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AFA Response to Royal Commission Into Defence And Veteran Suicide Proposal To Create A New Entity

 

ROYAL COMMISSION INTO DEFENCE AND VETERAN SUICIDE

PROPOSAL TO CREATE A NEW ENTITY TO PROMOTE THE WELLBEING OF DEFENCE MEMBERS AND VETERANS

Introduction

  1. The Air Force Association welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide’s proposal for the establishment of an instrument to oversight the implementation of its accepted recommendations and to drive measures that will advance and protect the wellbeing of serving and former serving ADF members.

Earlier inquiries

  1. There have been several high-level inquiries into Defence and veteran suicide over the last decade, which have revealed serious systemic and other causes for this unacceptable loss of life of our veterans. It’s likely the Royal Commission’s findings and recommendations will contain some or all of the outcomes of these earlier inquiries and hopefully reveal further matters that have influenced veteran suicide and mental ill health.
  1. The Association has heard from several sources that some recommendations from these earlier investigations, which were accepted by the Government, have not been implemented. Understandably, this has been a major concern for the veteran community.
  1. Also concerning is the likelihood that some of the Royal Commission’s recommendations accepted by Government may take longer to implement, perhaps outside the tenure of the current Government. The greater the implementation time the greater the danger of them being sidelined, forgotten, or even dismissed by another Administration.
  1. The Association appreciates the Royal Commission’s concern that some of its accepted recommendations following a deep and expensive inquiry may not be implemented. However, if the implementation of any previous accepted recommendations from earlier inquiries have been missed it is a failure of the governance system that holds the Government to account. This situation brings into question whether we accept a failure in one of our government bodies and require additional instruments to monitor the outcomes of this and any other inquiry or should we ensure governance measures already in place are made to perform as designed and funded.

Role of the Auditor-General

  1. The Auditor-General is an independent officer of the Australian Parliament, which was created with the responsibility under the Auditor- General Act 1997, hereafter referred to as the Act, for auditing Commonwealth entities and reporting to the Australian Parliament. The Auditor-General is supported by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO).
  1. The Auditor-General has a wider remit than conducting financial audits, which is a common perception. The Act provides the Auditor-General with the power to conduct annual performance audits on Commonwealth entities and its partners, and the obligation to table reports to Parliament. The Auditor-General has wide investigative and information gathering powers that may be required of any oversighting entity such as the previous Officer of National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention to identify any barriers or delays in implementation of the Royal Commission’s Government accepted recommendations.  Moreover, ANAO has the expertise and resources to undertake these veteran related investigations. Its Performance Audit Services Group conducts performance audits and assurance reviews of Australian Government entities and their activities and produces related publications and other information reports. This work is included in the audit priorities of the Parliament, as determined by the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, which comprises Members drawn from across the parliament, these currently being members of the Labor, Liberal, National and Greens parties. Doubts about the ANAO’s resources, skills, and experience to conduct an assurance review on this subject can be allayed by its legal power under Section 27 of the Act to contract on behalf of the Commonwealth, any person under contract to assist in the performance of any Auditor General’s functions.
  1. Given the Auditor-General’s independence, investigative and information gathering powers, resources, and reporting to Parliament on its audit priorities, as a community we already have an oversighting entity to monitor the progress of the Royal Commission’s Government accepted recommendations. However, the extant system needs to more response, and more transparent, rather than add in another independent body.

Role of the Ex-Service Organisations

  1. The ex-service organisations (ESO) and, indeed the veteran community, have a responsibility to monitor the Government’s implementation of its accepted recommendations and bring to notice, publicly if necessary, any unreasonable delays or avoidance in executing the outcomes. ESOs and members of the general and veteran communities have a multitude of options to hold the Government to account for its actions utilising media, social media, local Members of Parliament, Ministers, and Shadow Ministers. The responsibility for executing the Royal Commission’s outcomes rests squarely on the current and subsequent governments and not another instrument to effectively to take up this monitoring responsibility.

Keeping watch into the future

  1. A recent Defence Briefing to ESOs revealed there had already been a number of actions taken within Defence as a result of early advice from the Commission to improve the management of veterans during service and in preparation for their separation. The Commission’s final report is expected to influence further personnel management changes across Defence and veteran administration within Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA).
  1. The Royal Commission has highlighted the seriousness of veteran suicide to the Government and the general community, and its final report is expected to articulate the reasons behind suicide and suicide ideation. It will be a ‘lessons learned’ outcome that Defence and other agencies such as DVA need to consider in their performance.
  1. Post-Vietnam has seen an ever-changing military operating environment and demands on our servicemen and women. This dynamic situation is likely to produce new mental health challenges that may influence suicide, so it seems critical that Defence, in particular, and DVA develop ongoing awareness of the need for suicide prevention measures within their organisations, which will also influence organisational behaviour.
  1. ESOs will experience first-hand veterans who are suffering mental ill health. Their feedback to appropriate agencies using effective channels on issues that are influencing poor wellbeing act as an important ongoing monitoring system.  Moreover, ESOs should also provide ongoing advice on ways to improve veteran and family wellbeing and expect much of this information would be based on lived experiences.

Conclusion

  1. Air Force Association concludes the Auditor-General has the appropriate role, investigative and fact gathering powers to conduct the necessary assurance audit on the Government’s undertaking to implement its accepted Royal Commission’s recommendations. ANAO has the necessary resources and authority to engage expertise if required.  Most important is its independence and reporting responsibility to the Parliament.
  1. Ex-service organisations have an implicit responsibility to bring to notice any unreasonable delays or avoidance by the Government to implement the Commission’s recommendations.
  1. Defence, DVA and other relevant government departments will benefit from ‘lessons learned’ and should implement strategies that prevent measures which influence suicide and suicide ideation.
  1. Defence, DVA and the veteran community using the many consultative forums in place today and in the future should learn about measures that will not only maintain but improve the wellbeing of veterans and their families.
  1. A separate oversighting entity to monitor the Government’s implementation of its accepted Royal Commission’s recommendations is deemed unnecessary.

Carl Schiller, OAM, CSM

National President, Air Force Association

December 17, 2023

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