The government is refusing to reveal how often vulnerable veterans are unable to reach its crisis helpline for ex-service members in order to protect the bottom line of a private contractor, The New Daily can exclusively reveal.
The refusal comes as veterans’ advocates warn of a suicide epidemic among ex-service members, with support group Warrior’s Return estimating at least 84 veterans took their own lives in 2017.
The Department of Veterans Affairs claims that disclosing the call abandonment rates and wait times for the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service would adversely impact the company that manages the service outside of normal business hours.
In response to a freedom of information request by The New Daily, the DVA said the disclosure would give the contractor’s business rivals information that could be used to out-compete the company.
The New Daily has appealed the decision on public interest grounds.
The DVA has awarded Melbourne-based company On the Line contracts worth at least $2 million to operate the after-hours counselling service since 2010, according to government procurement website AusTender.
The department also revealed to The New Daily that it does not collect data on the call abandonment rates and wait times for its regular hours service, which is managed in-house.
Doug Steley, an ex-service member who works with a number of veterans’ advocacy groups, said the department’s attitude was “totally unacceptable” and typical of its lack of transparency.
“Their service should be so excellent that they should be willing to boast about how good it is, and they should have absolutely no fear that a private contractor would be able to match the service to those who served Australia,” he said.
“There is no transparency in this department,” he added. “It operates on secrecy and hiding everything from the public.”
The DVA has faced repeated controversy over its treatment of veterans, with an official inquiry last year ruling it had failed to provide adequate support to 32-year-old Afghan war veteran Jesse Bird before he took his own life last June. In August, more than 100 people protested outside DVA headquarters in Melbourne to call for the establishment of a royal commission into the department’s failure to halt suicides among ex-service members.
Opposition spokeswoman for veterans’ affairs Amanda Rishworth accused the department of putting the welfare of a private firm above that of veterans.
“We expect DVA to act in the best interest of veterans – and not in the best interest of a private contractor,” Ms Rishworth told The New Daily.
“Labor thinks it is unacceptable that DVA is withholding any information that will provide greater transparency on services which directly affect those veterans and family members. It is also deeply concerning that DVA is not even collecting data on how the VVCS is performing during business hours.”
The DVA told The New Daily that freedom of information legislation required it to balance the interests of applicants, businesses and the broader community.
“In applying the required public interest test under the FOI Act, the original decision maker considered that the adverse effect on the lawful business activities of On the Line outweighed factors in favour of disclosure, including the promotion of oversight of public expenditure,” a spokesperson said.
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