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Transcripts

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

TRANSCRIPT

23 November 2020
Time: 7:47 AM to 7:57 AM

Fran Kelly Interview Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel Darren Chester

Station: ABC Radio National
Program: RN Breakfast

DESCRIPTION: FRAN KELLY INTERVIEW MINISTER FOR VETERANS' AFFAIRS AND DEFENCE PERSONNEL DARREN CHESTER DISCUSSING COMMUNITY ATTITUDES TOWARDS THE DEFENCE FORCE, THE USE OF VETERAN SUPPORT SERVICES AND THE RECOMMENDATION FOR ALL SPECIAL OPERATION SOLDIERS WHO SERVED IN AFGHANISTAN TO LOSE THE MERITORIOUS UNIT CITATION.

FRAN KELLY: The release of the Brereton War Crimes Report has sparked a new concern for the welfare of veterans who behaved in a commendable fashion in Afghanistan and in our fields of conflict. Defence welfare groups fear that the shocking revelations of those 39 unlawful killings by Special Forces soldiers could malign the good reputation of other Australian veterans, many of whom could now be stripped of their service medals. And the inquiry has raised questions too about how Australia's elite soldiers should be represented at the War Memorial in Canberra. Darren Chester is the Minister for Veterans Affairs and Defence Personnel. Minister, welcome back to breakfast.

DARREN CHESTER: Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: These shocking findings that were released on Thursday re the SAS - you're the Minister for Veterans Affairs, have you noticed any change in, or any impact of this on, community attitudes towards our Defence forces from these findings in the last few days?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, Fran, as you correctly indicated in your opening comments, the vast majority of the Australian service men and women have served with great distinction throughout our nation's history and they have no reason to have their work in uniform either defined or diminished in any way because of these allegations that have come forward. But --

FRAN KELLY: No, but do you think it has tarnished the view of the Australian Defence Force for the general community?

DARREN CHESTER: The point that I'm going to make, Fran, is that we're very conscious of it as a veteran community, as the community I work with on a daily basis, that any member who's feeling affected by these - this media coverage or by the speculation at the moment, needs to be supported, and that's why we've put support measures in place months ago to make sure we were ready for this. We knew this report was coming soon and we had seen the media reports and the media leaks leading up to it.

We knew it wasn't going to be comfortable reading for a lot of our veteran community, so we've got a lot of support measures in place through our Open Arms Veteran Counselling Service and a whole range of other medias that we do on a day-to-day basis. But you are right to highlight what is a risk. But it's also that we, as a community, support our veterans, support our serving members and their families because the last thing they need right now is our judgment. They need our support. I mean, the process will go through from here. The inquiry has been released. There's a process to be followed and these people who are the - who are alleged to have committed offences are due that due process, the presumption of innocence, like every other Australian.

FRAN KELLY: Ok, but you were worried beforehand, as you've told us, and as the Prime Minister made us all prepared for, you were worried for former Defence personnel who may feel their service has been tarnished in the eyes of the public because of the findings of the Brereton report, even though they had nothing to do with Special Forces? Have you been in touch with Veteran Support Services over the weekend? Has there been an increase in people seeking help?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, Fran, what we did see - and I can't give you any figures from the weekend - but what we have seen this year is - has been both a blessing and a curse, I guess. With our Open Arms Service, we're seeing very large numbers of people contacting Open Arms this year. And I say it's a blessing because it means that they're reaching out and getting support if they're anxious or unwell. But it's obviously a bit of a curse too, because it means there's a lot of demand out there for support services.

So we have seen a lot of interest in reaching out to Open Arms this year. Whether that's been related to COVID, whether it's been other issues, we're not sure. But it certainly has been a busy year for Open Arms services. And, to be fair, Open Arms has become better known and better promoted in recent times and the veterans are sharing that information amongst themselves and they realise that there's free support there, if required.

FRAN KELLY: Is Open Arms --

DARREN CHESTER: But it's certainly --

FRAN KELLY: -- is Open Arms the free counselling service or the telephone service? What's Open Arms?

DARREN CHESTER: Sorry, Fran. Yeah, Open Arms is the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service. It was formed by the Vietnam veterans after the Vietnam War and it was renamed Open Arms a couple of years ago, and now it's offering free counselling services to all veterans and their families on 1800 011 046.

FRAN KELLY: And has there been - have you seen whether there's any increase in the last few days to this and other services?

DARREN CHESTER: I'm not aware of any increase in the last few days, Fran. I haven't had any reports of that nature but what I was suggesting to you, it has been a very busy year this year.

FRAN KELLY: Yeah.

DARREN CHESTER: Many cases, and I think that's primarily due to COVID and we spent a lot of time trying to make sure our people who are not feeling well don't become too isolated. But the whole point of COVID has been to get people to isolate themselves and it's been a real big issue for us.

FRAN KELLY: Yeah. I mean, there are a range of supports available. There's the Open Arms, as you say, the counselling service. There's Assistance Dogs. There's a new National Commissioner for Defence Suicide Prevention. But, still, our ex-service men and women remain vulnerable. Veterans are already 21% more likely to take their own lives than the general population. This is according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released last month. And 56 veterans have taken their lives so far this year compared with 40 last year. So perhaps more support is needed. The challenge is rising. I mean, what's the analysis around that increase suicide rate? Do you put that down to the pandemic or something else?

