The Hon Darren Chester MP
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC
TIM SHAW: On 2CC Breakfast 2018 you're going to have an opportunity to meet the Minister. You're going to meet a minister this morning that was sworn in as Veterans' Affairs Minister, the fifth person to hold that portfolio since the Coalition took office in 2013. The 6th March 2018 is his first full day in the job and of course we're talking about Darren Chester, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. He's on the line.
Minister, good morning.
DARREN CHESTER: Good morning, Tim.
TIM SHAW: Congratulations on this. What does this ministry mean to you? What's the first job on the agenda today?
DARREN CHESTER: Well thanks Tim, and what it means to me is a great opportunity to serve in an area where you can really make a difference in people's lives. I think most members of Parliament when they get to this place are focused on what they can change in their own communities and what impact they can have to make Australia an even better place and I think the area of veterans and veterans support is a critical one and one that I'm very excited about being involved in. So yeah, yesterday was a busy day. I met up with the two department secretaries from Defence and from Veterans' Affairs. I had the chance to have a meeting with the Chief of Defence Force Mark Binskin and then yesterday evening I went to Last Post Ceremony and attended at the War Memorial with Brendan Nelson, so it was a busy day yesterday but I'm sure there's many more busy days ahead.
TIM SHAW: Yeah, no I understand. Look, if I log on to DVA.gov.au I've got access to online services. Tell me what the early message you're getting about access for veterans' to the online services. There's been some problems with computers and with account servicing. Have you had any feedback on that yet?
DARREN CHESTER: The early message I received from veterans - both from role as a local member of parliament in Gippsland, where we've got several thousand veterans obviously in the community, and perhaps more recently when they heard that I'd take on this role - is to make sure that the veterans are at the centre of every decision we make. So we're thinking about people and their families and the impact these decisions have on them, not seeing it as just a number, making sure that we're actually making them an absolute priority and respect their service and the unique nature of that service.
So what's been going on in recent times as you correctly referred to, is an overhaul of the systems that you sit behind at the Veterans' Affairs Department, and it's fair to say the systems were out-dated and they're antiquated systems which often crash and lead to delays in the way that veterans claims are actually processed and that delay is I think adding to the frustration in the community. It's fair to say that the Veterans' Affairs Department staff I think are working very hard with the systems that they've got available to them but we need to make sure we're renewing those systems and allowing for more timely processing of claims and more support for veterans when they actually need it.
TIM SHAW: Have we got enough case managers, Minister?
DARREN CHESTER: My understanding is there's enough people in that regard but the systems you're dealing with have let the system down a bit if it makes any sense. You know the vast majority of people - and it's in the order about of maybe between 5000, 6000 people - will leave military service in any given year. And yet that transition from military service into civilian life in the majority of cases goes very smoothly, they go perhaps into retirement or a younger veteran might go into a new career opportunity and it goes very well for them. But for the minority who may have left with some health concerns - whether they be physical or mental health concerns or left under circumstances which weren't to their liking - they may have some ongoing conflict and ongoing issues that need to be worked through and it's those people who have in the past perhaps suffered unnecessarily and we need to make sure we're supporting veterans and their families at the time they need it and making sure that the response from the department is timely and recognise the unique nature of service in the military.
TIM SHAW: One death by suicide is too many for a veteran. Jeff Kennett made this crystal clear at his Remembrance Day address that he delivered here in Canberra and the Prime Minister reacted very strongly. Tell me about the veterans' employment initiatives that the Prime Minister announced - other than an award ceremony this year what is actually happening in relation to veteran employment initiatives pioneered by the Prime Minister?
DARREN CHESTER: I think you've touched on two really critical parts of the portfolio that I'm very keen to pursue further. Now you're right, one death by suicide per year is too many and we understand that between 30 and 35 veterans each year have taken their own lives in recent years. Now, keeping in context that suicide remains the greatest cause of death for 14 to 44 year old males in Australia, we understand that mental health is a priority for the whole community, particularly for the veterans’ community. There's additional programs and support being put in place in response to Senate inquiries on the issue and we know we need two more in that space and we know that we need to work with the veterans and their families and the wider community to make sure support's available.
