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Tuesday, 21 August 2001
Page: 29855


Mr EDWARDS (5:00 PM) — Before I speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Budget 2000 and Other Measures) Bill 2001, I would like to congratulate the member for Aston who has just spoken on his election, compliment him on his maiden speech and wish him well during the time that he is the member for Aston.

The opposition has already indicated that it will be supporting this legislation but that we will be looking for a bit more. We will be looking for support from the government for an amendment which the opposition has already foreshadowed and which will be moved in another place by the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Chris Schacht. I will come back and talk about the amendment shortly.

Last Saturday, 18 August, was Vietnam Veterans Day, a day when Vietnam veterans all around Australia and in other parts of the world gathered to remember their mates and to celebrate their service in Vietnam. Of course, that day is also the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. Along with many other veterans, I attended a service in Perth. At the conclusion of that service I was very pleased to be made a life member of the Vietnam Veterans Association, along with Jim Dalton, a former deputy commissioner for veterans' affairs in Perth. I particularly want to recognise Rob and Jo Cox. Rob is a past president of the Vietnam Veterans Association in WA and along with Jo has ably and efficiently dealt with the affairs of that association. Their recognition was well and truly deserved, and I compliment them on that.

I have received a copy of a submission which has been put to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. This is a revamped submission and follows on from a previous submission put to the minister by a group who call themselves the CT Group or the Counter Terrorist Group from the Australian Special Air Services Association. They have been talking to the minister for the best part of two years about some aspects of their submission. While I do not intend to read the submission, there are a couple of things that I want to refer to in the course of this debate, because I want to give support to these blokes. One of the things that they are asking for is eligibility for the service pension for fully qualified operational members of the Special Air Services Regiment or, alternatively, a provision in the social security legislation similar to that in the Veterans' Entitlements Act to prevent their disability pension being considered under the income test. This indeed is the thrust of the foreshadowed amendment which will be moved in another place.

As part of the submission, Jim Dalton— the person who put this submission together on behalf of this group and who was made a life member of the Vietnam Veterans Association—has illustrated some anomalies which I feel should be addressed. He says this as part of the submission:

Central to the concerns of the former members of the SASR is the discriminatory outcomes that result from the complexities of the various legislative provisions.

Let's take as an example two members of the SASR, troopers A and B. Further, let's assume that they are both involved in an accident while on exercise, suffer similar injuries, are both eligible under the Veterans' Entitlements Act (VEA) and are subsequently assessed for the Special Rate.

Trooper A has qualifying service from an earlier period of service—unconnected with the accident—and is eligible for Service Pension. He receives the maximum possible entitlement under the VEA (subject to the application of the income and assets test). Trooper B who does not have qualifying service and therefore is not eligible for a Service Pension, has to seek his income support assistance through Centrelink where his Special Rate pension is counted as income. It reduces his “Service Pension” equivalent pension to almost zero.

The result is that the two troopers, significantly and permanently disabled in the same accident, are treated in very different ways and receive substantially different outcomes. The difference in outcome is out of proportion to the nature of the disabilities and the role and service of the Troopers. The difference in outcome would be magnified if one of the troopers was not eligible for benefits under the VEA and was covered solely by the Military Compensation Scheme. The result is inequitable, discriminatory and unjust.

This is a very good submission and it has been well put together. What concerns me is that this government six years ago recognised that there was an anomaly in this area. I want to quote from the 1996 Liberal Party policy, interestingly enough titled `Lest we forget'. Under the heading `Disability pensions' the coalition stated:

As at 30 June 1995 the total number of Disability Pensioners was 157,298, the median age of veterans receiving a disability pension was 73 years and 77 per cent of pensioners were aged 65 years or more.

Of these 18,935 were receiving the special rate, 950 the immediate rate and 3,842 extreme disability adjustment.

The Coalition will not tax the disability pension, nor will we include the disability pension as income or assets for the purposes of assessing services pension eligibility.

The Coalition whilst maintaining existing entitlements will also review the apparent anomaly existing where a Disability Pensioner has that benefit counted as income when receiving a pension from the Department of Social Security.

The Coalition believes the present disability pension structure is unnecessarily complicated. We will therefore continue with the streamlining process when in Government. However, simplification will only occur if it can be achieved without veterans being disadvantaged.

That was a very clear commitment that the coalition government gave to veterans prior to being elected. The government has not acted on that commitment. Indeed, I think it was late last year in the Senate, when the opposition moved an amendment to fix an anomaly, that the government said, `No, don't do that. We won't accept it. We will, however, have a look at it and we will ourselves rectify that anomaly.' They chose not to.

I have a copy of a letter recently written by the minister to Mr John Ryan, the national president of the Australian Federation of TPI Ex-Service Men and Women. The minister said:

As I said at our meeting, I see a case for carrying forward Proposal 1 of your submission to remove VEA Disability Pension from being counted as income for Social Security purposes. This is an issue I would take up on behalf of TPI veterans and other disability pension recipients. This proposal has wide support across the veteran community and will require new expenditure of $27 million per year.

That was well prior to the previous budget. It was a very clear and very strong reiteration of the original commitment given in 1995 and a strong reiteration of the commitment that was given in the Senate. When the budget was brought down, the veterans looked to see whereabouts in the budget the matter of the $27 million identified by the minister was put into effect and, of course, it was not there. The minister has had a lend of these TPIs. Is it any wonder they are now up in arms and that they have decided they have had enough and that they are going to march on the national parliament of the nation that they served so ably and so well?

