The human cost of the war in Afghanistan

questions-on-notice

 

Question Without Notice
22 August 2011

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (14:28): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Defence, Senator Evans. Documents released to the Western Australian newspaper under freedom of information requests reveal that the government's publicly stated figure of over 180 wounded Australians in Afghanistan tells only a fraction of the story. More than 920 wounded and injured Australian soldiers have received compensation for amputated limbs, severe burns, bullets still lodged in flesh and major depression. Will the government commit to revealing on an ongoing basis-not relying on FOI requests-the actual numbers of wounded and injured troops returning from Afghanistan?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:29): I thank Senator Ludlam for his question. I think the senator confuses two different issues here. The Department of Defence does make available the number of troops injured in combat action in Afghanistan. As I understand it, as of 21 August 184 Defence Force personnel have been wounded. But it is the case that the Department of Veterans' Affairs has accepted approximately 2,200 compensation claims for injuries and diseases in relation to Operation Slipper, which includes the wider Middle East area operation, not just Afghanistan.
So there are two different departments and two different uses of terminology, but I am advised that the Defence information made publicly available is correct. It uses the terminology 'wounded' and relates to injuries directly related to combat. The Department of Veterans' Affairs does not use that term; it uses a much broader term. It also classifies the number of claims, which may be more than one claim by the same person. Conditions such as mental health conditions may in fact present years after deployment and therefore may create a lag time and result in a compensation claim being put long after service has been completed.
So I think there is a slight misunderstanding at the centre of the question. Defence does publicly announce all battle casualties. It does not, of course, disclose personal or identifying details of personnel. The Department of Veterans' Affairs, in its annual report, provides information on the claims it has received and the progress of those claims. I understand that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs has indicated his willingness to make more detail publicly available if he can.

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (14:31): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for the answer to my question and can assure him that there is no confusion at the centre of this question. I am aware of the distinction between wounds and injuries.

The PRESIDENT: The question should be in the form of a question, not a statement.

Senator LUDLAM: Will the government provide a detailed breakdown of the types of wounds and the types of injuries sustained by soldiers in Afghanistan who have received compensation through the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the types of treatment and support offered to wounded and injured soldiers returning from Afghanistan?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:32): I apologise to Senator Ludlam. I was not trying to suggest that he did not understand the difference; I know he has the information available to him. I was just making the point, for the Senate's benefit, that there is a distinction between the two. I understand that the Department of Veterans' Affairs, through its minister, is prepared to make more information available than is in the annual report. I think he is looking at that now. He is considering what else can be made available, bearing in mind the need to protect the privacy of Defence personnel, both those who are serving and those who have left the service. I understand, as I said, that if there is more information that can be made publicly available then the minister is prepared to do that. I will take on notice the specifics of the questions and provide information for Senator Ludlam and the Senate.

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (14:33): I note that the defence minister was notified first thing this morning that I intended to ask this question, and I ask a further supplementary question. Minister, as standard practice the Department of Defence conceals the gender of wounded and injured soldiers. It was recently revealed that two of the 184 wounded Australian Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan were women. Will the government alter the current Department of Defence practice of concealing the gender of wounded and injured soldiers and provide gender disaggregated data?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:33): I would make the point to Senator Ludlam that the point I made was that the information is held by the Department of Veterans' Affairs, not the defence minister. It is a decision for the Minister for Veterans' Affairs as to what information he releases in terms of those claims. As I indicated, I will be taking those on notice. I understand that two female service personnel were injured in 2007 and that while information was provided to the public, it did not identify their gender. I understand that Defence's policy is not necessarily to comment on the gender of personnel when making comments about injuries, but I will take Senator Ludlam's question on notice and see if there is any more information I can get him as to whether or not they are prepared to consider changing that policy. But, as I understand it, normal policy is not to go to the question of gender when reporting on injuries.