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PRESENTER:
Today at the National Press Club, Veterans’ Affairs Minister Darren Chester. A former newspaper and television journalist, Mr Chester has served as a federal cabinet minister and has been the Nationals Member for Gippsland for a decade. Darren Chester with today’s National Press Club Address.
SABRA LANE:
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the National Press Club of Australia and today’s Westpac address. My name is Sabra Lane. I’m the president of the club. I’m also the presenter of the ABC radio program AM. Our guest today is the – well, it is Darren Chester! It is his debut speech here at the Press Club and he also has a number of portfolios: Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Minister for Defence Personnel, and also the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Centenary of Anzac.
He is also the Deputy Leader of the House of Representatives, which had slipped me by. He is a Nationals MP and has been in Federal Parliament now for 10 years. The title of his speech is intriguing – ‘is this as good as it gets?’ If you are following the conversation at home please use the hashtag APC. And our twitter user handle is @PressclubAust
Everyone, please welcome Darren Chester.
DARREN CHESTER:
Well thank you Sabra and good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Can I begin by recognising the traditional owners of the land we gather on and pay respects to elders, past and present. Can I also recognise those who served our nation in uniform – to the members of the Defence Force who are here with us now, but also the veterans in the room. You keep us safe in a very challenging world. And you should be very proud of the job you do, or the job you’ve done in the past.
And no doubt it has been a very tough week for many in the Australian Defence Force with the focus on serious allegations from Afghanistan. Can I simply say that those allegations will be fully investigated. But please remember there are close to 60,000 Australian men and women serving in our Navy, Army and Air force and the vast majority fulfil their service with professionalism, with passion, with extraordinary patriotism for our country.
Can I also recognise the secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Ms Cosson, retired major-general Liz Cosson. We have a 100-year tradition of supporting our veterans. As the Centenary of Anzac commemorations draw to the close, the appointment of our first female secretary in Liz is a milestone. Congratulations, Liz. She has certainly been someone who’s had a distinguished career in the military, both at home and abroad, and we are working closely together in her new role in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. We are working obviously focused on the transition of younger veterans from the ADF into civilian life, improving the mental health of our veterans and also supporting our veterans’ families.
To you, Sabra, the President of the Press Club. Thank you for the invitation. Thank you personally Sabra for encouraging me to speak my mind on same-sex marriage about three years ago. As the first Nationals MP – it wasn’t much of a career move I must say – but as the first Nationals MP to express that view I can still recall that day vividly. I was interviewed I think at Tullamarine Airport. Immediately after having the interview I rang our leader, Warren Truss, and his chief of staff immediately after, working on that basis that it was better to seek forgiveness than to seek their permission. And there was an enormous relief for me when I got the answering machine of both gentlemen! I left a short voicemail and then jumped on a plane to Perth – 3.5 hours without listening to return calls was a blessing. In a nod to Little Britain, you did get the term “the only Nat in the village”, on official television.
Can I recognise David Speers. David was there 10 years ago. Unfortunately for me 10 kilos ago, when I was first elected to parliament in the Gippsland by-election. Just goes to show easy journos have got it, comparing David to me. The years have been very kind to you, David. It has been an amazing journey over this past 10 years and today I’m going to reflect on some of that, and I will pose a question: ‘Is this as good as it gets?’ Is this as good as it gets for our nation and regional Australia? Is this as good as it gets for our parliament? Is this as good as it gets for my portfolio in Veterans’ Affairs and also for my political party?
I’m reminded of a phrase that the former Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh said to his players on the 2001 tour of India. He wrote it on the whiteboard apparently in the dressing room. It was the saying, “Your attitude is contagious. Is yours worth catching?” I think about that. Your attitude in contagious is it worth catching? So the attitude we bring to our jobs, to sport, to politics, I think, is critically important. There is always going to be problems, always challenges. But there are also solutions and there are also opportunities As a nation we could do with a little bit more positivity, a little bit more national pride and perhaps just a little bit more respect in our national conversation. And that can start in our Federal Parliament. The respectful attitudes that we adopt can be contagious and will make a difference in the national conversation.
I would like to give a practical example. It occurred about five years ago. Julia Gillard was Prime Minister and she was being attacked from all sides. I thought the language was getting out of control and many others did as well. You could say, ‘well so what?’ Why should I care if my political opponent is getting a hard time? I was door stopped walking into the House of Representatives one morning. I said at the time what I noticed over the last few weeks, as I travelled throughout regional Australia, was the increasingly personal and vicious nature of some of the comments that were being fed back to me from members of the public. They’re comments they wouldn’t like said about their mother, daughter or wife. It’s inappropriate to treat the Prime Minister in that manner, not because she’s a woman but because her office demands the respect.
In a similar vein, I must say I agree with the Member for Grayndler, Anthony Albanese. We do need to see more bipartisanship in our parliament on nationally significant issues. Some people in the general public might be surprised to hear me say that I agree with Albo on anything! Their political diet that’s fed to them is MPs fighting with each other, or perhaps even worse, MPs fighting amongst themselves.
But as the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport before my services were redeployed to the backbench – that’s the difference between optimist and pessimist! While you were writing that I had been shafted, dumped, dismissed, sacked, an optimist like me will say my service has been redeployed to the backbench.
People would be surprised about the level of contact that does occur across party lines. As a minister I would regularly ring Albo and we would have discussions. I would seek his feedback even on topical issues I was dealing with to see if there were reforms that we could agree on without the rancour that may exist in other cases. In areas like road safety or transport security, aviation reform, some of the priorities we were setting in terms of major national infrastructure projects, we were often in furious agreement. We kept getting the job done with quite minimal public disagreement. I think there needs to be more of that. I think the challenge is to make sure that it is reported as well. I know complaining about media coverage is like going to Switzerland and complaining about the mountains. It’s a fact of life we all deal with in this job.
