The government has announced a Royal Commission into the suicides of Australian Defence Force veterans.
The government has announced a Royal Commission into the suicides of Australian Defence Force veterans.

Power and compassion: Justice for wounded warriors

An independent commissioner with the powers of a rolling royal commission will be appointed to investigate veteran suicide.

The announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a victory for mother Julie-Ann Finney who has collected almost 300,000 signatures calling for a Royal Commission since her navy poster-boy son Dave took his own life almost a year ago to the day.

And it is a vindication for The Daily Telegraph which has run a Save Our Heroes campaign since June calling for a Royal Commission into the causes behind the rising death toll that has seen more than 400 veterans take their own lives since 2001.

The Daily Telegraph Save Our Heroes campaign resulted in a national veteran suicide summit and kept the topic of a Royal Commission in the public domain. Julie-Ann Finney (far right) and her son Dave (left).
The Daily Telegraph Save Our Heroes campaign resulted in a national veteran suicide summit and kept the topic of a Royal Commission in the public domain. Julie-Ann Finney (far right) and her son Dave (left).

"This is about being forever vigilant for the care and wellbeing of our veterans," Mr Morrison said.

"Those veterans and all serving men and women protect our community and our freedoms. It is our duty to do the same for them."

An independent Veteran Family Advocate will also be appointed to finally give voice to the families of veterans as policies are set in the future.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the House of Representatives in Canberra on Tuesday. Picture: Gary Ramage
Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the House of Representatives in Canberra on Tuesday. Picture: Gary Ramage

"I have thought long and hard about what is the best response to this issue.

"I have spoken to veterans right across Australia and I have met with their families and also local, state and national organisations," Mr Morrison said.

He said the government will initially spend $40 million to establish a permanent National Commissioner for Defence and Suicide Prevention to examine every suspected veteran and Australian Defence Force suicide.

But unlike a Royal Commission, which looks backwards at a moment in time, the Commissioner will be a permanent watchdog with the ongoing power of a Royal Commission to examine any veteran or active defence force suicide issue that comes up.

The Commissioner will deliver an Annual Veteran and Defence Suicide Death Report to parliament as part of the ongoing assessment of the success in reducing suicide risk factors.

"It's all about being permanently vigilant about their welfare," Mr Morrison said.

The National Commissioner will operate from a completely independent office, at arm's length from the ADF and Department of Veterans Affairs, and will have the power of a standing Royal Commission to identify suicide risk factors and make recommendations.

The Commissioner will also have the power of a coroner to investigate individual cases of suspected and attempted suicide of current and former ADF members and will be able to make recommendations to improve their mental health and wellbeing.

During the Save Our Heroes campaign Australia's most decorated war hero, Ben Roberts-Smith, said: "Anyone who has served who is looking to self-harm or commit suicide, part of the reason for that is because of their service."

Australia’s most decorated war hero, Ben Roberts-Smith backed The Daily Telegraph’s Save Our Heroes campaign. Picture: Sean Davey
Australia’s most decorated war hero, Ben Roberts-Smith backed The Daily Telegraph’s Save Our Heroes campaign. Picture: Sean Davey

Mr Roberts-Smith, who was awarded the Victoria Cross and Medal of Gallantry, said: "The problem is the culture of Defence. We have military leaders who should be standing up for their people, not just those serving but those who have served as well."

Military top brass now have nowhere to hide. The National Commissioner will have the power to compel the production of evidence and summon witnesses or send them to jail if they fail to comply with an investigation. 8

The new Commissioner will also establish an immediate independent review of the 419 known historical veteran suicide cases since 2001, focusing on their military service and what happened to them after they were decommissioned.

Mr Roberts-Smith at the Save Our Heros Summit in November with mothers of young veterans who committed suicide after serving. L-R: Glenda Weston, Colleen Pillen, Jan Hewitt, Julie-Ann Finney and Nikki Jamieson. Picture: Toby Zerna
Mr Roberts-Smith at the Save Our Heros Summit in November with mothers of young veterans who committed suicide after serving. L-R: Glenda Weston, Colleen Pillen, Jan Hewitt, Julie-Ann Finney and Nikki Jamieson. Picture: Toby Zerna

The Commissioner will conduct the review, with the full power to demand the production of evidence and summon witnesses, together with a panel of experts including the Australia Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare, the National Coronial Information System, and coroners and legal experts.

An interim report will be on the Prime Minister's desk in 12 months with the final report delivered within 18 months.

The families will be included in the process with a focus on restorative justice, giving the families the long-awaited chance to tell their stories in order to finally be heard and heal in a safe environment.

Among the mothers attending the Save Our Heroes Summit in November was Glenda Weston who said their sons came home broken.

Glenda Weston, mother of Bradley Carr speaking at The Daily Telegraph’s Save Our Heroes Summit with Julie-Ann Finney. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Glenda Weston, mother of Bradley Carr speaking at The Daily Telegraph’s Save Our Heroes Summit with Julie-Ann Finney. Picture: Jonathan Ng

She said it was not a coincidence her son private Bradley Carr took his own life on Anzac Day.

"He went away to fight a war and he was still fighting it in his head when he came home," she said.

The mothers' call for a voice for veterans and their families has also been answered with the appointment of a new independent Veteran Family Advocate.

Private Bradley Carr.
Private Bradley Carr.

The Advocate will give a voice to veterans' families to promote better mental health outcomes when the DVA is setting policy and making decisions.

Many veterans have complained about the lack of assistance given once they transition out of the ADF. The advocate will draw on advice from families to help shape veteran policy and reduce the risks as personnel leave the ADF.

"I believe what we have developed addresses the needs of those veterans, their families and our serving men and women," Mr Morrison said.

Private Carr serving in Afghanistan.
Private Carr serving in Afghanistan.


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