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The Hon Darren Chester MP
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel


Monday, 14 December 2020

Paul Gough interview with Minister Darren Chester

Station: ABC Adelaide
Program: ABC Mornings

PAUL GOUGH: Well, it’s been a very challenging year for many people for many different reasons, and for the veteran community it’s been especially challenging when you con-sider what has been going on, not only the bushfires, coronavirus, but the recent release of the report into Afghanistan. It has had a huge impact. Joining me on the line is the fed-eral Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Darren Chester. Welcome to ABC Mornings.

DARREN CHESTER: Great to join you, Paul. And I think you’re right – right across Aus-tralia, I think, a lot of people are feeling quite tired at the moment. We’ve had a pretty tough year as a nation but we’ve stuck together well and we’re working our way through it.

PAUL GOUGH: What are some of the challenges that are facing – because I said at the start of the program, for many people Christmas is a time for joy and for some that has changed a little given the pandemic. But for others it is a trigger point. It can have a great impact on how they’re feeling from memories, from the different situations they find them-selves in. What are some of the ways that – what are the programs in play to help those who are going through a hard time from the veterans community.

DARREN CHESTER: Yeah, you’re right, Paul. I mean, when we think about Christmas we also think of, you know, family gathering and happy times, but for some people, whether they’re a veteran or someone who may be separated from their family at this time of year, it can be an anxious time. So it’s important that we reach out and support each other. And within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs we see it as a real partnership between us in the government but also the community more broadly.

So what we’re doing this year is we’re encouraging our veteran community to check five, and that means check on five of your mates. Maybe that could be a text message or a phone call, just to see how they’re travelling and let them know you’re thinking about them. And that’s one part of the partnership. The other part is the ex-service organisa-tions like our RSLs and community groups and they provide support. But then the gov-ernment itself through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has a thing called the Open Arms Counselling Service, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to take calls from veterans and their family. It’s a free service. It actually sprung out of the old Vi-etnam Veterans Counselling Service, so the Vietnam veterans first initiated it and it’s been renamed Open Arms, and it’s available to all veterans and their family.

PAUL GOUGH: Well let’s start with the check five program, because I think this is a really great idea. And I think it’s a great idea across the board as well. Look, a few years ago I had a very close friend, one I went to school with. He’d sort of been the person that had kept in touch over the years and, sadly, he committed suicide. And in that process what it did, it brought a whole bunch of people that hadn’t really stayed in touch closely and it made us do exactly this check five kind of scenario we decided that just every so often we would reach out. So the principle for this is you contact five people, say, in your phone book or wherever, to see how they’re keeping, how they’re going?

DARREN CHESTER: In the veterans community what we’re encouraging people to check five with the people they served with, so just, you know, as you described it, check on five people. They may have lost contact with them over the years after they separated from Defence, and just see how they’re travelling. And then encourage them to check on five of their mates as well. So it sort of grows from there. And, look, you’re right, Paul, suicide is such a national tragedy in our country. It just beggars belief that we lose more than 3,000 Australians every year. And sometimes it’s people suffering in silence that if any of their mates had have known they were suffering they would have helped them out. But they just get themselves into a position where, through a complex matter, it could be a relationship breakdown, it could be financial, it might be something to do with some trau-ma they’ve experienced, whatever it is they get to a paint where they don’t see a pathway forward. And that’s why, you know, Open Arms and supporting people and demonstrating there is hope for the future and there is a pathway and help is available to you is so im-portant.

So the check five is something that we think is a good idea, and the veterans themselves come up with the idea through their peer advisory group. So they’re going to do it them-selves and, you know, it’s something that we I think we can build on to try and make sure that this year, when people are tired and people are anxious and they’ve had a pretty traumatic year for a lot of people that we look after people and just be a little bit kinder to each other at this time.

PAUL GOUGH: So the Open Arms program is open for veterans. Is that a case of them reaching out to you? Do you have something in play that enables you to sort of help peo-ple that don’t seek that support?

DARREN CHESTER: Yeah, the Open Arms numbers has people on board every hour of the day, every day of the week on 1800 011 046, and that number is there for people to reach out. And then some of the people who contact Open Arms – it’s about 18,000 calls per year, and some of those calls will be reasonably low level, people are a bit anxious and just need to someone to talk to and others might be quite severe and need profes-sional assistance and we can direct them to where that assistance is available to them. So, you know, it’s dedicated for veterans and their families and a free service for them.

But then there’s other things you correctly describe – there’s support networks and pro-grams that are run through local RSLs where we encourage veterans to get together and spend time with each other. And keep in mind, though, of course, the vast majority of people who’ve served in the Defence Force will transition out of Defence into a new ca-reer and have a successful career and not be impacted in a negative way from that ser-vice. But for those who are physically or mentally injured or feeling unwell as a result, it’s important that we as a grateful nation provide these support services.

PAUL GOUGH: What has been the impact of this year, given all the things we said at the start? What’s been the increase in people reaching out to the program?

