Interview with Mike O'Loughlin, Tasmania

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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6 October 2022

MIKE O’LOUGHLIN, HOST: A very good morning and welcome to Matt Thistlethwaite, the Assistant Minister for Defence, Assistant Minister of Veterans' Affairs, Assistant Minister for the Republic, Deputy Chair of the Joint Select Committee on Road Safety. Good heavens, that's a big business card, Matt. Good morning.


O’LOUGHLIN: How are you finding Tassie?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well you've turned the weather on for me mate. I mean, Burnie at the moment is a bit cold and blustery. But that's the way it is all up there on the east coast. I left Sydney this morning and it was pouring rain there as well. So glad to be here. I'm here for a veterans' forum tonight at the Metro Cinema and looking forward to discussing with veterans how we can improve the services the Department of Veterans' Affairs provide for our veterans not only in Tasmania, but across Australia.

O’LOUGHLIN: I think Matt I've led to believe by your media operator Susan it's in the Town Hall Room at the Burnie Arts and Cultural Centre.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well there you go, I have to update my brief. Thanks for telling me.  I won't go to the wrong place tonight!

O’LOUGHLIN: Would you say, I mean, it's great to see with this, it needs so much more help for our veterans. I mean, when you consider the delay on with the DVA, just dreadful, are you also visiting the veterans' hub?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I am yeah, I'm just about to go to the veterans' hub actually to see the great work that they're doing. The Albanese Government's committed $43 million to build 10 veterans' hubs across Australia and that includes one here in Burnie and the Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans' Association have a business case with the DVA at the moment that's being assessed. Hopefully next time I'm back here we'll be here to open that veterans' hub to provide those important services for veterans not only in this community but beyond.

O’LOUGHLIN: Good call, you're also meeting with the Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans' Association, tell me about that?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's an important organisation that represents veterans across Australia. Ian Lindgren is the Chair of that. He's a bloke that does great work, particularly for veterans in the south of Australia. So we'll be meeting with them to hear their concerns. They’ve got some concerns about the way DVA has been operating, particularly with the backlog of claims, with the ESOs, the representative organisations that represent ex-service organisations. And I'm keen to hear what people have to say about how we can improve services for veterans and get this backlog reduced. That's the heart of the problem, really, Mike. We've got a long waiting time for veterans that are putting in claims for compensation and mental health support and they're just telling them to wait too long. So the new government is committed to delivering $520 million to reduce that backlog, to employ more staff and get veterans the support they deserve.

O’LOUGHLIN: I know that we've got two politicians, Gavin Pearce, a Liberal, and Jacqui Lambie from the Jacqui Lambie Network and both do fight passionately in regard for anything to do with defence, but the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, absolutely dreadful results. And the reading in that, I mean, what recommendations has the Government made after reading that and going through that report?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's right, Mike. The Royal Commission released the interim findings back in August and the Government responded to those findings. We responded in the Parliament on the 26th September and basically the Government has accepted all 13 of the recommendations bar a couple. And those couple relate to parliamentary procedures, really. But importantly, they've recommended that the three Acts of Parliament that there are at the moment that provide support and compensation for veterans are too confusing, the system isn't working and they have recommended that they be streamlined and brought into one Act. The Government’s accepted that recommendation and we're getting to work on delivering that. We've already delivered one of the recommendations and that was to remove the staffing cap that was put in place in the Department of Veterans' Affairs by the previous Government, which has been a big handbrake on working through some of those claims.

O’LOUGHLIN: The backlog of claims has been devastating. What is it, 60-odd thousand claims? And I believe the Albanese Government is putting in 500 workers to get through that quickly. Is that right?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's right. And we're in the process of employing those 500 workers. And I was at a DVA office yesterday and talking to staff and they were saying it's making a big difference already and we're hopeful that we can chew through that backlog of claims by the end of next year. And I think that will be a big relief for veterans that they can get their claims looked at in a timely fashion and the support that they deserve as quickly as possible.

O’LOUGHLIN: I know, you, tell me about the services and support for the veterans’ and families’ hubs?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that's a really important one that I think has been neglected in the past. It's not just about the veterans, important as they are, it's about their families as well and making sure that the families have support, particularly bereaved families and the kids of veterans. So we introduced some legislation into the Parliament a couple of weeks ago that provides additional support for veterans’ families. We passed some new measures that allow veterans that are studying to receive support for longer as part of their rehabilitation. So it's all about trying to include families more in the services that the Department of Veterans' Affairs are supplying for veterans and their families.