I think our continued focus on personalities and not the policy debate is hurting our nation. As a result, we spend too much time talking about each other and not enough time on things that matter to all Australians. When that happens, the public switches off politics in our nation. I would argue that the greatest deficit in Australian politics today has nothing to do with the budget, with all due respect to the Treasurer. It’s a deficit in trust which exists between the voters and the elected representatives. That is our perspective as members of parliament. We need to be provide more transparency on decision making, and we need to demonstrate through our actions that we’re actually listening to the people and their concerns.
So, in my inaugural speech I talked about the need to build respect within the parliament to encourage younger people to get involved in public life. I think we can do it better, and it starts with a more bipartisanship and positive attitude and leadership in these key policy areas. Fortunately for me I have a portfolio which invites bipartisanship. The Veterans’ Affairs Portfolio and Defence Personnel portfolio invite a bipartisan approach. I will take my own advice about contagious attitude and my message is quite simple. I’m determined to put veterans first. I’m determined to put veterans’ families first as we work in a constructive way and a positive way to deal with the challenges that many of our veterans face. I’m already comforted, I guess, from my few short months in the role by the direction we’re taking as a department, recognising there is more for us to do.
In this year’s budget the government committed in excess of $11 billion to provide the essential services that our veterans rely on. Across Australia, we provide support for 288,000 veterans and their families. It’s worth noting that there’s an additional $100 million in this year’s budget as the DVA continues its reform agenda, upgrading internal information technology systems, but also making sure we have faster and better service delivery to people when they need it. I think we’re heading in the right direction, but there is more work to be done, particularly around mental health and our support for ADF personal, the younger ADF personal as they transition to civilian life.
We know the best type of support is the economic independence that comes from securing a job. This is why we will continue to promote job opportunities with an additional $8 million from the Prime Minister’s Veterans’ Employment Program, with a focus on ensuring the business community understands the benefits of employing a veteran. This not about charity. Simply, employing a veteran is good for your business. They have transferable skills. They have a demonstrated work ethic. They have exhibited traits of teamwork, leadership, loyalty, patriotism. I want to emphasise – this is important – not everyone who leaves the Australian Defence Force has post-traumatic stress disorder.
In fact, quite the opposite. I make that point because veterans are coming up to me in the few short months in this role at roundtables and other functions and saying I got asked in a job interview, “do you have PTSD?” The vast majority of people who leave the Defence Force do so at a time of their own choosing and in good health. For those who don’t, it’s up to us to make sure we provide the support they need when they need it. We need to remember that employing a veteran is good for your business.
When it comes to mental health, we have listened to veterans and their families. It is a big issue throughout the country. Currently we provide, through DVA, free mental health care to anyone who has served one full day in the Australian Defence Force. We’re going to be extending that to all reservist who rendered disaster relief or have been injured during a training exercise.
Suicide is an issue that affects all members of the community. Sadly our veterans and military personnel are not immune. Tragically suicide remains the greatest cause of death for men aged 18-44. The DVA spends close to $200 million per year on supporting the mental health care needs of veterans. We can pay for mental health treatment regardless of the cause. We have strategies in place to support our veterans. I urge anyone listening today who may be struggling with mental health to make sure they reach out to the Veterans and Veterans’ Family Counselling Service for support.
We are now piloting trials, we’re listening to veterans and families and opportunities such as training assistance dogs for suitable veterans and innovative ways to assist veterans with their health. These are areas that I’m impressed the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is prepared to explore.
It is important to note the latest research on veterans and unemployment would indicate that in the first 10 months from Defence into civilian life the unemployment rate is about 8%. Which is obviously higher than the national average, but it is nowhere near the 30% figure which is quoted. So, this is not as good as it gets. I think we can do better. In a partnership approach with the community, with the business sector, and with industry, along with government agencies at all levels – and I mean government agencies at all levels – we can make sure more veterans make the transition into employment.
There is a focus on assisting that transition, in order of 5,500 to 6,000 veterans leave the Defence Force each year. The flip side of my portfolio responsibilities is the Minister for Defence Personnel. There is something unique about young Australians prepared to put on the uniform of the Navy, Army or Air Force and place themselves in harm’s way to protect our country and help others.
I have been fortunate not just in this role but in my previous roles as parliamentary secretary for Defence to see our personnel in action around the world. I see some of the members that I met on location throughout the world in that time. It’s been an extraordinary personal experience as a minister and a parliamentary secretary where I have been able to see the leadership, the teamwork and the training that’s been done here in Australia put into action. It is a rare privilege as a civilian to see it in action. I have been on patrol boats off Darwin, supply vessels off Pearl Harbour. I have had to fly in everything from a PC9 to a Globe Master, and I’ve been on the streets of Kabul in a Bushmaster after watching our troops train Afghan nationals. It’s been a rare privilege.
I have been overwhelmed by the sense of pride that our young men and women have in their job and the purpose – sense of purpose – they bring to the job they do. The ADF needs to keep on attracting the best possible talent that Australia has to offer. This is critical to delivering our obligations to the Australian community to keep them safe. I think Defence in many ways is a leader in the way it’s been able to take advantage of the diversity of the Australian population. We’ve seen significant improvements in female recruitment within the Defence Force, significant improvements in indigenous recruitment, and also those from culturally diverse backgrounds.
Defence is well on its way to achieving the target of 2. 7% of its workforce being Indigenous, and to help Defence achieve the target we have specific recruiting campaigns, which are targeted at getting young Indigenous people ready to take on recruitment training – sorry, basic training.
We’ve also been successful in Defence in recruiting more Indigenous-owned businesses or partly-owned Indigenous businesses to undertake work for the Defence Force. The future success of Defence and our nation’s security relies on Defence’s capacity to attract and retain the best possible talent available. I’m confident we’re moving in the right direction.
We want to get our share of the best and brightest young Australians and we need to demonstrate that we will look after them during and after their service. And to help test the approach we are working with our counterparts at the state and national level. In October I will be joined by my state and territory counterparts and our Five Eyes nation partners to discuss issues affecting the veteran community.
