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

TRANSCRIPT

Date: Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Sky News, Laura Jayes interview discussing Australian Parliament House culture and a Royal Commission into veteran suicide

Station: Sky News
Program: AM Agenda

***E&OE***

LAURA JAYES: Let’s go live back to Canberra now. Darren Chester is the veterans’ affairs minister. He joins us live now. Darren Chester, thanks so much for your time on another pretty dismal day in politics, I’ve got to say. Now, you were one of the only ministers to contact Brittany Higgins when these allegations first came to light five weeks ago. What do you think of the handling of this whole situation so many weeks on?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, thanks for having me on, Laura. And you’re right, it’s been a pretty grueling, tough month or six weeks I think for a lot of people in this place. And the first point I would raise – and I’ll get to your question – but the first point I would raise is my experience in this building over the past 13 years has been there’s an overwhelming majority of people come here with a great deal of passion, determination to make a difference in public life, whether it’s members of parliament or as staff, and they get about their work in a very professional way. That’s been my overwhelming experience.

But in relation to the very serious allegations that Ms Higgins raised, it doesn’t really matter how I feel it’s been handled or how the people at the time feel they handled the issue. The fact that Ms Higgins feels she wasn’t supported well enough is the critical issue here for us. And the fact that she had to leave her employment and is now pursuing the police line of investigation just demonstrates to me that we’ve got to keep working to make sure that everyone feels and is actually safer in the workplace.

I’ve had a lot of conversations over this past month with my own staff about issues around, you know, can we do better, can I do better, can the men in my office do better. And I’ve got to say, it’s been a very positive experience. I’m very fortunate to have, you know, a great team in my office and we work very constructively together. But I’ve learnt a lot of things even from those conversations. And, you know, we’ve got a long way to go in this country when it comes to respecting women and making sure they are safe in the workplace and at home. And the Parliament of Australia, this building, should be seen as a pinnacle of public service and we’ve got to make sure we do everything we can to deliver on that expectation for the Australian people. Because right now the Australian people I think are feeling a little bit let down that there’s something going on in the building that’s not quite right when my experience has been the vast majority of people get in here and do a damn good job for the country.

LAURA JAYES: The security guard who found Brittany Higgins has not even been interviewed, minister. How do you even start to explain that?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I can’t explain it. I saw the story last night. And, look, I know it’s a very strange feeling, Laura – you worked here for many years and you would have walked the corridors of this place and you know the faces, you know the people, you say g’day to them every morning when you get your coffee. And, you know, I’ve met the young lady who was on that interview last night and I was very disturbed to see her distressed, just as I knew Ms Higgins when she worked here. So these are people that you’ve worked with and know, not necessarily your best mates, but you’ve known them to say g’day to them. To see them and not realise they’ve gone through a great and distressful period of their lives a couple of years ago and you had no awareness of it really bothers me.

I’m concerned that whether both the ladies involved are getting the right amount of support they should get. But I want to make sure that we get to the bottom of it, get the facts out there and then work on making sure that people can feel safe as they go about their work in this place, that this is a building that you can respect as an Australian, this is a place you should want to work if you’re interested in public policy development either as a member of parliament or a staffer or a journalist. I mean, the journalists have got to feel safe here as well.

LAURA JAYES: Yeah, absolutely, and they all contribute to the culture. The Prime Minister knew the Gaetjens report – at least Phil Gaetjens tell us that he knew – was being suspended. Why didn’t he just say that?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I listened yesterday, and the Prime Minister I understood – I understand is making some more comments this morning. But I listened yesterday in the house as he explained his position under questioning during question time. And, look, I’ve got to the point I’ve got to say, Laura, where I’m not – I guess I’m not as worried about who said, he said, when they said it and whatever; I’m more interested in getting to the actual facts of the alleged incident and making sure anyone who’s done anything wrong is brought to some level of justice and the people who have been wronged are properly supported.

So a lot of what you’re talking about – I’m not being critical of you – it’s got into such minutia now that it’s very hard for people to follow exactly what the concern was in this particular incident. There is an investigation underway –

LAURA JAYES: Sorry to interrupt, minister, but you can see how women are frustrated by this, surely?

LAURA JAYES: Oh, yeah. Sorry, I didn’t –

LAURA JAYES: There seems to be a distinct lack of empathy about what happened to Brittany Higgins, and since those five weeks, in those intervening five weeks when she came forward and put everything on the line for it, it’s been managed by many in your government as a PR problem.

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I didn’t mean to dismiss your question.

LAURA JAYES: No, and I don’t suggest you were, sorry.

DARREN CHESTER: I’m just trying to get to the point that I really am worried about the people directly involved now, and you mentioned the young security guard as well as Ms Higgins and others and my own staff and the welfare of other staff in this building. I want to give them the confidence that they can come to work here, they will be safe, they will be respected. And if there are cultural issues we’re going to work to fix them in a bipartisan way. So I’m not trying to dismiss your comments at all. Laura.

LAURA JAYES: No.

DARREN CHESTER: I just think the work of the Sex Discrimination Commission now is so important. And I know of many staff across the building who are looking to make submissions to that process. I understand the investigation underway through the Prime Minister’s Office will be ongoing but there was some concerns around whether it would cross over into the police investigation. So that adds a level of complexity that I’m just not across the absolute detail.

LAURA JAYES: But it just all looks very tricky, if you know what I mean?

DARREN CHESTER: And I hope it doesn’t look like that to the Australian people, because I do know there are men and women in this place on both sides of the chamber, who work in the offices who are not tricky; who are just wanting to do a good job.

