By Eamon Hale
It is with barely concealed bitterness that Darren Chester has been forced to end his time as Minister for Veterans’ Affairs as a consequence of the Nationals frontbench reshuffle carried out by the returned Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.
The politics surrounding Chester’s demise have been well covered. As a veteran, my interest is in reflecting on Chester’s legacy and how will he be remembered by those he represented.
As Veterans’ Affairs Minister he made a committed and conscious effort to maintain a positive, celebratory message. His Twitter account is full of happy faces, birthday commemorations and feel-good photos. This led to the nickname “Mr Happy Tweet”. And then of course was the familiar hashtag #LoveGippsland and the ever-present refrain of “Thank you for your service”, or in Twitter-speak, #TYFYS.
Indeed, it was with these two hashtags that he closed off his statement regarding the loss of his ministerial position.
There can be no doubt that Chester is a friend to veterans and the majority opinion, even from his critics, is that he is a really good bloke.
He was always enthusiastic about highlighting that “the majority of veterans will transition successfully to civilian life”. It was a noble and important message that emphasised that veterans have overwhelmingly positive experiences in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and are not all broken and damaged by their service.
Chester’s shining legacy will be the introduction of psychiatric assistance dogs for veterans experiencing PTSD.
A dog lover, he described the scheme as “one of my proudest achievements” and with good reason. It was a brilliant initiative that was life-changing and even life-saving in some cases. In two years 33 dogs have been introduced and 123 are currently in training. This fantastic initiative will do immense good.
Many, including notable veterans like Maj Gen (Ret) Gus McLachlan, will congratulate Darren Chester for his support and empathy for ex-serving ADF and serving members, but after three years of relentless positivity as Minister for Veterans’ Affairs many veterans believe that Chester’s overly positive representation never had any depth behind it, that it relied on those smiling faces to gloss over issues with the system.
When did Chester ever challenge the government and his department over veteran issues? When was Chester not in lockstep with the government on big issues such as the royal commission into veteran suicide or rehabilitation and compensation matters? The unfortunate answer is that it didn’t happen and veterans were becoming rightly frustrated with this lack of advocacy.
Julie Ann Finney, whose son David served in the Navy and took his own life, has been a prime driver in advocating for a royal commission into veteran suicide. She has been scathing of Chester’s performance as minister.
In every speech addressing veterans, Chester would recite his catchcry, “Thank you for your service”. The stated aim behind it was to remind those who hadn’t served of the sacrifice of those who had. This custom may have been well intentioned but it became divisive and often made the veterans in the audience uncomfortable. As one former serviceman said to me after meeting Chester at an event in Gippsland, “I hate it. I got paid every fortnight for my service. That American bullshit has no place here.”
Criticism of Chester’s performance as minister centres on this supposed superficiality; that he was big on sentiment but lacking in substance.
Chester introduced the Veterans’ Recognition Package and Veterans’ Covenant. It remains to be seen what genuine benefit this initiative will actually have on those who receive it. It offers a lapel pin and card to veterans, accompanying a voluntary initiative for businesses around Australia to offer discounts to those who have served.
How many veterans have found education, housing or employment benefits through their lapel pin and printed certificate? How many businesses have signed up to provide discounts? When compared to the British Armed Forces Covenant, it is a program found lacking.
The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide looms large for the new Veterans’ Affairs Minister, Andrew Gee. It will be a test of Gee’s mettle to see how he handles the plethora of related issues within the veteran community, the ADF and his own department.
It certainly won’t be an easy ride for the new minister and he should be encouraged to take a leaf out of Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s book in how to win over the veteran community.
Regardless of who is in this important ministry, they must be strong and they must support, in word and deed, the men and women who represent Australia and its defence force. Veterans deserve the respect of politicians and the nation, but this needs to be much more than Twitter hashtags and PR happy snaps.
#TYFYS Darren Chester. Over to you Andrew Gee.
Eamon Hale is the Vice President of the Hawthorn RSL Sub-branch in Victoria, having served in the Australian Army as a cavalryman for 16 years. He now works in emergency services and is a regular contributor to Australian Veteran News.
Connect with Eamon on twitter: @eamhale