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Preventing Veteran Suicides - Why The Royal Commission is Important

Tags: Men's Health / Shadow Ministry

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  • By Light Electoral Office
  • Apr 09, 2020
Preventing Veteran Suicides - Why The Royal Commission is Important

(Extract from Hansard)

I move:

That this house—

(a) honours the service and sacrifice of current and former members of the Australian Defence Force;

(b) recognises the strong and respectful advocacy of Ms Julie-Ann Finney in addition to other grieving families and members of the veteran community who have successfully advocated for a commonwealth government inquiry into veteran suicides; and

(c) urges the commonwealth government to implement, as soon as practical, the key recommendations regarding the implementation of veteran-specific suicide prevention, monitoring and data collection programs, the implementation of measures designed to improve the welfare of veterans and their families, and proposals to improve the transition of ex-service personnel into civilian employment, as detailed in The Constant Battle: Suicide by Veterans (an August 2017 report of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee), Veterans' Advocacy and Support Services Scoping Study (a December 2018 report of the Australian government), and A Better Way to Support Veterans (a June 2019 report of the Productivity Commission).

I would like to draw members' attention to various parts of this motion. The first part deals with honouring the service and sacrifice of current and former members of the Australian Defence Force. I think it is an appropriate occasion to do so today, given that it will be the last opportunity we have to debate this matter prior to ANZAC Day.

Regrettably, this year ANZAC Day will not be celebrated in the normal way, with a whole range of ceremonies around the country, because of the coronavirus. However, there are other ways that we can in our own way honour our current and former defence personnel while still complying with the health guidelines for this period. I think it is very important that we do that.

Even though we are in a health crisis at the moment, we need to make sure that we do not forget those who served this nation in a variety of ways, with many making the ultimate sacrifice with their life. We should not forget them at this time. Some suggestions made by the RSL and other veteran organisations about the way we can remember the courage and service of our defence personnel include, for example, standing in your driveway at 5.55am, observing a minute's silence while the ode is played.

You can also put a red item on your letterbox, symbolising family members waiting for a letter to arrive from overseas either from the family member or, worse, from the government saying that their loved one has been killed in war. You can fly the flag. You can follow some services on TV; there will be some limited services on television. You can perhaps sit down and speak with your children or grandchildren and explain to them why this day is very important. There is a whole range of ways on this day that we can honour those who have given their life.

On ANZAC Day, we remember those who have given their life on the battlefield. This motion is about honouring not only those lives but also the lives of those people who have given their life, unfortunately, off the battlefield—those ex-service personnel who have taken their own life. I understand that, since 2001, 400 serving and ex-defence personnel have taken their lives. This is particularly sad because these are people who have taken their life while trying to re-enter the community and rebuild their normal life.

Sometimes words fail to describe the enormity of a tragedy, and I think this is one of those areas: trying to come to terms with the enormity of this tragedy for those people directly involved in taking their lives and also for their family members who are left behind. They are often left seeking answers and trying to understand why their loved one has taken their life when they have been serving their nation. The second part of this motion addresses that in part.

It seeks to recognise the strong and respectful advocacy by Ms Julie-Ann Finney, in addition to that of other grieving families and members of the veteran community who have successfully advocated for a commonwealth government inquiry into veteran suicides. I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet with Julie-Ann Finney on a number of occasions, and I was moved not only by her words but by her demeanour and grace. This is a woman who lost a son to suicide, a son who served this nation, yet all she was seeking—and not from a place of anger—was not retribution but to understand what her son went through.

More importantly, she made it very clear on the occasions I spoke with her that she did not want any other mother or parent or brother or sister to go through the grief she has gone through and to suffer the pain she has gone through. Her call is a call to understand what her son did, but, more importantly, it is a call to understand what has happened and to make sure that it does not happen again because she has experienced it firsthand.

I do not know that experience. I have been very fortunate in life. I do not know the experience of losing a close one to war or losing a close one to suicide, but you can tell when she speaks with you that the pain is quite deep. We need to work with her and other mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters to make sure their loved ones do not do the same, so there was some light on the horizon when the Prime Minister announced an inquiry.

I say there was some light on the horizon with this inquiry because I am not quite clear about what actually has been promised by the government in terms of an inquiry. A whole range of terms is being used, but I do not understand yet and I am not clear that the terms of reference have been drawn up yet for this national inquiry. What I can say though is that I have met very few people who actually agree with what is proposed, or what they understand has been proposed.

Certainly, Julie-Ann Finney has made it very clear that after her initial positive reaction to what was said she is very disappointed, and I will come to that in a few moments. She is really disappointed in the way this matter has been handled. I am reading from a media release from the Hon. Darren Chester MP, Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel. His media statement says the government supports:

…the establishment of a permanent and independent National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention to inquire into all suspected veterans and ADF suicides…

He calls that 'a significant step forward in tackling this serious and complex national issue'. He goes on to say:

The National Commissioner will have the enduring powers and resources, formalised by terms of reference, to investigate suicides and related issues as they arise in the future, and also to review past cases, supported by the ability to conduct public hearings, receive submissions, and include families in the process should they wish. Importantly, these are ongoing powers not restricted to a one-off inquiry as would be the case with a royal commission.

