Interview with Damian Smith, ABC Perth Mornings

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The Hon Matt Keogh MP

Minister for Defence Personnel

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

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Stephanie Mathews: 0407 034 485

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16 December 2022

DAMIAN SMITH: It's exactly 50 years since the Whitlam Government ended the National Service Scheme, and since then Australia has relied on people's enthusiasm to sign up and serve in the Defence Force.

But I wonder if that enthusiasm is waning, can you shed some light on this for me? Maybe you've got an experience to share? The number to call is 1300-222-720. Because last month the Defence Minister, Richard Marles, admitted, "We have a defence personnel crisis."

Very fortunate then that we have a dedicated Minister for Defence Personnel, WA MP Matt Keogh. Good morning.

MATT KEOGH: Great to be with you.

DAMIAN SMITH: Thanks for being here, fresh off the plane from Canberra, by the way, where you weren't expecting to be yesterday.

Before we get on to Defence matters, so that Energy Relief Package passed yesterday, not going down so well with Woodside and a couple of the other energy companies. They're saying this will threaten new investment in gas. What do you say to that sort of criticism?

MATT KEOGH: Well, I think, firstly, what I'd say from a Western Australian point of view, is that those changes don't affect the Western Australia market, which has already had a domestic gas reservation scheme for a long time now since the Carpenter Labor Government. But also when we look at the East Coast, and we understand why those businesses have made the protest that they have, but we are very conscious of wanting to also make sure that they've got good sustainable businesses, because we want to make sure that their workers are well looked after in that industry.

But it's important to realise that only 5 per cent of what they're selling into the domestic energy market ‑ sorry, only 5 per cent of what they're selling is going into the Australian domestic energy market. So, they're still making a killing on these massive energy prices around the globe right now as a result of the Ukraine war. So, we're quite confident that the intervention that we've made is very targeted, it's very specific, and also, it's only for 12 months, and during that period of the cap, we will develop this new Code of Conduct to make sure that there's fair pricing and transparent pricing with an obligation for people to negotiate properly with each other going forward.

So there's still a period to go, but we understand why they've made their protest, but we're pretty confident that there's not really going to be that detrimental an impact on those businesses.

DAMIAN SMITH: So, you don't think they're going to be killing off any new gas projects because of this 12‑month gap?

MATT KEOGH: Not because of this.

DAMIAN SMITH: By the way, are you an electric or a gas man at home?

MATT KEOGH: I've got a bit of a mix of both, I have to say, at the moment, and that's because how the house came, more than anything else.

DAMIAN SMITH: Well, that's the way it is for a lot of people. I mean that's the point, right; you've got to look at it and go, "Well, what's the cost of switching over?" Which I think is the intent of this deal the Greens have done with the government. I mean, any idea what would be helpful for a household?

MATT KEOGH: So we'll be looking at sort of a transition package as we go into the development of our 23‑24 budget for May next year, and people will appreciate that it can often be much cheaper to run all electric, and it also means that they are in a better position in terms of the emissions that they're creating, because we have a lot more renewables on the system.

This is a much bigger issue in places like Victoria, in particular, which is very reliant on gas for heating, in particular. Here in Western Australia, well, frankly, we don't need that much heating, but also we have a greater mix of people using electricity for heating already, for their water, a lot more electric stovetops still around, and a lot of people have already made that transition from the old‑style electric stovetop over to induction; they have completely skipped over gas.

Part of that is because we didn't have reticulated gas out in our suburbs until, really until the 1990s, and so a lot of houses were already just fitted for electricity, and people have stayed in that way. So, it's a bit easier here. We also see a lot more people using reverse‑cycle air conditioning to heat; it's actually much more efficient already to do that, and that's the sort of thing we want to help people make that transition around the country, here in WA included, but it is a much bigger issue in places like Victoria.

DAMIAN SMITH: We'll keep an eye on that as the process rolls on for next year. 11 minutes past 9. Matt Keogh is with you in the studio on Mornings, the Federal Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans' Affairs, let's not forget member for Burt as well. He may be your local member, if you're listening to this.

Now, let's get on to this personnel crisis you are dealing with. Can you give me the numbers? How short is the Defence Force of having all the people it needs?

MATT KEOGH: So we are about 3,000 people down in our Defence Force and about 1,000 people down in the Public Services Supports Defence in The Department of Defence. But over the next 20 years, or 18 years, we need to grow our Defence Force by an additional 18 ‑ over 18,000 people. So, there's a lot of work to do.

