Wounded and injured Australian troops in Afghanistan
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: 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: 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.
Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (15:33): I move:
That the Senate take note of the answers given by Senator Evans to questions without notice asked by Senator Ludlam relating to Afghanistan.
I would like to create a short break in this fairly dismal spectacle, if I may, to address the questions that I put to the Minister representing the Minister for Defence about some very good investigative work that has been done by the West Australian newspaper, by one particular journalist who established the true human cost of the war in Afghanistan. Keep in mind, of course, that I am referring only to those Australians who are killed or injured in the war. We have only the vaguest ideas of their enormous and indeed catastrophic human cost of the war in Afghanistan on the Afghan people.
It surprised me, and I think it should be quite chilling for all members of this chamber, to realise that we have only a very poor idea of the cost of the war to Australian service personnel. The government's publicly stated figure of personnel wounded in Afghanistan stands at about 184, but the true number of personnel whose compensation claims have been paid out and who are acknowledged to have been wounded and are, as Senator Evans correctly pointed out, in the category of injured is more than five times greater. The cost to Australian men and women who have been sent into this war zone is more than five times greater than the Australian public realises. This is something that we need to sit up and take notice of.
This is not about an anti-war stance a pro-war stance. I recognise that, although I may be with the majority of public opinion in wanting to return the troops home, I am as yet in a minority in this chamber on getting Australian troops out of Afghanistan. This is not about that. This is about doing justice to the people that we put in harm's way, it is about acknowledging again that parliament does not have that power, because the executive has reserved that to itself, and it is about at least having the honesty to face up to the people who are damaged and whose lives are broken. We are still paying out on war pensions from World War I-from nearly a century ago. That is how long these impacts last and how long they impact on people and families. Many of the people who come home from Afghanistan are forgotten. They deserve better. They deserve acknowledgement by this chamber and by the people of Australia and they deserve not to have their claims fall on the definition of whether they were diagnosed with an injury at the time or whether it was diagnosed on their return to Australia, particularly if the number is more than five times greater than we were aware of.
I appreciate that the minister has accepted and undertaken to review the way that we report on wounding and injury statistics in Afghanistan. That should happen as soon as possible, so that it does not have to fall to journalists submitting freedom of information requests for this information to come to light.
The other issue that I put to the Minister representing the Minister for Defence was that of reporting gender disaggregated data, so that we know when it is women who are killed or injured. We have discovered that we do not know, because at the moment that is not reported. I raise something that the minister and the chamber might not have been aware of. In 2000, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. That resolution has direct relevance to the question I put to the minister this afternoon. Resolution 1325 was a watershed political framework that makes women and a gender perspective relevant to negotiating peace agreements, planning refugee camps and peacekeeping operations and reconstructing war-torn societies. It is about the impact of war on women.
It makes the pursuit of gender equality relevant to every single Security Council action, ranging from mine clearance to elections, to security sector reform. Australia participated in the debate prior to the adoption of the resolution. Just this week the government made an announcement of its intention to generate a national action plan, as over 20 countries have already done. It is very welcome indeed. But what the government will find is that it will need to start providing gender disaggregated data.
I asked the minister today why the government does not disclose the number or gender of wounded and injured personnel in Afghanistan. It must begin to do so. The Security Council resolution noted the need to consolidate data on the impact of armed conflict on women and girls, and that is the key sentence that links the preamble of that document with the operative paragraphs. The entire document hinges on having gender disaggregated data so that we can understand the impact. The whole resolution is couched in terms of there not being enough information available to the international community on the different impacts of conflict on women and men or on the different contributions that women and men play in peace building and in warfare.
That is why the government must alter its information recording and disclosure habits. I was pleased that Senator Evans indicated that the government would at least consider the disaggregation of data by gender this afternoon. Gender disaggregated data makes the different experiences of men and women more visible and it makes it possible to continually review gaps and challenges in order to eliminate gender biases in national policies and interventions. If we are to come to grips with the horror that has been unleashed in Afghanistan in all of our names, even though the parliament was not able to take a vote on that matter, at least let us know what is occurring. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.