By Nikki Jamieson
A petition calling for a royal commission into veteran suicides has attracted 394,000 signatures. That is nearly 400,000 Australians who want to see change, nearly 400,000 people who want to see an end to veteran suicide. But still the Morrison government refuses to hold a royal commission; instead it clings to its untested alternative of a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention.
The last time a royal commission inquired into veteran mental health and wellbeing was in 1924 – almost 100 years ago. The findings of that commission uncovered the same issues that our veterans are still facing today. Nothing has changed. Week in, week out we hear that another veteran has died by suicide. Something has to change.
A royal commission would be generously funded to explore the systemic institutional factors that contribute to veteran suicide. Critically, this would include investigations into the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA). A royal commission would have the level of funding, resourcing and legislation required to get to the heart of the systemic failings and injustices that have plagued our serving members and veterans.
I am not opposed to the role of a national commissioner. In fact, quite the opposite; it is a welcome addition to the suite of support that serving members and veterans need, want and deserve. The role would be a welcome ongoing addition to a royal commission as has been the case in previous royal commissions when standing commissioners were appointed to ensure accountability and oversee the implementation of the royal commission’s recommendations. This process allows for full transparency and accountability – that has been missing for veterans and their families for far too long. However, in opting to create the office of the national commissioner as an alternative to a royal commission the government has caused significant tension and distrust in the veteran community.
The government appointed ACT magistrate Bernadette Boss as interim National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention: Dr Boss was a legal officer in the Australian Army from 1996 to 2002 and until her resignation immediately prior to her appointment was a Brigadier in the Army Reserve.Dr Boss is passionate about creating positive change for veterans and unfortunately has become a pawn in the middle of what can only be described as a political shitstorm.
Neglect, mismanagement, defective administration and abuse by senior Australian Defence Force (ADF) officers are key factors contributing to the unacceptably high rate of suicides among serving ADF personnel and veterans. A culture of denial, deceit and impunity that extends to the most senior officers in the ADF calls for a powerful and independent royal commission. The failure of Defence leadership to protect the welfare of ADF personnel is why a royal commission is required. Now more than ever we need transparency and accountability.
It’s true that Defence and DVA have undergone numerous reviews and reforms over the years. These have resulted in tens if not hundreds of new strategies, policies and guidelines aimed at addressing suicide. However, suicide prevention measures introduced in response to these intermittent reviews have been little more than political band-aids. There is no reason to believe that responses arising from the findings of a national commissioner’s review would be any different. In fact, the objectives of the current terms of reference for the review could be considered at best offensive and at worst a simple plagiarism from other reviews.
Internal reviews of the past have tended not to address the systemic failings of toxic cultures at Defence and DVA. Without a fully resourced deep dive into the key institutional factors contributing to the high rate of suicide among veterans the national commissioner’s ability to achieve real and lasting change would be very limited.
Defective military, political and bureaucratic leadership is failing our veterans and their families. This systemic breakdown is preventing Australia from fulfilling its duty of care to the very people who put their lives on the line to protect our democracy and way of life. Australia relies on a strong and healthy military workforce. Our serving members, veterans and their families deserve the opportunity to identify and address the failings that are contributing to poor mental health and suicide.
Until we get to the root of the issues causing such distress in the veteran community the septic rot will continue to fester and our veterans will continue to die.That’s why we need the full force of a royal commission and a commitment from government to implement the findings. Anything less is a moral travesty.
Nikki Jamieson is an academic, suicidologist and social worker. Her research into veteran suicide spans seven years and explores the contributing factors into veteran suicide with a particular focus on the moral trauma arising from service experiences. She has written extensively on the topic and is published internationally. Her interest began when her son Private Daniel Garforth died by suicide while serving in the Australian Army in 2014.