25 April 2023
SUBJECTS: Anzac Day 2023; Veteran support; Defence Strategic Review.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Across the country this morning, thousands of servicemen and women, veterans and their loved ones are commemorating the Anzacs. And as we reflect on the sacrifices of those who have fought to protect our country in the past, the government's strategic review is looking forward to how to protect us into the future. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel, Matt Keogh, joined me a short time ago from Gallipoli.
MATT KEOGH, MINISTER FOR VETERANS’ AFFAIRS: Hi, Patricia, it's great to be with you.
KARVELAS: More than 1,600 Australians are expected to attend ceremonies in Gallipoli today. You're seeing the return of crowds of people after the COVID pandemic. What's it like over there?
MINISTER KEOGH: Well, certainly there are a lot of people indeed excited to be able to participate and view the ceremonies that will be happening for Anzac Day over here. And it's great to see that not only do we have more than three times as many people that were able to attend last year as we were sort of coming out of COVID, in fact, it's the biggest numbers we've seen since the centenary of Anzac.
KARVELAS: That's incredible. What do you think has motivated so many people to travel and be part of this?
MINISTER KEOGH: Well, I think certainly there's an element of people who were very interested to be able to come over the last few years and haven't been able to attend. And so there's a bit of pent up interest there, if you like, but I think what we really see is that people have seen the service that's been rendered by our Defence Force personnel, not just way back in the First World War, but all the way through to recent conflicts, as well as the assistance that's provided through peacekeeping and the humanitarian effort. And so people are interested in supporting our Defence Force and recognising that sacrifice. But we also have, from people I've been speaking to here, Australians who are trying to connect with their own family history, and they've got great, great uncles or relatives that did fight here or fought in other places connected to the First World War in particular, that wanted to come and show their respects and to commemorate that service and reconnect with that family history of their own.
KARVELAS: How do you think the nature of Anzac Day has changed over the last few decades, both at home in Australia and overseas?
MINISTER KEOGH: Well, I think what we've really seen Anzac Day become is not just about one conflict or not just about conflict, in fact. It's now a day where we commemorate not just those that died, but all those people that have served in our uniform on our behalf in conflict, but, as I said, in peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts, and to recognise the sacrifice that they've made. It's not about the politics behind any one conflict or whose side people are on, but about recognising that service on behalf of our nation in all manners and different forms and the sacrifices made by those who serve. But also recognising the sacrifice made by the families who support them and the families that are left behind by those who do make the ultimate sacrifice.
KARVELAS: Anzac Day is about honouring the sacrifices of our Defence Forces, but we know there are many ex-servicemen and women who do come back broken and thousands who are currently homeless or facing homelessness. Does the government have a responsibility to protect and to house those who protected our country?
MINISTER KEOGH: Well, certainly we have a responsibility. We've got to look after our veterans, whether they've served overseas, whether they've come with injury or mental illness from that or service in Australia, and we're doing everything we can to do that, but there's absolutely more to do. And I acknowledged that of course, in the apology that I delivered last year to our veterans’ community for not, governments of all sides, not living up to that obligation in various ways. And that's why we're trying to do better with processing through the claims backlog. It's why we've brought on additional staff with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. It's why we are now looking at reforming the legislation that underpins our veterans’ entitlement system. And it's why we've brought forward legislation like the Housing Australia Future Fund, which as part of that will include funding not just to provide housing to our veteran community where they need it, but also the wraparound supports that they need to get them into more permanent accommodation as well.
KARVELAS: Yesterday, the government released the Defence Strategic Review and as we heard during the AUKUS announcement, the ADF will need to rapidly expand its numbers in coming years. Are you confident we can recruit enough people?
MINISTER KEOGH: Well, Patricia, I think the Defence Strategic Review clearly articulated the need for us to grow our Defence Force. But today I'm really focused on those that are currently serving and that have served our nation and making sure that we pay them proper respect and commemorate their work on behalf of our nation and the support that they've received from their families. But certainly we'll be doing everything we need to do so that we can grow our force as we need it for whatever it may need to be involved in in the future.
