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The Hon Darren Chester MP
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC


Date: 05/04/2018
Time: 04:31 PM

Darren Chester with David Speers (Speers, Sky News)

Program: Speers


DAVID SPEERS: Darren Chester is the Minister for Veterans Affairs. He joins me now. These are some startling figures, Minister, if perhaps not surprising to some. Almost three in four of those surveyed met the criteria for mental disorder in their lifetime. Now, how does that compare to the general population, and are we to conclude that serving in the military raises the risk, the likelihood that you are going to suffer some sort of mental disorder?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, good afternoon, David, and you're right. The figures are disturbing in some ways, but in other ways, they're actually validating the steps that are already underway, that have been underway now for the best part of a decade, to address these very serious mental health concerns that we have with not only our serving Australian Defence Force personnel, but also, in particular, our veterans and that transition period when they move from the military into civilian life. And what we've found over recent years is focusing more of our efforts on that transition period is the way to reduce the level of mental health issues for veterans, and certainly to target the number of suicides which have occurred in the veteran community. So, yes, you're right in the sense that these figures are disturbing, they are alarming in some regards, but also it validates the fact that we've taken some very significant steps in recent years. Even as recently as just before Christmas, the Federal Government announced a further $30 million for veterans' mental health programs, bringing the total expenditure in the Veterans' Affairs budget for mental health in the order of about $200 million per year.

DAVID SPEERS: And I appreciate that those measures are really aimed at trying to tackle these problems, and we are looking in this survey, I suppose, in the rear-view mirror, to a degree. But is there anything in the findings that surprises you, that tells you we need to try something different, we need to change direction, or do you just stick with what you're doing?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, that's a really difficult question, David, and I probably didn't quite get to your first question either, I'm sorry. One of the challenges we have is when personnel are actually in the Australian Defence Force, there's a lot of support structures around them, and Professor Pat McGorry once described it to me as like a scaffold around them that gives them a lot of support, a lot of structure around their lives. When they transition out, losing some of that structure, losing some of that scaffolding is actually a period where they're more at risk of developing a mental health disorder, and we've found from the research - this most recent research, which you said, correctly, is the biggest piece of study we've done in this regard - that the critical points are 12 months after someone transitions, and again about three years after they transition out of Defence that they may well present with issues. Now, that's not to say that everyone who leaves the Defence Force is going to come out of it in a poor state. They leave with a great deal of skills, leadership ability, teamwork ability, a whole range of transferable skills to the private sector, but we do need to make sure in that difficult transition period we've got the right support structures in place, and helping them, particularly those who may have left because they've been injured or suffered a poor result from their career that they're actually leaving it in a way that they're supported in those difficult first few years.

DAVID SPEERS: Yeah, no doubt about that. Very employable, terrific leadership and other skills, but we still see these figures. More than 20 per cent - one in five - experienced suicidal ideas, plans or attempts, just in the last 12 months. Again, do these sort of figures show that being in the military and then transitioning out at some point is going to lead to a higher risk of a mental disorder, or indeed suicidal thoughts?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, it's not easy for me to make that direct comparison, David, because unfortunately, the broader population figures are very much out of date. They date back to, I think, about 12 or 14 years ago. So we've seen a significant transition, I think, in Australia over this last decade where the stigma around mental health has been reduced, to some extent. It's still an issue that people are still reluctant to report, in many cases, although what we've found with the Australian Defence Force is there's more [audio cuts] to report a mental health issue now than there has been in the past, but the background number in the Australian population is quite hard to detect, because the research hasn't necessarily been as recent as what we're seeing in the Australian Defence Force. So it's a bit hard to make a direct comparison, but what we can say is the work we've been doing has been heading in the right direction, but there's more work to be done.

Our challenge is to keep on putting our veterans first, putting our veterans and their families first; directing our resources in a way that supports them when they need it; recognising that quite unique nature of military service where they've been prepared to put on the uniform, they've been prepared to sometimes deploy overseas and place themselves in harm's way to help those who can't help themselves. It's quite a unique nature of service, and we need to make sure that, as a nation, we're responding in a way that supports them if they are having trouble when they try and make that transition into civilian life.

