Skip to navigation

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

24 May 2018

Darren Chester with Steve Austin (ABC Brisbane Drive)

**E&OE**

STEVE AUSTIN: Well, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs Darren Chester has introduced a bill into Federal Parliament which he says will give veterans and their families greater access to essential services that they need. He introduced the bill today. Darren Chester, good evening to you.

DARREN CHESTER: And good evening, Steve.

STEVE AUSTIN: Your plan is to address mental health issues by establishing a veterans' suicide prevention plan. What will that do?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, right across the community and particularly obviously in the veterans' community, the issue of mental health and reducing the amount of suicides that occur is a critical issue and one that the community's very keen for the government to work in partnership with veteran's organisations to pursue. So today in the Parliament, we announced a program which will see a- actually, a pilot program developed in the Brisbane community, so involving nine private and public hospitals in Brisbane as a pilot, to see what additional support we can provide for veterans at a time in their life where they've been at acute risk of committing suicide. They may have attempted suicide and certainly providing more support in partnership with beyondblue, on top of the services that are already available through DVA. So it's a recognition of the concerns that have been raised with the government, particularly in recent times regarding mental health issues in the veteran community.

STEVE AUSTIN: There's a surprising problem with veterans falling into homelessness because of a range of these psychological issues. Will that address this? Will these laws address this in any way?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I guess the first important point for me to make is that each year between five and six thousand men and women leave the Defence Force and the vast majority of them go on to either an active retirement or a successful civilian career. But there are others in the order of about 20 per cent who are discharged for either physical or mental health reasons, and we need to make sure those additional support services are there for them and their families. So in terms of- when you mention the issue of veteran homelessness, we are aware that there are veterans in a homeless situation. It's difficult to actually measure the level because a lot of people with former military careers don't register with the Department of Veterans Affairs straight away so that's a problem for us, to make sure we get people to register so we can contact them and be in touch with them and provide the support services when and if they need them.

STEVE AUSTIN: My guest is the Minister for Veterans Affairs, Darren Chester. You're also removing the reduction in the amount of incapacity payment which normally occurs after 45 weeks for those undertaking full-time study as part of their rehabilitation. So what will that achieve?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I think that's an important point you raised there. This is about our veterans who have been undertaking full-time study and currently once a period of 45 weeks passes by, they receive a reduction in their payments while they're doing that study. And we're saying: no that's not a great result. We want them to continue their full-time study because we recognise that's going to help them go on to their new career outside the Defence Force. So, this is changing the current requirements so that they will continue to get 100 per cent of their normal earnings while they complete that study. And again, it's about that difficult issue that we've been focused on and the ex-service organisations are very focused on, that's that transition period when people move from Defence into civilian life. Making sure we promote amongst the corporate sector, amongst the business sector that hiring a veteran is going to be good for your business and if they've got a physical or mental health issue we need to make sure we provide the support services as part of rehabilitation; get them back on their feet, get them back doing what they want to do with their families.

So, we're a very fortunate nation in Australia. We've had thousands [indistinct] 58,000 people prepared to serve in our uniform for us right now and we need to make sure we support them when they make that transition out of Defence.

STEVE AUSTIN: My guest is Darren Chester, he's the Minister for Veterans Affairs. This is ABC Radio Brisbane . There are something like 4000 veterans living in the electorate of Longman on the north side of Brisbane, Darren Chester. It keeps coming up to me from them that one of the issues they're frustrated with is one of the issues that your government is not dealing with and that's the issue of the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation, which manages military super for thousands of ADF personnel and veterans. And you'd be well aware of their frustration with ComSuper and their request to your government to do something about it. I've noticed you've still not done anything about that and why not?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, across Queensland, Steve, and I'm not sure about he figure in the area of Longman you refer to, but across Queensland we have in the order of 49,000 veterans and a bit over 9000 in the Brisbane area more broadly. I think you're referring to the DFRDB pension scheme, which has been the subject of a fair bit of public debate …

STEVE AUSTIN: [Interrupts] Interestingly, the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation is the only superannuation fund in Australia that is not included in the terms of reference of the Banking Royal Commission. Why is that?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I [indistinct] get to that first point though, Steve, you might recall in 2014 when this issue was quite prevalent in the public debate, the government …

STEVE AUSTIN: [Interrupts] And it's still bubbling away, minister.

