Commissioners, Nick Kaldas (Chair), James Douglas and Peggy Brown presented the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide to Governor-General David Hurley on 11 August (while the CONTACT editor was in the air, returning from Ireland, hence this delayed story).
In a statement, the commissioners said delivering their interim report was required by the Letters Patent that established the Royal Commission, but that the Royal Commission was far from finished.
“[We] will continue our inquiries until June 2024, when we will share the Royal Commission’s final report and recommendations.
“This interim report includes some urgent recommendations as well as preliminary observations, which will now be considered by the government.”
Commission Chair Nick Kaldas said suicide in the veteran community was a national tragedy that required immediate action and the interim report made 13 urgent recommendations.
Key recommendations include:
- Clearing the backlog of Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) claims
- Simplifying and harmonising complex and confusing veteran compensation and rehabilitation laws
- Increasing legal protections for serving and ex-serving ADF members to engage with the Royal Commission
- The exemption of the Royal Commission from parliamentary privilege, to make it easier for the inquiry to hold Defence and DVA to account
- For Defence and DVA to improve access for serving and ex-serving members (and their families) to their service information, including medical records
Commissioner Kaldas said one of the most pressing issues was the unacceptable backlog of DVA claims – almost 42,000, as at the end of May this year – that were still awaiting processing.
“We know that the long wait to receive entitlements can have a terrible effect on veterans’ mental health and in some cases leads to suicide and suicidality,” he said.
“Behind each claim is a veteran who needs support, and it is gravely important that this assistance is provided as quickly as possible – lives and livelihoods depend on it.”
The Commission has recommended DVA be given until 31 March 2024 to eliminate the backlog of claims and that the Australian government provide the necessary resources to ensure this occurs.
Accountability – permanent body
The Australian government has formally responded to fewer than half of the 57 previous inquiries or reports submitted to it in relation to matters that relate to Defence and veteran suicide.
The commission is considering what should follow this Royal Commission, including the need for a permanent body to report on the progress and quality of the implementation of recommendations from this Royal Commission and previous inquiries.
Further work – including public consultation – will be carried out in 2023 so that such a body can be in place by mid-2024 when this Royal Commission delivers its final report and recommendations.
Other areas of focus for the remainder of the inquiry include suicide prevention and wellbeing, the role and support of families, ADF culture and transition to civilian life.
Separate issues not detailed in this interim report may be included in any special reports or recommendations produced before the commission concludes in 2024.
Commission Chair Nick Kaldas said the welfare of current and former-serving members – and the memory of those who had died by suicide – is foremost in commissioners’ minds.
“We will continue to listen, consult and learn.
“We want to ensure this Royal Commission’s legacy is a vast improvement in the welfare of serving and ex-serving members of the ADF and their families,” Commissioner Kaldas said.
The Royal Commission will continue to review each submission received and consider the evidence and information gathered from hearings, roundtables, private sessions, internal and commissioned research.
“We want all current and former Defence personnel to go on to live long, happy and meaningful lives.”
In response to the interim report, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel Matt Keogh gave a press conference – transcribed below in full…
MATT KEOGH: Good morning, everybody. The Albanese Labor government welcomes this interim report from the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, and we are committed to a better future for our serving personnel, veterans and families. We will now look into implementing these recommendations that have been made.
Unfortunately the rate of veteran suicide in Australia is a national tragedy, and it is a rate that is significantly higher than across the general Australian population. It is devastating that Australia has lost more serving and former serving personnel to suicide than it has lost through operations over the last 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq.
That’s why we strongly supported calls, calls by the family members that have taken their lives, for the establishment of a royal commission looking into Defence and veteran suicide, something that the previous government resisted for some time.
We recognise the importance and the significance of this report. In the interests of transparency we have chosen to not sit on this report but, rather, to release it at the first available opportunity today so that everybody can see what the royal commission says now needs to be done. And, as such, we as a government are only just seeing these recommendations today now for the first time as well.
