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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 19843

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) (12:15 PM) —Can I firstly thank members who made an invaluable contribution to the debate on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2000. At this point, I should also point out that it is Legacy Week, a most appropriate week to discuss this bill. I ask all members of the House to encourage people in their communities to get behind Legacy in their fundraising during Legacy Week.

Honourable members—Hear, hear!

Mr BRUCE SCOTT —This bill delivers a number of budget measures which will provide significant benefits to veterans and their families. The bill addresses the anomalies in the service entitlements of those who served in South-East Asia between 1955 and 1975. I know that it has been of longstanding concern to many of those who served in those theatres that they had not been recognised by previous governments. As a result of this bill, an estimated 2,600 veterans will become eligible for an extended range of repatriation benefits with the reclassification of their service into qualifying service under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. In addition, an estimated 1,500 veterans will gain access to repatriation benefits by the inclusion of their South-East Asia service as operational service.

The bill will also provide significant assistance to Vietnam veterans and their families. This government commissioned the Vietnam Veterans Health Study to identify and address the concerns of the Vietnam veteran community. The government recognises that veterans' families, as well as veterans themselves, need support, and this bill will facilitate that support. It will enable a range of preventative health initiatives, with support and care services for veterans and their families, including the ex-partners and, importantly, the children of Vietnam veterans.

A number of questions were raised as a result of speeches to this bill, and I want to make some comment on them. I note that the member for Reid is with us in the House. He raised the issue of nurses in Vietnam. For the benefit of the member for Reid, can I say that this is not an issue of whether or not nurses were covered by compensation—they were covered under the Commonwealth Employees Compensation Act. It is not denied that the nurses endured very difficult conditions. I have said repeatedly that if anyone can show that nurses at any time came under the command of the ADF the nurses would receive the same benefits. We have said that in the past, and I understand from advice from my department that some nurses have been able to show that connection, to show that they were under the command of the ADF, and have received a veterans' entitlement.

The member for Moreton referred to the shortcomings of the Department of Defence in the treatment of a number of service people and service families. I will be talking with the member for Moreton, and I will certainly undertake to look at the cases he has reported on to see that they receive the benefits and the service that they are entitled to. I also recognise the validity of his concern about the treatment of PTSD. However, I would like to remind the House that Australian Defence Force members now have access to the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service as a result of this budget bill. I would also like to recognise the comments of the member for Moreton on the status of cadets. I will certainly make sure that his comments are passed on to the parliamentary secretary, because this government is in the final stages of a review of the cadet scheme in Australia.

The member for Cowan raised some interesting issues in relation to TNPIs, and I note his concerns about the current issues within the TNPI federation. Can I advise the House that I have met with the federation a number of times. I have had discussions with them, and those discussions are continuing. Only yesterday I addressed the national congress of the RSL of Western Australia, along with the shadow minister for veterans' affairs. We both noted the concerns of the TNPI federation. I also note the concerns that were raised within the resolutions of the RSL, and I certainly look forward to receiving a positive proposal from them in the near future.

The member for Cowan also raised the issue of the defunding—I think that is how he described it—of the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service in western Queensland. Coming from western Queensland, I would be alarmed to hear that this was happening. My understanding is that that really is a furphy. If there is any concern about this, I would hope that it would be raised with my electorate office in western Queensland. I want to assure western Queensland and the member for Cowan that funds will continue to be available in western Queensland—or anywhere, for that matter—on a needs basis. However, it is true that some arrangements for delivery of those services in some areas may have changed. But I certainly will be making sure that veterans, including those in my constituency in western Queensland, are not denied access to the service. I am sure they have not been denied access, and this matter has certainly not been raised with my electorate office. I reiterate that the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service outreach service in western Queensland will continue.

The member for Cowan also raised the issue of a wheelchair for Clarrie Upton. When I was made aware of that issue on 18 August I asked my department about the situation and spoke to Clarrie Upton's mother. I said to her that a wheelchair would be made available by my department if his doctor recommended it. I am sure members of the House are aware that under the repatriation system a local medical officer is a terribly important link between the veterans and those entitlements to make sure that they are delivered. I have assured Clarrie Upton's mother that a wheelchair will be provided should it be recommended by his doctor.

I acknowledge the concern raised by the member for Herbert on assistance needed for Black Hawk victims and their families. I share his concern, hence the provisions in this bill which will I think help those victims and their families. I also note he has some health concerns for Timor victims. The Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs are now closely linked through the Defence DVA links program. We are closely monitoring the health concerns of Timor personnel. We want to ensure that treatment is provided and that compensation is fairly provided. Since our involvement in East Timor through INTERFET, and now UNTAET, there are now some 9,000 Australians who have served in the ADF in East Timor and have a full veteran entitlement as a result of that service.

I also acknowledge the concerns re the title of the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service. I accept that it provides a service more broadly than just to the veterans of the Vietnam campaign. The initiative where the ADF will now receive access to the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service may mean that the Vietnam veterans and the committee that look at this may consider a change of name at some time in the future. I acknowledge that the Vietnam veterans themselves have built their own recognition in the community of the need that they had in relation to those who served in Vietnam by getting the broader community and government to focus on those needs through the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service. In many ways, it became a badge of recognition of the need for government to look very closely and provide support for Vietnam veterans and their families. I know it is a name they have always guarded, but I think that, from some of the Vietnam veterans I have spoken to, they see it now working in a broader context as well as for Vietnam veterans. One day they may look at a name change so that it becomes more broadly recognised in the community that it helps not only Vietnam veterans but also members of the ADF. I recall that in the case of the Port Arthur shootings the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service of Tasmania was brought in and gave tremendous support to those families who were traumatised as a result of the shootings.

In conclusion, the government continues our commitment to our veterans and their families, and the matters in this bill certainly support that commitment. There is no more deserving group that require our admiration and gratitude than those men and women who have served Australia in war and in conflict. I thank all of those members who have made a contribution to the passage of this bill. I commend the bill to the House.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.