the first part of your question, whether that went to issues of homelessness, for example, it could go to any number of factors. Because, as Phil said. Someone taking their own life is not a simple matter. It's a complicated matter. Every single life and every single case needs to be understood, to understand the broader implications. And the remit is not just to do that, but to then make recommendations and to report annually on these issues. This will be true 30 years from now as a result of the decision we're taking today, 30 days from now, and it will continue to be there to provide that constant lesson as to how we can do better and better. 

JOURNALIST: There’s a suggestion that there are those who’ve served overseas in a different [inaudible], DFAT or [inaudible] agencies, would there be a opportunity to look at similarly if and how they are affected as well if they were going to kind of transition [inaudible] civilian life?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, the whole point is here to look at every single case and if people have served in particular areas overseas and that has been factors that the Commissioner has been able determine that was material in these horrible events, then of course, that would get that attention. See-

JOURNALIST: The Commissioner might look at these sorts of...?

PRIME MINISTER: They have remit to look at what has ever contributed. They are able to go and look and see and listen and investigate and compel the answers to ensure they come forward so they can tell us, clearly. And then they can make recommendations about what would be needed. There will never be a forgotten case.

JOURNALIST: You say compel and to listen and investigate, why is that need to compel, what is standing in the way before that there’s that need for  these [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that is just ensuring that they have the same like-powers of a royal commission. 

JOURNALIST: Who will be the new Commissioner?

PRIME MINISTER: We'll be making an announcement of that in due course.

JOURNALIST: PM, would you consider a similar inquiry for Indigenous suicide, we know the rates of that are some of the highest in the world and it’s something you've mentioned previously?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, when it comes to my towards-zero goal on suicide, I am open to every option and I'm listening. And I know that the Minister for Indigenous Australians, he's been up in the Kimberleys and he's been sitting there and he's been talking to communities. When I sat together with the Indigenous peak groups here just the other week, it was one of the many issues we discussed, when it comes to tackling suicide, whether it's of Indigenous Australians, particularly young indigenous Australians, when it comes to middle aged men, which actually is the highest incidence of suicide in Australia. Whether it comes to those who are quite elderly, where we know it occurs, or young people, tragically. We just can't limit ourselves on the policy options available. So my answer to that question is always, I will look at whatever is necessary to see where we can make a difference. But I'm not looking to tick a box. I'm not looking to fill a list. I'm not looking to prove anything. I'm just looking to do whatever we can to prevent the absolute tragedy of suicide in this country wherever we can. 

JOURNALIST: This may be a question for Minister Chester, but we've already got the Productivity Commission report into DVA, which described the system as broken, where is the Government's response up to with that and how will that work with the process that was announced today? 

MINISTER CHESTER: Yeah thanks, Andrew. The Government is in the process of finalising its response to the Productivity Commission and its recommendations, and that will be part of the Budget considerations this year. But you'd be well aware that there's a lot of reform work already underway within the Department of Veterans Affairs. We've listened to the concerns that have been raised not just by the Productivity Commission, but also through the ex-service community. And there's been a major transformation in DVA over the past three or four years. We've seen an incredible increase in the number of veterans coming forward through things like the new Veterans Lapel Pin and Covenant, which has encouraged more veterans to come forward and register with DVA. So we're seeing more of our veterans who we didn't know before, coming forward and seeking help, which is good. We need to know who these people are. Some of them had left the Defence Force many years ago and had no more contact with Defence or Veterans Affairs until more recent times. So our Department of Veterans Affairs and the digitisation of its records in the transformation of that department has really made contact with many thousands of more veterans in recent times, which I think is delivering good outcomes for our veterans. And the Productivity Commission report will be fully responded to in the matter of next few months. 

PRIME MINISTER: It’s the investment in the systems, I mean, I don’t know if people know this, but previously, some years ago, if you left the defence forces, you didn't automatically appear on a file over at the Department of Veterans Affairs. And so there are many veterans in our community with which the Government had no established point of contact. And things like the Veterans Pin and Covenant and so on have been very important in actually bringing veterans in. And so it gives us an opportunity to connect them with services. And I think that's important. And DVA has been doing a great job both in putting forward submissions now for many years, and for them getting very significant investment, whether it's in the systems that they use, which frankly have proved a great frustration in the past to families who've had to deal with those systems. And we've invested in those. But it's not just about the Department of Veterans Affairs. It's the changes that are being made in the Defence Forces as well. And you will not find a stronger advocate, whether it's on the mental health of our defence forces or this towards zero goal on suicide prevention, obviously, than the Minister, but also the Chief of the Defence Forces, who I know has a burning passion on this issue. They want to be preparing those who serve in our defence forces for their post Defence Force life from the day they turn up, on their first day of recruitment. And that's the process you've got to work through. I mean, you would normally serve in the Defence Forces, Phil it’s about eight years I think, on average these days, but many people who join the defence forces, think they'll be in the defence forces for their whole of their life’s career. And that's not the case. And so supporting our defence forces for their post service life right from the outset is very, very important. And this is a big part of what's been happening in recent times. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, given Darren Chester’s obvious passion for the subject and the fact that he has been a strong advocate on this front, don't veterans deserve having a consistency of Minister, especially in the months ahead given this process is just starting? And is this a complication to the reshuffle that you have to consider, and why perhaps the reshuffle is going to be announced later than today?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I don't believe any of those issues are presenting a challenge for the Government.

