The government of Australia said Monday (19 April) that it will recommend to the Governor‑General the establishment of a Royal Commission into Defence and Veterans Suicide, following a period of consultation on draft terms of reference, with the relevant community and state and territory governments. “The death of any Australian Defence Force member or veteran is one death too many and a tragedy that is deeply felt by all Australians. Tragically, and heartbreakingly, this includes death by suicide,” the government said in announcing the move. The Royal Commission will complement the government’s existing initiative to establish a permanent National Commission to proactively deal with future issues, including taking on other recommendations of a Royal Commission.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Royal Commission will be set up after listening to community calls for a national inquiry focusing on the systemic issues faced by Australian Defence Force members and veterans that too often results in their loss of life to suicide. “Suicide prevention is a key priority for the Federal Government,” the Prime Minister said. “We have always recognised that the rate of suicide of Australian Defence Force members and veterans is unacceptably high. In recognising the sacrifices made by our serving and former members and their families on behalf of the nation, we owe it to members, veterans and their families to continue to take action.”
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Darren Chester said the Royal Commission was another step in efforts to build confidence, trust and hope for current and future veterans and their families that they will be supported. “This will provide an opportunity for us all to reset, further increase our understanding of this issue, and unite the Parliament, the ex-service community, and the families who have been affected by suicide,” Chester said. “As a nation we take great pride in the men and women who have served our nation in uniform, and as a government we have committed to help them with any mental or physical issues that are a result of that service.”
Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said the Attorney-General’s Department will provide administrative support to the Royal Commission. “Reducing lives lost to suicide is a priority for the Morrison government. Our aim for this Royal Commission is that it will shed light on the critical steps we need to take so that we can reduce these heartbreaking cases of suicide.”
The Royal Commission will not defer, delay or limit, in any way, any proposed or announced policy, legislation or regulation that the government is currently implementing. The government intends that the Royal Commission and the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention will be established together and operate in a complementary way to achieve long-term change. The Royal Commission will look at past deaths by suicide (including suspected suicides and lived experience of suicide risks) from a systemic point of view, while the National Commissioner will have a forward-looking role, including overseeing the implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations.
The National Commissioner Bill currently before Parliament will be amended to ensure their work complements the work of the Royal Commission and examines deaths by suicide in the defence and veteran community that occur after the Royal Commission has handed down their final report. Given the complex issues for consideration, and the importance of hearing from Australian Defence Force members, veterans and their families, the Government envisages that three commissioners will be needed to lead the inquiry. Consultation is underway to appoint these candidates.
Chester will lead a public consultation process on the draft Terms of Reference and the Prime Minister will write to First Ministers inviting their contributions to the draft Terms of Reference with the view of a joint Commonwealth-State Royal Commission.
Australian Greens Veterans spokesperson Senator Jordon Steele-John said that it had been a hard slog to get to this point and that a lot more work needed to be done to ensure that the terms of reference for the Royal Commission met the needs of the community. “Anybody who has spoken with a family that has been touched by suicide will know the pain that they feel and the desperate, urgent need for answers they all share about why so many of our veterans are being driven to take these actions,” Steele-John said. “Understandably there are still many in to the community who are suspicious of today’s announcement as they have been cast aside and ignored by the Morrison government for so long. It is incumbent on the Morrison government to earn the trust of the veteran community and not simply assume that they now have it. We know from a report into Veteran suicides, released last year, that our veteran community is in crisis. Ex-serving men are 21 percent more likely to die by suicide and ex-serving women were more than twice as likely to die by suicide than the rest of the community.
“We must do better by the people who have served, and continue to serve, in our defence forces. We continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new weapons yet we ignore the long lasting trauma and impact that war has on the people who have served in our name,” Steele-John said. “I would like to acknowledge the strength and commitment of advocates around the country, like Julie-Ann Finney, and my Senate colleague, Jacqui Lambie, for her dedication to this cause. This is a win for you, for your family and for every single Australian who has sadly lost a family member or a friend to suicide.”
RSL Queensland State President Tony Ferris welcomed today’s Australian Government announcement of a Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide and the appointment of a National Commissioner responsible for implementing its recommendations. “Australia’s veterans need and deserve immediate government action to address the many factors which lead them to take their own lives,” Ferris said. “Urgent establishment of the Royal Commission, backed by the appointment of a National Commissioner to ensure its findings are implemented into the future, will be a substantial step towards reconciling the debt our nation owes our brave service personnel.”
Ferris said RSL Queensland looked forward to reviewing the Royal Commission’s draft Terms of Reference and urged the Commissioner to broadly consult veterans, their families and the community groups working to support them. “RSL Queensland has invested significantly in scientific research into veterans’ quality of life to complement our decades of experience supporting our fellow veterans. We look forward to sharing with the Royal Commission our insights and programs which are already making a positive difference to the lives of many veterans and their families. Via our network of more than 230 Sub Branches across Queensland and our subsidiary Mates4Mates charity, we provide a broad range of support services to directly address the root causes of veteran suicide. These include supporting veterans and their families with access to crisis support, advocacy, wellbeing programs, residential accommodation, our award-winning employment program, skills development, scholarships and mental and physical health programs.”