DAVID SPEERS: And look, there is some good news here in the survey. Three in four received assistance in their mental health in their lifetimes - that's three-quarters - and approximately half sought help for their mental health within three months of becoming concerned about it. So, well, I don't know, perhaps that's not enough. Approximately half within three months [audio cuts] health. You'd want to see that figure a whole lot higher, wouldn't you? If they're clearly suffering, you want them to actually know that there is help there.

DARREN CHESTER: Well, what we're finding, David, is it's often family members, close friends, work colleagues who are saying: mate, you're not quite right, I think it's time to go and see someone. There's a resistance still amongst particularly young males that they're not going to admit to themselves that they may have a problem. They've been trained to be problem solvers, people who fix other people's problems. To think that they've got a problem themselves is a bitter pill to swallow, but we've found from the research again that families, friends, close colleagues are the ones who can perhaps tap them on the shoulder, encourage them to go and see someone, and the earlier the treatment is given, the more successful it's likely to be, in terms of the longer term health outcomes. And there's been many cases within the Australian Defence Force where people have reported early, received treatment, and then been redeployed, and so gone on to have a successful career.

So it's not the end of their career in uniform, and for the veterans, there's no question that for people who've already left the Defence Force that getting that treatment is going to assist them in terms of their future career prospects in civilian life. So, it's not all bad news. There's no doubt the numbers are something we need to be very concerned about, but I think the steps that are being taken now over the past decade have been in the right direction, but there's always perhaps going to be more work for us to do in this regard.

DAVID SPEERS: Before I just turn to some other issues finally, Minister, I just want to mention: support from these organisations is available for anyone who may be feeling distressed. You can call the SANE helpline: 1800 187 263. Lifeline: 13 11 14, or beyondblue: 1300 224 636. Always important to point that out to anyone listening to these sorts of conversations.

Now, can I just turn to the energy debate? Your seat, Darren Chester, of Gippsland, covers the Latrobe Valley - the area that, of course, as we've been reminded this week, General John Monash, post-war, opened up to brown coal mining and coal-fired power. Now, his descendants have taken issue with a number of your colleagues who've set up the Monash Forum, using his name and his history in the Latrobe Valley as they mount their case for a new coal-fired power station or more coal-fired power stations to be built, specifically on the site of the Hazelwood plant in your electorate.

Firstly, on the name itself here. Do you have an issue with the name they've chosen for this forum?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I have to admit, David, when I first heard the name it didn't particularly strike me as a problem, but given the Monash family itself has released a statement and taken exception to it, I think the prudent thing to do would be to change the name. It doesn't change the issue that my colleagues are concerned about, being a reliable, affordable, secure energy supply, so I think changing the name would be prudent in the circumstances. Sir John Monash is a great Australian. His military history was extraordinary, and then his achievements when he left the Defence Force and became such an important player in the development of Victoria beyond anyone's normal careers. So he had two great careers in the one lifetime. So if the family's taken exception, I think the prudent thing to do would be to drop the name, but the issue itself around energy affordability and security and the brown coal-fired power stations is one that I'm keen to pursue.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, maybe they could call themselves the Hazelwood Forum, because that's the specific proposal they've made: use the site at the old Hazelwood power station to build a new, cleaner coal-fired power station. What do you think of that specific idea? It's in your electorate. Surely there'd be plenty there who'd welcome that.

DARREN CHESTER: Look, it'd be very welcome in my electorate. As you indicated, the Latrobe Valley's at the heart of the Gippsland electorate. There's in the order of 80 to 85 per cent of Victoria's energy needs are generated in the Latrobe Valley. It's an extraordinary natural resource that's been available for many decades now and has been used to really help the state prosper.

