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Thursday, 3 June 2010
Page: 5182

Mr NEUMANN (11:55 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010. The Rudd government is committed to supporting our veterans and their families. The budget handed down this year has a suite of new initiatives totalling $246.4 million. This includes greater access to compensation, income support, preventing unnecessary hospital admissions for members of the veteran community, decisive action with respect to the recommendations of Justice John Clarke in what is known as the Clarke review, and better access to health care and compensation for F111 workers, particularly those who worked on F111s at RAAF Base Amberley in the electorate of Blair. I have been a strong advocate of our actions on the Clarke review and of acting on what I would describe as the Bevis parliamentary recommendations, which recommended more justice and fairness for those in the military who worked on F111s, particularly in refuelling and the deseal-reseal operations at RAAF Base Amberley.

The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is probably heartily sick and tired of my speaking to him on this issue. Every time he looks at me he initiates the conversation before I mention it to him. But I am pleased with the budgetary measures we have undertaken on both of these issues. Certainly, 2,400 extra people will receive justice in the deseal-reseal operations that took place at RAAF Base Amberley. These include the ‘pick and patch’ workers, at a cost of $39.6 million. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs said on budget night that more people will be eligible for care and compensation now, including those who carried out F111 fuel tank maintenance involving fuel tank entry. He announced a $55 million package of health care and compensation to those in need and the reopening of the SHOAMP healthcare scheme, which was closed on 20 September 2005 at a cost of $12.5 million. This is acting where the previous government failed to act.

I am pleased that Kathleen Henry from the group who advocated for justice on this issue has liaised closely with us. I commend her work and the work of Ian Fraser on this issue. It is not only the people involved in the F111 aircraft fuel tank maintenance operations but also those people who, sadly, in a terrible tragedy of our history participated in or were exposed to radiation as a result of British nuclear testing who will receive a degree of decency, compensation and health care as a result of the budget. British nuclear testing took place in a number of different locations in Australia. On 3 October 1952, the UK tested its first nuclear weapon, named Hurricane, at the Monte Bello Islands off the Western Australian coast. Two major test series were conducted at Maralinga called Operation Buffalo and Operation Antler. The Indigenous people in the area at Maralinga, who considered Maralinga to have very deep spiritual significance to them going back generation after generation, were simply ignored and treated appallingly at the time. This is a terrible period of our history, and it is not as though governments of the day did not know about this.

These people were exposed to radiation which had lifelong impacts upon them. The government’s response is to act on the recommendations of Justice Clarke, who recommended in 2003 in a report that the participation of defence personnel in the British nuclear test program in Australia be deemed non-warlike hazardous. This had implications for the provision of decent health care and compensation for these people. I say 2003: the actual review was the 2003 review of veterans entitlements conducted by Justice Clarke. We were not in power at the time; the coalition government was in power in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and nearly all of 2007. It is a terrible shame that the recommendations of Justice Clarke were not acted upon by the coalition government. We appreciate that now there is a bipartisan approach on this issue. We appreciate that from those opposite. But those opposite have failed dismally when it comes to the recommendations of Justice Clarke.

After I was elected to this place in November 2007 a fellow came to see me, a constituent of mine, Merv Kleidon, who lives in Ipswich at a place known as One Mile. It is a nice place with a great community centre, and there is a great Baptist church in the Leichhardt-One Mile area.

My uncle Merv Neumann is actually the president of the Leichhardt-One Mile Community Centre and secretary of the Leichhardt Baptist church.

