Statement from Commissioners Nick Kaldas APM, Dr Peggy Brown AO and James Douglas KC
We Commissioners wrote to the Prime Minister, the Hon Anthony Albanese MP, on 11 May this year requesting a 12-month extension to this inquiry.
The decision to seek a further extension to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide was not taken lightly. We are acutely aware that serving members of the Australian Defence Force and veterans are seeking change urgently to prevent further deaths by suicide.
However, the issues contributing to suicide among the Defence and veteran communities are complex and multi-layered, and require a thorough inquiry across a complex and broad landscape including the ADF, Department of Defence, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Government oversight bodies, States and Territories, ex-service and other support organisations, and Government itself.
To date, we have issued over 900 compulsory notices and received more than 230,000 documents as part of our inquiry, and heard from 280 witnesses at 10 public hearing blocks, as well as nearly 500 individuals during one-on-one private sessions. But we have also faced significant delays in the provision of vital data and information sought from Defence, as well as other challenges associated with dealing with claims of public interest immunity, parliamentary privilege, and the need to sensitively gather evidence without impacting issues of national security.
Our strong commitment to a trauma-informed approach has also meant giving participants who have suffered terrible tragedy and/or are suffering acute and chronic suicidality and mental health issues the extra time they require to engage safely with the Royal Commission.
Despite at least 57 previous inquiries over the past 20 years relating to the risk factors for suicide in the Defence and veteran community, and almost 770 recommendations arising from these inquiries, there has been little to no change in the veteran suicide rate.
Our request for more time was in the hope that we could complete the most thorough inquiry possible, delving more deeply into the many complex issues than had previously been possible, and make findings that are both fully justified by the evidence and persuasive enough to induce action instead of the inertia demonstrated by previous governments and Commonwealth bodies.
We know there will not be another Royal Commission into this problem in our lifetime.
On 1 August, we were informed that the extension had not been granted and the Royal Commission’s final report is expected to be handed down, as planned, by 17 June 2024.
We respect the right of the Government to determine its priorities.
We also note their offer to consult with us on options (other than an extension) to assist the Commission to finalise our inquiries within the current timeframe. We are now in discussion with government in pursuing alternative initiatives.
As such, our team will continue its work to ensure a final report is delivered in June 2024 with the most robust, evidence-based findings possible within the timeframe.
Finding solutions to the deeply-embedded cultural, structural and systemic issues that are failing our serving and ex-serving Australian Defence Force members, and their families, and contributing to high rates of suicide and suicidality in the veteran community is what we seek to do.
Notwithstanding the recommendations we will make in our Final Report, we know that sustainable change will take time to achieve, and without continued scrutiny and robust independent oversight, may never occur.
In our Interim Report, we spoke of the need for an entity to follow this Royal Commission, to provide independent oversight and monitoring of the progress of implementation of recommendations, and maintain a continued focus on the issue of defence and veteran suicide. Later this year, we will be releasing a discussion paper in relation to the proposed new entity, and will follow this with a recommendation to Government.
We look forward to Government’s support for this approach.