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Media releases & speeches

The Hon Dan Tehan MP
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Cyber Security
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC

24 October 2017

Ministerial statement in response to Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee's Report on the Inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel

I ask leave of the House to provide a Ministerial Statement in response to Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee’s report on the Inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel, The Constant Battle: Suicide by Veterans.

As all Australians know, one suicide is one too many. Tragically, suicide affects all areas of our community – around seven Australians a day will tragically take their own life and it remains the greatest cause of death for men between the ages of 14 and 44.

Veterans and members of our Australian Defence Force (ADF) are sadly not immune. In the latest official figures available from the Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing (AIHW), which I have detailed to the Parliament, between 2001 and 2015, 325 veterans took their own lives.

Sadly, it appears the number has increased over time. In 2014, the figure was 31. In 2015, this rose to 33.

The Government is committed to addressing suicide in our community. We must understand that everyone including the Government has a role to play if we are to address the incidence of suicide in Australia.

The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee’s report on the Inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel, The Constant Battle: Suicide by Veterans, was tabled in Parliament on 15 August 2017.

The work of the Committee in preparing this report has been significant and the Government has carefully considered all recommendations that it made.

The Committee’s report states:

‘The aspirational target rate for suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel should be zero. However, it would be misleading to represent that the recommendations in this report will achieve that goal. Any effective measures to decrease the rate of suicide by veterans and ex-service personnel will require a long-term multifaceted approach involving government, business, non-government and ex-service organisations and the wider Australian community. Change is likely to take a substantial period of time.’

Today, I table the Government’s response and outline the measures that we will put in place to reduce suicide and self-harm in the veteran community.

The Government has agreed to all of the recommendations made by the Committee. Today I announce a package of $31.0 million and provide new programs that will deliver better support for veterans and their families.

Jesse Bird – Review

Through its work in its Inquiry, the Senate Committee has drawn on many individual stories. As the Committee notes in the Report, ‘bereaved widows, partners, parents, friends and advocates have shared stories which have often ended in tragic loss.’ Sadly, the Government has seen examples where the current support services were not good enough.

One such veteran was Jesse Bird. With the approval of his family, today I will show how Jesse’s case highlights the need for us to continue to improve the current system.

Jesse Bird took his own life on 27 June this year, at the age of 32. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge his parents Karen and John Bird, his siblings Brendan, Kate and David and their partners, who I have gotten to know since Jesse’s regrettable death. I would also like to acknowledge his extended family and extensive network of friends, many of which he served with in the ADF. I would like to reiterate my commitment to them that this Government will continue to drive the reforms necessary to improve the support and care available to veterans and reduce the risk of suicide in the veteran community.

Jesse joined the Australian Army as a Rifleman in 2007. His family remembers him as “an elite level athlete, booming with charisma and self-confidence and proud to be a member of the ADF.” In 2009, Jesse deployed on Operation SLIPPER to Afghanistan. There he faced the challenging and dangerous nature of service. On 18 July 2009, a close friend of Jesse’s was killed in an improvised explosive incident. Jesse returned to Australia in 2010 and in 2012 he voluntarily discharged from the Army.

Following Jesse’s discharge, he faced the challenge of transition back into civilian life. Due to physical injuries and the deterioration of Jesse’s mental health with the impact of PTSD during his time in the Army, Jesse found it increasingly difficult to find meaningful work that gave him the sense of purpose he had during his time serving in the ADF.
Departmental processes failed or simply did not exist to offer services to help Jesse. While struggling with all this, Jesse decided to end his life.

Jesse’s case highlights the complexity and breadth of the challenge the Department of Veterans’ Affairs faces to support our veterans, particularly those with mental health conditions as a result of their service. These Australians have risked themselves in the service of our country. If these people are not receiving the support they need, then we must continue to drive change.

Following Jesse Bird’s death, I asked the Departments of Veterans’ Affairs and Defence and the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service to thoroughly examine his case. They have conducted a review which looked at his experience with Defence and Veterans’ Affairs. This occurred in consultation with his family.

I delivered a report on this investigation to Jesse’s family on 15 September. Amongst other findings, the report into the management of Jesse Bird’s case shows that while some aspects of process and management were within expectations, others were contrary to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs policy and practice. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs either did not or could not provide the support or proactive engagement Jesse needed.

In particular, the report highlighted the issue of providing timely compensation and financial assistance to support those veterans suffering mental health conditions. The requirement for mental health conditions to be stable before being considered for compensation needs to be addressed. In addition, the provision of financial assistance when veterans are at their most vulnerable is needed. These issues let Jesse down as he was unable to get financial assistance when he needed it.

The report identified 19 recommendations, which I have accepted on behalf of the Government and will table today. Many of these align with recommendations put forward by the Senate Committee. These recommendations include priority actions to improve current processes and practices in DVA and progressing initiatives already being considered as part of the Veteran Centric Reform program. The implementation of the recommendations will be independently reviewed after 12 months.

It is the Government’s commitment to address the shortfalls identified by this investigation and to put in place urgent changes in the provision of support to our veterans, especially those who are vulnerable or at risk. These veterans must have their claims assessed quickly and have case managers to assist them during what can be a difficult process.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has apologised to the Bird family for the way in which its processes failed their son and brother. Today I put that apology on the public record. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs apologises to the Bird family and to Jesse’s extended family and friends.

