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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 19830

Mr HARDGRAVE (11:03 AM) —I am very pleased to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2000. All members in this place, and perhaps most Australians, when they stop to think about it, would perhaps realise we do have the very best system as far as repatriation goes and would appreciate some of the effort expended on behalf of all Australians and veterans who have served this country. As somebody from a generation who has benefited directly from those who have put on a uniform and been prepared to stand their ground in other countries in defence of this nation and in defence of the values that we represent—our freedom, our democracy and our human rights record—I am always greatly humbled to be in the presence of those who have served.

I must say that I agree with much of what the member for Reid had to say and there are so many anomalies within the Veterans' Entitlement Act that continue to be a great source of frustration to me as a private member in this place. I certainly welcome the measures contained within the two bills before the House this morning which extend certain veterans' entitlements to those who have not had them before, and also guarantee that certain others who may need benefits because of the tragedy of the Black Hawk accident are in fact going to gain them for the children of those who were killed.

I also want to use my contribution in this place as someone, as I said, who has benefited directly from that great sacrifice and service that Australians have put forward over many years in this century to bring forward some of the most glaring anomalies that I have seen come across my desk over the last couple of years. I agree with the member for Reid that there are some handfuls of people who run the cause very loud and very strong and a lot of them are very pleased that this government has responded to them. The Far Eastern Strategic Reserve veterans and so forth have positive examples of this government listening, and reacting, to legitimate claims. The extension of the gold card to World War II service personnel—those who served overseas—is another example of this government's commitment to extending benefits to those who have served. They all come at a cost. Sadly, a lot of them are costs that are met only once the pool of people to receive the benefits shrinks because the survivors have died, which creates a great sense of frustration for those who fight for the rights that so many are now enjoying but a lot of whom never live long enough to see them.

I do not really want to be overly partisan, but I will make the observation that 13 years of the previous government did not achieve the sorts of results for veterans that this government already has managed to achieve in the last 4½ years. But I genuinely believe that there is so much more that could be done, despite the fact that we do have the most generous veterans' system in the world. I also believe that the Black Hawk families may not have received the sorts of benefits they are getting assured so quickly in legislation if it had not been for the determined effort of people like the member for Herbert, who I know is also going to speak on this bill and who took a direct and personal local member style interest in the matter. I think the tremendous media focus on that horrendous accident has brought about a lot of good things for those who have suffered so many bad things.

There are too many examples of non-wartime deaths and accidents having been dealt with in the most cavalier way by the Department of Defence. I cannot help but feel a great distaste about the inconsistencies in the treatment of the survivors of the dreadful accidents and incidents that have occurred. I believe the Department of Defence have a lot to answer for. I welcome the fact that a senior and experienced minister such as John Moore, the member for Ryan, is in charge of the Department of Defence. Most Australians should understand that Minister Moore is taking on the Department of Defence to get them to do not only what this government promised would be done but also those things that are part and parcel of what the people of Australia expect. I welcome Minister Moore's ongoing efforts to try to get the Department of Defence to follow an agenda set not by them and the bureaucrats over in Russell Offices but by the duly elected government of this country.

I have looked back through stories of incidents and accidents that have come across my desk over the last couple of years. A young man up in Tin Can Bay was killed when a hand grenade blew up. His family were treated in a cavalier way and were virtually ignored by the system. Jacinta Watson was a cadet who was killed as a result of a training accident at the Greenbank Rifle Range just outside of my electorate. Her family were unable to get the full range of information they expected from an inquiry. As I said in the parliament about 3½ years ago, that family wrote to the Chief of the General Staff, John Sanderson, and it took four months to even get a response. General Sanderson basically wished them well and said goodbye. There was absolutely no support offered to that family. Jacinta's mother, Genia Otuszewski, from Coopers Plains in my electorate, still carries the burden of the death of her daughter in September 1994. It is dreadful in the extreme that the Department of Defence seem to close ranks and drag out the inquiry for three years until some statute of limitations runs out and then they say, `We're sorry; we've run out of time to get the kind of justice and support that you deserve.'

