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Transcripts

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

TRANSCRIPT

Date: 13/04/2018
Time: 10:18 AM

Darren Chester with Ray Hadley (Mornings, 2GB)

Station: 2GB
Program: Mornings

**E&EO**

RAY HADLEY: I wanted to speak to the Minister of Veterans' Affairs Darren Chester. He joins me on the line from our Canberra studio.

Minister, good morning.

DARREN CHESTER: Good morning, Ray.

RAY HADLEY: A veteran being overpaid- we are dealing with older members of the community, and I'm not being ageist in saying that, but there are people that have priorities in life and staying upright and breathing are among them. Do we treat them properly in relation to tracking money that they may well have been overpaid without knowing it?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, Ray, firstly can I say I agree with your summation, all the facts you laid out to me. That's, as I understand, the circumstance involving the gentleman concerned. I don't want to talk too much specifically about him, because of privacy reasons. The bottom line is: you're right. The unique nature of Defence service means that our veterans deserve to be treated and their families deserve to be treated very well by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Now, I have a great responsibility, obviously, for taxpayers' money - in the order of $11 billion per year is paid in benefits to veterans and their families. But part of that obligation is to make sure that the veterans who receive income support actually report their income accurately so that we can help as many veterans as possible. Now, in this case, the gentleman concerned - and I think it's a regrettable case - but the gentleman concerned hasn't reported his managed investment income, which led to an overpayment over a period of years, and as part of the DVA's checking process - they check in the order of 100,000 pension reviews each year - in those circumstances, it came to light that he had been paid too much and was asked to repay it.

Now, you're right: we don't engage debt collectors. It's something we do through the department. There's no punishment, there's no interest charged or anything like that, it's just a question of recovering taxpayers' money in what is, as you describe it, quite a regrettable set of circumstances.

RAY HADLEY: You see, given it was $650 a year over seven years, it looked to me, or less than that over eight years, is there any way - because a couple of other people [indistinct] said: oh, crikey, I owe a lot more money than that - is there any way we could deal with it by crosschecking, given that we live in 2018? And I'm sure the $650 would have been far more manageable from day one, as opposed to the lump sum of $4700 after a period between 2010 and 2017. Is there any way we can make sure that these people are made aware that things are different? They need to keep a better eye on their income?

DARREN CHESTER: Oh absolutely. Now, in the circumstance you referred to, the person concerned could have opted for a fortnightly repayment plan rather than a lump sum and for whatever reason - I'm not sure the exact circumstances …

RAY HADLEY: [Interrupts] Well, you know what? I spoke to him. He's a really good old fella, right? And he's never owed any money in his life. We spoke to him, and, you know, even though you don't employ the services of debt collectors, when you owe people money, be it the government or anyone else, people of his age get terrified about their good name being besmirched by a debt collector chasing them, their credit rating goes up the spout. And so he just said: look, I'm going to pay it and- he's going to fight you [laughs]. He's got a lawyer representing him at the moment. What that's costing him I don't know, but that's the type of people we're dealing with. We're dealing with older Australians who lived a long and successful life. They don't want to be owing people money, and even if they think they're getting dudded, they're happy to pay it just so they don't get the bad name that goes with being a dudder.

DARREN CHESTER: And I fully understand the exact type of person you're talking about, because obviously I've met many veterans over the years and that's their spirit. And the review process that does occur, Ray - and I take your point about should we have been able to alert this gentleman earlier - the review process that occurs- I know in 2017 there was about 100,000 reviews done, and in those reviews, 47 per cent of them, their payment stayed the same. But then in 26 per cent, there was a reduction in pension; another 26 per cent there was an increase in pensions. So there is a bit of an issue there that there seems to be a fair few circumstances where people haven't necessarily got their reporting details right, and so we need to make our forms easier to understand, I guess.

I mean, my challenge is as much as this is a regrettable set of circumstances, I've got another challenge that there's actually thousands of veterans in the community we don't even know yet: people who have served our country and haven't registered with DVA. I need to find out who they are and see whether they need any support as well to make sure we help as many people as possible.

RAY HADLEY: You're talking about a fairly significant budget of $11 billion I think you said at the start of our conversation, but …

DARREN CHESTER: That's right.

RAY HADLEY: … what I say you: seeing we- I mean, you know, we could get on the DSP, which you don't have much to do with, but, you know, I'm continually driving your colleagues mad about the disability support pension and the people who have nothing wrong with them getting a large sum of money from the government when they're not entitled to it. But I have some respect and some reservations about the people in the position of Sam, and you just mentioned something to me then about making the forms a bit easier.

And I've got to say to you, with all due respect to your department, they were very difficult to deal with, and they weren't dealing with an 88-year-old; they were dealing with one of my staff in their 20s and she's on top of her game, and she came back to me very frustrated and said: these people are very arrogant, Ray. And that wasn't because of the privacy laws, it was the way they dealt with the matter.

And I reminded them on air, which I'll remind them again: you are dealing with returned servicemen and women, and when we purport to represent them, they need a bit of respect and they didn't get the respect they deserve.

DARREN CHESTER: Well look, I'm disappointed about that feedback and I'll certainly follow it up on your behalf, because in the short time I've been in the role, I've made it very clear to the department's senior staff that I want us to be putting the veterans first, I want us the veterans' families first. I don't want these to be empty words; they have got to be deliverables on the ground. And that if people have concerns that we should be dealing with them in a very respectful way, because there is something quite unique about being prepared to put on the uniform of the Navy, the Air Force, of the Army and place yourself in harm's way to protect our country and help others who can't help themselves. There's something quite unique about that, and we do have a problem with some of our younger veterans returning from battle zones with PTSD and other issues. We need to make sure we're supporting them.

I think one of our great challenges is getting them into good jobs when they come out of the Defence Force and we're working hard to try and get more larger companies interested in hiring our veterans, because we believe they've got great leadership skills and teamwork skills and they've been willing to be disciplined and learn new trades in the Defence Force.

So there's a lot of work we can do. The $11 billion we put into the Department of Veterans' Affairs is really good. It's great that we do have that support, but we've got to keep on finding ways to do more to make sure we're reducing the amount of harm that does occur [indistinct].

RAY HADLEY: Well this wasn't about bashing you up or the Department up, but I want you to look at those forms, I want you look at this, and I don't think we should be going to people like Sam seven years down the track or eight years down the track and saying: look, from 2010 to 2017, you've been paid too much so we want it back. I think there has to be some sort of process that we find out in 2011 that Sam's circumstances have changed, not six, seven, eight years, nine years down the track.

DARREN CHESTER: And I think, Ray, that that is a very fair request you're making. Part of our problem, again, is that the Department, throughout recent decades, has relied on a paper-based system and this system needs to be updated. We're putting a lot of money into new IT systems to make that happen so that our younger veterans will be able to use their iPhones or iPads to register rather than have to fill out pages of forms.

These things have taken a bit too much time but it's something I'm very keen to keep pursuing. That reform process is underway and we've got to pursue it as quickly as we possibly can.

RAY HADLEY: All right. Thanks for making yourself available I do appreciate it.

DARREN CHESTER: I appreciate your time and your interest in the veterans, mate. Much appreciated.

RAY HADLEY: Thank you. Minister of Veterans' Affairs from our Canberra studio, Darren Chester.

ENDS

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.