Newsletter | Edition 28

8 May 2024

Get support    |    Website Follow us on social media 3689148.png3689149.png3689139.png         Newsletter Edition 28 – 8 April 2024 Watch the Chair’s Closing Statement from Hearing Block 12 Royal Commission chair hopes inquiry has been much-needed ‘shock to the system’ that will inspire action on military suicide The chair of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide says history will judge Government and military leaders on how they respond to the suicide crisis in Australia’s military community. Speaking at the end of the Royal Commission’s twelfth and final public hearing block in Sydney last month, Commissioner Nick Kaldas reiterated this landmark inquiry must be the catalyst for long-overdue reform. “We hope this Royal Commission has been the much-needed shock to the system that will inspire the change required to address the national tragedy of Defence and veteran suicide once and for all.” – Commissioner Kaldas Chief of Defence, General Angus Campbell, was the last in a long list of senior ministers, military chiefs and departmental heads to front the four-week hearing. General Angus Campbell on the stand General Campbell began his evidence by apologising for deficits in the care Defence has provided its people and pledging to do better. “Our people deserve and should rightly expect the wellbeing, support and care they need, both during and after their service. I acknowledge that this has not always been the case and has tragically led to the death by suicide of some of our people. I apologise unreservedly for these deficiencies. Defence is committed and I am committed to doing better.” – General Angus Campbell, Chief of Defence Closing the hearing, Commissioner Kaldas invoked the words of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Richard Marles, who told the inquiry on 7 March that “history will be our judge”. “History will absolutely judge those who are in a position to make a difference – and service members, veterans, their families and the future workforce of the ADF will be watching,” Commissioner Kaldas told the packed public gallery. “We all owe it to our sailors, soldiers and aviators to ensure they receive the protection and support they need and deserve.” Evidence provided at the hearing underscored the contemporary nature of the cultural and systemic issues within Defence and DVA that are failing serving and ex-serving members, and their families.

A number of witnesses gave heartbreaking and, at times, harrowing accounts of their own experiences of suicide and suicidality.

Significantly, the Chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force acknowledged for the first time the link between what happens in service and negative, potentially tragic, outcomes for veterans.

The Secretary of DVA, Alison Frame, was also asked about ongoing cultural and systemic challenges within her department. Commissioner Kaldas acknowledged the progress towards simplifying the legislation governing veterans’ entitlements and the clearing of the backlog of unprocessed claims as significant results. But he stressed there is still much work to be done. “The Commission will be watching closely over coming months to see whether or not the 73,700 claims with a DVA officer as at 29 February this year are dealt with in a more timely manner, and whether their ‘business-as-usual’ approach delivers faster decisions for veterans, and their families, who historically have been driven to the brink – and in some tragic cases, beyond – while waiting years for their claims to be even looked at,” he said. Commissioners Kaldas, Peggy Brown and James Douglas will now turn their attention to completing their final report, which is due to the Governor-General by 9 September this year.  They will also continue to work through the outstanding private sessions, supported by Assistant Commissioners Bob Atkinson and Dr Susan Young, to ensure those who asked to share their experiences with the Royal Commission have the opportunity to do so before the inquiry wraps up.  Commissioners Douglas, Kaldas and Brown in between sittings at the Sydney hearing. Catch up on the livestream recordings Key to success in tackling suicide crisis will be powerful new body to hold Government, agencies to account
Commissioners Nick Kaldas, Peggy Brown and James Douglas have spoken frankly about the need for a powerful new body to ensure Government and relevant agencies implement the long-overdue reforms required to address the national tragedy of Defence and veteran suicide. 

The Royal Commission’s final public hearing examined how deeply embedded military culture and failures of leadership, governance and accountability over many decades have contributed to high rates of suicide and suicidality among serving and ex-serving ADF members.

Despite 57 related inquiries and almost 770 recommendations in the 20 to 30 years preceding the Royal Commission, there has been no improvement in suicide rates.

Commissioners engaged in a robust discussion with members of the Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel – Dr Vivienne Thom, Robert Cornall and Professor Rufus Black — about the role such an oversight body might play in ensuring mistakes from the past are not repeated.

The Royal Commission appreciated the insights provided by the members of the Panel, which was appointed by Government to provide independent oversight and assurance of Defence’s response to the high-profile Brereton Inquiry.

Commissioners are determined to deliver a final report in September with robust, evidence-based findings and practical recommendations to deliver real, meaningful and long-lasting improvements to the lives and livelihoods of serving and ex-serving ADF members, and their families.

Commissioner Brown reflected on a level of cynicism in the Defence and veteran community about Defence’s ability and willingness to change without independent oversight.  “[I]’m putting myself in the shoes of many people out there, I’m sure, saying: “How do we trust that it’s going to happen?” It’s not like this issue of suicide has just occurred. 

