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Interim Report

Royal Commissioners, Nick Kaldas APM (Chair), The Hon James Douglas QC and Dr Peggy Brown AO presented the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide to the Governor-General, His Excellency, General the Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Retd) on 11 August 2022, and it was tabled in Parliament on 11 August.

The inquiry is focused on the identification of systemic problems and solutions to suicide and suicidality among serving and ex-serving ADF members.

The Interim Report provides commentary on the following;

  • summary of work undertaken
  • preliminary observations
  • recommendations about urgent and immediate issues

Executive Summary and List of Recommendations

Introduction

  1. This Royal Commission's Letters Patent, which provide our terms of reference, recognise 'the unique nature of military service, and the ongoing impact such service may have on the physical and mental health of defence members and veterans'. The Letters Patent say 'that as a community Australians value the contribution and sacrifice made by defence members and veterans in their service, and the sacrifice of their families' – and that 'every death by suicide is a tragic event'.1
  2. We could not agree more. The prevalence of suicide and suicidality among serving and ex‑serving Australian Defence Force (ADF) members is something that should concern us all. Each death by suicide, each life lost, has profound effects on family, friends, colleagues and the wider community.
  3. As Commissioners, we intend through our investigation to develop recommendations that result in long-lasting, effective and compassionate change. By listening to the stories of people with lived experience of suicidality and suicide, we hope we have provided an environment that is physically, psychologically and emotionally safe for survivors, families and friends, the community, and Royal Commission staff. We are here to listen and learn – and then to act.
  4. This inquiry's wide-ranging terms of reference include the requirement that we identify systemic problems relating to the prevalence of suicide and suicidality among serving and ex‑serving ADF members. In turn, the Letters Patent require us to deliver an interim report that focuses on 'issues requiring urgent or immediate action'.2 This interim report makes a limited number of recommendations about urgent and immediate issues, as well as a range of preliminary observations.
  5. We note the considerable number of previous reports delivered and inquiries conducted since 2000 that are relevant to the topics of suicide and suicidality among serving and ex‑serving ADF members. We have identified over 50 previous reports, and more than 750 recommendations. While we acknowledge that many of these reports and inquiries were about discrete topics, we have been dismayed to come to understand the limited ways that Australian Governments have responded to these previous inquiries and reports.
  6. Our assessment of current systems and processes will continue to include consideration of any reforms commenced during the life of the Royal Commission. We note also that the requirement that we deliver this interim report by a prescribed time means that we have been unable to include some information and evidence we have received very recently. We will consider all relevant information and evidence provided to us before we deliver our final report.

Lived experience

  1. This inquiry is anchored by the personal stories, experiences and perspectives that people – including serving and ex‑serving ADF members and their families, friends and support networks – have described to us. Chapter 2 summarises some of the personal stories and perspectives we have received in submissions, as well as oral and written evidence we have heard from lived experience witnesses. We also note, in summarised form only, key themes that have emerged from private sessions.

