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Thursday, 16 June 2011
Page: 6345

Mr MITCHELL (McEwen) (12:24): That was the most animated, boorish contribution I have heard in a long time. It was great to hear that the shadow minister acknowledged that he is not capable of being able to match the great work ethic and great capabilities of the minister at the table. So we appreciate his honesty for admitting he is not up to the job.

I rise to support the government's Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill because this bill is an important initiative to show our gratitude and respect to these worthy Australians, many of whom live in my electorate. The bill will give effect to a number of veterans affairs measures that will create a prisoner of war recognition supplement. It will clarify the original intention of the compensation offsetting policy in relation to disability pension and rationalise temporary incapacity allowance and loss of earning allowance. As part of the Gillard government's 2011-12 budget we announced that the POWR supplement of $500 will be made fortnightly to surviving former POWs. This supplement is in recognition of the severe hardship and deprivations that former POWs experienced when serving our nation. This bill will provide a tax-free supplement with exempt income for the purposes of veterans entitlements in the social security income test. It will be indexed annually in line with the consumer price index. This payment is in addition to the ex gratia payment of $25,000 already made to most of the former POWs or their widows or widowers and the existing benefits a person may already receive from the government. (Quorum formed)

Once again it shows the calibre of the opposition in just wanting to stop, block and say no. When it comes to talking about entitlements for veterans they just leave the country wanting. The shadow minister scurries from the chamber after that embarrassing effort of his.

None of us can fully comprehend the abhorrent conditions that the vast majority of POWs experienced. We are all well aware that POWs were subject to horrific conditions and many returned home with physical and psychological scars that stayed with them for the rest of their lives. More than 30,000 Australians became POWs between 1940-45 alone. The Germans and Italians captured Australians during the Mediterranean-Middle East campaigns as well as those in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. Members of RAAF crews who had bailed out during operations over Germany, occupied-Europe or North Africa also became POWs. Of the 8,000 Australians taken prisoner by the Germans and Italians, 265 died during their captivity. During the Pacific War, the Japanese captured 22,000 Australians—soldiers, sailors, airmen, members of the Army Nursing Service as well as some civilians. They were imprisoned in camps throughout Japanese-occupied territories in Borneo, Korea, Ambon, Singapore, Timor, Java, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and in Japan itself. At the end of the war, only 13,872 of the POWs were recovered. So, approximately, and very sadly, one-third of the prisoners had died. A generation of men and women who went to war to protect our freedoms, defend our country and liberate oppression across the globe, ended up fighting for their own survival and that of their mates in POW camps across the globe in conditions that we can only shudder to think about.

If I say the service number VX39234, it would have little meaning to the House, but this is the service number given to George Henry Mitchell—a man whom I am proud to call my grandfather. He was a gunner in the 2/3 Anti-Tank Regiment. He saw active service in Africa, Borneo and notably in the Tobruk siege—one of our most significant and hard-fought battles of the Second World War. Fortunately for my family, my grandfather never became a POW, but I recently read about and have taken interest in another member of the 2/3 Anti-Tank Regiment, Herbert Hawley, who unfortunately did become a POW.

Herbert Hawley enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 7 November 1939. He was posted to the 2/3rd Field Regiment in May 1940, after training at Ingleburn, near Sydney. He sailed with his regiment to England, where he was stationed at Salisbury. In December, he left England for the Middle East and then was moved to Greece, where his regiment came under heavy attack from the German Luftwaffe and Panzer divisions. His regiment was evacuated to Suda Bay, Crete. There they defended an airstrip against German paratroopers but, just 10 days later, they were forced to surrender, and Herbert Hawley became a POW. Herb arrived in Wolfsburg prison camp in August 1941 and spent the next four years as a POW in Germany. He was sent to various locations and joined working parties on roads, farms and repairing and laying railway lines. In May 1945, when the Germans surrendered, Herb was at Spittal, working on bomb damaged railway trucks and tracks. He was repatriated to England through Italy and arrived home in Australia three months later. Unlike many others, Herb was reunited with his family.

