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


Date: 19 Feb 2021
Time: 10:18 AM - 10:27 AM

ABC Darwin, Adam Steer discusses the Anniversary of the Darwin Bombing, and veteran suicide with Minister Darren Chester

Station: ABC Darwin
Program: Breakfast with Jo Laverty and Adam Steer


ADAM STEER: Today marks the 79th anniversary of the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australia, the bombing of Darwin.  This morning at The Cenotaph, the city and nation will come together to pay tribute to the hundreds of civilians and servicemen who lost their lives and the men and women who survived with incredible stories.  Darren Chester is the Federal Minister for Veterans Affairs and will be at the commemoration this morning.  Good morning, Minister.  In your eyes, just how big an event is the bombing of Darwin in Australia's history? 

DARREN CHESTER: Well, good morning, and it is a very important event.  I think it's so critical that we always take the time to reflect, to respect and to honour those who gave so much for the freedoms that we enjoy here today. 

I've got to say the young bloke growing up in Victoria, studying Australian history, the story of Darwin and the bombing of Darwin wasn't told that much back in the '80s and it's incredibly important that we understand what actually occurred to the north of our country.  It was under direct attack for a couple of years there and the bombing of Darwin day obviously being the most significant day of all of those.  And it's important that we understand our history and know where we've come from and take that moment to reflect on that and obviously to recognise the people who tragically lost their lives in those attacks.

ADAM STEER: Do you believe the significance of the event is underestimated in a sense? 

DARREN CHESTER: Look, I think it has been underestimated throughout history, but I think today people are understanding why I'm getting greater appreciation of exactly what our -- our service personnel went through and this means that that time went through.  So I think people understand it better now.  Since it became the national day of observance back in 2011, it's grown in awareness, I think, across the country.  And I -- look, I think it's terribly important that we do tell those stories and understand a little bit more about what occurred here during World War II and obviously our great hope for the future.  We never -- never hope to be in that position again, but it's important to understand what's occurred here.

ADAM STEER: I also a student in the 1980s.  I knew that Darwin had been bombed but I was completely unaware of the number of attacks.  60 attacks on northern Australia over a two‑year period.  Did you know anything about that when you were a kid? 

DARREN CHESTER: Very similar experience.  We -- we were aware that there had been some, you know, action if you like in Darwin but we didn't really learn the details about how frequently attacks were there, the magnitude of the losses and just how close the war came to Australian shores.  I mean, we just didn't -- we didn't learn that -- the history back in the '80s. 

But I think -- I think it is improving now and people do appreciate more, and I think -- I think Australians are travelling more too within the country.  Obviously during COVID‑19 we're seeing a lot of people exploring their own country and hopefully understand a little bit more about their own country, which I think is another good thing. 

But today is about the service personnel, both -- both those who served at the time, a few of those are still with us, but also the serving men and women of today and, you know, we still put people in harm's way today.  We've had people obviously assisting fires, and COVID‑19 and Fiji Assist, all that is within the last 12 months.  So our servicemen and women do us proud on a daily basis and I think today is a day to say thank you for your service, and recognise those previous generations, but also the current generations.

ADAM STEER: Well, let's talk about the veterans.  Yesterday I was speaking to the President of Reeling Vets, Michael Hurren.  It's a charity here in Darwin and he revealed a staggering figure regarding veteran suicide. 

MICHAEL HURREN: At the end of the day I'm up to 32 friends since 2014 that have committed suicide. 


MICHAEL HURREN: Yeah.  So, you know, and we've had 26 since November.  So it's a huge thing.  So, you know, this -- the -- a lot of talk about Royal Commission into everything and that so, you know, I think we need -- really need to do something and that's why we started Reeling Veterans.

ADAM STEER: 26 of his contacts and friends have committed suicide since November.  Isn't that a good enough reason for a Royal Commission into veterans' suicide, Minister? 

DARREN CHESTER: Well, there's a few points to the comments, the veteran you spoke to yesterday made which I agree with entirely, in that suicide obviously, mental health issues across the board are critical issues for all Australians.  In our veteran community we know for a fact that men and women who, while they're serving with those support measures in place, have a lower rate of self-harm and suicide, but when they transition out, we know for a fact again that males, particularly young males, tend to have a higher rate than the background population of Australians. 