DARREN CHESTER: The government changed the indexation arrangements for the recipients of that scheme so they get either the highest of the CPI or MTAWE — the Male Total Average Weekly Earnings — to make sure their superannuation scheme is indexed in a way that it doesn't erode their earnings. So it goes up on a regular basis and that was one of the provisions we took to improve that situation. And I acknowledge there are some veterans who believe that hasn't gone far enough, but the government's not in a position, as we sit here talking today, to make major changes to that scheme. It's one where it has been closed to new entries for some time now and I recognise there are some veterans that haven't been happy with the way it's been managed, but the change we made in 2014 to index those pensions in a way to keep their real value with the veterans in retirement we think it was the right approach.

STEVE AUSTIN: Why then has the Returned Servicemen's League of Australia and the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations, for the first time ever that we can work out, put out a joint media statement calling on the government to include the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation in the Banking Royal Commission's terms of reference?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I'm not sure, Steve. I've met with the ADSO and the RSL in recent times. They've raised a lot of other issues with me. They didn't raise that one with me.

STEVE AUSTIN: They put out a public statement in January. It's something they've never raised it with you.

DARREN CHESTER: Well, Steve, I'm saying that's exactly right. I've been in the role for the last two or three months now and in the time I've been with them the priorities they've said to me have been around the issue of the veteran transition and supporting their families. The issue is around mental health and making sure support services are available to them and they've been very keen for us to work harder as an organisation — the Department of Veterans' Affairs — to work harder as an organisation to process claims in a more efficient way and a quicker way [indistinct].

STEVE AUSTIN: [Interrupts] They're not complaining about how hard they work, they're complaining about how they reach a decision. I can tell you, the statement says: given the magnitude of the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation's influence on the wellbeing of former servicemen and women, the RSL and ADSO members consider this represents a compelling reason to include the Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation within the terms of reference of the Royal Commission.

DARREN CHESTER: Well, Steve, all I'm saying to you in answer to your question was it's not something they've brought to my attention. Now, the reason may well be because, as the Veterans Affairs Minister, they've been focused on issues that are in my immediate responsibility around the support for veterans, the benefits they receive and the healthcare and that type of thing. In terms of the Royal Commission, which is directed towards misconduct in the financial sector, they may have raised that issue directly with another minister, but they haven't brought it to my attention [indistinct].

STEVE AUSTIN: [Interrupts] I'm surprised to hear that, as the Veterans' Affairs Minister, because they've been running a campaign — a veteran clawback campaign — for many, many years as far as I'm aware, saying that ComSuper is mismanaging invalidity benefits by overtaxing and misrepresenting them [indistinct] Family Court matters, which is part of the reason I'm told that, anecdotally, why a number of returned service personnel have taken their own life. They find that battles back are harder than the battles overseas.

DARREN CHESTER: And I think the point you raise, Steve, there around making sure veterans are supported if they're having mental health concerns is exactly the reason you asked me on your program to talk through- what supports are going to be provided into the future. Now, we have, as I'm sure you're aware, we have a situation now where any veteran who serves even one day in the armed services receives free mental health care, regardless of whether that mental health condition was a product of their military service or some other issue. So, that's- I'm not disputing that they're running a campaign, I'm just simply saying to you, Steve, in the meetings I've had with the ex-service organisations it's not the issue that's been front of mind for them. They haven't raised it with me. They've raised a whole range of other issues, but I'm very happy to have a look at their concerns in regards to the Royal Commission as well.

STEVE AUSTIN: A question then, finally, before I let you go: why is registration of veterans with Department of Veterans' Affairs not just automatic upon either enlistment or separation?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, Steve, that's the exact question I asked when I took on the portfolio. I couldn't believe that we didn't know how many veterans were in Australia and part of its because- I guess we assume that people who serve in the military serve long period of time and then go into retirement as a more mature person, but the average career is about seven or eight years for a lot of people. And so they don't necessarily see themselves as needing support from Veterans' Affairs when they leave the military. What we've done now though is require that anyone leaving the Australian Defence Force has all paper work finalised before they walk out the door. So, it's a historical fact we're dealing with, that veterans from years gone by, we don't know all of them at the moment, but we certainly know anyone who leaves the ADF at the moment can reach out and contact them and provide information to them and support if they need it. But from years gone by, there will be some veterans in the community who've never registered with DVA, who may never have needed any assistance at all, and I think that's actually a problem that we need to keep reaching out to them and say: well, if you've got service-related industries or illnesses that you think we can support you with, it's important to reach out to Veterans' Affairs. But certainly we are dealing with a legacy issue of not everyone has been registered in the past.

STEVE AUSTIN: Minister, thanks so much for your time.

DARREN CHESTER: I appreciate your interest, Steve, it's a very important issues.

STEVE AUSTIN: Darren Chester, Veterans' Affairs Minister.

End

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.