This is an incredibly serious issue. Too many people in our defence and veterans community are committing suicide. And, while there may be some merit to the role of this proposed commissioner, these bills do not go far enough in addressing this serious issue. We need a royal commission. Only a royal commission, with its independence, its powers and its resources, can shine the necessary spotlight on what’s happening here and why we are failing our defence communities. Only a royal commission can provide the sort of closure, healing and restorative justice that the defence and veterans community and their family and their friends deserve, and deal with this important issue.
Importantly, a royal commission would provide us as a community with the chance to listen to the tragic stories that are out there, from the parents and families of the veterans who have taken their own lives, and for us to assure them in a very public way that as a nation we are doing everything possible to prevent these sorts of tragic deaths from happening in the future. A royal commission gives us a start and an end date; it gives us clear recommendations. One of those recommendations may indeed be to have a national commissioner, but let’s not put the cart before the horse. Let’s do the work that we need to do to make sure that this is set up correctly. Let’s make sure that we’re not putting in place what becomes little more than a glorified federal coroner.
The latest figures from the AIHW on defence members and veterans suicide were released on 9 October. In total, the data showed there were 33 suicide deaths among serving and ex-serving ADF personnel in 2018, and 465 suicides between 2001 and 2018, although many believe the actual figures could be much higher. The AIHW report shows that male veterans are 21 per cent more likely to die by suicide than men generally, while the rate of suicide among ex-serving women is twice as high as it is for the general female population. Alarmingly, the research found that ex-servicemen had a 66 per cent higher suicide rate when they were discharged for medical reasons, compared to men who voluntarily discharged.
We are failing these people. We are failing the people whom we have trained and whom we have asked to serve our country and whom in many cases we have sent into incredibly dangerous, stressful situations that most of us simply cannot imagine. They have done their duty. Yet, when the time comes that they can no longer do this task or when they decide that they need a different future, we are failing to provide them with the support they need to transition to life outside of the defence forces. We owe them, their friends and their families so much more. And I share the concern that many of those friends and families have raised that the establishment of a national commissioner—and without a royal commission first—won’t accomplish what a royal commission would, because it would have neither the resources nor the independence from government to ask the necessary hard questions: Why are we failing? What are the broad solutions we need? What are the concrete actions we need to put in place? Only a royal commission would have the unambiguous powers to hold public hearings; summon witnesses; compel the production of evidence; pursue, if necessary, disciplinary proceedings; refer charges of criminal or official misconduct to appropriate authorities; and make recommendations for compensation.
As I said, and as others have said in this debate, it may well be that one of the things a royal commission recommends is having a national commissioner. But let’s do the work first. Let’s make sure we set this up properly. Let’s make sure it’s comprehensive. These people deserve nothing less. I echo the concerns of the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Blair that this national commissioner risks being little more than a marketing exercise and an announcement to stave off a royal commission that the Prime Minister doesn’t want to hold—an announcement where it’s not clear that this commissioner is going to have the powers that they need to be able to support our veterans and their communities and to be able to help this scourge of suicide.
I know that many people in my community share my concerns about the suicides of defence members and veterans. In Jagajaga, we have a long history of caring for defence members and veterans. The Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, which is now part of the Austin Hospital, was established in 1941 to care for sick and injured service members. The Repat still provides invaluable services to our veterans and our defence community, and it holds a special connection for many of us. I remember visiting my own grandfather, a World War II veteran, there when he needed surgery. Later, as the local federal member, in pre COVID times I was privileged to be able to visit the Repat and its beautiful memorial grounds for services and occasions where we gathered to pay our respects to our defence community. I must acknowledge that all of this happens under the supervision of the tireless Robert Winther and the work that he puts in to supporting our defence community and making sure that they have this space to gather and remember.
The Repat is also home to Ward 17, which I know is a service that is so important to defence members and veterans. For those of you who haven’t heard of it before, Ward 17 provides specialised mental health services to veterans and members of the Defence Force, including those people who are suffering from PTSD. It’s one of only a handful of such specialised services, so it is much in demand. It plays an important role in rehabilitating and supporting veterans who are going through incredibly serious mental health issues. But the importance that Ward 17 holds for defence members and veterans more broadly in our community is demonstrated by how strongly many of them feel connected to it and to its services. In particular, I want to acknowledge the work of the Young Veterans group, who regularly visit Ward 17 and donate things to support the people who are being treated there, like coffee machines and supplies. I was pleased to see that recently they helped to establish a vegetable garden for people who are being treated there, for them to work on and so get some respite and support and a mental health break through that. I’m looking forward to being able to visit and see that myself, once we’re through this period and restrictions have eased. These sorts of services are so vital, and having them in our community is really important, I know, to veterans not just in my community but across our whole state.
It goes to how serious this issue is. If we are asking people to do the ultimate—if we are asking people to work within a system, to train within a system, to put their lives within a system where we send them to war, where we put them in harm’s way, where we ask them to do incredibly difficult things—we must have a system that knows how to support them when they come out of that. Now the numbers show us clearly that we don’t have a system that is doing that at the moment. The rate of suicide is unacceptably high. The stories from the families affected show us clearly that we do not have a system in place that is able to support people in the way they need when they’re coming out of the armed services. For people who have been used to leading their life in a certain way, taking orders, and working within, as I said, a very regimented system, it seems that, when they’re leaving that system, we’re not thinking enough about: ‘What does that transition look like? What supports are there? How will they know who to call? How will their families know who to call? How will their families know to reach out and get the support they might need?’ This is not to put any aspersions on services that are there. I know that the services are in place, and I’ve just alluded to some of them in my electorate; they’re doing a wonderful job. But we clearly haven’t joined all the dots. We clearly haven’t worked out the whole piece of what should be there, and it’s because we need to work out this whole piece that we need a royal commission and not just a national commissioner. We need something comprehensive. This is what families have been calling for. We shouldn’t waste any time because, if we spend longer waiting for this, we will, unfortunately, I think, see more suicides from amongst our veteran community.
My brother is a veteran of Afghanistan. Fortunately for him and for my family, he had a relatively smooth transition out of the defence forces, and I’m very grateful for that because I can only imagine the heartbreak for those families whose transition has not been so smooth. I can only imagine the efforts that they went to to try and support their loved ones through that transition and how they’ve been let down by a system that clearly wasn’t in place. I applaud their bravery in speaking out and continuing to advocate for a royal commission. That bravery deserves to be acknowledged. Those of us in this place need to acknowledge their strength, need to acknowledge their pain. We need to listen to what they’re asking for, because we need to help them heal as well as help to prevent future tragedies. There have been too many deaths for us not to act urgently and for us not to act as strongly as possible. We do need a royal commission. Nothing less will do justice.