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Royal Commission update: Hearing Block 4

During the Canberra Hearing Block of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, commissioners heard from senior Defence and DVA staff, health and policy professionals, researchers, veterans, and others. 

Discussion included a wide range of issues affecting veteran health and suicidality, discrimination and abuse, transition support and access to support services, DVA processes and claims backlogs, the ESO landscape, data tracking and access, and more. 

At a glance:

  • The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide has now completed 32 days of hearings, with hearings to resume in Townsville on 20 June.
  • So far, there have been 1,500 submissions and 344 requests for private hearings.
  • In the Canberra hearing block, commissioners heard from senior Department of Defence and DVA staff, health and policy professionals, researchers, veterans, and others.  
  • During this hearing block, approval for a 12-month delay to the release of the final report was announced. The interim report, which will focus on urgent issues that may be addressed in the short term, is still expected by 11 August 2022. 

This article discusses suicide, self harm and other issues that may impact veterans. If this raises issues for you, find assistance from: 

  • Open Arms 1800 011 046
  • Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 
  • Lifeline:  13 11 14

The Canberra hearing block began – day 25 of hearings – with a focus on an ADF culture of sexual discrimination and assault, urgent claims processing issues, support available during and after service, impact of service on families, legislation and legislative reform, information sharing between Defence and the DVA, and more. 

Abuse and discrimination

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, speaking of her office’s partnership with the ADF, the ADF and its systemic issues, and the drivers of unacceptable behaviour within the ADF, outlined actions that could reduce such behaviours. These included leadership and role modelling, communication improvements, reporting avenues, data analysis targeting prevention, and response and support. 

The urgent need for this change was emphasised as veterans addressed the commission about their experiences within the ADF and in seeking support post-separation. One Navy veteran, on day 26, spoke of the abuse and discrimination she experienced, the difficulties she faced in accessing support, and the poor service delivery and outcomes associated with her transition and rehabilitation. 

The Commission had a broad view of such abuse in discussing the Defence Abuse Review Taskforce (DART) on day 27 – DART had received 2,439 complaints, with 1,751 assessed as plausible and 113 referred to police, and had allowed complainants to determine the scope of outcomes in a pioneering restorative process. 

While the majority of DART complainants who provided feedback, according to Robert Cornall AO’s testimony, were satisfied that DART was effective, those who did not receive a finding of Defence mismanagement felt the process had failed them.

Reporting on the Defence Abuse Reparation Scheme (DARS) on day 28, Acting Commonwealth Ombudsman Penny McKay flagged an increase in reporting regarding abuse in the past five years, and that women make up 23-24% of the reporting cohort. This would mean women are over-represented, compared to the participation rate of women in the permanent ADF – 19.7% at 30 June 2021 according to the Department of Defence Annual Report 2020-21.

Suicide prevention and safety 

Melbourne School of Population and Global Health Centre for Mental Health Director Professor Jane Pirkis discussed suicide and its prevention, risk factors and early interventions to reduce them, and protective factors.

Suicide, Pirkis said, is preventable. Prevention requires system-based approaches that gather several interventions together to modify risk factors, prevent suicidal behaviour and thinking, and intervene early. Pirkis emphasised the importance of trying new and different approaches – there is not yet enough evidence, she said, of what works. 

Her urgent recommendations include looking beyond the Defence experience to learn from wider society about the most effective interventions, but co-designing systems and processes  with Defence members, veterans and those with lived experience and their families.

Sue Weston PSM, CEO of the ADF’s work health and safety organisation Comcare, later mentioned a need to “better address reports of psychological injury and psychosocial risks”. 

Weston suggested actions for the ADF to better mitigate psychosocial risks, including implementing the Boland report’s recommendations, more effective incident notifications and a code of conduct. She also reported on actions Comcare was already taking, including gaining data insights around psychosocial risk, committing greater resources and proactively taking action.

Better use of data is also needed in relation to the Defence Suicide Register, according to members of a day 29 panel, Department of Defence representatives David Morton and Captain Glenn Kerr, and Deputy Head of Task Force supporting the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide Brigadier Eamon Lenaghan CSC.

Current suicide data collection in the ADF must be be coordinated and systematic, include family interviews, and track suicidal behaviour. 

Based on an assessment of the data handling within and between the Department of Defence and the DVA, this presents challenges. An information sharing panel with representatives from both organisations flagged a need to do better, requiring system integration and self-service access to information. 

New systems are being introduced to improve the current complexity, the panel said, with five different applications and tools currently in use for data management. Just over a quarter of records have now been digitised for self-service, with a goal of digitising all within five years. 

Compensation and reparation

Acting Commonwealth Ombudsman Penny McKay reported, when she appeared on day 28, a 34% increase in DVA complaints over the past year. On day 32, DVA Secretary Liz Cosson appeared before the Commissioners to discuss claim processing times, as well as suicide risk monitoring and triage, mental health support and suicide prevention strategies, and the need for these to be sufficiently funded and to fall under the remit of the DVA. 

Cosson spoke of the inadequacy of DVA resources to meet the needs of veterans and satisfy the department’s intentions for timely provision of services, the impact of the public service staffing cap, delays to implementation of recommendations to reduce the backlog of claims, funding issues and more. 

Her testimony provided context for the hearing block’s discussion with Legal Aid NSW team members Gerard McAleese, Bill Georgiannis and Geoff Lazar, who spoke of problematic compensation and reparation claim processes, and the difficulties that the CSC Scheme and DVA often bring to the process.

DVA mistakes, the Legal Aid team said, are difficult to uncover because of a lack of transparency around how the DVA arrives at findings – and are common enough for this to impose on the team’s process. Recent reforms have not drastically improved the system, with errors and delays causing distress for clients.

Reform and change 

The most critical and urgent reforms, according to the day 26 experts Emerita Professor Robin Creyke AO and Peter Sutherland, are aimed at improving health and wellbeing outcomes through administrative changes, for example the implementation of Standard Operating Procedures and IT processes. 

Much greater reform and change is necessary to save the lives of Defence members and veterans, and to provide measurable health and wellbeing outcomes for veterans and their families. 

RSL NSW has supported the majority of the recommendations of hearings, inquiries and investigations related to Defence and veteran suicide and mental health since 2007 – including 11 since 2016. 

RSL NSW looks forward to reviewing the recommendations of this Royal Commission.

Find out more about the RSL NSW Royal Commission Office, and find daily hearing reporting and further assistance.  

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