I think people would not be surprised to know, we are currently in the most complex set of geostrategic circumstances that we have faced as a nation since the Second World War. And it's important, as we go down this pathway of acquiring new capabilities for our Defence Force that are fit for a 21st Century environment, given what we're confronting now, whether that's things like new nuclear-propelled submarines, or operating hypersonic missiles or just changing the Force structure to match what we now need.

We need more people to do that. And we are down on what we currently need, and we need to grow rapidly as well, and that's a key task that I take on as the Minister for Defence Personnel, making sure we're recruiting even more people, but also that we're keeping people in our Defence Force as well.

DAMIAN SMITH: So it's a big question as to how you do that. Julia on the text line says, "The ADF have trouble with staff because they constantly relocate, disregarding their spouses' careers, therefore they have no choice but to leave. It's not the 50s where wives didn't work." Is the lifestyle just not as attractive to some people as it once was?

MATT KEOGH: Julia makes a really good point, and it's something that I've been working with Defence families of Australia and the Defence Force more broadly on in the six months that we've been involved, is this idea of location stability, or at least where people will need to move around, being able to give them longer stints where they already are, or giving some certainty around where their next posting will be.

It is an important issue, and related to that is also work that we're doing around helping spouses get employment in those locations as well, because what we often find is that we've got very capable, very well‑educated, very employable spouses moving around with their Defence Force spouse, but it's difficult, when you're moving every few years, to find employment, and we want to do more to help them with that as well, because certainly, when someone signs up to be a member of our Defence Force, it's not just them coming along on that journey, it is their family as well, and these sort of friction points, as I call them, which Julia is alluding to there, where if there's strain on the family because of service life, that is something that causes people to leave, and we are looking to address those, and some of the things we're doing around that, one of which we've just rolled out this week, is expanding the health service that's available to dependants, to family members, through Defence.

So if you're a member of our Defence Force, we basically give you private health insurance as part of that; it covers medical, covers dental. It doesn't just cover the serving member, it also covers their family. We're expanding what family members can get through that from this week, but also looking to double the allowance that they get for that from the middle of next year as well.

DAMIAN SMITH: So that appeals to the hip pocket, but I suppose you've also got to appeal to that idea of service, really, for your country.

This texter says, "I come from a family with a recorded history of military service going back to 1839. My boys are military age," but says, "They aren't interested in signing up to get involved" ‑ forgive the language here ‑ "in the pissing contest between the US and China. Our family has spilt too much blood fighting other people's wars that are none of our business. Never again" says this listener.

Do you feel like that sentiment is something that's more prominent these days?

MATT KEOGH: Well, firstly, can I thank the texter for their service and their family's service, because that is appreciated, and we are grateful for that.

What I do actually see is a lot of people who join our Defence Force have parents or family members that were already in the Defence Force. So, I don't think that sentiment is necessarily what we see across the board. But when we look at people coming out of school now, our younger generations, one of the things we always hear is that they're looking for that sense of higher purpose in their role, and there is no higher purpose than you'll find in one of the over 300 roles you could have in Defence; they're not all frontline roles, that is about our national interest, and our national security, and of course some of that is deployed overseas on operations, others of it is helping our own Australians in emergency response; it's going overseas as part of humanitarian efforts as well.

This year we celebrated 75 years of Australian involvement in Peacekeeping. Australia was involved in the very first peacekeeping operation 75 years ago, and has been involved in peacekeeping operations every year since.

So the breadth of opportunity that is there, that is not just the sorts of things that that texter has described, I think should not be lost on people, as well as the more than 300 different sorts of roles. It's not just frontline stuff, it's cyber, it's IT, it's intelligence, it's fighter jet pilots, but it's also catering, it's medics, it's a whole range of different roles in our Defence Force, to help our nation, our national interest as well as things like humanitarian assistance.

DAMIAN SMITH: Matt Keogh is with you on Mornings, Federal Minister for Defence Personnel. We'll just pause briefly here, and one of the responsibilities we take very seriously at the ABC is our role as an emergency broadcaster. So we're just going to bring you some bushfire information.

(Bushfire information provided).

DAMIAN SMITH: Thanks very much, Lucy. Matt Keogh, this is your hood. You're the member for Burt. So, your house okay?

