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Royal commission takes aim at Morrison government over ‘dereliction of duty’

Veteran suicide 'a national tragedy'.

An interim report from a royal commission into veteran suicides says the previous government failed in its duty to servicemen and women by not addressing a long-standing backlog of compensation claims.

Among the problems identified in the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide report is an unacceptably large backlog of compensation claims numbering more than 40,000 last May.

Difficulties in processing claims have been linked to higher rates of suicide.

​​“In our view, the lack of response and progress from June 2019 to mid-May 2022 amounted to a dereliction of the Australian government’s duty to veterans,” read the report, which was released on Thursday.

The government comes in for particular criticism over a 2019 report that outlined several recommendations for improving the processing of claims but was never either formally accepted or rejected.

A national tragedy

The chair of the commission, former NSW Police deputy commissioner Nick Kaldas, said the backlog was a “national tragedy”.

‘‘Behind each claim is a veteran who needs support, and it is gravely important that this assistance is provided as quickly as possible – lives and livelihoods depend on it,’’ he said.

Veterans Affairs Minister Matt Keogh said on Thursday the government had allocated 500 additional staff to the department to help process the claims but he did not know when they might be cleared.

The minister apologised to veterans and their families.

‘‘It is devastating that Australia has lost more serving and former serving personnel to suicide than it has lost through operations over the last 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq,’’ Mr Keogh said.

The report says the backlog of claims cannot be allowed to continue and says the government should resolve them by March 2024.

“Surely we can get onto it quicker than that,’’ said Senator Jacqui Lambie, who recently testified before the commission about her own struggles with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

‘‘Most veterans can’t wait until 2024 to have their claims dealt with. This should be a top priority for the new government.”

She also backed a recommendation to lift parliamentary privilege legislation that the commission said was stopping it from considering documents tabled to Parliament about the issue of veterans suicide.

Rates of suicide among women previously serving in the defence forces are twice the national average and 20 per cent higher for men, something the report says “should concern us all”.

A Productivity Commission report from 2019 made several recommendations to make the processing of veterans’ compensation claims more efficient, including through legislative change.

The report finds that the previous government did not respond meaningfully to these suggestions, or to simplify or harmonise the legislation governing the compensation claim process.

The inquiry previously heard that the previous government received the report in 2019 but only embarked on significant work on its recommendations in December 2021, when a workshop was held.

Jacqui Lambie: “This should be a top priority for the new government.” Photo: AAP

‘No choice’

More than half a million Australians are either current or former members of the defence force.

Nationals MP Andrew Gee told the royal commission in June that the compensation system was in dire need of reform and he had to fight to reverse an order to implement $430.6 million in budget cuts.

‘‘It was like ‘You deal with it’,” he said. ‘‘It wasn’t something we had a choice in.”

The cuts did not eventuate; it was reported last year that Mr Gee threatened to quit the cabinet over a budget row relating to the claims backlog.

The report says the response of federal governments of all kinds to the issue has been “dismaying”.

‘‘We have identified over 50 previous reports, and more than 750 recommendations,’’ it said.

Blame to share

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton denied that the Coalition had particularly failed veterans.

‘‘[The previous government] provided every support, not just through increased funding but additional support through services, mental health services and the like,’’ Mr Dutton said.

Dutton

Peter Dutton denied that the Coalition had failed veterans.

‘‘There is enough blame to share across both sides of politics, but I think this is not an issue about politics … we should be doing more as a country to provide support to those who defend us and keep us safe.’’

Past abuse and defence force culture could have contributed to increased rates of suicide among former service members, the report found, but the department’s data did not allow for meaningful analysis of contributing factors.

The report also recommends the government introduce legislation to Parliament to simplify and harmonise veteran compensation and rehabilitation.

A formal response from the government to the commission will be provided in the coming months.

The royal commission will continue its inquiry, with its final report due by June 2024.

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