Look, in terms of the actual construction of a new power generating facility, it needs to be remembered, right around the world there are other countries that now are investing in high-energy, low-emissions technology using coal - quite often using Australian coal. So there's opportunities to create a new power station in the Latrobe Valley, but you'd only be able to do that if you had some policy certainty, if you had some certainty across the electoral cycle where the investors weren't concerned that the rules were going to change if another government came into power. So the challenge is around that debate.

DAVID SPEERS: [Talks over] Which is the problem, which is the problem, which is the problem, right? Because we know Labor has …

DARREN CHESTER: That is the fundamental problem.

DAVID SPEERS: Yeah, exactly. So their argument, therefore - and the Monash Forum group make this point - because of that uncertainty, because of the prospect Labor is going to come into power at some point, the Government should step in and build this, use taxpayers' money to do so. What do you think about that?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I think you can provide policy certainty without necessarily having to use taxpayers' money to build such a facility. If the private sector was confident that there was going to be some security of their investment - there's no question the resource is available, there's hundreds of years of brown coal still available in the Latrobe Valley. It's been a source of great frustration for me as a local member over the past 10 years to see the industry vilified, to some extent, because it's actually affected people personally in my electorate; they feel they've been vilified as well during this debate, and they've been just going to work and generating the electricity that we need, generating baseload power at an affordable price. And it's an issue- it comes up a lot in my electorate - people are struggling with the cost of living, small businesses are struggling with their electricity prices. If you're going to be a big manufacturer in Australia [indistinct] markets.

DAVID SPEERS: [Talks over] But the point is, you identified: no one's going to invest if there's political uncertainty. But you're saying the Government shouldn't, either?

DARREN CHESTER: No. My argument, I guess, David, is around that providing certainty is important in this space. In this energy debate, certainty is the critical issue if you want to see investment in large-scale coal fired technology. And I think it's still something we could achieve. I think the reason for the Forum being developed, where these colleagues who want to discuss these issues, is not that unusual in Federal Parliament. I mean, I formed a parliamentary Friends of Road Safety several years ago, where members get together and talk about road safety issues and how we want to see more investment in better and safer roads and safer vehicles. So, [indistinct]…

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Yeah, but I don't think you'd propose ideas that are contrary to government policy.

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I'm not sure that it actually is contrary to government policy, David, in the sense that the Prime Minister has indicated his-

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] A taxpayer-funded $4 billion coal fired power station is.

DARREN CHESTER: No, but the principle of a coal fired power station being agnostic on the form of how the energy's generated is in the National Energy Guarantee policy; it's about how you provide that reliability and affordability. The question about how you pay for it, I guess, is it. I think providing that policy certainty is a critical for us at state and federal level. It's been, you know, more than a decade now, it's basically been an investment strike where because companies can't be confident about the policy settings, they haven't been investing in their facilities and we've seen the rundown of assets in the Latrobe Valley - Loyang A, Loyang B, and Yallourn, and obviously Hazelwood shut last year. We haven't seen the same level of those assets that there had been in the past.

DAVID SPEERS: Look, just finally: some of the members of that Monash Forum - Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews - they're going to be down in your neck of the woods, there. They'll be in the Latrobe Valley, apparently, on Monday doing their Pollie Pedal charity ride. Are you going to tag along?

DARREN CHESTER: Look, I'll spare my colleagues the Lycra, I think. I haven't been on the bike much lately, but I'll certainly be there with Tony and Kevin in the sense that the charity they're fundraising for this year is Soldier On, which is obviously an important veterans organisation supporting our ex-service personnel. So, I'll be there with them and I'll try to avoid getting the Lycra.

DAVID SPEERS: No Lycra, but there in spirit. Darren Chester, thank you very much for joining us this afternoon - the Member for Gippsland and the Veterans' Affairs Minister. Appreciate your time.

DARREN CHESTER: Thanks, appreciate your interest.


Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) can be reached 24 hours a day across Australia for crisis support and free confidential counselling. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546). VVCS is a service founded by Vietnam veterans.