Monday, 15 June 2020
Private Members' Business
That this House:
(a) the work the Government is doing to address the issue of veteran suicide with the announcement of an independent National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide;
(b) that a new independent National Commissioner will be appointed to identify and investigate suicide amongst Australian Defence Force and veteran population; and
(c) that a new Veteran Family Advocate will be appointed to lead engagement, liaison and advocacy amongst families and will be at the heart of policy and decision making with the Department of Veterans' Affairs; and
(2) recognises mental health and suicide are complex issues, but issues that are everyone's business—families, friends, employers, community organisations, governments and the ex-service community.
Jesse Bird, Brad Carr, Paul McKay, Ben Brown, Peter Atkins, Dylan Clark, Tristan Hardie, Daniel Halpin, Steven Fazel, Shaun Jenkins, Geoffrey Price and Lewis Shelley are just some of the names of the mates that we've lost to suicide. There are many, many more. There are many families that are grieving, many families that will carry the loss of a loved one through suicide for the rest of their days. My heart, my love and my prayers are with them always.
Veterans' suicide is something that has been close to my heart ever since I joined the Defence Force, and more so in this place because of the names I just read. They're the reason, when I get up in the morning, that I enjoy coming to this place, because we can make a difference here, we can all work together here. There is nothing more important than life, and there is nothing more important than putting the knives away when it comes to such important issues.
Only last year, on Anzac Day, the Prime Minister was in Townsville. As we were heading up to a press pack, I received a call. Brad Carr had taken his own life. It was a very emotional, sobering feeling. I didn't really know what to do. The PM put his arm around me and said: 'You don't have to go into the press pack. You don't have to do this.' But I said, 'No, I will,' because, as we were going through the election campaign, I knew that standing up always for the people who don't have a voice anymore—including my friends, including people I've lived with—was something I just had to do.
I've been very fortunate to work with the Prime Minister and the Minister for Veterans' Affairs on this, because it is important. We know that a national commissioner to look into veterans' suicide and Defence suicide is something that our Defence Force has been screaming out for. I believe that this is a fantastic thing. The national commissioner will have the same powers as a royal commissioner, and it will be ongoing, a rolling commission. They will have the power to compel—the power to make people testify, the power to get evidence—and the power to work with the coroners in different states and territories.
There are family members—mothers, spouses, fathers and kids—who are for this, and rightly so. There are people who are against it. I'm not here today to tell them that they are wrong, because they are not. We all want the same thing: we all want veterans' suicides and Defence suicides not just to be low but to be stamped out. We should keep that dialogue open. It is everyone's responsibility, throughout the communities in Defence and in this place, to question what we're doing, to ask what the next steps are, because that's the only way that we'll be able to work together. I don't know how Brad Carr's mum and Jesse Bird's mum—whom I've spoken to; they're lovely, lovely people—get up every day. I don't want this to be something that's a burden on them—to have to fight for a commissioner or for the right thing. It's something that I want to take on on their behalf; that I want the government to take on on their behalf and the crossbench to take on on their behalf. This motion was co-signed by Mike Kelly, a member of the Labor Party—a fantastic man, a great member and a great veteran. He signed it not for any political pointscoring but because he knows that we must work together. If we do not work together, we will not achieve. We just have to be on the same page.
We have a family advocate who will link in with the families and work closely with Veterans' Affairs to put together policies. We've got to look at what happened before suicide, what happened at the suicide and what happens after. We need to look at where we've come from, because that's the only way that we'll know where we'll go. We need to look at trends so we can put in policies to stop veterans' suicide. I believe we are on the same page.
We are never above, never below; we're always by your side.
This is an important motion, and I thank the member for moving it. I agree that mental health and suicide are indeed complex issues.
Warringah has a strong community of veterans, with over 1,300 veterans and over 2,500 clients of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Some of our most iconic sites in the electorate are dedicated to diggers: Mosman War Memorial; Poppy Park in Forestville; North Head Memorial; Manly Warringah War Memorial State Park, known, of course, as Manly Dam; and Freshwater Anzac Precinct, incorporating Soldiers Avenue and Jacka Park. They are all important monuments to our veteran community.
