A Liberal Senator has used his government Facebook account to attack a grieving mother’s call for an official inquiry into veteran suicides, describing a petition she started as “disingenuous”, “duplicitous” and “very apple pie”, before mocking the number of signatures it’s attracted, branding people who support it “ignorant”, and then blaming them for “more lives lost”.
The revelations come amid a growing storm about the conduct of Liberal politicians, particularly towards women. On Wednesday, Queensland Liberal MP Andrew Laming, came under fire for trolling several women from his Facebook page, driving one of them to contemplate suicide. The following day, Prime Minister Scott Morrison blamed social media for a decay in societal standards.
That memo appears to have not reached the office of NSW Liberal Senator Jim Molan, a former Major General in the Australian Army who commanded international forces during the invasion of Iraq. Late this week, Senator Molan launched his own private war… from his official parliamentary Facebook account.
The petition on change.org was launched by Adelaide mother Julie-Ann Finney in 2019, shortly after her son, Dave Stafford Finney, took his own life. Mr Finney had been discharged from the Australian Navy with PTSD, after serving more than 20 years and deploying to Bougainville, East Timor and the Middle East.
Ms Finney’s petition reads, “I call on the Australian Government to establish a Royal Commission with wide terms of reference to examine and make recommendations regarding the Australian Veteran suicide rate and what can be done in practical terms to address this tragic situation.”
Her call has gained widespread public support, particularly among veterans, but it’s also attracted significant political support. Labor and the Greens have backed calls for a Royal Commission, and independent Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie, herself a retired ADF veteran, has been leading the push in parliament.
But according to Senator Molan, the petition – which currently stands at more than 400,000 signatures – should have attracted “25 million” given how “motherhood” and “apple pie” it was. Senator Molan also suggests the petition has been created and run in bad faith, and the people signing it “don’t have any idea” what they’re asking for.
After posting a video of his appearance at a Senate Estimates hearing this week, where he backed opposition from defence department officials to a Royal Commission, Molan attracted several hundred comments in reply, many of them from veterans, and most of them negative.
Today I asked a question in Senate Estimates about the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. This confirmed my view that the National Commissioner will be independent and have the same powers as a Royal Commission. Like a Royal Commission, the National Commissioner can make findings or recommendations, including identifying any policy, legislative, administrative or structure reforms that may be required. However, unlike a Royal Commission, which issues a final report then is disbanded, the National Commissioner has an ongoing role in monitoring the implementation of its recommendations. Under the legislation, the Commissioner also has a direct line to the Prime Minister and Attorney-General, if it considers that any Government Department or Agency is not taking appropriate action in response to a Commissioner’s report. Defence Force and veteran suicide is, sadly, an ongoing issue. We need a permanent framework and action to address it, not a once-off Royal Commission and recommendations. If this has raised any concerns for you, please contact Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling for counselling or support services on 1800 011 046.Posted by Senator Jim Molan on Monday, 22 March 2021
One of more the more gentle criticisms was from Richard Barry, a Vietnam veteran, who wrote, “Very sad to see comments that you are genuinely not supporting veterans. Of all people?” The response from Senator Molan is not all that far from what you might expect from a former high-ranking military officer, someone not used to having their authority questioned.
“Richard, get the facts. Your ignorance is appalling….” Senator Molan wrote. He then tagged in two other men who had also weighed into the discussion: “The petition was motherhood. I am surprised you were not able to get 25m supporters it was so apple pie.”
To another commenter, Molan writes: “The [Royal Commission] is not the will of the people at all. Read what I said about the petition. It was disingenuous to say the least.”
Molan doesn’t oppose an inquiry into the ADF – the sticking point is over what type of investigation should be launched. A Royal Commission would have sweeping powers, including the power of arrest, whereas a ‘National Commission’ would have more limited powers, and would be restricted in looking back on past incidents.
Critics suggest Senator Molan is running interference for the government and the defence department, and trying to scuttle an inquiry that would finally shed more light on the long-running abuse scandals that have plagued the ADF, including potentially during Molan’s time as a General.
For his part, Molan says he’s simply trying to get the best result for vets, and that a Royal Commission isn’t one of them. It would delay urgent action, and once its delivered its findings, that’s it – the appointment of a National Commissioner would provide independent oversight for years to come, Molan argues.
Senator Molan’s ‘apple pie’ comments have been deleted. But much of his trolling still remains accessible, and apart from being littered with poor grammar and spelling mistakes, they read more like a series of angry rants than considered responses from an Australian Senator.
