‘Military heroes in fight of their lives as more veterans die through suicide‘, Daily Telegraph, 16 June 2019
Continues a campaign by Daily Telegraph, including editorially, for a Royal Commission into suicide of Australian Defence Force veterans. Earlier material links from the article. Refers to detailed research into suicide figures after all of our wars, recent deaths, and the nature of PTSD. The Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel, Darren Chester, says he cannot see the point of a Royal Commission.
Material on the Heritage Guardians campaign against the extensions. We sent an op ed to the Daily Telegraph, as follows:
Dealing with veterans’ suicide requires some clear thinking about government spending
The prime minister has responded quickly to calls for a Royal Commission into military suicides (“PM: We will ‘fix’ vet care”, 11/6). We should hope that the urgent briefings he receives from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs include a re-examination of foolish previous funding decisions. Governments of both sides have fallen into the trap of building grandiose structures to commemorate military service and sacrifice, while letting the DVA, with its out-of-date systems and bloody-minded attitudes, sell our veterans short.
It is obviously too late to stop the Sir John Monash Centre, the $100 million white elephant, opened last year off the beaten track in Northern France. That was a John Howard priority that Rudd-Gillard side-lined, Tony Abbott took up and Malcolm Turnbull failed to derail.
There is still time, however, to recommit the decision the PM announced in November last year to spend $498 million on extensions to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. There are serious questions about the process for this project so far. For example, even while plans were still being drawn up during 2018, the Canberra bubble was full of gossip about how much money was available for the project. The cart was well and truly before the horse; key decisions were taken behind closed doors, with minimal public consultation. The funding figure was announced before the detailed business case went to government, which seems to be a contravention of Department of Finance rules. The plans include the demolition – after just 18 years of service – of Anzac Hall, an award-winning part of the Memorial. Much of the extended space will be used to house retired fighter jets and helicopters, duplicating the function of an existing Memorial annex in Canberra.
Then there is the opportunity cost of this project: this $498 million is $498 million that could be spent on direct assistance to veterans and their families, to help prevent suicide and to support the families of veterans who have suicided. When Heritage Guardians, ran a petition on Change.org against the project, around a quarter of the comments we received said that the money should be spent on direct benefits. The petition followed an open letter from 83 distinguished Australians who opposed the project.
Of course, money isn’t everything – there has been considerable expenditure on veterans’ suicide prevention yet the deaths continue – but spending like the splurge on the Monash Centre and now the proposed Memorial extensions indicates our continuing cock-eyed priorities in this area. We, particularly governments, seem to think that the best way of expressing gratitude to service people, whether from decades ago or just recently, is to build a large structure or a grandiose statue or a virtual reality extravaganza in which bored teenagers can play at soldiers. Of course, the spin-off for officials and ministers is that their names will appear on foundation stones and commemorative plaques – and that is a benefit not to be discounted, even if does very little for the people who really need help. A program of direct benefit to veterans and their families does not give the same opportunities to display your name for prosperity.
The War Memorial’s publicity videos clearly show how much of the new space will be taken up with aeroplanes and helicopters. Spokespeople for the Memorial have said that displaying equipment like this gives veterans a “therapeutic milieu”, a space which can assist to heal the psychological wounds suffered in war service. This is both a smokescreen – retired military machines up close are first and foremost a tourist attraction – and a trivialisation of the treatment required for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. If the PM was taken in by that argument, he should think again, stop the $498 million project going ahead, and direct a Royal Commission to look closely at our unbalanced spending priorities in veterans’ health and commemoration of service.
* David Stephens is a member of Heritage Guardians, a community campaign against the War Memorial extensions, and editor of the Honest History website (honesthistory.net.au).
Not printed to date, nor was a brief ‘comment’ along the same lines. Clearly, money is not the complete solution to the military suicide question but it is certainly part of it. Perhaps the Tele – and the Minister – may still join the dots and support the diversion of money from the War Memorial vanity project to direct benefits to veterans and their families.