This report will be confronting reading for members of our Defence Force, veterans and families. No doubt some of these recommendations will be easier and quicker to implement than others. Having just received the royal commission’s interim recommendations today we will be reviewing these recommendations closely and provide a formal government response to each of those recommendations as soon as we are able.
It is clear that a number of the recommendations from this interim report call on the government to get on with recommendations that have been the subject of numerous previous reviews into this area. It is vital that these are now addressed as a priority.
I’m also happy to say that some of the matters raised in the royal commission’s interim report are already being addressed by the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, such as increasing the staffing and resources available to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to reduce the current claims backlog. This is something that we committed to doing at the election, and as a new government we are delivering the 500 additional staff to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs so that we can get through that backlog as soon as possible.
Further, we are aware of references in the report to concerns regarding flow of information from agencies to the royal commission. The Deputy Prime Minister, the Assistant Minister and I met with the Chief of Defence Force, the Secretary of Defence and the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs a few weeks ago to make clear that under this new government the royal commission must be assisted in any way possible to ensure that it can make the most effective recommendations on how to address the scourge of suicide that has plagued our Defence personnel, veterans and families. And this was completely accepted.
The Albanese government supports the royal commission in carrying out its important work to further understand the complex issue of suicide and how we can better reduce the risk for serving and ex-serving members of our Defence Force. All people who put on a uniform and sign up to serve our nation know that when they do that they may make the ultimate sacrifice – leaving their family behind. And they deserve the best support while serving and after they transition to civilian life. This is particularly the case when individuals encounter mental and physical injury.
This is a commitment that we owe our Defence personnel, veterans and families. We will now consider these recommendations from the royal commission in detail and provide a formal government response shortly so that we can get on with the task of saving lives and ensuring a better future for our Defence and veteran communities.
Can I also just reiterate that I know the tabling of this report and its content will be confronting to some, especially in our Defence and veteran communities. And so can I just say that support is always available through serving ADF members and families, and all-hours support line, which is on 1800 628 036. There’s also Open Arms veterans and families counselling on 1800 011 046, and Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14. And, of course, if a life is in danger call 000. Happy to take any questions.
JOURNALIST: Just looking at the things that the royal commission has listed as recommendations for immediate action that are in the purview of the government, the first recommendation is about simplifying and harmonising the veteran compensation and rehabilitation legislation. The Productivity Commission’s already looked at all of this. Have you started to already examine these recommendations, and is there any work already underway on that?
MATT KEOGH: It’s certainly something that I’m very well aware that the Productivity Commission had recommended. It’s also something that many ex-service organisations and veteran organisations have spoken to me and the government about and critically the complexity that is embedded in doing a process like that. And so we have not formed a way forward on that. We knew that this would be the subject of some recommendation in the nature of the questions and the issues that were being raised in the hearings in the lead-up to this interim report.
As you can see now, recommendation 1 of the royal commission does provide some detail about how they think that be approached, and certainly this is something that I want to diving into how we best approach that in as timely a way as possible but in a way that puts veterans first.
JOURNALIST: Minister, do you believe that the government owes an apology to current ADF members and the families of veterans who have committed suicide, given that the report has identified a lack of government support and responses over the years? Do you believe that that apology should be carried out?
MATT KEOGH: I think certainly it is the case that we have seen from the statistics – as I mentioned, there is a materially higher rate of suicide amongst the veteran population than we see across the general Australian population. Something’s been going wrong there. And that’s why we were so supportive of the calling of a royal commission like this – so that we can find answers and so that we can find out what needs to be done.
If there have been failings in the way in which Defence has operated and failings in the way in which the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has operated, I am deeply sorry about that. That is not what these agencies are set up to do. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which I’m directly responsible for, is an agency that is there to support veterans. And if it hasn’t been doing its job, you know, as a government, we’re sorry about that. It’s why we wanted a royal commission so we can find out what we do better.
So absolutely, to people that have felt that they have not got the treatment that they deserve, you know, I apologise for that. It wasn’t under our watch, but as a government of this country, veterans always deserve the best, and we should be delivering that for them.
JOURNALIST: When do you expect the claims backlog will be cleared? And, also, three young ADF members have died by suicide in just the past three months. Are we still failing our service men and women?
