Interview, Stephen Cenatiempo, Breakfast Show, 2CC 1206 AM

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12 August 2022

SUBJECTS: ROYAL COMMISSION INTO DEFENCE AND VETERAN SUICIDE INTERIM REPORT

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide has handed down its Interim Report. That happened yesterday. And it highlights what I think we all knew – that the way we treat our veterans in this country is nothing short of a national disgrace. Perhaps the most damning aspect of the report is that the backlog of claims of the Deputy of Veterans’ Affairs sits at around 42,000 cases. It’s just extraordinary that we expect these men and women to don a uniform and fight for our national interests, but our national government shows little interest in them when they return from their duties.

Now, there is a whole bunch of recommendations that have been handed down in this Interim Report, and all of them should be addressed. I mean, the reality is That there should be something akin to what I would like to call – let’s call it a presumption of innocence. When you go to court you’re presumed interest sent before you’re found guilty, but it would appear that when you apply to claim from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs it’s assumed that your claim is being rather than the other way around. And I think that would be a good first start, if we changed that mentality. Love to know what your thoughts are. Let’s get talking, Canberra.

The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is Matt Keogh, and he joins us on the line to tell us about the recommendations from the committee. Minister, good morning.

MATT KEOGH: Good morning.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: Quite a number of recommendations handed down in this Interim Report from the Royal Commission. But as I was saying in my editorial, I think that a good start would be to come from this – and I liken it to the presumption of innocence – in the sense that we need to accept that our veterans are not gaming the system. I mean, there seems to be this mentality that every claim that comes into DVA is bogus before it starts and then we try and work backwards from there. Where I think we need to approach it from the other way.

MATT KEOGH: Look, I think certainly my experience talking to veterans is they very much feel that that is the case. They’ve, obviously, you know, spent in some cases, sometimes decades, in service, created a whole heap of a record stream within Defence and then have to go through a whole process of proving that again once they get to the DVA end. Improving that information transfer there will make a huge, huge difference.

I think also there will probably be some opportunities in recommendation 1 about fixing up the legislation to look at how we address that exact issue that you’re talking about. But, importantly, some changes have been made. We’ve just expanded this program that allows for the 20 most common conditions that are claimed that if we know if you were in Defence chances are you would have ended up with this condition, that they get effectively pre-approved when you make your claim so that people can start getting treatment straight away for those conditions. That’s a very important part of it. But I – your reflection certainly reflects the conversations that I’ve been having with veterans as well.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: The thing that I find most staggering is the backlog of 42,000 claims. I mean, that’s just extraordinary. And it must have taken us quite some time to get there.

MATT KEOGH: It’s taken a few years to get there. But it’s built up because there hasn’t been enough resources going into the department. There’s been some good work done in encouraging actually our serving personnel to lodge claims whilst they’re still serving so that their claims are ready when they do at some point depart Defence. And that has generated a lot of claims coming in, which is a good thing, but the resources weren’t provided by government to be able to process those claims.

And we saw that from opposition. That’s why we made a commitment for 500 additional staff to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. We’ve started employing those trying to work our way through that backlog, because it is a very important issue that the Royal Commission has identified there.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: That’s another concern, Matt, that has come from these recommendations is that they’re saying by no later than 2024 the department should let you know what resources they need. I would have thought they knew now what resources they need so you could actually start moving on this.

MATT KEOGH: Well, certainly since coming into this role in the last couple of months I’ve had regular discussions with the department about what are their resourcing requirements, including how do we get through this backlog, which is terribly important, and the backlog which has existed in terms of payments for services as well, which we’ve done a lot of work to get down in the last couple of months. So I think despite that recommendation, if you like, I’ll be always in a continual discussion with the department about what its resourcing requirements are to make sure we can assist veterans.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: Minister, one of the discussions – and I talk to a lot of veterans about this on a regular basis, and they all say to me one of the problems they have is that there are thousands of veterans’ organisations in Australia that all do great work, but a lot of them are competing for’ the same resources, competing against each other when it comes to the services they provide. Is there anything in the report that suggests we maybe need to rationalise that and have some overarching body that, I guess, governs some of those charity organisations and not for profits, that we obviously need but are probably not working as efficiently as they can.

