ROD HENSHAW, HOST: Former Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon is among those calling for a Royal Commission into defence and veteran suicides. However, the government is instead trying to set up an ongoing National Commissioner. Let's head off with that one in our regular spot with Joel Fitzgibbon, the Labor Member for Hunter and former Defence Minister. Joel, good morning to you.
JOEL FITGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Good morning, Rod.
HENSHAW: Good to talk to you. Look, I've been out of town for a couple of weeks. I've been way out of touch. Are you the leader yet?
FITZGIBBON: I want to know where that Steven Cenatiempo is? How dare he take a holiday. What is going on there? The country is in crisis and he's off sailing.
HENSHAW: It keeps me employed.
FITZGIBBON: That's a good thing.
HENSHAW: Look, why do you favour a Royal Commission over a National Commissioner on defence and veterans’ suicide? Or could we actually do both?
FITZGIBBON: Well, no point in investing taxpayers’ money in both, one being, of course, an ineffective approach. Only a wide-ranging Royal Commission with all the powers of a Royal Commission will help us get to the bottom of this problem, tease out the failings and to fix the problem. This idea of a Commissioner under-resourced doing what is basically desktop exercises, without any powers of inquiry is a complete waste of the taxpayers' money. I haven't seen a cause more justified for a Royal Commission than the deaths of so many of our veterans.
HENSHAW: Okay, the kind of commission that you're talking about critically just, like the one they’ve got in Victoria looking into the quarantine, the hotel quarantine issue?
FITZGIBBON: All the government is talking about is a, you know, a brigadier in uniform sitting in a corner in the Attorney General's Department doing desktop work, trying to analyse, you know, what played out across the veterans community. That's not what we need. We need to know where government has gone wrong, where the department has failed our veterans, and very importantly, recommendations on what to do about it.
HENSHAW: Well, isn't it, Joel, isn't it really a case of, you know, a commission is only as good as the powers it gets, or the powers it works under. I use the Victorian commission of inquiry that they've got down there under the retired judge as an example, because they've got really, fairly, fairly stringent powers, fairly expansive powers. But do you wonder if they've used them when they hadn't called back witnesses and all that sort of thing. So, I can see the sense that you're getting at that a commission can be, can be quite limited. But the other side of it is are Royal Commissions effective? Are they effective soon enough, the time limit here?
FITZGIBBON: Well, I think we've seen how effective Royal Commissions can be. The banking inquiry is a perfect example. We've seen the horrors that have been teased out in the aged care sector. And that's exactly what we need and no less for our veterans’ community.
HENSHAW: Ok, well, what's the urgency? There is an urgency, I know, but because we're hearing horror stories day in day out from families who have lost loved ones through suicide and, of course, the associated and attendant causes of that. But how urgent – has it been exacerbated by the handling of the Brereton report do you think?
FITZGIBBON: We fear it will be exacerbated, Rod. That's a very great concern for me, veterans right across the country, and indeed, serving members of the ADF have been adversely affected by the findings of the Brereton inquiry, but more particularly the publicity surrounding it. Some of that published the risk leaving people in the community with the impression that this sort of behaviour, unlawful behaviour, as alleged, is widespread across the defence community and nothing could be further from the truth. The overwhelming majority – overwhelming majority – of our ADF members do the right thing and in the case of our Special Forces do nothing more than put their lives on the line on a daily basis. But sadly, they feel reflected upon too. I've spoken to former Special Forces soldiers who are now having their wives asking them, you know, what they did or didn't do in Afghanistan. This is a – this is a lot of pressure on people who were pushed to the limits of their mental resilience in Afghanistan.
HENSHAW: Not helped, of course, by the head of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, jumping the gun very quickly and saying look, we'll strip them of all their meritorious medals and this sort of thing. That did no good surely. Thankfully, he's had a rethink or told to have a rethink and recanted on that completely and so he should, what do you reckon?
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, I have nothing but the highest regard for General Campbell. Yes, that has exacerbated the problem. The idea that having risked one's life alongside someone who actually gave their life, will now be losing their recognition is a horrible situation for someone to find themselves in. Of course, there will be those who by necessity will have their medals stripped, but they are a very small minority. But someone who wasn't even aware there were problems within their unit, there's a big question as to whether their medals should be taken away and, indeed, I don't believe their medals should be taken away.
HENSHAW: Yeah, due process has to take place first before anything really happens, doesn't it?
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, of course. And this is, this is why I welcome so strongly the, if you like, the pauses which is now being put on this process. Why not let the legal processes proceed extensively first, and then we can all have a look at who did what as alleged, and then we can reflect on what that means for medals? But again, the idea that someone who put their life on the line for our country could now lose their medal for something they weren't even aware was playing out, is a very, very difficult proposition indeed.
HENSHAW: Can I just clarify that? Should this inquiry happen sooner rather than later? Or do we, or do we need to wait for the criminal investigations and potential prosecution to take their cause before the inquiry?
FITZGIBBON: Well, I think the formal – I mean, we live in a democracy where the war – the rule of law is paramount, because the rule of law brings with it certain procedures which protect the innocent. So, that's the best test. So, I think before making decisions about medals, we should let the legal processes precede it, or the rigor of those legal processes, and that might give us some guide as to who should be retaining their medal and who might not.
HENSHAW: Just going to ask – I know you served as Defence Minister from 2007 to 2009 – the question who makes those decisions on deployments? Where does the buck stop?
FITZGIBBON: Well, this is the point I've been making, Rod. Part of the problem in Afghanistan, very apparent to me, are a result of decisions made right at the top by, by governments, by members of the National Security Committee of the Cabinet. And I'm talking in particular about regular and longer rotations. Some soldiers went to Afghanistan up to 12 times and we're dragging them away from their family more regularly, were chipping away at their mental resilience every time they go there. So, they are the responsibility of government. And someone should have been asking the question, surely this has some implications and possible consequences for our men in operations and there may, too, be some consequences. Now, someone may have been asking that question. I think, you know, I take responsibility for the time I was the minister but, you know, most of these incidents happened after that. Now, someone in the National Security Committee of the Cabinet might have been asking that question, but if they were, they either didn't get the right answers, or they didn't act upon them. The other problem, of course, is that we threw them into the most dangerous part of the world, too often under resourced, fighting an enemy that plays to no rules, doesn't wear a uniform. And of course, our soldiers – silly – they know that ISAF lacked a plan to win, lacked operational and strategic plans, the objectives kept changing, and if there is no plan to win, despite their own best efforts, our soldiers get the sense that there isn't a plan to win and that plays on their minds, and on that basis, while I don't justify it, I understand why some of them started to take – started to take the law into their own hands.
HENSHAW: Well said Joel, good to talk with you. Look, sorry I've got some bad news. I'm on again next week, Stephen [inaudible]…
FITZGIBBON: I’m very happy to speak with you, Rod, because I understand that you are one of the wonderful people that mentored my daughter.
HENSHAW: And it was an absolute pleasure and privilege and she's done so well, despite my help.
FITZGIBBON: We're are very proud her, Rod. Thanks for your support.
HENSHAW: Good on you mate, thanks Joel.
FITZGIBBON: Thanks mate.