It is a national tragedy that suicide remains the leading cause of death for young Australian males.
It is a complex issue that has been a focus of this government, but sadly more than 3000 Australians take their own lives each year and our veterans’ community is not immune.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has found that between 2001 and 2018, 460 Australian veterans died by suicide, despite the best efforts of their family, friends, work colleagues and professional support.
The loss of a current or former ADF member is deeply felt by the entire Defence and veterans community and, when it comes to veterans suicide, the only acceptable number for me is zero — the only acceptable number for the Australian people is zero. The Australian public can be proud of the fact that it supports a world class system for veterans and their families, with more than $11 billion per year provided for a wide range of benefits.
In the wake of ongoing concerns regarding veterans’ mental health, the Federal Government has introduced changes including free mental healthcare for life as part of a $230 million package every year.
We have also reformed the system of support for veterans to include psychiatric assistance dogs, a network of peer advisors through Open Arms Veterans and Families Counselling and reforms to the transition process.
Following consultation with ex-service organisations, families and mental health experts, the Federal Government introduced a policy to establish a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention.
The policy has the support of all major ex-service organisations including RSL National, Legacy and suicide and mental health experts including Mental Health Australia and Suicide Prevention Australia.
At the time it was announced, it also had the support of the Australian Labor Party but, for reasons known only to itself, the ALP has decided to play politics with the lives of Australian veterans.
In opposing the establishment of the National Commissioner, the ALP is misleading Australians about the legislation before the Parliament.
The National Commissioner is effectively a standing royal commission. The person who holds that role will have all the powers of a royal commissioner but the added advantage of not being merely a point-intime review of veterans’ issues.
The office of the National Commissioner will be independent from Defence and DVA, fully staffed and funded, and will be able to use its powers to examine deaths by suicide and suicide attempts and provide ongoing advice and accountability for this complex issue.
Those affected by suicide, including families, will have the opportunity to share personal stories and insights to inform this important work. The National Commissioner will be an enduring legacy to those families who have lost loved ones to suicide.
It is bitterly disappointing that the ALP shadow minister has declined briefings on the legislation and refused to meet with ex-service organisation leaders who support the policy.
Instead, he has endeavoured to undermine the establishment of a National Commissioner who will help save lives in the veterans’ community.
Darren Chester is the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel. His article was published in The Daily Telegraph 23rd March 2021