It is interesting that a royal commission is an inferior inquiry, yet when it was announced the Prime Minister said that this was actually better than a royal commission. I would now like to put forward some views expressed by others of what has been proposed and explain why I believe what the Prime Minister has announced (and I say what I believe to be the case because I am not sure what has been announced at this point in time) I do not think is good enough for our veterans and their families.

The Senate recently passed a motion, supported by the Labor Party and all the minor parties in the Senate, that I think it is very important. It reads as follows:

That the Senate—

(a) is not of the view that the Morrison Government's announcement of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veterans Suicide [Prevention] is 'better than a Royal Commission';

This is the view of the Senate. It continues:

(b) calls on the Morrison government to establish a Royal Commission into Veterans Suicide, with a clear start and end date; and

(c) invites the Royal Commissioner to recommend that a standing, permanent capability be established to oversee reform should the Commissioner see fit to do so.

The Senate is basically saying that you have a royal commission and you get to a position where you actually understand what is involved. Part of those recommendations hopefully will be to set up a permanent inquiry. That would actually cover what I believe these mothers and families are asking for. From what I understand, it is not what the Prime Minister has offered to this point. I will also quote Senator Steele-John, one of the Greens in the Senate, where he talks about discussing this issue with families who have a lost a child or another family member to suicide:

Anybody who has spoken with a family that has been touched by veteran suicide will know the pain they feel and the urgency that is demanded by so many for an independent and rigorous investigation that is able to look under every rock and stone and get an answer to the question why so many veterans are being driven to take these actions.

It is important this process breaks through the very bureaucratic barriers that have stopped other inquiries from making meaningful recommendations or delivering on meaningful recommendations, and there are a number of those. The reaction to the Prime Minister's proposal is interesting. I am quoting a piece by the ABC's 7.30 Report:

A Victorian coroner has recommended that the Department of Veterans Affairs…be subject to independent audits of its handling of the veterans' compensation claims following an inquest into the suicide of army veteran Jesse Bird.

The clear inference to make from that is that the way our bureaucracies are handling a whole range of issues is actually contributing to the loss of life of these people who have served their nation overseas. It continues:

Coroner Jacqui Hawkins called for the role of National Commissioner for Defence and Veterans Suicide Prevention to be dramatically expanded to allow for broader reviews of DVA processes, and investigations into complaints about the Department made by veterans.

This Coroner has actually looked at the Prime Minister's proposal and says that it is wanting. The Coroner has made a finding that what is being proposed by the commonwealth government is not enough: it is insufficient. The Coroner found, 'There appeared to be a lack of care, attention and proactive support,' given to veterans who come back from their service.

Tim White, the President of Law Society of South Australia, recently wrote a piece in the paper in which he talked about the number of suicides that have taken place. He also makes a very important point because people often say, 'Suicide is a matter of life. It happens to non-serving personnel as well.' That is certainly true: people in the general community, regrettably and sadly, also commit suicide. He goes on to say, 'The suicide rate for ex-servicemen is 18 per cent higher than the broader population.' So there is something wrong in our defence system that is not helping our defence personnel to re-enter the community in a safe way, and we need to address that.

In the case of ex-servicewomen, the stats are even worse. White says they are 'twice as likely to take their own lives as other women' in the community. Mr White is a person who has actually worked with veterans, and he says, 'I have seen many financially and emotionally ruined by the Department of Veterans Affairs' claims process,' when they talk about claims, etc. I would just like to quote The Advertiser, talking about Julie-Ann Finney:

The grieving Adelaide mother who has spent the past 12 months fighting for a national solution to veteran suicide is maintaining her calls for a full-blown royal commission.

Ms Finney, from Blair Athol, said the PM’s proposal to appoint an independent commissioner to investigate veteran suicide did not address the issues she believed were causing the crisis at the centre of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA).

You have here the mother, who has agitated with courage and with grace to get a royal commission to look to help a whole range of other families in this nation who believe that this matter is not being properly addressed by our Prime Minister. I think it is very important. I understand that we are in a crisis at the moment and that this is probably not the number one issue we need to deal with, but make no mistake: this issue has to be addressed once our health emergency is over, and I can assure you the families of those veterans will not let it go or be hidden somewhere else.

I will also add that it is very important that while we do have a royal commission—and I think a royal commission will come, if not from this government then a future government—it is important that those recommendations made by a successive range of parliamentary inquiries be implemented immediately. There are a number of things that the government could be doing to reduce the risk of suicide amongst our veterans today. They need to give attention to these matters urgently because these people who have signed up to protect our nation deserve better.

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