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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

14 December 2018

Press conference transcript

Council for Women and Families United by Defence Service and Productivity Commission draft report

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs:
Well I’m delighted to be here this morning with my great friend Gwen Cherne, who is also a member of the NSW War Widows’ Guild, and Gwen’s here this morning for a very important announcement.

Obviously the Government is absolutely determined to put veterans and their families first. We’ve seen major transformation already underway at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and today we’re announcing the formation of a new council for women and their families united by defence service.

Now the reason for the new council is to make sure that we as a government and our department, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, is well informed on issues that impact on service. We understand that on many occasions, the home front is as important as the front line.

We need to make sure that we’re supportive of families, and supporting women, whether they’ve served themselves or their partners are serving.

So it’s a great announcement in terms of making sure we have a direct and unified voice to government helping form policy in this key area for the Government.

So I’m very pleased that Gwen could join us here this morning and drop in to say a few words. Come over here, Gwen.

Gwen Cherne:
Thank you. I’m really pleased to be a member and part of this council. I’ve been working, as have many, in the background. Many organisations, many individuals who’ve been working directly with the Minister, and with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, to really improve services, policies and programs for families, and women, over the last two years, since my husband passed away. I think a council like this, we’ve really wanted, and when we did the Honouring Women United by Defence Service dinner last year, we saw the impact of having a collaborative platform to provide support, advocacy and advice to government for women and families.

Minister:
Now, any questions on the council while we’ve got Gwen here? Hopefully you, Johno?

Journalist:
Well if I could just ask you, Gwen, the importance of having something like this from your perspective because to be a war widow is something that I don’t think anybody wants to go through, but your situation and to have something like this and the support around you, can you tell us about that from your perspective?

Gwen Cherne:
Look, I think we need to have a collective voice. We need to raise our voices so that others who have quieter voices can be heard, and when women and families have begun to speak up, and come together in a true collaborative sense, we’ve actually been able to lift our own voices. Not speak for others, but provide the opportunity for others to really be able to speak up as well and convey what their issues are, and improve those services for families across Australia.

Journalist:
Minister, what’s the situation at the moment? Is this work being done largely by Legacy, or … is it just not getting the results you need?

Minister:
I guess the concern at the moment among the groups which have been established to support women and families is their voices being spread out across a wide range of groups, and having a unified voice, a stronger voice, one direct avenue, I guess, into the policy formation process is going to benefit not only the groups that are already established but also benefit this government and future governments when it comes to forming veterans’ policy.

Gwen Cherne:
I might add if I may … there are more than five thousand ex-service organisations, and that is not just a lot for the government to understand. There’s a lot of white noise, and something like this can really consolidate those ideas, those really great policies, the innovation that we need to inform change, advise the government and get improvements in services that are desperately needed for many of our families.

But it does address that wide range of organisations that are fighting for attention, fighting for innovation in their own space, but just aren’t able to come together. I think if we can bring that together we can prioritise in a collective way.

Journalist:
Gwen, can I ask you, what was your journey like at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs?

Gwen Cherne:
I was incredibly grateful to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. They were at my house immediately when I called, it was a very personal experience, they held my hand, and still are holding my hand and my families’ hands through this process as we [inaudible] and grieve.

Journalist:
Do you think that’s the same for every family?

Gwen Cherne:
No, I don’t. I was very lucky that my husband’s death was identified as service related almost immediately, so I didn’t have any of the issues that other families have, and I know that families struggle to have that recognised, and they feel very strongly about that, but a lot of cases are complex, and DVA’s working incredibly hard. There have been a lot of improvements over the last several years, and I think we need to acknowledge that. Yes, there’s room to grow, but I do think that everyone that I know who’s working in this space has seen improvements, and we should acknowledge that.

Journalist:
So that’s what this is about, Gwen? Creating a united front, I suppose for all of these organisations you spoke about, and the different experiences that people have. But is there a need for a united front?

Gwen Cherne:
Look, I think there’s a need for a united front, I think there’s a need to consolidate some of our voices, to prioritise internally before we consistently go to the government and ask them for funding, and I think that there’s still a need for women’s issues, there’s still a need for family centric issues to be brought to the forefront that aren’t being addressed right now.

Thank you very much.

Journalist:
Minister, is it time to look at abolishing the current DVA structure?

Minister:
I welcome the Productivity Commission draft report. I think it’s an important report in that it outlines a whole range of issues within the veterans’ services area. As a government we’re determined to keep putting veterans and their families first. It’s important to note in the context of the Productivity Commission report that we are undertaking the biggest transformation in DVA’s history right now. That’s already under way. So we’re focused on making sure we’re delivering better services, making sure we’re delivering benefits to veterans and their families, and making sure we’re delivering value for money for the Australian taxpayers, so there’s a lot of work already underway.

I certainly welcome the Productivity Commission’s draft report, but it’s important to note that there’s a lot of work well underway. We’ve got some work to do, but I think we’re heading in the right direction.

Journalist:
Many veterans would probably feel quite apprehensive about hearing that DVA is being discussed this way. Can you assure them that it won’t go in this … as part of this review?

Minister:
It’s important now the draft report’s out there that the veteran community has its say. The whole point of the draft report is for the veteran community now to have its say in terms of some of the recommendations put forward by the Productivity Commission. There are issues in the report that are raised that I don’t agree with, and some that I do agree with. But it’s not for me to stand here today and rule things out or rule them in. It’s important that we go through the proper process now. Having the draft report and the final report by the middle of next year will help set the scene for veterans’ services for decades to come.

