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Monday, 20 June 2011
Page: 6466

Mrs ELLIOT (RichmondParliamentary Secretary for Trade) (17:31): I am very pleased to be speaking on this bill before the House today, the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill 2011, which gives effect to the government's budget commitments to the veterans community through three measures. The first measure is the new $27.2 million prisoner-of-war recognition supplement, which provides former POWs with an extra $500 per fortnight in recognition of their very special sacrifice and service. The second measure consists of amendments to compensation-offsetting provisions in the Veterans' Entitlements Act. This measure will help ensure equity for a claimant who is entitled to compensation for a level of incapacity under two schemes. The third measure will rationalise the temporary incapacity allowance and loss of earnings allowance to improve targeting of allowances for veterans and members who lose wages during periods of short-term incapacity.

I am very proud to speak in relation to this bill, to speak about this government's record in honouring our veterans and also to speak today about honouring all of those service men and women for the sacrifices they have made for our country. I particularly commend the measure to provide the prisoner-of-war recognition supplement. This measure is an acknowledgment of the commitment and obligation we owe to former Australian POWs for the sacrifices experienced by them in the service of our country. The POW recognition supplement is a $500 fortnightly payment made to all surviving Australian POWs of Japan and Europe from the Second World War and from the Korean War. It is estimated that approximately 900 former POWs will benefit from the payments.

The Australian experience of imprisonment during times of war dates back over 110 years to the time of the Boer War. Whilst individual stories vary greatly in the level of hardship and deprivation faced during times of internment across all conflicts, all of our POWs have some shared common experiences from their impris­onment, particularly including isolation from family and friends, the constant struggle for life, and the need to depend on their mates and comrades for daily survival and to maintain hope in such horrendous circumstances.

I turn first to the First World War. For Australia, as for many nations, the First World War remains the most costly conflict in terms of deaths and casualties. From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of whom over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded. More than 4,070 Australians spent the war as prisoners. The Gallipoli campaign saw the first of 217 Australians captured by Ottoman forces. On the battlefields of the Western Front, 3,853 Australian troops were taken prisoner by German forces, most of them held in Germany. A third of these Australian prisoners were captured on 11 April 1917 at the First Battle of Bullecourt in northern France. A number of Australian airmen were also shot down and captured by the Germans. By the time of the armistice, signed in November 1918, a total of 395 Australians had died during their imprisonment in the First World War.

In the Second World War, from 3 September 1939 almost a million Australians, both men and women, served in campaigns against Germany and Italy in Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa, as well as against the Japanese in South-East Asia and other parts of the Pacific. Over 30,000 would never return home. More than 30,000 were taken as prisoners of war. One of the most significant differences between this war and the First World War was the number of Australian troops captured. Almost eight times the number captured in the First World War were captured in the Second World War, the majority of these as prisoners of the Japanese. The Japanese treatment of its POWs is one of the darkest chapters in Australia's wartime history. In fact, it is difficult for many of us to comprehend how incredibly tragic an experience it was. Of the almost 9,000 Australians who were held in Italian and German camps and experienced varying degrees of mistreatment and brutality, some 250 men died during the war. Over 22,000 Australians became prisoners of war of the Japanese in South-East Asia. Almost 15,000 of the Australians were captured in Singa­pore, while the other principal Australian prisoner-of-war groups were captured in Java, Timor and Ambon. The most notorious and well-known names in the Australia's World War II experience are Changi, Borneo and the Thai-Burma Railroad. In fact, the name Changi is synonymous with the suffering of Australian prisoners of the Japanese during the Second World War. More than 100,000 Allied POWs were crammed into the Changi camp after the fall of Singapore. From May 1942, large work parties began to be sent out of Changi to work on projects such as the Thai-Burma Railway and in other work camps throughout Asia. In February 1942 there were around 15,000 Australians in Changi. By mid-1943 fewer than 2,500 remained.

Australian POWs in Borneo were held in four main camps: Sandakan, Kuching, Labuan and Jesselton. Of these, Sandakan in North Borneo contained the majority of Australians. In January 1945, when the Japanese feared an Allied invasion of Borneo, they began a series of forced marches from Sandakan to Ranau—a distance of 260 kilometres along jungle tracks. Weak and sick mistreated prisoners starved to death on the way as food became scarcer and scarcer. They had no medical supplies and the terrain was muddy and treacherous. If a prisoner collapsed and could not get up, he was usually shot dead by the Japanese. More marches followed until all POWs had left Sandakan. By the end of the war only six Australians of the 2,500 Allied POWs held at Sandakan had survived this horrific ordeal.

