Jeff Kennett: Tragic deaths causing trauma for our first responders

Published by the Herald Sun on May 28, 2019

By Jeff Kennett

Another woman murdered in Melbourne. Courtney Herron. It makes me terribly sad. There have been many expressions of sympathy, but not at the same level as after the death of Jill Meagher.

Why is that? Is it because Courtney was a woman with issues? A young woman of no fixed address?

A life is a life, and while no murder is better or worse than another, was Courtney’s perhaps sadder because she had clearly slipped through the cracks of life?

At the time of her death she was vulnerable, and to that extent society did fail her.

We are directing more government resources to educating the community about respecting each other, which is a good investment, but it does not address the circumstances of men who commit crimes against women.

No one has the answers, certainly not me, but I worry we are not winning this battle.

Each time I read about a crime such as this, I am struck by the ripple effect of the tragedy.

Apart from the loss of life and the penalty handed out to the perpetrator of such a crime, there is the lasting impact on their families.

There is also another impact that is often overlooked: the impact on the lives of the first responders who deal with these incidents as a result of what they find, and see, and have to confront.

We count on first responders such as policemen and women, paramedics, firefighters, and State Emergency Service staff, and expect them to be there for us when the need arises.

But they deal with gruesome tasks daily, and it is no wonder the mental health of so many is severely tested, and often broken.

I recently attended a lunch at which Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton, in answer to a question from the floor, said Victoria Police were now called to a domestic violence–related incident every six minutes, and to a mental health–related incident every 12 minutes. Those statistics are frightening, and indicate to me that while campaigns to educate are a step in the right direction, particularly for the future, they are not addressing today’s problems.

I am not suggesting that education and stronger penalties alone will eradicate all instances of domestic violence, but surely we must make a meaningful commitment to change the culture of society, regarding respect towards one another.

We have achieved it in dealing with road safety, making seatbelts mandatory and campaigning against drink-driving, and with the dangers of sun exposure and of smoking. We should set ourselves a target whereby in 20 years the incidence of domestic violence is substantially reduced.

But I am equally worried about the condition of our first responders. The Herald Sun has been reporting on some horrifying incidents being faced by our police when protecting our community.

The mental health of our first responders is our challenge as much as theirs. Sadly, the number of suicides of first responders and those who have retired is too high.

To that end the Hawthorn and Collingwood Football Clubs are dedicating their game on July 5 to raising the profile of the Emergency Services Foundation and its crucial role. Collingwood president Eddie McGuire and I intend to make this an annual event. Both clubs have pledged to contribute $25,000 each on the night of the game to the Emergency Services Foundation.

The AFL Emergency Services Match at the MCG will give every Victorian the opportunity to recognise and salute our emergency services and assist them to deal with the mental issues they face when protecting our society.

Readers who wish to join Eddie, Ms Neville and me in saluting our first responders can donate directly at esf.com.au