“Geoff read y (sic) comments for the other posts. What you are saying (sic) wilfull (sic) blindness.”
And this: “Naomi you have no idea what support there is from the 600k vets in this country or the 200+k who are supported by DVA. Please see comments I wrote on the motherhood petition support.”
And this: “Dave we may in fact not get a [National Commission], you may succeed in delaying progress again to achieve a lesser result. That dies (sic) not change the fact that the NC is better, is here now” he writes.
And this: “Ken everything you have said in the last post was wrong…. This is not a reply to you Ken, it is a statement. No one put pressure on me. No one can put pressure on me. I support the NC because it is demionstrsbly (sic) better for vets.”
Senator Molan tells one commenter that his push for a National Commission “has been obstructed by ignorance and denial since Oct of last year. Unless of course they want something much more in their RC than a complete inquiry into defence and veteran suicides. Do they know what they want? I doubt it.”
At one point, Molan suggests it’s actually Senator Lambie and others who support a Royal Commission who are responsible for “More time wasted. More lives lost” because they don’t really know what they want.
There was, as you might expect, pushback to Molan’s aggression. In reply to Molan describing the whole issue as “quite simple”, one commenter writes: “I’ll be putting the liberals last, it’s where they put me and most other veterans (butt kissing egomaniac’s obviously excluded).”
Molan’s comments are also occasionally misleading: “Nick the NC has all the powers of a RC plus it is ongoing. On one issue it has a different power which was explained in the video.”
A National Commission does not have the same powers of a Royal Commission, a false claim Molan has made repeatedly, including to New Matilda in an interview on Friday evening. He backed down on that claim when challenged, but then doubled down on his statements about Ms Finney and the petition.
“What Julie-Ann has done here is put out a petition that makes a motherhood statement that everyone can agree to, and then use it as part of an argument to [get]a Royal Commission rather than a National Commission,” Molan said.
“[My Facebook comments] don’t refer to her… I’m referring to the text of the petition which Julie-Ann has asked people to sign.”
That text is signed off as ‘Julie-Ann Finney, proud mother of Dave Stafford Finney’. It also includes a six-and-a-half minute video, in which Ms Finney outlines the heartbreak of losing her son, and acknowledges the suicide of another soldier, Brock Hewitt.
Senator Molan said his reference to the petition being “a motherhood” and “very apple pie” was not intended to portray negative connotations.
“I’m standing by the statement that this is a motherhood statement that everyone can agree with. I’m not mocking the petition. I’m saying the petition is good and anyone can sign it, but to then use the petition to say a National Commission is not as good as a Royal Commission is duplicitous.”
Senator Molan then clarified he wasn’t describing Ms Finney’s actions as ‘duplicitous’: “I’m describing as duplicitous how people are using the petition.”
Senator Molan said he was comfortable with how he had communicated publicly on the issue, and objected strongly to any suggestion his comments were ‘tone deaf’, particularly given the growing furore around how Liberal politicians have been engaging with women.
“If you want to run that line, then run that line. But I think what you’re doing is disgusting. What you’re doing is false. If you want to pull it in to a gender issue you can, but it’s not a gender issue.”
A spokesperson for Senator Jordan Steele-John, the Greens Veterans Affairs spokesperson told New Matilda: “Australian Greens Veterans Affairs spokesperson Senator Jordon Steele-John strongly supports the calls for a RC and has met with Julie-Ann Finney on a number of occasions and admires her strength and advocacy.”
Labor has also come out strongly in support, of both a Royal Commission and Ms Finney, branding the creation of a National Commission as “nothing more than a glorified coroner”.
“I met with Julie-Ann recently, a photo of David placed beside her, as she stated her case as to why nothing less than a Royal Commission is acceptable,” Brendan O’Connor, the opposition’s defence spokesperson wrote in the Daily Telegraph last week.
“Labor supports the call from her and others for a Royal Commission into veterans’ suicides. Instead, Scott Morrison announced a National Commissioner into veterans’ suicides. The National Commissioner is nothing more than a glorified coroner doing desktop reviews.
“It doesn’t have the independence, scope or resources to investigate these important issues the way a Royal Commission can.”
Independent Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie – whose been leading the fight in parliament for a Royal Commission – suggested Senator Molan should respect the opinions of more than 400,000 Australians who’ve signed the petition. She also suggested his energies were better directed at fighting for an inquiry, rather than fighting the mother of a dead soldier.