It is ironic in the extreme that the government has to legislate in a specific way to get around departmental ideology that leaves those who have been the victims of accidents and incidents high and dry. Clare Stokes, another cadet, was killed in a truck accident in North Queensland while involved in a cadet operation. Her aunt is a constituent of mine. I have written to Minister Scott about this matter on so many occasions. The member for Bowman, a former veterans' affairs minister, has raised this matter in this place as well. The Stokes family are constituents of his. The department has treated her family with cavalier disregard and a lack of compassion. It is a matter of great shame that the family of somebody who was willing to put on a uniform as a cadet and to display their commitment and pride in their country—and be involved in that marvellous organisation—should be so badly treated.

I think about the victims of the Westralia. Contrast what is before the parliament today for the Black Hawk survivors and the victims' families and what happened to Mathew Liddell, a constituent of mine who was a serviceman on the Westralia and who was airlifted off straight after that tragedy. He had to face the prospect that his mate Bradley Meek had been killed beside him. He cannot erase the memory of Bradley Meek's skin coming off onto him when he was trying to revive him, not realising that he was already dead. He has a recurring dream: the skin is all over him and he sees Bradley's staring eyes. This is a human being who is crying from his heart every day. He has recently had some trouble with the law. He is a young man whose life has essentially been ruined. His mother, Dulcie, firmly believes her son will never realise his potential. The military compensation scheme has made a $23,000 interim payout but Mathew has had to spend $6,000 on legal fees to get it. It is outrageous in the extreme to think that a serviceperson in this country who was the victim of a non-wartime accident like the Westralia tragedy—something that made national news, as did the Black Hawk disaster—should have to spend roughly a quarter of the compensation given to him by the military compensation scheme on legal fees to try to get some more justice and support. Where is the support for his family? Where is the post-traumatic stress support? It does not exist. They are fighting the defence bureaucracy to get some justice for this young man.

This man has been granted a 20 per cent disability pension. He cannot hold a job down. Why do the military compensation scheme and the Department of Defence treat this young man and his family in such a poor way? He cannot hope at this stage to erase the memory of the horror of what happened to him and his mate Bradley that day on the Westralia without some support. We owe that chap and others like him that sort of support. We owe the Stokes family that sort of support. We owe the Hitchcock family, who are from my electorate and whose son was on that same truck that killed Claire Stokes, some support and understanding of what occurred, but all we get from the Department of Defence is constant drag-it-out-and-delay-it tactics. For what benefit? I think most Australians would be horrified to know that these sorts of things occurred.

The Liddell family from my electorate are no strangers to Defence life. Mrs Liddell's husband had 20 years service with the Royal Australian Navy. Her oldest son had six years service in the Royal Australian Navy and currently serves as a fire officer in the Queensland Fire Brigade. The Liddells have two sons-in-law in the Army—one served 21 years and was discharged as staff sergeant, and one is currently serving as a warrant officer 2nd class. He went to Timor last year and has 18 years of service. This is a service family. A representative of that family, despite the fact that he has this long service tradition in his family, is being slapped down and discarded on the side of the road of life by the Department of Defence.

I welcome what is in this legislation today. I welcome the government's attempts to assist the families of the Black Hawk tragedy to try to repatriate some of the benefits that should have gone to them years ago but that we now can perhaps finally afford. But I am gravely concerned about the approach of the Department of Defence and their total disregard for those who may have been victims of accidents and incidents in non-wartime. If those people are being treated so badly, you cannot help but understand why so many who have served this country in years past feel so let down by the system that takes so long to respond to the genuine needs and genuine calls for assistance.

I do not think there would be one taxpayer who would hesitate in the slightest to say, `This is a fair dinkum claim; let's just get on with this.' Why isn't the system saying to Mathew Liddell, `Mate, your family has a tradition of service in the defence of this country. Generations have put on uniforms, and you have been the victim of a horrible accident. We understand that things like post-traumatic stress syndrome exist.' Back in the early part of this century they did not understand it when my great-grandfather, Charlie McKinnon, was blown up on the Western Front after serving his country for six months. He came back an absolute basket case and his life was ruined. They did not understand it back in those days. They called it `trench fever' and all sorts of wacky names like that.

Mr Edwards —And some of them were shot for it.

