Australia’s long-awaited, long-fought for royal commission into defence and veteran suicide has commenced in Brisbane, with a ceremonial opening that pledged “opportunities for change and healing” for veterans and their families affected by suicide.
The commission opened on Friday and public hearings will begin on Monday.
It has already received more than 630 submissions addressing a broad range of issues, including bullying, the treatment of women, sexual and physical assault, protections for young service members, and the difficulties of transitioning to civilian life.
The most recent official data shows that more than 1,200 former and serving ADF personnel have died by suicide in the past two decades, a number almost three times higher than previously reported.
“This royal commission requires that we examine, understand and expose all systemic issues and risk factors concerning defence and veteran deaths … so we can reduce and prevent future deaths” said former NSW police deputy commissioner Nick Kaldas, the commission chair.
The commission, Kaldas said, was a “once in a generation opportunity for lasting, fundamental change”.
“The significance and magnitude of this work is not lost on us … we are focused on the opportunities for change and healing.”
James Douglas QC, a former Queensland supreme court judge and one of Kaldas’s fellow commissioners, reflected on his father’s and uncle’s experiences of war, and the ongoing impacts of their military service.
He quoted from Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 novel All Quiet on the Western Front:
We forget nothing really. But so long as we have to stay here in the field, the frontline days, when they are past, sink down in us like a stone; they are too grievous for us to be able to reflect on them at once.
In April, having resisted growing calls for a commission and increasing veteran anger over institutional inaction on high rates of suicide among serving and former defence force members, the Morrison government bowed to political pressure, agreeing to establish the royal commission.
Fellow commissioner, psychiatrist Dr Peggy Brown, said most people who contemplate suicide “don’t actually want to die”, but want their “unbearable pain” to be acknowledged and remedied.
“We need to recognise that to those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts or who take action to end their life, suicide feels like the solution - a final devastating solution to the underlying problem … they have not been able to remedy.”
Brown said it was critical the commission identified “the real root” of problems leading many veterans to “think about suicide, attempt suicide, and to take their own lives, because they perceive, and believe, there is no other option”.
“What they almost always want … is for their life to be different … instead of continuing to cause them immense and unbearable pain, distress and suffering.”
Brown said suicides hurt partners, parents, and children in particular, and the pain was felt across lifetimes, even generations.
Some veterans remain deeply skeptical of the commission’s commitment to reform.
Major Stuart McCarthy, a retired Australian officer who served in Afghanistan and who was publicly and personally thanked by the commission chair for his efforts in advocating for the inquiry, said the fact the commission has said it would not be cross-examining officials from the defence and veterans affairs department “is one example of how this ‘inquiry’ will be another gaslighting exercise, just as previous ‘inquiries’ have been”.
“They will lie, as they have done before,” he said online.
“A ‘royal commission’ that doesn’t cross examine government witnesses (which it is explicitly empowered to under the Royal Commissions Act) will further legitimise and exacerbate the culture of institutionalised denial, deceit and criminality which is at the heart of the veteran suicide epidemic.”
Julie-Ann Finney, mother of Navy veteran Dave Finney, who took his own life in 2019, told the ABC on Friday morning that veterans had been fighting for decades for recognition of the harms done to those who serve in Australia’s defence, and the inadequate support offered to them.
She urged as many veterans who felt able to participate to make a submission or ask to appear before the commission.
“I’m urging them if they are able, they are the big voice. The more submissions … they can get in, the better this is going to work.”
Finney said the families of veterans who have died from suicide were able to give evidence to the commission on their behalf.
“I’m unable to, because I still don’t have my son’s records, there’s still this element of cover-up, but we’re going to dig through that. I’m confident that this will not continue, this evidence will be compelled to come to me, so that I can give evidence and speak for my son.
“I can’t do that at the moment, DVA [the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’] is still denying the records of my son’s dealings with them.”
Counsel assisting the commission, Peter Gray QC, told Friday’s hearing the commission could use its coercive powers to require the production of documents by the Australian defence force, the defence department, or the veterans’ affairs department. The commission has already issued 17 notices to produce documents, yielding 22,000 of them.
But Gray said the commission would generally not be able to compel the production of records to be given to family members seeking information. Those documents could only be used for the purposes of the commission.
The royal commission has broad terms of reference to investigate “systemic issues and any common themes among defence and veteran deaths by suicide”.
It will deliver its report in 2023.
• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org