Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 February 2020


Veterans: Suicide

9:02 pm

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) Share this | | Hansard source

I asked Lynn Chilcott what message she wanted to send to the government today. She said to me, 'I've read the articles, I've listened to the speeches and I still don't understand. How does the government's never ending commission help me save my husband?' Damien O'Neill served in the Navy for 25 years. He saw active duty in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor and the Gulf. He has well and truly served his country.

In February 2020 he was on life support at the Monash Medical Centre. Another overdose of prescription medication, another suicide attempt, another veteran feeling like all hope is lost. I am telling you Damien is beyond struggling. He needs help. He has been suicidal for years. He has made multiple attempts on his own life, His children have found him in that way. He has been placed on breathing tubes and he's torn them out in fear because the sensation on his skin brings back memories of being strangled. He has withdrawn from all social life. He doesn't see his kids anymore because, like all kids, they are noisy. The noise of them playing triggers his post-traumatic stress. None of this needed to happen—none of it!

Half of this trauma was inflicted not by war but by what happens when you come home from it. Damien was assessed as highly incapacitated by the Department of Veterans' Affairs hand-picked medico-legal psychiatrist. Hand-picked—this is a first. DVA found that he would require full-time institutionalised care due to the nature of his trauma. That would normally entitle him and his family to a higher than average rate of compensation. But this assessment from Damien's treating psychiatrist was challenged by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. DVA—here we go again—did not disagree that Damien was highly incapacitated. They did not disagree that Damien needs full-time institutionalised care. No, the Department of Veterans' Affairs issue was that Damien was already receiving full-time care courtesy of his wife. Like many other veterans out there, he is already receiving care because his wife is helping him. Then he doesn't need as much help. What a load of rubbish!

People can have their own views about whether that's the right way to make a decision like that and whether it's right for the Department of Veterans' Affairs to decide that Damien's kids don't need as much help because Lynn is looking after Damien instead of working and instead of having her life. Here's what I don't understand and can't agree with: the Department of Veterans' Affairs made the decision to undercut Damien's compensation because he was already receiving carer services from his wife. Let's make that clear. The Department of Veterans' Affairs used his wife's care to justify not giving Damien's family financial assistance. There's also a payment available to help veterans with their everyday basic care. That's a payment that Lynn is eligible for. That's a payment for exactly the services the Department of Veterans' Affairs knew that Lynn was providing since as far back as 2016—doing the department's job. What's new? That's exactly the reason why they docked Damien's compensation. In fact, when the department saw a chance to use Lynn's support to cut Damien's compensation, guess what the department did? You guessed right. They took it. And when DVA had a chance to offer Lynn herself some financial support, they didn't do a thing. They sat in silence and didn't do a thing. The very service she was offering Damien was enough to dock his compensation but wasn't enough to get someone in the department to say to her, 'By the way, you're actually entitled to this payment as well.'

Damien's psychiatrist wrote in a report that the single largest stress in his life is the financial strain he and Lynn are under. Why are they under that strain? Because of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. More than anything else, it's the pressure they feel that is causing them that harm. Damien's psychiatrist says that Damien feels like the only answer to his family's financial strain is his death, and he is one of hundreds out there who feel this way. I don't want any veteran to feel like that. Nobody should have to give that much. And the kicker to all this is that they were entitled to nearly $300,000 in payments that they never received. They lost their family home. They were hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and they were entitled to a payment from the Department of Veterans' Affairs. And guess what? The department never actually told them. They didn't bother to tell them that they were entitled. The department had all the information to know that they were eligible, and nobody told them and they lost their family home. How bloody incompetent is this department!

