Mr Chester (Gippsland) (19:45): I entered politics to try to make a difference, and over the past three years I have been part of a team which has helped to save lives and transform the system of veteran support in Australia. Along with my loyal and incredibly capable staff, the outstanding leadership team at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the ex-service community itself we have worked in partnership to improve the way that veterans and their families are recognised and supported in Australia. I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done together and honoured to have had that opportunity provided by the former Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. The support I received from Michael and my cabinet colleagues as part of several budgets has helped to fund significant changes which will continue to deliver benefits for future generations.
To the secretary of the department, Liz Cosson: your professionalism and passion for our serving men and women, our veterans and their families is an example for your entire team to follow. Please accept my thanks for your support and guidance. The incoming minister would be well advised to listen to your wisdom, gained from years of personal experience. Thank you also to the hundreds of people and representatives of ex-service organisations who have contacted my office in recent weeks to extend their personal best wishes. It has been truly humbling and deeply appreciated by my former staff, and it has vindicated their hard work.
Being sacked from the ministry is like being alive at your own funeral and listening to the eulogies! I promise you all that I am alive and well, and ready to get on with the next challenges and adventures in public life. But, before doing that, I want to publicly close the chapter of my work with our veterans as their minister. As a government, we have invested heavily in veterans’ employment and transition services while boosting mental health care and developing a network of wellbeing centres. As a government, our introduction of the Veterans’ Recognition Program and the Australian Defence Veterans’ Covenant, along with the redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial, will help define how we respect and remember our service personnel in the future. And, as a renowned dog lover, the successful introduction of psychiatric assistance dogs for veterans experiencing PTSD will remain one of my proudest achievements. The letters from veterans about the dog program have touched me the most. They’re already making a difference in the lives of dozens of veterans and their families.
As always, there’s always more work to be done. But that task will fall to the incoming minister, and I do urge the ex-service community to provide the same constructive feedback, practical advice and input that my team always benefited from. I urge the minister to listen very carefully to the considered and collective thoughts of the majority, not to the tiny minority who sometimes push an agenda which is divisive and unhelpful. The royal commission in particular is a chance to unite the veterans’ community—and I stress that everyone has the chance to have their say and should be supported as they give evidence, which could be difficult and distressing for them. As a backbencher, I want to see the coalition government maintain the momentum for reform and to build on all the good work we’re doing while the royal commission runs its course and the national commissioner receives its powers as an enduring addition to public policy.
I will continue to advocate strongly for Australians to understand that the majority of veterans will transition successfully to civilian life. The myth that all veterans are broken is damaging to their wellbeing and creates a vicious circle of despondency and desperation. As a grateful nation, we must support those who need our help, but at the same time we must promote the many achievements of our veteran community.
I also want to take this opportunity to recognise the extraordinary leadership of the Australian Defence Force, and the many thousands of serving personnel I’ve had the pleasure of meeting over the past seven or eight years. Three years ago, as your minister, I started saying thank you for your service at every public event—not to embarrass you but to remind those of us who haven’t served about the risks you take on our behalf. You keep us safe in an ever-changing world and you are the first people we turn to when the job gets too big for local or state agencies. As a civilian, it has been an extraordinary privilege to see you training and deploying both at home and abroad. In my own electorate of Gippsland, with your work on Operation Bushfire Assist, and more recently with the COVID program and the flood and storm recovery, I have been constantly impressed by the professionalism, the determination and the resilience you display. Your character values of always looking after your mates and acting with dignity and respect in adversity have set a standard which I hope to emulate. It has been the greatest honour and privilege of my working life to spend time with you and represent your interests within the federal government. Thank you for your service.
Finally, to my wife, Julie, and my four children: ministerial responsibility takes hours away from family life, and the biggest benefit of being sacked from cabinet for the second time is that we get to spend more time together in the place we love. I love Gippsland. I’m not going anywhere. I thank the House.