Interview, ABC Perth Mornings with Nadia Mitsopoulos

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The Hon Matt Keogh MP

Minister for Defence Personnel

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

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Stephanie Mathews on 0407 034 485

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11 August 2022

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: We have been talking this morning about the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, which has this morning released its Interim Report. There are 13 recommendations. We’ll go through some of them in a moment. But this report does some after more than six months of hearings where military veterans and their families have shared harrowing stories of suicides, attempted suicides, ongoing trauma, poor support systems and the battle for compensation.

So I want to go to Matt Keogh, who is the Veterans’ Affairs Minister. He’s had a bit of a look at this report already this morning. Minister, thank you for your time.

MATT KEOGH: Good morning, Nadia.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: You looked at this report today, and we’ll go through some of those recommendations in more detail in a moment, but do you feel that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the people who have relied on that department for help have been neglected?

MATT KEOGH: I think it’s certainly the case that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs was resource constrained under the previous government, and there was certainly evidence given to the Royal Commission about its inability to get the resources that it needs to be able to provide services to veterans that they need and deserve.

I will say the staff within the department do a very important job and are very dedicated to helping veterans as well. But as the Royal Commission has pointed out in its Interim Report, there’s much work still to be done.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: One of the big themes coming out of this report is the fact that there are something like 42,000 compensation claims that are yet to be processed. Can you just talk us through that huge backlog and the problem there?

MATT KEOGH: Yes. So the department processes around 20,000-plus - even more - claims a year. But what we have seen over the last few years has been a huge blowout because of this constrained resourcing of the department in the claims, but a big increase in claims coming into the department but no resources to get through that. We’ve made a commitment at the last election that we would in government employ 500 additional staff for the department so we can get through this claims backlog. That’s a process we’ve already commenced so that we can get through it as quickly as possible, and the Royal Commission has identified it has a problem, and rightly so.

I should also point out, though, that veterans when they bring forward a claim can get access to the veterans’ payment upon doing that. They can get access to medical treatment for the 20 most common conditions related to Defence service so that they don’t have to wait until their claim is finally processed before they can access that medical assistance and support.

So they’re not left without anything at all, but there is certainly a lot more that needs to be done in getting more staff involved and improving the efficiency within the department as well.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Of those claims, though, it’s more than money for a lot of these soldiers, isn’t it? Isn’t it about an acknowledgement and maybe they weren’t treated right as well?

MATT KEOGH: Well, certainly there’s an issue about what leads to the those claims in terms of how they were engaged with by Defence. In terms of Veterans’ Affairs processing those claims, it is absolutely a people process, and understandably veterans feel that if they’re not getting the service that, frankly, they deserve that amounts to a lack of acknowledgement of respect to the service that they’ve provided and the injuries that they’ve encountered as a consequence of their service.

Many of the people involved in this backlog of claims are actually still serving in Defence. So they’ve suffered an injury in their service, it hasn’t resulted in them having to leave Defence but they do require and deserve compensation, or are entitled to that compensation, and those claims are being processed. But they still are within Defence and they have access to all of the other health and support services that are available to them in Defence during that time as well.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: I’m speaking to Matt Keogh, the Veterans’ Affairs Minister on ABC Radio Perth. So you say there’ll be 500 more staff put into the department. Will that be enough and how quickly will they come on board?

MATT KEOGH: So that will be – they’ve already started to come on board. And we’ll ramp that up over this and next year to the full 500. I’m working through a process at the moment with the department so that we can accurately model not just how many claims we can get through with those additional staff but also what the likely input or inflow of additional claims is going to be. And understanding that in detail is important to understand what the total workload over that period is going to be.

We made the commitment to the 500 additional staff, as I say, at the last election and very much we hope that that is a sufficient number to get through this backlog and some other issues within the department. And we’re working through a model at the moment to make sure that that will result in getting through this backlog as soon as possible.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Because that extra staff is one thing, but if you look at recommendation 3, it does talk about improving the administration of the claims system. And that the complexity of that system and the efficiency, so need to remove the complexity, improve the efficiency. How do you do that?

MATT KEOGH: Yeah, so there’s a number of things that sort of all relate to each other in that regard. So part of it is just how the internals of the department operate, and there have been some changes in the last year or so and even in the last couple of months about trying to improve that efficiency and improve the experience for veterans. So I’m sure many veterans will relate to an experience with DVA where they’ve brought forward a claim, they’ve had one person assess a claim under one piece of legislation but because they’re covered by multiple pieces of veterans legislation someone then processes a claim under another piece of legislation and then they’ve got another claim and someone else processes that. They’ve got to repeat their story multiple times, provide the same information multiple times. It’s been a pretty horrendous experience, frankly. We’re tightening that up and improving it so you can have one delegate case officer processing all of the claims across the different legislation for each veteran.

