Veterans advocates have demanded the Department of Veteran Affairs be kicked out of an early royal commission process, saying it’s like asking a victim to “engage with their abuser”.
Minister Darren Chester moved to quell growing disquiet among the veterans’ community, assuring his department will be at arm’s length from the final veterans suicide royal commission process, but advocates have blasted the inquiry only a week after it was announced.
“So many veterans feel the department has been the primary source of their abuse, and now they’re being asked to engage with their abuser,” Heston Russell, retired special forces captain and founder of the Voice Of A Veteran, told The New Daily.
“This is a joke.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week announced a royal commission into suicides among current and former defence members.
It’s believed more than 500 defence personnel may have ended their lives since 2001.
Advocates have now voiced further concern the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) will be running the consultation process.
Mr Russell said the agency “has been central to, if not the cause of, major mental and emotional trauma to veterans”.
“People are really up in arms about DVA being involved in any part of this process,” he said.
He alleged DVA’s involvement “undermined the integrity and opportunity” of the royal commission, claiming veterans had already told him they didn’t want to interact with the department.
Retired Army officer Stuart McCarthy called the situation “outrageous”.
“The DVA having any involvement or influence whatsoever over the terms of reference would be like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” he told TND.
“It would be like putting the Catholic Church in charge of the terms of reference of the royal commission into institutional sex abuse.”
Mr McCarthy, a long-time campaigner for a royal commission, said he and many other veterans would hope to raise direct concerns about the department’s actions in any submissions or evidence.
He claimed many would be apprehensive of a process influenced by DVA.
“That includes very serious conduct which has resulted in the deaths of people under their care. For the secretary or any other senior staff to be even involved in the consultation process is an absolute bastardisation of what a royal commission needs to be,” he said.
“If this royal commission is to be done properly, I’d imagine the secretary and even the minister would be appearing as witnesses.”
Other veterans told TND similar concerns.
“Many of the complaints veterans have that they wanted voiced in this royal commission are directed at the political masters of DVA,” one said, anonymously.
But Mr Chester, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, said he had met hundreds of “extremely positive and constructive” veterans and families since the royal commission was announced.
“They are not interested in arguing amongst themselves. They want the wider military community to unite and make the most of this important opportunity to shape the direction of the royal commission,” Mr Chester told TND.
Mr Chester also moved to assure concerned veterans the royal commission was following “standard practice”, saying the Attorney-General’s department – not DVA – would determine the final terms of reference.
“My role is entirely consistent with other royal commissions where the portfolio minister undertakes consultation, but the actual drafting of the terms of reference is undertaken independently of my department by the Attorney-General,” he said.
“To be clear, DVA, the Australian Defence Force and the Department of Defence are not involved in the conduct of the royal commission itself.”
Mr Russell said Voice Of A Veteran had heard from “hundreds” of veterans concerned at DVA’s involvement.
He said he wanted the royal commission to be effective, and his group has now begun its consultation process, asking veterans to submit comments through Voice Of A Veteran, which they would lodge directly with the Attorney-General’s department – not DVA.
He said it was vital the inquiry be supported by veterans – not just to get better outcomes, but to provide a forum that veterans felt comfortable contributing to.
“This royal commission is all about identifying systemic faults, but it’s also enabling all of us in the veteran community to move forward, having had an opportunity to get out all this trauma,” he said.
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