Senate debates

Thursday, 8 September 2022

Auditor-General's Reports

Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide

4:11 pm

David Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to continue my remarks on the interim report of the Royal Commission on Defence and Veteran Suicide. The royal commission's interim findings are both shocking and sobering—deeply sobering. What they show is a system that is failing veterans. The Australian government has spent some $14.4 billion on wars in the Middle East, including Afghanistan, since 2001. That includes $8.5 billion on military operations just in Afghanistan and more than $4 billion on operations in Iraq. While the country is spending billions of dollars to send mostly young people off to fight wars in far-off countries, we are failing to properly support veterans when they return home, fundamentally changed and, in many cases, deeply traumatised by their service. It's a tragic fact that more current and former ADF members have died by suicide than in combat in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

The royal commission in its interim report—and I commend the commissioners for the work they have done, for the sensitivity of their report and for their survivor focused approach to the royal commission—identified over 50 previous reports, conducted since just 2000, that are relevant to the topic of suicide and suicidality amongst serving and ex-serving members of the ADF. It also noted more than 750 recommendations and found that most of these recommendations have not been implemented. Indeed, the royal commission was limited in how it could review particularly reports of this parliament because of the operation of parliamentary privilege, and has made urgent recommendations to the government to seek to lift parliamentary privilege to be able to appropriately scrutinise and reflect upon the reports and recommendations of committees of this parliament.

What we have seen since 2000, in those 50 previous reports and 750 recommendations that were largely unimplemented, is, in fact, two decades of failure. As the commissioners noted:

We have been dismayed to come to understand the limited ways that Australian Governments have responded to these previous inquiries and reports

And dismayed they were. The royal commission has heard damning evidence demonstrating that the system that's meant to be there to help veterans is, instead, too often harming them.

I don't hold the current government responsible for the mess that the system is in. They've inherited it. Yes, there may be some culpability going back over a decade, but the veterans I've spoken to don't hold the current government responsible for the mess. But I and they do hold the government responsible for stepping through and fixing it and responding with urgency to the recommendations from the interim report of the royal commission.

The way the Australian government is currently dealing with veterans' claims for compensation and rehabilitation was found by the royal commission to be a contributing factor to defence suicides. Let's just pause and reflect on that for a moment. The system that is meant to be there to help veterans is instead contributing to veteran suicide—a double failing of the duty we have to those people who have served. That's a shocking conclusion. Indeed, as the interim report shows, there are currently 41,799 outstanding claims. Some have been outstanding for well over 300 days. Indeed, that number has almost doubled in less than two years. Yes, some efforts are currently being made by the department to increase staffing and respond to that. But the backlog doubling in just two years and the delay that that causes in veterans getting urgent treatment and having their health prioritised is a significant part of the harm that has been delivered to veterans. Veterans are too often left to deal with traumatic experiences of war and then are further traumatised by the system's failure to appropriately respond, compensate and—importantly— rehabilitate them.

As one veterans' advocate said, this waiting time is the damaging fact for a lot of veterans. They're sitting there hanging on, waiting so that they can go to the doctor and find out exactly what's wrong with them and get it paid for and get looked after. This is what they're waiting on. They're waiting on treatment. They're waiting on being helped.

Survivors of abuse within the ADF face similar injustices and interminable waits, sometimes stretching out five to 10 years. They struggle, equally, against broken systems and a culture that permits abuse and exacerbates trauma by obstructing calls for support, fair compensation and accountability.

We can and must do better. The government can and must urgently respond to the recommendations of the interim report. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted.

Question agreed to.