5 November, 2018

Subjects: Virgin Australia veterans’ announcement



BEN FORDHAM: James Brown is the president of the New South Wales RSL and a veteran himself, and Steve Ciobo is the Federal Defence Industries Minister, who’s a fan of the idea. Let’s go to Steve Ciobo first. Good afternoon to you, Minister.

STEVEN CIOBO: Good afternoon, Ben.

BEN FORDHAM: You’ve said it’s tremendous for the airline to salute the service of soldiers, and in many respects Virgin Airlines is a trailblazer.

STEVEN CIOBO: Oh, I do. That’s my view. I mean, the first point – and there’s really two key points to this, Ben – the first is that none of this is compulsory, so in hearing your introductory remarks and concerns that some people may have; well that’s fine. No one’s making it compulsory to do this. It’s not something where veterans feel like they have to do it. It’s an optional. And I think it’s good that Virgin Australia has responded to the call, that wants to think of a way that Virgin can assist with acknowledging the service of men and women who have served in our Armed Forces, and so for that reason I think it’s a very big positive.

The second point is that, in relation to what we’re doing for veterans, Ben; it’s never lost on me. It shouldn’t just be about these one or two initiatives, and bear in mind, we already spend more than $11 billion every year on providing support to our veterans. And you know what? That’s good. They deserve it, they’ve earned it and some of them, of course, require intensive levels of support because of some of the harrowing events that they’ve gone through, and we absolutely as a Government and as an Australian people must stand with them and behind them and support them.

So, this is just another initiative that builds on the work that’s already been done, from mental health services right through to counselling to support for veteran’s families. But ultimately, the reason why I liked the idea is because I think that Virgin has done this in the right spirit to say: look, where people would like to do this we want to play a role and we want to honour and acknowledge them, and I think that’s to be applauded.

BEN FORDHAM: Let me bring in James Brown, the President of the New South Wales RSL and a veteran himself. James Brown, you’ve listened to what the Minister has to say. What’s your concerns about this idea?

JAMES BROWN: Ben, I think my position is closer to yours and I think that’s where most of my members are too. I mean, we can appreciate the good will here, both from the Government and from Virgin and, in fact from the other big corporates that have got behind the Veteran’s Employment Initiative announced on Friday, but this initiative for airline boarding announcements just sounds a bit cheesy and I think it sits uncomfortably, certainly with me and certainly with a lot of my colleagues. I mean, the fundamental issue here is there are a lot of needs in the veteran’s community; I just don’t think there’s been enough consultation over the last couple of weeks with veteran’s groups to find out what’s at the top of our list.

BEN FORDHAM: Minister, can you see that this is something that would go down well in America, but in Australia, I don’t know, there’s a bit of an attitude difference? And I’m not talking about our respect being any smaller for our military Servicemen and women, but the Servicemen and women themselves, they don’t like that kind of fanfare. They don‘t want to be singled out. I know you’re saying it wouldn’t be compulsory, but it just jars with all the people and I think that the word cheesy used by James Brown just then is fitting, isn’t it?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I mean, look, frankly, I think it’s disappointing that people want to throw – and I’m not saying that James is doing that, but there have been some people throwing rocks at Virgin – and I think that’s really unfortunate. I mean, I think they’re motivated for the right reasons, to do this to play a role to help build respect and acknowledge. I mean, if- we see all sorts of examples of private sector businesses that want to play a role and I think, as I said, that’s to be applauded. Now, I absolutely acknowledge that not every veteran is going to want to be recognised or saluted in this way. And that is absolutely fine because like everyone, Virgin’s aren’t all of one flock so to speak; they represent different points of view and have different attitudes. But ultimately, it gets back to this point – we’ve got a private business here, who’s saying: well look, this is one way that we think that we can play a role. If ultimately people say: no, no, we don’t want it, well no harm done. I applaud them for taking the initiative and it builds on the work that they have indeed- I mean, Qantas provides their support in a myriad of ways as well. And I, you know, Neil himself acknowledged- sorry, James himself acknowledged that there are lots of businesses that all play a role in terms of how they choose to acknowledge veterans.

BEN FORDHAM: James, from an airline point of view, I mean, I’m sure most servicemen and women wouldn’t knock back a discount on their airfares or upgrades to business class if there’s an empty seat in business class.

JAMES BROWN: Spot on. I mean, I think if Virgin wants to help veterans and their families, let people donate their frequent flyer points to veterans and their families in need. That’s something we’ve asked for from airlines before and…

BEN FORDHAM: That’s a good idea.

JAMES BROWN: Give them upgrades, give veterans and their families a discount or set a commitment to employ a percentage of your workforce from the veteran community. Those are all tangible things that can be done. Donate to a veteran’s charity. I think, look, there is goodwill here. There’s been sort of allegations that this is just a cynical marketing ploy; I don’t see that.


JAMES BROWN: But the challenge is, you know, there’s a lot of needs in the veterans community and we’re just seeing these sort of rushed initiatives, which I don’t think get to the heart of the issues our community faces. I mean, our number one issue is getting the number of veteran suicides down. We had 85 last year and you know, Invictus was fantastic for helping to tell the story. We want more Invictus; that’s what we want more of, the support for veterans and their families, those sorts of stories over time, support for veteran’s mental health. I mean, we want to get more veterans into sport, your program announced the initiative, we’re running with Clubs New South Wales – Veteran Sport Australia to get more veterans into sport. That hasn’t had any funding from the government or from corporate Australia yet. That’s where we’d like to see a focus.

BEN FORDHAM: Could you help with some funding on that Minister?

STEVEN CIOBO: I will certainly take that up with Darren Chester, the Minister for Veteran’s Affairs. I mean, we- I know that the government did provide support for Invictus, but if there’s specific initiatives, I know Darren Chester’s been working hard in the area. And look, as I said, we spend more than $11 billion supporting our veterans at the moment, every single year and that is money that is very well spent. We just announced recently, for example, $7.6 million for the Kookaburra Kids Defence Program and that’s about providing targeted support to children of ex-Service Defence Force members who are experiencing mental health issues as a result of their service. And you know, we ran a pilot program first in New South Wales and Queensland, and now we’re extending that out. We’re going to include the balance of Victoria, South Australia, WA, the ACT, Queensland; it’s all about providing the kind of support that they’re talking about. But I think this is an important dialogue, and you know what Ben, I applaud you for having this conversation and getting people on to talk about ways in which the private sector, the government, all of us, can play a role to just signify how much we do respect those who have served their country in uniform, because they are a special class of people.

BEN FORDHAM: No doubt about it, I want the conversation to continue and I thank you both for coming on this afternoon. Steve Ciobo and James Brown, thank you.

STEVEN CIOBO: Thank you.

JAMES BROWN: Thanks Ben.