Interview with Thomas Oriti, ABC News Radio Breakfast

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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

SUBJECTS: Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide Interim Report

THOMAS ORITI: Later this morning the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide will hand down its interim report. It comes after a confronting nine months of hearings around the country, where the Royal Commission heard of abuse at all ranks of the service that Defence is not doing enough to address suicides, and accounts of ex‑personnel who said they were left suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. The inquiry was announced last July after sustained lobbying by family members of veterans who’d taken their own lives, and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Matt Keogh joins us now. Minister, good morning, and thanks for your time.

MATT KEOGH: Good morning, Tom.

THOMAS ORITI: The handing down of this interim report I imagine will be a pretty difficult day for many former and current ADF staff. What’s your message to them today?

MATT KEOGH: My message to everybody, whether they’re currently serving or have served or are the family of loved ones that have taken their own lives is that we are listening and as a government looking forward to receiving this interim report so that we can understand the priorities that the royal commission recommends to government and get forward – move forward, getting on with the job of trying to make better futures for people in Defence and those people that leave. Because we want to make sure we address this tragedy, this national tragedy of veteran suicide that we’ve been seeing.

We shouldn’t see people taking their lives. We need to understand what the causes are. We need to understand what can be done to make things better. And this interim report with its recommendations, once we receive it, will be a key way in which we can move forward in terms of understanding those stories but then get on with the work that’s recommended to us.

THOMAS ORITI: And I want to ask you about the ahead in a moment. But the former Prime Minister Scott Morrison had hoped the Royal Commission would be a healing process. I mean, based on what you’ve seen since you’ve taken on the role as the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs do you think it’s done that? Do you think it’s been part of the healing process?

MATT KEOGH: Look, to some extent I think that’s true in that many formerly serving personnel and, as I said, the families of people that tragically took their own lives have been able to come forward, give evidence to this Royal Commission, share their story, make sure that people understand the problems that were confronted within Defence and the problems that people had in getting access to support through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the way in which people were previously ignored and giving them voice through this process. And I think that is helpful for people.

But what’s also going to be really helpful and what I’ve been hearing from people that have given evidence to the Royal Commission, from others in the veteran community is they want to see that their stories are not just heard but listened to and that this becomes an opportunity to then move forward in receiving these recommendations and government then getting on with the job.

THOMAS ORITI: So the report’s due to be handed to the Governor-General before, of course, being tabled in Parliament. Have you been briefed on its key findings?

MATT KEOGH: No, I will receive the report as everyone else does. The previous Government did tend to in receiving Royal Commission reports hold on to them for a little while before releasing them or speaking about them. Our view was – and it’s part of that healing process, if you like – is we’ve received the report, let’s get it out there. No doubt there will be many views on some of the recommendations that come out of the Royal Commission, and we will formally respond in due course to those recommendations. But it is important, I think, that the report comes out to everybody. I’ll have a few things to say once we have received the report today and then make further comments in terms of a formal response to those recommendations in due course.

THOMAS ORITI: Okay, but the public’s going to be getting it at the same time, are they? So we’re expecting to hear about the findings today, too?

MATT KEOGH: Absolutely.

THOMAS ORITI: Okay. Severe backlogs in compensation claims, I imagine that might be a big focus of the report. But is there anything else you’re expecting to see in terms of the issues that have emerged so far?

MATT KEOGH: Look, backlogs has been a huge issue, and we knew about this from Opposition, and it's why Labor took a commitment to the last election that in government we would employ an additional 500 staff for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs so that we can try and get on top of and get this backlog down. It is a big number. It’s over 60,000 claims that are waiting to be processed through the department. About 20,000-odd of those are currently being processed, but that still leaves 40,000-odd that are awaiting processing. And we need to get on top of that task quickly. That’s why we’re employing these additional staff.

THOMAS ORITI: But in terms of the broader issues, though, you’ve got a big job ahead, don’t you? I mean, how do you begin to change the culture within the Defence Force? And how big of a job do you expect that’s going to be?

MATT KEOGH: Certainly there is going to be a large task ahead, without knowing the actual recommendations what’s been clear is that there’s been numerous reviews over the last decade into culture in Defence, into services provided to veterans, with many recommendations that have gone ignored, basically, by the previous government. So we can see that there is a potentially lengthy but complex road ahead. And it’s important we get on with trying to progress on that as soon as possible, and this Interim Report with its recommendations, which will give some priorities to government about how to move forward now, will be a very important part of that.

THOMAS ORITI: In terms of that, the final report is due before I think the 17th of June 2024. So a little bit of time yet before we see it. But can the findings of this Interim Report be used by your government to begin key reforms ahead of that final report?

MATT KEOGH: Absolutely. That is the purpose of getting this Interim Report. Certainly no-one wants to see us waiting until the final report. This will, I expect, give us things in terms of recommendations of what government can get on with now. And that’s really important because, you know, in the two months that I’ve now been in the job as part of the new government, it’s been very clear to me from my discussions with the parents of serving personnel that have taken their own lives and my discussions with veterans’ families that they can see clear need for action and they want to see that action taken quickly. And that’s something we very much want to do, and we look forward to getting that report later today, seeing those recommendations so that we can formally respond and get on with making lives better for our serving personnel, our veterans and their families.

THOMAS ORITI: Before I let you go, Minister, I just want to ask you about something that actually pre-dated the Royal Commission. Back in 2018 the Productivity Commission called for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to be folded into a single ministry for Defence personnel and veterans. I know this is speculative, we haven’t seen the report yet, but if the Royal Commission suggests abolishing the Department, would you get rid of it?

MATT KEOGH: Look, I know the Productivity Commission made quite a few different recommendations about structures for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs or a commission to outsource work and so forth. And in the few months I’ve been in the role there’s been quite a divergence of views and a lot of criticism of some of those recommendations of the Productivity Commission as well. So I have kept an open mind to all of the things that the Royal Commission may potentially recommend, and we’ll look at those recommendations when we get them and the basis of those recommendations when we see them later today.

THOMAS ORITI: Okay, we’re out of time, I’m afraid. Thank you very much for joining us. Appreciate your time.

MATT KEOGH: Thank you.

THOMAS ORITI: Matt Keogh there the Federal Minister for Veterans’ Affairs joining us from our Parliament House studios in Canberra.


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