O’LOUGHLIN: I'm speaking with Minister Thistlethwaite. Tell me, if you don't mind, Matt, with the election promises, there are quite a few in regard to Veterans’ Affairs. What's the progress on these?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yes, we're working through them at the moment. And what you'll see, Mike, is all of the funding for those election commitments allocated in the Budget that's coming up on the 26th of October and they include commitments such as veterans’ homelessness. We're establishing a $10 billion Housing Future Fund that will build more public and veterans’ housing. So $30 million of that will be specifically allocated to building housing for veterans throughout the country. Looking at streamlining the way the Act works, providing greater access to Defence housing for veterans and their families, through a scheme called the Defence Housing Assistance Scheme. We're increasing the total and permanent incapacity veterans pension by $1,000 per annum and that will start on the 1st of January next year. So all of these measures will be funded in the Budget and you'll start to see them roll out towards the end of this year and early next year.

O’LOUGHLIN: And the part that I think is, I found really interesting going through the notes was the $24 million Veteran Employment Program providing greater support to ADF personnel as they transition to civilian life?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, this is a really important scheme. A lot of veterans really struggle with that transition out of the military into civilian life, particularly if you've joined the military straight out of school or straight out of a trade and you're leaving it in your late 30s, 40s and 50s where that's all you've known. It's understandable that people are going to struggle with the new challenges and we need to provide more support. And that's what this scheme will do, basically provide support for employers to take on more veterans, opportunities for veterans to establish businesses. I recently launched an electric Bushmaster that was developed and put together by a team of veterans from a company called 3ME in Newcastle. And these are retired military engineers that got together to develop a scheme to not only make Bushmasters quieter, but faster as well. And I think that they're the two things you want on the battlefield. So there's great examples of veterans going into businesses and making a real difference and I think we can support them more to do that.

O’LOUGHLIN: And then in regard to Bushmasters, are we sending any more to Ukraine?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we've sent quite a few already. It's over $350 million worth of support that Australia has provided to Ukraine and we know that it's a devastating illegal invasion by the Russian army, but Australians, of course, are supporting the Ukraine and we're doing that through military assistance, through hardware like Bushmasters and weapons and ammunition, but also through aid support as well, ensuring that communities can rebuild in the wake of the devastation that's being caused.

O’LOUGHLIN: Yeah, look, the quicker that war can end, everyone will be happy about that. You were at the Land Forces 2022 on Tuesday, I believe, in Brisbane. Tell me about that?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah. This is the biggest Land Forces conference that happens in Australasia. It's a three-day convention in Brisbane, where Defence industry, where international defence forces and the Australian military come together to showcase some of the new technology and innovations that are being developed around Land Forces. I mentioned the Bushmaster. The electric Bushmaster. I launched some new kit from Diggerworks, which is a company that has been contracted by Defence to provide more suitable clothing and safety equipment for smaller members of the ADF. And female members. Funnily enough, believe it or not, female members didn't have purpose designed and built closing up. So many of them were having to walk around in boots with flak jackets and helmets that are designed for men and they are inappropriate and they weren't working and they weren't providing the safety and support that female members of the ADF needed. So that's a classic example of some of the innovations that were on display at Land Forces. And it's a great opportunity for defence industry and the military to come together and innovate.

O’LOUGHLIN: Now the Fit to Perform announcement for the ADF personnel?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, that was Fit to Perform. That's the Diggerworks contract and they're the ones supplying the equipment…

O’LOUGHLIN: So necessary, yeah.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Supplying the equipment that will better suit and fit, particularly female members of the ADF, but also smaller members. I'm not the tallest bloke, so I was saying to the staff that were there, these helmets would be better for someone like me with a smaller head than a bloke that's six foot four. So I think it's about providing new innovations to make sure that Australian Defence Force personnel have all the support they possibly need and the best capability if they're going to go and defend our nation.

O’LOUGHLIN: Now, something that is quite debatable is it seems quite likely the Albanese Government has decided to bring 16 jihadi brides and their 42 children to Australia. Have they weighed the well-being of terrorist sympathisers and their dependents against the safety of the Australian community? When you wonder that some of these women, in many instances, they reached out online and helped radicalise young westerners to join their cause. Now, I know there are children involved and they certainly should come back to Australia, but it's very interesting. These are jihadi women that went there of their own accord, the majority, these are the ones that went there and they are the ones that really did radicalise young Westerners.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: This is a plan that's been devised by Australia's security agencies, by ASIO and the Australian Federal Police. And I need to stress, Mike, that hasn't been approved yet by the government. The government is still considering it and it involves returning Australian citizens, these are all Australian citizens, back to Australia and making sure that they're surveilled and that they get the necessary support to reintegrate into Australian society, particularly the children. But I want to assure all Australians that the safety of the Australian community is paramount. And the previous government, with the support of the then Labor opposition, invested a lot of money in countering violent extremism measures, including measures such as this. So the measures were put in place to be used by the previous government and ASIO and our security and intelligence agencies are delivering on those commitments. But again, it's still being considered by the government. It hasn't been decided yet.

