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Wednesday, 23 May 2001
Page: 26862


Mr ALBANESE (12:52 PM) —I rise to comment in particular on the Compensation (Japanese Internment) Bill 2001 that was a part of the government budget announced last night. I very much welcome the fact that former prisoners of war of the Japanese are going to get a one-off payment of $25,000 in compensation. I welcome it because of the fact that it is deserved. I welcome it because of my own personal experience in having a great friendship and comradeship with Tom Uren, a former Japanese prisoner of war, and colleagues of his whom I had the opportunity—indeed, the privilege—of going to Hellfire Pass in Thailand with in 1987 when I worked for Tom. On that occasion I also had the privilege to meet great Australians such as Sir Edward `Weary' Dunlop, Sir John Carrick and other prisoners of war who came for the opening of the Australian memorial that has been built there. I was there for Anzac Day 1987, and it was an extraordinarily emotional experience.

Having had the privilege of talking to these veterans about their experiences is something that I will treasure for the rest of my life. It made me determined, if given the opportunity, to raise these issues and push for compensation. That is why since I have been elected to this parliament I have pursued those issues. I asked a question on notice of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs on 9 August 1999 about how many Australian ex-servicemen who were Japanese prisoners of war were alive on 30 June of that year and I got a figure of 3,078. A year later on 5 October 2000 I again asked the Minister for Veterans' Affairs what the situation was 12 months later, on 30 June 2000. The figure was 2,819, reflecting a loss of some eight per cent in just one year. At that time I also called for compensation to be given following the decision of the British Labour government under Tony Blair.

It is not surprising that these veterans have suffered so much, given the inhumane and brutal treatment that they were subjected to—over many years in some cases. In Tom Uren's case, he was captured in Timor and suffered four years of internment in prisoner of war camps in Changi in Singapore, on the Burma-Siam railway and, of course, in Japan as a prisoner of war when he saw the devastation of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

It is about time that the Australian government followed the lead of the British government and, previously, the Canadian government in giving compensation. Of the 22,000 Australian soldiers who were captured by the Japanese military, only 14,000 returned home. The number captured represents only four per cent of those Australians who saw active service, but those who died represent a massive 30 per cent of all Australian soldiers who died during the war. Due to the long-term health effects arising from this brutal treatment by the Japanese military, they continued to die at four times the rate of other returned soldiers between 1945 and 1959. Since then the rate of death has been 20 per cent higher than for other returned soldiers. The Blair government announced last year that they would pay £10,000 in compensation. On 8 November 2000, I put out a press statement titled `Former POWsdeserve compensation', in which I said:

The Australian Government should consider making a similar payment as a gesture that later generations recognise the extraordinary sacrifice made by these courageous Australians.

I said then:

Figures, however, do nothing to convey the human tragedy that was played out in the Japanese prisoner of war camps. These veterans have suffered so much and continue to live with the effects of the brutal treatment they received.

I was pleased that the announcement was made last night, but not pleased that the government for a long time said that this payment was not necessary. Hence, last night, when the Treasurer made the announcement, I interjected, `Scott thinks this is a stupid idea.' I did that because, when I raised the issue of compensation in statements last year, in speeches in the parliament, in media releases and in questions on notice to the minister, the minister responded in a way which I think was not appropriate. I am pleased that there has been a change of heart, but this was not the case at that time. I quote from an article from Jamie Walker in the Australian of Monday, 3 July 2000:

In Australia yesterday, a spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Bruce Scott said the Government preferred to provide care rather than cash and did not treat former prisoners of war in Japan or Europe any differently.

“Australia has one of the most generous repatriation systems in the world and our focus is providing comprehensive care rather than ex-gratia payments,” he said.

That was Minister Scott's spokesman on the record last year. Again, on 7 November, quoting from an AAP article `Fed: No plans for lump sums for prisoners':

Australia had no plans to follow the example of Britain and pay former prisoners of war of Japan a lump sum compensation, the government said today. A spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Bruce Scott said there was no need as Australia had always adopted a generous compensation scheme for war veterans.

I am very angry that, given that I have campaigned on this issue, the minister has alleged that I said it was a stupid idea when in fact I clearly said that the minister thought it was a stupid idea and that the government had failed to respond and, indeed, had in their own words said that such a payment was not necessary.

But you expect that from this government. This is a government that is too tricky by half and gets caught out all the time. It is a government that follows but never leads. It is a government that, whether it is this payment of $25,000, which the Labor Party welcomes, whether it is the $300 payment to pensioners, which the Labor Party welcomes, whether it is the changes in the tax-free threshold for self-funded retirees, which the Labor Party welcomes, has tried to discover some compassion only last night. It is too late, because the electorate knows that this is a government which is not fair dinkum, which is mean spirited, which is tricky, and which the government's own members of parliament know is mean spirited and tricky.

I would conclude my comments by saying that I welcome the announcement. However long it took the government to come to the table, at least now we have a bipartisan position on this. I seek to table my media release of 8 November 2000 titled `Former POWs deserve compensation' in which I called upon the government to do it on Remembrance Day, 11 November—and I would have thought that would have been an appropriate time—and also the media release of 24 April 2001, `Albanese urges grants to former POWs', the statement `Fed: No plans for lump sums for prisoners' from AAP and an article from the Australian of Monday, 3 July, `Cash for British PoWs, not ours'. I seek leave to table those.

Leave granted.