Scott Morrison has bowed to mounting political pressure by launching a royal commission into suicide among Australian defence force members and veterans.
The prime minister told reporters in Sydney on Monday he had listened to veterans who argued that the government’s previous proposal did not go far enough, and he was “pragmatic to get the right outcomes”.
Morrison said he hoped the royal commission – to begin by July at the latest and likely to take up to two years to complete – would be “a healing process”.
When asked about the government’s previous resistance to calls for a royal commission, Morrison said: “I just want to get things done.”
The government says the royal commission will not make findings of civil or criminal wrongdoing, or findings about individual defence and veteran deaths by suicide – but “will be informed by individual experiences”.
Likely to be headed by three royal commissioners, the inquiry will investigate any systemic issues – including how ADF personnel transition out of service and what post-service support is available – that may be linked to higher suicide rates.
The federal government plans to consult with the defence and veteran community and the states and territories to finalise the terms of reference and who will be appointed to chair the inquiry.
The minister for veterans’ affairs, Darren Chester, said the royal commission was “an opportunity for us to reset the agenda and unite the veterans’ community in what has been a very difficult, sensitive and incredibly complex issue for our veterans and their families”.
The government previously resisted calls for such an inquiry, saying its plans for a national commissioner for defence and veteran suicide prevention would be able to examine the problem on a rolling basis and would have similar powers to a royal commission.
But the bills to set up such a commissioner as an independent statutory office holder have languished in the Senate.
Last month a non-binding motion calling for a royal commission passed both houses of parliament with cross-party support. The government did not oppose the motion after the lower house crossbencher Craig Kelly – formerly a Liberal MP – indicated he intended to support it.
Labor has also been pushing for a royal commission, arguing last week that it was “a national disgrace that more veterans have died by suicide than in war in the past 20 years, and veterans are dying at twice the rate of suicide of the general population”.
The Community and Public Sector Union says there is now a backlog of about 25,000 claims under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, which provides support to injured veterans.
When the government announced last week that the final 80 Australian defence personnel still in Afghanistan would be home by September, advocates for veterans’ support renewed their calls for greater government action to address their welfare.
Morrison indicated on Monday that he had not given up on the push for an independent national commissioner for defence and veteran suicide prevention to consider the issue on a rolling basis.
“This was an important reform and it remains an important reform … [but] I do not want to see there to be any delay in moving ahead with examining these issues.”
The royal commission will look at past deaths by suicide and systemic issues, while the planned new national commissioner would be given “a forward-looking role” and would also be asked to implement any recommendations stemming from the forthcoming inquiry.
Julie-Ann Finney, an Adelaide woman who lost her veteran son Dave Stafford Finney to a PTSD-related suicide, welcomed the royal commission announcement, saying it was “a long time coming for veterans and their families”.
Finney, whose change.org petition calling for an inquiry attracted more than 400,000 signatures, said she was “thankful all the veterans who have stood brave and tall in the face of so much opposition over the years, and kept fighting for this royal commission”.
“Today, I am still just Dave’s mum,” Finney said in a statement on Monday.
“I am so proud of him. If he was here right now his message to veterans would be ‘I am your brother. I am here for you.’ My fight over these last two painful years has all been to honour my son, and to ensure that in the future, that no other mum feels this pain.”
The independent MP Andrew Wilkie, a former Australian army infantry officer and an intelligence analyst, said the veterans’ community would “breathe a sigh of relief” at the announcement of the royal commission, calling the government’s long-running refusal to order one “deeply lamentable”.
“The announcement today is a tremendous outcome and one that promises to bring some understanding and justice to the many hundreds of veterans and serving members whose lives have ended by suicide,” Wilkie said.
“There was always something terribly amiss and deeply troubling that the rate of suicide among veterans is twice the national average … clearly there are serious systemic and cultural problems in the departments of Defence and Veterans Affairs, as well as in the Australian Defence Force.”
Jason Scanes, an Afghanistan veteran and chief executive of Forsaken Fighters, said the decision was long overdue but that the government should have acted in 2019 when a public petition gathered more than 300,000 signatures calling for a royal commission.
“I lost a mate in January who I enlisted with 25 years ago. He was one of too many of mates we continually see being lost at their own hands, because of the burden of service that they carry and not being able to get the support they need, feeling they’ve been totally abandoned and left to their own devices.”
Scanes said there had been some positive developments in addressing veterans’ issues, in particular the work of the DVA repatriations commissioner Don Spinks and the Open Arms peer counselling program. But Scanes said he would remain “sceptical” about the royal commission until he’d seen its terms of reference, saying he feared the issue would be politicised.
“We shouldn’t be politicising this issue, we should be unified in our approach, and make sure that veterans’ voices are heard.”
Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defence Association said the ADA had long-supported a royal commission that was “long overdue”.
“The real problem now is making sure the terms of reference are written properly, and not politicised. This royal commission needs to get to the bottom of the problem, it also needs to investigate the simple fact that unlike many of our previous wars, our modern wars are fought without most of the community truly understanding the nature of the conflict.
“Part of the care that anyone gets is community understanding. This royal commission can highlight the nature of what our veterans have experienced and are experiencing.”
In broader remarks on Monday, Morrison said Australian governments needed to consider the long-term mental health toll when deciding on future military deployments, in addition to the “immediate risk” of danger in conflict zones.
“There is a far greater cost that is borne beyond those deployments and that is the mental toll take on those veterans after they return,” Morrison said.
In Australia, support and counselling for veterans and their families is available 24 hours a day from Open Arms on 1800 011 046 or www.openarms.gov.au and Safe Zone Support on 1800 142 072