Opinion – Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide

1 Jun 2021

The Australian Government has written a covenant with the members of the Australian Defence Community in which it commits to supporting veterans and their families and build greater community awareness of the unique nature of military service. It also promises amongst other things, to support all who have served. This commitment is not always carried through by Federal Government departments and agencies. Some examples are;

  • The ATO withholds tax from a number of veterans despite courts of the land finding that doing so is not legal.
  •  The adversarial nature of the military compensation and rehabilitation legislation sets up a situation that pits individual veterans against the Department of Veterans Affairs in a “David vs Goliath” battle.
  • The Federal Parliament continues to support the unconscionable use of 50 year+ out of date life tables to deduct monies from military pensioners in excess of the intent of the legislation.

The Royal Commission (RC) provides an opportunity to reset the way the Federal Government provides support to serving and former members of the ADF and their immediate families. The present system has evolved over the last some 100 years and can be fairly characterized as being something of a patchwork quilt of highly centralized programs requiring an extensive and very costly organisational structure to administer these.  Too often an individual seeking support finds the system complex and frustratingly difficult to access.   

The genesis of the complexity is the legislative structure. This aspect must be a major focus for the Royal Commission. The aim should be to devise a legislative basis that allows for a simple singular and easy to access compensation and rehabilitation support scheme to provide comprehensive support. Any scheme must also be easy to understand and administer.

A further issue detracting from effective support is the lack of willingness of both the Defence and Veterans Affairs departments to fully embrace the roles of the ex-service organisations in providing assistance for members and veterans to access DVA support, as well as social and support networks that connect former ADF members with others in their geographic areas. The role and effectiveness of ex-service organisations as well as the extent and purpose of public funding must be part of the inquiry

 The issued “themes for consultation” issued by DVA whilst covering areas that need to be addressed are too heavily skewed towards affects not causal matters.  The Terms of Reference must be developed in conjunction with the veteran community and have its full support or the Commission’s work will not have the wide support needed from serving and former ADF members and their families.

An overall outcome from this inquiry must be the recognition that all who are deployed to an operational area will be adversely impacted and although most will be able to cope with this after their ADF service many will experience negative effects in post service life. This has been partially recognized with the provision of full health support for veterans with “qualifying” service from age 70. This limited recognition however has been based on an arbitrary age and leaves younger veterans to navigate the complexities of the different compensation and rehabilitation systems and the accompanying DVA bureaucracy for help. There is a case for providing full health support for all veterans with qualifying service from their date of discharge. The further recognition of the need for mental health support is partially met by the entitlement for all former ADF members for “non liability” health support but this is proving problematic as there are other barriers to be overcome because of limited support in many areas and the reluctance of some providers to accept the DVA payment schedule.

My observation is that all veterans seek is a singular, straight forward, easy to understand rehabilitation and compensation scheme that is fair. Whilst there have been many improvements to providing support for both serving and former ADF members, there is much more to be done to remove the complexities and barriers faced by those seeking DVA support.

The appointed commissioner must an independent member of the judiciary and no serving member of the ADF should appointed to serve on or assist the Commission. However there should be provision for serving members of the ADF to be called and compelled to give evidence.

Although the Commission will rightly focus on issues of concern to the serving and veterans’ communities, it would do well to highlight also the positives offered by former ADF members as they reintegrate into the wider community. They bring many valuable attributes that are much sought after in commerce & industry as well as the voluntary sector such as tenacity, resourcefulness, integrity, commonsense, selflessness, mateship and willingness to endure hardship.

David Jamison AM

Related Reading: Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide