Bullying, sexual and physical assaults, and concerns over the treatment of women are themes all too common among the 630 submissions made to a landmark inquiry into Australia’s defence force culture.
The long-awaited Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide commenced in Brisbane on Friday with a ceremonial session ahead of the first public hearings.
Next week veterans and their families are expected to share stories of their time in the service and transition to civilian life.
Attendees at the Brisbane Convention Centre on Friday heard from the three commissioners and counsel assisting the inquiry, who pledged to use this “once in a generation” opportunity to improve the understanding of the complex nature of suicide in the defence and veteran community.
Camera IconCommissioner and psychiatrist Dr Peggy Brown said she would not be surprised if people had their doubts over the commission. Credit: News Regional Media
Senior Counsel Assisting Peter Gray said the inquiry had already attracted hundreds of submissions since the probe was announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in July.
He said common issues raised so far include bullying, the treatment of women, sexual assaults, physical assaults,
The need for better protection for younger enlisted members and external mental health support after deployments have also been raised.
Mr Gray said issues around the loss of identity and community after transition from the defence force to civilian life.
He said counsel hoped to receive many more accounts and experiences from people over the coming year so the inquiry could leave no stone unturned in tackling systemic problems.
“We recognise that some people may not wish to share their experiences or may change their minds, and that‘s okay,” Mr Gray said.
“But we hope to receive perhaps hundreds of such accounts.”
Camera IconFormer New South Wales deputy police commissioner Nick Kaldas – who is leading the inquiry – said he hoped it could improve veterans’ mental health. Nikki Short Credit: News Corp Australia
The launch of the Royal Commission comes after data earlier this year that showed more than 1200 serving and former Australian Defence Force died by suicide between 2001 and 2019.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures – which show a particular skew towards veterans – is much higher than was previously reported.
The public service, meanwhile, has been criticised for an apparent surge in labour hire companies to fill gaps across the Veterans Affairs Department.
The Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act is reportedly sagging under a huge backlog of claims.
The defence force is also reckoning with ongoing cultural issues – the most recent being the alleged “torture” of a Victorian recruit for entertainment at a military barracks last year.
Camera IconThe Royal Commission is due to produce an interim report by August 11 next year and a final report by June 15, 2023. Credit: Supplied
Already over 22,000 documents have been produced for the inquiry, including nearly 7000 by Defence and more than 4000 by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Former New South Wales deputy police commissioner Nick Kaldas – who is leading inquiry – said he hoped the work of the next two years would improve on the failings of previous efforts to address veterans’ mental health.
“I and my fellow commissioners see this as a once in a generation opportunity for lasting fundamental change if we succeed and our range and we hope and pray that there will be no need for further inquiries of this kind,” Mr Kaldas said.
Commissioner and psychiatrist Dr Peggy Brown said she would not be surprised if people had their doubts over the commission, and the capacity for change to occur, given a number of inquiries have already been held.
“We need to be honest, the task before us will be challenging, and it will no doubt the heart the issues are complex,” Dr Brown said.
“The system‘s policies, practices and cultures in which those issues occur are also complex, and sometimes difficult to navigate and to understand.
“However, the challenges provide us no excuse. The consequences we are dealing with vastly outweigh the complexity.”
The Royal Commission is due to produce an interim report by August 11 next year and a final report by June 15, 2023.
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