DARREN CHESTER: Well - well, the figures you're quoting, Fran, aren't the figures that I have available to me. Yes, they're not the nationally recognised figures but I'm not going to have an argument with you about --

FRAN KELLY: Sure, ok.

DARREN CHESTER: -- because every single suicide is a tragedy and we've got a national crisis with more than 3,000 people taking their own lives, and we know that some of our veterans are a vulnerable cohort and that's why we work so hard to encourage them to reach out and access those services. One of our biggest challenges, Fran, and I know you've spoken on this program many times before about this very issue, is reducing the stigma towards people who reach out for help. And I think, as Australians, we're getting a lot better at that.

I think people are being prepared to come forward and we've seen that in our Open Arms counselling service this year where people are reaching out for support. But that doesn't change the fact that we do have to make sure, when they reach out, that support is available to them in their community. And things like telehealth have been working very well this year. We've had mental health counselling by telehealth where required. So there's a lot of - (*) describe the assistance dogs, the range of measures we've put in place are all directed to try and stop - stop people from even thinking about it --

FRAN KELLY: OK.

DARREN CHESTER: -- you know, self-harming.

FRAN KELLY: On the one hand, you're clearly - you and the government are clearly concerned, as is Defence, of the mental health impact of these recommendations, this report, for veterans generally. The Brereton inquiry recommends that all Special Operations soldiers who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013 should lose the meritorious unit citation. Now, that includes many, many, many serving personnel who did nothing wrong who probably upheld the standards of the SAS. Do you agree with that recommendation? Will the government be recommending that the Governor-General, that he revoke that award for everybody?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, it's a recommendation that would come through the Chief of Defence Force. And having seen that recommendation in the report, I think it's a tough call but I think in the circumstances it is a fair call. The meritorious unit citation is across the whole unit - across everyone who served in terms of their total accumulated service, if you like. It doesn't relate to individual's performance in that regard. And I think it's a difficult decision, or difficult recommendation but it's one where I think we probably have to follow through with it.

FRAN KELLY: OK.

DARREN CHESTER: It's a tough call but it's a fair call.

FRAN KELLY: You have, ministerial responsibility for the War Memorial, the Australian Australian War Memorial. The former Chief of the Defence Force retired. Admiral Chris Barrie wants all the exhibits relating to the SAS removed from public view until the memorial can work out how to address the Brereton Report's findings. Do you agree with that and do you think we need to rethink how special services are represented at the War Memorial?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, in answer to your first question, no I don't think the displays should be taken down but I do believe that the War Memorial, as part of its normal processes, as part of the curatorial process where we have historians, we have people who are experts in this field make the decisions on what is on display at the War Memorial. They will make those decisions in consultation with the War Memorial Council. Now, that's (*)

FRAN KELLY: Do you think that the Brereton Report's findings, these horrific findings, should be represented some way within the Australian War Memorial?

DARREN CHESTER: I think, Fran, it's inevitable that it will be. We'll have to tell the whole story. I mean, the War Memorial is a place of truth telling. It tells the story of Australian service and courage and sacrifice and, unfortunately, it tells the ugly side of battles as well and the ugly side of war. It talks about our peacekeeping missions, our conflicts we've been involved in.

FRAN KELLY: OK.

DARREN CHESTER: And humanitarian aid disaster relief. So I think it's inevitable that the War Memorial at some point will have some reference to this particular period in our nation's history.

FRAN KELLY: The government has backed the recommendations, by and large, of the Brereton Report, which was an extensive four-year investigation. Is it appropriate that the Chair of the War Memorial, Kerry Stokes, has vowed to help to pay - or support other members of the SAS accused of war crimes, help pay for their legal fees or support their legal fees? Is that appropriate?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I think, Fran, to be fair to Mr Stokes, he has a long history of supporting veteran causes. Mr Stokes was the gentleman who purchased the Thuillier collection of photographs from WWI and donated them back (*). He's also --

FRAN KELLY: But he is the Chair of the Australian War Memorial.

DARREN CHESTER: Sorry, Fran, I think it's appropriate for some context. He also has supported veterans who were injured in the Black Hawk helicopter crash and raised money to support them. The people you're talking about have not even been charged with anything, so they're entitled to their legal rights and to be given the opportunity to defend themselves. And if Mr Stokes wants to support someone in defending their legal rights, I don't think that's an issue for me or the government. I think it's a fair step for him to be taking, particularly given his long and very involved interest in a whole range of veterans matters for an extended period of time.

FRAN KELLY: Darren Chester, thank you very much for joining us again on Breakfast.

DARREN CHESTER: All the best, Fran. And could I remind anyone who is unwell or concerned by our conversation to contact the Open Arms number on 1800 011 046.

FRAN KELLY: Sure. Thank you very much. Darren Chester is the Minister for Veterans Affairs and Defence Personnel.

 

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