SUBJECTS: 75th Anniversary of Australian Peacekeeping, Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, Republic Debate

KIERAN GILBERT: Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Matt Keogh. Thanks for your time. It is a significant anniversary, isn’t it – since 1947 more than 66,000 Australians have served as peacekeepers.

MATT KEOGH: It’s a huge effort that many Australians aren’t aware of. We know about our sort of active army and navy and air force deployments through wars and other operations, but we don’t often think about hour peacekeeping operations. And Australia was the first country to be involved, and we’ve had so many – we’ve had people in operations every year since 1947. We currently have people in Sudan, Sinai, the Middle East, Darfur engaged in active peacekeeping operations right now. And they’re not just Defence personnel; they’re Australian Federal Police, state police services that have been involved, civilian public sector workers and others that have been engaged in these operations over the 75 years. And it is important we say thank you to them for their service, commemorate those that lost their lives and thank the families of those that have supported those people that have served as well.

KIERAN GILBERT: Because it’s not just the – I mean, well, 16 of our service people have died across the decades in peacekeeping operations. But then there are others. As the Secretary of the Department, I spoke to her – that interview is coming up a bit later – but she’s a veteran herself and she want to point out that it’s not just those that died in – on active duty but came home with injuries and mental torment and others that have died subsequently.

MATT KEOGH: Yeah, unfortunately like so many of the operations we’re involved in, whether they’re normal traditional Defence operations or peacekeeping operations, we do lose far too many people who take their own lives as a consequence of what they’ve experienced on operations, and peacekeeping just like that as well. And those families are left behind having to struggle with that. And it’s important that we acknowledge that and we acknowledge those families for the sacrifice that they’ve had to make in going through that as well.

KIERAN GILBERT: And today at the service here in Canberra what was the turnout like? Were there families of those veterans?

MATT KEOGH: It was an amazing service today. We had a huge turnout. We had the families of several of the people that died in operations. We had families of those that have subsequently taken their own lives as a consequence of what they experienced on operations. But so many people from across our Defence Force, our police services, federal and state, from public sector agencies that have put their lives on the line often unarmed going into these peacekeeping operations to look after other people in a service to humanity. And it was great to see them all coming out today to acknowledge their own service and the service of their comrades as part of that.

KIERAN GILBERT: And, as you pointed out in your speech and again in our discussion already, it isn’t just – it’s not just military veterans, is it? We’re talking about from across services and from the federal police as well over many years. We saw Reece Kershaw, the commissioner, give that address there as well.

MATT KEOGH: And Reece is a peacekeeping person. He served as part of the police. He’s done that, as many of our police forces have, and public servants, whether it’s DFAT, Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Electoral Commission, so many others and civilians that have contributed through humanitarian response as part of our peacekeeping operations as well. And it’s important we don’t forget that because it’s not the thing we usually have front of mind in terms of Australia’s operations overseas. And so today is really important to remind all Australians about that.

KIERAN GILBERT: And you said it’s ongoing. Can you refresh our memories, where our service men and women are today?

MATT KEOGH: Yeah, absolutely. So we have people in the Middle East, we have them in Sinai and Egypt, in Sudan and Darfur doing that important work, you know, over various operations. Sometimes we’ve had a handful of people, sometimes we’ve had thousands of people. And it’s the – it is the unsung work of Australians, whether they’re in uniform or not as part of our peacekeeping obligation and service to world peace.

KIERAN GILBERT: And you said it’s been continuous basically for 75 years. And, sadly, the way that our world is it’s hard to see there’d be a time where peacekeepers won’t be needed.

MATT KEOGH: It is an unfortunate reality, Kieran, that whilst we’ve had people in these peacekeeping operations for every year of these 75 years, there’s not necessarily an end in sight to that. But I think the important thing to take out of that is in these last 75 years it’s the first time in human civilization where a global community have stood up and said it’s important that we send people, armed or unarmed, into harm’s way to make sure that we provide peace to our fellow humans.

KIERAN GILBERT: And what’s the situation like in terms of the response to the royal commission and boosting the support of veterans? Is it happening as soon as and as fast as you’d like it?

MATT KEOGH: Certainly we’d like to do everything we can to support our serving personnel, veterans and families as soon as possible. And I was speaking to some of the veterans today when I was down at the commemoration service about their experiences and how they would like to see government always do more. We’ve received the interim report from the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide just about a month ago now. And we are in the process of developing a formal response to each of the recommendations in that report and we should be providing that shortly.

KIERAN GILBERT: And do you feel that some substantial change can be made in this term of government?

MATT KEOGH: Well I think what’s good is some of the things that have been recommended by the royal commission are things that we already committed to at the election. So employing the 500 additional staff to go into DVA to deal with the backlog of claims which the royal commission was very concerned about, I think everyone’s been very concerned about. The need to improve systems internally in the way DVA does its claims processing, and we’re moving on with that. The need to improve access to information for loved ones of those that have taken their lives, whether that’s information from DVA or from Defence. Three to four recommendations deal with just that issue and we are already getting to work on dealing with those things.

So there’s significant work that still needs to happen, and we’re working our way through that at the moment. But we are confident given we’re already moving on some of the items that have been raised by the royal commission in its interim report.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. Well, we’ll be keeping a close eye on that. On one other issue before you go, my colleague, Andrew Clennell reporting today that the Assistant Minister for the Republic Matt Thistlethwaite was out looking to head a $1,250 a head fundraiser for the republican movement. The advertising was put out this week, and when Andrew raised this with the Minister it was pulled down. It seems at odds with the Prime Minister’s message that now is not the time to be talking or promoting a republic. What’s your read on that?

MATT KEOGH: Well, I have to say I wasn’t aware of that sequence of events at all, Kieran. And maybe those things have been pre-planned already and I’m not aware of the order at which those things were organised. But I think everyone is focused at the moment on the funeral that’s coming up at the beginning of next week and the commemoration and memorial service that will be held here in Canberra on Thursday next week as well.

KIERAN GILBERT: And in terms of the Prime Minister has reiterated that now is not the time to be discussing the republic, do you agree with him on that?

MATT KEOGH: I think certainly as we go through this period of funeral, the memorial service here in Canberra next week people want to be focused on a life well lived and a life of service of Her Majesty and the transition to King Charles III as the monarch. And the future of Australia’s constitutional arrangements can be left for another time.

KIERAN GILBERT: Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Matt Keogh, appreciate your time.

MATT KEOGH: Great to be with you, Kieran.


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