JOURNALIST: So veterans would be- would be better off with someone else?

PRIME MINISTER: That's not what I said. 

JOURNALIST: You didn’t answer the question though Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: I said, I don't think the political issues you've just raised on this matter are going to present a challenge for the Government or for veterans. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister will it cover Border Force, or [inaudible] borders deaths?


JOURNALIST: Will it cover Border Force, or sovereign borders deaths?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there are two issues. There are those who are involved in the defence forces and the Defence Force veterans have been involved in those operations and that deals with those individuals as part of the veteran's remit.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister would you consider including a question on the next census to do with veterans and service?

MINISTER CHESTER: Yeah, thanks, Andrew. We have put forward a proposition for the next census to include a veteran's identifier. In the normal course of business, that's being considered by Treasury. So it's one that the Department and me as Minister has put forward for consideration. There's, as the Prime Minister correctly indicated, one of our challenges is knowing exactly how many veterans there are in Australia. We have contact with more than 280,000 veterans and their families receiving support and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. But we anticipate there'll be more out there that we could support if they were aware necessarily of the services that were available to them. And we recognise, as I'm sure you recognise, that getting people to seek help and early intervention is the best path forward to achieving their best possible health outcome. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister could I ask on another matter?

PRIME MINISTER: Are journalists, do they have any more questions on the veterans’ suicide issue? You don’t? Ok, yep we’ll go to other matters.

JOURNALIST: Thank you, overnight Boris Johnson has urged other countries to join him in achieving his ambition of carbon neutrality by 2050. You've indicated you're not interested in that if it affects industry adversely. Can you clarify whether you are ruling that out or whether that's something you are in the process of considering? 

PRIME MINISTER: I'll give you the same response I gave you at the Press Club just a week ago, and that, I said that that is a matter, the 2050 request that we undertook to look at in our commitment through the PIF process and that's what I intend to do. What I said was, is that I would never make a commitment like that if I couldn't tell the Australian people what it would cost them. And I wouldn't make a commitment like that if I couldn't tell it what it would cost them. And I don't believe the action you need to take in this area is about putting taxes on people, putting their electricity prices up or driving industries out of regional areas. Our government doesn't believe that either. That's what I took to the last election and that's what Australians endorsed, and that's what I'll deliver. 

JOURNALIST: On the coronavirus, what’s your message to the Chinese Australian community? There's been some things circulating online that have sort of urged people to stay away from particular suburbs. Can you perhaps tell us whether you've been pleased with how the communities responded to those requests and also your advice to citizens that are in mainland China at the moment that might be concerned about getting out?

PRIME MINISTER: Sure, well thanks Brett. And I made a comment on this earlier today, I think it was on the Today Show. Can I say thank you to the Australian Chinese community. You are magnificent. The way you have supported each other, the way you've acted in such a responsible fashion, on occasions with great provocation, which I've found reprehensible. You are observing and taking so seriously your responsibilities, together with all Australians, to ensure that we've been, so far quite successfully been able to contain the impact of the Coronavirus within Australia. We have 13 confirmed cases, 3 of which have now left hospital, and have gone about their lives. So we've actually seen a net reduction in recent times, of those cases. So I say to the Chinese community in Australia, thank you, thank you, for the way that you've engaged. The whole point of the quite proactive decisions that the government has taken in relation to containing the coronavirus, and we moved so much more before many other countries, was to ensure that Australians could go about their daily lives. And going about your daily lives means going where you'd normally go because Australians are taking the necessary precautions and that includes our Chinese community. So my answer Brett is I want to say thank you to the Australian Chinese community. I want to say particularly thank you to Gladys Liu, who has been a real community leader in getting information to people on this issue and providing them great encouragement and support in her community down there in Box Hill. And I know that's been done by other members. So that's the first point.

