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Albanese government's response to veterans' suicide royal commission interim report.

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Statement by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel, the Hon Matt Keogh, MP

Thank you Mr Speaker,

I now table the Australian Government’s formal response to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veterans Suicide’s Interim Report recommendations.

When a person enlists in the ADF, they are signing up to be something more than themselves – they are signing up to serve their country, to serve the people of Australia.

The rate of veteran suicide in Australia is a national tragedy; it is a rate that is significantly higher than across the general Australian population.

"It is devastating that Australia has lost more serving and former serving personnel to suicide over the last 20 years than through operations over the same period in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is a great tragedy that the Australian Government, successive Australian Governments, have failed those who have served our nation.

Governments have also failed the families of those people, families who have carried a heavy burden of their own through the pain and suffering they have experienced.

This is why the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide needed to happen.

This Government called for this Royal Commission when we were in Opposition.

That is why, when the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide provided its Interim Report to the Government on 11 August, the Albanese Government saw that it was tabled in Parliament and made public that same day. That day, on behalf of the Australian Government, I welcomed the Report and provided the Government’s initial response.

Today, I am following through on the Albanese Government’s commitment that the Government would provide its formal response to the Royal Commission’s Interim Report as soon as possible, which I do here now today.

As a nation, we have an obligation to ensure that all Defence personnel are kept safe mentally and physically, here and abroad.

When a person joins the ADF, they undertake a commitment of service to our country, a commitment that may place their life, their health, their wellbeing in harm’s way.

Families join them on this journey.

It is our duty to meet their commitment in kind, through looking after our service members and their families, during and after their time in the ADF.

The Interim Report of the Royal Commission makes clear that while there have been improvements in Defence and Veterans’ Affairs processes, with a greater recognition of the importance of good mental as well as physical health, some systems and approaches across Defence and DVA are not sufficient or fit for purpose.

I have, in my short time as Minister, met with senior leadership in Defence and DVA and also been out visiting ADF rehabilitation facilities, transition centres, Defence Member and Family Support offices, and regional DVA offices.

The staff working in those roles are dedicated and committed to doing their jobs well, and to helping serving personnel, veterans and families as best they can with the resources available to them – and I thank them.

It is clear, however, that the lived experiences of people interacting with Defence and DVA can vary dramatically, whether in relation to decision making, processes, and in how serving personnel, veterans and families are engaged with at a human level.

Unfortunately, in some cases, the policies, processes and cultures that have evolved in Defence and DVA over time have been counterproductive, causing distress to our Defence and Veteran communities.

The Royal Commission’s Interim Report is replete with examples.

It is clear that things are not right.

On behalf of the Australian Government, I say, sorry.

The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide is a pivotal opportunity to give those impacted by defence and veteran suicide an opportunity to share their story, to honour their loved ones, and highlight how approaches can be improved; and to enable leaders to come forward to acknowledge mistakes, explain improvements made, and outline ways to make things right.

I want to thank the Royal Commissioners, their counsel assisting and their teams for their work to date.

Thank you also to the Royal Commission teams across Commonwealth agencies, including in Defence, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’, the Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, for your tireless work as you assist the Royal Commission. Thank you also to the State and Territory government agencies who have provided their ongoing support.

Many stood together to fight for this Royal Commission. Families who never expected, never imagined finding themselves in a situation where this was a fight they needed to be having.

I want to give a special mention to Julie-Ann Finney and Karen Bird, who both lost their sons – men who proudly served our nation in our ADF – to suicide.

Thank you for your, and your families’ unwavering determination, and to everyone involved in the campaign who worked tirelessly to bring us to this point.

And finally, thank you to each and every person who has provided evidence to the Royal Commission.

It’s through your bravery in coming forward, that the Royal Commissioners have been able to make their recommendations.

I encourage anyone who has information to give, to come forward and give evidence – publicly or in private session; the Royal Commission wants to hear from you and the nation needs them to hear from you.

Submissions remain open until 13 October 2023.

Today, the Australian Government provides its formal response to the recommendations in the Royal Commission’s Interim Report.

