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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 19828


Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (10:48 AM) —The opposition essentially supports the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2000 and welcomes a number of positive contributions to the veteran community that are entailed in the legislation. These run the gamut from extending counselling and psychological assessment to the spouses, ex-spouses and children of veterans, and the widening of the veterans' children education service to those offspring of children who are deemed to be in need, to an alteration of the income test treatment of Abstudy resulting from changes made to that payment. Most importantly, it deals with a number of anomalies that have persisted in our benefit scheme in the veterans area, for many decades in some cases. We welcome these benefits, particularly in regard to the Vietnam veterans' situation. We welcome benefits such as the availability of free psychiatric assessment to veterans' partners, access to counselling services for ex-partners, which would be allowed for a further four years after the end of the relationship—obviously in many cases these relationships floundered because of the problems of the veteran and his experience in Vietnam—and an increase from 25 years to 35 years in the age limit of veterans' children on free access to counselling and psychiatric assessment.

However, in regard to the broader issue of recognising these anomalies, the government's activity is none too early. On 3 June 1998, I commented in the House on the then minister responsible for veterans' affairs, who left an enormous difficulty for the current minister due to her performance in the portfolio. She indicated on many occasions that these things that are being rectified now were essentially closed doors and were not going to be altered or rectified. I said:

Eight months later, we are told that it is a minor priority in the government, that they have not really allocated many resources to it and that it might eventually, one day in the future, have an outcome.

I was referring to the question of the FESR and Ubon. On 25 September 1997 in relation to the then minister's performance, I said:

It is disturbing to note that the review lacked any community representatives or public consultation. Its report has not been released to the public and its reasoning and the evidence that it relied upon have not been revealed.

In this legislation we tackle a number of the issues that persisted and were the subject of lobbying and very real activities by a wide variety of people. In regard to the FESR, there was an anomaly justified by concepts such as allotment, et cetera; it was really an excuse for a budgetary decision. I want to put on the record the efforts by John Carroll, Bob Gibbs, Admiral Mike Hudson, Noel Payne, Keith Brown-John, Joe Charlton, Bill Paterson, Keith Davidson, Ken Staff and Leo O'Donnell. The reality is, in a variety of these veterans' affairs issues, if it is a small group, it is very difficult to mobilise the wider community, even the wider RSL and veterans' community. If you are talking about pensions for everyone or an increase, this type of thing, there is a wider level of interest and broader support because it supports so many people. In this case, this group of people around Australia have had to drive this issue home, despite persistent refusals by governments of both stripes over many decades to rectify the situation. Here at last we do see some rectification of the matter in regard to the FESR where Air Force and Army personnel received benefits far earlier and a very arbitrary distinction was made, a delineation that really had no logic whatsoever. The government's decision is very welcome.

With respect to the Ubon, the situation was that it was subject to a Senate resolution at the time. The Senate disagreed with the lack of interest in this question by the then minister in actually rectifying the problem. This was justified because of the figment that the Ubon situation was in no way related to the war in Indochina. However, the situation was that, in June 1965, the rules of engagement were altered for those Air Force personnel and it was said that those new rules of engagement certainly changed the picture. We as an opposition recognise that until that point there was some logic to the government's argument about it basically being support for Thailand and its situation. However, on that date there was a very real change of circumstances. There was extensive evidence of very real danger to the personnel involved and it was really justified by the lack of truthfulness to the Australian public by the government with respect to the situation of Australian forces in Indochina.

We welcome the situation with respect to Ubon. We record that the then minister failed to deal adequately with this matter. He delayed it and showed disdain and disinterest. I want to recognise Mal Barnes, Richard Stone and Michael Morrissey in particular for their perseverance in driving the issue home and making sure that the political system in this country gave recognition to a just case. I also indicate that the 1998 election statement of the opposition at that stage did say that these two matters which the government is now tackling should have been tackled then. There is a concrete history of activity by the federal opposition in trying to give justice to these people. I also want to talk about Jeparit and put on the record Doreen Smith and Harold Harrison, two residents of Newcastle, New South Wales, who, to my mind, have been the main people who have kept pushing this issue before the parliamentary system. This resulted from a situation where the Waterside Workers Federation and the Seamens Union, because of their position with respect to the war in Vietnam, decided not to service a number of boats. The civilian personnel were basically discriminated against vis-à-vis people who were serving in the reserves on those boats. There is no real logic to the fact that they have been disregarded all this time and once again they faced very real and concrete danger.