Merv Kleidon is a well-known figure in the Leichhardt-One Mile area. He came to see me because he was concerned about this issue. I pointed out to him that there were about 470 submissions made in relation to the Clarke review when the government was considering this issue. I said, ‘Tell me, Merv, why are you interested in this topic?’ He said, ‘Well, Shayne, I’ve got a gold card. I got one for my service in Malaya in 1959 to 1961. I worked in the RAAF. I was an engine fitter and I was based at the RAAF base at Amberley in Ipswich,’ now in the electorate of Blair. He said, ‘I worked on the Lincoln aircraft. Me and my mates worked on them.’ I said, ‘Tell me about this.’ So Merv proceeded on this occasion, and on numerous occasions subsequently when he popped into my office to have a chat with me, to say that so many of his friends had died from radiation sickness and poisoning. He said, ‘We worked on these aircraft which were monitoring the clouds that came across as a result of the nuclear tests.’ He said he had been advocating for quite some time for justice, but he told me that the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association had contacted him about it. He said that the Australians who are involved in this association had contacted him and asked him to get involved. So he is actually on the editorial committee that publishes a magazine that deals with issues concerning nuclear veterans. He told me about the stories of his friends and what they put up with.

Merv went to places like Alice Springs and Toowoomba to advocate for the cause. He said, ‘We were treated shabbily. They knew and we weren’t told. We were exposed to this stuff and the authorities knew about it. We would go into the planes afterwards, the gunnery areas and where the pilots were, and they would have great packs of chocolate and nuts and food and we would eat these rations. We weren’t told that they were exposed to radioactive material, we weren’t told that we were damaging our health, but we were effectively fodder. We were misled deliberately and mistreated.’ So he and his mates and their families suffered accordingly.

Merv is obviously still alive and still advocating for the causes in which he believes. He claims that the British knew all about and he said, ‘We knew that they knew all about it later on.’ He felt the Australian government knew about it at the time but did little about it. Artie Fadden, who had been Prime Minister for a while, supposedly said to the British, ‘What’s going on about these clouds that are coming across the country?’ And the previous coalition government knew about it as well.

Merv’s response when I had a chat with him today about this issue was, ‘Good one, Shayne. You have done what you said you would do.’ Merv has got a gold card from his overseas service in South-East Asia, but he said it is long overdue recognition of what went on. He said that many people have been affected. I will never forget Merv coming into my office, with tears in his eyes, telling me about his mates. I want to commend Merv and all those like him who fought for justice for so long, who travelled around everywhere, who wrote articles, who advocated, who agitated, who annoyed politicians on both sides of the political divide. He said he was exposed not just for a couple of days but for a considerable period of time.

We treat and have treated our men and women who have served in the military pretty shamefully at times and we have adopted the views and we have followed slavishly at times the advice and the actions of our great and powerful friends. But sometimes our friends deserve to be told that they got it wrong. Sometimes we need to stand up more strongly for the Australian public, the Australian veteran community and the Australian military who serve on our behalf.

I thank Merv for his advocacy and I thank him for the many times he popped into my office. It is never a short conversation with Merv; he likes to let you know what he thinks. I want to thank him very much and I want to pay tribute to Merv and all those like him for what they have done in this regard.

I see the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs here. He will have nothing to talk to me about after the Clarke review and after the Bevis review. But I am pleased we have acted on those things, because he has honoured what he said he would do. This has not been an easy process, but it is a just decision. We will see legislation amended to ensure that the declaration of non-warlike hazardous service can in fact be extended to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. We have given action to the recommendation of Justice Clarke and it means veterans and their widows and widowers can get access to the kind of health care and assistance that they so deserve. This is the closure of a sad chapter in the military service of our country by so many people.

Other aspects of this legislation deal with the reclassification of certain submarine special operations as qualifying service, the reclassification of service in Ubon in Thailand as qualifying service, the lowering of the age of domicile of choice from 21 years to 18 years for the purpose of the VEA Act and the cessation of eligibility for war widow or widower pensions for widows and widowers who enter into de facto relationships prior to claiming the same.

Many of these things are the recommendations of Justice Clarke. I am sure that many people across the country will be pleased today with this legislation. It will help a lot of people. It will help honour their memories, particularly in relation to the British nuclear testing service. This change will potentially help up to 2,700 former defence personnel. This is a good day where we correct a terrible injustice that was perpetrated and perpetuated on Australian military personnel and their families for a very long time.