In relation to mainland China. First of all, our response to Coronavirus has been to protect the health and wellbeing of Australians here in Australia. We have had one successful uplift for assisted departure out of Wuhan as you know, overnight we've had another I think 35 Australians who have been part of the New Zealand flight. They'll go to Auckland and then be transferred back to Christmas Island. The arrangements at Christmas Island are working well and we are working now on a further flight into Wuhan. And that's, that is the that is the process we're now in. 

I would say to those more broadly in mainland China, you're aware that if you're an Australian citizen, if you're an Australian resident, if you're an immediate family member of those which would include a legal guardian or indeed you're a triple 4 visa holder as a New Zealander living in Australia, then you will be able to return to Australia, subject to imposing the 14 days self isolation. Australians in these categories who are in mainland China should not assume that Australia will be in a position to put flights as we have into Wuhan if there are further closures that we see happen in different parts of China. As to the best of my knowledge, before I came out here, I wasn't aware of any other provinces where China has shut its borders in those provinces, that can't be ruled out of course. But that's not a matter for the Australian Government. That's a matter for the Chinese Government. And we're working closely with them. And I would simply say to you that Qantas is, I understand, are running flights until the 9th of February, and they should avail themselves of those opportunities because they should not assume there will be similar operations run as we have into Wuhan. 

JOURNALISTS: [inaudible]


JOURNALIST: What did you learn about leadership over the course of this summer?

PRIME MINISTER:  Always to listen, always to show up, and always put Australians first. 

JOURNALIST: What’s your response to the Chinese ambassador who has criticized what he seemed to think was a lack of consultation or advance notice to the Chinese on the travel ban. He even talked about the need to compensate travellers who couldn't get in. Is there any need to compensate? Is there any mistake made with the Chinese authorities on that front? 

PRIME MINISTER: No, I just respectfully disagree. We took this decision swiftly on Saturday. The National Security Committee was convened to consider this matter. It was preceded at midday by a meeting of of all the chief medical officers of the states and territories and the Commonwealth who made a recommendation to us. We convened from memory, I think was about 2 pm on that day. And when we concluded our meeting it was around about 4pm, from memory, I remember standing up then at a media conference about an hour or so after that. During that period of time, the instructions from the National Security Committee was to make contact with the Chinese government and officials, which we sought to do. I understand that occurred about a half an hour before we stood up. That contact wasn't able to be made, although the call was made. And I understand contact was ultimately made when that call was returned about five minutes into my stand-up on the issue. So every best effort was made by the Australian government to contact in good faith. We were moving swiftly in that same time. We were contacting key organisations around the country as well, to inform them, in the tourism industry and the travel industry, transport and of course, the state premiers and chief ministers who I personally contacted, as well as the New Zealand Prime Minister, because we'd been working on a sort of a single border type alignment between the two jurisdictions. So, you know, David, there was a lot of phone calls to make. There was a lot of things to do. And the Chinese government was very high on our list in making those connections and in good faith, we sought to do that. And so I'd have to respectfully disagree. 

JOURNALIST: What about the-

PRIME MINISTER: Pardon, I couldn’t hear you?

JOURNALIST: What about the concerns about some of the students who might have been in transit as that ban was announced, that the embassy was concerned that they were put in detention upon arrival, had to be sent back. A lot of this uncertainty and lack of clarity, and that's what they were upset about, especially that treatment and so on. What's your response to those concerns? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there's a global virus and we're seeking to contain the virus. And unfortunately, there will be instances where there will be inconveniences for those who would have been in transit and who have been travelling, that's regrettable, but you have to put Australia's national interest first. One of the things that the Education Minister has been doing and he had a major roundtable with the universities the day before yesterday, and they're working again on it today was what what measures could be put in place to support students who'd be coming this year, both with online courses and that's already being actioned. But what other arrangements could be in place by universities, that's still being worked on. We will be reviewing the extension of that travel ban, obviously, before the end of the next week. And if there are any changes that we would want to make to that, then we would do that at that time. But we're just proceeding carefully. We're listening to the advice. We're taking decisions, communicating them clearly so people can get on about their daily lives in Australia. And for those who find themselves isolated or vulnerable elsewhere, particularly in Wuhan, well, we're coming to their aid and we're bringing them home where we can. But this is a significant challenge. It's a global one. It's just not Australia. And we're seeking to plug into what everyone else is doing elsewhere in the world. But my first priority is the safety and health and wellbeing of Australians here, and where we're able to support those Australians overseas then we will do that. Thank you all very much.