MATT KEOGH: I can’t comment on the specifics of those cases that you refer to. But my condolences go out to their families, friends and colleagues, because every life is precious and every taking of one’s life is a complete tragedy.
In terms of working through the backlog with Veterans’ Affairs, it’s something that I’m working closely with the department on as we engage the additional staff, implement other recommendations from the McKinsey report, which the previous government tried to keep secret. I don’t have a time frame by when we will be able to get through that backlog as yet, but getting greater clarity on that is something that I’m really committed to getting at the moment.
JOURNALIST: Minister, the commission recommends that the backlog is cleared by 31st of March 2024. That’s still a really long time away. Are you worried that more veterans will slip through the cracks between now and then?
MATT KEOGH: Certainly I would like to see the backlog cleared as soon as possible. I note that that date is there, and I’ve only seen that date literally 15 minutes before walking into this room. So I would like to see the backlog cleared as soon as possible. It is important to recognise, though, that for veterans that are making claims through DVA, they do have access to income support upon making those claim and they do have access to medical support for conditions that are of the nature that we know are nearly always found to be related to Defence service so that they can start accessing those supports and rehabilitations as soon as possible while still waiting for formalisation of their claims.
JOURNALIST: Minister, it does say in the report – it’s not a formal recommendation – but it says there’s a compelling case for an entity with comprehensive oversight of the implementation of recommendations. And that’s similar to something that Bernadette Voss said in her report. I appreciate you haven’t had the report for very long, but what’s your disposition on that kind of ongoing body?
MATT KEOGH: Certainly I want to get into the detail of what the royal commission has recommended and the basis of why it’s recommending that. But I think the underlying point that the royal commission is getting to – that we’ve now had decades of reviews and recommendations after recommendations that are the same sets of recommendations not being implemented for some time is a matter of some concern, and making sure that we get on with that task is very important.
JOURNALIST: Minister, can I ask about the DVA. Do you think that there will be a case for funding that or giving it more funding so that we are getting rid of those backlogs? And do you think that might be challenging given the current budget position?
MATT KEOGH: Certainly funding for any government work at the moment is difficult in the current budget climate, but we have already made the commitment to provide those 500 additional staff and resources to the Department of Veterans Affairs. That will be obviously part of the budget as it picks up all of our election commitments going forward. We’re providing those resource also – those resources will be provided. We are in the process of employing additional staff there now to get through this backlog.
JOURNALIST: On this 500, the backlog is about 42,000 applications. To what extent – why 500? Do you expect you may have to bring on more staff to deal with that? How many do you think – how many more applications do you think that 500 additional staff is actually going down to process? And if I can just on a second thing, you said that the ADF have accepted that they must assist the royal commission in any way. But in the report, it says that in the opinion of the royal commission they have been constrained “unreasonably” from asking the hard questions of government, and many of the recommendations relate to putting in legislation or making changes to allow them to access information and ask those hard questions. Are you committed to introducing that legislation as soon as possible so that the ongoing royal commission can ask those questions rather than rely on, you know, a promise from the ADF that they will assist?
MATT KEOGH: To the first question, at this stage I believe the 500 are sufficient, and that’s why we made that commitment. As I said, we’re waiting to see when we think that that will deliver getting through that backlog.
In terms of the specific recommendations, I have not formed a view. The government has not formed a view on each of the specific recommendations that have been made. But we’re aware of the general concern that some information may not have been flowing to the commission in the way that it would have liked, and we’ve made clear to agencies that whatever the view might have been under a previous regime that this royal commission is doing important work and that we are all benefitted by giving it as much as of the information as it can be given to make sure we get the best outcomes in terms of recommendations for government coming out of the royal commission. And, as I say, that proposition and working closely with the royal commission was absolutely accepted by our government agencies as well.
JOURNALIST: Are you suggesting there that the previous government called this royal commission – obviously under pressure to do so – might have not wanted that information to be –
MATT KEOGH: I have no idea what the previous government was or wasn’t doing in its administration of how it might have been working with the royal commission. I know they didn’t want to have the royal commission in the first place. But we wanted to make clear that there’s a new sheriff in town with our agencies.
