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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

TRANSCRIPT

13 June 2018

Address to the National Press Club: ‘Is this as good as it gets’

**E&OE**

PRESENTER:
Today at the National Press Club, Veterans' Affairs Minister Darren Chester. A former newspaper and television journalist, Mr Chester has served as a federal cabinet minister and has been the Nationals Member for Gippsland for a decade. Darren Chester with today's National Press Club Address.

SABRA LANE:
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the National Press Club of Australia and today's Westpac address. My name is Sabra Lane. I'm the president of the club. I'm also the presenter of the ABC radio program AM. Our guest today is the - well, it is Darren Chester! It is his debut speech here at the Press Club and he also has a number of portfolios: Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Minister for Defence Personnel, and also the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Centenary of Anzac.

He is also the Deputy Leader of the House of Representatives, which had slipped me by. He is a Nationals MP and has been in Federal Parliament now for 10 years. The title of his speech is intriguing - ‘is this as good as it gets?’ If you are following the conversation at home please use the hashtag APC. And our twitter user handle is @PressclubAust

Everyone, please welcome Darren Chester.

DARREN CHESTER:
Well thank you Sabra and good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Can I begin by recognising the traditional owners of the land we gather on and pay respects to elders, past and present. Can I also recognise those who served our nation in uniform - to the members of the Defence Force who are here with us now, but also the veterans in the room. You keep us safe in a very challenging world. And you should be very proud of the job you do, or the job you've done in the past.

And no doubt it has been a very tough week for many in the Australian Defence Force with the focus on serious allegations from Afghanistan. Can I simply say that those allegations will be fully investigated. But please remember there are close to 60,000 Australian men and women serving in our Navy, Army and Air force and the vast majority fulfil their service with professionalism, with passion, with extraordinary patriotism for our country.

Can I also recognise the secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Ms Cosson, retired major-general Liz Cosson. We have a 100-year tradition of supporting our veterans. As the Centenary of Anzac commemorations draw to the close, the appointment of our first female secretary in Liz is a milestone. Congratulations, Liz. She has certainly been someone who's had a distinguished career in the military, both at home and abroad, and we are working closely together in her new role in the Department of Veterans' Affairs. We are working obviously focused on the transition of younger veterans from the ADF into civilian life, improving the mental health of our veterans and also supporting our veterans' families.

To you, Sabra, the President of the Press Club. Thank you for the invitation. Thank you personally Sabra for encouraging me to speak my mind on same-sex marriage about three years ago. As the first Nationals MP - it wasn't much of a career move I must say - but as the first Nationals MP to express that view I can still recall that day vividly. I was interviewed I think at Tullamarine Airport. Immediately after having the interview I rang our leader, Warren Truss, and his chief of staff immediately after, working on that basis that it was better to seek forgiveness than to seek their permission. And there was an enormous relief for me when I got the answering machine of both gentlemen! I left a short voicemail and then jumped on a plane to Perth - 3.5 hours without listening to return calls was a blessing. In a nod to Little Britain, you did get the term "the only Nat in the village", on official television.

Can I recognise David Speers. David was there 10 years ago. Unfortunately for me 10 kilos ago, when I was first elected to parliament in the Gippsland by-election. Just goes to show easy journos have got it, comparing David to me. The years have been very kind to you, David. It has been an amazing journey over this past 10 years and today I'm going to reflect on some of that, and I will pose a question: ‘Is this as good as it gets?’ Is this as good as it gets for our nation and regional Australia? Is this as good as it gets for our parliament? Is this as good as it gets for my portfolio in Veterans’ Affairs and also for my political party?

I'm reminded of a phrase that the former Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh said to his players on the 2001 tour of India. He wrote it on the whiteboard apparently in the dressing room. It was the saying, "Your attitude is contagious. Is yours worth catching?" I think about that. Your attitude in contagious is it worth catching? So the attitude we bring to our jobs, to sport, to politics, I think, is critically important. There is always going to be problems, always challenges. But there are also solutions and there are also opportunities As a nation we could do with a little bit more positivity, a little bit more national pride and perhaps just a little bit more respect in our national conversation. And that can start in our Federal Parliament. The respectful attitudes that we adopt can be contagious and will make a difference in the national conversation.