If the minister had had the decency to front these veterans and say, `I'm sorry, we've made a blue here. We are not going to do this,' they would have at least respected him for that. But he did not do that. On three separate occasions the coalition government has given a commitment to these veterans and on every occasion it has dudded them. Is it any wonder that we now see, in the dying days of this government, legislation coming forward that reflects the fact that this government is indeed out of puff? Is it any wonder that the community sees a government that has run out of puff? I guess that is a reflection of the comment the Treasurer made when he said that the Prime Minister has run out of puff. While we support this legislation, we can see that it, too, has run out of puff.

That is why we will be moving an amendment in another place to put into effect that unqualified commitment the coalition have given over a period of six years on at least three different occasions. We look forward to some bipartisan support from the government and from the minister on this issue, and I hope that that bipartisan support will be there. This measure has been well and truly costed; the government know what it is going to cost, and it is now time for them to put up their hands and accept the responsibility. A lot of TPI veterans out there who are affected by these anomalies are doing it very tough. A lot of younger veterans with families need the sort of financial support that the eradication of this anomaly will provide.

I would like to move on to another issue. I could not let the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan go by without again raising another matter of inequity and unfairness. I have a copy of a letter from Bob Buick MM from Queensland who, on 20 August last year, wrote to the Prime Minister. He said:

As the platoon sergeant of 11 Platoon D Company, the Sixth Battalion Royal Australian Regiment I continue to `wage war' to obtain justice and an honourable conclusion to the acceptance and promulgation by this government gazetting the names of the 22 Australians who were to be honoured, and decorated, by General Thieu on 2 September 1966 for their actions during the Long Tan Battle 18 August 1966.

I initiated correspondence with Minister Bishop during 1996 without success; she indicated that the South Vietnamese government did not award any decorations to Australians for Long Tan. We, who were involved, know the Commander of the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam General Thieu was to present gallantry awards and we had to accept `gifts' instead of medals. We also know that there was to be a unit citation as well as individual gallantry awards to some 21 named soldiers and a posthumous award to Cpl Clements who died of wounds.

As the Platoon Sergeant of 11 Platoon I was told that acceptance authority would be forthcoming and that I was to order all recipients that we accept these gifts. The medals would come later. This never happened ...

What happened was that the troops were pretty well lined up to receive these Vietnamese awards when a direction came from the Australian government at the time that the troops were not to accept them, that there had been no approval sought from and no approval given by Her Majesty the Queen. I think it is unfortunate that this matter has dragged on for so long, for so many years. Those diggers who fought so bravely at Long Tan were forced to accept gifts like cigar boxes and dolls in lieu of the Vietnamese decorations, the medals that General Thieu wanted to provide to them. There is evidence—strong evidence, conclusive evidence—that those awards were to be presented.

I want to quote from a letter which I have quoted before in this place, but I want to reiterate it. This letter was sent to Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith, the battle commander, from Charles Tran Van Lam, former President of the then Vietnamese Senate, Ambassador to Australia and Minister for Foreign Affairs. The letter states:

Dear Colonel Smith.

I refer to your query regarding the Vietnam National Order awards. I would like to confirm that my former Government did intend to present Awards to some 21 Officers and Soldiers of the 1st Australian Task Force for their service and gallantry at the Battle Of Long Tan at a parade held at Nui Dat on the 2nd September 1966. However, the offer was rejected by the Australian Ambassador in Saigon at the last minute on the ground that the Queen had not given approval. Consequently, although embarrassed, our President went to Nui Dat but had to present gifts rather than the awards mooted for the officers and soldiers.

I understood the Australian Government of the day was to seek approval and make retrospective approval so that the soldiers could receive their awards as was the case in future years, and the desire of my Government.

My Government had also intended to present all the soldiers and officers of the Company with a Unit Citation in addition to the awards for selected commanders, officers, and soldiers.

I hope that you and the relevant officers and soldiers are successful in your claim to these awards as I truly believe you deserve them.

That is pretty clear to me, and I think it would be pretty clear to everyone. I just wonder why the minister, in the face of that conclusive evidence, still refuses to present these awards. Minister Scott put out a press release in December 1998 which said:

“Records show that several hundred Australians received South Vietnamese and Cambodian awards during the Vietnam War, but at the time Australians were not allowed to officially accept or wear such individual foreign awards,” the Minister said.

“Under the Government's foreign awards policy, there is now a mechanism whereby honours and awards, issued by a former foreign government which has ceased to exist, may be formally recognised and approved for wearing.”

When the diggers from Long Tan heard that, they thought, `Beaut, this issue has been resolved. We will now be able to wear those awards that were to be presented to us.' But when they applied, they were turned down.

I think it is unfortunate that this has occurred. As I said, this is a matter of equity, it is a matter of fairness and it is a matter of honesty as to how the government of the day is dealing with these diggers. I do not think a single person in Australia would deny these blokes the right to wear those decorations. The proof is there, it is conclusive, and I think the government ought to accept that proof and provide these diggers with the approval to wear these awards.

It is apparent that the Prime Minister, Minister Bishop—when she was written to originally—and Minister Scott are not prepared to allow that to happen, and I cannot understand why. I certainly will be encouraging the Labor government after the next election to grant approval for these people to wear these awards. It is there, it is conclusive and, as a matter of fairness, equity and honesty, these people should be granted the right to wear those medals which they so bravely won on that day. This matter should be put to rest.

Having said that, we support the legislation. I certainly look forward to the government in a bipartisan spirit supporting the amendment that will be moved in another place, an amendment which will rectify that anomaly, which is causing so much financial hardship to a lot of people who deserve better.