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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee

Speeches in Parliament
Peter Whish-Wilson 16 Sep 2016

I was very proud to work with the Senate to initiate this inquiry. It may surprise some people why the Greens would be interested in initiating an inquiry into veretans' mental health. Like anyone in this chamber, I was shocked by revelations on about veteran suicide and veteran homelessness. I did my own research and felt that this was an issue that the Senate could scrutinise and make some constructive, positive recommendations into. It seemed to me that it was an issue that was going unrecognised in the broader community.

I am glad Senator Payne is in the chamber today. In thinking about deployment of our Defence personnel, especially overseas—and may I say that mental health issues like PTSD do not necessarily apply to people who have been in combat situations, for example; they can apply from training and other complex situations—it occurred to me that we were not fully aware, and the community was not fully aware, that it is a cost to this country, especially when we are sending the number that was brought up in the Senate committee. Nearly 70,000 Australians have been off to Afghanistan or Iraq in the last 15 years. Then, when you add East Timor, the numbers are even higher. A substantial number of veterans, especially younger veterans, are out there in the community.

As a government—and, of course, the Greens would like to see parliament have a direct say in foreign deployments—we really have to be aware of the costs of war. They are not just physical injuries and the loss of life to both Australian Defence Force personnel and to people living in other countries. There are also costs and hidden costs with the personnel and their families when they get back to this country. We heard some harrowing evidence, from both veterans and their families, as to the kind of problems that they are encountering not just personally, physically and mentally but also in dealing with the Department of Veterans' Affairs and Defence to get these problems recognised.

I am not taking a combative approach to the veterans' affairs issues, unlike other senators in this chamber. I feel that there needs to be a constructive way forward on this. The Senate has made 25 recommendations. I suppose am pleased there has been a little bit of progress. However, with a number of the recommendations, I think the government have agreed in principle or noted, or have said they partly agree with. I would have liked to have seen much stronger responses than that. I am not giving up on this; nor will Senator Ludlam, who will be taking this issue over from me. We will be continuing. One promise that I did make to the veterans that I have been working with is: at every estimates and at every chance that we get, we are going to continue asking these questions until we see some progress.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is something that I think is being better recognised now. Even in the last six to nine months I have noticed a significant jump in social media, for example, talking about PTSD and celebrities and TV programs talking about this issue. And it is not just the Defence forces. It is evident in the fire brigade and in the police force, and, in fact, in traumas suffered by rape victims. It is a very prevalent mental illness, but it is very complex. I accept from what I learnt in the Senate inquiry that there is no silver bullet solution to dealing with this issue and that—

Senator Waters

No pun intended.

Senator WHISH-WILSON

No, definitely no pun intended, Senator Waters. The issue needs to be scrutinised, and we need to put a lot more resources into this. We are aware that there is a lot of stigma, especially serving personnel, who may have developed mental health issues. Having been in the services, I can directly relate to that experience. It is very difficult for people to talk out on issues they think may impact either their capability in their job or their own careers. This is something I think we need to do: breaking down that stigma is one of the best ways we can combat this situation.

There are a lot of recommendations here. I ask fellow senators to have a look at these. I understand there is another inquiry that is looking at suicide and suicide prevention with veterans but I think this is a good start. Senator Payne, through you, Chair, there will be a lot of people in this chamber who are taking this issue very seriously who will be keeping the scrutiny up.

Question agreed to.

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