I would like to give a practical example. It occurred about five years ago. Julia Gillard was Prime Minister and she was being attacked from all sides. I thought the language was getting out of control and many others did as well. You could say, ‘well so what?’ Why should I care if my political opponent is getting a hard time? I was door stopped walking into the House of Representatives one morning. I said at the time what I noticed over the last few weeks, as I travelled throughout regional Australia, was the increasingly personal and vicious nature of some of the comments that were being fed back to me from members of the public. They’re comments they wouldn't like said about their mother, daughter or wife. It’s inappropriate to treat the Prime Minister in that manner, not because she's a woman but because her office demands the respect.

In a similar vein, I must say I agree with the Member for Grayndler, Anthony Albanese. We do need to see more bipartisanship in our parliament on nationally significant issues. Some people in the general public might be surprised to hear me say that I agree with Albo on anything! Their political diet that's fed to them is MPs fighting with each other, or perhaps even worse, MPs fighting amongst themselves.

But as the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport before my services were redeployed to the backbench - that's the difference between optimist and pessimist! While you were writing that I had been shafted, dumped, dismissed, sacked, an optimist like me will say my service has been redeployed to the backbench.

People would be surprised about the level of contact that does occur across party lines. As a minister I would regularly ring Albo and we would have discussions. I would seek his feedback even on topical issues I was dealing with to see if there were reforms that we could agree on without the rancour that may exist in other cases. In areas like road safety or transport security, aviation reform, some of the priorities we were setting in terms of major national infrastructure projects, we were often in furious agreement. We kept getting the job done with quite minimal public disagreement. I think there needs to be more of that. I think the challenge is to make sure that it is reported as well. I know complaining about media coverage is like going to Switzerland and complaining about the mountains. It's a fact of life we all deal with in this job.

I think our continued focus on personalities and not the policy debate is hurting our nation. As a result, we spend too much time talking about each other and not enough time on things that matter to all Australians. When that happens, the public switches off politics in our nation. I would argue that the greatest deficit in Australian politics today has nothing to do with the budget, with all due respect to the Treasurer. It’s a deficit in trust which exists between the voters and the elected representatives. That is our perspective as members of parliament. We need to be provide more transparency on decision making, and we need to demonstrate through our actions that we're actually listening to the people and their concerns.

So, in my inaugural speech I talked about the need to build respect within the parliament to encourage younger people to get involved in public life. I think we can do it better, and it starts with a more bipartisanship and positive attitude and leadership in these key policy areas. Fortunately for me I have a portfolio which invites bipartisanship. The Veterans' Affairs Portfolio and Defence Personnel portfolio invite a bipartisan approach. I will take my own advice about contagious attitude and my message is quite simple. I’m determined to put veterans first. I'm determined to put veterans' families first as we work in a constructive way and a positive way to deal with the challenges that many of our veterans face. I'm already comforted, I guess, from my few short months in the role by the direction we're taking as a department, recognising there is more for us to do.

In this year’s budget the government committed in excess of $11 billion to provide the essential services that our veterans rely on. Across Australia, we provide support for 288,000 veterans and their families. It's worth noting that there's an additional $100 million in this year's budget as the DVA continues its reform agenda, upgrading internal information technology systems, but also making sure we have faster and better service delivery to people when they need it. I think we're heading in the right direction, but there is more work to be done, particularly around mental health and our support for ADF personal, the younger ADF personal as they transition to civilian life.

We know the best type of support is the economic independence that comes from securing a job. This is why we will continue to promote job opportunities with an additional $8 million from the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program, with a focus on ensuring the business community understands the benefits of employing a veteran. This not about charity. Simply, employing a veteran is good for your business. They have transferable skills. They have a demonstrated work ethic. They have exhibited traits of teamwork, leadership, loyalty, patriotism. I want to emphasise - this is important - not everyone who leaves the Australian Defence Force has post-traumatic stress disorder.

In fact, quite the opposite. I make that point because veterans are coming up to me in the few short months in this role at roundtables and other functions and saying I got asked in a job interview, "do you have PTSD?” The vast majority of people who leave the Defence Force do so at a time of their own choosing and in good health. For those who don't, it's up to us to make sure we provide the support they need when they need it. We need to remember that employing a veteran is good for your business.

When it comes to mental health, we have listened to veterans and their families. It is a big issue throughout the country. Currently we provide, through DVA, free mental health care to anyone who has served one full day in the Australian Defence Force. We're going to be extending that to all reservist who rendered disaster relief or have been injured during a training exercise.

