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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 19852

Mr RIPOLL (1:05 PM) —I today speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2000. Members can approach how they make their contributions on certain bills in a range of ways. What I like to do, particularly with these types of bills, is not just look at the technical aspects or the changes in the bill, although I do look at those and mention them in my contribution, but also make comment about the general intent, the purpose and the resulting effect on the community. I also like to make some comments on how the community will receive these changes and what is happening in that community.

So I am very pleased today to be speaking on this bill, particularly because it comes at a time when we are supporting the needs of our returned soldiers and their families through the annual Legacy appeal—which in fact is today. It was quite timely, as I purchased the badge I am wearing this morning, that I be reminded of the selfless and tireless work Legacy and many other volunteer associations undertake on behalf of the veteran community across Australia. The weather was pretty fresh this morning and I have a great regard for anyone who is prepared to stand outside on a cold Canberra morning selling badges for much needed funds. The gentlemen out there this morning were all volunteers. It would not surprise me if a few of them headed back to work after their stint of badge selling this morning. One gentleman had actually given a member $5 to buy a badge. I know we do not always carry cash in our wallets, but I hope this volunteer got an IOU from the member and that they will get their money back.

Overall the effort of Legacy this morning is indicative of the kindness, the compassion and the generosity that can be found in so many veteran associations. Each group has its priority, but I doubt any of them would turn away a veteran or a member of a veteran's family if they were asking for help. Legacy is a great example of an organisation that has evolved with the change in veterans, their problems and the solutions throughout the past 80 years. I would like to quote a founding member of Legacy, Frank Select:

We have to remember that in a way we survivors have received a legacy to see that the ideals our comrades died fighting for are maintained in Australia.

I doubt those at the inaugural meeting of Legacy could have predicted how relevant that statement is today. Legacy now supports people affected by both world wars, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Malayan Emergency, the Gulf War and our peacekeepers who are so often forgotten in many of the activities—sometimes even in spirit—that are undertaken. But they are certainly not forgotten by members in this place and they are certainly not forgotten by my electorate or the veteran community in Oxley.

I attend many veterans' functions and am always impressed with the camaraderie amongst the members and the genuine compassion they have for each other. As is the case with many other voluntary organisations, veterans' groups are usually held together through the hard work of a select few. At times it must be frustrating when so many people benefit from the efforts of just so few individuals. I have concluded that the major reason these people advocate for others is the fact that if they did not there would be no-one else.

It is unfortunate that we find ourselves today still having to buy and sell badges for an annual fund-raiser such as Legacy. I only say that it is unfortunate, because there should be other and more substantial ways for these things to occur, which is not to detract from the good work that Legacy does. These organisations need to be self-funding, but I am frustrated that the financial pressure they face is based on an increase in the resources and services they have to provide to their members.

Quickly looking at the services provided by Legacy, there is a broad and diverse range of assistance available, including counselling and advisory services, war widows' pension claims advocacy and assistance, financial assistance to Legacy widows and dependants, health and welfare programs, information, social and recreational programs and a range of other activities. It is frustrating that an organisation such as Legacy, which was developed in the 1920s to assist returned soldiers and war widows get back on their feet, today represents for some the only source of advice and support on everyday matters that they feel truly gives them what they need.

It is frustrating that Legacy has the need to provide an advocacy service so that a war widow can adequately deal with a federal government agency. It is perhaps also frustrating that while it is probably necessary that they do have one, regardless of how good the service from government can be, it often replaces or substitutes what the federal government agency might do.

The bill we are discussing today has been developed to clarify entitlement eligibility definitions. It is written with the intention of compassion and understanding of veterans' and their families' needs. I do not say that lightly. I have been very critical at times of the department and the minister in certain areas within the portfolio, particularly in areas to do with compassion and understanding. While I think this bill actually redresses some of those issues, I make that statement only to this bill.