O’LOUGHLIN: Because past experience shows us a kind of a different reality I'm sure you're aware of, Matt. I mean, of the 25 suspected terrorists and terrorist trainees who returned to Australia from Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban two decades back, 15 subsequently were involved in terrorist activities here and nine were convicted.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, we don't want to see any risk to the Australian people, but I think that those examples that you raise are a good example of the laws working and Australia's security and intelligence organisations being on top of their game and making sure that where there are risks, that people are apprehended, arrested, tried and convicted. And that's what you want to see. You want to see our laws fit for purpose and working well, and that's what they did in these circumstances.

O’LOUGHLIN: We've spent in Australia millions on deradicalisation programs, including $61.7 million in February under the Morrison Government for a range of what they called countering violence extremism. These are with little publicity or publicly available assessments to the efficacy. But it's very interesting. I think that'll be a debate we need to continue having and a lot more thought into it in regards to yes, it's quite emotional, we need to bring the children back. We need to also consider a lot of other issues on that too. How are your thoughts on the submarine situation for our Defence force? By the time we get them, I mean, wars will be over.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah. Look, it's a shame that the previous government really did mess up the submarine contract. We were initially going with Japan and then they moved to France. Eventually, we settled on AUKUS. The new government, the Albanese Government, of course, supports the AUKUS arrangement. We believe that they are the best submarines for Australian defence in the future. Their capability is greater, the range is greater and they provide a better option for a nation like Australia, which is an island, of course. And there was a worry about a capability gap because the submarines weren't going to be available until the 2040s, that's currently being reviewed at the moment. And there's a Defence Strategic Review that's going on that's been chaired by Angus Houston and Stephen Smith, the former Defence Minister, they'll report in March at the same time as the AUKUS announcement about which contract the government will be looking at will be announced as well. So they'll dovetail nicely into each other and the aim of the government is to try and bring on that capability and have those submarines available as quickly as possible.

O’LOUGHLIN: Just a question, if you don't mind in regard to Ukraine. I mean, we talk about uniforms and you look at what Putin has done, getting 300,000 or trying to get at least 300,000 more troops, but all you can read about is how ill equipped they are. Are you finding that quite truthful information or is that just political spin?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I think there's no doubt that the Ukrainian army has batted well above its weight. They've done a really great job and they've fought very well and they're tales that the Russian military aren't committed to the task. There's confusion, they're not exactly aware of what the end game is. I think that's all contributed to the resurgence of the Ukrainian military. But it highlights the fact that you do need to have a well equipped, particularl,y land forces brigades and combat divisions, well equipped, well trained and ready for the job. And that's what Land Forces conferences that I attended this week are all about. That's what the Defence Strategic Review is all about, ensuring that Australian forces in the future are well equipped because we're facing some of the toughest strategic circumstances that we've based, particularly in our region since World War II.

O’LOUGHLIN: Absolutely. And what about the HIMARS, because they've obviously been used. We've suddenly heard all about them because of Ukraine and Russian situation. And America is supplying so many HIMARS. We're getting some, apparently?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, we are. I viewed that technology the other day when I was in Brisbane. It's been very effective in Ukraine, particularly as anti-aircraft missiles and the like. And I think it highlights some of the technology that's available and just how effective it is, but also the breakneck speed of technological development around the defence industry recently. And that's one of the things that I've been really interested in coming into this portfolio, just how well Australia is going with some of these innovations. We've had a Defence Innovation Hub that's been partnering between the Defence Force and defence industry to develop great new innovations and things like the Ghost Bat technology which are unmanned surveillance aircraft that have been developed right here in Australia that really have export potential for our country, not only beyond our defence forces.

O’LOUGHLIN: And we also have Elphinstone too do great work in regard to defence contracts in Tassie. Minister, thank you for your time, Matt Thistlethwaite, Assistant Minister for Defence, for Veterans’ Affairs, for the Republic, Deputy Chair of Joint Select Committee on Road Safety. And we didn't even touch on any of that, but probably the next time you visit Tas, I look forward to having a chat.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Look forward to it, Mike. Thanks for having me on the show.


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