Mr HARDGRAVE —And some of them were shot for it. The member for Cowan knows all too well what I am talking about. But the astonishing part about it is that today we do know what post-traumatic stress syndrome is all about. Why aren't we fair dinkum and why aren't we getting on with it?

An issue related to all this—as I mentioned, a couple of cadets have been hurt—is the extraordinary circumstance where the Department of Defence do not want to know about cadets. The Department of Defence do not want to know about the cadet service in Australia. They are holding out an absolute line that they do not want to recognise cadets. This government, when it was elected in 1996, had an excellent policy promising to extend the cadet system and has fought a battle for 4½ years against the Department of Defence over providing services to cadets.

We now have the extraordinary circumstance where the parliamentary secretary, Senator Abetz, who is doing an excellent job in taking on the Department of Defence bureaucracy, wants to get the cadets recognised as a line item in the budget each year—a move that I totally support, because it is getting around the Defence bureaucracy. But I have had RSL clubs come to me who have represented a very strong view, and a view that I totally support, that the support of the Department of Defence for cadets is parlous in the extreme. I am told, for instance, that cadets get whatever is left over, that the quartermasters at various little Defence bases around Brisbane will dole them out whatever they might not need themselves. Quartermasters, being quartermasters, never seem to really find things that they do not need themselves, I suspect. So therein lies part of the problem.

The air cadets who meet at Macgregor High School cannot even get proper uniforms, or the stripes or badges that go on the uniforms—so they do not get a sense of service and involvement with the defence forces—and the RAAF Base at Amberley will not let them have even a box trailer, let alone the troop carrier. They used to have a troop carrier to drive them around when they went on camps and so forth. The cadets who meet at Nyanda High School get no support out of the Department of Defence when a neighbour complains that they make a bit of noise as they parade each night on the tarmac of the school property, at the beginning and the end of their cadet activities. The Department of Defence does not do anything to support them in the fight against the Queensland Education Department, who have told them to leave, but the Department of Defence tears strips off one of the officers involved in the cadet unit for daring to break the chain of command by talking to his local federal member about the problem. There is something seriously wrong in the Department of Defence. That is a very simple point.

I welcome the submission that has come from those associated with the Clare Stokes tragedy. Clare's family—including her aunt, Julie Goeldner, from my electorate—have put in a submission to the `Cadets: the future' review, which Senator Abetz has called. It sets out a number of things that need to be talked about: that there need to be rights and responsibilities set out, that the Australian cadet units need to be recognised as part of the Australian Defence Force, that the Australian cadets need to be allocated sufficient funds directly from the budget each year, and that the Department of Defence need to actually take some responsibility for the care, nurture and safety of cadets. They need to take some responsibility.

Whilst the Department of Defence has presided over a magnificent set of service circumstances in East Timor—and I really think it is the sharp end that should feel pleased about that; the troops on the ground, not the people running around with the big gold badges over in Russell Offices, where I reckon just about everybody, even the office boy, has to be a major—I do not think it can rest on the laurels of East Timor and ignore these sorts of issues that I have raised in my contribution today.

The Department of Defence has to take responsibility for those who have offered themselves as cadets. So many cadets go on to become service personnel. If there is one true thing about the cadet system it is that those who actually stick with it, survive it, and go on to serve, stay in the service and tend to become very good service personnel. But the Department of Defence does not seem to be interested in cadets, and it should be made to be.

The Department of Defence does not seem to be all that interested in really looking after any of the victims of tragedy. That the Veterans' Entitlements Act is being changed by this Minister for Veterans' Affairs to look after more people and to make sure that those who wish we did not need this assistance are being assisted by the measures contained in these bills before the House today is a good thing, but there is so much more to be done and so much of it is so contemporary. Heaven help those who are trying to fight something from the Vietnam days if we cannot even get something that happened in the last five or 10 years right.

I support this legislation. I commend Minister Scott for his ongoing commitment to try to drive this agenda the right way. I strongly support Minister Moore in his ongoing fight against the Department of Defence—they are my words, not his. I applaud Parliamentary Secretary Abetz in his efforts on behalf of cadets. I lament that so many of the constituents in my own electorate—and as you know there are 148 of us in this House—have had so many problems in getting reasonable justice as a result of the failure of the Department of Defence. I commend the bill to the House.