Chester’s appearance at Royal Commission

Federal Member for Gippsland Darren Chester. Photo: File

FEDERAL Member for Gippsland Darren Chester was repeatedly questioned at the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide in Townsville on Wednesday, with the former Coalition government pressed for not acting on the Productivity Commission’s 2019 recommendations to fix a backlog of compensation claims for more than two years.

The Royal Commission, which began in 2021, is examining systemic issues and common themes in past deaths-by-suicide of ADF members and veterans.

Mr Chester was Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel Minister from March 2018 until July 2021, when he was sacked by Barnaby Joyce, who took over from Michael McCormack as leader of the Nationals and Deputy Prime Minister.

During Mr Chester’s time in the portfolio the number of veterans’ claims before the Department of Veterans’ Affairs went from 12,000 to more than 57,000.

Counsel Assisting Mr Singleton told the commission three years after the report was handed to the government, no decision was made on three key recommendations, and asked Mr Chester if the government had “failed in its duty to veterans in respect of attending to these recommendations”.

Mr Chester disagreed with this assertion and attempted to explain why work had not progressed beyond his call for a “legislative roadmap” in May 2021, two months before the end of his time as minister.

“There have been, as I indicated, 35 of the 69 recommendations funded within the order of $386 million through the normal Budgetary process,” Mr Chester said.

Counsel Assisting, Peter Singleton, asked Mr Chester if the complex nature of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs claims system, and a huge backlog of claims, had caused errors, delays and a “significant mental health issues and suicidality” for some veterans.

“Mr Chester, I don’t think anyone is quarrelling that suicide is a complex issue and in any given case there usually will be multiple factors,” Mr Singleton said.

“But you would accept, would you not, that for some veterans the complexity of the system gives rise to stress and mental health issues, and sometimes even worse, as one factor in a complex?”

Mr Chester said he was unconvinced it could be directly linked to a high suicide rate among defence members and veterans, or the “only cause”, but said the system had created problems for veterans.

“Well, Mr Singleton, all I’m saying is I can’t point you to a case where I can say a single individual veteran went down a pathway of suicidality as a direct result of a complex system,” Mr Chester said.

“But I do agree with you entirely that having a system which is so complex and confusing to navigate can add to that anxiety and the stress. I just can’t point you to a case that I was aware of that it was a direct causal relationship, but I’m not pretending, by any stretch, that the system wasn’t part of the problem at least for some of our veterans.”

Asked about the number of veterans’ claims that had quadrupled, and almost quintupled, Mr Chester said the Department of Veterans’ Affairs had become a “victim of its own success in getting to know its veterans more, and more people were coming forward”.

“There was certainly a deliberate strategy by myself and the secretary to get to know who our veterans were,” Mr Chester said.

“We were worried that there were veterans in the community who weren’t receiving any help whatsoever. So the Veterans’ Recognition Package was part of that, encouraging veterans to come forward and register with DVA (Department of Veterans’ Affairs).”

Mr Chester said he believed there was a range of factors that led to the escalation in claims.

“If I was to have my time again, which none of us ever get to do, I think I should have put more effort to understanding what that forecasted demand would look like and if models were available to figure out what the volume might look like if you were successful in bringing more veterans forward,” he said.

Member for Calare Andrew Gee replaced Mr Chester in the role, serving as Minister until last month’s election.

Mr Gee told the commission on Tuesday the Morrison government had initially allocated “zero” funding in its March budget towards fixing the backlog of compensation claims by current and former defence members.

Mr Gee, who at the time threatened to resign unless $96 million was found to fix the problem, told the commission he stood by his claim the waiting times were “a national disgrace”.

Mr Gee also said there was a connection between processing claim delays and suicidality.

“Yeah, that’s my view,” he told the commission.

On his Facebook page on Thursday, Mr Chester said it was good to provide some input into the commission’s work.

“My main message was pretty simple: there’s a lot of work that has been done to support our veterans and their families but there’s also more for the government and community to do in partnership with ex-service organisations,” Mr Chester said.

“The vast majority of men and women who serve in the military will transition well to civilian life but some will require some extra help. As a grateful nation, we have obligations to support our serving personnel, veterans and their families.”

 

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