But obviously one of the most important things for any veteran is to achieve employment once they leave the military. They're of a working age and want to continue into a new career. And if I was to suggest there's one area where we're perhaps not the best in the world when it comes to veterans support is around employment post-military service. I think our veteran support services are world class in many ways but if you're going to be perhaps in the broader community we haven't understood the skill set and the discipline, the training, the work ethic, the leadership skills a lot of veterans have and these can be put to great use in the corporate world or business world or in future trades. So that is a point of the Veterans' Employment Program - working with businesses to encourage them to consider former ADF members and promote our greater job opportunities for those who have the skills who could go on to make a contribution in the private sector that perhaps the private sector may not have realised the opportunity was there.
TIM SHAW: Do you think universities can play a more active role? And I'm not suggesting we saddle veterans of some 5000 a year, Minister, leave the services, they're discharged, they've got choices in their life, we don't want to saddle them HECS debts. Can you see an opportunity for Universities Australia - 39 campuses providing excellent education, post-graduate and in some cases for some of the younger veterans returning they're undergraduates, they've never been to university - would you like to see some of that 3.6 billion that was allocated to Defence Materiel allocated in the re-education opportunities through Universities Australia for veterans, is that something you'd consider?
DARREN CHESTER: Tim, you raised a really good point. It's not one that I've had much chance to consider myself at this stage. A lot of veterans who leave Defence have been the beneficiaries of a lot of trade training or other kills training in the Defence Force, but I accept the basic points you're making that maybe those skills need to be updated or more transferrable to the private sector so I'd be very keen to work with Universities Australia and with the department on what other education needs are required to make the veterans jobs ready in the private sector.
I still make the fundamental point, Tim, is that we need to appreciate that the work that goes into training our military personnel instils them with a great deal of discipline, they have a strong work ethic, they have leadership skills, and they have great values - honesty, integrity, and working part of a team. So most of them, I would believe, would come out of the military in a position to step into a whole range of different workplaces and be a valued contributor. So I just think we've got to get a bit more positive in how we look at military service in the corporate world, and that's one thing that I particularly like about the Prime Minister's Veterans' Employment Program is it does encourage the business sector to think in a more positive way and raise the awareness of the unique skills and experiences that the ADF members do have.
TIM SHAW: We are so lucky in our Parliament, Darren Chester, that we have the likes of Andrew Hastie, Dr Mike Kelly, Linda Reynolds, Luke Gosling - men and women that have served our nation in their role as members of the Australian Defence Force. Do you want to go out into the community and actually go and speak to the veterans? With the greatest respect to the secretaries, they're public servants, they're doing a good job, but do you need to hear firsthand from veterans, men and women in various communities, and use those members across the party lines to go out there and start asking those questions with you? Go out and speak to the veterans and find out what their real need are?
DARREN CHESTER: Oh look, I think you're spot on. There's absolutely no replacement for getting out there and walking a mile in someone else's shoes; getting out and sitting beside them or listening to their concerns personally. One of the things we do have in the Parliament - and I agree with you, having the former members of the Defence Force as members of Parliament adds a certain skill set and extra calibre to the Parliament - but one of the programs that does exist in Parliament is the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program, where members of Parliament have the opportunity each year to spend up to a week with the Defence Force in different locations - some on international deployments, but the majority on training programs here in Australia - where we will go and spend time at their base or their barracks for the week and just sit down, have meals with them, view their training - a lot of the time their training's a bit too rigorous for us poor members of Parliament to keep up with - but it's an opportunity to meet some of the young men and women who are the leaders of the future. And it's a program that I've participated in a few times and look forward to doing so again in the future.
But your basic point - that getting out there and talking to veterans on the ground, their support services, particularly in regional locations or right here in Canberra - takes away that veneer that you might get painted over the top of it if you were talking to the bureaucrats who are one step removed in the process. And that's no disrespect meant to the bureaucrats at all, but it's what they're prepared to tell you as an individual member of Parliament might be different to the sanitised version that you might get in a report that you read in Parliament House.