The amendments to the Veterans' Children Education Scheme, the VCES, are positive. They indicate a commitment by the Department of Veterans' Affairs to the long-term welfare of these people. The amendments to the Repatriation Medical Authority's issuing of determinations of statements of principle are also very positive. The consolidation of multiple cases and the easy rectification of clear administrative errors and decisions are to be commended. It is good to acknowledge that logic can reign in some places of bureaucracy. I am concerned, however, that the theory behind these amendments will be undermined by the reality of the poor resources and the insurmountable caseloads of the responsible agencies.

In March this year I was inundated with veterans expressing their concern about the changes to the age criteria of dependents of Vietnam veterans eligible for the resources of the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service, the VVCS. The manner in which the change was done was extremely underhanded and it was calculatedly based on budgetary shortfalls. The government's reaction to the protest was to announce in the Veterans' Affairs budget in May that the age for the counselling services would be raised from 25 years to 35 years. What was heralded by the minister as a budget bonus for veterans was merely the rectification of a harsh and grossly non-compassionate departmental decision. So if in March 2000 the VVCS budget had to save a bit of money, one would assume it would need to find those savings in August 2000. If one assumed that, one would be right. The VVCS has been targeted to save a bit of cash and this time the government is far more crude about it.

It is now proposed that the VVCS cease the country outreach program. This is scheduled for December 2000, just a short few months away, six months after the last failed attempt to save money in similar areas. The VVCS provides an extraordinary service to its clients. It has an enormous and diverse workload. For many years the service provided by the VVCS has reflected the complexity of Vietnam veterans' concerns and problems. Essential to the success of the VVCS has been the inclusion of family, particularly the children of veterans, in the healing and advocacy process.

What are people in the rural and regional areas of Australia to do if they can no longer access the services of the VVCS? The only conclusion I can make is that they will either travel to the nearest service available or simply stop using the service, neither of which is satisfactory or good news for anyone in the veteran community.

The recent Vietnam Veterans Health Survey provided conclusive evidence of the significantly high incidence of youth suicide and spina bifida amongst children of Vietnam veterans. I am alarmed that, nearly two years after the initial report was released, the government is winding up an important element of the report's recommendations. I actually spoke a couple of days ago in this House about the findings of both reports, also the Vietnam Veterans Morbidity Survey. The findings are quite stark. I was very disappointed about what I found in those two reports. I will not go into the details here but I will just repeat that I found the reports, the recommendations and the conclusions to be based on disqualifiers, disclaimers, qualification and fear of liability rather than on the premise that there is something positive to come out of it and something positive to be done—although I am certain that the minister's intention is for that to be the case.

The VVCS is a highly successful and effective unit of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The service provided by the VVCS is important to the veteran community and should not be limited to those fortunate enough to live near a VVCS centre. There is real pain out there in the veteran community, there is real pain in the Vietnam veterans' community and there is real pain in the peacekeeping community. These are people who have, through no choice of their own, been selected by whatever means was appropriate at the time to represent Australia in conflict, to be there for us. These were the people who did not choose to go but did go and went with great credibility and did great service for their country.

What has impressed me in recent years with this community, as I have said on many occasions, is their tenacity, their ability to work together and their capacity to work through and deal with their own issues—their capacity as a community to bind together and to do things for themselves. But as in all things, that is only a starting point, and it is necessary for government to understand its role in that community and its role in providing the resources they need to move forward.

For whatever reason, right now or in this period in history we are seeing this community rallying around certain issues and really coming together. There might be a number of explanations for that. I think it might be a coincidence of timing, such that after a number of years certain issues have come to the surface again. The Vietnam veterans' community has found a real binding factor in a whole range of issues. I am impressed with that and I think the government should also be very impressed with that. It should be prepared to take extraordinary steps to move towards resolving some of those issues that have been around for many years.

