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Transcripts

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

TRANSCRIPT

Wednesday, 27 January 2021
Time: 5:00 PM to 5:15 PM

Adam Stephen interview with Darren Chester

Station: ABC North Queensland
Program: Drive with Adam Stephen

ADAM STEPHEN: Senator Jacqui Lambie was in Townsville this week, turning up with the federal Member for Kennedy, Bob Katter, on a listening tour they said, to get a better understanding of some of the pressing issues facing Defence Force families. A community forum was held in the garrison city with a special focus on mental health and the challenges of transitioning into civilian life. Senator Lambie had some pretty strong statements to make on our program on Monday afternoon. We’ll just give you a sense for what was stated if you missed the interview.

JACQUI LAMBIE: We’re really having problems with the psychiatric wards, or the healthcare facilities they call them now. And not just here in Townsville; I’m having trouble with ward 17, we’ve got other centres in South Australia. There are centres around and apparently they’re telling me they can’t get in. We’re having a lot of veterans sent to health retreats because we cannot get them beds into what used to be the old repat hospitals that do this sort of stuff. So we’ve got a real problem here.

The other problem is people cannot see — get in to see Open Arms, and Open Arms is supposed to be there for them and sometimes it’s take 8 to 10 weeks. They wait too long. They can’t get into see the psychologists, the psychiatrists. They’re becoming far and few between, especially the psychologists, the civilian ones on the outside that are not in Open Arms because Veterans’ Affairs will not pay the charges that they want. So they’re not keeping up with the 21st century and paying properly. So, therefore, we — unfortunately these doctors have got to survive as well and make money — they’re removing us from their books.

You know the sad thing is, mate, we’ve had 17 reviews in 17 years. We’ve had a Productivity Commission go through it. All the answers are sitting there, mate. That’s the sad thing. It’s the lack of implementation that’s actually — is actually fixing the — that should be fixing the system. This now comes down to Minister Chester. I’m going to start calling him out this year. I’ve had enough. If he’s not implementing these recommendations and he’s not getting the job done he should step down. So that’s where we’re at right now.

ADAM STEPHEN: So I don’t imagine the minister will be stepping down, but let’s put some of the concerns to him. With us now on Drive the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel, Darren Chester. Thanks for joining us across regional Queensland.

DARREN CHESTER: G’day, Adam, and thanks for your interest in our veterans and our Defence Force families. We really appreciate it.

ADAM STEPHEN: Senator Jacqui Lambie and Bob Katter held a listening tour, Senator Lambie running through some of the issues that were raised with them whilst in Townsville. What’s your response to some of the problem areas that Senator Lambie has identified when it comes to veterans’ mental health?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, the first point I’d make is the vast majority of people who serve in the Australian Defence Force will transition out very successfully and go onto a new career or a new calling in life and they’ll have great experiences from their period in the Navy, the Army or the Air Force. But for those who will transition and who may have a physical or mental health problem, they require additional support, and our nation provides a great deal of support. And I think Australians should be proud of the fact that it’s more 11 and a half billion dollars of taxpayers’ money, so the Australian communities money, goes to support about 320,000 veterans and their families every year. So we do have a system in place, a system which is designed to support our military families after their service. And there’s no question that it’s a good service. It’s a good range of facilities available to them, but it’s always a work in progress in terms of how we make improvements, you know.

So in terms of how I respond to Senator Lambie’s comments, I mean I talk with Senator Lambie on a fairly regular basis and whenever she raises concerns on individual veterans we follow up on her behalf and we’ve had great success in doing that. So I understand, you know, Jacqui is passionate about veterans’ issues. Equally there are a lot of members in parliament, like Phil Thompson in Townsville and George Christensen in Mackay and Warren Entsch in Cairns who raise these issues with me as well and we work to try and overcome them whenever concerns come forward. So it is a work in progress and something that I take a great deal of pride in working on behalf of our veteran community here in Canberra.