This Albanese Labor Government is a responsible Government.

We will take the necessary action.

I said on the day we received this report, the same day the report was handed to the Governor-General, the Government, the Parliament, the media and made publically available:

no doubt some of these recommendations will be easier and quicker to implement than others.”

As the Royal Commissioners themselves tell us:

whole systems for serving and ex-serving members need to be re-imagined and re-engineered.

We have quite a task ahead.

To quote further the Royal Commissioners in their Interim Report:

"It is clear to us that Australia’s veteran compensation and rehabilitation legislative system is so complicated that it adversely affects the mental health of some veterans – both serving and ex‑serving ADF members – and can be a contributing factor to suicidality."

Indeed, as the Law Council of Australia points out, the first principal of the Rule of Law is that:

The law must be both readily known and available, and certain and clear

In this regard, we have much work to do.

The Government agrees to Recommendation 1, we will develop a pathway for simplification and harmonisation of veteran compensation and rehabilitation legislation. Funding will be considered in the context of budget processes and fiscal constraints. The timing of implementation will be informed by what is required for necessary consultation and the passage of legislation.

Recommendation 2 goes to eliminating the claims backlog.

The Government agrees to this recommendation.

Far too many veterans and personnel are waiting far too long for their claims to be processed.

The current backlog is unacceptable and that is why at the last election, we committed to employing 500 additional staff for DVA.

This recruitment process is already underway.

We are already seeing positive results. It is the aim of this Government to have the claims backlog cleared before the end of 2023.

Recommendation 3 seeks to improve the administration of the claims system.

The Government agrees to this recommendation.

There’s no doubt some veterans and families have not had a good experience; and have not been able to access the support they deserve.

For that, we are sorry.

We are looking to improve the veterans’ experience of the claims system, remove complexity, and enhance efficiency in supporting veterans and families as they navigate the current system.

Work is already underway, with the employment of additional staff to support claims processing, as well as internal systems changes and upgrades – but there is more to be done.

The Fourth Recommendation is that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs provide, on a regular basis, advice to Government on funding needs.

The Government agrees to this recommendation.

Recommendation 5 suggests removing the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Average Staffing Level cap.

As a Labor Government, we know the importance of secure work.

That’s why at the recent election we committed to abolishing the artificial staffing cap across the public service.

The work that DVA undertakes is complex. We need the best trained individuals to work on processing claims and supporting veterans, yet the cap resulted in a counter-productive reliance on labour-hire arrangements, with higher staff turnover and higher costs.

The cap is now removed.

This means staff have job security. It will also mean that staff are processing claims more efficiently, as they build their own knowledge base in a complex system.

Recommendation 6 calls for increased protections for people who engage with the Royal Commission.

The Government will take forward suggested legislative reforms to the Royal Commissions Act 1902, widely consulting on the drafting of those amendments.

The Government will also work with the Royal Commission to ensure serving and ex-serving ADF members have protections to communicate information to the inquiry without breaching general secrecy offences in the Criminal Code. To achieve this, the Government welcomes continued engagement with the Royal Commission.

We note Recommendation 7, recognising the importance of Royal Commissions being able to thoroughly investigate and provide recommendations in relation to their terms of reference, while protecting freedom of speech in the Parliament.

Parliamentary privilege is a well-established concept that many Royal Commissions have engaged with in the past without coming into conflict with the Parliamentary Privileges Act.

There are alternative approaches available to the Royal Commission to engaging with materials to which Parliamentary Privilege might apply.

We also note Recommendation 8, recognising the need for Royal Commissions to have access to information they need to ensure their work is effective and efficient. The Government will improve policies and practices to streamline and introduce additional rigour around the use of public interest immunity claims in Royal Commissions.

Recommendations 9 to 13 all relate to improving the release by Defence and DVA of information to family about a deceased family member.

The Government agrees to these recommendations.

There is no doubt that the communication between Defence, DVA and impacted families has left a lot to be desired.

This has been raised by many families in their evidence to the Royal Commission.

