Interview on 2GB Ben Fordham Live

Wednesday, 29 June 2022

The Hon Matt Keogh MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel

E&OE transcript 
Radio interview

BEN FORDHAM: Well, our next guest has a massive job on his hands. He is Matt Keogh. He’s the new Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and he’s got to fix a giant-sized mess. We’ve been telling you there are more than 61,000 veterans desperately waiting for assistance – 61,000. 

Some have been in a queue for years. Many of them can’t work or they need help with daily activities; and yesterday, we brought you just another story, the one of 103-year-old veteran Joy. 

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has always provided Joy with daily assistance to prepare her meals, but suddenly there was a change and then they were told, “No, no-one’s available on weekends.” 

So, her family is having to fork out for the service on Saturday and Sunday. They live a couple of hours away, so it’s not like they can just drive around the corner and make her lunch or dinner. She’s 103. And we need to remind people why this is important. The Royal Commission continues into the shameful fact that 1,200 of our veterans have taken their own lives since 2001. Matt Keogh is the new Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and he’s on the line. Matt Keogh, good morning to you.

MATT KEOGH: Good morning, Ben; great to be with you.

BEN FORDHAM: You would agree, no doubt, you’ve got a huge mess to try and clean up.

MATT KEOGH: I absolutely do, unfortunately, Ben. It’s a very sad state of affairs. I’m very happy to be in the portfolio, but, as you’ve just been outlining, there’s been some critical drop balls that I’ve had to pick up since we’ve come into Government. Indeed, there’s been things that you haven’t even covered that I’ve just discovered coming into the portfolio, which has been very troubling – additional issues of payments that will reduce come 30 June because the previous Government didn’t get legislation passed before they went to an election that was required to fix that up. So, we’re now trying to urgently fix those circumstances up when Parliament resumes, and looking at situations of what we can do administratively to try to help those veterans – there’s a couple of hundred of them – that will see some payments reduce while they’re studying. 

We’ve been contacting those payments – those veterans directly to make sure that they’re helped through that process, but it’s just another example of where the previous Government’s really dropped the ball on their assistance to veterans, and we’re having to now pick up the pieces to give veterans the sort of supports that they need and, frankly, they deserve to be getting.

BEN FORDHAM: If you can give me some details off-air about those payments that are set to be reduced from 30 June, so I can pass that information along, that’s if you’re not able to fix it by the time we hit 30 June, which is only 24 hours away. On the larger issue, why has Veterans’ Affairs been moved out of Cabinet, because a lot of the veterans listening to me, as we’ve been covering these issues, say that’s exactly the wrong thing that should be happening at the moment.

MATT KEOGH: Look, I’ve heard that concern directly as well, Ben, and I understand it, but the Veterans and the Defence portfolio – broader Defence portfolio does comes under Richard Marles, who’s not only Defence Minister, but he’s also the Deputy Prime Minister.

So there’s very strong representation, the strongest you could get, around the Cabinet table, but from my point of view where I’m sitting, I’m not so concerned about what table I sit at. 

What I’m concerned about is making sure we deliver the strong outcomes that veterans need and they haven’t been getting until this point even though the Minister was sitting at the Cabinet table previously. That clearly wasn’t what was making the difference. We want to make sure that we get the changes that are needed so veterans are properly supported.

BEN FORDHAM: All right. We’re talking to Matt Keogh, the new Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. There’s a couple of issues I want to go through with you. First of all, you know all the gardeners and the cleaners, these contractors who previously were paid to turn up and help our veterans and then all of a sudden there was an issue with the payment system so they weren’t being paid. We were told previously by the former Government that would be fixed by the end of May. That hasn’t happened, right?

MATT KEOGH: It hasn’t happened yet. It’s been a huge problem. I’ve had lots of people contact me directly about this. There’s been a huge blowout in two things: the claims processing which you’ve mentioned before, and these payments of invoices. And the Department has been very stretched because the previous Government had not resourced it properly to deal with these issues. We have been giving the Department more resources across both of these areas. We’ll get into claims in more detail, I’m sure, in a moment, but the Department’s been working very hard on this. In fact, the staff within the Department are recognising how important this is for veterans themselves. So for some of them, they are paying directly and seeking reimbursement, as well as for many small businesses that support our veterans in providing these services. The staff have been working all hours trying to get through this.

So, at the beginning of May, we had 77,000 outstanding invoices. Now we’ve got that down to under 19,000. That’s still over 18,000 invoices that need to be paid that are outstanding. That’s still a problem. But there’s been a tremendous effort in trying to get through this. We’re trying to smash through it as quickly as possible, but also we’ve introduced some new systems. So there’s a portal where these invoices can be uploaded. We’re introducing the use of e-invoices so there can quicker automatic payments, having the capacity for more of these systems to be automated. So, at the moment, some of these invoices get posted in, some of them just get emailed in and they’ve got to get filtered through and worked through.

So, by making the systems a bit more efficient, trying to get more people and more of the businesses and veterans to use those – and I get that not everybody is going to be able to, but having more people use those will make that process more efficient ongoing as well so we can get those payments out the door as quickly as possible.

BEN FORDHAM: Okay. So, the 18,000 invoices, you’re doing your best to work your way through them. What about the 61,000 veterans who are still waiting for their assessment to be done?

MATT KEOGH: Absolutely, and this is a huge number and it’s important to understand that it’s not just people that have left service. It’s also people who are currently serving in our Defence Force that these claims relate to as well. We’ve seen a huge blowout in that number and the key part of that, as much as we can drive some efficiencies within the Department, and the McKinsey report recommended some of those that have been implemented; the report also made very clear that the Department just needs more people. You just can’t process this stuff if you don’t have more people. 

We took a commitment to the last election to provide 500 additional staff to the Department. We’re ramping up that engagement of new recruits into the Department. As you’d appreciate, it takes a bit of time to train them.

But one of the problems the Department’s also confronted is that the previous Government had this completely artificial staffing cap, which meant that instead of employing people as public servants, training them, keeping them so that you have that efficiency, you had this constant churn of casual labour-hire people coming in to do this work. You’d start to train them up. They’d find a more secure job elsewhere and, quite rightly, they’d go and take that job, which meant you would have to get someone new in and start that process again. That’s meant that the process has been pretty inefficient. 

Removing that staffing cap so we have got more permanent staff, more long-term staff, engaged in this, getting trained up, becoming more efficient at the job they do, because it’s a complex job, that’s how we’re going to drive down that backlog. We want to work through that as quickly as possible because veterans need these supports. They deserve these supports. We want to get them those supports. But can I also just say on that, once those claims are lodged, veterans can get immediate access to payment support, so income support, and to a range of medical supports for 20 different conditions that we know that they’re very likely to get approved for anyway. So, we want to make sure that that flows straightaway and they are able to access that, and it’s important that’s understood as well.

BEN FORDHAM: Okay. I know that your office is having a look into what happened to 103 year-old Joy. I don’t need to go through that on the air at the moment. Look, it’s hard to argue with you about the performance of the former Government on this issue because even the former Minister, Andrew Gee, recognised all of this and he threatened to quit because he said, “I’m not getting the staff that I need”, and they tried to cut more money out of his budget. But you know going forward, there’s only so long you can talk about the former Government and now it’s going to come down to you. So, hopefully, we can talk regularly and it’s in all of our interests that we get those waiting lists down. Thanks so much for your time.

MATT KEOGH: No worries, Ben and I look forward to chatting with you about this as we go forward.

BEN FORDHAM: Good on you. Matt Keogh, the new Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.



Media contacts:
Stephanie Mathews (Minister Keogh’s Office): 0407 034 485