Interview with Mel Bush, ABC Hobart Mornings

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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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31 October 2022

MEL BUSH: The new Minister for Defence Personnel and Veteran Affairs, Matt Keogh, is in Hobart today. It’s fair to say he has a challenging few years ahead. The Royal Commission into Veteran Suicides has released its interim report and found big problems with the way the department deals with returning service people. In some instances, military personnel said trauma was exacerbated by the way the department treated them. And Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie has been scathing of the ADF’s lack of support. She told the Mornings program it meant the ADF was struggling to recruit new people.

JACQUI LAMBIE: First of all, we’re not getting – we’re not having retention. The retention rate is absolutely the worst it’s ever been in history of keeping people in the military.

MEL BUSH: That was Senator, Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie there. The Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans’ Affairs, Matt Keogh, joins us now. Minister, good morning.  

MATT KEOGH: Good morning Mel. Good to be with you.

MEL BUSH: So, how do you respond to those comments from Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie?

MATT KEOGH: Well, Jacqui is absolutely right that we’ve had a really bad period of recruitment and retention. It’s a serious issue that we’re looking to address and there’s certainly an impact, I think, of the negative stories people hear about what occurs for veterans in terms of whether people want to join our Defence Force, and certainly we want to change that because we want to be encouraging more people to join our Defence Force but also because we want to make sure that veterans get the sort of support that they need and that they, frankly, deserve.

MEL BUSH: I believe that your department has engaged a recruitment firm to the reported value of $20 million to bolster those numbers in the ADF. Minister, how short are the Defence Forces in terms of personnel?

MATT KEOGH: The recruitment, new recruitment contract is actually a billion‑dollar contract. It’s a long‑term contract. It’s a big effort and we’ve got to recruit around 18,000 additional people to Defence through to 2040. So, there’s a lot of work to be done both in recruiting more people but also keeping more people in Defence, making their service life more enjoyable for them, dealing with friction points that not just affect service personnel but also their families, and we’re addressing some serious issues within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs as well to make sure that veterans are getting the support they need too.

MEL BUSH: On that in terms of the Royal Commission, you heard about from Senator Lambie just a moment ago; the interim report is out. How are you acting on what’s in the interim report?

MATT KEOGH: The interim report came out in August and in a month, in September, we provided the formal Government response to that interim report addressing each of the recommendations. One of the key recommendations there was to employ more staff and to improve claims systems within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs so we can get through the claims backlog that we’ve inherited, and we have already started that process. We’re engaging 500 additional staff for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. We’ve removed the staffing cap so that we can transition people from labour hire into becoming public servants in the Department so we can retain trained staff, which is really important to work through that backlog. And we’ve started a process of looking at what’s the way of simplifying and harmonising the veterans’ legislation. There’s three separate pieces of legislation. It’s highly complex. So we’ve committed $9.5 million to that process as well as over $220 million to hiring those additional staff.

MEL BUSH: So, what you’re endeavouring to do, then, is to employ people or transition people out of the forces into those administrative positions, Minister, that have lived experience. Is that the idea?

MATT KEOGH: Some of the people that we’re looking to engage are veterans. This isn’t just about saying, “If you leave Defence we’re going to employ you in DVA,” but is making sure that we have sufficient numbers in DVA to support those claims of veterans, whether they’re veterans that left service decades ago but have late onset injuries or whether they’re people transitioning out of Defence right now, and making sure that we have culturally appropriate services for veterans that understand the experience of veterans while they’ve been in service is quite important. And through services like Open Arms and others we do look to make sure that we are engaging veterans, people that have that real lived experience of what other veterans are going through as well so that we provide that understanding for veterans as they’re accessing DVA services too.

MEL BUSH: Back to the Royal Commission, Minister, Senator Lambie says the inquiry can’t hear about the previous inquiries into veterans’ suicide or from past Ministers. Will you support her bill to change that?

MATT KEOGH: So, that’s not true. In fact, past Ministers have already given evidence to the Royal Commission and the Royal Commission can look at parliamentary inquiries and what they have said. There are mechanisms for the Royal Commission about how to access the information it needs to undertake its role. We don’t think legislation is required to address some of those issues that Jacqui has identified, and we’ve provided direction to the Royal Commission about how they can make sure they can appropriately use those Parliamentary inquiry reports, but, of course, there’s been a number of other inquiries, such as the Productivity Commission, the interim National Commissioner, that have done their own inquiries which the Royal Commission is free to use and are not bound up in parliamentary privilege either.

MEL BUSH: It’s 12 to 9 on Mornings. Your guest this morning, the Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans’ Affairs, Matt Keogh. To another issue that’s been a fraught one in the past and that’s the inclusion of Frontier War artefacts in the national War Memorial’s redevelopment. You’ve been supportive of that move. Who are you engaging with to see that it happens?

