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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 19834

Mr EDWARDS (11:23 AM) —I, like my colleagues, support the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2000. I think there are some positives in it—some positives that people have waited a very long time for—and I compliment the government and the Minister for Veterans' Affairs on those positives.

The previous speaker said that, in his view, we have the best system of repatriation in the world. I think that was roughly what he said—just to paraphrase him. I agree: we do have a very good system. But, when we talk about the best system, we should remember that the people whom the Department of Veterans' Affairs was set up to serve also gave their best—some of them, of course, gave their all. So the system ought to be the best. As I said, there are some positives in this legislation, but in many respects the legislation does not go far enough. I think that is a bit of a reflection on the government and on our system as a whole. The previous speaker also spoke about the need for the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs to do more, to look after people better. I agree, but, ultimately, it is not the responsibility of the Department of Defence to do things when it is not resourced to do them. It is the responsibility of the government of the day and the minister of the day. You cannot sheet that home to anyone else. Ministers must take responsibility in a way that they do not seem to want to these days.

The previous speaker also had a bit of a crack at the Labor Party for not doing enough during its 13 years in government. To a large degree, I would accept that criticism, but it is also important to point out that, for about 22 years of the past 40 years, we have had the Liberal Party in government, and for many of those years there was an immense amount of need that just went begging. Whatever we are putting into place now is being put in place very late and, in many respects, much of it is just too little too late.

In talking about this legislation, I want to pick up on some of the gaps because I do not want members of parliament thinking that this legislation is addressing all the problems—it is falling short in many areas. One of those areas relates to Queensland. I have had a whole swag of letters from people living in regional Queensland who have written to me about the cessation of the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service country outreach program. I want to draw this to the attention of the parliament because this is an excellent service and I cannot understand why it is being defunded. I want to read a letter from Len and Karen Fox from Black Mountain in Queensland, and it is similar to the many letters I have received on this issue. They say:

It is proposed that this service will cease in December 2000. The program has enabled many thousands of veterans in non-metropolitan areas to be seen by `Volunteer Area Representatives', primarily ex-service themselves, to be assessed, and then guided through the process of seeking assistance from the Vietnam Veterans' Counselling Service (VVCS). This valuable service further supports not only the veteran, but his or her spouse and children who also may suffer as a result of the veteran's war service related conditions.

This valuable service commenced in 1990 here on the Sunshine Coast and since then many thousands of veterans and their families, myself included, have benefited greatly from work carried out by our local representative. Without the dedicated work of—

I do not want to name him—

veterans and their families would not have been made aware of the entitlements that their service to our country now makes them eligible for. This work is far from finished with the children of Vietnam veterans in particular but not forgetting, The Gulf War, Somalia, Rwanda, Cambodia and East Timor veterans now in ever increasing need of assistance and guidance. You would also no doubt be aware of the hugely greater incidence of youth suicide and spina bifida cases amongst these Australian children.

Accordingly, we strongly urge you to look further into this matter and support in any and every way possible the retention of this outstanding service to our veteran community. Whilst this service is currently run under the title of `Vietnam Veterans' Counselling Service', this is somewhat of a misnomer in that these services are offered and received by all veterans alike, irrespective of the service.

I really want to draw this letter to the attention of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs because I just cannot believe, like these people who are writing to me, that this service is being defunded, wound up. There are a couple of points I would like to make in relation to this service. One point is the tremendous amount of work that veterans do for other veterans in a voluntary capacity. Many of them, Mr Deputy Speaker Nehl, as you would well know—because I know you take a strong interest in these matters—are themselves TPI pensioners and many of them put in an immense amount of time, work and effort looking after their fellow veterans. I think this sort of service ought to be supported and encouraged, not defunded.

The other issue I want to raise relates to the children of veterans. I want to draw to the attention of the House the plight of, in this instance, a veteran family where the father is a TPI pensioner and his child has suffered a physical disability directly related to the service of the father. This bill in part deals with extending services to the children of veterans. I want to quote from an article in the Courier Mail of Friday 18 August under the heading `TPI veteran in battle for wheelchair':

An Agent Orange victim and Vietnam War hero whose son was born with spina bifida is now fighting another battle—with bureaucracy, for a motorised wheelchair.

Clarrie Upton of Townsville said yesterday the Federal Government had already acknowledged that his son Darcy's disability was a direct result of his own exposure to deadly chemicals during his six-month tour of duty in 1967.

But when he and his wife, Lona, applied five weeks ago to the Department of Veterans' Affairs for $5000 to buy Darcy, 31, a motorised wheelchair they were refused.

“We were told he could have five psychiatric assessments, but no wheelchair,” said Clarrie.

Darcy is lying in bed in Townsville General Hospital after an 11-month wait for surgery. He has already endured a lifetime of operations relating to his disability, including regular trips to a Brisbane hospital for shunts to relieve fluid on his brain.

Clarrie said he and Lona were physically and financially unable to move Darcy about in his worn-out old wheelchair.

“I'm 62 and a TPI (totally and permanently incapacitated) pensioner myself ... we just can't do it,” he said.

A Warrant Officer who earned a Bronze Star for his courage in ... training forces in Vietnam, Clarrie said he had been sprayed not just with Agent Orange but with a mixture of chemicals during the war.

“But nobody told us. I didn't find out anything about it until 20 years later when I read Jean Williams's first book (Cry In the Wilderness—Guinea Pigs of Vietnam).”

Clarrie's tour of duty ended when he was evacuated with a heart virus in late 1967. Darcy was born in February 1969.

Mrs Williams said the Government had earmarked $700,000 in its May Budget for the children of Vietnam veterans who had been affected by spina bifida, cleft palate and suicidal conditions.