Suicide is an issue that affects all members of the community. Sadly our veterans and military personnel are not immune. Tragically suicide remains the greatest cause of death for men aged 18-44. The DVA spends close to $200 million per year on supporting the mental health care needs of veterans. We can pay for mental health treatment regardless of the cause. We have strategies in place to support our veterans. I urge anyone listening today who may be struggling with mental health to make sure they reach out to the Veterans and Veterans' Family Counselling Service for support.

We are now piloting trials, we’re listening to veterans and families and opportunities such as training assistance dogs for suitable veterans and innovative ways to assist veterans with their health. These are areas that I'm impressed the Department of Veterans' Affairs is prepared to explore.

It is important to note the latest research on veterans and unemployment would indicate that in the first 10 months from Defence into civilian life the unemployment rate is about 8%. Which is obviously higher than the national average, but it is nowhere near the 30% figure which is quoted. So, this is not as good as it gets. I think we can do better. In a partnership approach with the community, with the business sector, and with industry, along with government agencies at all levels - and I mean government agencies at all levels - we can make sure more veterans make the transition into employment.

There is a focus on assisting that transition, in order of 5,500 to 6,000 veterans leave the Defence Force each year. The flip side of my portfolio responsibilities is the Minister for Defence Personnel. There is something unique about young Australians prepared to put on the uniform of the Navy, Army or Air Force and place themselves in harm's way to protect our country and help others.

I have been fortunate not just in this role but in my previous roles as parliamentary secretary for Defence to see our personnel in action around the world. I see some of the members that I met on location throughout the world in that time. It's been an extraordinary personal experience as a minister and a parliamentary secretary where I have been able to see the leadership, the teamwork and the training that's been done here in Australia put into action. It is a rare privilege as a civilian to see it in action. I have been on patrol boats off Darwin, supply vessels off Pearl Harbour. I have had to fly in everything from a PC9 to a Globe Master, and I’ve been on the streets of Kabul in a Bushmaster after watching our troops train Afghan nationals. It’s been a rare privilege.

I have been overwhelmed by the sense of pride that our young men and women have in their job and the purpose - sense of purpose - they bring to the job they do. The ADF needs to keep on attracting the best possible talent that Australia has to offer. This is critical to delivering our obligations to the Australian community to keep them safe. I think Defence in many ways is a leader in the way it's been able to take advantage of the diversity of the Australian population. We've seen significant improvements in female recruitment within the Defence Force, significant improvements in indigenous recruitment, and also those from culturally diverse backgrounds.

Defence is well on its way to achieving the target of 2. 7% of its workforce being Indigenous, and to help Defence achieve the target we have specific recruiting campaigns, which are targeted at getting young Indigenous people ready to take on recruitment training - sorry, basic training.

We've also been successful in Defence in recruiting more Indigenous-owned businesses or partly-owned Indigenous businesses to undertake work for the Defence Force. The future success of Defence and our nation's security relies on Defence’s capacity to attract and retain the best possible talent available. I’m confident we're moving in the right direction.

We want to get our share of the best and brightest young Australians and we need to demonstrate that we will look after them during and after their service. And to help test the approach we are working with our counterparts at the state and national level. In October I will be joined by my state and territory counterparts and our Five Eyes nation partners to discuss issues affecting the veteran community.

These events tie in with the extraordinarily important and extraordinarily inspirational Invictus Games. The Games use the power of sport to motivate recovery and generate a wider understanding of the sacrifices made by the men and women who serve their country. The Games also recognise the significant contribution that family and friends make in supporting our veterans. The attendance of the royal couple, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, will focus attention on the veterans, but also will provide an opportunity for us to highlight the work that still needs to be done.

Ladies and gentlemen, we should never forget the sacrifice that has been made for us by our serving men and women. More than two million Australian servicemen and women have served our nation since federation. Around 102,000 have paid the ultimate sacrifice. We commemorate that service at the Australian War Memorial. I recognise the Director, Dr Nelson, who is here today. It's not about glorifying war. It is about respecting and honouring the memory of our fallen. It is also about supporting our current and future veterans and their families. I said earlier the level of bipartisanship in this area of government business is something we can be proud of as a nation.

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With our positive attitude - contagious positive attitude - I think we can achieve anything. We have a rich and proud history in regional Australia. But we also have a great future to look forward to. Quite simply - this is not as good as it gets. Thank you.

—— ENDS ——

Media Contacts:

Whil Prendergast: 02 6277 7820
DVA Media: 02 6289 6466
Office of the Hon. Darren Chester MP, Canberra.

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.