MATT KEOGH: Yes, we're fine. It is my hood, but it's actually technically, 'cause it's on the east side of South West Highway it's in the Andrew Hastie's electorate, the Member for Canning, but I have been watching this closely overnight, because it is in my hood, and my brother is a volunteer bushfire fighter out there, so we watch these things very carefully for our community, as one that's been very much affected by fire, well, over my entire life and before.

DAMIAN SMITH: Very good. Well hopefully it's all good and we can go back to an advice level soon, maybe even an all clear. Wouldn't that be nice.

Now, back on this issue of, I guess, Defence personnel, that 3,000 people that you need to pull out of nowhere for the ADF and the 1,000 behind the scenes, I mean I raised this question last week in a cheeky sort of way when we were talking about the end of National Service, but I know it's unlikely to happen.

Just to put it on the record, would you ever consider something like bringing back conscription?

MATT KEOGH: No.

DAMIAN SMITH: Why not?

MATT KEOGH: Because it's not the way our Force operates. So whilst we do need to grow our force, it is a relatively small force by comparison to places like the United States and others. And we are a force, like our nation, that punches above its weight. It's a highly professionalised force, rigorous training at all levels, it's not a force ‑ and really, if we look at the way in which 21st Century warfare is fought, it is much more technologically based than just the cannon fodder approach, if you like, of some previous wars that many of my forebears have had to suffer.

So, no, that is not something that we would be considering.

DAMIAN SMITH: There you go. That's the final word from Matt Keogh. If you called in last week to make the case for that, it's not happening. 1300-222-720. After Matt leaves the studio, I'm going to go to your calls on this. Keen to know what you think could be done to encourage people into a career in the Defence Force, what maybe isn't working right now, if you've got an experience to share, 1300-222-720.

I was going to ask you about this point actually, but Dee has put it perfectly for me on the text line. She says, "The reason forces are not able to sign up young people is the government won't look after the veterans; young people are not stupid," says Dee. What would you say to that?

MATT KEOGH: Well, Dee raises a really interesting point, and I am also the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, so this is something that I am responsible for as well, and it's something that I apologised in Parliament for several months ago, the way in which we engage with our veterans, and I think have let them down, and we've seen that in the content of the interim report from the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, and it's why we responded very quickly the following month with how we would be addressing the recommendations that came from that interim report, and we're proceeding with that. We're in the process now of employing 500 additional staff to get through the backlog of claims that built up under the last government.

DAMIAN SMITH: Because you do hear, it's incredibly frustrating to deal with as a bureaucracy, and that's a bureaucracy you're now in charge of.

MATT KEOGH: It is a bureaucracy I'm now in charge of, and so part of it was giving it more resources, which it clearly needed and needed for a long time, but part of it also is that over the last century, we have continued to amend and change and build upon the legislation that underpins the support and entitlements for our veterans, so that we now have three completely different schemes that covers war‑like service and peace‑time service, and some for this period of time and some for that period of time. It's incredibly complex; it's been identified by numerous reviews and reports, no one's wanted to touch it. Maybe I'm insane, but we've decided, yep, we're going to try and tackle this one, and we'll be saying more about that in the new year to find a pathway through to a simpler and more harmonised regime that is easier for veterans to access, easier for the Department to process, so that people can get what they need quicker, and that it's easier for everyone to navigate as well, but completely understand the concern that's been raised there.

But I will also say this: for all of the faults and failings of this system, and they are replete, we do provide, as I understand it from our engagement with our Five Eye partners, some of the best levels of support and entitlement to veterans of any of our comparable nations, and we're proud of that, but we need to make sure that people can access that as well, and that's what we're working on right now.

DAMIAN SMITH: And far be it from me to sort of advertise a snazzy sort of campaign for you anyway, and I'm sure that sort of thing at the surface level is maybe not going to move the needle too much, but if someone is interested in a career in the Defence Force ‑‑

MATT KEOGH: Defencejobs.gov.au, or just type in "Defence jobs" into Google, you'll find out all about the over 300 roles. Come along to one of the seminars. There's no obligation, you can literally just sit at the back, and if you don't like it, walk out. But if you do, fill in one of those expressions of interest forms. There's lots of information on the website about all the different roles across the three different services. I have no doubt that there's something there if that's something you might be interested in, because if you're looking for purpose, you won't get a better purpose than serving our national interest as part of a member of our Defence Force.

DAMIAN SMITH: That's the pitch from Matt Keogh. Thank you very much for coming in.

MATT KEOGH: Thank you.

DAMIAN SMITH: The Federal Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans' Affairs. Also the member for Burt. I'll go to your calls next. 1300-222-720

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