DARREN CHESTER: We’ve certainly seen an increase in calls to Open Arms this year, and we saw a peak over the weekend where the Afghanistan inquiry was released. So that’s a positive sense am the sense that people are reaching out. But obviously it’s a negative in the sense that people need that help. So it’s good that people are reaching the services. And I think one of the things we’ve seen this year is obviously we always en-courage people in our veteran community to not become too isolated and to stay in con-tact. But the whole public health response to COVID has been, you know, people should stay at home and become isolated. So it’s become a bit of a double-edged sword for us. And one of the real positives I’ve seen, I guess, develop throughout the year is the gov-ernment’s willingness to fund telehealth measures. So I think that will stay as an important measure for us. It won’t replace face-to-face counselling, but telehealth is a way for a state, particularly like South Australia where you have a lot of services centralized in the capital city but a lot of need out in the regional areas. I think telehealth is a really ad-vantage for states like South Australia and I think we’ll see more veterans accessing those services in the future.

PAUL GOUGH: And obviously telehealth is a telephone system, but do you have any sys-tem in play given suddenly the use of Zoom and things where people can actually have a face-to-face connection to someone?

DARREN CHESTER: Absolutely. We’re doing more and more videoconferencing and that telecommunication-type counselling services than we’ve ever done in the past. It’s been remarkable. I think you’ve probably experienced in your work as well the number of meet-ings we’re now holding via Zoom or different methods. It’s been very efficient in some ways, but it doesn’t replace that face-to-face contact when you need to have it. So we’re trying to get the balance right between doing both and recognizing that again it’s that partnership between the government through taxpayers provides more than $11 billion a year and then those communities and family groups and ex-serving organisations have those services on the ground as well to work in partnership with the veterans.

PAUL GOUGH: My guest is the federal Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Darren Chester. Minister, we’ve had a few messages come through. As well as a discussion that was had with David Bevan on the program last Friday, our fishing correspondent, Greg James, mentioned the white card versus the gold card, and we’ve had someone else on the phone saying why are veterans’ gold card not being given to the latest veterans? As our fishing correspondent, he was concerned that new veterans weren’t getting these cars. What’s the story with these cards, gold and white?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, it’s an important question you raise. What we see in Australia today is the average Defence Force career about is seven years. So people will join per-haps as a 17 or 18-year-old and leaves as a 24, 25, 26-year-old and go on to a new ca-reer and have the next stage of their lives. The gold card is basically a treatment card that provides for those most severely disabled veterans and certain service pensioners with qualifying service, maybe served in the world war or Vietnam or Korea. So it’s more in-tended towards those people who have more complex and serious needs and have achieved that eligibility.

But every veteran who leaves the Defence Force gets a white card for free mental health care for life and then if they’ve suffered an injury in some way, so, say, for example, you’ve served and you’ve damaged your knee and need a knee replacement some time, if that’s linked to your military service, the government pays for that knee replacement in the future. So there is an ongoing responsibility for government to provide care for our veterans or for those serving members at some point later in their life if they’ve had an injury that then flares up at some point maybe when they’re a 50 or 60-year-old.

So we do have, I think, a very good system in Australia. I’m not suggesting it’s perfect, but when we compare it to our partners around the world, our coalition partners, our system compares pretty favorably in terms of the length of measures we go to and the way we try and support our veterans in Australia. And Australians can be proud of that fact – that we do provide that support, just as we can be proud of our men and women who serve.

PAUL GOUGH: So was the gold card given to everyone when they left the service prior to that?

DARREN CHESTER: No. This is a system that’s developed over basically 100 years. The repatriation system in Australia developed post World War I. So those who had service in the world wars and reached a certain age were entitled to the gold card for all conditions, and that might be, you know, quite complex conditions as people get older. And we’re seeing that now, for example, with our Korean War and Vietnam War veterans. As they get older they’ll have conditions which are not related to their military service, but they are all part of getting old and having other conditions develop over time.

So the gold card is for, I guess, the more severely disabled veterans, whereas the white card is there for every veteran who’s served. And, of course, if you’ve suffered an injury during that service that’s where the system comes into play and provides that support for a veteran.

PAUL GOUGH: Okay, yeah, because I was looking on the Department of Veterans’ Af-fairs website and it explains very clearly what the veteran gold card is and what it pro-vides. So why are people concerned? What’s been the change? Like, people are obvious-ly hearing something. Is it just hearsay or are they reacting to something that has changed?

DARREN CHESTER: I’m not sure of any changes, Paul, that they’d be exacting to. There’s nothing that’s changed in my time in the role other than we’ve increased the eligi-bility to the gold card to a couple of cohorts of veterans – those nurses who we call the SEATO nurses who served in South East Asia, and also I think it was the British nuclear testing that was another area that received coverage at some point. So the range of cov-erage has increased rather than decreased, so I’m not sure where that’s concern coming from, sorry.

