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Thursday, 1 March 2001
Page: 24854

Ms JANN McFARLANE (10:32 AM) —I am pleased to be able to stand here in the Main Committee today to talk on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Application of Criminal Code) Bill 2000 and on the amendments. I would like to particularly commend the government for continuing their program of harmonising, as the minister said in his second reading speech, `offence-creating and related provisions in Commonwealth legislation with the Criminal Code'. These amendments are helpful to the veterans community and individual veterans in that they protect veterans. If they have any kind of problem with the act or with the department, the provisions are now clear. As has been pointed out in the explanatory memorandum, the amendments will remove from the system those cases that often go on for many years to clarify the meaning of words and define words. This legislation is, in effect, to tidy up that and hence is to protect individual veterans and the veterans community.

In talking on this bill, I would like to take the opportunity to let the Main Committee know the respect in which the veterans community is held. It is their efforts and great sacrifice that have allowed us to continue to live in one of the safest and most stable democracies in the world. Amongst my parliamentary duties I am secretary of a Labor social policy and community development committee which covers veterans issues. As part of that role I am chair of the working party on veterans issues, and I have had the responsibility of meeting with individual veterans and veterans organisations when they have come to Parliament House to meet us and talk to us about their concerns and how they think their lives are impinged on by government legislation and the services provided through the government budget.

The veterans community are happy that we do have, as a member pointed out earlier, one of the best veterans entitlements system in the world. However, as was also pointed out by a previous speaker, there are gaps. Our shadow minister, Chris Schacht, has gone around Australia consulting with veterans individually and with veterans organisations about their issues and concerns.

Among the concerns that have been raised, as has been pointed out by the member for Cowan, is the diminution in some of the levels of entitlement. Recently the T&PI Association and the Extreme Disablement Association came and met with the government and with the Labor Party and our working party. They are greatly concerned that compensation has not been kept at a reasonable level. Because the CPI as a benchmark is insufficient, their lifestyles are being diminished. Their concern is that members of parliament do not seem to listen to and hear what they are saying. However, in conversation with these vets it sometimes transpires that there are other, underlying concerns about the impact of the GST and things like rising petrol prices on their household budgets.

Other issues that have come forward from the veterans community and individual vets include a lack of rehabilitation when they were discharged from the defence forces after long periods of service or after active service. Some of the veterans have expressed a concern that the emphasis seems to be primarily on benefits and entitlements. What a lot of them now realise—of course, it is always in hindsight—is that rehabilitation services are the productive, helpful path to their rebuilding their lives after a long period in the defence forces, with the impacts on families and children of so much moving around, or after active service. Rehabilitation is the key to their coping with the results of their active service, for them to be restored as fully productive members of our community.

One of the concerns expressed to me—for me, like the member for Cowan, this is purely anecdotal—is the reduction of staff in the Department of Veterans' Affairs. There is also a concern at the loss of senior, experienced people. The veterans community in Perth is small, because Western Australia has a much smaller population, and so these changes are noticed very quickly. People tend, when they go in to the department, to look for the familiar face, the familiar person. And when they go in there and find somebody who does not understand their background, their history or their case, it causes them concern and anxiety. More and more, the practical, on-the-ground impact of modern arrangements in government departments—redundancies, contract staff, casual or temporary or section 72 staff, whatever their status may be—is a loss of the familiar, a loss of the ability to go in and deal with people who actually know about you or know about the program, who know about all the different levels of entitlement and can be helpful to people trying to access what they need.

Local groups come into my electorate office and meet with me. Their emphasis is always on how their particular community is, how the people in their local area are coping and how they themselves try to provide services. The Perth RSL is not technically in my electorate but it services my electorate, receiving Department of Veterans' Affairs funding to provide its welfare service. I would like to put it on the record that Pat and Allan, who have been at the Perth RSL for many years, run a wonderful service—very skilful, very helpful, sensitive and tuned-in. It is because of their longevity in the job and in the Perth RSL, and the level of knowledge and skills they have gained, that they are able to provide this excellent and helpful service to the veterans community, their families and their children.

In my electorate I am fortunate to have a number of sub-branches, and I take the opportunity to mention them here. The Osborne Park RSL, with Bill Sullivan, who has been president there for quite a number of years, has done an excellent job—building up the club, making it viable and relevant to the members and a very friendly and welcoming place to go to.

The North Beach sub-branch is also in my electorate. The president there, Roger Hardwicke, does an excellent job. The club does not actually have a building, but it does get to use the premises of the North Beach Bowling Club. It does an excellent job of making sure that the members in that part of the electorate are well looked after, their needs are met and they are linked into services where needed—sometimes through my office. The biggest club in my electorate, and the most active, is the Nollamara/North Perth sub-branch, where the president, Keith Boxshall, has taken a club that was small and struggling and built it up to the stage where it has the finances to employ a part-time welfare officer, who works with the Perth RSL in helping the veterans community.