This has also been acknowledged by the agencies. We must improve how Defence and DVA communicate with veterans and families, including in facilitating access to information about their loved ones.

Work on this has already begun.

Defence and DVA, will:

  • work together to produce guidelines for improved administrative release of information;
  • embed trauma-informed practices in information access;
  • co-design targeted education material on ways to access information and how redactions of personal information apply; and
  • prompt the regular updating of consent information from ADF members.

The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide is an important opportunity to strengthen our approach to the mental health and welfare of ADF personnel, veterans and their families into the future.

There’s no doubt there are things that are, and things that are not working now in Defence, Veterans Affairs and the supports for veterans, serving personnel and families.

We are taking action today.

We’ve already removed the ASL cap and have begun recruitment for 500 additional staff at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

We’ll roll out 10 additional Veterans’ and Families Hubs across the country.

We will boost home ownership for defence personnel and veterans by expanding the eligibility criteria for the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme.

We’ve started work on delivering a comprehensive veteran employment program, to better support defence personnel as they transition to civilian life.

We will deliver a defence and veteran family engagement and support strategy to provide greater support to our military families.

And we will provide more emergency housing for veterans experiencing homelessness through Labor’s Housing Australia Future Fund.

Our Government is committed to the task of saving lives and ensuring a better future for our Defence and veteran communities.

As we engage on these important issues and tasks ahead, I wish to emphasise that all veterans are “not broken”.

As the Royal Commissioners themselves identify, the majority of veterans go on to lead productive, fulfilling civilian lives. After leaving service, most veterans have a smooth transition to new employment and civilian life.

For the most part, veterans have equal or higher education than the general population, ex-serving personnel generally have higher weekly personal incomes, and are more likely to be employed.

However, it is also the case that many veterans find the process of leaving the ADF and reintegrating into civilian society to be a significant and challenging life event, particularly for those who don’t make that transition by choice.

It can be a difficult and disrupting time for veterans’ families.

While the transition process is improving, we must continue to work to improve understanding and knowledge of the process so people better understand what to expect and what is available for them when leaving the ADF.

We must ensure the best supports and services are made available to transitioning personnel, including in relation to employment, health and wellbeing, submitting compensation claims and rehabilitation, to deliver a seamless transition for veterans and families.

Those individuals have excellent contributions to make to our community. We need to set them up for that success.

Families are central to supporting the health and wellbeing of serving and ex-serving ADF members – I can’t stress that enough.

As Ms Deborah McKenner said, while giving evidence of her own personal experience to the Royal Commissioners:

A soldier may receive the pay cheque, only in the Australian Defence Force the whole family is employed by the Government. It’s our family lifestyle, our legacy.

We need to make sure families receive support too, as their health and wellbeing is important in its own right, and can also significantly impact ADF members and veterans.

The Royal Commissioners have spelt this out in their Interim Report:

Family support can mean the difference between life and death. Families matter. The welfare of the family matters."

Many people, extraordinarily, are unaware of the supports available to them, in service and following.

One ex-serving ADF Member told the Royal Commission:

I went 24 years not knowing that I was even eligible for DVA assistance. There was no education to help me transition out of the Army, it was only the advice of my fellow veterans that told me about DVA."

That’s not good enough.

The Royal Commission, and the Government’s response is an opportunity to shine a light on the supports that are available and we will continue to improve promotion of them into all corners of the defence, veterans and families community.

After years of reports, too many deaths, too many lives changed for the worse and endless discussion, it’s time to get on with it.

That is the clear message from this Royal Commission.

Our Government is committed to the task of saving lives and ensuring a better future for our Defence and veteran communities.

The measures outlined in the Australian Government’s formal response to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veterans Suicide’s Interim Report recommendations, as tabled today, is a key part of how we can begin delivering on that better future.

Can I conclude by saying to those listening today,

If you are a currently serving member of our ADF or family member, you can reach out to the ADF All-hours Support Line, available 24/7 on 1800 628 036.

If you are a veteran or family member you can access Open Arms veterans and families counselling service on 1800 011 046.

I thank the House.