Submission to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide

Dear Commissioners

It is a great honour for me to be the Victorian Minister for Veterans. Veterans have made enormous sacrifices so that all Australians can enjoy freedom and peace. They deserve our unfailing support in  return.

Throughout my time in this role, I have been privileged to hear firsthand from Victorian veterans and their families about their experiences during and after service. Along the way many veterans, partners of deceased veterans, family members of veterans and leaders of ex-service organisations have shared their experiences with the compensation and rehabilitation system.

The purpose of this letter is to convey these views to the Commission, as they have been conveyed to me. I provide this information to ensure that the lived experience of people I have spoken with, is heard by the Commission.

The compensation system is adversarial

The integrity of our veterans and their families is clearly demonstrated through their decision to serve their country and their commitment to public service. Their integrity should therefore not be in question. The starting assumption for a compensation claim should be to believe applicants and accept their claims as true and valid.

The experience relayed to me by those in the Victorian veteran community, however, is that the system is adversarial and is set up for claims to fail.

Members of the community have shared with me their view that more time and effort is spent on challenging claims of veterans and family members with hearings, paperwork and external consultants, than would have been spent on providing the assistance the applicants were seeking in the first place.

I am advised that this adversarial system can make access to entitlements extremely difficult to near impossible.

Former serving members and their families, who have already experienced trauma and adversity, who have already sacrificed so much, and who have been placed in life threatening and traumatic environments both in Australia and overseas, tell me that having to fight for their entitlements is another blow. Some do not have the stamina to keep fighting, and simply give up.

The compensation and rehabilitation system is complex

Veterans have told me about having multiple injuries covered under different pieces of legislation, requiring multiple claims. One veteran shared a story about different body parts being covered under different Acts.

The complexity and inefficiency of the current legislative framework governing claims creates stress, delays and confusion for the veterans I have engaged with. I urge the Commission to consider recommending a streamlined framework that is efficient, clear and simple to navigate.

Veterans have told me about the delegates assessing their claims showing confusion and a lack of understanding about the claims process. At the same time, they have acknowledged to me that most delegates are decent people who care about veterans and want to do the right thing. However, like everyone else, the delegates seem to be struggling with the complexity of the system.

Advocacy services have grown to deal with the complexity of the system

An entire industry of advocacy has grown out of the complexity of the compensation and rehabilitation system. If the system was simpler, the cost spent on advocates navigating the system could be diverted to a better use – supporting veterans and their families.

One of our largest ex-service organisations (ESOs) here in Victoria employs ten full time advocates along with thirty-odd volunteer advocates to assist veterans in trying to navigate the system. This is one example, but most Victorian ESOs undertake this advocacy function to a greater or lesser extent.

The Victorian ESOs I talk to would much rather use their limited resources to support veterans and their families with complex needs, rather than having to help them navigate an unnecessarily complex system and resolve disputed claims.

Even in the best run systems there is a need for advocacy; but in a less complex and adversarial system, the need would be far less.

Progress has been made, but claims are still taking a long time to process

Recent reforms, such as provision of non-liability mental healthcare through the White Card on Transition Project, and the Early Engagement Model, are encouraging. But much more needs to be done to provide veterans and their families with upfront support, early in their transition; and if they need to lodge a claim, they should not have to wait for the claim to be accepted in order to receive treatment.

Veterans and their families, and ex-service organisations as well, have shared stories with me about waiting times of many months to have their claims processed, and the impact that has had on their physical and mental wellbeing.

Veterans have told me about times when the treatment they needed for their injuries and conditions has been delayed while their compensation claims have been considered, and communication to chase up the progress of claims has been onerous and disheartening.

Towards a new system

I acknowledge the efforts made in recent years to improve the system, through the Veteran Centric Reform Program, the recent work to overhaul the claims processing system, and investments in transforming the service delivery system. But, as the Royal Commission has heard in its public hearings, only fundamental reform will address systemic issues.

The feedback I have received in my position as Minister for Veterans indicates that an effective and fit-for-purpose compensation and rehabilitation system would:

  • Start from the assumption that the women and men who have served our country in the defence force have already demonstrated they are people of high integrity who should be believed in their claims for assistance
  • consolidate all relevant pension and compensation Acts into legislation that is simple to navigate for veterans, their families and delegates, where no veteran or their family is worse off
  • provide physical and mental healthcare and treatment upfront, without the need to wait for processing or resolution of a compensation claim
  • process claims in a timely manner
  • require intervention by an advocate as an exception and not the rule.

I thank you for the vital work being undertaken by this Royal Commission and welcome the extension of the final report due date to June 2024, which recognises the broad scope of the inquiry and allows more time for veterans and their families to have their say.

I appreciate you meeting with me and my fellow State and Territory colleagues on 20 April 2022, and welcome ongoing discussions. I look forward to the Commission’s findings and recommendations on practical actions to support current and former serving members of the ADF and their families.

The suicide of even one veteran is too many. I look forward to working together with the Commonwealth and the other states and territories to achieve better outcomes for our veterans and their families.

Yours sincerely
The Hon Shaun Leane MP

Minister for Veterans