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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 19840

Mr MURPHY (11:56 AM) —I rise this morning to support the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2000. There are a number of important elements to this bill. I want to deal principally with the bill's extension of benefits under the Veterans' Children's Education Scheme for those children who are deemed to be in need—and I will say something about that later—the bill's provision for dependents of veterans to receive psychological assessment and counselling services and its provision of repatriation benefits to veterans who served in South-East Asia.

The government said in its budget statement that these benefits under the Veterans' Children's Education Scheme should be given to in-need children, but it is not clear in the statements from the government what `in need' means. I do not know what the criteria are but, having worked in the Department of Veterans' Affairs as a delegate of the Repatriation Commission and officer of the department, I dare say that an officer of the department will make some recommendation or decision. But obviously there should be some guidelines to determine what is `in need'. The Bills Digest indicates that there will be an avenue open to appeal to the Repatriation Commission and the AAT in terms of definitions dealing with someone who is in need. How do you classify someone who is in need? Obviously the department should be putting out guidelines so that potential applicants would have some indication of what the criteria are so that they might qualify for these benefits. Is the assessment going to be relevant purely to whether a person is on the poverty line? Will it have any relevance to whether the person has some sort of mental or physical disablement? Will it have something to do with the fact that there might be a marital breakdown? I do not know.

Also, is it good to categorise or label children with an `in need' category? Possibly they would not feel too encouraged to be designated as `in need'. When I was working for Veterans' Affairs many years ago, the department used to provide `immediate assistance', and possibly it still does today. If my memory serves me correctly, ex-servicemen who were in indigent circumstances could come to the Department of Veterans' Affairs and get £5, or subsequently $10—I do not know if there was any variation on that amount—if they had fallen on hard times. The point I am making is that guidelines need to be prepared by the Department of Veterans' Affairs and that should be provided to ex-service organisations, particularly the RSL and all the other associations representing ex-servicemen and their dependants, to give people an indication of what the category is and the criteria for determining `in need'.

The other element of the bill that I want to talk about is the extension of psychological assessment and counselling services to be provided to the spouses and dependants of Vietnam veterans. The government should be commended for that because we know from history that war—this applies to any ex-serviceman who has experienced the horrors of war, particularly the Vietnam War—has a tremendous impact on one's life and that its impact starts with the family. The interesting thing here is that the analysis of the morbidity of Vietnam veterans report, which is a very good report, provides some pretty horrifying statistics in the comparisons to be drawn with children of ex-servicemen and the ratio of these children to the total Australian suicide rate. There are some quite alarming statistics. They date from 1988. The youth suicide rate of veterans' children is more than three times higher in 1988, twice as high in 1989, three times in 1990, 2.6 times in 1991, four times in 1992 and, alarmingly, nearly six times in 1993. Sadly, the figures continue up until 1997, indicating that there is a significant increase in the level of youth suicide for children of Vietnam veterans.

I commend the government for the provision in the bill for appropriate psychiatric assessment and counselling services for those children and the dependants of ex-servicemen. I know that in the time I worked for the Department of Veterans' Affairs many Vietnam veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and they still do. We all know the origins of that, because when the ex-servicemen returned from Vietnam they were outcasts; they were not welcomed. The contribution that they made to their country and the sacrifices they made were ignored by everyone. It was not until later in their lives, when we saw the many manifestations and the symptoms of the impact of that service on their lives, that people started to realise the full impact and horror of the Vietnam War. So when this bill provides that service let us hope that these statistics, which are a sad indictment of our society, are significantly reduced. Unfortunately, here in Australia we have a high level of youth suicide. Quite plainly, although the Vietnam veteran population is small, there has been an increase in those statistics purely by virtue of the fact that the children, through no fault of their own, were children of Vietnam veterans.

The figures in this study are a salient reminder of the government's obligations in war management. We know that successive governments, comprising people on both sides of this chamber, have supported the ex-service community. It is accepted here and internationally that the repatriation system in Australia is the most generous compensation system in the world—and so it should be. I know first-hand of this. My uncle served in the Owen Stanley Ranges in World War II. I remember my mother telling me that he returned in 1945 from the south-west Pacific area and was never the same after his service. It was not long after he returned from that war that he started to drink. He then became an alcoholic. His marriage collapsed and ultimately he ended up sleeping in parks and as a trust case in the Department of Veterans' Affairs. That is a terrible thing to happen to anyone, but I know that hurt my mother very deeply because my mother said that when my uncle went to war in the early 1940s he was a very fit, intelligent, handsome young man; she was very close to him. Within a matter of years of doing what all countrymen did after they answered the call in the 1939-45 conflict, he suffered greatly, and that had a devastating impact on his family. In those days, of course, there were not the services that are provided today to ex-servicemen, as this legislation will do. I am, effectively, saying is that the psychological impact of war is paramount in the consideration of veterans' entitlements legislation. The casualties of war can include permanent disabilities, including the broad effects of those on families, as has been clearly evidenced by this debate here this morning. Obviously, the figures in this morbidity of Vietnam veterans study are empirical proof of the effect of that war on ex-servicemen's families.