JOURNALIST: Will you permanently remove the ASL cap on the department?
MATT KEOGH: That is something that we are doing to make sure that we’re able to also remove the high rate of labour hire that exists within the Department of Veterans Affairs in particular. And that’s caused concern not only for those people that are employed in that arrangement, which has meant that they haven’t had secure employment, but it means that there’s a high degree of churn of staff within the department, which means as they are being trained on what is complex legislation, if they are leaving, there’s been a continuous need to retrain, and that has resulted in an inefficiency in processing claims. So by being able to deal with that ASL cap, bring in the additional staff that we’re talking about, convert people from labour-hire into being public servants, give them some job certainty, we can retain a greater trained staff as well.
JOURNALIST: Minister, isn’t the essence of this just a massive cultural failing within the ADF? Comcare accuses the ADF of not providing the necessary safety protocols, training and workplace health and safety information. Kate Jenkins found a callous attitude towards women particularly, but also a belief that violence is manually and experience of danger as exciting. And I guess these are the principles. But isn’t the essence of this the need for a deep cultural change in Defence? And do you have any confidence that Defence is going to do that?
MATT KEOGH: I think one of the things – and certainly in the few months that I’ve been in the role – we have seen is that there is a great degree of difficulty in assisting people transition from their lives in Defence through to civilian life and making sure that the appropriate supports are provided to them in Defence as they transition through and then once they rejoin civilian life and maybe needing services and support through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
There are, I think, multifactorial complex issues behind that. Some of those may be cultural or they may be structures that are in place that are just not fit for purpose and haven’t evolved in a way that we would expect or need to see. That’s why we supported a royal commission to get to the bottom of that, of what needs to happen.
We now have an interim report which gives us some recommendations to get on with, which we’ll now be assessing in detail and providing a formal government response to shortly. And I would expect that all the government agencies involved will obviously be part of making sure that we can get on with those recommendations and we’ll do the things that are required in order to see that happen.
JOURNALIST: Minister, just to follow Clare’s question, Nick [indistinct] on the radio this morning he, you know, spoke about the royal commission being a highly investigative body, not being able to get the information that it actually needed. You know, granted you’ve said that you’re still make your mind up about recommendations and what you do and that sort of thing, but is that a personal concern for you, that this royal commission hasn’t been able to get the information it says it needs? And what do you think has to be done in between now and the final report for the royal commission to get the information that they need?
MATT KEOGH: Obviously if, you know, government supports the calling of and holding a royal commission to gather information, review it, produce recommendations to government of things that need to happen going forward, and so cooperating with that royal commission is vitally important and making sure it has access to the information that it needs to do that task is vitally important.
One of the things about the scope of this royal commission in particular is it’s huge. And there are tens of thousands of people that have worked through Defence over, you know, many times over the decades. Just since the year 2000 we’ve had many tens of thousands of people that have been in Defence, currently in Defence. We saw the census data that came out just a few months ago showing there currently 581,000 people in Australia alive now that at some point served during their life. So the scope is huge, which also means going through records of Defence, especially where not all of those records are currently digitalized, similarly with DVA, is also a time-consuming process and for particularly senior witnesses that have had to give evidence to the royal commission, you know, they have had to dedicate quite a lot of time to compiling their own evidence to the commission.
I don’t doubt that it’s a very significant burden on the government agencies involved as well. But we want to make sure that we can streamline those processes as much as possible so the commission has got everything it needs going forward.
JOURNALIST: Minister, do you have confidence in the senior leadership at the DVA, including your secretary?
MATT KEOGH: Yes, I think they are dedicated to doing the work that needs to happen. And I know, having met with the frontline staff as well as at DVA around various parts of the country, they are completely dedicated to trying assist veterans as much as possible. But, as we talked about before, one of the constraints as been a resourcing constraint on the department. That’s why we’re bringing forward the 500 additional staff for the department so they can get on with the task.