In examining what happened to Jesse Bird, we have developed plans together that will change Defence and Veterans’ Affairs.

The lessons from Jesse’s case have helped inform the Government’s response to the Senate Committee’s report.

I want to assure Mr and Mrs Bird and Jesse’s family and friends that the Government is committed to making change happen.

The Senate Report

The Senate Committee made 24 recommendations in its Report. These recommendations asked that the Government undertake a number of different reviews and policy changes to address veterans and defence personnel mental health and suicide prevention.

Firstly, the Committee has recommended that the Government undertake wide-ranging reviews of its processes in Defence and Veterans’ Affairs.

Amongst others, the Committee recommended that the Productivity Commission should review the legislative framework of compensation and rehabilitation and review other arrangements in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

The Government has accepted the recommendations and will ask the Productivity Commission to undertake this review. The Treasurer and I will develop the terms of reference for this review, which will be open to submissions from all Australians.

The Government also accepts the Committee’s recommendation that the Australian National Audit Office conduct a review into the efficiency of veterans’ service delivery by DVA and will write to the Auditor-General to request to include this review in the 2017-18 programme of work.

In its report, the Committee identified a number of measures that the Departments of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs should implement without the need for review. They included recommendations that:

  • the Departments align the provision of mental health care;
  • the Career Transition Assistance Scheme include an option for external work experience for veterans;
  • ADF members are provided DVA White Cards on discharge; and
  • a two-track program be developed for ADF members leaving Defence.

The Government welcomes these recommendations and agrees to implement them. Many are already being implemented.

Throughout the inquiry, the Committee covered a number of issues relating to the current functions of DVA. To address this, the Committee has provided a number of recommendations.

Firstly, the Committee has recommended a continuation of the Veteran Centric Reform program in DVA, while also providing resources to alleviate claims times and resolve complex cases. This is consistent with the Government’s commitment in this year’s Budget, which provided over $160 million to Veteran Centric Reform. It represents the largest investment in the Department in over a decade.

The Committee has also recommended that the Government establish a formal Bureau of Veterans’ Advocates with the capacity to commission legal representation and training for veteran advocates.

There is an opportunity to improve the regulation of veterans’ advocacy to increase quality and consistency of services to veterans. The Government agrees with the Committee in principle that the current advocacy system needs to change.

We will consider the Committee’s recommendation for a Bureau of Veterans' Advocates alongside other advocacy models and will consult the veteran community about future directions in veteran advocacy.

Most importantly, the Committee has identified measures that can help us provide support to those who need it today. The Government knows that mental health treatments work best when intervention is early.

This is why we have put in place a system that provides free and immediate treatment for all mental health conditions for anyone with one day’s full time service in the military.

As the Committee noted, ‘there was almost universal praise from stakeholders regarding the extension of non-liability health care for all mental health conditions.’ This reform over the past 18 months has been revolutionary. It has meant treatment for veterans without the need to prove it was linked to service, cutting the administration and processing burden.

However, the Committee has recommended the expansion of a number of services and systems to support this:

  1. The development of specific suicide prevention programs targeted towards at-risk groups and a pilot of a case management service for at risk veterans;
  2. The expansion of online engagement with younger veterans; and
  3. The funding of a trial program to provide assistance animals for veterans with PTSD.

I am pleased to say that work on these recommendations has begun or is about to begin.

Finally, the Committee recommended that the Government should maintain a National Veteran Suicide Register. The Government commissioned the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) to provide the first accurate, robust data ever produced on suicide among the serving and ex-serving populations. This data was published last year. The Government has asked the AIHW to continue to independently track this data.

To achieve all of the Committee’s recommendations, the Government will put forward a package of $31.0 million. This package will include:

  • A new Veteran Payment;
  • Extended Support for Veterans’ Families;
  • GP Health Assessments for the First Five Years Post Discharge;
  • A Case Management Pilot; and
  • A Scoping Study to Professionalise Veterans’ Advocacy.

This package is part of around $550 million of new programs and money this Government has provided over the last 18 months to veterans and their families.

Conclusion

In closing, I want to reiterate to the entire Australian Defence Force and ex-service community that this Government will continue to prioritise mental health support for our veterans.

Please remember, help is available. Help can make a difference.

If you, your family, or friends are worried about how you are coping or feeling, please reach out. The Defence All-hours support line, VVCS and Lifeline are there for you at any time of the day or night.

The Government would like to thank the Senators who participated in this inquiry and the Secretariat. In particular it would like to thank the work of the Chair Senator Alex Gallacher, and the Deputy Chairs Dr Chris Back and Senator Bridget McKenzie.

The Government would like to thank the individuals and organisations who made a submission to the inquiry or gave evidence at the public hearings for their contribution to this important issue.

Their evidence helped shape this report and will add further to the Government’s understanding of how to serve veterans and their families.

As the Prime Minister has said, in this Centenary of Anzac period, we best honour the diggers of over a century ago by caring for the current and former service men and women of today.

Media enquiries:

  • Minister Tehan’s Office: Byron Vale, 0428 262 894
  • Department of Veterans’ Affairs Media: 02 6289 6466

Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) can be reached 24 hours a day across Australia for crisis support and free confidential counselling. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546). VVCS is a service founded by Vietnam veterans.