I think the time is right. We are always going to hear from any government or any opposition that the time is right now. But I am not talking about whether it is the minister who is in government now or the minister when we will be in government. Now is the time because the reports have been concluded and we have finalised a number of matters. The community has rallied together with one voice and all of these things are coming together right now. Now is the time for this minister to stand up and say, `I have an opportunity to redress some of these long outstanding issues.' We have seen some movement in this place, after a great deal of pressure in some instances from this side.

One of the things that is important and which I applaud in this bill is the recognition of the need for flexibility. This is what we talk about at the coalface. This is what the veterans want. They want and need flexibility. I think this is recognised here and I applaud that. That needs to be backed up with resources, not just goodwill. As I have just described, the resources include the country program, which is now being axed.

I do not understand why the government thinks that the axing of the VVCS program in the country somehow signifies an intent to make services more available. We often hear, at painful length, from members of the government about their commitment and dedication and how they understand the bush and regional areas much better than we do. Somehow they think they have licence in these areas. Where is your licence in this area? Why are the government cutting programs in this area? Purely to save money. Certainly, budget measures have to be made and there are always constraints but I do not believe that cutting VVCS in the country is the way to do it.

The member for Mallee spoke earlier, and I commend him on his contribution. He talked about quality of life in general and the quality of life he and his father missed out on. We are talking about something that is very real—something that all veterans feel. It is a physical thing. It is something that not only they, but also their families, go through. Anyone looking at the statistics and seeing the effect cannot deny the great pain that veterans and their families go through. It is something that cannot be denied and it is something we have a responsibility to address.

The member for Mallee also raised the issue of East Timor. It is an issue I want to put on the record. We again have a great opportunity to correct some of the mistakes of the past, for example, the way we treat the service men and women who return from service in East Timor. We should look very carefully—and I know the veteran community is looking very carefully—at the way we treat them. It is something I put on the record because I think it is very important.

I have a very large veteran community in my electorate of Oxley, of which I am very proud. Ipswich has some great history in this area. My veteran community is very involved. They get out there and are supportive of the families. They try to change things and work together to make life easier and better for all veterans and peacekeepers. Recently we celebrated 18 August in the very heart of my electorate, the suburb of Goodna. Some people say Goodna is a suburb of Ipswich—I always say that Ipswich is a suburb of Goodna. On that day we had an incredible turnout. It was different from the event started a few years ago by a handful of Vietnam veterans and each year attended by a couple of dozen people. This year several hundred people turned out. There was a fly-over by an Iroquois, and the day was attended by the commander of the Amberley RAAF base, a number of local federal and state representatives and the Mayor of Ipswich. It was an absolutely phenomenal event and a fantastic day. The organising committee should be congratulated for their great work, as should the Goodna RSL, the Ipswich RSL, the sub-branch, the Railway branch and the other units in my electorate. I was very proud to be there. It was quite a moving occasion. There were not many dry eyes watching the parade. It brought back a flood of memories. The thing that shines out from these days is that this is a fantastic community and one we need to look after.

I want to refer in relation to this bill to certificates of appreciation events. I have run a number of these events in my electorate. I thought that the first one I ran would be a one-off. I thought we would ask people whether they were eligible for a certificate of appreciation. I thought it would be something we could do for the veteran community. We have had four events and are coming up to number five. It is something we will keep doing, because it is an incredible event for these people and gives something back to them.

I did not understand that well until the shadow minister, Con Sciacca, was my guest at one of these events. Con Sciacca is extremely well respected in the veteran community. He is absolutely revered. In giving out the certificates, he started his speech to the veterans in a bizarre way and I scratched my head wondering where he was going with his comments. He spent about five minutes talking about himself. He said he had been given great honours, not only through his position as a member of parliament but also, when he was no longer in office, as a life member of the RSL, which is an even greater honour. He kept talking about the honours he has had, but he drew his speech to a close by saying to those people that there is one thing he will never get and that is a certificate of appreciation because he did not serve. That really summed up how important and significant these certificates are. I commend the government for this bill. (Time expired)