Recognition of veterans' service brings us together on important days such as every year on Anzac Day. Service in the Australian Defence Force is more than a job. It is part of a veteran's identity, their community, their extended family and often their home. Initiatives such as the Invictus Games provide a mechanism to connect with a new community and give a sense of purpose for veterans, central to combatting mental health problems. We need to do more to build community and networks in our local areas.
The statistics are frightening. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report last year found that there were 419 suicides in serving, reserve and ex-serving personnel between 2001 and 2017. The rate of suicide for ex-serving men was 18 per cent higher than for other Australian men, and the data shows that veterans are more likely to commit suicide once retired than whilst serving, demonstrating that it is the transition that is clearly a pain point. It's not only suicide that plagues our veterans. Our veterans are also twice as likely to be imprisoned than those who haven't served. Veterans are 2½ times more likely to experience homelessness than the general population. So it's clear we need to improve the support provided to veterans to ease the transition and help them redefine themselves outside the military.
I welcome the appointment of the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. This role will be important in drawing attention to and working through the key issues faced by veterans in their transition and throughout their lives post-service. I also welcome the appointment of the Veteran Family Advocate. Families are the first to experience the mental health struggles of our veterans. We need to support them, integrate them in the support structure and assist veterans with their transition. These two new roles will reinforce the work already underway through the Veteran Centric Reform program. I encourage the government to continue with the full implementation of this program to realise its benefits.
I'm proud to report on the efforts of the Veterans Centre Sydney Northern Beaches, which continues to support many current and former Australian Defence Force personnel and their families. The handover between Australian Defence Force and Department of Veterans' Affairs rehabilitation teams can be a long administrative process. The veterans centre offers to bridge this gap and ensure that the transitioning member is not left unsupported whilst they navigate their way out of the service environment and into civilian life. They currently serve 137 regular clients. Twenty are on the waitlist and we have seen a 25 per cent increase in the number of inquiries during lockdown. The centre has not been immune to the economic impact of COVID-19 and the restrictions. Funds are limited and they will be seeking additional funding from both fundraising and public funds to continue their services. I encourage the Minister for Veterans' Affairs to consider advancing projects that will assist—for example, the 10 Terminal facility at Middle Head, which has the support of the local community.
I support this motion and the attention devoted to this important issue of veterans' suicide. It's essential that we continue to support the men and women who have served in the Australian Defence Force and their families. The strength of the community in the ADF is one that we would do well to strive towards in our local communities. Doing this and bringing our veterans with us may well assist in transforming the issue. On this, I believe we are all united to make change.
I'm honoured and humbled today to speak in support of this motion. My good mate the member for Herbert also acknowledged the member for Solomon and his service. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month each year, Australia pauses. We bow our heads and we reflect on the sacrifice that our veterans make and our defence personnel make in laying down their life for their country—one day a year. But for veterans and those who have served, those memories go a little further, and it's every day that we remember. Today, I simply want to share with you what I remember on Remembrance Day. In the months preceding my discharge from the Australian Regular Army, I was called to a civilian police station. They put me in the back of the car and took me to the hospital, down to the basement and to the morgue, where I was required, as a sergeant major of that unit, to identify one of my soldiers, who had taken his life in the early hours of the morning. It was a hard thing to do, but duty calls and you do your duty. I then returned to the unit, and the commanding officer and I called the rest of the unit together, and we broke that tragic news to those brothers and sisters that he had in the unit. I remember the look in their eyes and I remember how devastated they were. I then took six or eight of his closest mates down to his room in the lines and we packed his gear up—his personal effects, letters, iPod—and the Military Police made an inventory. I remember trying to work with those young blokes through that process. We packed his gear up and I told them to keep one uniform out, his special uniform, and later on I would take that back to the funeral director where I helped the funeral director dress him in his polyester uniform. I remember standing there and telling him that I was sorry that I didn't see this, that I didn't recognise it, and 15 years later I'm still sorry.