Preliminary observations

  1. In Chapter 3, we make preliminary observations about a range of matters. These are:
    • suicide prevention and wellbeing
    • data and suicide prevention
    • coronial matters
    • families
    • ADF culture
    • transition from the ADF
    • a possible body to follow this Royal Commission.
  1. The principles and contemporary theories of suicide prevention, postvention and lifetime wellbeing underpin our inquiry. We continue to consider the best ways to apply these to all aspects of ADF service and beyond – and across the lifecourse of serving and ex‑serving members and their families.
  2. Data provides an evidence base to inform our understanding of deaths by suicide and how these deaths may be prevented. Chapter 3 covers the importance of data, data collection practices, and how data is used. We set out what is known and not known in the data landscape about suicide, suicide attempts, self-harm, suicidality and associated risk and protective factors for serving and ex‑serving members. We note issues of immediate concern and opportunities for improvement. We will have more to say about data-related matters in our final report.
  3. Coroners and Coronial Courts investigate sudden and unexpected deaths, including suicide deaths of serving and ex‑serving ADF members. Our inquiry has revealed a number of issues with the coronial system that warrant further consideration. Among these issues are complexities with defining suicide and understanding the intent of the deceased, the timeliness of coronial findings, limitations with or gaps in Coronial system data, and the extent of support coroners can or should offer family members. We will continue to inquire into the Coronial system in the context of understanding and reducing suicide deaths.
  4. Families are inexorably linked to the health and wellbeing of serving and ex‑serving ADF members, and vice versa. There is insufficient awareness and recognition of the key role families play. Information about available support is limited and the quantity, quality and accessibility to supports too varied. We have heard numerous stories of children and families who have been adversely affected by the death by suicide of a loved one, or by deterioration in their loved one's mental and/or physical health. Chapter 3 includes a profile of military families and discusses various impacts of military life on family. We will continue to consider what obligations Defence and DVA have to families, as well as the obligations of state and territory governments and other agencies.
  5. For the past year we have spent many hours hearing first-hand accounts of individuals' experiences of ADF culture – positive and negative. We are concerned about a range of cultural issues within the ADF, and the negative impacts that these have had and continue to have. Our preliminary observations about culture include discussing abuse as a risk factor for suicide and suicidality, the progress and monitoring of cultural reform in Defence, recent inclusion and diversity initiatives, the adequacy of reporting and support systems, and accountability. We will have more to say about culture in our final report.
  6. Transition from service to civilian life is a significant event for ADF members and their families. It can be associated with increased risk of suicide and suicidality. For the approximately 6,000 personnel who leave the ADF each year, transition requires major readjustments. For some, it can be a challenging and traumatic time, particularly if they are left without financial means. While the ADF has taken some promising steps to improve the transition process, we are considering the effectiveness of these changes – and asking what more should be done. We are concerned that the Joint Transition Authority is not scheduled to reach full operating capacity until 31 December 2022, despite being established nearly two years ago. We will continue to focus on contemporary veterans' experiences of leaving the ADF, and on ensuring that systems are in place so that every veteran has sufficient time and support to make a smooth transition.
  7. We have already noted the number of previous reports and inquiries into matters relevant to our terms of reference. We consider there is a compelling case for a permanent entity to monitor and report on the progress of implementation of inquiries and reviews, including this Royal Commission's interim report and final report. Such an entity could also have a range of supporting functions. In 2023, we will explore this further, including by public consultation, and release a special report with a preferred model. This will allow for such a body to be ready to commence in 2024, when this Royal Commission ends.
  8. This inquiry has nearly two years still to run. We will continue to review each submission we receive and to consider the evidence and information we gather from hearings, roundtables, private sessions and internal and commissioned research. We are already considering, and will continue to consider, a wide range of matters not aired in this interim report. This is consistent with the terms of reference, which require us to consider systemic issues relating to suicide and suicidality among serving and ex‑serving ADF members.

Urgent and immediate recommendations

Legislative reform

  1. 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. In Chapter 4, we recommend that the Australian Government should, without delay, implement legislative reforms to simplify and harmonise the veteran entitlement system (see Recommendation 1). We have heard evidence and received submissions that suggest that the system is too complex. Previous reports and inquiries – including the Productivity Commission's 2019 report, A Better Way to Support Veterans – have called for legislative simplification and harmonisation. We recognise that making change will not be easy, but the difficulties of reform provide no justification to delay any further.

Claims processing at the Department of Veterans' Affairs

  1. In Chapter 5, we recommend that the Australian Government and Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) take urgent and immediate steps to fix problems with the processing of claims for veterans – both serving and ex‑serving ADF members. We have heard from many veterans and families that the claims system is complex and difficult to navigate and that veterans wait for long periods of time to receive a decision about their claims – sometimes more than 300 days. As of 31 May 2022, DVA had 41,799 claims in its backlog – claims waiting to be allocated to a decision-maker. The backlog should not be allowed to continue. We recommend that the Australian Government and DVA should eliminate the backlog by 31 March 2024 (Recommendation 2).
  2. In Chapter 5, we also consider other ways to address the backlog and prevent it reoccurring in the future. It is clear to us that the Australian Government should resource DVA to implement a program of work aimed at improving the administration of the DVA claims system (Recommendation 3). DVA should report to the Government on its future funding needs, and the Government should use this advice to inform the departmental funding it provides to DVA (Recommendation 4). We also consider that the Australian Government should remove the application of the Average Staffing Level cap policy on DVA – a policy which has limited the number of Australian Public Service staff DVA could employ (Recommendation 5).

Protections to engage with us

  1. In Chapter 6, we express concern about inadequate legal protections for persons who may want to engage with us. These include, but are not limited to, serving members who intend to stay in the ADF and have concerns about the impact their disclosure of sensitive information may have on their career. In addition, some serving and ex‑serving ADF members may consider themselves constrained from telling us their lived experiences due, for example, to those experiences occurring on operationally sensitive activities. These people deserve and need to be heard and should be afforded adequate confidentiality protections via amendments to the Royal Commissions Act (1902), as has happened with other current and previous Royal Commissions. We recommend that the Australian Government work closely and urgently with this Royal Commission to design legislative amendments that provide protections for these two cohorts (Recommendation 6) and allows us to receive information potentially vital to the fulfillment of our terms of reference.