PAUL GOUGH: Okay. Genevieve sent a message, “Mr Chester, what about a gold card for the world War II widows? Not all of them get one.”

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I think I’ve have to check on Genevieve’s situation, Paul, be-cause the majority would receive the gold card if their partner – sorry, their husband it would have been I would imagine who is now deceased had eligibility it would transfer to them. But I’d certainly encourage Genevieve to contact DVA to check on her eligibility.

PAUL GOUGH: When I spoke before about how many people, you know – because there’s a lot of people that won’t contact, a lot of people live in a place where they’re fear-ful or they – I don’t whether they’re despondent and they don’t reach out for the help you’re providing. A message has©€ through, “I’m an ex-army disabled veteran who lives alone and I’ve lost contact with fellow ex-servicemen, mostly interstate and I don’t feel part of civilization, life, and it can be a bit lonely and isolating at times.” I feel for A be-cause here’s someone who feels very lost and there is something that you’re offering. How can we connect A – our texter – to the service you’re providing?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I think, Paul, what you’ve touched on is the most – I critical element of how we try and support people who may be feeling lonely. While we’ve had a global pandemic this year, and that’s obviously been recognised in the way the public health system has corresponded, we actually have an epidemic of loneliness in Australia as well. A lot of people who have become detached from their family or from networks and are a little bit lost in themselves and need help in coming forward and being part of the community, being part of our nation. And that I think is a real challenge. It’s a chal-lenge not only for our veteran community; it’s a challenge across the board.

That’s what I like about the check five campaign – that people might reach back into their contact books and try and find a mate they haven’t contacted for a long time and just ex-pend that network of caring and kindness that we need, I think, to give people some hope that, you know, there is a pathway forward. There is a lot of people available in Australia. And, you’re right – a lot of people don’t know how to access it. And how we get people in contact with the support services and the help that’s there is a real challenge for us.

And that’s why – I mean, governments can’t do this by themselves. And this is, I guess, a weakness of government – that we can’t reach down to every individual. When you think about, for example, our surf life saving clubs around Australia, without that incredible vol-unteer effort, we wouldn’t be able to have safe beaches because governments couldn’t afford to do it. We don’t have the capacity as a government to reach every individual per-son and give them a call and see how they’re travelling, but the community does have that capacity, and the community can be part of the solution. And then if there’s additional professional support needed, that’s where, I think, governments and taxpayers and those specialties in those areas can provide that support for the individuals concerned. So it re-ally does need to be a partnership. It’s a really tough challenge for us to make sure we get on top of this mental health issue in our veteran community but also in the broader community.

PAUL GOUGH: There are a lot of messages, minister, coming through with people that are speaking of the way veterans are treated as being inhumane. And there’s a lot of people that aren’t happy with the procedure. Is there somewhere – how can they get in touch to express their feelings? How can they get in touch to rectify this?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, first of all I would encourage people to not just assume that everything they read and the messages of hopelessness and helplessness, which is sometimes put out there on social media – I’d encourage people not to believe everything they read is true in that regard.

PAUL GOUGH: Some of these instances are actual cases they’re giving. It’s not just hearsay that they’ve read on line; it’s actual experience they’ve had.

DARREN CHESTER: Yes, I’m not suggesting for a second – and I never pretended this – that our system’s perfect. But Australians as a whole I think can take some comfort that their tax – more than $11 billion per year – provide support services to more than 300,000 Australian veterans and their families. And some of the stories that I hear when I go and investigate them I find out that they’re based on anecdotes which aren’t entirely factual and they’ve been passed down through the ages. And I just suggested if you’re a veteran and you’re needing help, I’d encourage you to call the Open Arms number on 1800 011 046 and check on your eligibility for support. As I said, there’s free mental health care for life for all veterans.

But in terms of the broader community, I would just encourage people to actually talk to more veterans. I get to talk to a lot of veterans and the majority of them will say to me they’re getting good support through the DVA, notwithstanding there are times when we completely stuff things up and we have to fix it, and I go out of my way to try and make that happen, but we should be positive and trying to encourage people to reach out and contact support services that are available for them.

PAUL GOUGH: Minister, can you just say that hotline number again for us, please, and a little slower so people can write it down.

DARREN CHESTER: Sorry, I get a bit excited this time of day after two coffees. No, the Open Arms number, which is a veterans and families counselling, is 1800 011 046. That’s a toll free number and people can reach out. And the Open Arms is there to sort of guide people and put them in the right direction if there’s additional support they need.

PAUL GOUGH: Thank you, because I’ve written it down correctly now. I know it down in-correctly because I wasn’t following quite as fast as you spoke. Thank you so much for your time, Darren Chester, federal Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

DARREN CHESTER: All the best, and thanks for your interest. And can I wish all your lis-teners a very merry Christmas, too.

PAUL GOUGH: You’re tuned to ABC Mornings. I’m Paul Gough.


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