I remember the funeral where those eight mates carried their friend to his final resting place, in a coffin draped in the Australian national flag, with his slouch hat, his bayonet and accoutrements, and I remember the look in their eyes. I remember the sound of The Last Post, and, every time I've heard it since, I remember all the funerals that I have attended. I remember, at the conclusion of the funeral, folding the Australian national flag, and I accompanied the commanding officer and we presented it to the next of kin, and I remember the look in that mother's eyes as she took that flag and she clenched it. She knew that that flag was the only thing that she had of her own flesh and blood, her precious son. I guarantee you it's more often than Remembrance Day that she remembers. It's every day and every night. That is why this rolling commissioner and their role to be there every day, day in day out, is so important. Yes, we could have a royal commission, a one-off thing. But this will go on every day, and we need to be there to protect them.
The other point I make is about the effects on a family; not only the military family but the personal family. I think back to that mother, and I applaud and support the national family advocate which was co-announced with the national commission, because families are important. I thank my brothers that are here today. We'll always be brothers in the military. Lest we forget.
Of course I'm pleased to support this motion. At the outset I want to say that of course we take this issue of veteran suicide very seriously, and I want to acknowledge all the previous speakers, but in particular those with lived experience who are working to reduce suicide in Defence and the veterans community. I'm doing something about it, myself personally, both in my community and nationally, and I want the government of the day, whatever government it might be, the current government or a future government led by the Labor Party, to do everything they can about it. Let's be straight. The government's announcement in February of a new National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention and a Veteran Family Advocate came after widespread calls, from veterans primarily, including the gentleman opposite, media becoming very much involved, and calls from Labor that action needed to be taken on veteran suicide. It is a combined effort of a lot of stakeholders, because they, like we, were sick of the unbelievable rate of suicide in the Defence and veterans community.
As I reliably understand it, the Prime Minister said to the Department of Veterans' Affairs, 'Give me something, but anything but a royal commission.' If he wants to correct the record on that he can, but that's what I reliably understand. At the time when this was announced, Labor cautiously welcomed the national commissioner. I thought it was an important step forward. We didn't want to let the perfect—nothing's perfect, but a royal commission would have been as close to—we didn't want to let that become the enemy of the good. We're also broadly supportive of the new Veteran Family Advocate, because obviously families play a primary role in mental health and suicide prevention and they need to be supported.
But since then, I think it's fair to say—and I think a lot of veterans and some of the families that have lost love ones perhaps suspected this—that the national commissioner, unlike what the Prime Minister said, won't in fact be better than a royal commission, as has been claimed by the PM and others. I think the PM's got a lot of work to do to convince the veteran community that he is genuine in wanting to tackle this issue. A growing concern, shared by many veterans, is that this could be simply a bit of marketing spin which won't accomplish what a royal commission would. I think it's fair to say that this permanent commissioner could have been recommended by a royal commission, as well as a whole series of other recommendations; but unfortunately we've just gone straight to what the PM thought was going to be the solution. Or perhaps it was just the work-around. This permanent commissioner is important; however, only a full royal commission with a clear start and end date will achieve everything that needs to be achieved if we are to honour veterans. This national commissioner could end up being little more than a review of state coroner reports into deaths at the hands of young patriot Australians. That's the danger. As I said, this permanent commissioner could have been a recommendation of a full royal commission, but it looks like we won't be able to see that achieved in the short term. It won't be until we see the legislation for this national commissioner that we'll be able to scrutinise it and see if it will indeed have all the powers of a royal commission. But I welcome this motion and I congratulate the member for Herbert for it. It's a step in the right direction.
I rise in support of the motion put by the member for Herbert. I want to acknowledge his service and I want to acknowledge the service of the member for Solomon and the member for Braddon, who are in this chamber tonight, and of course all the members and senators who have represented this country in uniform. I've never served in uniform, but I have a great respect and affinity for those that have. I recently held an event for veterans to make an announcement in my own electorate. A young veteran by the name of Peter Kennedy spoke at that event. I thought his words were very salient.