KARVELAS: Today is the most significant day where Australians pause and really reflect on our history and this enormous service and sacrifice that's been given. It does give us a sense of where we're going as well, though. Do you think about those connections, about where we go next with our Defence Force at moments like these?
MINISTER KEOGH: Certainly. I think one of the great things about the way in which we are able to commemorate Anzac Day in Türkiye, for example, which was the country where we're in conflict, that are now friends with, and they support us in being able to hold these commemorations, highlights the way in which these commemorations are focused on the shared humanity that we have. That at the end of the day, no matter what side people found themselves on, they were doing the service of their nation. And they are human, they are people, and they have families, and they have made that sacrifice on behalf of their nation. And they've come to foreign shores in many cases and recognising that humanity is a critical part about these commemorations and how we come together to honour people that have served our nation. And I think that is something that has always got to be front of mind for any government in any decisions that they need to make in any area of national security, is making sure that we think about those things and how they're going to impact on our nation. And that's why you would have seen in the Defence Strategic Review, statecraft is such a fundamental part about what we need to do as a nation as well.
KARVELAS: We are at an important juncture really as the world becomes more unsafe, our own region has become a lot more unstable and I think these issues are really acute for a lot of people, in a lot of people's minds. As we do reflect on our past missions, obviously we are at a really important turning point in the country. There was the release of the Strategic Review on the eve of Anzac Day, was that a deliberate decision by the government to try to link these two issues?
MINISTER KEOGH: Well, we had been very clear that we would release the review publicly before we got to the Federal Budget, which is now a few weeks away. And certainly there will be, I have no doubt, much discussion about what the content of that review over the coming weeks and months, but the timing was really about, as we said, that we'd committed to releasing this before we got to the budget, which is only a few weeks away now.
KARVELAS: This, of course, is a discussion which comes on a sombre day, but it is indeed a pretty live discussion about where we go next with the Defence Force. There are some people criticising the direction of the Defence Strategic Review or the decision for more reviews out of this. What do you say to critics who say the government hasn't settled these issues?
MINISTER KEOGH: I say two things. On a day like today, I think it's much more important that we focus on our people that are serving and have served and our veterans, their families and commemorate their service. And I think we'll have a lot more opportunity to discuss people's views about the content and the direction of the Defence Strategic Review going forward. But I think it is clear that the review does centre very clear direction about what Strategic circumstances Australia faces. It makes clear that there are decisions that we are making as a government right now in alignment with those. But it also makes clear that there are things that we need to do as a government that aren't the sorts of decisions that you can turn around in weeks, that need to be thought through with that clear direction that's been set so that we can achieve the right outcomes to achieve those objectives. But I think we'll have more opportunity to discuss that over coming weeks, no doubt, when the key focus today, I think, needs to be on commemorating our servicemen and women.
KARVELAS: Just finally, Matt Keogh. I spoke with a former Defence Minister, Kim Beazley, and of course now the head of the Australian War Memorial, and he pointed out that when he was growing up, these Anzac Day ceremonies were actually quite small, which surprised me. I didn't realise they were small, and now they've grown and grown. What do you attribute that to, given you would have thought that it would have gone in the other direction, but we seem to have become more and more connected with this day.
MINISTER KEOGH: People want to reconnect with their own family past and so that connection to understanding the sacrifice of family members from the First World War or the Second World War or now the Vietnam War. But the other thing is, we've just recently completed Australia's longest ever military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, in Canberra today, it will be our veterans who were involved in the peacekeeping operations in Somalia, the 30th anniversary of those operations, that they'll be leading the march today. And those contemporary veterans, of which there are many tens of thousands now, are very relevant to Australians today. It's their children and themselves that are coming to our Anzac Day marches and commemorative services at dawn, and their relatives. And that's bred, I guess, a larger understanding once again across the Australian population of the nature of service and the importance of commemorating that service.
KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us.
MINISTER KEOGH: Great to be with you, Patricia.