Press Conference, Open Arms Sydney

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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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Ruairi Housego - 0461540012

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19 December 2023

SUBJECTS: Veterans support over the holiday season; Far North QLD floods; Migration Strategy; US request for assets in the Red Sea.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR VETERANS’ AFFAIRS: Thanks for coming along. I'm joined by the Australian Defence Force Family Advocate Gwen Cherne and we've got Emma and James who are lived experience peers who work for Open Arms. The holiday period for many Australians is a time to come together with family and friends. But for a lot of Australians, it can be a time of loneliness, anxiety and depression, particularly for a number of Australian veterans. And we're calling on veterans today to reach out to Open Arms, the veterans counselling support service, if they're feeling lonely, if they're feeling anxious, over this holiday period. By reaching out to Open Arms, you're accessing some of the most experienced counsellors and support personnel that there is in Australia. We're also asking all Australians to reach out to a mate who's a veteran over this holiday period. You may help someone who's going through a tough time, and you may even save a life. We know that many veterans over the holiday period experience loneliness, anxiety, and depression and that can trigger trauma that they may have experienced during their period of service. And that's why we want all Australians to reach out to their veteran mates over this difficult period and check up on them. And if you're a veteran, or a veterans family member that's doing a tough, please feel free to reach out to Open Arms on 1800 011 046. It's also a time when many Australian Defence Force personnel are on deployments overseas and away from their families. And if you know an ADF family that's got a member who's serving overseas, perhaps pick up the phone to their family members or go around and visit them and help them during this period where their loved ones are serving our nation and thank them for their service to Australia. So, I reiterate that number 1800 011 046 and encourage our veterans to reach out for support if I need it during the holiday period. I'm now going to hand over to Emma who's a lived experience Peer. She's going to give her view of the holiday period.

EMMA, PEER: So, I think the most important thing I would like to reiterate is that reaching out and asking those questions is the way to go. Even if it's a simple text message. If you're noticing a friend is really disengaging, or disconnected or even a loved one, ask the question, set aside some time and listen to the answer and listen to the response. It's those really genuine engagement moments that can make a difference to someone's life.

JAMES, PEER: So, for me, the most challenging time of the year was around that Christmas period. It was where I came out of my usual routine, you know dropping kids off at school, you know, work wasn't there. And so, when you come out of that, that routine, through the Christmas period was particularly for me it was about a week or two weeks. It was just a challenging time. It just brought up a lot of stuff for me. I had a lot of time to think to reflect and it just was a very, very difficult period for me. The way I got through it was learning how to reach out reaching out to people that I was close to reaching out to also Open Arms as well. So yeah, that's the way that I got through what was very challenging time for me.

GWEN CHERNE, COMMISSIONER: Hi, I'm Gwen Cherne the Veteran Family Advocate Commissioner and I think it's just really important that, you know, families at this time are coming together. It's a wonderful, wonderful period of rejuvenation, of rest of celebration, but it is also difficult and I think families sometimes forget that Open Arms is there for them too. This is also a period where families can be grieving if they've lost someone. And that is another reason If anger or emotions are fraying - it's a great time to reach out for help. Talk to someone and don't forget to call Open Arms because they are really there and can support both veterans and families.

LEONIE NOWLAND, OPEN ARMS NATIONAL MANAGER: Hi, I'm Leonie Noland the National Manager for Open Arms. This time of year, as we've just described can be a time of great joy, expectation. People have very high expectations in terms of being able to be with their friends being with their family, but it can also mean that tempers can fray. It can actually be difficult meeting those expectations about having a great time over Christmas. One of the things that we know in Open Arms is that sometimes people leave it too late to contact us and they wait until they're actually feeling that at the end of their tether rather than calling us early on. So we are there 24 hours a day, seven days a week over the Christmas period. here to help you get through Christmas to make the best of Christmas to enjoy being with your friends and family without having to get to the point where you feel that you can't cope anymore. As I said, we’re there 24/7 and one of our counsellors will be very happy to talk with you and we are there for veterans and families - families have their own entitlement with Open Arms. And we are there for any member of the family who may feel that they need just to debrief a bit over the phone and may actually wish to uptake, some longer-term counselling if that's going to be helpful for them. So just to encourage you to ring that number, again, which is one 1800 011 046. Thank you.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thanks Leonie. Any questions about this issue?

JOURNALIST: So, is the government providing more support, more resources for these services over the busy period?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: This the busiest period for Open Arms. Last year, from the Christmas to New Year period they had about 800 interactions with veterans and their families. And veterans support is supported by the government and we make sure that DVA is properly funded and that it's properly resourced over this difficult period. DVA has been elevated within government in recent times and so has Open Arms. We've reestablished the National Advisory Committee that's advising me as the Minister about how we can deliver new services and how we can improve the service delivery for veterans. DVA and Open Arms have also recently released a new model of care, which is veteran centric and for their family members and it's looking at new ways to support veterans through group sessions and other therapies that are getting better results for veterans across the country.

JOURNALIST: And for people in the community, you know, there's someone in their network who's a veteran who they notice is struggling, what's the advice for them?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: If you notice veterans that are struggling, reach out to them, give them a call, give them a text or better still, visit them and tell them that you're there to support them. If you think that they really struggling and need professional support, encourage them to reach out to Open Arms. Or indeed if you are a family member or a friend, you can reach out to Open Arms on behalf of that veteran. Specialist and professional support is available and every Australian should feel encouraged over the holiday season to reach out to Open Arms. It's open 24/7 And it's there to help.