He said: 'Veterans: we have a few scratches. Some of us are a little bent out of shape. But, if you work with us and help us back into shape, you're going to get a great product for a long time. Veterans value, and in fact embody, the values of respect, loyalty, teamwork and integrity—everything we would want in an upstanding citizen and a great employee.'
Sadly, the statistics are very, very sobering when it comes to men's suicide, because it's in the very large part men who have served in the ADF who have taken their own life. What is very telling are the stats. When men serve in the ADF—and it might sound like I'm being sexist, but it's only because what the stats reveal about the men who have taken their lives—they actually have a 48 per cent lower chance than civilians their own age of taking their lives. When they are in the services there's a 48 per cent less chance. But when they discharge, that 48 per cent less jumps to an increase of 18 per cent over and above what the rates are for civilian men who they take their own lives. So something is going very wrong here.
When men and women serve in the ADF—and I want to acknowledge my friend who's just entered the chamber for his service as well, the member for Stirling—they have that sense of purpose and a great sense of mission and a sense of tribe that is probably beyond anything else that we see in the civilian world. Perhaps the closest we might see to it is in the police force. They belong to that tribe, and the tribe is everything to them. Then, maybe it's because of their own doing or maybe because they've been discharged for medical reasons or whatever it might be, they lose that sense of tribe. They lose that sense of purpose. One minute the Australian government was entrusting them to fly, drive or sail multimillion-dollar, perhaps even multibillion-dollar, equipment, and there's a great degree of self-respect that comes with that. But when they discharge and they lose that sense of identity, sadly—and this is not all—some have trouble getting a job the very next day. Why is that? How do we work with this? The best way, in my view, to deal with suicide is to ensure that we provide meaningful jobs and that we as a government, we as a nation, respect the skills that they have learnt.
I want to address very quickly the commission that has been set up. It is better than a royal commission because it has the powers of a standing royal commission. Royal commissions have start dates and end dates. A standing royal commission just does that—it will go on and will address each and every suicide that arises out of the ADF or veterans, and I really want to support this motion.
I also acknowledge those on the opposite side and on our side who've served. It is an amazing thing that you have done, and your service isn't forgotten. I have Richmond and Glenbrook RAAF bases in my electorate, and there's hardly a visit there where the issue of veteran suicide doesn't come up. Cautiously, people have shared with me their insights into the mental health challenges of mates during and after service. I've also got many former defence personnel living in the electorate, or their parents or partners. They're from Army, Navy and Air Force, and they talk to me about what they see their child or their partner, or their husband or wife, go through. They sometimes try to describe for me their own experience of making the transition from the Defence Force to the civilian world.
I'll never forget one young man who brought me the paperwork for his DVA claim. His so far unsuccessful DVA claim was three folders deep. This was a man struggling with mental illness and battling to be able to establish a new post-defence life, and yet he was expected to work through stacks of paperwork. Given what I know about mental illness and what I've seen, I was just horrified at what people were being asked to do. That has to change.
Where I've had the greatest insight though into the challenges that Defence Force personnel face when they leave the military is from my two attachments as part of the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program—one to the RAAF Base Amberley and the other, last year, to Iraq and the Middle East operations. I was only part of Camp Taji in the Middle East base for a week or so, but I got a glimpse into the way defence wraps itself around you: you train together, you laugh at work health and safety PowerPoints together while still heeding the message of what to do or not to do if you're injured, you eat together, you exercise together and the little free time you have is spent together. The people you are with become like your family for that time. Your own family feels a really long way away, and even I felt a disconnect as I got wrapped up in the single focus that the operation has, learning new things and working to be part of a team, albeit, in my case, a very temporary one. I can see that when this is for real, when this is the life you've chosen for years, there's no time to daydream; peoples' lives really are at stake. There's a place for everyone in defence, and everyone knows their role and works as a team.
What my time with defence did for me was crystallise the understanding of why it's so hard to transition from defence to civilian life for some people. Between 2001 and 2017, 419 serving and ex-serving ADF personnel died by suicide. But while the suicide rate for men still serving was 48 per cent lower than the general population, the rate is 18 per cent higher for those who had left the military. For women, it's similar. There's no question that we must do better than this.