The member for Herbert, who spoke just before me, has alluded to the fact that all of us in this House should be looking out for the veterans who have recently served in East Timor and, of course, those who are currently serving in Bougainville and doing a great job for their country. No doubt when they return to civilian life in Australia they are going to experience difficulties similar to those of many of the Vietnam veterans. More than that, there are Australian soldiers located in many other parts of the world and in areas which could potentially be war zones or are classified as war zones constituting, obviously, a real threat to their lives. Therefore there is going to be an ongoing need, for many years to come, to provide these services. The government deserves a tick for the benefits in this legislation. I would like to make it quite clear that, like all the other speakers, I support it. I particularly want to acknowledge the fact that the government has put in this budget in the order of $32.3 million to provide these services.

The bill also has a provision to acknowledge qualifying service in certain areas of South-East Asia. I will not go through all of those areas, which are listed in the Bills Digest. Suffice to say that it includes areas like the Thai-Malay border at a certain period of time and also those who served in the RAAF in Ubon in Thailand. It is all listed in the Bills Digest. Obviously it is a very worthwhile thing. Many ex-servicemen volunteered their services and went overseas, although they may not have served in what we used to call, when I was in Veterans' Affairs, a theatre of war, which is where most but not all servicemen served when they went outside Australia. It gave them what is now called qualifying service and automatically entitled them, subject to the assets test and the income test, to a service pension. That was provided to compensate them for the indefinable and intangible effects of war service. I was an old ministerial writer in the mid-1970s in the Department of Veterans' Affairs—

Mr Lee —A young ministerial writer.

Mr MURPHY —The member for Dobell, as a member with a very high proportion of veterans and widows and dependants, knows all about this.

Mr Lee —Did you draft replies to my queries?

Mr MURPHY —I have drafted some replies in my day to Labor members. We used to receive complaints and reply to them. Unfortunately, in those days governments were not quite as generous as the legislation is today, and we had to say to the prospective pensioner, `Unfortunately, although you may have offered yourself, because you did not serve outside Australia in an area classified as a theatre of war, or north of 14.5 degrees south latitude between February 1942 and November 1943 in the Northern Territory because of the threat that was going on from the assault from the north, particularly in Darwin, you do not qualify for the service pension. This is a good extension of a benefit to give these particular ex-servicemen who served in those areas, for example, during the Malayan Emergency, the qualifying service provision. They should be given that provision because, notwithstanding that they might not have had the same experience in combat as others in the front line and those who served in the artillery, quite plainly, if you were prepared to put your life on the line for your country the least your country can do for you is to give you qualifying service, because that extends benefits to the ex-serviceman and dependants. That is the least that the government should do.

All in all, this is a very worthy bill and one that I know we all support. I was making a speech in the Main Committee when the member for Cowan spoke. He more than anyone here has experienced the horrors and the consequences of the Vietnam War. Truly he is a great Australian for the price he had to pay for serving his country. I have not said anything about the member for Cowan before, but I think he happens to be one of the most special members in the parliament. He is clearly a person who has let go of the past. This morning I caught the tail end of his speech as he was saying something about the TPI association, the association for totally and permanently incapacitated ex-servicemen, needing to lift its game to advocate on behalf of ex-servicemen. I remember that when I was in Veterans' Affairs in the mid to late 1970s there was an enormous power struggle going on between the Victorian and New South Wales branches of the TPI association, and a lot of that was visited on various heads of the department in the states. I was working at that time for the Deputy Commissioner of Veterans' Affairs, Jim Greenwood, who himself was a prisoner of war of the Japanese in Changi. He was also a very distinguished serviceman. He was very troubled in those days that many of the members of the TPI association were not looking after their members; they were there for themselves. If I have understood the message from listening to the last minutes of the member for Cowan's speech, if those people who purport to be representing totally and permanently incapacitated ex-servicemen—and that really means that they are incapacitated for life to such an extent that they cannot work more than eight hours and they cannot earn an income, solely due to war service—are not doing well, obviously they should do something about getting out of it and letting other people who are a bit more enthusiastic look after the TPI association.

I would like to observe that the Australian civilian surgical aid and medical team do not qualify for compensation. I remember that the member for Mackellar, who is now the Minister for Aged Care, had responsibility for that portfolio and she did not do anything about it—and she is not doing a particularly good job at the moment anyhow in respect of aged care. Last December, at a nursing home in my electorate where there are ex-servicemen there was the opening of a refurbishment. She was invited to that. Because I had other commitments in the electorate, I could not go, but I did send a representative, as I always do when I have more than one function to attend. The member for Mackellar, the Minister for Aged Care, three months before the kerosene baths incident, just bagged the Labor Party, and it was an absolutely inappropriate occasion to do so—

Mrs Gash —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. This is not relevant to this bill.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—I think the member for Lowe was tying it to veterans' affairs.

Mr MURPHY —This is relevant; there is no point of order. This is relevant to veterans because there are veterans and widows of veterans in the nursing home I was referring to. The minister was taking the opportunity of an opening to bag the Labor Party and its policy. We know, from the 30 questions that were asked of the minister here earlier this year of her failings and of her masterful projection of her inadequacies onto the accreditation agency with her taking absolutely no responsibility herself. Quite properly she should have resigned, because things are not getting any better in nursing homes. There are a lot of ex-service men and women and their dependants in nursing homes at the moment. There is an established community in Lowe in which there is a high proportion of people 65 and over, and there are a lot of ex-service men and women in nursing homes. I wanted to make that point. I conclude by saying that civilian surgical and medical teams should qualify for compensation. (Time expired)