These events tie in with the extraordinarily important and extraordinarily inspirational Invictus Games. The Games use the power of sport to motivate recovery and generate a wider understanding of the sacrifices made by the men and women who serve their country. The Games also recognise the significant contribution that family and friends make in supporting our veterans. The attendance of the royal couple, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, will focus attention on the veterans, but also will provide an opportunity for us to highlight the work that still needs to be done.
Ladies and gentlemen, we should never forget the sacrifice that has been made for us by our serving men and women. More than two million Australian servicemen and women have served our nation since federation. Around 102,000 have paid the ultimate sacrifice. We commemorate that service at the Australian War Memorial. I recognise the Director, Dr Nelson, who is here today. It’s not about glorifying war. It is about respecting and honouring the memory of our fallen. It is also about supporting our current and future veterans and their families. I said earlier the level of bipartisanship in this area of government business is something we can be proud of as a nation.
In the time I have left here I want to reflect on my own party and its role in shaping the future of regional Australia. The Nationals have been written off probably by every person on this table in front of me but certainly they have been written off for decades. But we’ve just been through one of the most successful growth periods in the party’s history under Warren Truss and under Barnaby Joyce. We’ve grown our numbers since the 2007 election and we are well placed to win new seats.
You don’t just win seats in parliament and put them on a mantelpiece and forget about them. You need to use your position within government to leverage results. I think the Nationals have a proven track record of shaping policies and influencing outcomes that way. We’ve delivered or are in the process of delivering during these terms of government the Melbourne-Brisbane inland rail. It’s been talked about for 100 years.
We have finally started the Bruce highway, the Pacific Highway duplication, by 2020 full duplication between Melbourne and Brisbane. We have seen improved mobile phone links, the rollout of the NBN, and are also seeing a better deal for regional students and improved regional health training opportunities.
As a party – I have said this before – the Nationals are much more than blokes in big hats. We need to demonstrate that by actively working to broaden our base and to win more seats in some of our larger regional centres. We should be aiming to win those seats to broaden our political influence and be a stronger political fighting force for all regional Australians. Farmers will always be a core part of the Nationals brand. We actually have more small business owners, health workers, teachers, miners, and tourism industry staff living in our electorates. Getting a better deal for them, focusing on issues that impact on their lives is critical to their success and our ability to deliver for rural and regional people. I know that others will have a different view.
I see the Nationals as a party strongly linked by geography. It’s not just ideology. We need to be a broad enough church to accept differences of opinions on social issues, to make sure we’re the natural choice of all voters who live outside our capital cities, because we are the only party that is completely focused on their issues. If we lock ourselves into the old left versus right debate, we are going to miss the opportunity to win more seats and deliver more for regional Australians.
The fact that 15 out of 16 National Party electorates voted yes for same-sex marriage is a message that we would be foolish to ignore. Regional communities are constantly changing. They are far more diverse and far more tolerant of differences than perhaps many people expect. Our people are also the great environmentalists. They are the ones who are joining Land Care, doing pest control, weed reduction, doing work to protect threatened species, the ones getting their hands dirty.
Our people also tend to be older. They tend to be the lowest income earners in our nation. So, tax relief, pensions, the cost of education and health services, the cost of energy matters to them more than most. One of the key reasons – I get this asked of me quite a bit – why I helped Bridget Mckenzie to become deputy leader was her track record. Her focus on health and education, her capacity to appeal to younger voters. She didn’t get her job just because she was a woman. But it certainly helps to balance the leadership team and gives us a better product to take to the voters. On that note, as Nationals, we have been pretty good at getting women into senior roles within the organisational wing of our party and in state parliament. We have a long way to go in the Federal Parliament.
We’ve formed a working group which will report back to the party room on the issue. I can’t pre-empt what the findings might be, but – I don’t expect it will recommend quotas – likely to propose practical steps we can take to nurture female talent in our party and help women secure preselection in winnable seats.
We do have some barriers at the grassroots level. I’m happy to expand on that later. But it’s proven that regional voters will support female candidates when they get the chance. Another step we need to take to diversify and to broaden our base to all regional voters. If there is one thing I’ve learnt in the past 10 years it’s the fact there is always more to be done. This is not as good as it gets for the Nationals or for regional Australia. We need to grow our party. We need to help grow resilient and sustainable regional communities. I say now that regional Australians don’t need a hand-out from government. But we do need governments with long-term vision and a willingness to work with our local leadership to deliver new opportunities.
We need policy certainty around our existing jobs, as well as a willingness to invest for new job opportunities in regional areas. Connectivity – I wish there was a better word – is critical for our regional areas. We need long-term commitments to rail, road connectivity, sea ports, airports and the telecommunication connectivity that comes with black spot improvements and NBN rollout. We understand that good infrastructure investment decisions can change and save lives. I can change lives by improving productivity, getting products to market and getting people home sooner, creating jobs during the construction phase. It will save lives – one of my great passions when I was Minister for Infrastructure and Road Safety. I don’t accept that 1,200 Australians have to die every year on our roads. That is not as good as it gets.
The more we invest in our key highway routes, the arterial routes, the small intersections where crashes occur, the more we will save lives. A disproportionate number of people who are killed on our roads are killed on our regional roads. I know that the Nationals’ growing numbers – we can have more influence, more political influence on behalf of regional people. As much as possible we need the take the funding commitments outside the vagaries of the political cycle and provide greater transparency and long-term funding, partnership funding with other levels of government, to leverage maximum value for the Australian taxpayers. The building fund – Building Better Regions Fund – is one I would single out as requiring a long-term funding commitment. The fund is currently funded on a year-to-year basis budget cycle to budget cycle and it very much is exposed to changes in government. We need to lock in a bipartisan program of investment in regional communities.
