04/07/2016 2:15 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:56 PM AEST

We Must Defend The Defence Force Survivors

We owe it to them.

"So many victims of abuse spoke of having had their claims to DVA rejected because of a lack of contemporaneous evidence."
Getty Images
"So many victims of abuse spoke of having had their claims to DVA rejected because of a lack of contemporaneous evidence."

The stories that have emerged from the Royal Commission in these past weeks have been devastating. Young boys lying in bed, miles away from home; terrified of being snatched in the night and subjected to horrific assaults by groups of their peers. It's horrifying to imagine the despair these boys would have felt knowing there was absolutely no one that would help them. Night after night, they were forced to worry about if it would be their turn to be singled out for abuse.

The courage they have shown by reliving and telling their stories as adults is immense. Many spoke of ongoing mental and physical health problems that have resulted from the abuse. They articulated so clearly the impact that the abuse has had on their relationships with their families, their trust of authority, and the way they interact with the world they are part of.

As a result of these stories, I believe that it is open for the Commission to find that there has been a significant failure in the management of the Australian Defence Force which led to the widespread abuse being exposed before us now.

We've seen some positive signs from today's Defence officials that show a willingness to acknowledge and apologise for the mistakes of the past and extend meaningful financial and restorative outcomes to survivors to allow them to move forward in their recovery. One of the most senior figures in the Australian armed services, Australian Defence Force Vice-Chief Ray Griggs, delivered a public apology to victims of sexual abuse in the Defence Force, telling the Royal Commission their stories will drive change in the organisation.

But this change must happen now and words need to be backed up by swift action. The obstacles and hurdles that still stand before these men and women in accessing justice will continue to be insurmountable without reform driven by Government.

What became painfully clear these past two weeks are the significant hurdles survivors face when seeking support from the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA), an organisation purported to exist to protect the welfare of veterans. So many victims of abuse spoke of having had their claims to DVA rejected because of a lack of contemporaneous evidence.

The Commission examined the unfairness of the "clawback" provisions in the DVA legislation, which precludes people from making a common law claim for compensation for the abuse without being forced to pay back and potentially stripped for the future the support they've been able to secure through DVA, including any pension and Gold Card that may have been granted for circumstances unrelated to the abuse. The legislation, as it stands today, means that although survivors can seek to hold those responsible to account through the court, any payment of compensation made to them means that they must pay back financial support they've received from DVA in the decades since their abuse.

Effectively, through the current legislation, the Australian Government purports to give to these survivors with one hand and take away from them with the other. This leads to unfair outcomes for survivors and precludes them from seeking justice through the courts for the abuse they have suffered.

I believe that it is open for the Royal Commission to make recommendations for the reform of Veterans Affairs legislation. However, it is our hope that the Commonwealth will be proactive in initiating the change needed to allow survivors to seek the outcomes they need to move forward with their lives.

We owe it to the survivors to do all we can to ensure their stories are heard and that the actions necessary to drive change are implemented without delay.