Researchers have found that while the camaraderie, discipline and respect can make the military life-changing for someone, the sudden end to it can be lethal. I was moved by a quote from the research of Kellie Toole of Adelaide University and Elaine Waddell of Flinders University. They were told by one veteran,
I actually went back and asked if I could mow the lawns for free, just so I could be around them still. They wouldn't allow it.
As the researchers wrote in their article in The Conversation:
If ex-service men could maintain contact with the Australian Defence Force through peer support and informal networks, their identity and sense of purpose could be maintained …
I hope we see innovative approaches to supporting ex-service men and women.
The new independent National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention is a start, but of course we would have liked to have seen a full royal commission, with the full powers of a royal commission, as was called for by the family of Jesse Bird. The inquest into his tragic death was scathing and found significant systemic failures in the Department of Veterans' Affairs' treatment of Jesse before he took his own life. The report found that DVA had acted contrary to its own policy and legislation and that it handled Jesse's permanent impairment claim without compassion or empathy. That is an indictment, a sad reality, that cannot be repeated.
The jury's out on whether the steps the government's taken will be enough, but the new Veteran Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy hopefully will go some way and prove some effectiveness. We do need to be creative. We need to look at how we support family and friends, how we help people understand the transportability of the skills that defence personnel have. There's so much we can do, and we want to do it with the government.
I would like to begin by acknowledging the service of those in the parliament, including the member for Herbert, who've served in the military, and also by acknowledging the passion, as expressed by my colleagues on both sides of the chamber, of those who haven't served but who equally have a passion for the defence of Australia and its values and all of those service men and women, past and present.
I know I speak for all current and former serving members when I say that pulling on the uniform is a great and enduring privilege. To have that sense of respecting and supporting and defending the values of our country and its people is a wonderful reward. There are also other rewards which flow from service. In my own case, like many, I've received personal benefits. I've received a tertiary education. I've had the privilege of leading Australian men and women on overseas operations. Of course, I've had the ability to practice different skills, like teamwork, like self-discipline and like leadership in small groups. Many others also come out with technical skills that they can bring. I know we all acknowledge the value that service men and women bring when they transition. About 5½ thousand people leave defence each year, and when they do transition into civilian life, they bring a wonderful range of skills to businesses, to volunteer organisations and to their local communities.
But of course there are those, given the unique nature of military service, for whom there are scars that remain, and not all of them are visible. Since 2001, there have been over 400 deaths by suicide in the defence and veteran community. This government will continue to make every investment we can to prevent suicides. Providing timely and comprehensive assistance to defence personnel and veterans is absolutely essential. A number of veterans that I know, including my own wife, have accessed mental health services. I think one of the most important and beneficial changes that's been made recently is, of course, the provision of free mental health services, based on serving at least a single day in full-time service. This support absolutely saves lives. It's based on needs, it's uncapped and it's available 24/7.
This government is committed to turning a new page on this chapter in supporting veterans and their families. Despite the challenges of dealing with the summer bushfires, with the twin crises—both economic and health—presented by coronavirus, the government—and I know they're supported by the opposition and all those in this House—remain steadfast in our support to veterans and families. On 5 February, we saw the Prime Minister announce the establishment of a new National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention to inquire into deaths by suicide of serving and former ADF personnel. A dedicated government task force is now working to establish the office of the national commissioner, and this will have powers like a royal commission to undertake full inquiries into suicides and be absolutely committed to putting veterans and their families first. But, unlike a royal commission, this will also be permanent and ongoing.
In this year's budget the government provided more than $11½ billion to support over 280,000 veterans and their families across Australia. This includes $230 million in veteran mental health treatment. There's also immediate income support available for veterans and extra support for those with extra needs. Families, I must mention, are an absolutely core component of the mental health and wellbeing of all of us, including for veterans. That's why it's wonderful to see that families feature so centrally in this family advocate initiative. In my own home state of Western Australia, work continues on building and restoring the veterans transition centre, or VTC, in Jarrahdale. It's a wonderful spot on 42 acres, with a bunch of log cabins, and it's an environment where military veterans and their families can attend, receive services and spend time together, as my own family have done.