The economy is one area where there is massive opportunities. We are seeing growth in tourism. 1.2 million Chinese are visiting Australia on an annual basis. We are in danger of missing out on that boom in our regional communities. Investing in better transport links helps reduce the distance for country people, but we need to see investment in the tourism product. We have extraordinary natural assets. I bet every person here in this room has visited a regional community in recent times because of the attractions, whether it is lakes, forests, beaches. But the public infrastructure is mostly poor. Investing in infrastructure will mean more guests also want to experience everything that regional Australia has to offer.
It helps create more jobs. Why does creating jobs matter? Well, retrofitting infrastructure in our cities to cope with population growth is expensive. It is much more affordable to support growth in our rural and regional towns. Many young people don’t want to leave regional Australia. They do it for economic reasons or to access extra training, which brings me to one of the main reasons I got into parliament – that’s education. Does anyone believe city kids are smarter than country kids? It remains a great frustration that students from regional areas achieve lower areas of education than city cousins. We have taken some action to reduce some barriers. That is ongoing work. In 10 years’ time no country kid will have to go to the city to attend university unless they want to. If we get the telecommunications right, they won’t have to move.
In the meantime, we have to build the aspiration, reduce the economic barrier. Again, that comes down to attitude. A challenge for us, for me personally, to speak more positively about our communities and the opportunities that they can offer. We can hardly expect a young person to want to take on the family farm or to get involved in the family small business if all they ever hear from us is regional towns are dying. We have to inject a positive attitude among our young people.
I was asked recently – you get these questions when you have 10 years in the parliament. I was asked: ‘If I could change one thing in my electorate, what would it be?’ Given I love Gippsland and I promote it at every opportunity – you’re all welcome to visit any time you like – what would I change? I said simply I would like to make everyone think more positively about the future of our region. It reminds me of Fiona Nash who made similar comments about 18 months ago when she addressed the Press Club and she put the same challenge out to the media.
Why is it we only see major coverage of regional towns when we’re on fire, got a flood, drought, some form of pestilence, major crime or perhaps a crash? I invite you to visit Gippsland. I’m happy to be there, meet you there, and introduce you to positive people doing amazing things. Regional Australia’s responsible for more than 60% of our exports. It generates the energy that our cities need, supplies the water that sustains life.
We already make an enormous contribution to the wealth of our nation. With more strategic and long-term government investment in infrastructure and critical services, regional Australia can grow. With our positive attitude – contagious positive attitude – I think we can achieve anything. We have a rich and proud history in regional Australia. But we also have a great future to look forward to. Quite simply – this is not as good as it gets. Thank you.
SABRA LANE:
Thank you for the speech. Lots of little meaty bits in it. As veterans’ minister, you have been joining consultations around the country, meeting veterans, their families, talking about what things the department does well and what it doesn’t do so well. What have you learnt in those consultations? What one big thing would you like to bring about change or at least get the mechanics underway of change to help those people?
DARREN CHESTER:
A great question. Probably not a one big thing. We are fortunate today actually to be joined by people from my department who I am working closely with. Our real focus at the moment is on speeding up the process by which anyone who makes a claim to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs will get an answer. For example, we believe that waiting weeks and potentially months is actually exacerbating a problem that a veteran may be experiencing. In terms of a person presenting with a concern around a mental health issue, they will get support straight away now. We’ve made a massive improvement in that regard. In terms of anyone who presents with a mental health issue, they don’t need to prove it can be related to Defence Force service.
I have heard stories where people have spoken to me about how they loved their service, but something occurred outside the military which resulted in them having quite severe mental health concerns. We can help them. I think that’s one of the great areas where I’m seeing progress. I have a thirst for more progress – on a level of urgency around supporting people when they come to us with concerns. The challenge for all of us who haven’t served is to try and walk a mile in the shoes or the boots of those who have served and to get an appreciation of what they may or may not have gone through.
It is about empathy, understanding the urgency when someone comes to us, and also making sure we extend beyond the person in front of us – to reach back, beyond that, to reach to their family. Their family is the best support they will often get. A deeply personal portfolio. It isn’t like others where you just talk zero on balance sheets. It is personal. If we make a mistake, the consequences can be tragic. It is an interesting question you ask. There is no single answer – often very connected.
SABRA LANE
Andrew Greene.
ANDREW GREENE:
Minister, Andrew Greene from the ABC. Thank you for your speech. I have to say when I heard the title I was tempted to ask if another former journalist is as good as it gets for the National Party? Or will Michael McCormack make do! If I can take your mind to the summit yesterday in Singapore, one of the things to emerge was an agreement between North Korea and America to recover missing war dead, which total in the thousands for the US. Australia has 43 personnel still listed as missing from the Korean War, some are thought to be perhaps in Hawaii, some on the Korean peninsula. Will the agreement from Singapore have ramifications for Australia? Will you be making representations perhaps through the US to see whether efforts can be made in that regard? Thanks.
DARREN CHESTER:
First of all, can I say having experienced a rededication of war dead on the Western front recently, it is an extraordinarily moving experience and it gives closure to the families involved. They now have a name to put on the headstone. It is a very important piece of work we do in that commemorative space, if you like, and through our work with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In terms of what occurred yesterday in Singapore, I think the whole world is trying to work its way through what occurred and what it means in the longer term. Let’s be blunt. I was heartened to see the issue of missing-in-action personnel included among the four points. I think it gives some hope. It is a step in the right direction, but it’s no reason for us to think it’s going to be easy from here on in it is complex and difficult work in terms of dealing with the remains of people who may have been buried now for the best part of, what, 60-odd years.
We are pleased to see that North Korea has committed to recovering the missing-in-action remains. It is important for the families and friends of those who are missing. We recognise the 43 service personal missing in action in Korea. We have made a representation to north Korea in the past and will continue to do so. I think it is a question of let’s not get too far ahead, but it is cause for hope.

