By KATE BANVILLE

KEEN to earn the respect and vote of the defence community, senior politicians are ramping up visits to Australia’s largest garrison city. 

Veterans Affairs and Defence Personnel Shadow Minister Shayne Neumann will be in Townsville on Monday and Tuesday to meet with ex-service organisations, before visiting Army and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) bases, where its expected he will be shown the latest service kit in operation across the forces, before meeting with troops to hear their concerns.

The trip comes just days after the newly minted Defence Minister Peter Dutton visited the 3rd Brigade in what was his first major visit to a Defence facility since taking over the portfolio on March 30.

Shadow Minister Neumann said Townsville was a ‘key location’ for Labor in the next Federal election, given its strategic importance of defence industry, bases and veteran community.

Labor has joined a chorus of support for a Royal Commission into veteran suicide, with Mr Neumann using this latest trip to hear from veterans directly on the issue.

“Townsville is the first place I visited after I was appointed Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel in mid-2019 and I’ve been wanting to get back here for a long time,” Mr Neumann said. 

“A lot of veterans in Townsville have been telling me they feel ignored by the Morrison government, especially on issues like veteran suicide.

“Labor has always said it is open to a permanent body to tackle this issue in an ongoing way, but only if this is a recommendation of an independent Royal Commission, which must happen first.

“I can assure our ADF people, veterans and their families in the Townsville region that Labor is on their side and I’m keen to hear from them.”

Mr Neumann will host a roundtable with RSL Townsville Sub Branch and Ex-Service Organisations on Monday morning, followed by a series of private engagements at The Oasis Townsville, a multimillion dollar veterans support hub expected to open later this month, a respite centre open to homeless veterans centre known as ‘Zac’s Place’, and Northern Queensland Legacy to hear from war widows and families.

Mr Neumann is expected to float potential policy ideas to take to the next federal election, consulting with veterans to gain insights on what would best suit their needs. Its understood suicide rates, mental health, employment, and homelessness among veterans are areas of priority.

The defence community, including ministers in charge of its relevant portfolios has been under intense scrutiny in recent months following the release of the Brereton Report into allegations of war crimes, increasing suicide rates among veterans, and calls for a Royal Commission as opposed to a permanent independent commissioner to investigate veteran suicide, giving the position the powers of a royal commission to probe the deaths of more than 400 serving and ex-service men and women who took their own lives since 2001.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention in Feburary 2020, however it remains blocked in the Senate after Labor and members of the crossbench refused to pass the legislation rendering it powerless unless pushed through.

In March, further pressure was placed on the Morrison Government to back a Royal Commission when coalition senators voted with Labor, the Greens and independents to call on Mr Morrison to establish the inquiry, which went unopposed in the lower house.

While in Townsville, Mr Dutton said the government remained open to a royal commission on veterans’ suicide. But he said the Prime Minister was also determined to have a standing royal commission to address the problem in an ongoing way.

Mr Neumann’s veteran engagement tour follows similar visits in January by interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention Dr Bernadette Boss, and Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie and Kennedy MP Bob Katter.

Veterans Affairs and Defence Personnel Minister Darren Chester is also expected in Townsville on April 22 to meet with Australian Defence Force personnel, veterans and their families upon the invitation of Herbert MP Phillip Thompson. 

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