ADAM STEPHEN: Seventeen reviews in 17 years and yet it would seem — the perception is that the problem is getting worse when it comes to veteran and ex-servicemen’s mental health. Would you admit that the problem is worsening despite a lot of time and money being invested into investigating some of the causes and recommendations that have been made?

DARREN CHESTER: No, that’s simply not true, Adam. It’s not true to suggest that the services are getting worse. In fact, quite the opposite. When I talk to Queensland RSL or Mates4Mates or Soldier On, those ex-service organisations, the feedback I’m getting from them, and from Oasis centre, which has been developed in Townsville, the feedback I’m getting from them is that things are moving in the right direction. There are improvements being made every day, and they are impressed with the level of support our veterans can receive today. Now that’s not to say we don’t have issues, we don’t have problems and we don’t have difficulties accessing services, particularly in our regional communities. But it’s simply untrue to suggest that things are getting worse, because the feedback I’m getting on the ground from veterans and the ex-service organisations themselves is that there have been some very significant improvements and we’re keeping on working in partnership with them to make sure that we keep improving the system.

But, you know, I don’t shy away from the issue, Adam, in terms of issues around mental health and making sure that people are well supported. And one of our great challenges is making sure that men — and it’s particularly men — will reach out for support when it comes to their own mental health. Now that’s a nation-wide problem, but in our veteran community we have a thing called Open Arms which is a free counselling service. And all veterans and their family can access free mental health care for life, because that came about through changes when we recognised that there were issues in the community for the veterans’ mental health and we’re trying to make sure that veterans will reach out to Open Arms on that free call number 24 hours a day.

ADAM STEPHEN: Is it not a concern, though, that there are diggers that don’t feel like they’re receiving adequate mental health support in Townsville or don’t feel comfortable enough approaching these services?

DARREN CHESTER: Look, I think, Adam, that is a fundamental problem for us. We need to as a nation reduce the stigma around mental health, and it’s something that, you know, saddens me deeply as a father and as a member of parliament that so many young people take their own lives every year in Australia. Sadly, here in Australia, more than 3,000 people take their own lives every year. In our veteran community there is a number of people who take their own lives every year as well, and I encourage everyone who’s troubled by this conversation you and I are having to reach out to support services that are out there.

I mean, the Open Arms service, for example, for veterans on the 1800 011 046 is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it has counsellors available to listen to concerns of our veteran communities and their families and refer them to professional services if required. So, you know, the services are there but there is still a stigma in Australia around mental health and we need to keep working as a community to let people understand that, you know, it’s not unusual for someone to go through troubling times if they’ve been involved in a traumatic situation or for other reasons and they should reach out and get that support because support is available in the Australian community.

ADAM STEPHEN: We’re hearing from the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel, Darren Chester. We’re aware of at least half a dozen people that have taken their own lives, members of the Defence Force or ex-serving personnel this year. What is being done right now from a federal government level to try and prevent more suicides in 2021?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I think, Adam, you and I both agree that there’s no acceptable level of suicide in our community, and particularly in our veteran community, which is where I have responsibility. So what we’ve seen in recent years is things like free mental health care for life for our veterans. And that’s something that’s been introduced by the government. We introduced what we call peer advisers, so people who have lived experience of serving in the military are now available through Open Arms to counsel and support our veterans if they fall on difficult times. For the first time we have the appointment of a Veteran Family Advocate; that’s a lady by the name of Gwen Cherne, whose own partner, own husband, took his own life. She has a lived experience of the difficulties there and she advocates on behalf of families directly to me. For the first time we’ve been providing psychiatric assistance dogs to veterans. So the government is purchasing dogs that can assist veterans who are maybe experiencing mental health issues. So there’s a whole range of issues which are happening which I think are very positive, and, in fact, there’s more than $230 million a year to fund mental healthcare support for veterans and their families.

And, again, I just repeat my point, Adam, that this comes about because Australians as a nation care about our military families, care about our veterans, and a lot of taxpayers’ money goes to support them. That doesn’t mean the system is perfect and, again, I don’t shy away from the fact that there’s more work to be done. But we also increased the funding in the last budget for the specialists who provide support for veterans. So we’ve increased their fee packages so that they will actually treat our veterans, and that comes into effect next week.

