The prime minister Scott Morrison finally announced a royal commission into Australian Defence Force and veteran suicides on April 19, 2021, saying that it would “examine all aspects of service in the ADF and the experience of those transitioning from active service.”
Passionate advocate for a Royal Commission, Julie-Ann Finney, said at the time, ‘Today is a long time coming for veterans and their families. Finally, the voices of veterans will be heard. Finally, families can stand up and share their stories.’
Julie-Ann Finney’s son, Royal Australian Navy petty officer David Finney, was discharged from the Navy in 2017, following 20 years of service which included deployments to Iraq, East Timor and Bougainville. In October 2018, feeling desperately unwell, David Finney sought professional help but was told there was a six-month wait to see a DVA psychiatrist. On February 1, 2019, David lost his battle with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Shattered by her son’s death, Julie-Ann Finney turned her grief into anger and petitioned for a royal commission. The basis of her petition was that between 2001–2017, 419 Australian defence personnel had taken their lives. Since then, the rate of suicides has exponentially increased. Among ex-servicemen, the suicide rate is 18 per cent higher than the broader population. Ex-servicewomen are twice as likely to take their own lives as other Australian women.
The prime minister’s initial response to the lobbying was not to establish a Royal Commission but a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. He thought this somewhat lame concoction of a compromise would make the pesky Julie-Ann Finney go away.
It was around this time that I interviewed her for a book I was writing on the impact of war on veterans’ families. Rather than being mollified, Ms Finney told me she would fight on for what she wanted. She was adamant that her son’s death would not be in vain. With the help of similarly affected families and senator Jacqui Lambi, Ms Finney’s plea for a royal commission was finally heard. Of interest, the prime minister’s about face has come after a period of turmoil in his government sparked by the allegation of the rape of staffer, Brittany Higgins. Mr Morrison was consequently accused of being tone deaf to the voice of women. His capitulation in terms of a royal commission can be interpreted as his growing awareness of the strength and determination of his female constituents, in particular, those who have lost their sons.
When He Came Home: The impact of war on veterans’ families by Dianne Dempsey will be published by Australian Scholarly Publishing this May.
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