‘I’m fighting for every veteran’: Grieving mum’s royal commission battle with government

Julie-Ann Finney knows a royal commission won't bring her son David back, but she won't be placated.

Julie-Ann Finney knows a royal commission won't bring her son David back, but she won't be placated. Photo: Supplied/AAP

There’s no official count.

But Julie-Ann Finney thinks this year has seen 61 veteran suicides – that she knows of.

It’s not a count she ever wanted to keep, but last year her own son was one of them.

Royal Australian Navy veteran David Finney took his own life after a battle with post-traumatic stress. Photo: Supplied

“That smile,” she says, showing a picture of her and late son David together.

And she’s right – it’s radiant, and he is handsome.

On February 1, 2019, David, a former Royal Australian Navy petty officer took his own life after a crushing battle with post-traumatic stress.

He had been medically discharged in 2017, following 20 years of service, including in Iraq, Timor and Bougainville.

My story is my son is dead,” Ms Finney said.

“If I wasn’t a normal mother I would have buried my child and moved on. That’s what they want me to do.”

In October 2018, David sought professional help but was told there was a six-month wait to see an Australian Defence Force psychiatrist.

He died four months later.

Since then, his mother has been pushing for a royal commission into veteran suicides.

I’m fighting for every veteran. I don’t get my son back,” Ms Finney said.

“But I do get to let him talk so other veterans can have wellbeing. I speak for my son, and he won’t shut up.”

Julie-Ann Finney knows a royal commission won’t bring her son back, but is fighting for other veterans. Photo: Supplied

On Monday the Senate is set to vote on Scott Morrison’s bid to establish a national commissioner for defence and veteran suicide prevention – and it’s set to fail.

Labor, after initially backing the proposal when the PM announced it in February have now sided with independent Senator Jacquie Lambie to oppose the bill.

They say it’s a royal commission or bust.

They say veterans’ families deserve the full investigation and powers that come with a royal commission, and argue that a national commissioner will do little to prevent deaths.

Scott Morrison has resisted calls for a royal commission into veteran suicides. Photo: AAP

But Attorney-General Christian Porter says it’s not an “either/or option”.

“Surely Labor, for once, can put its political game-playing aside and support our defence and veterans communities,” Mr Porter said.

Independent South Australian Senator Rex Patrick is likely to be the deciding vote, and he said on Monday he was unlikely to side with the Coalition.

The battle for a royal commission into veteran suicides

In Australia, veteran suicide is an epidemic.

The suicide rate for ex-servicemen is 18 per cent higher than the broader Australian population.

Ex-servicewomen are twice as likely to take the own lives.

Julie-Ann Finney, mother of the late veteran Dave Finney speaks during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, December 1, 2020.

Julie-Ann Finney, mother of the late veteran Dave Finney speaks during a press conference at parliament house on Tuesday. Photo: AAP

And hell have no fury like a grieving mother. It’s what Ms Finney is running on – a furious grief. You can hear it in her voice, see it in her face.

Just this week, she cut in front of opposition leader Anthony Albanese after a journalist asked him a question about the government’s push for a commissioner.

“I’m sorry, this will do nothing … We don’t want to look at future suicides, they should not be happening … This does nothing for anyone,” she says.

The video went viral after Senator Lambie shared it on social media, describing it as “the most electrifying moment I’ve ever seen in a press conference”.

Government’s ‘mother’s medal’ cold comfort

For Ms Finney, the battle for a royal commission is deeply personal.

“Every single family of every deceased veteran and every broken veteran want a royal commission,” she said.

“Why does the government think they can come up with something to placate us?”

The Liberal Party wants Ms Finney on-side.

Julie-Ann Finney, mother of the late veteran Dave Finney speaks during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, December 1, 2020.

Julie-Ann Finney says the government tried to ‘placate’ her with a ‘mother’s medal’. Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch

They even sounded her out about a ‘mother’s medal’ – to be awarded to the mothers of soliders lost to suicide.

“What will it look like if we’re going to wear it? A bottle of pills and a little rope?,” Ms Finney exclaimed.

“I don’t want to be part of this group, I don’t want to be awarded for being part of it.

What about my husband, does he not grieve? My daughter is broken too. How do you think you can placate mothers with a trinket?”

In the past week, Ms Finney has received emails and calls from Liberal MP’s asking her to side with them on appointing a commissioner.

The commissioner would investigate the systematic issues behind the high number of veteran deaths and provide a report to parliament after 18 months.

But Senator Lambie has slammed the move, saying it is not enough to fully address the issue and won’t stop any deaths.

She also questioned the interim appointment of Dr Bernadette Boss CSC, who has held various command and staff roles in the ADF.

The DVA and ADF shouldn’t be investigating themselves, says Jacqui Lambie. Photo: ADF

“When it comes to [the Department of Veterans’ Affairs] and Defence, we can’t have them investigating themselves. That’s not independent,” Senator Lambie said.

“There are no terms of reference. It won’t be in the public eye.”

Senator Lambie said her office had received thousands of complaints in the last 16 months about DVA.

There’s no trust left in the system, and if you can’t trust the system, you’re in trouble,” she said. 

The Returned & Services League of Australia (RSL) has backed the government’s commissioner appointment, after rubbishing the idea of a royal commission into veteran suicides last year.

“A royal commission would be unproductive and would undoubtedly impact adversely on programs supporting the veteran community,” RSL national president Greg Melick said last December.

At the time the PM was publicly considering going ahead with a full commission.

Last month Mr Melick said the RSL would welcome an independent commissioner.

“The independent commissioner will provide an important level of inquiry and an ongoing ability to provide recommendations to government,” he said.

“This will assist in better outcomes for our veterans.”

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