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Wednesday, 14 May 2008
Page: 2831

Dr KELLY (Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support) (3:59 PM) —It is a great pleasure to rise in support of the Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (2007 Election Commitments) Bill 2008. I flagged in my first speech that I would be an advocate for our veteran community during my time in parliament, and it is inspiring to see that we are delivering on one of our fundamental election commitments. It will be reassuring to the community that this is the case, as it sends a clear signal and is proof that the Rudd Labor government will deliver on its election commitments.

While we often talk of the need to ensure the welfare of our veterans, as a society we have waxed and waned in meeting this obligation in the past. There is one side to the veterans’ story in particular that has not been well appreciated or adequately addressed. That story is the hidden toll upon and sacrifice made by the families of veterans. It is important that this story be told and that we take the necessary action that awareness must bring. It is certainly important because of what we owe to the veterans and their families. It is also important for the peace of mind and the effectiveness of our current service men and women and their families. We cannot expect that the ADF will function at its best unless its members engage in service and in operations in the knowledge that their families will be looked after. Abraham Lincoln understood this only too well when he spoke the immortal words of his second inaugural speech in 1865, only a few months before he himself was to become a casualty of the long civil war that was coming to a close at that time. He finished that speech by exhorting the nation to care for those who had borne the battle and their widows and orphans as the first among tasks in the healing that must follow conflict. It is my view that keeping faith with this sacred obligation is one of the measures by which we judge the worth of our society.

In my own electorate of Eden Monaro, I am privileged to represent many thousands of veterans and their families. Altogether there are 3,336 Department of Veterans’ Affairs beneficiaries, including 838 war widow pensioners. It was one of the factors that weighed with me in making the decision to stand for the seat. As I travelled around during the campaign, I was to encounter many of these special members of our community and to hear their concerns. Among them were veterans of the Kokoda Track, the air war over Germany and service on the perilous seas of the Indian and Pacific oceans during World War II. There were proud veterans of Vietnam and other post World War II conflicts and peace operations to which we have sent soldiers, sailors and airmen. They talked to me in particular about the situation regarding the indexation mechanism for their superannuation pensions and their struggles to keep pace with the real cost of living. They spoke of some improvements they would like to see in the medical support they are provided and of their hopes that the Rudd Labor government will maintain the security of this country and properly support the new generation of veterans. In this respect, we have tragically experienced recent additions to those who have lost loved ones in action. The funeral of Lance Corporal Jason Marks was a poignant reminder of this, and my heart goes out to his family. I was pleased to pass the concerns and views of my veteran community on to our team, and they have been and are being taken seriously.

Beyond these issues, though, I also came across the stories of the families of veterans. I understood these stories, as I had witnessed aspects of them in my own experiences and family history. My grandfather Ben Kelly was a sergeant in the 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion in World War II and saw service in the Middle East and Java before being captured by the Japanese, along with the rest of his unit, and being sent to work on the Burma-Thai railway. The experiences he endured were only fully revealed to me on reading the diaries of ‘Weary’ Dunlop, whose movements and locations mirrored my grandfather’s. There were only a handful of searing events that my grandfather was prepared to recount, such as having to watch the beheading of his best friend. The sheer brutality and sadistic cruelty that he and his comrades endured can never be fully comprehended, but we should never cease to appreciate what we were spared by their fight against fascism. To this day, pride of place in my possessions is reserved for the loin cloth he wore and his PW badge from that time.

When he was evacuated from Thailand to Australia, he was taken to the hospital at Heidelberg, in Victoria, where he slowly recovered, and he eventually rejoined the family after many months. I have a wonderful photo from April 1946 which celebrates this reunion. I was able to trace the information flow that came back to Australia through his service record. It is difficult to appreciate the mental anguish that his wife must have endured through the war. At first the only information she had was that he was missing. This was followed by advice that he was missing, believed a PW. Finally confirmation came through that he was alive and a PW. By this time, though, there were already reports of the brutality with which captives were treated, and this must have weighed heavily on my grandmother’s mind.

In looking at my grandfather’s service record, the other thing that strikes you is the fact that he, along with so many others of the first wave of volunteers in the 2nd AIF, was on active service for 2,043 days and most of this time was spent overseas. It is hard to imagine today the special endurance of a spouse and a relationship under the strain of almost six years of absence, wondering whether or in what condition a loved one would return. What feelings and sensations would my grandmother have had when she first saw her emaciated and traumatised husband on his return from captivity? It was a great privilege for me to march on this year’s Anzac Day in Bega, my first since leaving the Regular Army, wearing his medals—as he was a proud born and bred Bega boy. Coincidentally, I found myself marching next to a World War II veteran who was also a survivor of the railway, which made the day all the more poignant.