SABRA LANE:
David Speers.

DAVID SPEERS:
Thank you for your speech. Thank you for your kind remarks earlier. I note you still have run more marathons than I probably will. Can I take your comments about the need to broaden your appeal in regional Australia, particularly on social issues. Can I invite you expand a bit on that. What are you talking about? Is it school funding, other social issues like refugees, is it live animal exports? Where does the National Party need to broaden its social appeal?

DARREN CHESTER:
Having given you an honourable mention, I thought I might get an easier question! At the time when I expressed my support for same-sex marriage, it became a significant story locally. There were plots to having me deselected. I’d already been pre-selected. To me, it seemed like an unusual response when I recognised that within my community the vast majority of people were at least open to the idea of having a vote on the issue.
If someone like me, who’s lived in regional Australia for the best part of my 50 years, who’s passionate about regional Australia, who is determined to achieve great things for regional Australia could somehow not be a candidate for the Nationals, that would be strange. The point I’m making is that regional Australia has changed. We need to acknowledge that. We need to stay true to our core values, but recognise there are going to be issues within our party room where different members of parliament will have a different view and that’s ok. It is ok on some of the issues to have a different point of view, and the way you report it should reflect that as well. It’s not Chester versus ex-other members of parliament, just a question of having a difference of opinion and arguing the case in the party room.
It isn’t going to be one particular issue I can point to. It is just I think regional Australia is far more diverse and perhaps far more accepting of that diversity now than it was even 10 years ago when I  moved to regional communities. All I see is people who are tolerant, passionate about their community, who want to achieve good things, but they are also more accepting than they perhaps used to be.
SABRA LANE:
Joe Kelly.
JOE KELLY:
Joe Kelly from the Australian. Just sticking on this theme about broadening the appeal of the Nats or ensuring you guys are seen as more than blokes in big hats, as you put it, given that there’s just been a recent leadership challenge in the party, the new agriculture minister, David Littleproud, recognised climate change in his discussions with his state counterparts. I was curious about what your own position was on climate change. Do you think that the Nationals have been too conservative on that issue in the past? Do you accept it as real and as something that exists? Is the Nationals openly accepting this and doing more on that front something that will help broaden the appeal of the party as you’ve suggested in your speech today?
DARREN CHESTER:
Thanks, Joe. I’ve lost track of the number of questions in there. I will try – I’ll have a go and you tell me if I’m getting close. The regional people that I deal with the most are the ultimate pragmatists and practical people. I talked about that in terms of environmental issues. They recognise that seasons are changing, the climate variability is a fact of life, and they are adopting all the time in terms of whether you call it climate change, they don’t care. They are just dealing with it and still trying to make a quid from the land. They are the kind of people I talk to the most around the issues. On the flip side, is the issue around emissions and what restrictions you put on emissions in Australia.? I have the La Trobe Valley coal-fired power stations in my electorate. You ask anyone in Victoria when they turn their lights on do they expect lights to come on, the fridge to work, they will say yes. The reliability from the base load power of coal is something they appreciate. I think we’ve got to walk as well as talk the language. We have to actually demonstrate that we’re committed to achieving reductions in emissions, which we are in our policy, the commitment being made on the Paris agreement, but not getting too far ahead from the rest of the world. You don’t want to mug the Australian economy and place extra costs on our manufacturing sector, on our dairy industry, a high user of energy, don’t want to mug the economy to be seen as the leading light on emissions reduction.
In terms of the people I meet with, the conversations I have in my community, Gippsland, there is absolute recognition that we need to do our share, reduce the emissions will be good for the environment. Whether it is going to change the temperature of the planet, people are skeptical, given Australia’s total emissions is less than 2%. They are willing to do their share. They also want to know their quality of life, associated with that base load reliable power provided through the La Trobe Valley power stations is going to continue. It is an issue which I found difficult, having typecast as either for or against, when it is complex. The interaction between how much emissions you have from generating electricity, compared to how many emissions you have from the transport sector, and whether you measure your emissions on a per capita basis adds to the complexity.
The reality of my community is most people think we need to do something to do our share, to make our contribution to reducing emissions, but they don’t want to see us mugging the economy and sacrificing their jobs in the process. Did I answer most of your questions?

