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Monday, 20 June 2011
Page: 6476

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Werriwa) (18:18): The previous speaker, the member for Riverina, made recourse to a fair bit of rhetoric there. He spoke of things being 'palpably unfair'. He referred to letters that talk about pompous statements from the government. He used words such as 'complicity', 'political opportunism' and 'betrayal'. Quite frankly, I am amazed that that kind of outburst can occur this evening, because for 11 long years the Howard government was incapable of doing anything about what the member now defines as being 'palpably unfair'. To come in here and carry on in such a fashion, opportunistically appealing to the veteran community, is just pathetic.

This morning's Sydney Morning Herald has a very timely obituary in regard to this piece of legislation. It outlined the life of Keith Shearim, who at 19 years of age was captured in Singapore in February 1942. Starting at 19 years, I stress, he was to spend three years in prison. He was quoted as saying:

I survived on rice sludge: always the same—breakfast, dinner and tea.

He said later:

It was always full of weevils and rat dung.

He further commented of this period that he survived through 'good luck, good officers, good non-commissioned officers' and good luck again. As I say, that is a very timely summary of the situation of many of those who still survive, who the government is trying to repay in some fashion this evening through this legislation.

As has been detailed by others, the survivors number only 996. That is the number of gold card recipients, and that is probably a very reasonable summary. That is why the total cost of this legislation is estimated at only $27 million over the next four years. Of course, that is an indication of what is going to happen with demography. The cost will reduce from $8.5 million in the first year to $4.5 million in four years time.

(Quorum formed) As I was saying, the budget figures indicate that within four years the 900-odd recipients will be reduced by half.

The Australian prisoner-of-war experience started with the Boer War, where 104 people were incarcerated. They shared the same experience as the future Prime Minister of Britain Sir Winston Churchill. However, while they say that generally the winners write the history, in the case of the Boer War perhaps the most reprehensible and atrocious conditions were those that the British forced upon the Boer civilians, with large numbers dying in camps. This was in an indication of what was to happen in the Vietnam War, where large numbers of civilians were moved so that they had no connection with military forces. Of course, what particularly stands out in Australian history is the situation in Japan. We know that in the European theatre of war the mortality rate of prisoners was only three per cent, whereas 36 per cent of prisoners of the Japanese perished. We have heard accounts of and know well the Sandakan march where 3,500 civilian Indonesians and 2,500 prisoners of war perished. They were originally used to construct an airstrip and prisoner camp and then, with allied action in Borneo, were forced to go on marches where they all perished.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East in 1946 undertook an investigation of Japanese atrocities in the Second World War and convicted 5,700 officers for categories B and C prisoner abuse. Amongst the more infamous outcomes of that inquiry was that Shiro Ishii was given immunity for providing statistics to the allies of the people that he had killed with experiments. Even the Indian judge, Radhabinod Pal, who in the end objected to convicting the Japanese, said:

The evidence is still overwhelming that atrocities were perpetrated by members of the Japanese armed forces against the civilian populations of some of the territories occupied by them, as also against prisoners of war.

It is disturbing that by 2006 a survey by Asahi news in Japan indicated that 70 per cent of those Japanese who responded were totally unaware of the war time experience of prisoners of war.

As I said, the conditions these people suffered were not of the usual standard that one has come to expect. The survival rates in other theatres of war and other conflicts were far greater. The situation was that of the 22,380-odd Australians who were prisoners of the Japanese 8,000 died in captivity—a situation which is fairly unparalleled in history. I stress that there were also 250,000 local people who were mistreated by the Japanese in the Burma-Thailand rail project. It was not just the prisoners of war, but it was a serious event in Australian history.

I want to give some credit to Tom Uren, a former member of this House, a former minister and my predecessor as the member for Reid. He was captured in Timor and was one of the huge numbers of people who were imprisoned and were victims of Japanese incarceration. His lessons out of this were perhaps different from those of some people who were never in prison. He devoted himself throughout his career to the search for international peace and cooperation. He was a staunch opponent of the war in Vietnam. He always stressed that what he learned from his period with Weary Dunlop and others was cooperation, that they survived because people learned to work together and that, as a community, people are capable of overcoming the worst and the most horrendous conditions. That was to be a life-guiding point for him, something he learned from that experience in Japan. He has played a significant role with regard to advocacy for these people over many decades. I was speaking to him a few weeks ago and—of course he did not specify to me what was going to occur in the budget—he was looking forward to a good decision. This is what has come out of it: a payment of $500 per fortnight to the remaining 990-odd victims.

It is not only people like Tom Uren. I want to briefly talk about my wife's uncle, Ernest John Walsh, who was captured in Singapore in 1941. He was thought to be missing at first. It was quite a period of time before they were actually certain that he was a prisoner. That only occurred on 17 November 1943. He was both in Singapore and on the Burma-Thailand railway. I think what is important here is that the suffering that people endured was in some cases to be with them for the rest of their lives. Knowing my wife's uncle and her broader family, the condition of his children was the worst of all of those in the extended family. He was renowned for alcoholism. He was incapable of not assaulting policemen and others in uniform. He tended to become very aggressive towards them, attacking them when there was no need whatsoever. Ernest Walsh lived with the problems he experienced as a prisoner of the Japanese for the rest of his life. His family, including his children, was very much affected by those problems. Whilst he might have been a TPI and received a number of medals and awards for his commitment to this country, the kind of suffering he experienced has a lifelong effect on people. It is that effect that this government is attempting at a very late stage to do something about, which many governments, Labor and Liberal, have failed over many decades to do. We are recognising the particular conditions that these people endured over and above the majority of servicemen. I commend the legislation.