Of course, during those post World War II years it was a given that to give any indication of mental anguish from the war was a shameful sign of weakness in an Australian male and it was considered bad form to talk about your experiences to your loved ones and regale them with the horror you had endured. Added to this for the PW was the perception that somehow they had let the side down by being captured. There were no real outlets for these veterans, so they internalised and suffered with no help. This in turn led to the development of severe pathologies. The manifestation of this would often be nightmares, alcohol abuse and domestic violence. This was often compounded by the inevitable physical ailments and disabilities that resulted from the sadistic brutality and deprivation they suffered. It was the families that also bore the brunt of this. What special courage and endurance did it require to live through many years of this experience with no recognition or acknowledgement and little help?

One such woman, a constituent from Queanbeyan, Thelma Walters, came to me for help. Her story represents those of so many in my electorate and across the land. Thelma dearly loved her husband, Carl, and there is no doubt that Carl felt the same about her and their children. On his return to Australia, and due to his experience in World War II as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, he was not the same man she married or farewelled to the war. For 20 years she lived through all I have described and so much more. Often was the night when Thelma would wake in shock and fright with her husband’s hands wrapped around her throat in a struggle with his demons. He suffered from constant blackouts and spent long months in Concord Repatriation General Hospital. He sought solace in the bottle, which in turn would lead to violence towards Thelma. Often he would disappear for periods of time. This culminated in Thelma surviving an attempted murder, for which her husband in his deteriorating state of mind was unfortunately charged. Finally, for her own self-preservation, Thelma had no other choice but to succumb to the urgings of all who cared about her to separate from her husband. This solution, while removing the immediate physical threat, led to its own burdens of guilt, mental anguish and loss after so many long years of marriage with someone she had never stopped loving. It also meant that Thelma suffered financially, as her divorce led to the loss of war widow entitlements when Carl passed away. I had been pursuing an ex gratia payment on Thelma’s behalf, as I believed that was the least we could do for someone whose private war went on for 20 long years.

Thelma’s own health had suffered over the years, and she recently went into hospital for a hip replacement. In her vulnerable state, however, complications subsequently set in and Thelma passed away on 7 May without returning home from hospital. She was laid to rest yesterday. For Thelma, now all the pain and struggle is over and she is finally at peace. Her passing for those who loved her is eased by knowing that this is so and that in accordance with her deep faith she has gone to something better. The world has been a better place for her having been among us, as despite her own problems Thelma was always there for countless others in her family and community—as was evidenced by the more than 100 people who attended her funeral. She lives on in her wonderful children, Barry, Narelle and Jackie, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren, in the contribution she made to our community and in our thoughts. Thelma Walters is a tribute to the great generation to whom we owe so much. When I think of this legislation, I will think of Thelma and of the sacrifice of all the families of veterans.

As the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs stated when introducing this measure, it is a significant step towards fulfilling our commitment to deliver better services to our veterans and their dependants. It will extend the income support supplement to war widows and war widowers who are under qualifying age and remove a number of other impediments to this support, immediately benefiting around 1,400 people. The bill retains payment of income support so that incapacitated war widows or widowers who are under age pension age will continue to receive their income support supplement as a tax-free payment. There will also be additional support for war widows and widowers to help them meet the cost of living. The bill will extend entitlements to disability pension bereavement payments to help the families of veterans to meet funeral costs. The bill will also extend the automatic grant of war widow, widower or orphan pensions to the widows, widowers and eligible children of veterans and members who immediately before their death were in receipt of a temporary special rate or immediate rate disability pension.

As I have said, this is a significant step, and the other measures announced in the budget demonstrate our commitment to veterans and their families. This budget represents record spending for veterans’ affairs—$11.59 billion—not just because of inflation but in real terms. In addition to the $6.34 billion this government will spend on compensation and income support pensions, this record veterans affairs budget provides $4 million for veteran mental health, focusing on the vital area of suicide prevention; $14.9 million over four years to ex-service organisations to boost their capacity to support the veteran community; and $20 million to secure the future of the historic Graythwaite Estate in North Sydney and for the provision of aged-care services provided by the RSL.

This is in contrast to the previous government, which never funded their promises. Veterans did not have to wait for this budget to benefit from the change of government. Effective from 20 March, the veteran community received increased pensions for war widows, widowers and disability pensioners via fairer indexation—up to $1,045 each per year; increased carer payments of between $600 and $1,600 per carer; and increased telephone and utilities allowances. The federal budget overall is a financially responsible budget. The bulk of veterans and war widows live on fixed incomes and therefore have a greater appreciation of the need to contain and manage Australia’s inflationary pressures.

The member for Gilmore in her contribution  drew to the chamber’s attention the issue of the Korean post-armistice review. I thank the member for her interest in the issue and the plight of the Korean veterans, of which we are fully apprised. The Rudd Labor government has committed to implementing the review. Defence and DVA will shortly be providing advice on the implementation of the review, and the government will then move to fulfil its commitment. Notwithstanding all of these measures and what I have said, I fully acknowledge that we have more miles to travel before we rest on veterans issues.