Twenty-nine Australians were taken as POWs in Korea, including two officers. The treatment of Australian POWs in Korea was generally better than that meted out by the Japanese to POWs during the Second World War. However, there were many Australian POWs who were kept in appalling conditions. At the time, Captain Phillip Greville (later Brigadier Greville) 1RAR, wrote:

Many prisoners became filthy, full of lice, festered with wounds full of maggots, unshaven and without haircuts for months on end and were faced with squads of trained interrogators, bullied, deprived of sleep and browbeaten. Of the 100-odd flyers subjected to this kind of treatment, 38 signed 'confessions', believing them to be so silly that no one would believe them.

That is a terrible story to read about the suffering our soldiers faced during this time of conflict. We all know the courage and bravery of those who survived internment at Japanese POW camps, particularly in places like Changi.

The name Changi is synonymous with the suffering of Australian prisoners held by the Japanese during the Second World War. This is ironic, since for most of the war in the Pacific, Changi was in reality one of the most benign of the Japanese POW camps. Its privations were relatively minor compared to those of others, particularly those on the Burma-Thailand railway. In May 1944, all the Allied prisoners in Changi, which included some 5,000 Australians, were concentrated in the immediate environs of Changi Gaol, which up until this time had been used to detain civilian internees. In this area, some 11,700 prisoners were crammed into less than a quarter of a square kilometre. This period established Changi's place in popular memory. Rations were cut, camp life was increasingly restricted and, in July, the authority of Allied senior officers over their troops was revoked. Changi was liberated by troops of the 5th Indian Infantry Division on 5 September 1945 and, within a week, troops were being repatriated after a torrid period of emasculation and humiliation at the hands of their captors.

Earlier this year, I noted that the Japanese foreign minister formally apologised to a group of Australian former prisoners of war for the pain and suffering they experienced during World War II. Rowley Richards, aged 94, said that the important thing to their members was the official apology and, years on, POWs received the apology they were looking for. The Foreign Minister told the five diggers that 'he was sorry from the bottom of his heart for their treatment'. 'As I understood it, it was deep and expressed great remorse for the suffering that was inflicted on us and it was a very moving experience,' said 89-year-old Norm Anderton, who was used as slave labour on the Thai-Burma railway.

That is why the bill is important. This measure is worth $27.2 million over four years, with payments beginning automatically in September 2011. In addition to the benefits available to other veterans, other benefits for POWs include an ex gratia payment of $25,000;    DVA payment of Residential Aged Care packages, which provide care similar to low-care residential facilities in the veteran's home; DVA payment of fees for Extended Aged Care at Home; and Extended Aged Care at Home Dementia packages; automatic Gold Card and funeral benefits; and automatic granting of a war widow/widowers pension to the partner upon the death of the former POW.

The bill will make amendments to compensation offsetting provisions in the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. Compensations offsetting is a statutory provision which ensures that a person is not compensated twice under separate schemes for the same incapacity. It also ensures equity between a claimant who is entitled to compensation for a level of incapacity under two schemes, compared to a claimant who is entitled to compensation for the same level of incapacity under only one scheme. The purpose of the proposed amendments to the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 is to both clarify and affirm this existing policy. As I said, Australian prisoners of war numbered more than 30,000. In the Boer War there were some 104 POWs in captivity. In World War II, 22,376 were captured in the Pacific and 8,591 in Europe. In the Korean War, some 30 Australian servicemen were interned by North Korean forces. Australian prisoners of war were subjected to conditions that none of us can even begin to imagine. They battled starvation, exhausting work and the brutality of their captors. All suffered and many died during captivity. The vast majority returned home and many still live with the scars and memories of their experiences. Abroad they sacrificed so much, yet they continue to contribute to our nation and its prosperity today.

To the prisoners of war in my electorate and across the country, this government will never forget your sacrifice, stories and courage. I am proud to be part of a government which is delivering on its budget promise to help support our veterans.