Press Conference, Orange, NSW

Saturday, 26 March 2022

The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel

EO&E…

MINISTER GEE: Good morning everyone. Thanks for coming out today. I apologies for the delay, but it has been a very dramatic morning. I called the media together this morning because I was going to announce my resignation from Cabinet, and I was going to do that because I felt that I had to take a stand for veterans.

With the honour of holding the offices that I do, as Member for Calare and Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel, comes a heavy responsibility to stand up and speak out when their interests are compromised or put at risk. And for the men and women who have put their lives on the line for our country, nothing less could be expected of their Minister, to stand up and fight for them when they need it. I believe that today and now is such a time.

The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, which I support, and numerous reports have highlighted that there are serious problems in the portfolio of Veterans’ Affairs that have been building for years. The Productivity Commission found that the current system is not working in the best interest of veterans, families or the Australian community.

One of the problems, one of the serious problems, is the massive backlog of unprocessed ADF and veteran compensation claims, which in the middle of last year reached 55,000 and which currently stands at almost 60,000. Some veterans have been waiting years to get their claims processed and finalised. This is simply not good enough. In fact, it is a national disgrace. Because behind those 60,000 claims are people, and they are not just any people, they’re people, Australians who put their lives on the line for our country. And many of them are hurting, and many of them are suffering. Speak to the veterans and they will tell you, speak to the families and they will tell you, speak to the exhausted and burnt-out advocates who fight for them and they will tell you – ending this claims backlog needs to be a bipartisan, national mission.

Last year I directed the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to get an independent action plan to fix this problem. That action plan has been delivered to the Australian Government and it provides a roadmap to have the backlog cut by the middle of 2023.

I had requested $96 million to fund the action plan, including more claims processing staff and other initiatives like cutting red tape. I was initially told that there was no funding for this vital work, and then when I objected I was told there would be $22.8 million for 90 temporary staff, but no other funding to deliver the plan. It was well short. It would have meant that we would have been, without any other actions, 100 staff short and that the claims backlog could not have been cut until sometime in 2024 – but no one really knew, no one could really tell me. Now, I was placed in the position where I could have said I was happy with that outcome. I was sent a press release that suggested I was happy, to be issued as part of the Budget process. And I accept that in politics and in life, you have to make compromises, but my personal integrity is not up for compromise and it’s not up for negotiation. And I was not prepared to sign up for that.

The choice I was faced with this morning was to accept something that I did not believe was good enough, or resign, because they’re the rules – it’s called Cabinet solidarity. And so I called you here this morning to resign. That’s what I was going to do.

I have been working with the Deputy Prime Minister on this issue for a week and there was no headway, and there was not enough progress, and this issue was not being given the attention that it deserves. It is a national imperative to fix this claims backlog. As I said, these veterans have been waiting for years – it’s too long, it’s too much. We should be able to get this sorted out for them.

So, this morning I called the Deputy Prime Minister and I told him that the media was waiting outside my office and, out of courtesy, I was letting him know, as my leader, that I was going to resign from Cabinet. That followed quite a bit of activity, and the end result is that the $96 million to help process and clear this backlog of 60,000 claims is now going to be forthcoming. And I think that’s vitally important news for the veteran community, to know that their Government is out there doing something about this claims backlog, and that they are not forgotten and that they have a voice inside this Government and that they have a voice inside Cabinet. And I felt so strongly about it that I was minutes away from handing in my resignation today.

I am very pleased that we have been able to resolve this issue and that the funding will now be found. Only part of it will appear in the Budget papers, but I add another caveat – none of this will be offset against the Department of Veterans’ Affairs budget. If it is I will resign. Because this issue is too important to veterans and ADF families to be taking from one party in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to pay another.

We still have an enormous amount of work to do to clear this claims backlog for our veterans, ADF members and their families, but with this action plan which has now been delivered, we can start on that pathway. We can get rid of this backlog and do whatever our nation can to make life better for our ADF personnel, veterans and their families. They deserve nothing less from their Government, and they deserve nothing less from their Minister.

Let me conclude by giving all sides of politics a word of advice. Believe in something higher than just winning elections – let’s start with veterans.

Thank you.

JOURNALIST: How do you feel that it took your actual threatening to resign to actually get the money? How do you feel that that’s how far it had to go before they saw the importance of the issue you’ve been speaking about?

