As has previously been reported in this magazine, governments rarely convene a Royal Commission in the belief that the evidence and findings will be anything less than disturbing and the recommendations costly to implement.
Such is the case with the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, the Interim Report of which was tabled in the federal Parliament on 11 August 2022, almost exactly a year after it was formed. A deeply concerning document, it reveals heartlessness and incompetence at the core of an institution charged with nothing less than the defence of the nation.
Yet there is a major difference between this inquiry and others in recent times, for instance the Royal Commissions into Aged Care and the treatment of People with Disability.
While the revelations in these were also upsetting, the responsibility for setting things right, or at least embarking on that path, lay with the government that had called the inquiry in the first place. In theory, anyway, as remedial action can take years to be implemented.
Not so with this deep dive into the mental health status of the personnel who have served Australia, often in combat zones, which was called by the former Morrison coalition government – after considerable pressure, it may be noted.
Now, the ills must be dealt with by its Labor successor.
The document runs to 312 pages and has a strikingly bright cover, given the sombre nature of the contents. It was created by Matt Jones, a former Army major who served in the East Timor deployment. He explains that the inspiration for ‘Yarn’, an award-winning work, comes from the blue and yellow maritime signal flag, Kilo, which has the meaning of “I want to communicate with you”.
Despite the challenges of speaking openly or lodging frank submissions (1912 received) the messages about the experiences of serving and former defence personnel are communicated loud and clear: lives are being lost, loyal servants are being denied entitlements and families are carrying heavy burdens.
Calling the process ‘a once in a generation opportunity to make real and lasting change’, the three Royal Commissioners noted, ‘Serving and ex-serving members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) make unique contributions and sacrifices on behalf of the nation – on behalf of all of us.’
They observed with ‘dismay the limited way Australian Governments had responded to the 50-plus previous reports and more than 750 recommendations from inquiries conducted since 2000 that are ‘relevant to the topics of suicide and suicidality among serving and ex‑serving ADF members.’
They added, ‘Transition from service to civilian life is a significant event for ADF members and their families. It can be associated with increased risk of suicide and suicidality.’
Disturbingly, they expressed concern about the lack of legal protection for persons who may want to engage with the Royal Commission: ‘These include, but are not limited to, serving members who intend to stay in the ADF and have concerns about the impact their disclosure of sensitive information may have on their career.’
One of the 13 key recommendations addressed this issue of whistle-blower protection.
Others included the need to develop and implement legislation to simplify and harmonise the framework for veterans’ compensation, rehabilitation and other entitlements, and measures to reduce the unacceptably lengthy defence claims backlog.
Statements of hurt and regret come from all quarters.
In Brisbane on 26 November 2021, Commissioner Kaldas said: We acknowledge the lives lost. We acknowledge those who have made an attempt on their life or are vulnerable to suicide. And we acknowledge those bereaved by suicide – their families, partners, children, parents, friends, colleagues and supporters.
Commissioner Brown remarked: Our job as this Royal Commission, is to identify the real root of the problem, or problems, that are leading so many to think about suicide, attempt suicide, or to take their own lives, because they perceive, and believe, there is no other option.
One ex-serving member said, Myself and hundreds of other veterans deal with a key problem when we leave the Defence Force. We lose everything. Our identity, our families, and our belongings.
Particularly concerning was the comment by Air Commodore Lara Gunn, ex-Chief of Staff of ADF Headquarters, regarding risk factors for suicide: It is my observation that serious abuse suffered by ADF members in service, including the mismanagement of that abuse, can be a contributing risk factor in deaths by suicide, attempted suicide and poor mental health.
Then there are the statistics –
The 2021 Census showed 581,139 Australians reporting as serving (84,865) or having served (496,276) in the Australian Defence Force. In September 2021, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare identified 1,273 deaths by suicide between 1 January 2001 and 31 December 2019 in those who had served at least one day since 1 January 1985.
Of these 1,273, a total of 211 were serving (permanent and reserve) and 1,062 were ex-serving ADF members. The Commissioners noted the AIHW may be able to identify some suicide deaths that occurred prior to 2001, adding ‘We will monitor their progress with interest.’
By way of comparison, Australia lost some 38 serving personnel in Afghanistan since the start of the engagement in 2001.
Another concerning figure is that 13.2% of regular ADF members and 28.9% of transitioned ADF members felt ‘life was not worth living’.
Over the coming months, the Royal Commission will continue to hold private sessions, roundtables and hearings in locations around Australia, and accept written submissions until 13 October 2023.
‘We want to have a comprehensive understanding of both common themes and diverse experiences. We want to continue to test our thinking,’ it noted.
‘To achieve this, we will listen to as many people and organisations as possible between now and the end of the inquiry.’
If the process is to have meaning beyond catharsis, what needs to follow (as recommended) is legislative change, an extensive culture overhaul of the ADF, a simplified and fast-tracked claims system, a funding boost for veterans’ services and protection for those who speak truth to power.
Asked on ABC television what advice he might give a son who expressed interest in joining the ADF, the chair, Nick Kaldas, hesitated and then said he would suggest staying aware and on top of things. As a former deputy commissioner of the NSW Police, he should know this is easier said than done in a hierarchical service.