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Issue #1956 • 5th April, 2021

Parliament calls for Royal Commission into Veteran Suicides

CW: This article contains a discussion of suicide and related mental health issues.

On 22nd March, the House of Representatives joined the Senate in passing a motion calling for the establishment of a Royal Commission into Veteran Suicides. The government has been reluctant to call for the establishment of a Royal Commission, taking the less drastic step of appointing a National Commissioner last year, but Scott Morrison eventually conceded that the government would support the motion.

This is a major step forward. On average, one veteran dies from suicide in Australia every two weeks. At this point, more veterans have lost their lives by suicide than have been killed on active duty since 2001, when Australian troops were first sent to Afghanistan. It is no wonder this has been called “one of Australia’s most pressing problems.”

A Royal Commission is a temporary body set up by the Governor-General on the advice of government ministers and on behalf of the Crown under the Royal Commission Act. It has wide-ranging powers to investigate, summon witnesses, and gather evidence. The government decides the terms of reference for a commission, how it is funded and who the commissioners will be.

Royal Commissions can serve both investigatory and advisory purposes, gathering information to guide the development of government policy. They are different from a Commission of Inquiry created by the passage of legislation that defines the scope, powers, funding, and penalties available to the Commission.

In February last year, the government set up a permanent National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention, in response to an epidemic of veteran suicide cases dating back two decades and steadily increasing over the past year. It was a long-awaited response to an ongoing campaign by families of those who had served in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and later lost their lives to suicide. The National Commissioner has the authority to investigate the deaths of ex-service members.

But some families are distrustful of the National Commissioner. They say that the Commissioner is not as independent as a Royal Commission would be. They say that the ADF and the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) cannot be trusted to investigate this issue as they are the root cause of these deaths. A National Commission has also been criticised as more limited in scope and lacking the necessary resources.

A Royal Commission can play a particularly important role in drawing attention to the issue at the national level. The establishment of a Royal Commission is a positive sign that the government of the day is treating an issue with a certain sense of urgency. It is also likely to interrogate the root causes of the issue rather than simply focus on prospectively preventing more suicides. Importantly, it will allow for gathering data on veteran suicides, which have been difficult to gather until now. Good policies require good information.

But a Royal Commission cannot and will not be effective unless it is given broad terms of reference which interrogate the broader institutional and cultural underpinnings of the ADF. It is not just the “horrors of war” which contribute to suicidality amongst veterans, but also the culture of denigration within the ADF, institutional abuse, and bureaucratic obstacles to mental and physical healthcare that veterans face once they get home. Given the government’s reluctance to support the parliamentary motion calling for a Royal Commission, it is uncertain whether the commission will be wide-ranging enough to be effective.

The Commission’s investigative powers would also be strengthened by the introduction of protections for witnesses. Current serving members of the ADF are public servants whose ability to comment publicly is restricted. Protective measures will encourage more witnesses to come forward without the fear of stigma or public scrutiny. These protective powers are not unheard of: they were offered to witnesses to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

Given that the main criticism of the National Commission is its lack of independence from the DVA and the ADF, commissioners appointed to the proposed Royal Commission need to be completely independent from these organisations. Commissioners should also have broad fields of experience beyond just mental health.

Communists have long been strong advocates for peace and disarmament. While we have our very strong criticisms of the very existence of continuous imperialist wars and the interests they serve, we must patch up the symptoms before we can tackle the root cause of the disease. Pointing out that war only serves imperialist ruling class interests is important; ultimately the military industrial complex treats damage to veterans’ physical and mental wellbeing as collateral damage, the cost of doing business. But this is a purely descriptive point: for those currently suffering and dying due to the effects of serving in those wars, emergency reforms from within the system are needed right now.

As such, we recognise that the project of peace and disarmament requires much more than simply throwing down arms and going home; it will require long lasting structural supports for those who have suffered the effects of war. Veterans need better access to both physical and mental healthcare, ease of access to services, and a lot of work must be done to address institutional abuse and neglect of service personnel. The Royal Commission is a welcome step forward in this process.

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