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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: 05/03/2018
Time: 04:06 PM

Interview with Darren Chester, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Program: Speers


DAVID SPEERS: Today as the Government, of course, tried to move on from this whole matter, new National Party Ministers were sworn into office at a ceremony at Government House. On Thursday afternoon, new Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack named Darren Chester to replace him as the Minister for Veterans Affairs and Defence Personnel. Queenslander Keith Pitt was also brought back into the outer ranks of the ministry as Assistant Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister, and Mark Coulton was also sworn in this afternoon as Assistant Minister for Trade and Tourism.

Well, Darren Chester as mentioned is the new Minister for Veterans Affairs and Defence Personnel. Thanks very much for joining us this afternoon.

DARREN CHESTER: Great to be here.

DAVID SPEERS: Congratulations on your return to the ministry, and I want to turn to your portfolio in a moment. But first just to pick up on Laura's story: does it surprise you that Barnaby Joyce would have said something like this to the Prime Minister, that he and Tony Abbott could organise the numbers against him?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, obviously I wasn't at any meeting which Laura's reporting on. I'm not doubting for a second she has sources that are indicating that was what occurred in discussion.

DAVID SPEERS: You never heard anything like that?

DARREN CHESTER: No, I never heard those sorts of comments made, and quite frankly, I mean, as I travelled around my electorate on the weekend people weren't particularly interested in what politicians thought of each other. They were more interested in what are the roads like in Gippsland in my electorate, what are you doing to make sure our kids and our parents can have good jobs in our community?

DAVID SPEERS: Fair enough, but do some in the National Party ever privately muse about changing the Liberal Party leadership?

DARREN CHESTER: Not that I'm aware of. We're too busy doing our job. We're simply too busy doing the job, whether it's as a backbencher - as I've been for the last few months - or as the Minister on Infrastructure and Transport.

DAVID SPEERS: Last few weeks there hasn't been a lot of focusing on the job amongst National Party MPs, to be fair. Have you spoken to Barnaby Joyce since his resignation?

DARREN CHESTER: I spoke to Barnaby last week. We had sitting week last week, so I spoke to him quite a few times last week. I think we made a few jokes at each other's expense about sitting in the backbench as we were last week during the sitting of Parliament.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, you are no longer.

DARREN CHESTER: He's got a good gallows sense of humour, and we made a few jokes at each other's expense.

DAVID SPEERS: Alright, well now you're back in the Ministry after not a lot of time on the backbench. Your new portfolio, Veterans' Affairs, in particular you're in fact the seventh Veterans' Affairs Minister in five years. There's been a lot of churn there. What's your focus going to be?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I think you're right in terms of that churn. It's an issue for our stakeholders, and we call them stakeholders. We're actually talking about individual veterans, individual people who have a reason to be involved with the Department of Veterans Affairs, so our number one focus has to be make sure the veterans are central to everything we do. I think the question around respect is perhaps the biggest issue we've got to deal with in how we manage any concerns that veterans may have. Have a respect [audio skip] health issues, whether it be physical and mental health issues, and how we build respect in the wider community for the service that these people have given to our country.

I think that's one of the great things about the Australian War Memorial, and it's I think an iconic place that a lot of Australians go to every year. About half a million Australians go every year, that they understand the sacrifice and the service which has occurred in the past. I think it's an honour to have this role. It's a real privilege to be working with our veteran community, but I do want to acknowledge that there has been a lot of churn in recent years.

DAVID SPEERS: One of the toughest parts in this portfolio is dealing with the number of suicides amongst veterans, ex-service personnel. I think it was 84 suicides just last year. It is an alarming number. There have been efforts- I know when Dan Tehan held the role to try and do this there was a Parliamentary inquiry into it and so on. A number of measures announced since then. But is this something that you see areas where more can be done?

DARREN CHESTER: I think everyone who comes in to Parliament wants to try and make a difference through their service as a Member of Parliament, and I see that one area where we can really make a real difference in the future. Mental health is an issue which I think we've been very good in Australia in the last probably ten years at reducing the stigma, but we've still got a long way to go. In the veteran community and the Defence Force, it's probably tougher because the very nature of their work is that they are hardened professionals who are doing a job, a lot of discipline involved. To then admit you may have a mental health problem still has a fairly significant stigma attached to it, so we need to break down that barrier, reduce the stigma and then make sure when people indicate they need support or their family recognises some symptoms that perhaps their loved one does need some support, that support's ready, and ready to go immediately. That's where I think we're going to be able to make improvements.

