After years of campaigning by bereaved families, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced the creation of a permanent national commissioner to investigate suicides among Defence Force personnel and veterans.
Although it is not a royal commission, Mr Morrison said the new role will have similar powers and will investigate individual cases alongside state and territory coroners.
He said the new National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention will lead an independent and permanent office tasked with looking at ways to curb the suicide rate among the Defence Force community.
“Those veterans and all serving men and women protect our community and our freedoms. It is our duty to do the same for them,” Mr Morrison said on Wednesday.
While a commissioner is yet to be appointed, their first job will be reviewing the more than 400 known veteran suicide cases dating back to 2001.
One of those is that of David Finney, a former petty officer in the Royal Australian Navy, who took his own life in February last year.
Mr Finney had been medically discharged, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in 2017.
Following his death, his mother Julie-Ann Finney has been leading a national campaign and has collected 300,000 signatures on a petition calling for an inquiry into veteran suicides.
Ms Finney said she received a call directly from the Prime Minister to tell her about the newly appointed position.
“We need to make absolutely sure that this works for veteran wellbeing,” she told ABC Radio Adelaide.
“I’m excited that something’s happening. Excited is a bad word but I was not expecting that call yesterday.”
She said while she was pleased her involvement had helped get something done, she did not want to take credit for it alone.
“This was not me, this was all of Australia backing this,” she said.
“This is parents, partners and children who have lost someone dear to them through veteran suicide. This is a huge effort from Australia.”
An initial investment of $40 million has been set aside for the office, which will have the powers of a standing royal commission.
The commissioner will be able to investigate individual cases of suspected and attempted suicide of current or former ADF members and make recommendations to support suicide prevention and improve mental health and wellbeing.
Commissioner to report to Parliament annually
Mr Morrison said the decision to create the position reflected the need to provide ongoing support to all veterans.
“I have spoken to veterans right across Australia and I have met with their families and also local, state and national organisations,” he said.
“I believe what we have developed addresses the needs of those veterans, their families and our serving men and women.
“It’s all about being permanently vigilant about their welfare.”
Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel, Darren Chester, said the commissioner would deliver a report to the Parliament within 12 months.
“This will be a transparent report directly to the Parliament on an annual basis on suicides within the defence and veteran community, including an update on the implementation and evaluation of measures to reduce suicide risk factors,” he said.
“The Government is committed to ensuring ADF members, veterans and their families have access to the right support, at the right time, especially those who are vulnerable or at risk.”
Family members who have been impacted by veteran suicide will also get an opportunity to tell their stories and receive ongoing support if they choose to.
Mr Morrison said the permanent position will also have all the relevant powers to compel witnesses and evidence and could also find people in contempt if they failed to appear or comply with investigations.
Along with the position, the Government will establish a new Veteran Family Advocate to represent families impacted.
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