The chair of the royal commission into veteran suicides has accused Defence of going through the motions rather than taking meaningful action on a national crisis.
In an address to the National Press Club on Wednesday, commissioner Nick Kaldas urged Defence to acknowledge its own role in failing to help prevent deaths.
Mr Kaldas said evidence uncovered by the commission suggested “there has been far too much talk and not enough action” on what he described as a “national crisis”.
He pointed to a new mental health and wellbeing branch within Defence which would not be operational until at least January 2025.
“All of this raises serious questions as to whether Defence is committed to making change in the best interests of its members, or whether they’re just going through the motions,” Mr Kaldas said.
The commissioner called for an “enduring, powerful, independent body” to hold governments, Defence, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the Australian Defence Force and other relevant agencies to account for reforms.
Asked if he would recommend Defence as a potential career to someone, Mr Kaldas stopped short of endorsement, and said he would be giving them “a lot of advice”.
“And hopefully monitoring as they go along to make sure that if anything does go wrong, that it’s acted on appropriately and in a timely manner,” he said.
On the retention issue in the defence force, Mr Kaldas said there needed to be “genuine recognition of the extent of the problem” and then management of them in a timely fashion.
The commissioner said he had delivered his speech before the release of a final report because “we’re at a point where we feel that the issues that we’ve uncovered have not been noticed, absorbed”.
The backlog of more than 30,000 veterans’ compensation claims may not be cleared by the March 2024 deadline set down by the commission.
Mr Kaldas said he supported an overhaul of the claims system, and believed the backlog would eventually disappear.
He accused the department’s bureaucracy of having “stymied and stonewalled” the commission as it sought vital information from Defence and other government bodies.
On the federal government’s decision to knock back a request for another extension, Mr Kaldas said the commission had a plan, and would get the job done.
There were at least 1600 deaths by suicide between 1997 and 2020 of veterans who served on or after January 1, 1985 – more than 20 times the number killed in active duty over the same period.
However, Mr Kaldas said Defence was progressing “at a snail’s pace” in terms of investigating and reporting on suicides.
He said putting one’s hand up for help was often perceived as a sign of weakness in the ADF.
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