There is one matter, which I foreshadowed, on which the opposition is not satisfied with the bill. As I say, the government have been dragged screaming to rectify these matters and people are getting justice at last. The one matter where we will be indicating in the Senate dissatisfaction with the provisions of this bill relates to the question of the Australian civilian surgical teams in Vietnam between 1964 and 1973. I cite a document which they have produced. To our mind it certainly indicates that the experience they had there is such that the government should not rely on technicalities and avoid giving them their just rewards and recognition for their service. For instance, on page 4 of their document, they state:

Tuberculosis, infestation with intestinal parasites, leprosy and malaria, had always been major causes of morbidity in Vietnam, but now with the overcrowding and the squalid conditions, plague, of which an outbreak began in 1961, had spread to 24 of the 41 provinces of South Vietnam by 1967.

I note further in that document the comments of Dr Bernard Dunn at appendix F, where he says:

The Minister's replies make much of the fact that these women were civilian and not military personnel and were not subject to military direction. As far as I know no Australian Army women nurses were used in a combat area in a military sense during the Vietnam war. The civilian nurses were often located far from any protected military encampments with minimal protection and at times, as during the Tet offensive, were exposed to very real danger.

The documentation they have produced, with some very moving photographs showing the carnage of the war in regard to the civilian population of Vietnam, appear to be a very substantive argument. On page 15, they indicate the three main points in their submission, which are:

1. The work of these teams assisted the Australian Defence Forces in wartime.

2. The teams assisted and served with an allied country.

3. The teams `incurred danger from hostile forces of the enemy during the time of hostilities.'

I could go on and quote at length the various experiences of these people. On page 31, they state:

There was a rocket attack and a whole lot of houses across the road from us got bombed. One of the guys and I went across to see if there were any survivors, went (into this house) and there was a woman lying in the bed, she had one child across here (indicating the chest) and a baby in her arms, they were black you know, like third degree charcoal. It took me a while to get over that. I sort of kept having flashbacks and for a while after I'd wake up in a sweat.

The inquiry that justifies this legislation, the group of people who went around and examined these issues in their review of service entitlement anomalies in respect of South-East Asian service from 1955 to 1975, came to the conclusion that these people had a case. It is quite surprising to the opposition that the minister has deliberately decided, whilst generally following the conclusion of the inquiry, that these people do not have an entitlement. On page 14 of that report it states:

It is recommended that Australian Civilian Surgical and Medical Teams operating in Vietnam during the Vietnam War be deemed as performing qualifying service for repatriation benefits.

So the inquiry—the justification for the rest of the changes in this particular legislation and the rest of the alterations to overcome anomalies—that was set up by the minister said that these people had a just case. One really does have to question exactly why that was not the decision. I notice in the budget facts, the minister's document says:

Repatriation benefits will not be extended to members of the Australian Civilian Surgical and Medical Teams in Vietnam. The policy on repatriation benefits for civilians has consistently required they be attached to the Australian Defence Force, for example in the case of merchant mariners. These civilians worked under arrangements made by the then Department of External Affairs and the review provided little or no evidence that they served under ADF command.

Quite frankly, I think most people in the general Australian population would say that that is not a good enough reason not to recognise the very real dangers and the very disturbing situation that these individuals faced in Vietnam, and that matter will be subject to an amendment attempt by the opposition in the Senate.

In conclusion, there is a wide variety of other anomalies that have been recognised. I also understand that there have been a variety of Labor and Liberal governments that previously did not overcome these problems, but I must say that, in the period when there was renewed interest, activity and lobbying on these matters, before Minister Scott's arrival in the portfolio, there was a very studied delay in the government's rectification of these matters. As I said earlier, the then minister reacted to Senate resolutions and she reacted to lobby groups by saying that the doors were closed, the matter was finalised, it was over, end of story, full stop. I want to reiterate my appreciation of the efforts of a small band of people on these issues. They have actually accomplished very overdue and necessary reforms for a group of people in whom the media probably took only sporadic interest; only occasionally did the vast majority of MPs have this matter brought to their attention. The changes are for the better and overdue.