MATT KEOGH: So, the Australian War Memorial Council has made that decision to expand the representation of Frontier Conflict in the War Memorial. At the moment there’s already some artwork depictions of Frontier Conflict in the galleries at the War Memorial. As people would be aware, there’s an expansion program being undertaken at the moment at the War Memorial to make sure that we can properly reflect two of our longest war periods in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were in operations for both of those places for over 20 years and there’s been insufficient space at the War Memorial to represent that service by our Defence Force personnel and those who made the ultimate sacrifice in doing that. As part of that expansion, there’s an opportunity to provide some greater context to Frontier Conflict in terms of how that impacts on our overall involvement in war and conflict as a nation, and the War Memorial Council itself has made that decision once the expansion is complete to – 

MEL BUSH: Are you working with First Nations people on that?

MATT KEOGH: Yes, there’s a First Nations advisory committee to the War Memorial Council and they’ve been working with them on that.

MEL BUSH: Do you expect any kind of resistance, Minister, from the RSL or any veterans’ organisations on that kind of inclusion?

MATT KEOGH: Well, I’ve met with the RSL National Council just a few weeks ago. They didn’t raise any concerns with me with what the War Memorial Council itself has actually proposed to do here. Certainly, there have been some groups that have expressed some concern for some reason about what is being proposed to occur. But I have no doubt that in the full light of day, once the expansion is complete and that expansion of representation of Frontier Conflict is in place at the War Memorial, that people will see that that’s an appropriate and fitting thing to do.

MEL BUSH: Minister, can I just throw a question to you, please, from a listener. Mal has texted in saying, “Could you please ask the Minister why it takes so long to contact the Department of Veterans’ Affairs?” He has been a 30‑year advocate for veterans.

MATT KEOGH: Yeah, look, it’s a very real problem that we’ve been confronting with the department. We inherited a department that had a backlog of claims of over 40,000 because the department had not been appropriately resourced to deal with the claims that we have coming in from veterans. It’s why we took to the election a commitment to engage 500 additional staff so we can work through that backlog as soon as possible. The Royal Commission identified this problem as well in its interim report in August. We’re taking action to make sure that we are providing better service back to our veteran community to allow advocates to do their job well to support our veterans as well. It’s absolutely the right issue to be raising and we’re working on that issue now that we’re in Government.

MEL BUSH: Now, Minister, to another story released today, the US deploying nuclear-capable B‑52 Bombers in the Northern Territory and preparing to build supporting infrastructure there as well. What message do you think that sends to the international community, to China in particular?

MATT KEOGH: I think it’s a demonstration of our very close relationship with our strongest ally, the United States, and we’ve for a long time now had American personnel and operations based out of Australia and particularly the Northern Territory. It’s a close relationship, getting stronger and stronger through things like the AUKUS arrangements which are not just about submarines but also about technology sharing and development between our two countries. And demonstrating the strength of that relationship and closeness by having more American facilities, capability and personnel based out of Australia and working closely with our own Defence Force, building that interoperability, only sends a message of strength to the world about the nature of our relationship.

MEL BUSH: And the nuclear capability – you don’t think that that is sending a message of aggression to China at a time when things are, to use the word again, fraught?

MATT KEOGH: Well, let’s just be clear that that is a capability that that particular aircraft can have. It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily using that capability when they’re in Australia.

MEL BUSH: And, Minister, finally, you’re in Tasmania and welcome to Tasmania too, it should be said.

MATT KEOGH: It’s lovely to be here.

MEL BUSH: You’re making an announcement today, as I understand it. Can you give us a bit of an idea of what that’s about?

MATT KEOGH: I can. Today I will be out unveiling six new headstones for people that fought in the First World War. And of the hundreds of thousands of people that fought in the First World War from Australia, many returned to Australia but not necessarily to where their families were and when they did pass away, their grave sites were not appropriately recognised or marked and certainly not identified as being people who fought for our nation in the First World War. And that’s partly what we’re doing today with the unveiling of these new gravestones as well as announcing a measure that was in the Budget around funding a grants programs to support the marking of such graves for our First World War personnel to make sure that they are properly recognised as having fought for our nation in the Great War. A grants program that will be accessible across the country, but I know that organisations in Tasmania, particularly the Headstone Project, who we are meeting with today, have been great proponents of making sure that we properly recognise our First World War heroes.

MEL BUSH: Minister, thanks for your time this morning and again, welcome.

MATT KEOGH: Thank you, and great to be with you.

MEL BUSH: That is Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans’ Affairs the Federal Minister, Matt Keogh.


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