And I make these comments really in the context that it's a national tragedy that more than 3,000 Australians take their own lives each year.  Local Government, State Government, Federal Government, the community all trying to work together to get on top of what is a very difficult issue and a complex issue.  And when it comes to our veterans, what I am trying to do and have been doing with my Department of Veterans Affairs over the past three years is trying to work in a partnership way with groups like reeling in who are, you know, providing that service themselves and self‑help and there's some support from government but also providing the specialty services you need if you're -- if you're experiencing hardship. 

So, you know, psychiatric services and psychologists and that type of thing, and what we've done is made mental health free for all veterans.  So free for all veterans for life.  We provide the Open Arms counselling service on -- which is available 24 hours a day for veterans and their families.  And we're also doing things like for the first time purchasing PTSD assistance dogs.  So assistance dogs that are trained to assist people with post‑traumatic stress disorder, and that's happening for the first time.  We've got I think, like across Australia now there's 21 dogs already gone to veterans, another 80 or 90 in training right now. 

So, there's a lot of things that are happening in that space which are government responsibilities and then there's other parts which we think we can work with the community on to provide that help on the ground.  So, things that will work here in Darwin won't necessarily work in Sydney.  So, we need to work very closely with the local communities.

ADAM STEER: Government support service organisations often set up with the best intentions but as former artillery instructor in the army Mick Spick explained yesterday, bureaucracy can sometimes get in the way. 

MICK SPICK: This is the main issue -- this is what I feel is the main issue when dealing with these organisations that are set up to help with the best interests in the world.  So usually, they come from a government background and that, and they're, you know, set up with, you know, best governance principles or, you know, bureaucracy and that, and you'll have a veteran come in there who goes, "I need help" on the first instance.  They say, "Great, fill out this paperwork", you know, "fill out this", you know, "do this, do that" and --

ADAM STEER: He goes on to say that sometimes that those veterans feel like they've been left in the wake of the bureaucracy.  Is that something that you hear from a lot of veterans? 

DARREN CHESTER: The Open Arms service is intended to provide that free service without people having to fill out, you know, miles of paperwork as Mick described.  What we've done with the Department of Veterans Affairs in the last five years is try and get less paperwork and more opportunities for people to register their -- their claims online and try and speed up the process.  But there's no question that that is -- still got some work to do in that regard. 

The government, and Australians can be proud of a simple fact that the -- their taxes provide more than $11 billion per year to support around 320,000 veterans and their families.  So, there is a lot of support there, it's out there.  One of our challenges, making sure people reach out for that support when they need it, and also when they do make that request for support, it comes to them quickly enough.  So, I think the points your veterans are raising are well -- I'm well aware of the challenges, but I'm also working very constructively with them and the ex‑service community to achieve better service delivery, and that's exactly what the -- the wellbeing centre in Darwin can do. 

So, I'll be meeting with Mates4Mates today and Mates4Mates is a veterans' organisation with links to the RSL which is already providing some services here in Darwin to support the wellbeing centre and then finalising their plans for actual physical location.  But it's important that actually got services being provided already.  You know, the challenge for us here is to make sure we -- we work in a way that recognises there are local solutions to a lot of these issues, and again I make the point, what works here in Darwin won't necessarily work in Sydney or Melbourne but can be perfect -- a perfect solution for the Northern Territory. 

So, we need to have the flexibility, and bureaucracy doesn't like things like this.  They don't like their flexibility to sometimes be required to have these local solutions.  So, you know, that's the whole point of the wellbeing centre, make sure it fits a need of Darwin, the Territory, and I'm looking forward to catching up with the team from Mates4Mates today, just as I'm looking forward to catching up with veterans at the community service.

ADAM STEER: The Darwin Veterans Wellbeing Centre, are you any closer to finding a location for that? 

DARREN CHESTER: So, the wellbeing centre is -- Mates4Mates is administering that, so I'm catching up with them today to get a full, you know, update from them about how they've gone with actually a physical location.  They're already delivering services though here in Darwin from a -- an office -- office facility in the city, but they're looking for a permanent location.  And you will recall the election commitment was $5 million to assist the setting up of a wellbeing centre.  There's been a couple of options put to us and Mates4Mates is looking at all those options to make sure we get -- we get the service in the right place, we do the most -- most good for the community, and also allow for potential future growth.

ADAM STEER: Minister, good to talk to you this morning.  Better let you go.  Appreciate your time.

DARREN CHESTER: No, all the best and thank you so much for your interest in our veteran community.

PRESENTER: That's Darren Chester, Minister for Veterans Affairs.

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