AFP Commissioner address to the Senate Standing Committee

AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin addressed the Senate Standing Committee at Parliament House on 7 November 2018.

Transcript (check against delivery)

Thank you for the opportunity to appear this morning.

I have thought a lot about what to say to this committee – and grappled with the issues you need to consider. I have seen some of the evidence presented to you, and it is consistent with those stories that I have heard, first hand, as well.  It is confronting.

This is as complex as any in current issue in policing, and the work of your committee is very important.  I am afraid to say that while many solutions will be presented, there is no simple solution that will address all aspects of the challenge. You have heard evidence about stigma’s, about the need for legislation to be reformed, about research, about former police suffering as well as current police suffering. 

I know that I speak on behalf of former AFP Commissioners as well, when I say that the health and wellbeing of our members has always been at the forefront of our minds – but we have not always understood what this has meant. 

What is positive, is the fact that a national dialogue has begun.  The very existence of your committee is a step towards proper recognition of the role and struggles of police in our society. 

The last two weeks have been particularly hard for the AFP, and I am sure you have seen the reports of the death of an officer within our HQ just down the road in Canberra.  You will have also seen reports that this brings to three the number of AFP members who have taken their lives inside AFP premises in recent years.  I cannot begin to tell you the impact this has had on my workforce.

It brings into stark relief the issue of mental health and the need for us to consider what more can be done to safeguard the wellbeing of police and other first responders. But equally – we should not rush to conclusion, or make assumptions, about those deaths or what factors may have been at play in those members’ minds.

Police are over-represented in statistics on work-related mental health injury; in fact, early research indicates that policing is the occupation at the highest risk of mental health injury. We have a privileged role in society, but it comes at a cost.

And the AFP is not immune. I am acutely aware that we can do better in our mental health support services.  

This has been a significant priority for me as Commissioner. Since I was appointed in 2014, the AFP has taken a number of steps to proactively address the mental health and wellbeing of our members – sworn and unsworn.

In late 2016, we appointed a new AFP Chief Medical Officer, Dr Katrina Sanders, who is also here today. Dr Sanders’ appointment was coupled with a restructure of our well-being services, improving the way my officers can access a range of holistic health resources.  She has led the efforts to improve our performance.

There are more options available to our members today than ever before. We continue to take great steps forward to address concerns of members and address the attitudes and cultures that have made this such a difficult issue for police. But equally, we know that we must continue to do more.

We engaged Phoenix Australia to conduct an unrestricted review of the health support services within the AFP. The review was self-initiated, as we knew we needed an unbiased view, from leaders in the field, on how we can better support our members. We have also worked with the ANAO on their report – as well as our work with Beyond-Blue and the Australia21 Report “When Helping Hurts.” We have not been backward in coming forward on this issue.

We have accepted all recommendations made in the Phoenix and ANAO reports, and have incorporated them into the AFP Health and Wellbeing Strategy released earlier this year. This strategy sets the expectations for health in the workplace, and importantly, establishes a clear foundation for our ongoing efforts to improve organisational well-being.

While there is often a focus on the services available to police, what satisfies me the most is that this Health and Wellbeing Strategy is based on prevention and education. A survivor of mental health challenges – someone who is a prominent sportsperson and well known in Australia – once said to Commissioners across Australia and NZ that we need to invest in building a fence at the top of the cliff, not just focus on the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a confronting thought – but so incredibly true.

As part of our commitment to health and wellbeing, all AFP staff have access to support systems, including a 24 hour Employee Assistance Program and an internal team of psychologists, nurses, chaplains and social workers (these numbers have and continue to grow). Thanks to our support systems, we have serving members who have experienced mental health injuries, including PTSD, and who have received the support they needed to return to health, return to work, and continue their career pathways with the AFP.

We have also taken important action to address the AFP’s culture more broadly. If we treat each other with respect, value inclusion and a safe workplace – then we are far more likely to identify someone who may be struggling, and help them take the necessary steps.

But there is more to be done, and I am committed to making real, tangible change to address the continued mental health of my members - both while they are serving and when they leave the police force.

I spoke of the passion and commitment of AFP officers. I see that every time I come to work. But what about when those members reach the end of their careers? Police can – and do - become lost and depressed at the thought of leaving the job they love, the job that is so integral to our sense of identity. A job that for many of us becomes a lifelong enterprise. And mental health injuries are not always immediately apparent, or can arise sometime after exposure to trauma,     after a person may have left the workforce and its support structures.
A lot has been said lately about the support offered to our defence veterans.  This is a welcomed intervention and something we should applaud.

But likewise hope that same discussion will include police (and first responders of all type), both serving and former. Police officers need acknowledgement that the job they have volunteered to do is dangerous.  The injury, the trauma, may not always be immediately apparent – but the cost is no less tangible and real.

I have spoken to many officers, both serving and former, who have struggled with the impacts of their service. A common refrain from them is that they felt they had to justify and prove themselves time and time again – particularly when dealing with external agencies and compensation providers.  That the process felt designed to dis-believe them, rather than support them. The process in place to help them get better, often pushed them further to the margins.

In reflecting on how we can better serve those who have served our community, I look to the model of care and support offered to military veterans. This includes a specialised multidisciplinary advisory board; and a non-liability healthcare scheme for a range of health conditions including conditions related to mental health. I look at our colleagues overseas – and now in Australia – who have moved to presumptive legislation or the provisional acceptance of mental injury claims.  These are simple, yet effective steps.

We can’t do it alone. This is a complex issue and needs a sophisticated and layered response. To get the best outcomes on mental health of first responders, our approach needs to be cross-jurisdictional and multidisciplinary. Unlike the military, policing is not one homogenous entity in Australia. 

This will come with its own complexities, noting constitutional limitations of the Commonwealth. But I believe it is possible, and it is vitally important.

The Commonwealth can and should take a lead role. We need to understand this as a nation – and take concrete steps.  The AFP submission provides you with ideas to begin this process, as have other submissions. 

Personally, I believe that a first step is to ensure that the work of this committee does not end when you submit your report.  A coordinated national strategy is vital, and this could begin with the creation of an enduring panel of experts or eminent persons - similar to the Defence National Advisory Committee - with clear responsibilities and Ministerial accountabilities, to ensure that we continue to move in the right direction as a nation.

Thank you again for the opportunity to appear at this important inquiry.

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