The Morrison government has continued to keep the welfare of veterans and their families steadfastly at the top of our agenda, and we always will.
I'm pleased to support this motion by my friend the member for Herbert. In 2019, as many people have referenced in this debate, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare revealed that the suicide rates amongst male veterans who had left the armed services were almost one-fifth higher than Australian men in the general population. Since that report was released last year, I made the point of reaching out to veterans families and advocates in my community to find out why they think the suicide rates are so rife amongst returned servicemen and what they want their representative in this parliament to do about it. That being said, I welcome the new national commissioner as a step forward and, if it proceeds, we're committed to working constructively with the government to ensure that the office is resourced properly and able to do its job to the best of its abilities.
Going forward, there is still much more we can do to address veterans' mental health and suicide more broadly. Mental health and suicide are issues where families, friends, employers, community and ex-service organisations and governments all have a role to play. For some time we have been calling on the government to do more to support veterans and the organisations that support them, particularly during the current coronavirus crisis. We welcome the fact that the government took on board our suggestion to expand telehealth coverage to mental health, which has been available to veterans during the pandemic. But more needs to be done to ensure that there are adequate mental health services to meet the very high levels of demand we have seen during this emergency.
With the cancellation of Anzac Day services this year, veteran organisations have really struggled to generate income to fund vital welfare and advocacy services for local veterans who rely on this support at a community level. I'm concerned by the fact that, so far, the stimulus packages have not included more substantial support for charities and nonprofit organisations, as this health emergency has had such a huge impact on many smaller ex-service organisations and their members, such as those in my electorate. We have been warned that more resources will be needed for frontline mental health and welfare services to support older and vulnerable veterans who may be in self-isolation and at greater risk of mental illness, of suicide and of domestic and family violence.
Ex-service organisations have also told us that we, as a federal parliament, need to urgently increase the DVA fee schedules for health services, including psychologists and psychiatrists, to reduce the excessive long wait times for veterans seeing mental health professionals at present. Veteran suicide campaigner Julie-Ann Finney's son David took his own life after being told that he would have to wait more than six months to see a DVA funded psychiatrist. So fixing this is critical if we are going to stop these needless deaths. Michael Frawley, the president of the Banyo RSL sub-branch in my electorate of Lilley, has suggested that service men and women returning from overseas service should automatically receive a gold card, to make sure veterans they can access quality mental and dental care and avoid the stress of applying and waiting for the card.
I would like to send a special thank you to the Banyo RSL sub-branch and their welfare and pensions officer Maureen Sargent and to Geebung RSL Sub-Branch's welfare officers Merv Ward OAM and Evelyn Radford for continuing their excellent support for veterans during this pandemic. Special thoughts are with Mr Gordon Wallace, a highly commended World War II veteran and one of our few precious remaining Rats of Tobruk, who is going through a poor health patch at present, and my thoughts and prayers are extended to both Gordon and to his wife, Trish. I would also like to highlight the work of Graeme Park and the Military Brotherhood, a motorcycle club who check in on the welfare of northside veterans and provide street feeds to locals. That might be of particular interest to you, Deputy Speaker Wallace.
I would like to finish by speaking directly to the members of the Kedron-Wavell, the Nundah-Northgate, the Geebung-Zillmere and the Banyo RSL sub-branches, in my electorate of Lilley. This year has been a really difficult year, especially because we couldn't meet in person to commemorate Anzac Day, and that has had huge consequences for you locally in your planning. I look forward to seeing you all again soon, now that the public restrictions are in the process of lifting. Labor will continue work with the government and the Australian veterans to identify where there are gaps or where more needs to be done, so that we do get the best possible care and support for veterans and for their families and do all we can to support veterans' mental health and prevent suicide. To that end, I want to recognise the work that has been done, the recent announcements in this space and, in particular, the member for Herbert, for bringing attention to these important issues through this motion. I thank the member for his service as well as the member for Stirling and the member for Solomon for all of their advocacy on veteran mental health and prevention of suicide. I commend the motion to the chamber.