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Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide Interim Report

  • Report
Publication date

The Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide was presented to the Governor-General, His Excellency, General the Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Retd) on 11 August 2022. The Interim Report provides commentary on the following;

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

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

7.         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

8.         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.

9.         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.

10.       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.

11.       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.

12.       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.

13.       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.

14.       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.

15.       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.

16.       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

17.       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

18.       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).

19.       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

20.       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

21.       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.

22.       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.

23.       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

24.       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

25.       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.

26.       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.

27.       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).