There is nothing higher on the agenda of the Australian veteran community than the need to act and stop the extraordinarily high rate of veteran suicide in our community.
There have been more than 700 veteran suicides in Australia since 2001, and on the evening of 24 February, 2021, a nationally streamed meeting of the veteran community was held at Canberra’s Hotel Realm.
On that evening, a number of our elected representatives from many parties and both houses met with Heston Russell, founder of Voice of a Veteran, and were asked to support the immediate establishment of a royal commission into veteran suicide.
During the meeting, Hugh Poate – father of Robert Poate, a Canberran killed in Afghanistan, and now an advocate for holding the government accountable on veteran issues – asked me why there is a continuous cycle of committees and focus groups with no outcome that is measurable to families.
It is a reasonable question, and standing before a man who lost his son to warfare, I committed to holding the Morrison Government publicly accountable for each veteran suicide that could have been prevented from that day forward.
In the two weeks since, there have been three more veterans lost to suicide and three unsuccessful attempts. No royal commission has been established, yet on 10-11 March, in Canberra, another two-day symposium was held called ‘Defence and Veteran Suicide: Prevention Through Understanding’.
Enough is enough.
Veterans, their families and support networks have understood for more than a decade what the majority of the contributing factors are to veteran suicide so this symposium is seen as largely a waste of time.
Veterans don’t ask for respect, but respect is due to the families who have lost more than 700 loved ones in the past 20 years. Many of these losses were preventable, and while a royal commission will not bring back a life, it will make public the issues that contribute to each life lost.
It will also work to restore trust in the belief that the government highly values our service personnel and their welfare – a belief that is no longer strongly held in our community.
There are the obvious triggers that commence during service, such as the stigma surrounding mental health in the Australian Defence Force. Then an examination of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) is in order. What did it do in the past that managed to degrade the mental health of veterans to the extent that while they were seeking DVA help, the only way out was seen to be death by suicide?
What is the DVA doing now that is perpetuating this? Has it improved? It should have improved because it leads the world in veteran care, and has the right leadership with the right experience and dedication to make it happen. But what caused so many veterans to take their lives in the past when DVA was under different leadership?
Extending on from this must be an in-depth critical assessment of our ex-service organisations and their ability to effectively represent post-2000 veterans. There are between 1500 and 3000 veteran support organisations in Australia, and 17 of those organisations represent the veteran community to the Commonwealth. In my opinion they are no longer effective in representing the needs of post-2000 veterans, otherwise this would have been resolved a number of years ago.
As Anzac Day approaches and our politicians prepare to recognise and remember the contribution and sacrifice of all those who have served, it is time the Morrison Government acts to respect the families of those who have lost a veteran to suicide. During the next sitting week, commencing 15 March, 2021, it should appoint an independent royal commission into veteran suicide.
The Morrison Government has had all the legal instruments to do so, provided pro bono for the past six months. We will coordinate another nationally streamed meeting of the veteran community after parliament sits to measure the tangible improvements the government has made to prevent veteran suicide.
There has been too much talk and politics around this issue. The time for action is now.