Victorian Premier Dan Andrews has told an inquiry into veteran suicide that former servicemen and women are “second guessed” and not supported by government agencies amid calls for a nationwide statutory body.
The revelation comes as hearings under the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide enters a second year, aimed at investigating the overrepresentation of serving and ex-serving defence members in deaths by suicide.
Speaking on the state government’s submission to the commission, Mr Andrews said the Department of Veterans Affairs “kept people out and away” from the entitlements veterans were promised by the government.
“For many veterans, there is a sense that they are not believed (...) that agencies that ought to be working for them are operating more like an insurance company and not an especially good insurance company,” he said.
“Why wouldn’t you move to a system where you believe people, where you provisionally approve people, where you are all about them rather than building systems and processes that are about limiting cost and managing demand.
“There are many ways that system can be improved, and it starts with believing veterans, and that when they make claims that they are supported, not second guessed, and not treated as if they were trying to cheat the system.”
During an hour-long hearing, Mr Andrews was grilled on his government’s submission to the commission, which focused on perceived poor data collection on veterans and failings of the Veterans Wellbeing Taskforce.
The taskforce first met in August 2022, but Mr Andrews revealed to the commission on Wednesday that not a single formal action or initiative had resulted from the meetings, which he claimed were dominated by the federal government.
Instead, Mr Andrews described the meetings as “show and tell sessions” between state and federal leaders and said the previous government had treated the taskforce as “an annoyance” rather than an effective policy-making tool.
“There could be an agreement by all governments across the country to come up with a nationally consistent plan to support veterans at times of vulnerability and well and truly beyond that,” Mr Andrews said.
“You could come up with a minimum set of supports, a minimum set of interventions, a minimum set of expectations that the veteran community and their families could have of all governments.
“We’re all doing different things in this space – I think we’re doing perhaps more than any other sub-sovereign government – but there’ll be things that other states are doing that we could probably do.”
Earlier this month, the Victorian government launched a statewide veterans card that Mr Andrews said was supported by the Commonwealth government but nonetheless left problems in data collection unaddressed.
Mr Andrews told the commission that he would back an “American-style” system in which an opt-in program would allow veterans, especially recently civilianised members, to share information with the state government to help with services.
Currently, Mr Andrews said the state was provided only “de-identified” data twice yearly, which he believed was a significant barrier in not only delivering services to veterans but to building trust between them and the state government.
“We‘re talking about relatively small numbers of people you might be able to actually reach out to personally and have a really important discussion,” Mr Andrews told commissioner Peggy Brown AO.
“The less information that we seek the better. This is just your name, an address, and any contact number you might have, if you choose to provide that or don’t object to that being provided.
“Then you can provide whatever further information you choose to about your service, about your qualifications, about whether you’ve secured housing, whether you’ve secured a job.
“I think that’s how you build trust and we get the bare minimum, and instead of having to do broadcast messages to what is, in the scheme of things, a very small group of people.
“That is, instead of being able to reach out in the most respectful way, rather than expecting people to come to us. We make the effort to go to them in recognition of all that they’ve done.”
Mr Andrews also praised his own government’s almost two-decade-old Victorian Veterans Council, which he said operated independently of government changeovers.
He said the council spoke to the difficulty veterans had in navigating the Department of Veterans Affairs and backed a national version that could make recommendations.
“A statutory body that is enduring, that has responsibility for monitoring the implementation of each and every one of the recommendations you (the commission) make,” Mr Andrews told the commission.
“It‘s not just ‘well, there’s 500 recommendations and they’ve all been delivered and tick. We’re all done’. It needs to be enduring and inquiring.
“If you can have formal, enduring oversight, where people are appointed for five years or whatever it is, so they’ve got a really clear function to perform and they can do that fearlessly (...), then we’ll see the recommendations progressed.
“I think that would be a profound investment in not just making the most of this moment but hopefully avoiding the need to ever have a royal commission like this again.”
The suggestion came in response to a question from commissioner and chair Nick Kaldas APM, who said the commission was considering a standing body to replace it and adopt recommendations.
The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide is in its 12th hearing on Wednesday in Melbourne since launching in 2021.
Led by Mr Kaldas, the investigation has received 230,000 documents, 4165 submissions and heard from 280 witnesses
About 1600 servicemen and women died from suicide between 1997 and 2020, 20 times the number of service personnel killed on active duty.
Mr Andrews is the first premier to address the royal commission, which has largely heard from veterans and their families.