JOE KELLY:
Do you believe in climate change?

DARREN CHESTER:
I find the concept of belief a bit of a strange one around this issue. I accept that the climate is changing. Perhaps always changing. Do I know or really appreciate how much there’s due to mankind? No, I don’t know. I don’t think the general public is completely convinced it is all because of mankind when they see a volcano erupting or other natural activity. They say how many emissions was that compared to me driving my V8 ute, I don’t know.

SABRA LANE:
You were just saying in your electorate you’ve been recently speaking with a farmer about rainfall and he had noted something quite strange to you.

DARREN CHESTER:
This year, Gippsland, much like Central New South Wales and Western Queensland, there’s a belt running up through the middle and west of the divide. It is quite a rainfall deficiency in east Gippsland, which has probably the most reliable rainfall in the nation. It’s been one of the worst circumstances individual farmers have experienced in his 90 years on the family farm. For them, it is a shock. They have had high reliability of rainfall, but then in the last couple of weeks they haven’t had a good drop of rain. They get an east coast low, the dams fill up, the smiles come on their faces and things are looking better again. Right now they have moved some stock off the land. It’s very unusual for us in Gippsland to move stock to New South Wales. That is the seasonal variability we talked about a moment ago.

The drought conditions, which the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Agriculture Minister were out talking to people – more importantly listening to people about – last week is something we deal with on a daily basis in regional communities. Seasonal variability is something we deal with all the time. What support the government provides is important. But also what we do as communities to support our mates in trouble is also very important.

We sometimes get this wrong. That we look to the government for support, when maybe we should be looking to our neighbours for support. In DVA – the Department of Veterans’ Affairs – there is a community responsibility as well to support our veterans. It’s not just what we can do as a government. In a drought situation – it eats away at people’s hope – it is important we get our communities together, that what support we provide is focused on keeping people in those communities. They don’t have to move away unless they want to, and they see a long-term future for themselves. They see hope for the future. That is why conditions of drought are perhaps ever more desperate than a bushfire. It eats away at your hope over a period of time. And, again, if people are struggling, they should seek help. There are numbers you can call to get help.

JON MILLARD:
My question involves PTSD. One expects it through the history of warfare. 100 years ago it was called shell shock, or whatever. What concerns me is that it is prevalent in peace time and in this country. Some people have suggested it could have been due to things like a toxic culture in the ADF or possibly other factors. I know you have only been in the portfolio for three months, but do you think this something that should be addressed and if so in what way?

DARREN CHESTER:
It’s a terrific question. We need to consider when we have this conversation that there’s been quite a high operational focus in the ADF over more than a decade now. That would suggest to us, judging by previous conflicts that this is a potential for more occurrences of PTSD coming our way down the track. This isn’t a simple equation of ‘you go to a battlefront or be involved in a conflict, and in three to six months’ time you will present with mental health concerns’. It could be something that presents a year later, five years later, 10 years later. So we need to make sure that support we provide through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs recognises that and we keep reaching out and touching people and their families in terms of not letting them be strangers to us.

One of the problems we’ve had in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is until recently we didn’t necessarily have transitioning Defence Force members register with us. So they could leave the Defence Force, and go off and take on a new career and not be known to DVA for many years, if at all. Now the requirement that anyone transitioning out of the ADF transitions with full paperwork intact – so we know who they are – is a good start.

In terms of the issue about the prevalence of PTSD or mental health concerns – our research is showing us that while people are in the Defence Force, the incidents of mental health issues is lower than the background of the general population. So, whether it’s the scaffolding, the support around them while they are serving, whether that is helping them to have good mental health, we know that during that time of service or even if they are in active reserves, we know they have a lower instance of mental health concerns. We’re finding for people who transition out there is a higher level of mental health concerns than the background level in the Australian population. So, again, that is a signal that we need to support people as they transition out.