Whilst Allied POWs were held across Asia, it is those camps along the Thai-Burma Railway during 1943 which remain most resonant for Australians in the Second World War POW experience; largely due to the fact that 9,500 Australians worked on the railway and nearly 7,000 survived to tell the story. The railway stretched 421 kilometres from Thailand to Burma, the aim being to provide the Japanese with a land access route from South-East Asia to supply their large army in Burma. Some 62,000 Australian, British and Dutch POWs, as well as a smaller group of American POWs and estimates of 270,000 Asian indentured labourers, occupied camps along the length of the line, moving from one site to the next as work progressed. The daily deprivations, misery and humiliation of this work are indeed impossible to comprehend. Some 12,000 Allied POWs died on the railway, including 2,646 Australians. The building of the railway exacted such a brutal toll due to the harsh treatment of the prisoners of war, the prevalence of disease, the terrible state of their health, the terrain through which they had to build, the climate of torrential monsoon rain, the extreme heat and the lack of adequate engineering tools and supplies. Though the railway was completed in mid-October 1943, it was never used. Almost as soon as it was completed it was damaged by Allied bombing. Today only sections of it survive.

My great-uncle Harry Staples, of the 8th Division, died as a prisoner of war on the Thai-Burma Railway. A number of years ago I went to Kanchanburi in Thailand to the railway and walked through Hellfire Pass to see the site where he and so many of our POWs suffered and died. Visiting the war graves highlighted for me how important it is as individuals, families, communities and a nation that we never forget the sacrifices that so many have made, and how important it is that we come together not just on days like Remembrance Day and Anzac Day but at all times to remember their sacrifice.

When we turn to civilian POWs, almost 1,500 Australian civilians spent the war in captivity, out of about 130,000 civilians interned by the Japanese. Australian army nurses were another group imprisoned. On 14 February 1942, following the fall of Singapore, 65 nurses were attempting to return to Australia on the ship Vyner Brooke. Twelve drowned when the vessel was torpedoed and 21 were massacred after reaching Bangka Island. The sole survivor from that was Nurse Vivian Bullwinkel. The other surviving nurses from the Vyner Brooke were imprisoned in a civilian camp in Sumatra. Eight of the 32 died in captivity. Although they were not made to work as the male POWs were, they were subject to many of the same deprivations and humiliations at the hands of the Japanese. Six Australian military nurses captured at Rabaul in January 1942 were sent to Japan and all survived the war.

The Korean War began on 25 June 1950 and came to an end with the signing of an armistice on 27 July 1953. Australian casualties numbered more than 1,500, of whom 339 were killed. During the Korean War, 30 Australian servicemen were captured by North Korean or Chinese forces. Twenty-four of those taken prisoner were serving with the Australian Army, and six members of the Royal Australian Air Force were also captured. Of the 30 Australians, only one, Private HW Madden, died whilst imprisoned. Madden was posthumously awarded the George Cross. Prisoners in Korea suffered many of the same trials as those of the Japanese—neglect, hunger and brutality—but also the biting cold of a Korean winter, where temperatures could go as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius.

By introducing this new payment for surviving Australian prisoners of war, the government's bill recognises the hardships these people endured and recognises the massive sacrifice they made in their service to our country. It is important that we always continue to remember that service and the sacrifices made by our past and also our serving defence forces, who paid the ultimate price. I would like to take the opportunity to commend all of the wonderful veterans groups in my electorate who work so tirelessly to ensure that we as communities continue to remember the great commitment of all of our veterans. I am fortunate to have a very large veterans community and wonderful individuals who do great work with veterans and in many other groups as well.

I say in conclusion that whilst we reflect upon service in previous conflicts we must of course also remember those serving our nation currently. It is very important to remember the commitment that they have made. I would like to finish by remarking on the event last Friday in my electorate at Kingscliff where the funeral was held for Sapper Rowan Robinson, who died on 6 June while serving in Afghanistan. Sapper Robinson grew up in Kingscliff and around the North Coast, and his funeral was attended by many family and friends who recalled wonderful fond memories of him. I would like to say that our thoughts and prayers are with his family as we remember his sacrifice and his service to our nation.