“This man (Darcy) is 31 and he's never walked, but they won't give him $5000 of this money for a motorised wheelchair because they say the money's only for hospital fees and psychiatric assessments,” she said.

Minister for Veterans' Affairs Bruce Scott was not available for comment yesterday.

As I said at the start of my speech, this legislation in my view does not go far enough. What is the point of five psychiatric visits for the child of a veteran in this situation when there is no ongoing service provided for him? What is the point of five psychiatric visits when this child of a Vietnam veteran's greatest need—not just for himself but for his parents—is an electric wheelchair? Why doesn't the department buy him one? Why does this man have to go out and fight for something for his child when he has spent the best part of his post-Vietnam years fighting for something for himself?

I am not sure that many people in this place will agree with me, but I have a very strong view that if the physical problem that a child suffers can be directly traced to the war service of his or her father then the Veterans Entitlements Act ought to be extended to fully cover the child of a veteran in that circumstance. I hope one day we might see that happen. If these children are suffering, and particularly when we have a health study that validates their condition and validates the situation and shows that the condition is as a direct result of their father's service, then that Veterans' Entitlements Act ought to be, as I have said, extended to cover that child.

The story I have just read said that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Bruce Scott, was unavailable for comment. I must say that this minister has done some good things, but I think there is a heck of a lot that remains to be done. One of the problems that the veteran community has with this minister is that he is very remote, that he is very difficult to get in contact with, and that often he does not respond to much of the mail that is sent to him. I have experienced this myself in this place. Since I have been here I have put a number of questions on the Notice Paper and in many of those instances I have been forced to wait in excess of three months for an answer. I think that is outrageous when we have a minister with an immense resource—an office full of staff—and he cannot respond within a reasonable amount of time, particularly when we are dealing with issues that are not of a political nature but that go to the wellbeing of some of our veterans. Three months ago in this House I raised the situation of a Vietnam veteran who died in Perth, a fellow by the name of Ken Freeman. I read a letter to the House. I know the minister is aware of it because he was sitting at the table when I read it. Three months ago I put these questions to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs on the Notice Paper:

(1) Has his attention been drawn to the recent death of an SAS Vietnam veteran two days after being admitted to the Hollywood Clinic in Western Australia, and the difficult circumstances confronted by the veteran when being admitted to the Clinic.

(2) Was the veteran initially refused admittance to the clinic pending proof that he was a veteran.

(3) Was access to the clinic only achieved after intervention by the veteran's voluntary advocate.

(4) Will he initiate an immediate inquiry into admittance procedures for veterans at this and similar clinics; if not, why not.

I think that is a pretty reasonable issue to raise. I believe I raised it in a very reasonable manner. I did not endeavour to politicise the issue; I simply wanted some answers—not just for myself but for and on behalf of veterans, and not just in Western Australia but right around Australia. Three months have elapsed and I have not had an answer. I have no idea whether the minister has addressed this issue, whether these procedures which were lacking in Western Australia—and I assume in other parts of Australia—have been addressed. Surely, given all the resources this minister has, he could have cared enough to answer me and other veterans who have concerns about these procedures.

In talking about that issue, I want to pay a compliment to the Department of Veterans' Affairs in Perth—they are generally a good department. There was a delay in trying to ascertain the cause of death of this veteran and there was a fairly long wait for the coroner's findings but as soon as the department did get those findings they acted very quickly to make sure that Mr Freeman's widow was granted a widow's pension. Her advocate, Rick Giblett, who is one of those TPI pensioners who puts an immense amount of work back into the veteran community, tells me he is very happy and very pleased with the way the department has responded to this widow's needs. I wish I could say the same thing about the minister in this instance.

I want to touch on the issue of TPI pensioners. There is, unfortunately, a very strong blue going on within the TPI community within Australia. I say `unfortunately' because it appears to me that nationally the TPI association has lost sight of the needs of many younger TPI pensioners to the extent that a number of younger TPI pensioners have come together and launched a campaign to have the rate of the TPI pension improved. I can understand that and I support many, but not all, of the things that they want.

Some of these veterans do not have a service pension; they survive on a TPI pension. Many of them have young children. Many of these pensioners simply cannot provide the sort of lifestyle and quality of life that they want to provide for their kids simply because the TPI pension is not sufficient to live on. In trying to bring this situation to the attention of the hierarchy of their association and of the government they have found that they have had to raise a pretty loud voice to get their attention. It is unfortunate when you see a split in an association like the TPI association, an association which over the years has done much in support of its members across Australia. There is a very strong wake-up call to the hierarchy of the TPI association. That wake-up call sends a very loud message to the hierarchy and to the government. It says that many TPI veterans, many of the members of that association, are not being properly looked after. Their issues are not being properly put forward in Canberra. I suspect that either that rift will be healed or the TPI association will suffer damage from which it will not recover.

So I congratulate Blue Ryan from Perth and others who, like him, have put in an immense amount of time and given much of themselves in an endeavour to win something for those many TPI pensioners who need greater support. I know that many TPI pensioners are not financially strapped and many of them, because of other incomes, are doing okay, but that is not true about all of them. The association ought to wake up to this and start advocating properly on behalf of veterans all over Australia.

In conclusion, I want to say how much I appreciate some of the work that the cadets in this nation are doing. I spent some time with the Girrawheen Senior High School cadet unit a couple of weekends ago. They had their parents with them out in the bush. They were given very strong support by the reserve unit in Perth. I compliment the 11-28 Battalion for the great support they are giving to the cadets there. I also compliment the parents who were involved with this unit for the great work they are doing. Those parents learned a lot when they went out bush with their children, male and female. There are some positives in this legislation, but there is still a heck of a long way to go. We ought to get behind it and get on with it. I support the legislation.