By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
Veterans were the last thing on Barnaby Joyce’s mind when he sacked Veterans’ Affairs’ Minister Darren Chester.
Having re-emerged as Nationals leader – and deputy prime minister – Joyce recast his frontbench and reshaped the Morrison ministry in the process. More interested in National party power plays than the national interest Joyce unblushingly rewarded his supporters, which did not include Chester. It was a naked exercise of power and vengeance.
Chester not only lost the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio, he was booted from the ministry altogether. It’s easy to see why Chester would not appeal to Joyce: he is scandal-free, respected on both sides of the political divide, a moderate in a party of ideological dinosaurs and generally acknowledged to be one of the Nationals’ few bright talents.
It says everything about the tin-eared Morrison government that Chester’s place on the Nationals frontbench should be taken by disgraced Bridget McKenzie, who returns to Cabinet as Minister for Regionalisation (whatever that is), Regional Communications and Regional Education.
McKenzie was forced to resign over the egregious sports rort affair in February last year. In a government notorious for not enforcing even the most rudimentary standards of ministerial conduct and accountability, McKenzie is the only Morrison government minister to be held to account for wrongdoing, yet here she is back in Cabinet 18 months after her fall from grace.
McKenzie’s return to the executive should trouble Prime Minister Scott Morrison, but it probably doesn’t. Likewise, Chester’s demise should concern Morrison, coming as it does at such a critical time in veterans’ affairs. If it does, Morrison’s not letting on.
The government is in the process of setting the terms of reference for the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide; it seems hardly the time to be changing ministers, particularly when that change has occurred not for reasons of competence but out of sheer political bloodlust.
Continuity is not an end in itself, but Chester held the Veterans’ Affairs ministry for three years. That experience – and a genuine affinity with and respect for veterans – now counts for naught.
To be sure, there has been much to criticise in Chester, chief among them his deafness to calls by the veteran community for a royal commission into veteran suicides. Perhaps he was railroaded into opposing a royal commission by Morrison who was implacably opposed to such an inquiry until his hand was forced by a threatened backbench revolt. If Chester argued for a royal commission behind the scenes we don’t know about it; we may have to wait for his memoir for such a revelation.
Outpouring of support
Instead, Chester was reduced to spruiking Morrison’s flawed and poorly conceived National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention. Chester was never convincing in his flailing attempts to explain why a quasi-royal commission (as the government argued) was better than the real thing.
When the royal commission was finally announced, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and Chester as minister, were given a primary role in setting the terms of reference. Given that DVA will almost certainly feature prominently in the deliberations of the royal commission, and not in a flattering light, such involvement by Chester and his department was inherently conflicted.
That said, there is arguably no minister in the Morrison government with deeper reach into the veteran community.
One noticeable – and perhaps surprising – aspect of Chester’s demotion was an outpouring of support on social media, with tributes to the fallen minister’s decency, competence and respect for veterans.
Rewarding Chester’s successor Andrew Gee – a Joyce supporter with no discernible links to the veteran community – and consigning Chester to the backbench comes with no dividends for veterans. It is extremely doubtful that Joyce asked himself ‘What’s best for veterans?’ when pondering the fate of Chester.
Queensland Nationals senator Susan McDonald has sought to rationalise Chester’s demise by telling the ABC: "Unfortunately, not everybody gets to be included in these appointments. Politics is a tough game.”
Australians must be heartily sick of being told that “politics is a tough game” as an all-purpose excuse for bad government.
The sacking of Chester, without regard for his competence in the job or the best interests of the veteran community, particularly with a royal commission in the offing, encapsulates everything that is wrong with Barnaby Joyce and the Morrison government.
The Morrison government has treated the veteran community with contempt; there is no other way to interpret the sacking of Darren Chester.
The next time Morrison tearfully declares his love for veterans and serving members of the Australian Defence Force we should recall the equanimity with which he has accepted Chester being beetrooted by the Beetrooter.
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.