MINISTER GEE: Well, it was pretty close. It was a pretty dramatic morning. I feel glad that I’ve got a result for the veterans and their families and the ADF personnel. Because at the end of the day, it’s not really about me, it’s about making life better for them. And, as I said, this claims backlog is a national disgrace. To sit back as minister and accept second best – I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t look them in the eye and do it, and just pretend that I was ok with it, and just go along for the ride. And what, line up at the parliamentary buffet? That’s not me and that’s not who I am. This was literally minutes away from happening. I’m glad that we’ve got the result and I’m glad that this issue has been elevated to the national stage, because our veterans deserve it to be there. This is a disgrace, 60,000 claims.

JOURNALIST: Did Mr Joyce say where the $96 million was going to come from?

MINISTER GEE: The Deputy Prime Minister, I believe, spoke to the Prime Minister, and I had a couple of conversations with the Minister for Defence Peter Dutton and I’m not sure where they are going to find the money, but I am assured they’re going to find it. And, on that basis, I decided not to resign. And that’s what happened this morning.

JOURNALIST: So you were that close, Andrew, obviously and it’s the phone calls this morning that…

MINISTER GEE: The only thing that stopped it was the phone calls. So, I rang my leader out of courtesy, before I was going to come out and see you. And I rang him to tell him that I was resigning and I’d exhausted all avenues.

This has been going on for a week. There’s been a flurry of communications and correspondence over this. But I concluded late last night, after speaking with another Cabinet colleague who’s involved in this, that I didn’t think there was going to be any meaningful progress for the veterans. And so, I had a very sleepless night, and the result of it was that I decided to come out here and front our media and tell them exactly what’s happened. I think you’ve just got to be open and honest about it, and now I’m telling you honestly what’s happened in the last hour.

JOURNALIST: Do you think you’ve kicked and bucked a bit here though? Will it cause a few ripples in the National Party and in the Coalition Government?

MINISTER GEE: My job is to stand up for veterans and defend them and represent them, come what may. I had to do it. It would be great if we didn’t have to do that, or I didn’t have to do it, but I felt….

JOURNALIST: It’s a drastic thing to do isn’t it?

MINISTER GEE: I feel so strongly about it. I can’t back down on it. I just cannot back down on it. And I, just looking them in the eye after the Budget and saying that I was happy with it – we’ve put so much work into getting this action plan up and running and getting it sorted and now we’re trying like the blazes to get it implemented. And just to see it, just kind of given an allocation, I’d almost call it a token allocation – it was less than a quarter of what we were seeking - I didn’t think it was good enough and I thought it was an insult to veterans and ADF personnel.

JOURNALIST: So you’re quite emotionally invested with these people…

MINISTER GEE: Yes I am.

JOURNALIST:…you’ve met them….

MINISTER GEE:  Yeah, you speak to their families, you speak to them. What they do for our country – they’re amazing people. They’re Australians we should be helping. They sign up to put their lives on the line for our country. They don’t do it for the money, they do it cause they love their country. Our country’s got to love them back. It’s as simple as that. And that’s what this is all about, and that’s why I was going to pull the pin today, there’s no two ways about it, I was out.

JOURNALIST: So you were disillusioned, is that a…

MINISTER GEE:  Disappointed. Well, if I’m being honest I was disillusioned with a Budget process which wasn’t going to deliver the outcomes they deserved. This has got to be a signature piece of work for any government – reducing this claims backlog. What I saw with the potential allocation was, it’s just more kicking the can down the road. Kicking the can down the road’s been going on for years. It’s got to stop. Someone’s got to say “enough’s enough”. Just get on and fix it. It couldn’t be that hard. It cannot be that hard. So let’s just get it done. But if I can’t be given, as the Minister representing those men and women, if I can’t be given the resources I need to do my job then to me I couldn’t do my job. And that’s where we were. Yeah, I am emotionally invested in it, and so are they. But speak to them and you’ll know why – what they go through, and what they’ve been through for this country, their country, our country. That’s what this is all about.

So, I guess in a sense I’m still processing what’s happened. It’s not the outcome I expected, but good on Barnaby and good on the Prime Minister and Defence Minister for coming together quickly to get it sorted.

JOURNALIST: How much of this $96 million can we expect to see in Tuesday night’s Budget? And can you guarantee the rest of it will come, given you might not be in government by the time the next Budget rolls around?

MINISTER GEE:  It’s going to be locked into the Budget so I would have thought that whoever wins government is going to need to use this funding.

