Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 29 March 2004
Page: 22071

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (1:50 PM) —The Australian Democrats support the thrust of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Bill 2003 and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2003. Of course there is not universal support amongst ex-service organisations for every single aspect of the bills. There are a diversity of views, as there always are, amongst the various groups in the ex-service community; but I think it is widely acknowledged that overall this legislation is a step forward, and a fairly significant step forward. The test now will be to see how the changes are implemented. Here is another example, amongst many, of the benefit of the Senate inquiry process and of the Senate itself making further improvements to legislation beyond what was originally proposed. It provides further opportunity for the concerns of interested parties—in this case veterans organisations—to be put before senators and on the public record, not just in terms of improving the legislation but in highlighting the broader issues that still need further examination.

I think that point needs to be made each time the Senate makes such enhancement to legislation, because there is still an underlying rhetoric that the government uses from time to time about the Senate being obstructive or somehow or other getting in the way of good governance. The fact is that the vast majority of times the Senate actually enhances what the government is doing. When the Senate opposes what the government wants to do there is usually an extremely good reason for it. This is another example of the Senate doing its job effectively—at least by the Labor, Liberal and Democrat members who participated in the Senate inquiry process.

The bills establish an inclusive legislative scheme that governs compensation for injuries or medical conditions arising from service in the Australian Defence Force after the commencement date of the legislation. The bills recognise the different nature of military service as opposed to civilian employment. Currently, four pieces of legislation provide a complex structure of compensation and rehabilitation to members of the ADF. It is in keeping with the Democrats policy to streamline legislation for veterans, so it is pleasing to note that these bills do move towards integrating the management of safety, rehabilitation, resettlement and compensation.

The importance of this legislation is underscored by the fact that ADF personnel are now deployed in various operational environments overseas where they are clearly put in harm's way. We have been debating the appropriate length of time for the deployment of some of our defence personnel in Iraq over the last week or two. This legislation will apply only to people who have ceased to be members of the Defence Force after the commencement date—that is, to future veterans and serving members—and will not apply to injuries, deaths or diseases occurring before that date. The Democrats are on the record as not supporting the recent war in Iraq, but we made it clear, as did the Senate, that that opposition did not extend to our troops. The Democrats and the Senate expressed support for our troops.

It should be noted that many people believe that the long established criteria of a just war were not fulfilled. There is also another set of rules for the just conduct of war or rules of engagement. Whilst the Democrats view is that the Howard government clearly failed to establish a just criteria for going to war, the criteria for conducting that war—the rules of engagement for Australian Defence Force personnel—were clearly of a higher standard than those used by others in that engagement. There were higher standards of proof that targets were military rather than civilian and the use of cluster bombs or depleted uranium armaments was not supported. That is a credit to our defence personnel. It is a shame that our government does not use its influence with our allies to ensure that their troops do the same.

The Democrats continue to oppose the justification given by the government for going to war against Iraq but, once that commitment was made, we have consistently been of the view that we have a legal and moral obligation to keep our troops there and to help rebuild the nation. You cannot pick and choose which bits of international law you like. Whilst our view, quite clearly, is that Australia's involvement in the invasion of Iraq was against international law, now that it has occurred it is appropriate under international law that we participate in rebuilding that nation and help with a transition to a locally based or UN based administration. That has been a consistent view of the Democrats.

Regardless of the divergence of opinion amongst the Australian community and amongst political parties, support for our troops must remain and we must acknowledge the extra burden that the families and friends of our troops are carrying. More than anyone else, they would like to see their families and friends home, not by Christmas but by tomorrow if possible. But they know that that is part of the extra service and the extra sacrifice that people in the Defence Force make. They do not get to choose whether they go. Once they enlist, they go where they are sent and they do the job they are required to do on behalf of the country. While we are having appropriate, important debates about whether troops should be deployed, we have to make sure that that is not in any way seen to spill over into opposition to the job the troops are doing. The Democrats certainly remain firm in that view. We are pleased to see further debate about when we can withdraw troops from Iraq and aspire for that to occur as soon as possible. We welcome what appears to be a shift from others who have opposed the war, who in the past have just run with a `withdraw the troops now' approach, to recognising that there is an obligation for our troops to stay there until some of the rebuilding has been done.

One of the few positives to come out of the tragedy of the attack on Iraq is that to date—and I am sure we all hope that it will remain the case—there have been no fatalities or serious injuries amongst our troops who have gone there. Those who have returned have done so safely. It is important, though, to emphasise that that does not mean that, down the track, those people will not have war related physical or mental injuries as a consequence of their service. I have been veterans' affairs spokesperson for the Democrats since I came into this place in 1997. In that time I have seen a steady rise in the amount of attention and publicity this government seeks through giving out medals and attending memorials and welcome-home parades—in short, any activities that allow the government or coalition members to get kudos from standing next to the men and women of our Defence Force who take the risks.

Whilst there has been a lot of willingness to make political capital on the part of the government from welcome-home parades, departure parades and flag waving, it is far more important to ensure that, when the troops return home, they are properly supported and assisted as returned service men and women. That is an area where this government has clearly failed over a long period of time. The tangible benefits of repatriation assistance have fallen behind. It is all very easy and quick to send young Australians to war, but we have a consistent pattern of being slow to recognise the debt that the nation incurs on behalf of those men and women when they return. There is a longstanding list of veterans concerns which, on the whole, have been ignored for a long period of time, with the exception of some limited measures taken for war widows a couple of years ago.

Debate interrupted.