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Monday, 21 June 2004
Page: 30981

Mr ADAMS (7:57 PM) —My colleague the member for Flinders indicated that he thought veterans' benefits had always been at the forefront. But after the First World War there were not too many benefits and there were a lot of people who worked very hard in Australia to get benefits for veterans. I remember Alec Campbell, the last Gallipoli veteran and a Tasmanian, spent some of his life after he came back from the first war working very hard to improve veterans' entitlements.

The bill currently before the House—the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Direct Deductions and Other Measures) Bill 2004—comes from the Clarke review of 2004. It falls well short of recognising, let alone compensating for, the full cost of our veterans' services to Australia. For veterans who participated in the Korean War, the amendments in place are small compensation for the trauma experienced in that particular theatre of war. Korean veterans and those veterans fighting in previous and subsequent wars are continually being palmed off with small, one-off payments, all too often too late for any real benefit to be achieved by the recipient. These payments and benefits do not allow for the constant suffering previously experienced by veterans or their families.

The provisions in favour of the veterans are limited, as are the numbers of those who will receive any real benefit when in fact in many cases it has been a larger group who has suffered and relived the madness of war many times with veterans, repeatedly and for long periods of time. How much better it would be for the veterans to have the knowledge that, while they are still young enough to gain some real benefit from any monetary payment to assist them with their health issues or specific needs, these payments were available at the time, not when it is really too late.

When I talk to my constituents who are members of the veterans community I am struck by the fact that it is not only the veterans themselves who are still paying the price for their service but their families as well. Most alarmingly, the cost of conflict is also being borne by their children. On several occasions recently I have read information detailing the large increase in the number of suicides among children of veterans. Still we hear very little from the Minister for Veterans' Affairs on what steps are being taken to counteract this terrible occurrence. While there has been some attempt to put in place more counselling services for children of veterans, the suicide rates increase continually and the obvious need is not being addressed satisfactorily.

Although it is over 30 years since Australia's service personnel served in the Vietnam conflict, the effects of their service are still very much with us today. The effects of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange—which was used extensively in Vietnam—in both the short term and the long term have been the subject of hot debate for a number of decades now. The United States finally in 2002 formally acknowledged the potential for Agent Orange to be considered the prime causal factor in a number of conditions that were still being suffered by Vietnam veterans and their children. The conditions were not only in their children but often in their grandchildren as well. It is clear that time and generational change has not put paid to these issues.

Here we are in 2004 and our defence personnel are once again serving in many theatres of conflict, facing not only the physical threat of harm and death but the same uncertainty regarding their future health condition when they return to Australia and their civilian life. Their own personal health is still at risk, as is that of their children and their children's children. While the veterans' affairs minister states that the alternatives being offered to veterans will offer a more satisfactory mode of compensation, it will only be satisfactory for the department—certainly not for the veterans or their families. Little or no consideration is given to the list of exposures potentially faced by members of the forces: the chemicals, radiation, and biological and biochemical agents that may lead to chromosomal or DNA damage that can be passed on from one generation to another.

The bill before us should surely represent an opportunity to learn from the experience of past conflicts and the ramifications of those conflicts for many Australians—even today. As we formulate this legislation we should realise that our troops that are serving now will have needs far into the future, as will their families and their children yet to be born. We cannot know what these needs might be. As recently as 8 June this year the New Zealand Daily News was extolling the achievement of Judith Collins, a New Zealand member of parliament, for her part in establishing a select committee to investigate the ongoing effects of Agent Orange on the New Zealand Vietnam forces and their offspring. I too believe that this is a highly commendable response to a clear need and as such would serve us well as a model for how we are to treat our returning service men and women now and in the years to come.

Any Vietnam veteran's child who has a birth defect should be presumed to have a service-connected health effect if that person suffers from the type of health effect consistent with exposure to any of the materials detailed above. This bill does not recognise that the effects of armed conflict can and do cause problems into the future and for future generations. Instead it wants to pay our veterans off with a cynical golden handshake. A lump sum payment right now might look like a golden egg to someone returning from the conflict in the Middle East, but I believe that time will quickly show the lack of foresight and compassion of the government that laid it. Young people returning home from a particularly intense and traumatic passage of their lives are clearly not in the best position to prudently husband a one-off payment to hedge against the problems that might arise from their military service. They are quite possibly problems that they cannot know about; they might be problems that will be experienced by children who are not yet conceived.

To a large extent, we do have the benefit of hindsight regarding these issues. In enjoying this benefit we need to ensure that resources are available to our returning service personnel by way of regular income support payments for veterans and their families as well as assured support for the health and community services that veterans and their families will need in the near future and for a long time to come. This bill in its current form does not even begin to provide these resources. As with some of the other one-off payments that we have seen introduced in this place in recent times, far from being a carefully considered budgetary solution to a clear need it is a ham-fisted attempt by this government to sidestep its responsibilities to those men and women who have served our country so well. If this bill passes into legislation, our current service men and women and their families will soon find themselves out on their own and may well remain there for many years to come.

I now move on to another aspect of the bill—one that is connected very closely to the areas already detailed above: eligibility for payment of benefits. From World War I to relatively recent times, veterans and their immediate family members who suffered from disability or illness resulting from the veterans' exposure to contaminants or disease were covered by the Repatriation Act 1920. However, over recent years this has changed and now applies only to the veteran and wife or widow.

On many occasions during recent times there has been the necessity for servicemen and servicewomen to remain in areas of conflict beyond the cessation of conflict. This in turn has brought with it the requirement for a further period of service that has placed or still places the serviceperson at risk of contamination from dangerous materials, unexploded bombs and disease, bringing with it the greater risk of long-term illness in the years to come. For many of the members of the forces there is no choice in this; it is part of a tour of duty.

There is a long list of countries where Australian forces have participated in operational conflict and where the lives of young men and women have constantly been at risk—countries such as those involved in the First World War and Second World War, as well as Korea, Japan, Malaya, Vietnam and Thailand; more recently, Namibia, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, East Timor and Afghanistan; and now Iraq and the Solomon Islands. As I have stated, the effects of materials used in past wars are only now becoming obvious. For those who have participated in the most recent conflicts, the results are yet to be seen, although already we see a number of cases of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The effects on the children of participants in the latest conflicts are yet to be seen. Will those cancers and other diseases that have plagued the veterans of the Korean War return in oncoming generations? The question must be asked: were those cancers suffered by Korean veterans caused purely by smoking or were there other considerations that have as yet not been investigated? Unless appropriate provision is made for veterans on their return to Australia and future provision is made for their offspring in the event of illness or birth defects from war-associated materials or disease, we have failed not only our servicemen and servicewomen but the Australian community at large. Our servicemen and servicewomen deserve better than this and so do their children. However, in the interests of getting some benefits under way and to provide these benefits to the war widows and veterans concerned, I will not oppose this bill. I just believe it is too little, too late and should be revised and improved as soon as possible.