JOURNALIST: I thought you said we won’t see the full $96 million this Tuesday, is that right?

MINISTER GEE: The Budget process has closed, and so almost $23 million will appear officially in the Budget and they’re going to find the balance somewhere else. I don’t know where they’re going to find it or how they’re going to do it, but it can’t come from cuts to veterans, ADF personnel or their families. There can be no cuts here.

When I inherited the portfolio, I was facing $470 million worth of cuts – they’re called offsets – to pay for previous initiatives and my office and I managed to remove the offsets. So we didn’t have to find the cuts which was good news for veterans and their families. But even with the amount that they were going to give me, just over $22 million, almost $23 million, they were going to have to find offsets in DVA. We need every available person on deck to help veterans and reduce the claims backlog. So I’m really pleased, I suppose, that we’ve been able to find a resolution.

It’s all been a little bit dramatic and a little bit shocking for a country MP, but as I said I just couldn’t have lived with myself. I couldn’t have lived with myself and I couldn’t look veterans in the eye. I think, with any political career, the goal should be to do your best for the people you represent, in this case it’s the people of Calare and ADF personnel, veterans and their families. And you should aim to have no regrets. And I came to the view that had I not done this then I would have had regrets and I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself and that’s really the bottom line. Personal integrity counts. It has to count in politics. As I said, in politics you have to believe in something higher than winning elections. So let’s start with veterans. That should be an important part of any government’s priorities, to elevate them and elevate their needs.

What needs to happen in veterans’ affairs is not a secret. Everyone knows what has to be done. But the issue just seems to be that a lot of is just continually being kicked down the road. And so, whoever wins government is going to need to access the $96 million and they’re going to need to implement the action plan. And they’re going to have to do the right thing for veterans and our ADF personnel. So, the commitments that were made today have to be honoured and it now has to be delivered. It’s a significant investment meaning more staff – 145 more staff – to help tackle this issue, and a raft of other funding measures are included, including measures to cut red tape, to beef up the computer systems and IT systems. All of that will be covered in this funding, which is really important. So, that’s great news.

I guess me having to take this action today has done something for veterans and that’s what it’s all about. It’s about helping veterans and trying to get them the best possible result. Look, it may not turn out to be the best career move and, you know, it is a slightly unorthodox way of fixing Budget wrongs. But we appear to have got there and if we don’t get there then, again, I won’t hang around. But I had to take people on their word and it has to be in good faith and let’s all now work together to get this done. That’s what people want to see from their politicians and that’s what they want to see from their governments. Let’s make it bipartisan, cutting this backlog. Whoever wins the election in May is still going to have this as an ongoing issue so let’s all work together and do whatever we can to support the efforts to get results for ADF personnel and veterans and family members. It’s as simple as that, really.

There is a lot of goodwill out there across the aisle I think, and there’s a real understanding of what the issues are. For me, letting this one go just wasn’t on. As I said earlier, I accept that you do have to make compromises, but 60,000 claims? Unprocessed claims? In Australia? No. No. We have to act and we have to do something. That’s what we’re paid for. We’re not just paid to line up at the parliamentary buffet and punch our tickets.

So, whilst today may not have been ideal in terms of career prospects, we got the results for veterans and I can now look them in the eye and say to them I did everything I could for them.

JOURNALIST: Can you give us an idea of how old some of these claims have been in for? Have they been there for years?

MINISTER GEE: Some have been there for years. They range depending on what claims they are, but some have been there for years depending on the different categories. They’ve just been banking up for a long time. The averages are different for every one and the backlog varies according to the different categories. But it is years that they have been backing up and the DVA staff are working very hard to clear it. I’ve been and seen so many passionate DVA and Defence staff who work in this field and believe passionately in what they do. So, we have to support them. They don’t like to see the backlog. They want to get these veteran claims processed. Let’s support the people who are supporting veterans, and they’re our hardworking and passionate DVA and Defence staff.

Let’s see where this lands next week and hopefully we can all this squared away and we can move on.

JOURNALIST: Do you have any clue when the election might be?

MINISTER GEE: I haven’t got any inside information. Look, I would say if I was a betting person – this is just my own personal point of view – it will be the 14th of May, or maybe the 21st. It’s coming down the line pretty quickly. But I don’t know. That’s totally within the remit of the Prime Minister and he gets to decide when he does that. That’s totally up to him. I don’t think anyone really knows. He may not know himself.

Got to go. Thanks folks.

** End of transcript **