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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 19838

Mr LINDSAY (11:43 AM) —On the evening of 12 March 1996 I was at my home in Townsville. My family and friends were there. We were celebrating my son's 21st birthday. We were not prepared for what was to happen later that evening. At about 7 o'clock in the evening a report came through on the local radio station that there had been a serious accident at the Army's high range training area to the north-west of Townsville involving Black Hawks from 5 Aviation Regiment. Within half an hour I was at the Townsville General Hospital with Brigadier Mike Smith, the then commander of the 3rd Brigade. The awful reality of what happened that evening began to become clear. I called the Prime Minister to let him know what was what. Overnight the Minister for Defence and the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence arranged to come to Townsville. Early the next morning I met the two ministers and we went to 5 Aviation. I will never forget the ashen looks on the faces of the members of 5 Aviation Regiment when it became painfully clear that 18 soldiers had lost their lives in that accident.

The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2000, which we are debating today, in part helps relieve some of the tragedy of that accident and underlines the government's determination to assist in these awful circumstances. Amendments being made to this legislation will assist Australian Defence Force members who have been severely injured as a result of their service and the families of members who have been killed as a result of their service. The incident that I referred to is covered by the amendments to the bill. These amendments will ensure that any additional payments for the severe injury or the death made by a determination under the Defence Act 1903 will not affect any compensation payments that may be payable under the Veterans Entitlements Act 1986. These additional payments are part of an assistance package that this government introduced after an inquiry into military compensation arrangements undertaken in 1997, in the aftermath of the Black Hawk accident. I know that the then Minister for Defence Industry, Science and Personnel, Bronwyn Bishop, moved heaven and earth to make sure that the right thing was done for those families who lost a loved one and for those who were severely injured in that incident.

I, like the member for Cowan, also believe that there is a lot more to be done in the area of assisting our veterans. I would like to take this opportunity to articulate some of that, because last week I was privileged to have a meeting with representatives of the veteran community in Townsville and to listen to their concerns. It was a very good and productive meeting. The first point they made was the need for a PTSD clinic in the north. Currently, any veteran who suffers this awful affliction has to travel to Brisbane for treatment. They are away from their families for a long time and they are in a state of stress caused by this affliction. It is entirely unsatisfactory that this should happen. The result is that a number of people just do not go.

The veterans put the proposition to me that, instead of sending people suffering from PTSD to Brisbane, there should be an opportunity to have a clinic in Townsville—which would pay for itself because there would not be the living away from home and travel allowances and so on. They could stay at the Vietnam veterans house. It would be a good result if we could do that in the local area in North Queensland. It could be done through the Mater or the Park Haven hospitals. I think the veterans made a good point in that regard.

Something that is worrying me—which I do not think you will be aware of, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley; I am more likely to be aware of it because of the defence component in my electorate—is that we are finding that there are cases of PTSD now coming out of Timor. We have only been in Timor for 12 months. The local vets tell me that of the 41 current cases of PTSD they have on their books seven are Timor veterans, who are still serving members of the ADF, incidentally. The government not only needs to take that into account but it also needs to be very responsive.

The other matter related to Timor which will impact on veterans ultimately is that soldiers are coming back from Timor with viruses that are not yet known. Because these viruses have not been identified, they cannot get compensation. The local vets indicated to me that they believe the people at James Cook University could help in the identification of these viruses. If that can proceed and be funded then the veterans will be able to make proper claims. At the moment the reality is that if you do not have the name of the virus you cannot claim for it. I think that they have made a valid point in that regard.

Funding is also needed for emergency accommodation for veterans. We have a very good property in Townsville called Zachs Place. Unfortunately, professional help is needed to run the place. It is not satisfactory to do it on a volunteer basis. It needs the employment of a professional house manager, some dollars to cover transportation, and between $40,000 and $60,000 per annum to cover costs.

The next point that was raised was the proper funding of veterans' organisations. The member for Cowan quite correctly said in this debate that a lot of the help that goes on in the Vietnam veterans community is being done on a voluntary basis. The TNPI people give their time unstintingly to help their fellow veterans. But it is coming to the time where we cannot fund veterans support services by raffles; it is coming to the time where these organisations need help with secretarial services. If we can provide a small amount of money—say, $20,000 a year per organisation—to help with phone costs and the services they provide and to make sure that they do not have to charge big membership fees, it will save the Department of Veterans' Affairs a lot of money.

The people who provide their services free of charge to the community—and it is very welcome—in particular the people who deal with welfare issues, need more training from the Department of Veterans' Affairs. We know that that is a very important component of the services that are provided by the veterans groups. That is something that the government could well take on board and it would be something that the department would also strongly support.

Carrying on from that, I come from a regional area as you do, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley. I think that there should be a lot more use of telemedicine type facilities and technology. We have isolated people in the north of Australia, in my patch. The city of Mount Isa is serviced by Townsville, but it is some 500 kilometres to the west and there is a large area in between. Where welfare officers can get onto the telemedicine technology they can get to isolated people very easily and provide much needed services to those who are in very isolated areas.

I also warm to a matter that the member for Cowan raised today. He referred to the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service and the need to change its name. This is a tough issue and something that I believe the minister is going to have to bite the bullet on, because no longer is the name Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service appropriate. It is now servicing Korean veterans. In fact, it is open to all veterans. So it really should be renamed, I believe, to something like the `Veterans Health and Support Service'. In that way, its true role as it exists today would be recognised. It would encourage more people to use the service who are currently concerned with the name Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service. I think that we can give strong support to that.

I was very pleased to have that feedback from the veterans' groups in Townsville. I will continue that process and I will continue to relay that feedback to the government. The Howard government strongly believes that the Australian veterans' community deserves generous support, care and compensation through a simple, fair and responsive system that is unique to their needs. This bill gives effect to a range of measures outlined in the budget as part of the Howard government's commitment to veterans. I am pleased to support this bill, for a wide range of reasons. There are a number of initiatives in the bill. Other speakers have covered the detail of that. As my time has now expired, I can only say to the parliament that I welcome the opposition support for the bill and I give it my strong support.