Defence's workplace complaints policies have not kept pace with community expectations and are causing "moral trauma" and increasing risk of suicide and self-harm, a symposium on veteran suicide has heard.
Kay Danes, a researcher and policy analyst, says poor and mismanaged complaints processes have added to the non-combat trauma Defence members experience in their careers before leaving the service, and should be reformed.
"There is evidence that a growing number of complainants have faced some form of retribution, despite the protections and immunities afforded by the Defence Act," Dr Danes told a forum hosted by the Interim Nation Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention.
"Typically, because a complaint is likely to be about someone within that member's direct chain of command. Repeatedly ADF members have claimed to be subjected to administration processes that set the conditions to justify an unexpected or premature termination."
Dr Danes cited cases of impromptu psychological assessments against complainants that diminished their credibility and was seen as a way of justifying a medical or involuntary discharge or management-initiated early retirement notification.
"The associated trauma can be devastating to the feeling of being betrayed by the system," she said in her presentation. "This can create a long-term negative consequence for both the ADF member and their family beyond service.
The overwhelming amounts of stress that this causes an ADF member and their family can exceed their ability to cope and lead to devastating consequences."
This was especially true in cases where the termination was seen as resulting from a perceived denial of procedural fairness.
A David-and-Goliath battle could see Defence using significant taxpayer-funded legal resources to minimise liability to the organisation, while the employee has far fewer resources, status and power to defend their complaint, Dr Danes said, "even though it may be evidence-based and compelling."
Dr Danes said this moral trauma, where a person feels their most closely held moral beliefs and values were betrayed, was separate to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or anxiety.
"ADF members will likely continue to carry unresolved grievances into life beyond service," she said. "Trust plays an essential role in the ADF service and the research has found the perceptions of unit leaders as trustworthy, and are able to be confided in, reduces the risk of suicidal behaviours."
A review of current complaints policies and Defence inquiry regulations found at least 40 inequities, Dr Danes said, that also included a lack of natural justice provisions for the subjects of complaints.
Dr Danes research found cases where inquiry officers forfeited procedural fairness principles, such as denying ADF members the right to know of an allegation, with evidence that investigations were carried out without the member's knowledge.
Defence inquiry officers were also relying on evidence for their findings without the subject of the inquiry having full access to that evidence, she said. Reforms, Dr Danes argued, should focus on ensuring ADF members had realistic opportunities to resolve their complaint in the workplace and protect their professional reputation and mental health.
Proposals she hoped would minimise opportunity for moral trauma in the Defence complaints process included implementing rules for evidence like other justice systems and training inquiry officers as investigators "with a thorough understanding of applicable civil and military law."
Like civilian systems, she argued, witnesses should be required to give evidence under oath and inquiry offices prevented from relying on evidence that has not been cross-examined to ensure its authenticity, and former members of Defence should have access to a reparations policy.
- Lifeline 13 11 14
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