Labor welcomed the Morrison Government’s announcement on 19 April 2021 that it had finally come around to the idea of a Royal Commission into this serious issue. Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, we have lost more veterans to suicide than soldiers killed in combat, and veterans, their families and Labor have been calling for a Royal Commission since 2019.
Following the Government’s announcement, Labor consulted widely with veterans and their families, and ex-service organisations in our electorates, along with experts and other stakeholders across the country on the draft themes the Government released.
The strong consensus was that these themes were too narrow, and the Royal Commission needs to take a systemic approach and cover a range of key issues, including:
- pre-service, in-service (including training), transition and post-service issues
- Australian Defence Force (ADF) recruitment
- ADF service, including culture, operational tempo and rotations
- transition issues, such as employment, and housing and homelessness
- the military justice system, and abuse and discrimination in the ADF, including towards women and LGBTI members
- the availability, quality and effectiveness of health, wellbeing and support services
- the role of alternative therapies, such as medicinal cannabis, assistance dogs and art therapy
- the impact of ADF anti-malarial and other drug trials and prescribed medications like benzodiazepine
- the role of Defence, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) and government agencies
- the impact of the veteran compensation and rehabilitation system, including the complexity of legislation and long wait times with claims
- how information about individuals is shared by and within government
- how matters of individuals’ mental and physical health are captured during enlistment and during and after service
- social and family contexts, such as family breakdown, and the impacts of, and quality and availability of support services for families, friends and colleagues affected by a defence and veteran death by suicide
- the risk factors of defence members and veterans who have attempted or contemplated suicide or have other lived experiences of suicide, and the experience of ADF members and veterans who may continue to be at risk of suicide
- the engagement of defence members and veterans with Commonwealth, State/Territory and local governments about support services, claims or entitlements
- previous relevant reports and inquiries, such as the 2019 Productivity Commission inquiry into the veteran support system, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry, and the 2017 Senate inquiry into veteran suicide
- international comparisons of support available to members and veterans of other defence forces, particularly in Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States
- the role of government and non-government organisations, including ex-service organisations
- opportunities to promote the understanding of suicide risks and protective factors in the defence and general community.
In addition, many in the veteran community want the Royal Commission to have strong powers to make findings of civil or criminal wrongdoing, and to refer these to the appropriate authorities.
Based on the feedback we received, Labor provided a very comprehensive submission to help shape the direction of the Royal Commission.
The consultation phase has now concluded and the Attorney-General’s Department will draft the Terms of Reference based on the input it and DVA received. The Royal Commission is expected to commence in July and run for 18 months to two years.
It is now up to the Government to ensure that veterans and families are at the centre of this Royal Commission and that their voices will be heard. This is a one in 100-year opportunity to fix our broken veteran support system – to identify problems and solutions, listen to the ideas of our veterans, defence personnel and others, and implement real changes that will save lives. We need to get this right.