The Secretary of Defence made it pretty clear – sorry, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs made it pretty clear in her own evidence to the royal commission that previously the department was constrained in its resourcing and that impeded its capacity to do the work it needed to do.
JOURNALIST: Minister, you said this report would be confronting reading. It cites a study that says transitioned ADF members, about a quarter feel life is not worth living and 8 per cent have made a suicide plan. Obviously you look at this report and take on the recommendation and there will be a final report. But for those ADF members now who are in a dire situation, what is there for them? You’ve mentioned the hotlines, but clearly not enough people are accessing them. Is there something more the government could do now to assist those people?
MATT KEOGH: Certainly there’s things in the recommendations and issues that I’ve been discussing with both departments as around how we can make sure that people are properly provided all of the information that is about the services that are there to help them as early as possible in their service journey.
The statistics that you’ve referred to that are in the royal commission report and have been referred to by many others in the past demonstrate that we do need to consider that these are human lives that we are talking about. These are real people that are living lives that – where they are feeling that things are not working out the way that they should be for them. And for me in this role and looking at the recommendations of the royal commission, having that front and centre is vitally important.
I’ve made those references to those services before. There are other services available as well. And we will continue to look at and examine how we can continue to publicise and make sure people are aware of all the various different ways in which that can occur – through traditional media, through social media, through engagement on basis, through engagement as people are transitioning out of Defence. We can’t – we can never do enough almost to make sure that people are aware of those things. And I’m sure we can do more, and that’s why these recommendations are so important. Andrew.
JOURNALIST: Minister, just on another matter related to Defence [indistinct], are you concerned by the Chinese Ambassador’s comments yesterday around things like no compromise on Taiwan, talk of re-education of the Taiwanese people, use your imagination about the use of force on Taiwan? Is that something the government is concerned about?
MATT KEOGH: I think the government’s been pretty clear in its response to what has been ongoing escalation of tension across the Taiwan Strait, that we join with other countries in the region in calling for a de-escalation and a sort of reversion to normal conditions in terms of the now escalating tension that is existing there. And that’s all I’ll say about that for now.
JOURNALIST: Minister, just to follow-up on other questions, you said before that you believe 500 extra staff is sufficient and you have confidence in the DVA leadership. One of the recommendations says DVA must offer accurate advice as to its resourcing needs. Given that 500 staff was a promise made from opposition before you actually got to look under the hood, as it were, are you confident that the advice that you are getting is now accurate as to their needs?
MATT KEOGH: It’s a process that we’re going through at the moment in terms of making sure we’ve got the most accurate model of the rate in which we’re able to progress through the claims with the current staffing load, what that rate will be as we add the additional staff into the department but also what we’re seeing in terms of the continuous increase of claims being made to the department. And it’s important to recognise that many of those claims are being made by people that are currently serving, which means that whilst those claims are being processed they already have access to all of their health, dental and other support services that they have available to them through Defence whilst they’re serving. And for people that are no longer serving, payments and medical supports for the 20 most common conditions are available to them straight off as well when they bring those claims forward. So it’s not that there is no support, but we do need to get through that claims backlog as soon as possible.
JOURNALIST: Can I just clarify following on from Mark’s question about the culture in Defence, I mean, the shocking thing for a lot of people is that this is not about veterans alone and it’s not just about people who have been on deployment. In fact, I think the majority of people are people who served across all sorts of [indistinct]. That does suggest both that it’s something that’s, you know, a cultural problem in Defence that has to be addressed and addressed urgently. In that context, can you give us your disposition to trying to meet those time frames that the royal commission has set out for getting the changes in legislation, getting the changes in the backlog and all those sorts of things?
MATT KEOGH: Clearly something’s not working in Defence and Veterans’ Affairs. What’s not working is quite diverse. That’s why there’s been a royal commission called to look into them. That’s why we’re happy to receive this report today – so we can get on with addressing these recommendations, and we will provide a more formal response to all of the recommendations. So I don’t yet have a disposition as to the timing and whether that is something that can be met. But certainly, in the general, it is absolutely my view that as much as we can get on with these recommendations as quickly as possible is what we should be doing. Thanks very much, everybody.