ABC Breakfast interview with Virginia Trioli and Darren Chester, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, about the new payments for veterans waiting to get their claims assessed, payments for families of veterans who experience domestic violence, the Monash Group, energy affordability, and the upcoming 30th Newspoll result.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Now, veterans will soon have a new payment to help them cope with mental health issues while waiting for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to assess their claims. The bill that allows that was passed late last month after securing support of the Coalition and Labor. For more, Veterans Affairs’ Minister and Nationals MP Darren Chester joins us in the studio. Darren Chester, good morning. Thanks for joining us.
DARREN CHESTER: Great to be here.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Tell us about the payment.
DARREN CHESTER: Well, it’s important to recognise that the government puts in the order of $200 million per year into mental health support for veterans, and today we’re releasing a very important report, which has been the largest report of its kind ever undertaken involving military personnel in Australia. We’ve looked at the mental, physical and social impacts of their service, and what we’ve found is that mental health concerns are a big issue for us, and we believe we’re heading in the right direction, but we believe there’s a lot more work to be done and this new payment – which passed through the Senate and the House of Reps only a matter of a couple of weeks ago – will assist in making sure we’re putting veterans first and putting their families first. And also getting the message out there: if you recognise that you may have some mental health concerns, that you recognise some of the symptoms, please get help because early intervention is so important in terms of getting a better outcome.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So this is a bridging payment …
DARREN CHESTER: Absolutely.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: … until their formal claim is assessed?
DARREN CHESTER: That’s right. What we’ve been doing with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs- now keep in mind, Veterans’ Affairs has been around now for the best part of 100 years. The centenary is this year. We’ve found the system is quite antiquated in terms of the processing times and that long delay, sometimes a period of months, has caused more problems. So, we’re renewing their systems. A lot of money being invested in better computer systems. Speeding up the processing times. So, we’re trying to take some of the stress away from the families and the veterans themselves.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Look, another issue that’s requiring change, clearly, is that of victims of domestic violence who have suffered that violence at the hands of their war veteran spouses. They’re being kicked off taxpayer-funded financial support if they divorce their abusers. So, in a sense they’re almost being punished because they took the right decision for themselves and the safety of their children, but lose that allowance that they’ve been given previously. Does that scheme need to be changed?
DARREN CHESTER: Well, I’ve become aware of that issue in the last couple of days and I’ve asked the department to look at what more we can be doing to support veterans and their families. It’s very important that …
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: [Interrupts] Even if those families break apart.
DARREN CHESTER: Well, that’s the point I’ve raised with the department – what more can we be doing? Because obviously, our first ambition is to make sure that families can stay together. Military service can put extra stresses on people’s lives. We need to make sure we support families to stay together wherever possible, but families do break down, and if there’s a situation involving violence, obviously, the best thing- the best thing to be done is for the separation to occur.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Yes.
DARREN CHESTER: But we want to make sure the families are well supported for their extraordinary service to the Australian people.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So then, does there need to be some separate payment then that’s made to the divorcee, to the family members, even though they’re not the veterans themselves and they’re now not living with that veteran?
DARREN CHESTER: Well, that’s what I’ve asked the department to look at – what support is provided.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But that’s a possibility?
DARREN CHESTER: Well, that’s what I’ve asked them to look at to make sure- one: there’s additional already for the children of the veteran and what support is available for the spouses if there is a separation. Now, what we’ve got to be careful about is making sure people don’t think that every person who serves in the Australian Army, Navy or Air Force comes back broken and can’t make a contribution in civilian life. Because the vast experience is that their skills are transferable and when they move out of the military they go on to have a very good career.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Sure.
DARREN CHESTER: In some other private fields. We need to be positive about the experience for most, but there’s no question that there are some issues we need to work on and we are working closely with the ex-service organisations to get the best possible outcome for veterans and their families.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: That’s a reasonable point to make. But look, let’s turn to the issue that was under discussion there with Barnaby Joyce about that ginger group, now formally known as the Monash Group, now the family’s made their intentions very, very clear. In a sense, they’ve been advocating for big amounts of public money to be put into keeping that power station, Liddell, alive; talking even in the realms of $4 billion. Should that be the business of federal Government?
DARREN CHESTER: Well, the conversation, I think, should really be focused on energy security, energy reliability, energy affordability. Now, coal has obviously played a critical role in achieving that for Australia over the last 50, 60, 70 years. In my electorate of Gippsland, the Latrobe Valley Power Stations have powered the wealth of Victoria and much of the south-east corner of Australia. So I’m receptive to looking at what can we do to ensure that we do have the reliability, security and affordability that’s good for households, good for businesses, good for the agriculture sector. But in terms of whether you actually need to have public funding to do that, I’ve got some questions around that. It’s more about you need policy certainty, so the private sector will invest with confidence. And what we’ve seen over the last 10 or 15 years is a failure to have policy certainty. There’s been a transfer from one government to the next. That uncertainty I think has undermined investment in coal.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But notwithstanding that, what we’ve learned from the Australian Energy Market Commission is that in the next two years, because of a whole lot of new renewable energy coming on the market, power prices are set to fall, but that’ll only stay the case if that’s where the policy setting stays. So doesn’t that become an even more compelling argument for Australian opening its eyes to the potential of the new technologies rather than the horse and buggy technologies, as the Monash Family put it yesterday?
DARREN CHESTER: Well, there are new technologies around coal as well, though, and that’s an important point to remember, that right around the world there are high energy, low emissions coal-fired power stations being built. Some of them using Australian coal, exported from Australian mines. In Latrobe Valley, obviously, all the power stations there are quite old. I mean, Hazelwood was over 50 years old when it closed. Loy Yang A, Loy Yang B [indistinct]…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But do you really see any future for this one, for Liddell?
DARREN CHESTER: Well, there’s conversations around can you extend the life of that plant for a period of years to guarantee reliability and security of supply…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: The operator doesn’t seem to think he can. You’d believe them most, wouldn’t you?
DARREN CHESTER: Well, sometimes owner-operators have other motives as well, where they’ve got political imperatives through their own company or through other shareholders, or…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Well, it is private enterprise, so they’re to do what they want with their business.
DARREN CHESTER: … or whether they’re trying to make sure they get a bigger profit from other sources they have of energy. So we’ve got to act in the interest of all Australians, act in the interest of the business community which needs reliable and affordable power to compete on international markets, and the biggest issue that people raise with me as I travel around Australia is the cost of living, and obviously, energy prices are a critical part of that and they want the lights to go on when they turn them on.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Which they seem to be doing at the moment, which we should probably make clear as well. Darren Chester, just finally this morning, how do you think the Prime Minister should handle the situation when he loses his 30th Newspoll in a row?
DARREN CHESTER: Well, he should…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: What should the strategy be?