There’s been data coming for decades and we’ve talked a couple of times in the last couple of weeks around the sense that the thing Defence does best is defend Defence. I think, quite frankly, it makes the trust that it will change harder when there’s a sense that Defence is good at defending Defence.”
– Commissioner Brown Mr Kaldas said key to the Royal Commission’s success will be an enduring, powerful body to hold Government, the ADF, Defence, DVA and other relevant agencies, as well as State and Territory governments, to account – to make sure they prioritise the major, long-term and complex reforms that are required. “This is a complex, multilayered problem that will take many years to try and grapple with. But we’ve also said … that you can’t keep doing the same thing the same way over and over again and expecting the result to come out different. We have to look for something dramatically different to try and change the trajectory on which these (suicide) figures are on.” – Commissioner Kaldas Commissioner Douglas said a new oversight body set up to monitor implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations could maintain a “relentless focus” on the issues and help drive cultural and systemic reforms. “The idea of a body to extend beyond us is perhaps anchored in that concept, not least because the bodies that may have provided some oversight, or have been intended to provide some oversight, don’t appear to have made a difference in respect of the issue of suicidality. The figures have remained the same. The way I conceive of it at least is that it can be a burr in the saddle at a time when they (Defence) are otherwise preoccupied by very significant matters relating to our strategic position in the world, but it’s a burr that will provide an impetus to keep thinking about this issue and do something about it.” – Commissioner Douglas  Who said what at final hearing The Royal Commission’s final public hearing was an opportunity to ask hard questions of senior ministers, the military’s leadership and departmental heads about how we’ve got to where we are today – and, most importantly, how we avoid making the same mistakes moving forward. We again heard from veterans, and their loved ones, about the challenges they have faced in and out of service – and of failures across the veteran ecosystem to provide much needed support in a timely manner.  Here we take a look back at who said what during the Royal Commission’s last public hearing block. The Hon Richard Marles MP on the stand “We need to follow-through and put in place the thrust of what this Commission recommends. We need to do that, because that’s what we need to do for veterans. [W]hat is actually going to matter is what you recommend and what we ultimately implement. History will be our judge.” – The Hon Richard Marles MP,
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence
decorative line  Greg Moriarty on the stand  “We have let some of our own people down, with appalling consequences.” – Greg Moriarty, Secretary of the Department of Defence decorative line  Air Marshal Robert Chipman on the stand  “I think we now clearly understand the nexus between an individual’s experience in service, particularly if they experience negative outcomes where they’re involuntarily separated or they’re a victim of unacceptable behaviour… If we don’t address those issues while they’re in service, then it leads to negative outcomes for them once they leave. So it is a service issue.”  – Air Marshal Robert Chipman, Chief of Air Force Decorative line  Lieutenant GeneralSimon Stuart on the stand “As Chief of the Australian Army… I offer an unreserved and sincere apology to everyone whom we have failed… [T]o the point that Commissioners are seeking an assurance about ownership, I can give you that assurance. I own this problem. We own this problem. And we are committed to doing something about it.” – Lieutenant General Simon Stuart, Chief of Army decorative line  Vice Admiral Mark Hammond on the stand “We do put our people in challenging, risky environments and sometimes harrowing environments, and it leaves a mark. We do a good job of rehabilitating physical injuries. We’ve got to find a better way to rehabilitate and manage mental health injury. Just automatic transition or leaning towards medical separation is not the answer. It should be the path of last resort.” – Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, Chief of Navy decorative line Senator Jaquie Lambie on the stand  “Usually when a veteran comes to our office, they are on their last legs. If we don’t do something, we will probably lose them.” – Senator Jacqui Lambie Private sessions to continue  It’s been those with lived experience of suicide and suicidal behaviour – who have bravely come forward and shared their stories with the Royal Commission at public hearings, in private sessions and through written submissions – who have enabled this inquiry to shine a bright light on the many complex cultural and systemic issues that are failing serving and ex-serving ADF members, and their families. Commissioners Kaldas, Douglas and Brown, supported by Assistant Commissioners Atkinson and Young, have so far completed 792 private sessions. 

They will continue to hold private sessions over coming months to ensure everyone who has sought to share their story at a private session will have the opportunity to do so. Commissioner Kaldas said the lived experience of past and present ADF members, and their loved ones, sits at the heart of the Royal Commission – and their voices continue to inform the inquiry. “We know how important these sessions are to veterans and their families, and the catharsis and validation they bring to so many people impacted by suicide and suicidality.” – Commissioner Kaldas   Enquiries
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