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Transcripts

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

TRANSCRIPT

Date: 23 March 2021

ABC Radio National, Fran Kelly interview discussing Australian Parliament House culture and a Royal Commission into veteran suicide

Station: ABC Radio National
Program: Breakfast

***E&OE***

FRAN KELLY:   Well it seems like the Morrison Government is inching towards a Royal Commission into the suicide rates amongst our veterans.  The Coalition did not oppose a motion in the House of Representatives yesterday demanding an inquiry, with a number of Government MPs speaking out in favour of a Royal Commission. 

The Prime Minister though also wants to persist with a permanent national commissioner for defence and suicide prevention to work in tandem with any Royal Commission, but Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie who's been pushing this cause on behalf of veterans for years now, says having both processes just doesn't work. 

JACQUI LAMBIE: Go and talk to some retired judges, talk to some well‑respected QCs out there, because what he's proposing cannot be done.  I'm not into - I'm not up here to help the Prime Minister save face.  I wouldn't give a stuff about it, okay.  What I want is to save veterans' lives, but every hour he wastes is every hour he puts pressure on maybe a veteran taking their life. 

FRAN KELLY:  A heartfelt Senator Jacqui Lambie on afternoon briefing yesterday.  Well Veterans' Affairs Minister Darren Chester joins us in our Parliament House studios. 

Minister, welcome back to breakfast.

DARREN CHESTER: Thanks Fran. 

FRAN KELLY:  Parliament has spoken.  Will the Government comply with the will of the Parliament and establish now a Royal Commission into the 35 to 40 suicide deaths by veterans each and every year? 

DARREN CHESTER: Well you're right, Fran, Parliament has spoken.  Both the Senate and the House of Representatives unanimously support the motion, and we didn't oppose the calls for a Royal Commission.  But the point I would make, and you've touched on it in your opening comments, is we believe that it's possible to have the ongoing measure, being a National Commissioner which has widespread support, and that could sit alongside a Royal Commission that could look back in time at retrospective issues about veterans' mental well‑being, suicide and also the health of our serving men and women.

FRAN KELLY:  But why would we do that?  I mean we don't normally ‑ I mean why would we do that other than as Jacqui Lambie we heard say the Prime Minister's saving face because it was his idea.  Why wouldn't we let the Royal Commission do its work and then suggest whether an ongoing National Commissioner, it could be a terrific idea, but is required.

DARREN CHESTER: Well, Fran, to be fair to Jacqui she is not the font of all wisdom when it comes to these issues.

FRAN KELLY:  No, I'm not suggesting she is, but we don't normally ‑‑

DARREN CHESTER: No Fran, and to suggest it's the Prime Minister's idea I think is unfair to the Prime Minister as well.  This idea, if you like, this National Commissioner concept came about through extensive consultation with the ex‑service community, with families and parents who had lost loved ones, with Defence Force, DVA, the Attorney‑General's office and Prime Minister and Cabinet for than 15 months ago now, and we agreed at that time, and it was a policy that was well‑received when we first announced it, that having this enduring National Commissioner, with all the powers, basically a standing Royal Commission, all the powers of a Royal Commissioner was a good policy because we wanted to get to the bottom of the issue retrospectively looking back at the historic issues but also having an enduring policy that would deal with the issue going forward. 

If we get to a point, and I say if we get to a point in the next period of time where there is in fact a Royal Commission called, I just hope no one tries to pretend there's a win for any politician or win for any political party.  The only time that any of us can claim a win is when there are zero veteran suicides and we've got a long way to go yet.  And I have to give credit to my department, the ex‑service organisations who have worked very constructively with me over the past three years on a whole range of policies which have helped the veterans' well‑being and supported veterans in our community

FRAN KELLY:  Okay.

DARREN CHESTER: And the Australian public, the Australian public needs to hear this, Fran, we can be proud of the fact as a community, as a nation, we provided more than $11 billion per year to support our veterans and their families but there's more work to be done.

FRAN KELLY:  There certainly is and I just heard you say if we get to a point where a Royal Commission is called.  Now the Parliament, as you agreed, has spoken.  The will of the Parliament is to establish a Royal Commission.  The Government "did not oppose that", that's pointedly not the same as supporting that.  Are you saying the decision has not been made in Government yet whether to establish a Royal Commission, and why not? 

DARREN CHESTER: Well I hate to disappoint you, Fran, but the Veterans' Affairs Minister doesn't get to call Royal Commissions.  They're obviously ‑‑

FRAN KELLY:  No, but I'm sure you're involved in the discussions.

DARREN CHESTER: Yes, but obviously they're a call made by the Cabinet itself and by the Prime Minister himself, but as you saw yesterday, and I'm sure you some of the debate yesterday in the House.

FRAN KELLY:  I did.

DARREN CHESTER: It was at times harrowing to watch and listen to as my colleagues talked about their own experience with mental well‑being, their own mates that they'd lost to suicide.  There is an enormous amount of goodwill in this Parliament to try and solve these issues and what I have to do as the Veterans' Minister is trying to find some united way to go forward where ‑‑

FRAN KELLY:  But that's a Royal Commission.  I mean that's the families are telling you, that's what the RSL is telling you.

DARREN CHESTER:  Fran, with all due respect, Fran, I can assure you I've spoken to more veterans' organisations than you have over the past few years.

FRAN KELLY:  I'm sure you have.