MATT KEOGH: Yeah, look, it’s not the subject of a recommendation in the report, but it is certainly an issue that’s been raised with me many times, indeed even just last night when I was meeting with a number of ESOs – ex-service organisations – in Melbourne. And I think what’s important to recognise is there is the ACMC which regulates the charity sector in the broad. But looking at how we can have good collaboration, partnership between organisations, you know, some do very specific tasks, some try to coordinate services, making sure they work best together so that the experience for the veteran that needs help is as seamless as possible and that they get the right assistance that they need when they need it is really important.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: One of the other issues that – and this is a thing that, again, veterans tell me – is that integration back into civilian society that is the difficult part of this and leads to a lot of problems that they have. What does the report say about that? And what mechanisms do you have as a Minister to try and, I guess, facilitate that transition so that maybe we nip these problems in the bud before they get to Veterans’ Affairs?

MATT KEOGH: Certainly it highlights that issue, and obviously the way in which the report, the recommendations, focus on claims processing and making sure that’s more efficient and veterans get what they’re entitled to in terms of compensation as quickly as possible is a key part. But another key part of this is employment. And we made a commitment at the last election to improve those employment pathways for veterans and also work with business around Australia so that they understand the great benefit of employing people that are departing Defence. Because they’ve got great skills. We’ve invested in these people, and we really need to make sure that they can get on to that employment pathway. It is the best path for success as they re-integrate into civilian life. And it’s certainly something that I’ll be doing some roundtables about over the next few weeks with the veteran community and employment community around how can we improve the pathways to employment for veterans.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: Now, I’m sure you’ve still got to digest this report in its entirety, but do you start working on this now, or do you have to wait until the final report is handed down, and when does that happen?

MATT KEOGH: We absolutely start working on it now. It’s something I’m already discussing with the Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and with the other agencies involved and obviously with my colleagues. We’re not waiting for a final report. The whole purpose of this Interim Report is to be able to get on with these important priority areas right now. The final report is due in June 2024, and I’m sure it will have even more to say, but the task is now ahead of us with this Interim Report.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: Now, I want to talk about recommendation 6 – increased protections for persons engaging with the Royal Commission. That’s a pretty insidious suggestion – that they need protection. I mean, what are we protecting them from?

MATT KEOGH: Well, it’s an interesting issue that arises, and I guess at one level if you are someone that has been in Defence and you have experienced things that you want to come and bring forward to the Royal Commission but they are the subject of classified operations, for example, overseas, then people can have a concern that they may be breaching secrecy laws and requirements in disclosing that to the Royal Commission.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: Right.

MATT KEOGH: The CDF – the Chief of the Defence Force – myself, you know, the Minister for Defence, everyone’s been very clear that people should come forward with their evidence, but if there are issues that we need to resolve, we’re definitely going to look at that, as we’ll be looking at all of these recommendations, to make sure that people are able to bring their story forward and the Royal Commission is able to have access to the information that it needs.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: How do you deal with this adequately given the budgetary constraints that the government obviously has, and obviously we won’t know until October what the budget is. Have you been given any assurances from the Treasurer that you’ll have all the money you need to fix these problems?

MATT KEOGH: Well, the main resourcing issue is the need to be able to get through the processing of claims. And we’ve already made that commitment for the additional staff, and that will be included in the budget that we deliver in October. If there’s further issues that arise in going through these recommendations, that’s obviously going to be a conversation that I have with my colleagues. But having only just seen the report yesterday, we’re still working through what our formal response to all those recommendations will be and what’s going to be required in that way.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: Minister, I just want to one last thing with you before I let you go – a text that I got from a listener this morning, who said, “My experience with Veterans’ Affairs dated back to 1993 when my father passed, who was a veteran from World War II and was on a disability pension. We applied for the war widows pension for my mum. It took 23 years for it to be approved after court action and many tribunals. It was approved four months before she passed away.” She said, “I have no faith in the system.” That story there, I mean, that’s heart breaking, and I can’t imagine it’s Robinson Caruso that, you know, there’d be many stories like that.

MATT KEOGH: It’s a very sad story, and I’m very sorry to hear it. And there’s been many similar stories that I’ve heard and experiences over the decades. Certainly I’ve seen that there’s been an evolving change over the department over years as well. But there are more recent stories, and we’ve seen that in the Royal Commission’s report as well, and that’s why we called for the Royal Commission to happen and it’s why we need now to get on with these recommendations. But putting the veterans at the centre of everything we do in this space is critically important in the way we approach it.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: I’ll let you get back to it, Matt. Thanks for your time this morning.

MATT KEOGH: Thank you.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: Matt Keogh is the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

END

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