So that makes a difference. Efficiency is also going to be gained because we’re getting rid of think artificial staffing cap that existed on the department which meant we had a huge explosion of the use of labour hire for the department. And you would have a higher degree of churn in that staffing pool and that also meant you were continuously losing trained staff and having to retrain new staff. So by having a more permanent workforce, public servants in the department, you’re retaining that trained staff, which means they are able to maximise that efficiency. There’s also IT changes that need to be made within the department that were recommended to the previous government and we need to get on with that as well.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: So no caps? No caps then on staff levels there?

MATT KEOGH: That was a commitment we made at the last – at the election, yeah.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Okay. Recommendation 4 – and I’ve only had a – you know, I’ve been trying to get through as much as I could in a very short amount of time, like you, Minister –

MATT KEOGH: You and me both.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Yeah, look, and I do appreciate your time this morning. It is 17 to 11. It talks about funding and that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs needs to provide advice on its funding needs. I wonder if a figure has been given to you about how much more money that department needs to be able to do all of this? Do you have a figure?

MATT KEOGH: I don’t have a figure because that will be picked up as part of the annual budget cycle, where the budget we’re going to be delivering as a government in October will pick up the election commitments that we took to the last election. But certainly, I am already having discussions with the department about best understanding what its resource requirements are to meet the demand that is being put on it by veterans and our serving personnel to make sure that we are adequately resourcing it.

And the secretary of the department gave evidence to the Royal Commission to this exact point, which, as I mentioned at the beginning, the previous government had sort of resource-constrained the department. It couldn’t get through all of the work it needs to do, and certainly making sure we’re getting the right advice as a government from the department is very important.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Do you acknowledge, though, this will take a significant investment?

MATT KEOGH: Well certainly. And we’re making a significant investment already - $200 million-odd to employ 500 additional staff is not an insignificant investment.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: But beyond that?

MATT KEOGH: There are other things that we’re investing into the department as well around, as I say, the IT upgrades and so forth. So there is absolutely going to be investment into the department and making sure that it’s operating as efficiently as possible and with the resources that it needs to get through these backlogs and making sure it delivers the service to veterans that they need and deserve.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Minister, what confidence do you have in the senior staff at the department? And do you believe that they have failed Defence Force personnel?

MATT KEOGH: I’ve confidence in the staff of the department, absolutely. As I said, I’m conscious that they were not provided the resources that they need to be able to do their job, and we need to get on in making sure that they get those resources so that they can deliver what veterans need and deserve and are entitled to under the legislation. And that’s what we’re getting on with.

Obviously, the fact that we’re having a Royal Commission like this, we joined with the families of veterans and Defence personnel that had taken their own lives in saying we need a Royal Commission to look at the multi-factor issues that are leading to this increase and higher rate of suicide amongst the veteran population compared to the general Australian population. What is not working, what’s going wrong –  that’s why we called for the Royal Commission. That’s why we very much welcome this Interim Report. We’ve now got these 13 recommendations. We’ll start going through them in detail and provide a formal government response shortly to that so that we can get on with this job.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: What about senior executive? What about the leaders, the leadership team in that department? Do you have confidence in them? Do changes at that level need to be made?

MATT KEOGH: Well, certainly I have confidence in their capacity to deliver on what we need to be doing. And, as I said, I think the bigger issue that’s confronted the agency in delivering services to veterans has been a lack of resources made available to that leadership.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Do veterans deserve an apology of some kind?

MATT KEOGH: Look, as I said in my press conference upon receiving this report, it’s pretty clear from what we’ve heard in the Royal Commission and what we’ve seen in the report that things are not working, and things have not worked in the past and things need to be fixed. And for that, whilst I’m a new minister, but I apologise to everyone that’s been confronted by not getting the level of service that they deserve or being confronted by things not working as they should be within Defence. I’m really sorry about that, but what I’m committed to is, having received this report as the new minister, is also getting on with the job of making sure we make it better.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: We’ll leave it there. I know you’ve got other media commitments. I do appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

MATT KEOGH: Great be with you, Nadia.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Matt Keogh, he is the Veterans Affairs Minister.


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