DARREN CHESTER: That is not the united position.  The united position is very difficult to find because many of the veterans' organisations are strongly onboard with the National Commissioner.  Other veterans' organisations and some family members want a Royal Commission.  But then again some of them want a blend of both.  My challenge is to try and find a way we can get united here because the veterans' policy area, the veterans' affairs portfolio has always been an area of great bipartisanship and it's become quite divided in recent times.  What I have to do, Fran, is find a way to make sure we are giving hope to those people who are suffering ill‑health and that we're not constantly talking them down, we're not creating some sort of contagion effect through the coverage of these issues.

FRAN KELLY:  Yes.  Look, I understand.  I agree with you.  These issues are so important it should not be diverted from the importance of the issue and what's required to support these people who have served for our country with some sort of argy‑bargy about how we help them.  But the fact is the Parliament voted yesterday, the Government didn't oppose it, to establish a Royal Commission and now you're saying "if we establish it" so I need to get this clear.  Is the Government promising or not that it will establish a Royal Commission, whether or not there's a National Commissioner that is a quid pro quo with that or sits alongside that or after that, will the Government establish a Royal Commission? 

DARREN CHESTER: Well, Fran, as I said to you, I can't announce that.  What I can tell you is what I said.  The Government doesn't not oppose a Royal Commission but my challenge as Veterans' Minister, as I tried to describe to you, is to get a unified position going forward across the Parliament which also recognises that a lot of veterans' organisations that don't want to just look backwards, they want the National Commissioner to do that forward looking work.  They want the National Commissioner to work with them on development of policies that make a difference today as well.  So that's my challenge.  Because the Royal Commission by its nature, Royal Commissions tend to have a point in time look at an issue and that's the end of it.

FRAN KELLY:  Okay.

DARREN CHESTER: But a National Commissioner with the same powers of a Royal Commissioner can do the enduring work, that legacy work into future generations.  So I'm not trying to be difficult for you, Fran, I'm just trying to make the point that there is a great diversity of views on these issues.  They are too important to get wrong.  We have done some really important work over the last six or seven years now in terms of reducing the stigma around mental health, trying to improve the transition from Defence Force into the veteran community into civilian life, and also putting in practical measures like the veterans' payment that supports all veterans.  And the other point I would make is that anyone listening today who's having any issues with their mental health in the veteran community, the Open Arms number is available on 1800 011 046 and we provide free mental health care for all veterans in the Australian community.

FRAN KELLY:  I'll give out that number later at the end of this too.  Minister, on another issue, yet another very grubby coalition sex scandal, a number of staffers, as was revealed on Network 10 last night, staffers filming themselves performing lewd sexual acts, including on the desk of a female government MP, at least one.  Why are men in politics behaving this way?  Why are men on your side of politics behaving this way? 

DARREN CHESTER: Well, Fran, first of all, I think it's a bit of a cheap shot to say, "men on my side of politics".  I reject that assertion.

FRAN KELLY:  Well this is within the Coalition.

 DARREN CHESTER: Fran, you're deliberately wanting to put a political spin on it.  I'm just saying I reject that point.

FRAN KELLY:  Well Minister, I reject it's a political spin.  The report last night was of staff within the Coalition ‑‑

DARREN CHESTER: There are allegations, there are allegations circling in the current environment around men behaving badly across the political spectrum and I am offended by their behaviour, by all their behaviours.  But back to the exact point you raised in relation to the allegations last night.  It's not my experience as a Member of Parliament for the past 13 years and a former staffer in this building that that is commonplace in the Parliament of Australia.  What I see when I come to work here is people who are proud to do their job on both sides of the chamber, in Labor, Liberals, Nationals, Greens, Independents.  The overwhelming majority of those staff act professionally, and they want to make a difference in their working life.  They have the absolute right to come to work and be safe, to not be subjected to this type of appalling behaviour.  I haven't the words to describe it.  I can't imagine what would go through someone's mind to decide this is a good idea and then just try and share these sorts of images with their mates.  It's disgusting, it's abhorrent.  But I just want to make the point that we have a national challenge when it comes to respect towards women.  We have to take our own responsibility as individual people, as men, to respect ourselves, to respect everyone we deal with and take responsibility for our own actions.  So these are big challenges, I don't resile from these, Fran.  But I just want to assure the Australian public the people I work with here in Parliament House are fantastic Australians doing a great job.

FRAN KELLY:  Just finally, Minister, your electorate covers Gippsland.  We heard reports this morning that rain and flooding is heading that way, the way of Gippsland.  Of course parts of Gippsland suffered terribly in the bushfires too.  How is your community faring, is it prepared? 

DARREN CHESTER: Well we're getting kind of used to disasters down that way, Fran, thanks for asking.  We're in better shape than our friends up north at the moment.  And, you know, we do live in a great nation where we have so many emergency workers available to help us out in these troubling times.  We're well‑prepared, we have a strong SES, we have a strong volunteer firefighting organisation and obviously the first responders, the paid emergency workers are on hand as well.  You know, we'd be hoping for three or four inches, not the 10, 12 or 15 inches of rain that our friends up north have copped.  But, no, we do live in a great nation, Fran, where people are ready to volunteer their time to put themselves at risk and help their mates and I understand the Australian Defence Force will also be having a role in the floods up north in the coming days as well. 

FRAN KELLY:  Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

DARREN CHESTER: Thanks, Fran, all the best. 

FRAN KELLY:  Darren Chester is the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel.

ENDS

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