“What’s he talking about, ‘motherhood and apple pie’? [The petition] is literally asking for the government [Jim’s] a part of to take a direct and explicit policy action. What’s he think a petition is supposed to ask for?
“As for Jim having magical, unsourced insight into what is and is not the will of the people, I’d like a sip of whatever he’s drinking. His National Commissioner doesn’t even have the support of the Parliament, let alone the public.
“A Royal Commission is supported by every member of the Parliament except Jim. It’s supported by the RSLs in Tasmania, Victoria and NSW, as well as the Naval Association of Australia, the Partners of Veterans Association of Australia, the War Widows Guild of Australia, the Australian Commando Association, the Defence Force Welfare Association… I could go on.
“There’s more than 400,000 people who’ve asked him to back it in, and do the right thing, but instead of that he’s just attacking the mother of a 20-year naval veteran who took his own life as ‘disingenuous to say the least’.
“Jim’s a strong fighter and he’s got a lot to offer. I just wish that instead of fighting the mothers of veterans, he could start fighting for them.
“As for him being surprised the petition didn’t get 25 million signatures, I didn’t notice his name on there.”
For her part, Ms Finney told New Matilda the tone of Senator Molan’s comments weren’t a surprise to her, given her past interactions with him. But she said his poorly worded comments about ‘motherhood’ given the current national debate around the Morrison government’s treatment of women were unfortunate (Senator Molan repeatedly referred to the petition as ‘motherhood’, apparently unaware the phrase is ‘motherhood statement’).
“My first thought was, ‘My God, would it help if I was a father? Would that be better? What do you want from me? I’m fighting for veterans, predominantly men. Will you step up and fight for them Jim, or are you just going to run me down as a mother?” Ms Finney said.
“I haven’t done anything. I’m a mother of a dead child. I’ve been a mother since I was 15. That’s all I am. A mother.”
Ms Finney said her fight for an inquiry into the circumstances that surround veteran suicides – in particular the decades-long allegations of bullying and abuse – will continue, regardless of whether or not the Morrison Government ignores the petition.
“The night when they knocked on my door is indescribable. I naively thought I could get an appointment with Darren Chester, the Minister for Veterans Affairs. I thought he would look and go, ‘God did that happen to your son?’ and then call a Royal Commission. I really believed that.
“I just looked at [the situation]and I thought, ‘You’re not going to do this to me. You’re not going to make me bury my son and walk away. I’m not going to bury my son easily.’”
Ms Finney said Senator Molan’s advocacy of a weaker form of inquiry would never be acceptable to her, nor to the vast majority of the veterans community.
“A National Commission looks at the future, and gives recommendations. We need to go back and investigate the past. If we don’t have accountability we’re saying the behaviour that has gone on is okay.
“Well, it’s not okay by this mother, and it’s not okay by many parents.”
Ms Finney also expressed concerns Senator Molan may be too close to the issue to see it objectively.
“A royal commission won’t hurt anyone who hasn’t done something wrong,” Ms Finney said. “People hear what they want to hear, and then they cover up, for their jobs, for their pay packets, for their mates, for their egos.
“I’ve got nothing to cover up. I’m just fighting because I’m Dave’s mum.
“But I’m also a person. And if Jim wants to know, I’m more a ‘pie and beer’ person than an apple pie person.”
Political controversy has dogged Molan’s career since he first signalled an intention to enter politics. In 2018, he strongly denied suggestions he had any role in war crimes committed during the Iraq war, forcing Greens MP Adam Bandt to apologise for the comment.
At the time Molan commented, “It goes to the reputation of the military. [The comments] cannot be left to stand.”
Since then, of course, the Australian military’s reputation has suffered immense damage, with the Brereton Inquiry revealing dozens of alleged war crimes perpetrated by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2016, which were subsequently covered up by ADF personnel. There’s no suggestion from New Matilda that Molan, who retired from the military in 2008, was involved in those war crimes.
Molan declared war on his own party in 2019, after being pre-selected by the Liberals to the unwinnable fourth position on the NSW senate ticket. He ran a separate campaign aimed at undermining the NSW Liberals’ Senate vote, before being appointed to the Senate in November 2019, to replace Arthur Sinodinos, a former adviser to John Howard.
Sinodinos, of course, had been caught up in a NSW corruption scandal in 2014, which eventually saw the jailing of Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid. He had to stand down from cabinet at the time, but recovered from the scandal, only to leave office abruptly at the end of 2019 amid poor health.
Sinodinos was appointed as the Australian Ambassador to the United States, replacing former Liberal treasurer Joe Hockey.
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