So, you know, when Senator Lambie makes these criticisms about specialist services not being funded, we’ve actually listened to those concerns and increased the fees as of next week. And that, I think, will also benefit our veteran community. So I do listen to what Senator Lambie says. I listen to what Phil Thompson and George Christensen and Warren Entsch and other members say to me and I get that feedback from the veteran community and keep trying to improve the system for our veterans and their families.

ADAM STEPHEN: There seems to be some frustration around delay in consultations and claims through DVA. Is the government aware of this, and what’s being done to ease that pressure?

DARREN CHESTER: Yeah, Adam, that is a really good point and it’s one that I’ve had raised with me by members of parliament from across the political spectrum. And there’s no question that’s what’s occurred in the last three years in particular is that more veterans have come forward than was ever forecast, you know, at the time. Previously there was an expectation that as our ageing veterans reached that stage of life we’d have less veterans in the system, but we’ve had a very high operational tempo in Australia through our involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor, the Solomons, Rwanda and then through the bushfires and now COVID-19. So there’s a lot of veterans in the community and we’re seeing an increased number of veterans coming forward.

We’ve also seen that through better engagement with the Defence Force that as people transition to their civilian life they’re putting claims in for any injuries they might have sustained, and there is a waiting list right now which I think is too long and I’m working to put some additional resources into that to process those claims. So I think it’s a very fair point that members of parliament have raised with me and the veteran community have raised with me, and we’re trying to drive those times taken to process down so that we actually get more support to veterans when they need it. Now, of course, if their claim is successful the payments or benefits are backdated to the point of the original claim in any case. But that doesn’t mean that it’s good enough that they’re waiting months to receive those benefits.

ADAM STEPHEN: Just back to my original question, Darren Chester: so if more veterans came forward than you’re anticipating, does that not point to this being a bigger problem or a worsening problem?

DARREN CHESTER: No, the point I’m making, Adam, is that it’s not a capped system, it’s not a system where the budget runs out. It’s a question of if people come forward and they have eligibility and their claims are valid the system is not capped so it will grow over time. And what we’re seeing is as we’ve improved the system and it’s become more efficient — so there’s a lot of digitization of records in the last five years — so I think it’s a strange situation for DVA — the Department of Veterans’ Affairs — where in the past I think it was criticized for being too bureaucratic and too cumbersome. Now they’ve become I think more efficient and a better system, it’s been well managed and a transformative process has occurred there and what’s happened is that the word’s got out amongst the veterans and they’ve come out and they’ve put their claims in so it’s actually, I think, a good thing in the sense that more veterans are coming forward. But there is a backlog of claims now which I’m trying to work my way through with my department to get the resources in there to make sure it’s properly resourced and properly processed so that our veterans get their support more quickly in the future.

ADAM STEPHEN: How big is the backlog, do we know?

DARREN CHESTER: Look, in terms of raw numbers I don’t have that number right in front of me at the moment. But I could tell you that over the last two years we’ve had an additional 40,000 veterans and their family members come forward making claims through the DVA process. So, you know, some of the claims can be processed very quickly — the quite simple ones where, you know, it’s highly evident that the issue that the veterans are experiencing is related to their service. But others are much more complex, and that’s one of the issues we do have where people have multiple claims and it’s a more difficult process to go through. So, you know, we are working to try and reduce those times taken to process. And I do think it is a fair concern that people are raising with me. It’s not something that we’re ignoring, and we’re certainly trying to get on top of.

ADAM STEPHEN: Darren Chester, thank you so much for joining us this afternoon to give us an update.

DARREN CHESTER: No, thank you, Adam. And, again, if anyone who is listening has any health, mental health issues, please access the Open Arms number on 1800 011 046.

ADAM STEPHEN: Thank you very much. The Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans’ affairs, Darren Chester, with us on Drive across regional Queensland this afternoon.

 

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