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Thursday, 14 February 2019
Page: 10295

Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (15:50): It was in December 2017 over a Christmas drink that a Tasmanian intensive care paramedic and the Vice-President of Paramedics Australasia, Simone Haigh, asked me, 'How do you get a Senate inquiry into an issue?' I responded, 'You talk to a senator,' and away we went. Simone had brought her dog, Oscar, a Weimaraner, to the office that day. Oscar is a wonderful dog, calm for his size—because they are quite a big dog—and very good at finishing his snacks. Simone had inherited another one of her Weimaraners about two years before in the worst of circumstances: Simone's friend and colleague Damian Crump had taken his own life, leaving Linc behind and shattering friends, family and colleagues. Simone explained me that while Damian's passing was a tragedy, he wasn't alone and that too many paramedics and responders have died by suicide or ended their career early because of mental health injury.

I went away determined to look at the incidence of mental health conditions amongst first responders—what support was being provided and what are the key gaps. I found that while there was a significant amount of work underway in terms of research and to improve policies and culture of first responder organisations, quite frankly, it was too slow and too fragmented. Australians who dedicate their lives to the service of our community, who answer us in our time of need, are not being adequately supported when they need it most, and greater national coordination is needed.

The inquiry received 161 submissions from all corners of the country and from Canada. We held hearings in all state capitals and here in Canberra. I want to thank personally all those first responders, their families, their representatives as well as the many, many health professionals, researchers and academics who made compelling submissions and gave evidence at hearings. Most of the submissions were highly personal in nature, sharing intimate details of trauma and bullying and of difficulties with broken systems.

I thank those first responder organisations that made submissions and sent representatives to hearings, in particular those senior leaders who recognised that there is still much more work to be done. I thank the staff of the secretariat—Stephen, Natasha, Kate, Ariane, Matt and Jade—for their work throughout this inquiry. I thank the other senators who participated in this inquiry, in particular Senator Marshall and Senator Brockman.

In policy making, data is the key. The inquiry was privileged to be able to include evidence from the epic Beyond Blue research project Answering the Call that captured the personal experience of over 21,000 current and former employees and volunteers. Beyond Blue found that 10 per cent of first responders have probable PTSD. The figure for the general population is four per cent. Similarly, incidents of high psychological distress and mental health conditions were around double the general population. There is a clear need for greater specialist interventions to support these people who give so much to our communities. The report makes 14 recommendations that seek to: drive greater focus across the country, collect more information on first responder mental health and suicide, increase national coordination and oversight, improve training and support services, and change workers' compensation processes. I trust that the federal government will quickly move with the states and territories to begin implementing these important recommendations. Our first responders can't wait.

I want to pay particular tribute to those first responders and their representatives who provided evidence on their experiences with bullying and maladministration. The committee heard your evidence loud and clear. We elected to focus on positive recommendations to improve workplace culture and support services. We heard time and again that, while first responder organisations have sought to update policies and procedures around mental health and workplace culture, such modern practices are not filtering down through the ranks. In fact, managers may be affected by the nature of their work and environment. Our first responder organisations must work harder to improve the workplace culture. Our first responder organisations and all levels of government must collaborate more—for example, through a comprehensive national action plan on first responder mental health.

I want to touch on the flawed workers compensation processes experienced by many first responders. We heard time and again from first responders and health professionals that the management of workers compensation is just too adversarial, that the cumulative nature of first responder trauma means that it is extremely difficult to prove their trauma is work related and that the current system further traumatises an individual rather than helps them to stabilise let alone get better. I congratulate the Tasmanian government for announcing late last year that it will move to a presumptive framework for PTSD for first responders. This is an important step, and I urge all jurisdictions to follow Tasmania's lead in this space.

We must ensure our first responders can access medical and psychological support, that their workplace helps and supports them and that in that process of getting help first responders are not re-traumatised. We must not let this report gather dust. Too many of our first responders need urgent help and support. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.