TIM SHAW: Yeah, I want to also talk to you about the National RSL. You and I both know - we both read the papers - about some of the challenges in the New South Wales branch. What role, nationally, should the RSL play? Because in your community and in mine, that local RSL club was a place where men and women could meet; they'd had difficulties, they could talk to their mates. What role should the RSL being playing 2018 and beyond? There's hundreds of millions of dollars in their bank accounts, Darren Chester. What can they do to help veterans on the ground?
DARREN CHESTER: Well, I think the RSL perhaps has the same challenge that the Department of Veterans' Affairs has and that I have as minister, is making sure we're actually listening to the veterans and listening to particularly the younger veterans. The RSL model was obviously established decades ago, and for a certain cohort of veterans it may be the appropriate model for them, but a lot of the younger veterans that I've spoken to over the years have said to me that they actually don't go to the RSL - it's not somewhere they feel particularly comfortable at this stage. Now, that means we probably need to look at where are they getting their support services from, and perhaps the RSL needs to work with them as well. And I understand that there's a great deal of enthusiasm amongst many members of the RSL to embrace their younger veterans and recognise that they may well have different needs.
And the DVA itself - the Department of Veterans' Affairs itself - is 100 years old this year, so it's quite timely that we're doing reform around what we're calling the veteran-centric reform, where we're transitioning away from paper files into these digital formats that allow us to replace our systems and be more responsive, and allow veterans to interact with the Department in their own time using digital platforms. So it is an area of public policy which is moving quite quickly, Tim, and it's an area where because, if there is an incident of self-harm or suicide, it's inevitably a high public profile issue, and we need to make sure that we're doing everything we can to stop that from occurring, and that the families and the veterans themselves are well-supported when they make their transition, and that their mental health and their physical health is an absolute priority.
TIM SHAW: Look, it's sounding good, but you are the fifth Veterans' Affairs Minister since 2013. To the critics and the cynics, what can you tell our listeners today - particularly the men and women that are regular listeners that are former Defence Service men and women? You're here for the long run, Darren, on this one? Because the bottom line is five Veterans' Affairs Ministers in five years. Not good enough.
DARREN CHESTER: Well, my ambition is obviously to be here for the long run, Tim, and some of those circumstances obviously depend on the whim of the Australian people at the next election. I have to say, in the last couple of changes were quite unusual circumstances where Michael McCormack, who was the Veterans' Affairs Minister was promoted into Cabinet and has become the Deputy Prime Minister. So in that regard, having someone like Michael, who is experienced now in the Veterans' Affairs portfolio, sitting alongside the Prime Minister at the highest level of government is a good thing.
And Dan Tehan, the Veterans' Affairs Minister before him, has also been promoted into Cabinet. So there's an upside in a sense that I want to reassure veterans that the ministers who have left the portfolio have gone on to senior roles in government and taken with them the experience from this department, which means their needs are now being well and truly recognised around the Cabinet table as well.
But it doesn't change the fact that the changeover causes uncertainty and people want to be reassured that we're going to have the veterans' needs at the centre of everything we do. And that's what I want to assure people: that my obsession in this job is to make sure that we do everything we can for veterans and their families. It's not about the personal career prospects of Darren Chester, it's about what we can do to support veterans who have given our nation such great service.
TIM SHAW: I want to thank you for your time, Minister, and I'm sure I'll see you on the hill. Have a great day.
DARREN CHESTER: All the best, Tim. Have a great day.
TIM SHAW: Thanks. Darren Chester, Minister for Veterans' Affairs. Former newspaper and television journalist, and in fact, you may have noted that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister are both former journalists. Darren Chester, Minister for Veterans' Affairs.
Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) can be reached 24 hours a day across Australia for crisis support and free confidential counselling. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546). VVCS is a service founded by Vietnam veterans.