LAURA JAYES: Yep, well, now we have a bunch of staffers cruising around apparently pleasuring themselves on MPs’ desks, and to the Australian public parliament probably looks like some kind of weird sex cult at this point?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I saw that report last night and I was speechless. I mean, you know, angry, frustrated, disappointed. But my overwhelming emotion was complete bewilderment. I mean, just complete bewilderment that anyone thinks that’s a good idea or can find someone to share those images with who would encourage them to do it again. I mean, there is a broader issue here, Laura, and I say this with all sincerity, there is broader issue in the community about people taking offensive images of themselves and sharing them with people, particularly sharing them with women, unwanted images. And I’ve become more aware of that in the last couple of years, you know, of issues of using, you know, selfies in inappropriate ways to send images in an harassing way. I mean, that’s why we have a sex – sorry, that’s why we have the eSafety Commissioner in place to try and stamp that out.

I guess that’s an issue to do with, I guess, the digital generation of people that the idea that you’d film yourself doing some sort of, you know, self-pleasuring in your boss’s office and then share it with colleagues, I mean, anyone watching that report last night would have been pretty disappointed I’ve got to say, angry as well, at the lack of respect being shown to the women involved is appalling. So I’ve got no explanation for it, Laura, I just – I was bewildered by it.

LAURA JAYES: Yep, and I think we’re all pretty gob smacked by it. Look, we are standing by for the Prime Minister. We are going to hear from him pretty shortly, so I’m sorry if we have to interrupt you, but you are the veterans minister, and there are calls for a royal commission now. You do want to establish a commission of inquiry. You say it has all the powers of a royal commission, but has it now got to that point where the calls are just too loud to avoid a royal commission?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I think, Laura – and you’ve covered it very neatly there – I think we’ve got to a point now where there’s a real opportunity to unite the parliament, unite the ex-service community and the families directly impacted by suicide because, you know, they have been calling for a royal commission and the government hasn’t been deaf to those calls. And that led to our policy position of a national commissioner, basically a standing royal commissioner going forward.

Now I believe there’s an opportunity now where there’s nothing to stop having that, I guess, a royal commission doing that receipt perspective look, but getting some sort of agreement about the national commissioner as an ongoing legacy piece of policy. Because in the speeches yesterday in the house – and you probably saw a lot of them as I did – a lot of members on both sides talked about the need where the two could work in tandem in the sense that people need to have some sort of closure about what’s occurred in the past and to understand what may have led to some of those horrible events in the past. But they also want to know it’s not just going to be a point-in-time issue, that we need to be committed to the long-term reform.

And, you know, I think there’s a lot of people with a great deal of passion and a lot of interest in this area. It’s a complex area, it’s a sensitive area. I mean, in my time in parliament I’ve never dealt with a more difficult area than the issue of veteran suicide. And for the past three years I’ve worked with the ex-service community and worked with colleagues across the aisle to try and get a better pathway forward. I think we probably need to see this as an opportunity –

LAURA JAYES: So what does that mean, minister? Does that mean that you can do both?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, I think there’s no reason – and the Prime Minister himself has never ruled out a royal commission, and yesterday we didn’t oppose the motion before the house and we didn’t oppose the idea of a royal commission.

LAURA JAYES: No.

DARREN CHESTER: But we’re very concerned about making sure there is that ongoing national commissioner role as well so it’s not just a point-in-time issue that this person who is independent of DVA, independent of Defence can be continuing to make recommendations into the future. My challenge here now, Laura – and I don’t want to try and look like I’m dodging your question – my challenge now is trying to get unity out of this, trying to a position where we can move forward with, because veterans affairs has traditionally been quite a bipartisan area of public policy. We’ve been able to work together to try and improve outcomes for our veteran community, and there’s no mistaking the passion, there’s no mistaking the enthusiasm and energy for people to do better; it’s a question now of getting them all to agree on the best pathway forward because the divisiveness in some ways has been taking hope away from people.

LAURA JAYES: Yes.

DARREN CHESTER: And the one thing we can’t do is take hope away from people. Because when you’re in a tough spot you want to be able to see a light ahead, you want to be able to see a better future, a better path for yourself. And the very definition, I think, of suicide is the absence of hope, when people see no more hope for themselves and they take that type of action.

So, you know, it’s not an easy area to get agreement on, but I think we are a lot closer now than we have been perhaps in the last couple of years.

LAURA JAYES: Okay, so parliament clearly backs a royal commission, though. But as we know, that decision is made by the executive. That decision needs to be made by the Prime Minister. Will that decision be made this week? Will it be in tandem?

DARREN CHESTER: Well, as you’re aware, both the Senate and the House of Reps passed the motion on the voices.

LAURA JAYES: Yes.

DARREN CHESTER: So it was passed unanimously. There are different views in the ex-service community on the way to progress from here, so there are some who are absolutely committed to the course of action you described – a royal commission only – and then there are others who are far more supportive of a national commissioner. So, again, my challenge –

LAURA JAYES: Can you do both, though? Can you do both?

DARREN CHESTER: This is, I guess, the point I’m trying to get to. The royal commission itself could have a retrospect view and look back across a period of time. And the national commissioner could have the prospective view, be working with the current generation looking forward.

LAURA JAYES: Yep, sounds great.

DARREN CHESTER: And that might be the pathway we can reach. And I’m certainly having those conversations with my colleagues across the aisle.

LAURA JAYES: All right. Well, keep us updated, because there’s many colleagues on your backbench as well that do want to see both of those things happen. But I know you’ve got a few details to work through. Darren Chester, as always, thank you so much for your time.

DARREN CHESTER: It’s a pleasure, Laura. And anyone troubled by the conversation, please contact Open Arms on 1800 011 046.

LAURA JAYES: Yeah, Open Arms, absolutely. It’s a great service. Appreciate that. And you can contact Lifeline as well on 13 11 14. And there’s lifeline.org.au also.

End of Transcript

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