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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4620


Mr NEVILLE (6:31 PM) —I have always stood up for the entitlements of veterans and support programs for veterans. I have great respect for their service both to our nation and to the military forces that they served in. I am pleased to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (International Agreements and Other Measures) Bill 2008 tonight, as I want to throw in a bit of a wild card here. I am glad the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is here to listen to this, because it is not said with any malice. I have about 4½ thousand veterans and their partners in my electorate. They are valued and vital members of our community and I stay very close to them. I have contact with many people in the veteran community and I stay close to two major RSLs, in Bundaberg and in Hervey Bay. There are Vietnam Veterans Associations in both Bundaberg and Hervey Bay and there are smaller RSLs in places, such as Childers, throughout my electorate. I am the patron of the Vietnam Veterans Association in Bundaberg and I am proud to be so. It is something that some members of parliament would not accept, but I have no problems with being their patron.

I am a proud advocate of systemic improvements being made to veterans entitlements and I congratulate the former government on what they did. It is fair to say that I have always been prepared to fight for further improvements when the need arose. I was one of those who rebelled and pushed for amendments, which resulted following the Clarke review in 2004, to the Veterans’ Entitlement Act. I do not think the previous government took that matter sufficiently on board, and I have never resiled from that. I think we should have done more at that time and I was pleased to play a part in getting some of those things done.

But, having criticised my former government, let me say for the record that that government also increased spending on health care for veterans by 200 per cent. The funding went up from $1.6 billion to $4.8 billion. The coalition government also indexed all Veterans’ Affairs disability pensions to both the consumer price index and MTAWE from March 2008. And it was the same coalition government which increased payments for general rate and EDA recipients, as well as for people receiving war widows pensions and widowers pensions. Although I do not believe anything can ever fully compensate veterans for their experience, the benefits extended under the coalition government’s term of office represented a significant improvement to the welfare of veterans and to the lifestyle of their families.

The amendments contained in the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (International Agreements and Other Measures) Bill 2008 continue that reform. Schedule 1 of the bill removes restrictions limiting assistance and benefits to veterans of other Commonwealth nations—Allied nations—such as those from Britain, New Zealand and Canada. But if I read the bill correctly, Minister—and correct me if I am wrong—the covenant of reciprocity coming from those countries is still the determinant of what those veterans will receive.

I have often talked about what is essentially the flip side of the arrangement—that is, recognising the service of Australians who, through circumstances beyond their control, served in the forces of other Allied nations. I am not talking about people who came from Allied countries to Australia as migrants subsequent to the war; I am talking about Australians who served in the RAF and in other spheres of war. There were people who were caught in Canada and the UK, and when war broke out, out of a sense of loyalty to country, Commonwealth and the Empire, if you like—we do not know about it now but at the time they talked about the Empire—they joined the military forces of the country in which they found themselves. They did not see the distinction between being strictly Australian and a British subject, because they were almost one and the same thing in those days. When the war broke out in the Pacific, there were a number of people who were caught in Fiji, and they joined the British colonial army. If you saw photos of these guys you would say they were Aussies—they wore identical uniforms, they wore the slouch hats, they had the .303s—but they were not. They were under British command, and because self-government subsequently devolved to Fiji after the war they were then only entitled to Fijian supplementary benefits. They are people who were prepared to serve and the only reason they did not join the Australian Army, Air Force or Navy—which they would have preferred to join—was that they could not get home.

Those veterans and their wives have found themselves in the position where they are not entitled to the same benefits as Australians who served in the Australian military forces. I would like to raise the case—and I have done this before in the parliament—of a lady in my electorate called Margaret Vint from Bargara. Margaret’s husband served in the British colonial army in Fiji. He got caught there because he went over as an employee of CSR, which had sugar mills there at the time. The war broke out, and he joined the British colonial army, and that is where he served right through the war. After the war he worked for CSR and came back to Australia—but at a vastly different entitlement rate to those other Australians who served in our armed forces.

Margaret’s husband, John Campbell Vint, died of a war type condition—it was a lung related disease—and it was subsequently recognised by the Australian Army. He was entitled to a war service loan, but he and his wife were on normal civilian pensions. Margaret gets $220 every three months from the Fijian government. That is not nearly on a par with what the widows of Australian veterans get. These people need to be considered. There cannot be many more of these people and their widows left. They live in this country, having served their country in a civilian capacity, and having served the Commonwealth in the Second World War at some length, and they now find themselves without the benefit of things like gold cards. In this case, John Vint did not even have a white card. I just appeal to the Minister today to think of those people and see if we cannot be more inclusive of them.

I do not say anything to disparage Fiji—I know they have had problems with the Commonwealth; they are in and out of the Commonwealth because of the coups and the like that have gone on over there—but let us be frank: Fiji is a country that needs support, support from Commonwealth countries and particularly Australia. So they are never likely to be in a position to compensate troops who served them in the same way that we do. I appeal to the minister to have a look at what it would really cost to help those veterans. I am talking about Australian citizen veterans who served in other Commonwealth or Allied countries as a result of circumstances beyond their control.

I also commend the bill for its recognition of Commonwealth and Federal Police officers who patrolled the Maralinga exclusion zone up to 2001. I commend their inclusion from April 1965 to June 1988. They should be treated for their cancers and compensated for their testing and travelling costs. I am sure that will be welcomed by all those veterans and ex-policemen.

The coalition’s commitment to care, compensation and commemoration of our veterans and their war widows is rock solid. I take it as my duty to support those organisations. With the minister here today, I ask him most sincerely, at a time when we are reviewing the entitlements, to have a look at those Australians who served in Allied countries when they did not have the opportunity to get back to Australia.