DAVID SPEERS: A lot of blame is put at the feet of the Department of Veterans' Affairs for the delays in processing claims and dealing with people - some have even suggested we need a royal commission into that. But do you acknowledge the department does take too long, often?

DARREN CHESTER: I think the department- and I've only, keep in mind, had 48 hours since I was announced, and had some briefings today and a lot of reading on the weekend about where the department is moving, and I think the department is moving in the right direction. What we've seen in the past is literally thousands and thousands of movements of bits of paper every month as veterans' claims are processed, and the digitisation, getting that into one format which you can call up a veteran's medical history immediately and have more opportunity to actually get some support when a problem is flagged.

So, I think the department is heading in the right direction. I think we need to acknowledge there's been mistakes made in the past, and we all need to acknowledge that every death from suicide is a tragedy, whether it's 10, 20, 30, or 50, whatever it is, it's a tragedy every one of them. But there's also a responsibility, I think, for us in the community, in the broader community, to make sure we're part of the solution as well, in seeking help when it's required, or recognising the symptoms and getting a mate to go and get some help when it's required. I understand now there's in the order of $200 million per year available through mental health services through the departments. There's a lot of counselling available, there's a lot of support there. We need to make sure people actually access that support and their families access it as well. It's not just about the veteran, it's also about their families.

DAVID SPEERS: Look, it's a hugely important area and a very important portfolio that you now hold.

Coming to the Government as a whole, again, today, more bad news in the Newspoll. This is number 28, as you know; I'm sure everyone's keeping count of these things.

DARREN CHESTER: Well, you certainly are.

DAVID SPEERS: Someone set a target of 30, that I can't quickly recall, but that's why it's got the focus it does. What do you put it down to?

DARREN CHESTER: Look, I think our last three weeks- you referred to the last three weeks of the National Party. It wasn't particularly spectacular on our behalf. I mean, our party's 100-year history of delivering for regional areas in the last three weeks were pretty ordinary. We're determined, as a group, to unite behind the new leader Michael McCormack, and unite behind Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition team, because we recognise we're doing some good things. We're doing some good things in the community in terms of those critical economic issues, about creating new jobs in the community, working with small businesses. There's been tax cuts relief. The national security …

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Okay, the reason that's not coming through is Barnaby Joyce's fault?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, it's not one, single person's fault. It's about discipline across the team. It's not about just an individual at fault. If we want to be in government, if we want to continue to prosecute our agenda as a Coalition government, if we believe, we genuinely believe, that we're the best government for Australians, then we have to show more discipline, and that's up to every single one of us - not one individual; every single member of Parliament, every minister.

DAVID SPEERS: Would it help, though - and I know you don't want to blame Barnaby Joyce for all of this - but would it help if he stopped doing interviews about paternity and so on?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I was sort of in Barnaby's position before Christmas in the sense that I lost the job I really wanted to do, being the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, and you can feel a bit angry about that, you can feel a bit frustrated about that. The best thing I decided to do was to take a break, have a couple of weeks on the road with my son. We packed our swags and we nipped off to regional Victoria and regional South Australia, spent a bit of time on the beach, spent a bit of time in a few country pubs and [indistinct] and pots and pepper steaks and …

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Sounds pretty good.

DARREN CHESTER: It was good therapy. It was therapy for me and my young bloke. So, I'd say, look, Barnaby, I'd encourage him to take a break and get out there and reconnect with the people he loves in his electorate. I'm not sure that he achieves much by talking about issues in the past, particularly in his own mind, since he said, when he stood down, he wants to create a circuit-breaker. You know, it's hard to have a circuit-breaker if you're still talking about those old issues every day, so I'd encourage him to take a break. He's been a real champion for our party over more than a decade, he's achieved a great deal; no one wants to see his legacy diminished in any way, shape, or form, and I just want to make sure that we support him as a party and he gets out there and enjoys the time in New England.

DAVID SPEERS: And stay away from the media for a while.

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I'm not going to give completely gratuitous advice to my colleague, but I think Barnaby is a real champion of regional Australia. The work he's done in New England has been extraordinary. I think that's where he enjoys himself the most, and he should get out there and explore New England.

DAVID SPEERS: Darren Chester, the new Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel, thanks very much for joining us this afternoon.

DARREN CHESTER: Thanks for your time.


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.