The end of veterans’ affairs: will Anzac Centenary Minister Stuart Robert be too busy to bother?

1 Dec 2015

Extracts from The Canberra Times article December 1, 2015 by David Stephens

Read the full article here

“The government seems to have accepted it no longer needs a ‘minister for the RSL’.

In the wake of the recent ministerial reshuffle: while Michael Ronaldson, the previous minister for veterans’ affairs and minister assisting the prime minister for the centenary of Anzac, also had the job of special minister of state – mostly a doddle – the new holder of the veterans’ affairs and Anzac jobs, Stuart Robert, is also Minister for Human Services, which makes his workload altogether different.


The Department of Human Services includes the massive bureaucracies of Centrelink and Medicare, plus smaller programs in aged care, child support, hearing services and other areas. It currently disburses about $165 billion a year in payments. It claims it touches the lives of almost every Australian, so it has about 25 million clients. It has about 34,000 staff in 400 service centres across the country, under the leadership of a secretary and six deputy secretaries. 
By contrast with the human services behemoth, veterans’ affairs is a boutique operation. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has about 2000 staff delivering $12 billion in benefits a year to about 320,000 clients. While its staff are less likely to be an industrial relations problem than those in human services they are more likely to need to deal with well-organised and vocal pressure groups complaining about service than are their counterparts in human services.

Beginning of the end of the veterans’ affairs portfolio?

Giving Robert the human services job with its potentially heavy workload, may indicate the attitude of new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to the relative importance of the veterans’ affairs job, including the commemorative aspects that have justified that minister having the extra “centenary of Anzac” handle since 2011. Turnbull may think that, after the peak during 2015, the intensity of commemorative activity (and the political pay-off) will necessarily diminish, requiring minimal ministerial attention. This Prime Minister also seems less starry-eyed about military things than was his predecessor.

Giving the veterans’ affairs ministry another, potentially much larger, role may even foreshadow that veterans’ affairs has a limited future as a stand-alone ministry. It is more than five decades since the then minister for repatriation, Reg Swartz, agreed that calling him “the minister for the RSL” was “a reasonable description”. But the RSL is a far less powerful and less representative organisation today than it was in 1963; the staying power and spruiking skills of veterans’ affairs portfolio officers, rather than the RSL link, is surely the main factor keeping veterans’ affairs going today as a separate entity. (Within the portfolio, the chairman of the Council of the Australian War Memorial, Ken Doolan, a 76-year-old retired rear admiral, is also the RSL national president. This is more noteworthy as a potential conflict of interest than as a lever of RSL power.)
There are, on the other hand – and have been for many years – bureaucrats in the departments of health, human services and social services who would willingly take over pieces of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs that do similar work.


It is possible that Robert is superhuman. He is an ex-serviceman (mostly in military intelligence and security) and he is nearly two decades younger than his predecessor. While human services always carries the potential to require close ministerial involvement, particularly if its massive workforce becomes stroppy or if rorts are alleged, in some respects it is just a massive computer spitting out cheques. Run sensitively, with occasional crises successfully overcome, it has far more potential than veterans’ affairs to build ministerial reputations, as Robert’s predecessor, Marise Payne, found. Turnbull, announcing Payne’s promotion to defence, noted “she has spent two years in the human services portfolio and has done an outstanding job in modernising government service delivery”.

In the non-commemoration areas of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, too, there are potential hot spots and insistent pressure groups that will require ministerial attention but which will bring kudos if dealt with competently. Damping down these eruptions while wrangling human services may mean that ministerial trips in the Anzac centenary role to the green fields of France or the stony hills of Palestine – for the events that Ronaldson was wont to rattle off in his speeches – may become less common and ministerial speeches to RSL conferences more perfunctory. Such changes would help reduce Anzac to a more proportionate place in our national psyche.”

David Stephens is secretary and website editor of the Honest History coalition, which supports the balanced presentation and use of Australian history, particularly during the Anzac centenary. This article does not necessarily represent the views of all of Honest History’s supporters.