Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide

Federation Chamber 26/09/2022

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (12:02): The release of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide interim report in August was a poignant reminder of the toll that service can take on our veterans. Just a few days later, I joined returned service members in my electorate of Wills to commemorate Vietnam Veterans’ Day. Our Vietnam veterans know all too well about the challenges and discrimination faced by veterans transitioning to civilian life. They were certainly not—at least, initially—met with the gratitude and ceremony we afford to the commemoration of service in other conflicts. Our returning soldiers from the Vietnam War were met, from segments of society, with criticism, anger, derision and disrespect, which only compounded the trauma they experienced in the conflict. This was the case not just at the end of the conflict but throughout. They copped the political flak for what were government decisions—the very governments that were supposed to look after them yet often fell well short in their own duty. Of course, this issue has endured across generations of veterans, where there have been failures by various governments, of different stripes, in providing the support that veterans require to transition to civilian life. I know a lot of veterans who found it very difficult to come back to their normal life, particularly in our more recent history, from the campaigns in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.

As part of the work I did in the Australian Department of Defence 20 years ago, I was posted to Iraq for almost a year, in 2003 to 2004, and I worked closely alongside Australian and other coalition forces. It afforded me the opportunity to work alongside our diggers on national security issues, such as rebuilding the Iraqi army, demobilising militias and negotiating with tribal forces to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. A lot of those soldiers were often very young. Some of them were on their first trip overseas, even, and they had their own experiences. They had their own traumas from what they saw and experienced. Sometimes we call this the horrors of war or the trauma of war, and it affects people very differently. But I think those effects are compounded, certainly, if there is that lack of structural support to help veterans transition to civilian life. That really compounds those challenges that they face. Lack of support to find work, a job, in a market that’s already difficult to enter, some discrimination and the lack of that structural support all compound those challenges. And we know, of course, some veterans experience PTSD, and they need those support systems across the board as well.

We see a higher-than-average incidence of unemployment as well as elements of mental illness, and an overrepresentation in homelessness, incarceration and, most tragically, suicide rates. More than 1,200 former and serving defence personnel have taken their lives since 2001. That’s a shocking statistic. Those numbers don’t really speak to all the individual human stories. Our men and women who served make enormous sacrifices—they really do—and they put their lives on the line for each of us and for our country. I think that puts the onus on us to honour that sacrifice more than in just a commemorative sense—to honour that service by doing what we need to do to ensure that when they return home they have the full support, services and resources that they need. That’s a genuine honouring of their service. This is a priority of the Albanese Labor government.

As part of our $24 million employment package for veterans, we will provide veterans with support to return to civilian life. We will raise awareness of the benefits to be had in employing veterans, which we’re talking about today, and it’s great to see the bipartisan support for that. We will support veterans education and training. We will promote veterans business opportunities. We’ll help train and provide educational opportunity opportunities to help veterans adapt their skills—and they are great skills—that they develop in service to transition to new forms of employment. It’s a package that will also ensure we cut the wait times at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs by funding 500 staff to speed up the processing of claims and so on. It will deliver 10 veterans hubs across the country that will provide important mental health, wellbeing, employment, housing and other services. It will increase the totally and permanently incapacitated veterans pension, recognise the increasing cost-of-living pressures on veterans, and implement a veterans homelessness plan. We are getting to work on this very, very important work that needs to be done to genuinely and substantively honour our veterans and work that they have done for us and for our nation.