Parliamentary privilege and public interest immunity

  1. In Chapter 6, we also consider that the legal concepts of parliamentary privilege and public interest immunity claims have seriously, adversely constrained our ability to inquire into and receive the necessary evidence from prior inquiries conducted by parliament and to examine government decision-making. Our terms of reference require us to conduct a broad-ranging inquiry and to consider a wide variety of material, including products developed for previous related inquiries and matters that may be confidential.
  2. We are concerned about the impact that the use of parliamentary privilege and public interest immunity may have on our ability to achieve lasting, meaningful change for serving and ex‑serving ADF members and their families. Those who advocated for years to establish this Royal Commission expect us to ask the hard questions of the Australian Government, Defence and DVA. We are not afraid to ask hard questions. But we are constrained – unreasonably so, in our view.
  3. We recommend that the Australian Government immediately address the barriers which arise from parliamentary privilege for this Royal Commission. The Government should also introduce an exemption for future Royal Commissions (Recommendation 7). We also recommend that the Australian Government reform immediately the policies and practices related to public interest immunity to limit claims to where there is a specific harm contemplated from disclosure (Recommendation 8).

Access to information

  1. We have heard numerous concerns about accessing information held by Defence and DVA by serving and ex‑serving members of the ADF and their families, as Chapter 6 outlines. These concerns are not limited to the difficulties encountered by serving or ex‑serving members seeking access to their own information – but also family members of deceased members who are seeking to access information about that member from Defence and/or DVA. We make recommendations about administrative release guidelines (Recommendation 9), embedding a trauma informed approach and developing and implementing improvements to information-seeking processes (recommendations 10 and 11), and consent to disclose processes (Recommendation 12). We also recommend Defence and DVA co-design and refresh the information available to members, ex‑serving members and their families to better support those seeking information from both departments (Recommendation 13).

Next steps

  1. This Royal Commission's terms of reference are detailed but require us to complete a systemic investigation. We welcome this obligation. What we have heard so far shows that the problems are multi-layered.
  2. We will continue to hold private sessions, roundtables and hearings in locations around Australia. We want to build a comprehensive understanding of both common themes and diverse experiences among serving and ex‑serving ADF members and their families. We need to test and re-test our thinking on a range of key matters. To help do this, we will listen to as many people and organisations as possible between now and the end of the inquiry.
  3. This Royal Commission is a once in a generation opportunity to make real and lasting change. We are determined to take the time to understand complex systems and processes before we make detailed recommendations in our final report. As noted above, we will deliver a special report in 2023. We will deliver our final report in June 2024.

Endnotes

  1. Commonwealth of Australia, Letters Patent, 8 July 2021.
  2. Commonwealth of Australia, Letters Patent, 8 July 2021, paragraph (za) (i).

Recommendation 1: Simplify and harmonise veteran compensation and rehabilitation legislation

The Australian Government should develop and implement legislation to simplify and harmonise the framework for veterans' compensation, rehabilitation and other entitlements. To this end:

  1. By no later than 23 December 2022, the Australian Government should:
    1. accept or reject recommendations made by the Productivity Commission in its report, A Better Way to Support Veterans, that relate to reforming the legislative framework
    2. if it rejects Productivity Commission recommendations 8.1, 8.4, 13.1, 14.1 and 19.1, adopt alternatives that will achieve similar or better levels of harmonisation and simplification of the legislative framework, and
    3. identify and decide all other policy questions relevant to designing a harmonised and simplified legislative framework.
  2. By no later than 22 December 2023, the Australian Government should complete drafting of the legislation.
  3. By no later than early 2024, the Australian Government should present to the Parliament, and seek passage of, its Bill for the proposed framework.
  4. If the legislation is passed, the Australian Government should, by no later than 1 July 2024, begin the process of implementing and transitioning to the new legislative framework.
  5. If the legislation is passed, the Australian Government should ensure that, by no later than 1 July 2025, the new legislation has fully commenced and is fully operational. (This does not preclude setting later deadlines for any choices that might need to be made by veterans.)
  6. The Australian Government should allocate to the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA), the Office of Parliamentary Counsel and other relevant agencies adequate resources to design, prepare, draft and implement the proposed legislation within the timeframes above, and to administer the new legislation once it has commenced. The allocation of these resources to DVA should not be offset by reductions in other resourcing of DVA.

Recommendation 2: Eliminate the claims backlog

The Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) should eliminate the backlog of claims under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 (Cth), the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988 (Cth) and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 (Cth) by 31 March 2024. To this end:

  1. DVA should accurately advise the Australian Government on the resourcing that it needs to eliminate the claims backlog by 31 March 2024.
  2. The Australian Government should provide DVA with the resources it needs to eliminate the claims backlog by 31 March 2024. The allocation of these resources to DVA should not be offset by reductions in other resourcing of DVA.
  3. Leading up to 31 March 2024, DVA should undertake regular monitoring of claims and other data, to check whether the elimination of the backlog is on track.
  4. Leading up to 31 March 2024, the Australian Government and DVA should implement corrective action(s) if the elimination of the backlog is not on track. DVA should monitor the effectiveness of corrective actions taken.
  5. DVA should routinely, publicly and meaningfully report on its progress in reducing the claims backlog and claim processing times.
  6. DVA should ensure that efforts to reduce the backlog do not reduce the quality of decisions made about claims, and do not adversely affect veterans' experiences of the claims process.

