Veteran Suicide Royal Commission

By Matt Keogh MP

22 March 2021

Watch Matt's speech here

I stand here today with all the veterans and Defence families who came to Canberra this morning. We need a royal commission into veteran suicide. It's what veterans and their families want, it's what thousands of Australians want and it's what a number of the government's own MPs as well as those on our side of the House want. Today veterans held a rally here at Parliament House to call for action, so the message is loud and clear: with a veteran suicide rate nearly twice that of the general population, we need to get to the bottom of what is behind these tragic deaths.

The Prime Minister needs to do the right thing and give these grieving families of veterans the royal commission that they not only deserve but that all of our current serving personnel also need. It is a national tragedy that more veterans have taken their lives than we actually lost in our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clearly, this is not an issue that will go away either. I would like to pay tribute to the extraordinary courage of women like Julie-Ann Finney, who I had the pleasure of meeting this morning. She has campaigned on behalf not only of her late son but of families who have lost their loved ones through veteran suicide all across Australia. On their behalf, she has shown resilience, she has shown courage, and I respect and applaud her today. I also had the honour of meeting with a number of veterans this morning who have lost mates and who continue to carry heavy burdens themselves but who also continue to fight not just here but across Australia to make sure that this royal commission that is so desperately needed is actually instituted by this government.

We in Labor called for a royal commission into veteran suicide because we had listened to families of veterans and we responded. That's not to say that we don't need the commission that the government has also established but it can't do its work alone. It needs to see a royal commission first.

These suicide figures are double the rate of the normal population. Losing more people from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts once they've returned home than we lost in the field are figures that we can't ignore. They're not figures that we can turn our faces away from, that we can let go unanswered. They should be a glaring light to government, to all of us in in parliament, that there is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed and not just for any sector of our community but for a segment of our community who take on our challenges as a nation and fight on our behalf, who go into the ultimate of harm's way. Those who I have had the honour of standing with, as the member for Hunter just said, behind the wire, I know, had to go beyond the wire in the work that they did on behalf of our nation.

Let's also remember the critical role of family members in supporting our current and ex-serving Defence personnel. It's not often acknowledged or appreciated as much as it should be. When a person serves in the ADF, their family serves with them. Military families make many sacrifices. We know that many servicemen and women are deployed internationally for many months, or nearly a year at a time, with this separation causing emotional stress for those deployed as well as for their partners and children remaining here in Australia. And when personnel are not deployed, they're on regular re-postings to different bases around the country, many just this year having to spend over a year away from families who they had left in a different state to where they are currently posted.

Posted service, particularly in the circumstances where someone is medically discharged as well, can have a significant and ongoing impact. Indeed, when we consider it, what we're seeing in the suicide emergency being confronted right now is really a result of injuries upon returning from service. These are not obvious injuries, like loss of a limb, but they are clearly deadly injuries being inflicted on our veterans through their service. When someone is medically discharged it is often the family who becomes their carers. It is the family who helps and supports them. It is often the family who can identify the first signs of mental illness and it's also the family who can recognise the signs and symptoms of poor physical health. But they also need support.

For too long now there has been stigma around mental illness and suicide, particularly for our ex-service and, indeed, serving personnel. This has meant that many veterans have been reluctant to come forward and ask for the help that they need, leaving them feeling isolated and alone. A particular friend of mine—a former colleague—was partner to a serviceman who fought in Iraq. The mental health trauma that he was suffering upon his return from deployment to Iraq ultimately led to the end of their relationship. It was a very sad circumstance, because from where he stood he didn't feel that he could go and ask for support. He didn't want to go and ask for support; he thought it was a sign of weakness to ask for that support. Overcoming stigma is integral to ensuring that those suffering know they can talk about how they're feeling, to prevent tragedies from occurring. Of course, that's always easier said than done.

It's for all of these reasons that we need to see a royal commission into veteran suicide now, and why we support this motion calling on the government to bring that about as soon as possible.