JOURNALIST: I'll move on to other matters. So, the Prime Minister yesterday acknowledged the difficulties for the military in responding to the emergency in Queensland given the grounding of the Taipan helicopter fleet. How many of the Army's new Blackhawks have arrived in Australia and are operational and how many are able to assist?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: The Australian Defence Force is supporting the rescue and recovery operation associated with Cyclone Jasper in the north of Australia and the flooding that has occurred. To date we've deployed four helicopters; two Chinooks and two support helicopters and about 150 personnel. The Blackhawks that have arrived in Australia are still going through a process of verification and testing. And the Chinook is the workhorse of the Australian Defence Force and a specialist piece of equipment for these types of rescue and recovery operations. They can carry the heaviest, and the most difficult loads and they can support the most personnel. So the advice of the Australian Defence Force is that those types of equipment are the best to deploy in these situations. And that's what the government and the ADF had done.

JOURNALIST: Was it an oversight to ground the Taipan fleet with no other military alternatives ahead of the summer where both floods and bushfires were likely?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, it's not the case that we don't have a helicopter fleet. We've deployed four helicopters to the region to assist with this recovery operation, obviously in the wake of the accident, associated with the Taipan at Talisman Sabre. The advice from the safety experts was that that fleet should no longer be operational and is being phased out. Australia has received the first Blackhawks they are in the process of being commissioned, but at all times when it comes to all equipment within the Australian Defence Force safety is paramount and we can't cut corners on that testing and verification process that's going on at the moment.

JOURNALIST: Given the United States has just announced the list of the first group of countries that will go to the Middle East to assist with them in Yemen and that doesn't include Australia. When are we expecting a decision on whether Australia will join that coalition?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, Australia's considering the request from the United States in the normal way. Our priority in terms of our naval operations is within our region in the Indo Pacific and Australia has been tasked through a multilateral effort to be involved in freedom of navigation exercises, predominantly around the South China Sea. And that's the priority for the Australian Navy at the moment, and will continue to be so for some time to come. We'll consider the request that we've received from the United States military in the normal course and make a decision in the normal course.

JOURNALIST: Would Australia’s Navy be in a position to provide a warship?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we're considering that. Obviously, there's discussions that occurred between the government and Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Navy. Those discussions are occurring at the moment, and we'll make a decision in the normal course.

JOURNALIST: Minister Giles is meeting with state and territory Ministers today to talk about the migration review and how to make it work for everybody. We've also seen today a coalition of 40 odd housing and welfare groups saying that blaming migrants for the housing crisis is just scapegoating and that it is bad policy and bad tax incentives that is behind the housing crisis. What do you make of those comments?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the government's certainly not blaming anyone for the housing issues that we have in Australia at the moment and that's why we've had a priority as a government to boost the supply of housing. Our housing Australia Future Fund will build 30,000 houses over the course of the next few years. And that's now passed the Parliament and we're getting on with the job of allocating that funding and working with the states to build that affordable and social housing. We've allocated billions of dollars to the states as a housing accelerator and our Help to Buy scheme has now passed the parliament. So we've got policies that will help alleviate some of the pressure that Australians are feeling with housing at the moment. On migration, for the first time, Australia now has a purpose and a direction for migration in this country with the release of the migration strategy last week, and that's about ensuring that we have the skills that we need to grow the economy to create jobs and ensure that we maintain productivity into the future and this strategy will help deliver that. Now a lot of the services that are provided to support nearly arrived migrants are supplied by the states. So it makes sense that the Commonwealth meets with the states to ensure that we have a cooperative approach and a strategy to delivering and rolling out those services that support nearly arrived migrants in Australia. And that's what the Minister is meeting with those state counterparts today about.

JOURNALIST: The New South Wales Minister for Trade wants to put, you know, in terms of migration review, he's concerned that the tradies were carved out of that, and he says there's not enough tradies to build the homes that you need. Does he have a point there?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well the priority of this government is training Australians to be tradies, and that's evident in our fee free TAFE policy. And we've had a great uptake of people taking on trades across a variety of professions across the country. And that policy is delivering what it's aimed to do, and that is to ensure that we train more tradies and that we reduce the skill shortages that we've had for the last decade in Australia, but of course it takes time. So in the interim, we have a policy to ensure that if employers need people with particular skills, that they can migrate to Australia on a skilled visa, and that they can now have a pathway to permanent residency and that's a priority that was outlined in the migration strategy that was released last week.

JOURNALIST: The problem is that tradies were carved out of that. The Minister said that the construction industry needs to prove there's actually a shortage. Isn't there enough proof already? You can't build these houses?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well we've always had a situation where you have a list of the skilled occupations that we seek people to come to Australia with those skills to have. That's always been the case. And we need to make sure that the migration policy responds to the needs of employers within the economy and we're keeping that skilled migration stream, there will be tradies that will be coming under that migration stream. But we want to make sure that that they respond to the needs of industry and that there is a purpose to that skilled migration list into the future. So we're making sure that the list effectively works and that we work with the states to ensure that the services are there to support newly arrived migrants.

JOURNALIST: Just one final one for me. Abdul Nacer Benbrika looks like he's set to be released in the coming days. Should the community be fearful of him walking among us?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the Australian Government has take, strong action on this and applying to the court for a supervision order. It's a matter that is now before the court and the court will make its decision to due course.

JOURNALIST: Thank you.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thanks everyone, have a great Christmas!


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