The new Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Matt Keogh, announced the other day that a report into the Department of Veterans’ Affairs claims processing system had finally been made public. The report had been commissioned by the previous government in September 2021 and included 37 ways of making the department’s processes more efficient.
‘We must reduce this claims backlog’, the Minister said. ‘It simply isn’t good enough to have people who have put on a uniform and served our country wait for such a long time to access the support they are entitled to.’
The release of this delayed report into delays followed two of the Minister’s predecessors, Darren Chester and Andrew Gee, being questioned about delays, when they appeared before the Royal Commission on Defence and Veteran Suicide. Minister Gee said he had to resist cuts of more than $430 million while the department struggled to address a backlog of 50 000 compensation claims.
Many of the delayed claims arose from Australia’s problematic commitment to Afghanistan, already under scrutiny because of alleged war crimes. With all consideration of our recent wars, particularly Afghanistan, and their effects there is a risk that the Australian War Memorial will be pressured to sanitise and finagle its coverage to avoid embarrassing past governments, past and present allies, or past and present military brass. A recent media report that important reports about Afghanistan had been suppressed by the previous government provoked the following letter from Honest History to the new Minister for Defence.
The Hon. Richard Marles MP
Minister for Defence
Canberra ACT 2600
I understand from a media report that the former Defence Minister delayed the public release and tabling in Parliament of reports from the oversight panel on the Brereton Report about alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. This delay has important implications, not just for the soldiers possibly affected and for the public’s right to know, but for the way the Australian War Memorial depicts the war in Afghanistan, as the Memorial develops its exhibitions in future years.
There has already been a stand-off between the Director and Council of the Memorial, a radio presenter, and the Prime Minister about the degree to which the Memorial can be ‘a place of truth’ about the Afghanistan involvement. More generally, there are issues in how the Memorial depicts wars before the historical lens has been properly applied to them: there is a risk that early portrayal may turn into apology or justification for the recent involvement. Finally, there is the well-documented close association between the former Chair of the Memorial Council, Kerry Stokes, and his employee and one of the subjects of the Afghanistan probe, Ben Roberts-Smith VC.
Mr Roberts-Smith was a ‘special subject’ at the Memorial for a number of years during the tenure of Brendan Nelson as Director. There was a long-running temporary exhibition at the Memorial on Australia’s Special Forces. Aspects of the Memorial’s Afghanistan exhibition (currently closed but scheduled for re-opening in the extensions) might need to be reconsidered as more Brereton information comes to light.
Balancing these complex and inter-related considerations – and ensuring that they are seen to have been balanced – surely dictates that the oversight panel reports should be released as soon as they become available to the Minister, taking account of (minimal) national security and legal requirements. I urge you to release the withheld reports as soon as possible and to release new reports as soon as they come to you.
I am writing to you as editor of the Honest History website (nine years arguing that Australia is more than Anzac and always has been) and on behalf of the Heritage Guardians group, which campaigned against the $498m extensions to the Australian War Memorial.
Given that this issue relates also to the display policies of the War Memorial, I am copying this letter to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, as the Minister responsible for the Memorial.
(Dr) David Stephens
Editor, Honest History website; on behalf of Heritage Guardians
19 June 2022 updated