The Scarborough sub-branch is also in my electorate. It does not have a building, but it does have access to the Doubleview Bowling Club. It works hard with that committee to put on events, provide support services and ensure that, if members are not seen around the club building for a while, someone makes the effort of making contact with them. It is usually a matter of health or illness, and it makes sure it is linked into the services and that support and nurturing are provided. These associations are wonderful mechanisms to make sure that veterans are looked after—particularly when they are ageing and may lose their family members—with support networks and support mechanisms in place and access to the programs needed to make their lives reasonable in their last days.

A number of other organisations in my electorate come to me with issues and to raise their concerns. These include the Hamersley support group, the T&PI Association, the ED association, the HMAS Gawler association, a number of naval associations as well as RAAF associations. One of the most active groups now is the Vietnam veterans association. They have only recently come to meet with me to let me know what their concerns are for their members. The biggest concerns that come over when these associations come to meet me are the need for more counselling services and the need to ensure that Home and Community Care Services are there and available when the members need them—not having to be on a waiting list or having to go many miles across to Perth to access something but having it available in their local area where needed.

The other issue that comes up is the issue of counselling and services for the wives and children of the veterans. As the member for Cowan pointed out, at times there is a lack of available relevant services, particularly for children, when somebody has a need which is not funded for but may come up at fairly short notice because of a fairly unique or difficult circumstance within the family. I draw that to the attention of the House so that, hopefully, in looking at the budget that we are now preparing for 2001, some provision is made for extraordinary items and special events.

The other thing I would like to say is that in the past couple of years I have had a fair bit to do with people who were prisoners of war, both civilian prisoners of war and Defence Force prisoners of war. My contact and connection with them is always fairly painful. To see the health problems they suffer because of what they suffered during the war is always very sad. I took the time to go to Sandakan in Borneo, and it was a very humbling experience. There is no actual physical evidence there anymore of the prisoner of war camp. But there is a tree and a street called Australia Street, and on the tree is a plaque that says, `This is where the Sandakan prisoner of war camp was.' I had family members and neighbours who died in Sandakan, and it was very humbling to stand at that tree and think of the inhumanity and cruelty that was perpetrated on the prisoners of war and on the local community, because some of them died because they tried to give support and nurturing to the prisoners of war.

Recently, I went to the River Kwai, in the Kanchanaburi province of Thailand. I had family members and relatives who died in the prisoner of war camp there also, working on the railway line. Again it was humbling to stand in the war cemetery, which is fairly large, and to see the photos, pictures and memorabilia from that time in the three museums there.

All this makes me, as a member of the peace movement since 1969, very conscious that—as I have discussed with many veterans and veterans organisations—if we are not aware of human rights issues, if we do not all work for peace, if we do not have mechanisms in place in our society, if Australia does not support the treaty bodies and the treaty processes, if we all just look after ourselves and look to individual financial and material success, then the path we go down is a path of selfishness and individualisation. And it is such paths, in my mind and my experience, that lead people to become disconnected from their fellow human beings and lead to conflict. When there is conflict at the local level, you have sad situations. When there is conflict at the international level, you have wars. I never would want to see another war that would allow such inhumanity to be perpetrated on people as we experienced in World War I and World War II. In particular, I would encourage every member to go and visit some of the prisoner of war places.

Twenty years ago, when I made my one and only trip to Europe, I went to Dachau, in Germany, and to Auschwitz. That was a defining moment for me, which kept me involved and bonded with the peace movement for many years. I would encourage people to go and visit those places, because what they represent has been done to people by people; the cruelty and the violence are not always government orchestrated. It is in people to seek revenge, to see others as lesser, to allow other people to be treated cruelly, or to torture and kill them.

If there were no wars, we would need no veterans bills. We would have no veterans community. However, there have been wars, conflicts and incidents—call them what you like. They have led to the creation of a group of people who have suffered in serving their country; they have suffered injuries and now suffer from disabilities and health problems. It is in the interest of all of us to work in a bipartisan way to make sure that the funding and budgets are there, that these people's health is looked after, that their families, their grieving widows and children, are looked after, that services are provided in a timely way, that a focus on rehabilitation, on home and community care, is kept at the forefront of the budget, and that counselling and practical services are provided if and where needed.

To return to the purpose of the bill: it is a technical bill. It is a bill about tidying up the matter of offences. But it is a bill that actually protects people if it makes life simpler when they are going through any kind of process with the Department of Veterans' Affairs, or if there is any problem with the Defence Service Homes Act or the Veterans' Entitlements Act. I draw my comments to the attention of the Main Committee and look forward to action to make sure that our veterans community and individual veterans and their families are looked after now and in the future.