If they’ve not left on good terms, for whatever reason, whether they have had a physical injury or mental health injury or separated because they simply weren’t right for the ADF, those people are more likely to require additional support and assistance. We need to target our resources in a way that touches the people most likely to need support into the future.

MICHAEL KEATING:
I’d like to touch on the concept in your speech moving veterans into work. Can you elaborate more on the programs that you do have moving veterans into work? You’ve said it’s not quite as good as it gets. What are you going to do and what are your ideas for those 8% who are not finding work?

DARREN CHESTER:
To begin with, when I say it isn’t as good as it gets, I don’t think it will ever be as good as it gets in this area. It’s one of those areas that will require constant improvement.

The Prime Minister’s Veteran’s Employment Program was a fantastic initiative, because it puts the issue of veterans’ employment right at the centre of government. Earlier this year we had the veteran’s employment awards – the Prime Minister’s awards – where we celebrated the success of companies that were reaching out to the defence community and saying, ‘have we got a job for you?’ and linking the two together.

Where we can get better is the transferability of skills: making sure that our Defence personnel understand how their skills can transfer to civilian life and vice versa; making sure there is good understanding of what this job in Defence looks like in a civilian environment; or what this job in Defence could transfer into with a bit of extra training into civilian life. This is an area we are working on and we can do even more.

Defence itself is doing a lot more at the transition stage. Well before someone leaves the military when they flag their intention to get out, there is now more support within Defence to assist them to make that transition.

In terms of corporate Australia and the industry itself, understanding the nature of the Defence Force, understanding what these people can offer to their business – it is good for your business. I mean that. It isn’t about employing a veteran because they are a charity case. You employ them because they will bring skills to help you make more money. They are great team leaders. It might be the discipline and work ethic. It might be the skills they have learnt through either further studies in the Defence Force or through being deployed. These are motivated, talented individuals who can bring a culture – positive culture – to the corporate world. That’s about understanding and I think making the bridge better and more robust between Defence and civilian life and the corporate sector.

SABRA LANE:
Tim Shaw.

TIM SHAW:
Tim Shaw Radio 2CC Canberra. Thank you very much for your address and it’s interesting to note that a 21-year-old Liz Cossons was a recruit back in 1979. And after 31 years in the Defence Force to reach the rank she has and now to be your Secretary. I’d be interested to know in your discussions with the Secretary about the changes in recruitment since 1979, and is it the best, is it the brightest or is it quotas we should be looking for in terms of service in the ADF? And, just briefly on veterans- a few thousand veterans, their families watching today about the kinds of support and help you can provide, so recruits first, veterans second.

DARREN CHESTER:
In terms of recruits, one of our challenges is around STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The job is changing. And will continue to change in terms of the skill set that we’re going to want from our young recruits. You will see a lot of focus in defence recruitment ads around what are you going to bring? What will you bring?

It is appealing to people on an emotional level first. Once you get them interested, underpinning that it has to be this is what we can do for you. The training you will receive, the experience you’re going to get. A lot of people who join Defence want to test their skills, want be deployed, they want to see – am I up to it? It is a test for them as well.

In terms of recruitment, focus on STEM. You mentioned quotas – it isn’t a question of quotas when it comes to our efforts to attract more women and indigenous people and culturally diverse backgrounds. It is a question of making sure our Defence Force reflects the community it serves. Our society has changed. More women are in operational roles and have proven themselves in senior roles. That will continue to be the case if we can put a proposition to them that appeals to them. With an ageing population, one of our challenges is going to be the young people coming through the education system will have more choices. We have to make sure we are appealing.

Putting a proposition to women that demonstrates it is a good work environment, you can get – have a greater career, you won’t be held back because you’re a woman is a good start. We have great examples of that. In terms of indigenous Indigenous people, Defence doesn’t give enough credit for the work it is doing. The outreach work they have done, particularly in Northern Queensland with the regional force surveillance unit, is something that impressive.

They are doing work where we have veterans on the ground in Cape York going out to communities, teaching young aboriginal Aboriginal people about respect and they have seen reductions in domestic violence, and they have seen huge increases in recruitment in the Defence Force these are veterans doing this work off their own back. They are asking me to come and help me out. I’m inclined to try to help them out in that regard.

CATHERINE MURPHY:
Thanks, first, for daring to suggest that politics can become more pathological or become less! I should say! Please keep saying that! I do want to narrow you down slightly, though, on your answer to Joe Kelly’s question climate change. We’ve established your own view now. You sort of went there, but not really. Do you accept that emissions reduction has to occur in sectors of the economy outside electricity? For example, in transport and agriculture, which is the next big debate in this issue as you well know? Do you accept that that has to happen?

Also, in the interview I did with your colleague David Littleproud last week, in which he made some of the suggestions that have been referenced, he said to me about renewables with a similar qualification. He’s got two super critical coal plants in his electorate, as well as the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere, and a big solar thermal operation as well. He said to me that he’s excited by the transition that’s occurring too renewable energy at the moment with the technology. Excited was the word he used. Fiona Simpson later shared the article and said the sentiments were consistent with the feeling inning a cultural communities in Australia. Is she right?