Lynn receives a payment because she is serving as Damien's full-time carer, because once again the department won't help her. When I say full-time, full-time is what I mean—24/7. Damien sleepwalks and has nightmares, like many other veterans. He wakes up in fear or he wakes up in anger. Over the last six years, he has spent more time in ward 17 than he has at home. And this gets even better: whenever he's in the ward, Lynn's payments are cut. She can never work again because her husband spends half the time in the ward and half the time at home and she is supposed to, over a four-week period, go out and find a job and then go back to caring for him. How ridiculous is this! This is government policy. It stinks and it's killing people. Effectively, Lynn is told: 'Your husband's in hospital after an attempt on his own life and he's going to be there for a month, so go out and find a job that lasts for four weeks.'

It gets worse. While he's in ward 17, Lynn is told by the Department of Veterans' Affairs that he has been taken off client coordination support. That's the support that goes to veterans with the highest risk and the most complex needs. Her husband's in the ICU and she's being told she's losing support. It's her job to tell him this, by the way. Imagine having to have that conversation. Damien is on a trial called the Wellbeing and Support Program, or the WASP. That trial gives intensive support to veterans with the highest need for help. While Damien was on life support, Lynn was told that that trial is ending. The help it was offering him and Lynn evaporates; problems don't go away so easily. Why would you end a trial and leave nothing in place for the 200-plus veterans who are on it? Why would you do that to a veteran who's clearly on the edge of the abyss?

DVA, you have a duty of care. That is your service and that is what you owe them. Damien has done his service many times over. Lynn has done hers. Look what she's given up, look what she's been asked to do and look at yourselves. Lynn can't go to the shops without taking all of Damien's prescription drugs with her, just in case. When are we going to say enough is enough? Over and over again, reviews and reports into the Department of Veterans' Affairs find that its actions are making veterans sicker, and it's taking their lives. Do you realise what that means? Does the government realise what that means? That means the department's procedures, attitudes and culture are creating mental health problems and killing our veterans.

They are a department that are meant to help the people who served our country and instead they break them down more. The end result is that 440 veterans who have just returned from service will plan their own suicide every year. Around 50 will put their plan into action and will succeed, trust me—and I am being conservative. Fifty families every year have to bury their children, their parents, their brothers and their sisters. We can't keep going on like this. Veterans and their families can't keep going on like this.

That is why the government must establish a royal commission into veterans affairs. Only a royal commission will let us come together as a country and have a frank conversation about how we treat our veterans and their families. Only a royal commission that finishes with a set of recommendations for the government will work. It has to have a start date and an end date. It has to be impossible to ignore. It has to be out there in front of Australians every day. Only then will people like Lynn and Damien have a chance to hold the government's department accountable for their actions—and my God they need to be held accountable!

We all know that the government have said that they've offered something better than all that to families who have lost their loved ones. They say that they will have a never-ending inquiry, a commission that can conduct piecemeal inquiries and make recommendations to parliament. The problem with a permanent inquiry is that you never get closure; you never get a moment to move from the problem into the solution. That sort of moment can only come when you are given a final set of recommendations. You don't get that from a rolling review into veteran after veteran after veteran. Tell me this: why should Lynn and Damien's story only matter to the government if, heaven forbid, he were no longer with us? That's the only way he would get noticed by the government's proposed coroner on steroids. That's all it is: it's a coroner on steroids. That is the problem with the proposal.

The government has just announced a never-ending inquiry fronted by a glorified coroner—just great! Veterans don't need another person telling them why their mate has taken his life. They can tell you why. The real issue here is bigger than any one suicide. Our problems are about the way the system drags people down; they are about the lack of trust—there is no trust, trust me, between the DVA and the people it is meant to serve; and they are about the culture of that department that too often puts its own financial concerns above the needs of the most vulnerable people who have served their country and been prepared to die for it. Damien and Lynn deserve a royal commission that can fix these problems. So, Prime Minister, it could be great if you could finally show some backbone and make that call.

While I am up, I want to say to the national RSL and ADSO: I have never come across two oxygen thieves like you lot. We don't want you old cronies moving out of defence and representing us. You are not representing us; you are there for your self-interest. You are there for yourself. To the national RSL: it's about time you went into retirement—and, ADSO, you are right next to them. See you later.