Recommendation 3: Improve the administration of the claims system

The Australian Government should improve the administration of the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) claims system by 1 July 2024. The changes pursued should aim to improve veterans' experience of the claims system, remove complexity from the system and enhance efficiency in claims processing. To this end:

  1. DVA, having taken account of the advice received from McKinsey & Company and other relevant sources, should advise the Australian Government about potential measures it could include within a program of work aimed at improving the administration of the claims system.
  2. The Australian Government and DVA should decide upon the improvement measures to be undertaken within the program of work.
  3. The Australian Government should provide DVA, and any other relevant agencies, with the resources needed to implement the agreed program of work. The allocation of these resources to DVA should not be offset by reductions in other resourcing of DVA.
  4. The Australian Government should seek passage of any legislative amendments required to implement the agreed program of work.
  5. DVA, and any other relevant agencies, should implement the program of work by 1 July 2024.
  6. DVA should publicly report on progress towards implementing the program of work on a quarterly basis.
  7. DVA should publicly report on the expected benefit of each measure included within the program of work, and, once implemented, report on the degree to which each benefit has been realised.

Recommendation 4: The Department of Veterans' Affairs to provide advice on its funding needs

The Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) should provide advice to the Australian Government about its funding needs. To this end:

  1. By 31 March 2023, and at least twice per year thereafter, DVA should provide advice to the Australian Government about:
    1. its future departmental funding needs, and
    2. factors leading to uncertainty about DVA's future departmental funding needs.
  2. The Australian Government should use this advice to inform the departmental funding it provides to DVA.
  3. The Australian Government should provide any resources to DVA, and any other relevant agencies, to enable DVA to provide adequate advice regarding its future funding needs as specified above. The allocation of these resources to DVA should not be offset by reductions in other resourcing of DVA.

Recommendation 5: Remove the Department of Veterans' Affairs Average Staffing Level Cap

The Australian Government should remove, on a permanent basis, the application of the Average Staffing Level (ASL) cap policy on the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Recommendation 6: Increase protections for persons engaging with this Royal Commission

The Australian Government should work closely with this Royal Commission to design urgently an amendment or series of legislative amendments that provide protections for persons who wish to provide relevant information to this Royal Commission, including the two following cohorts:

  1. For serving ADF members disclosing sensitive personal information who are currently, and intend to remain, in service, similar protections to section 6OP of the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth) should be introduced.
  2. For serving and ex-serving ADF members whose lived experience is intrinsically linked to security classified or operationally sensitive information, the defence available under the Criminal Code section 122.5(5) should be extended to cover information communicated to a Royal Commission. A defence to other secrecy offences will also be needed.

Recommendation 7: Provide exemption from parliamentary privilege

Where their terms of reference require an examination of government, Royal Commissions should be made exempt from section 16(3)(c) of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 (Cth).

Recommendation 8: Limit public interest immunity claims

The Australian Government should reform immediately policies and practices related to public interest immunity to limit claims to where there is a specific harm contemplated from disclosure to Royal Commissions. Where there is uncertainty about potential harm, mechanisms within the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth) should be used to support the production of the document or information.

Recommendation 9: Improve administrative release of information

The Australian Government should:

  1. by March 2023, produce and publish administrative release guidelines to better support applicants to access information held by the Department of Veterans' Affairs and Defence, and
  2. immediately prioritise use of administrative release and proactively work with applicants to facilitate access via this process, including following a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) and the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) – but without delaying or restricting processes under either of these Acts.

Recommendation 10: Co-design information to increase awareness of redactions for access requests

The Australian Government should engage with serving and ex-serving Australian Defence Force (ADF) members and their families to complete by March 2023 co-design information to raise the awareness of redaction and how it might apply to information provided to applicants seeking information from Defence or the Department of Veterans' Affairs under all information access request mechanisms.

Recommendation 11: Embed trauma-informed practices for information access

Trauma-informed practices should be embedded in Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) interactions with individuals seeking information from either department. These trauma-informed practices should form part of ongoing training for relevant personnel in each department.

Where possible, there should be a single point of contact within each of Defence and DVA to provide continuity and consistency to applicants seeking information from within each agency.

Recommendation 12: Encourage up-to-date consent for information access

By March 2023, the Australian Government should increase the number of opportunities for serving or ex-serving ADF members to provide or amend their consent to disclose, information to family members or nominated representatives.

Recommendation 13: Co-design education on information access mechanisms

The Australian Government should engage with serving and ex-serving ADF members and their families in order to complete, by March 2023, co-designed education material on information access mechanisms used by Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA). Educational material should be targeted to serving and ex-serving ADF members and their families.