DARREN CHESTER:
Is Fiona right? I was expecting you to go longer. Sorry. Couple of points. As I drive through my electorate I have what, 23 of Australia’s dairy production occurs in Gippsland. I am seeing more installation of solar panels on dairy sheds. It is a good business proposition. The farmer recognising the cost of electricity is going up, and generating own electricity is a sustainable way to sustain business and compete offshore. There is certainly investment going on among the agriculture sector in renewable technology. That is a good thing. The question whether Fiona is right – whether all farmers feel the same way – all farmers don’t feel the same way about anything. I mean, it is a diverse group.

They have strong opinions on a whole range of areas, depends whether you are talking to a beef farmer, sheep farmer, dairy farmer. Is there a collective view? – no. There wouldn’t be.
Certainly if there was – it can be put to them as a proposition that this will reduce cost – that will get them excited. They are operating in a competitive environment around the world.
I think I’ve answered the question?

CATHERINE MURPHY:
Specifically emissions – well, that we have to reduce emissions in agriculture, transport and other sectors of the economy.

DARREN CHESTER:
Sorry I forgot that point. There is no question with more efficient vehicles you will see a reduction, potential for reduction of emissions. The other benefit is you will see greater investment in safety technology. So reduction in road trauma. A benefit in itself is to have a newer, more efficient vehicle.

In terms reducing agricultural emissions themselves – if we’re going to go down the pathway of measuring emissions from animals, I think you’ll find they will push back. In terms of the capacity to milk cows, run abattoirs, you will get support.

NICK STEWART:
Thank you very much for a terrific speech. We’ve in this room – as you’ve mentioned – the first female major-general in the Australian army. You’ve also talked about the way in which you’ve sought to reach out to indigenous Australians. There’s also what I believe is the first or one of the first Australian multicultural descendant brigadiers in this room. To what extent are you reaching out and how can you, as Defence Personnel Minister, make sure you get the entire benefit of Australia? I realise as a white Australian journalist, I’m not coming from a particularly good point of view. But how can we reach out and get a lot of – most Australians actually wanting to participate in the military?

DARREN CHESTER:
I think that’s a terrific question. Multiple aspects to it. If I was going to come down to one thing we could do well to encourage more women, more indigenous people, more culturally diverse people in the Defence Force is to show them people like them succeeding in the Defence Force already. So the alumni. The people who have already had a career and excelled.  [inaudible] would be embarrassed for being announced publicly. Liz less so, because I do it all the time. Demonstrating the Defence Force alumni who had great careers, gone out and encouraged others in their community to think about a Defence Force career. That would be the one positive thing. The culture within our Defence Force has to be embracing of the differences. When I have the opportunities I talked about before, to be on ships, aircraft, bushmasters, I have seen different coloured faces, different cultural backgrounds, represented in those operating environments. We are getting better at it and in some ways we are probably ahead of some aspects of the corporate world.

ANDREW GREENE:
I will take you to where you began your speech with the allegations regarding Special Forces. You said they were serious allegations that would be fully investigated. Are you confident that anything that comes from the ADF that’s referred for further investigation will properly be done so given that a lot of these events happened up to a decade ago or more? And in a foreign country that it may be difficult to get answers from?

DARREN CHESTER:
Thank you. I make the first point. Australians can be rightly proud of the service of our men and women in Afghanistan in reducing the oppression of the Taliban and getting some more normal patterns of life occurring in that troubled country. Now, in terms of the allegations, it is difficult for me to talk much on that while the inspector-general of the ADF is continuing to do his work. He was asked to do that by the Defence Force, not an order of government. It was to do the work in response to rumours and allegations that have been made over a period of time.

Now, I think it is very important we allow him to do his job for operational needs, but also because the inquiry is ongoing – witnesses are still talking – it is important I don’t pre-empt the outcomes. We are taking it seriously. We are proud of our servicemen and women and also proud of the values of the Australian Defence Force, which men and women go out to uphold. If breaches have occurred, they will be taken seriously.

SABRA LANE:
I was wrong about one question. Your speech was broad ranging and just bouncing off the title, this is as good as it gets, is this as good as it gets for you? (laughter) Do you harbour ambitions to be leader?

DARREN CHESTER:
What a great question! (laughter) Sabra, I put it to you like this – there are people who can be leaders from the front, and people who can lead from behind. In some ways I lead from behind on the issue of same-sex marriage. I think on the issue of Julia Gillard and the way she was treated, I led from behind. In terms of encouraging Bridget Mckenzie to run for deputy leadership – not that she needed much encouragement – I led from behind. In pushing Michael McCormack forward, I led from behind. There are different styles of leadership. I’m someone who harbours ambition to do a great job for the people of Gippsland. I’m blessed to be in the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio, it’s one of those great opportunities in life where you get to make a difference. It is an honour, a privilege, but an awesome responsibility. I know we can do better. I have great people who know they can do better. I’m not in the business of forecasting anything down the track.

My mate, Michael McCormack, would be happy to hear me say that I give him my full support and have always been open with Michael. I will share some stories on another occasion. We are very close mates. He has one huge fault – he barracks for Hawthorn!
He is doing a magnificent job, particularly given he took on the job in difficult circumstances. He had to learn the portfolio at the same time as taking on the leadership. He had a massive learning curve. I think he is nailing it and doing a great job.

SABRA LANE:
Everybody please join me in thanking the Minister.

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