Madam Speaker, I would like to acknowledge the thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are currently serving, or who have served, in the Australian Defence Force.
I’d also like to recognise and pay respect to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association of Australia, who work closely with other ex-service organisations to seek out Indigenous veterans and ensure they receive the support they are entitled to.
I rise to seek the support of this Assembly to endorse and back growing calls from the community for a Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide.
In doing so, I extend my deepest condolences to the parents, partners, children, the friends, the colleagues, of Veterans who have died by suicide.
On 18 March 2021, the Australian Senate unanimously voted to support a Royal Commission. The House of Representatives also voted to support a Royal Commission on 22 March. This is due in no small part to Julie-Ann Finney’s tireless advocacy and her courage in sharing her very personal pain at losing her son to suicide.
The ACT has a significant Veteran population, estimated at around 26,000 veterans and their families. I pay tribute to the organisations and groups that support our local veterans. Ex-Service Organisations, local RSLs, the Veterans Support Centre, Canberra Legacy, Open Arms, Soldier On, the ACT Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Servicemen and Women Association, and many community-led groups form a network of support on the frontline of this issue. I thank them for their work and commit to supporting them in this.
The rate of mental ill health and suicide among veterans is much higher than in the broader community. Available estimates vary, and due to under-reporting, does not give us the full picture.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data shows that, nationally, there has been an average of one suicide death of a veteran per fortnight since 2001. I understand that since October 2020, that number is more like one per week.
This data also doesn’t take into account the ‘near misses’ – those who have suicidal ideation but have not died by suicide.
The devastating impacts of suicide on families and the broader community are incalculable. For every life lost, a family and community experience the distinct grief and bereavement associated with suicide. Such bereavement can increase the risk of physical and mental health problems. It can be isolating and stigmatising.
Each and every death leaves a family anguished and searching for answers. Each loss exposes a chasm of complex systemic and institutional failings. Each death leaves a stain on our national conscience.
We know that the rate of suicide in ex-serving men is 18 per cent higher than in the broader population of men. Eighteen per cent. And the rate of suicide in ex-serving women is 127 per cent higher than the broader population of women.
Just take a moment to let that sink in: the rate of suicide in women who have left Service is 127 per cent higher than the broader population of women.
And let me state again that we believe the rate of deaths doubled from October last year, around the time that media coverage of the Afghanistan files intensified. Coverage that included public discussion of Australian Defence Force culture.
I don’t often speak publicly about my work at Navy. I want to be able to speak positively about a place where I really felt that I could make a difference, both in technology and in workplace culture. But I can’t unsee what I’ve seen, I can’t unhear what I’ve heard, and I know that there is a deep problems within Defence culture.
I wish I was shocked at the disproportionate impact on women. But I have heard senior officers say that serving women wouldn’t be sexually assaulted if the Navy just never let them on ships in the first place. That there were serving women who found a boyfriend on board as soon as they went to sea, as protection from other men on board. Lawyer’s briefs dismissing a civilian woman’s complaint of sexual assault, because she chose to go onto the base. The women I worked with who talked about the days earlier in their career, when some women hid the fact that they were married, because that would have meant not being allowed to go to sea and limiting career progress. The man who was physically assaulted and bullied at sea because he did not to perform masculinity in a way that conformed to the extremely narrow standard of some of his colleagues.
Have we learned nothing in recent weeks about dangerous workplace cultures, how they relate to power, and how this is informed by ideas about gender?
When the Brereton report was published in November, it felt like a kick in the guts to all of us who worked so hard to try and create a positive workplace culture and keep serving personnel connected and whole as human beings. I can claim I’m not responsible because the offenders were Army, not Navy, and I did the best I could with the people I worked with. But it doesn’t feel good enough to me, and it doesn’t feel true. I don’t have language suitable for this place to express what it feels like.
Navy culture, at its best, encouraged us to set a high standard, to work hard, to show respect and support our team, and to take the right action when we see a problem. Governments too need to take the right action to support our veterans.
A defence force is not made up of trucks, or tents, or guns. It is made up of people. What kind of society are we if we don’t care for and support our people?
This is an urgent national crisis. Many reviews and inquiries, narrower in scope and lesser in power, have failed to stem it. Every time we have an inquiry where independence, scope and powers are questioned, and which fails to produce change, trust in those in positions of authority is eroded. And veterans keep dying. Every week. This cannot continue.
In February 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced he would establish a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. While this was a promising first step, the position does not provide the independent oversight needed.
A Royal Commission would afford the issue of veteran suicide the status, resources, powers, and scope the issue demands. A Royal Commission would pick up the threads of prior and ongoing research and inquiries, while ensuring community input and participation, and placing it at the highest level of inquiry, and on the public record.
The community is advocating for a Royal Commission because they are, by design, fearless and independent.
A Royal Commission’s broad-ranging investigatory powers, including powers of compulsion, capacity to offer protection for witnesses, and ability to identify systemic and institutional failing would get to the truth. The process would be broadly respected, and the outcomes would be trusted.
A Royal Commission will not press pause on current and continuing responses to this crisis. We can and should continue to resource veteran mental health, wellbeing and suicide prevention while the work of the Royal Commission continues.
Our Defence forces have great power. With great power comes great responsibility. We have a duty to ensure that those who have given the commitment to serve are not left to fall through the cracks. We owe it to the veteran community, to those who have died by suicide, and to their families left behind, to establish the highest form of truth-seeking on this issue.
Madam Speaker, a Royal Commission is also an important symbol of hope. To look unflinchingly at the truth requires courage. In calling for a Royal Commission, I ask all of us to have the courage to open an honest discussion about how we, as a government, and as a community, can understand and address the issues.
It’s time that we, as a nation, respond to the community’s call to action, and establish a Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide.
I commend the motion.