Journalist:
One of the proposals from this draft report is that the Defence Department pay a levy to a compensation scheme. Is that something that you would welcome?

Minister:
Well, I just said a moment ago, I’m not going to rule things out or rule them in here today. It’s a draft report and it’s out there now for the consideration of government and of course of the veteran community. We’re committed to putting veterans and their families first. We provide more than $11 billion per year right now to support our veterans. We’re proud of our veterans. We’re proud of the service they provide for our nation. I’m actually proud of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs as well. They’ve been a long transformation over the last couple of years, well led I think by the best Secretary in the Public Service, Liz Cosson, who’s had 30 years’ experience in the military herself, and is passionate about making sure we do our best for our veteran community.
So I would argue we’re already making some major changes. I would argue we’re heading in the right direction, and this Productivity Commission report I guess feeds into that broader public debate, but it’s not for me to rule things in and out here today.

Journalist:
But what about abolishing DVA at all, will you rule that out?

Minister:
Well, the Government has a policy of having a standalone Department of Veterans’ Affairs department. The Productivity Commission has a different view, and that’ll be part of the conversation I guess over the next few months.

Journalist:
Do you think you can, Minister, do you think you can ever have a perfect veterans’ affairs system, or will there always be cases that slip through the cracks?

Minister:
That is a terrific question, I mean, you’ve got a system which is set up to provide for veterans who may be well into their 90s and served in World War II, right down to veterans who may’ve done one day’s service, and been ruled out through injury on their first day of training. So it’s a very diverse cohort of people we’re talking about.

Just because we see a uniform, we shouldn’t assume that every one of those people is homogeneous. They’re all individuals, they all have different experiences in the military. Overwhelmingly, their experience of the military has been a very positive one, except for some who are injured either physically or mentally, we need to be able to pick them up and help them live their best possible life after their service in the Australia Defence Force, and that’s where the Department of Veterans’ Affairs fits in, and it’s very difficult to see how you could ever develop an absolutely perfect system, but I can tell you now, we’re working very hard to try to achieve that.

Journalist:
Gary Spence has fallen foul of the political donation laws. Does this underscore the need for a National Integrity Commission?

Minister:
I’m not aware of the story you’re referring to regarding Mr Spence, but in terms of the Integrity Commission, I support the announcement by the Prime Minister yesterday. In my first role here as a backbencher, I was on the Joint Standing Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, and got to learn a lot about how the system works, and I think building on that system now is a good step. I think that’s a positive step.

I was concerned we might be trying to establish a whole new commission but I think the fact that we’re building on ACLEI is the right way to go forward, and it’s a proven method here at the Federal level and I think that’s the right way to go.

Journalist:
But on the Commonwealth Integrity Commission, when you look at the public sector arm, how in an open and transparent democracy can you justify or explain holding hearings into public officials that are private and without the public being able to know what’s going on?

Minister:
Well, I know that might disappoint the media, but trial by media is not a very good way to go about investigating an issue. So, people’s reputations can be destroyed in the media, then they can be found innocent, so I think having those inquiries in the way you’ve described and then proceeding to a criminal investigation if it’s required – a public criminal process – is the right way to go forward so people’s reputations are not destroyed by rumour and innuendo.

Journalist:
And are you comfortable that an anti-corruption watchdog will effectively be an anti-corruption watchdog [when it] won’t actually be able to make findings of corruption?

Minister:
Well the details of how it will actually be established I think we work through over the next couple of months in discussions in this place.

Obviously, I’m confident that the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General have got the design right. We’re heading in the right direction in terms of providing confidence for the Australian public, that we’re determined to prevent any corruption if it exists, and working to make sure that those who are acting inappropriately are caught and brought to justice.

Journalist:
Returning to the question of veterans, it’s a little out of your area, but there are growing concerns about what’s happening with the Federal Police organisation and some of the people who have unfortunately taken their lives recently. As someone who has responsibility for veterans, is this something that the government could be doing more to address?

Minister:
Oh, I think in the area of mental health and supporting people who’ve experienced post-traumatic stress or any other mental health ailment, the most important thing for us to recognise is that support is available through government sources, through health agencies, but also there’s a role for community here in making sure that we’re reaching out to each other, supporting people, checking people are OK.

Journalist:
But is there a problem with the AFP?

Minister:
Now my view in terms of my responsibilities to the Australian Defence Force is that serving members have a lot of supporting structures around them, well, scaffolding, around them. One of our challenges in the ADF is making sure when people transition they still have that supporting structure about them to make sure that if they do present with signs of mental health illness, that we’re there to provide services for them when they need them.

Now, with regards to the Australian Federal Police, that really is a matter for a different minister, but I’d say the principles would remain the same: early identification, working with the health authorities, providing those support services when they’re needed, and also, as a community, removing any stigma around mental health, removing the stigma around oh, it’s not OK to perhaps show a sign of what we used to consider weaknesses. It’s just a fact of life that mental illness exists in our community, and some industries, some workplaces, put unusual stresses on people and we’ve got to be there to make sure we support them, and as a government we’re certainly doing that in terms of Veterans’ Affairs.

ENDS

 

Open Arms – Veterans and Families Counselling provides support for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families. Free and confidential help is available 24/7. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546) or visit www.OpenArms.gov.au