14 September 2023
SUBJECTS: Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, Claims backlog, Defence Amendment (Safeguarding Australia’s Military Secrets) Bill 2023
SABRA LANE, HOST: Too much talk and not enough action. That's just some of the blistering criticism from the head of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veterans Suicide. Nick Kaldas took the unusual step of addressing the National Press Club yesterday, accusing Government Departments of stonewalling the inquiry's work while Defence Force members and veterans keep dying by suicide.
The Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Campbell was in the audience and declined an opportunity to discuss it with us. However, I was joined earlier by Matt Keogh, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel.
Minister, welcome to AM. Why would any young Australian want to sign up for a Defence career given the picture that the Royal Commissioner painted yesterday?
MINISTER FOR VETERANS’ AFFAIRS AND DEFENCE PERSONNEL MATT KEOGH: Good morning, Sabra, it's great to be with you. I think the Royal Commissioner painted a picture that was pretty clear actually that a career in Defence is a good one, that the vast majority of people who serve in our Defence Force have very successful, positive careers and go on to have very successful civilian lives after they've left Defence as well.
We know for young people today they're looking for a sense of purpose in their careers and the Defence Force absolutely provides that sense of purpose in contributing to our nation and our national security.
SABRA LANE: Sorry, were we watching and listening to the same event? Mr Kaldas said that the Defence is waiting until the inquiry is over to resume business as usual, that Departments, including Veterans' Affairs, are stonewalling and it's using every trick in the book to stop his inquiry from finding out information. It's unusual to hear such a blistering criticism while an inquiry is actually under way.
What commitment can you give that the Government will heed his warnings?
MINISTER KEOGH: Well we are absolutely following the Royal Commission and implementing its recommendations. When it handed down its interim report in August last year we responded the very next month with the formal Government response to those recommendations. And I was able to provide a report to the Royal Commission last month, a year after its interim report, outlining all of the steps that the Government has taken and is taking in relation to those recommendations. We've taken action on all of those recommendations. A large number of them we have now fully implemented as well.
We're taking this very seriously. We called for the Royal Commission when we were in Opposition because we saw the terrible statistics that Royal Commissioner Kaldas outlined yesterday in terms of Defence and veterans' suicide.
SABRA LANE: Sure.
MINISTER KEOGH: And something very seriously needs to be done about it.
SABRA LANE: What do you make of his criticism then, because it's aimed at your Government, previous Governments, the current Departments of Defence and Veterans' Affairs?
MINISTER KEOGH: Well certainly we took those criticisms on board at the time of the interim report being handed down and it's why ‑‑
SABRA LANE: Sure, but what he said yesterday, I'm sorry, Minister, to keep coming back to this is current-day criticism.
MINISTER KEOGH: The Commissioner was very clear that his criticism was about how Defence has handled this and the Department of Veterans' Affairs has handled these matters over time. He pointed to the 25 years' worth of inquiries and recommendations that have not been fully implemented by successive Governments, and we've absolutely acknowledged that.
On our watch, we have gone about implementing the recommendations that were presented to us by the Royal Commission in its interim report, and we're doing further work as well and we've been working with the Royal Commission to understand where it's heading and what it needs.
In terms of providing information to the Royal Commission, which I know the Commissioner referred to, they certainly had difficulty with these matters. We engaged with them very early on coming into Government about these to make sure that we understood the difficulties they were having.
Myself, the Minister for Defence, the Attorney‑General, we all met with our Departments to make sure that they were very clear that we expected information to be provided to the Royal Commission. And we're working with them to ensure they get all the information that can be provided to them and the information that they need.
SABRA LANE: You said 12 months ago that you hoped the backlog of veterans' claims would be cleared by the end of this year. There are still 30,000 cases. Will that deadline be met?
MINISTER KEOGH: Well, I'm happy to say that actually at the end of August, we're down to just under 26,000 cases, so we are making that steady improvement with the backlog. We should be through all of the – what we call “initial liability” claims by the end of the year. There'll be some compensation claims that still need to be cleaned out next year as well but we're very confident about the work we're undertaking there.
We've employed over 400 of the 500 additional staff we committed to at the election. And we are making this a key focus to get through this backlog.
The Royal Commission highlighted it as a recommendation, because they said these delays are adding to the anxiety of veterans. We don't want to be doing anything that's adding to the anxiety of veterans. We want to make sure they get access to the services and the support that they need and deserve.
SABRA LANE: What did you make of his criticism given what you're saying?
MINISTER KEOGH: Well, I think the criticisms that the Commissioner made yesterday are ones that we've long acknowledged. It's why I made an apology in the Parliament last year for the problems and issues that have been the consequence of actions by of the Department of Defence, by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. We have not been trying to say that everything’s rosy and peaches. We've said there are clearly problems, it's why we called for the Royal Commission. We're sorry that people have been confronted with bad behaviour, cultural issue, abuse whilst serving in Defence, that they haven't received the service that they should have received from the Department of Veterans' Affairs, and whilst that's not a ‑‑
SABRA LANE: But it sounds ‑‑
MINISTER KEOGH: ‑‑ universal experience it's important to acknowledge these problems, and that's why we want the recommendations from the Royal Commission so we can get on with the job with making this right.
SABRA LANE: On another matter, the Government is introducing legislation into Federal Parliament today which would mean that veterans face up to 20 years' jail if they do unauthorised work for a foreign Government. Why is that necessary?
MINISTER KEOGH: Look, it's an issue that's been identified across international media and domestically that we need to make sure that there are absolutely no loopholes or ability for people to think that they can operate contrary to Australia's national interest.
And so we're making sure that our laws clearly identify and make it clear to any veterans, any former service personnel or public servants that have worked in Defence, that we take the integrity of our information, our national security information and training very seriously, and that we are going to properly regulate any work that they do for a foreign military or companies associated with them so that we're protecting our national interest.
SABRA LANE: Minister, thanks for talking to AM.
MINISTER KEOGH: Great to be with you.
SABRA LANE: That's Matt Keogh, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel. And if you're a veteran or a serving member and you and your family need help you can call Open Arms on 1800 011 046.