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Thursday, 16 June 2011
Page: 6348

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (12:38): Since the Boer War in 1899, Australia has had a proud history of service, defending our freedom and what it means to be an Australian. Today we have more than 360,000 veterans and their families living in our society. It is imperative that we serve and look after them in return for how they have served and looked after our country and our heritage.

The Veterans' Entitlements Amendment Bill 2011 gives special recognition to Australian prisoners of war. It will introduce an additional payment of $500 per fortnight, made payable from October of this year. Importantly, it will not affect their income for tax or social security purposes.

There are approximately 900 former prisoners of war alive in Australia today. My own father is one of them. He was a fighter pilot with the famous 3 Squadron, flew 60 sorties in a Kittyhawk, survived the battle of El Alamein and was then shot down in the last few weeks of the war in North Africa. He spent two months in a POW hospital in Italy and was then sent as a prisoner of war to the notorious Stalag Luft III, where he participated in the great escape. And contrary to the movie, there were no Americans, no baseball and no motorcycles; instead, there was just plain cold-blooded murder in defiance of the Geneva Convention. Unfortunately, the views of recent generations about prisoners of war, in particular those who were on the European front, have been softened by television shows like Hogan's Heroesmaking light of the harsh and brutal conditions which prevailed.

From pilots in Turkey and soldiers in Germany to nurses in Indonesia, it is estimated that 34,000 Australians have been held captive during war time. Their experience is unique and heart-rending. Prisoners of war were almost always sick and hungry, either sweltering hot or freezing cold, put to unimaginably harsh work or left to be consumed by mindless boredom. They were constantly under the control of their captors. For young Australians who had come from 'a land of sweeping plains' to be detained behind barbed wire, having left home to fight in a war, it was a devastating fate and beyond imagination. It challenged their self-worth and, heart-breakingly so, often left them feeling embarrassed, despite their capture not being their own fault. This is why this amendment is so important.

Time in captivity leaves both physical and psychological scars on prisoners of war, scars that are difficult to fathom for those of us who have not experienced captivity. Former prisoners of war endured their captivity and recovery from that captivity all in the service of their country. This experience deserves not only our recognition and admiration, but our understanding. I believe this amendment goes some way to achieving that.

Warfare today is different from that of the 20th century. At a time when tragedy continues to bring the current commitment of our service men and women into sharp focus, it is important that we also recognise our veterans and what they experienced. Prisoners of war    were captured during World War I, World War II and the Korean War. I would like to touch briefly on these three historical events to acknowledge the significance of this amendment.

In 1914, Australian service men and women did not really know what it was to be a prisoner of war. Those who had been briefly captured during the Boer War had for the most part escaped quickly and were not subject to the brutal conditions of those who were to follow them. Captured in the Middle East and Europe, these prisoners of war were the first to really learn the humiliation, ill-treatment and hardship of captivity. Four thousand Australians became prisoners of war during the Great War. They were not forgotten or left behind by their mates or their country and taught us all the true meaning of resilience and defiance.

I would also like to take this opportunity to mention two important figures within the prisoner of war experience of World War I. Elizabeth Chomley was an Australian woman living in London, who ran the Red Cross prisoner of war office supporting Australian prisoners of war in Europe. A recent War Memorial exhibition displayed hundreds of letters and cards of appreciation to Miss Chomley, who helped remind thousands of prisoners that they had not been forgotten. We can still learn from Miss Chomley today and remind ourselves that our deployed service men and women need our support—kind messages will never go astray.

The second figure I want to speak about today is Douglas Grant. Mr Grant was one of our first and, at that time, the only Aboriginal soldier, as during World War I Aboriginal people were not allowed to enlist in the army. I mention Mr Douglas as he is an example of determination and dedication. His love for his country saw him persevere until he had successfully enlisted in the Army and, upon serving his country, he endured the terrible conditions of captivity. He was appointed by his fellow prisoners to be in charge of relief parcels and was described as being given that role because of 'his honesty, his quick mind and because he was so aggressively Australian'. As a nation we are proud of figures like Mr Grant and, fast-forwarding to today, the amendment we are currently discussing acknowledges that pride.

In World War II, 8,000 Australians became prisoners of war in Europe alone. Most endured captivity for more than three continuous years. Over 22,000 servicemen and, for the first time, more than 40 female nurses were captured in the Pacific. It was those prisoners of war who worked on the notorious Burma-Thailand Railway—the haunting picture of emaciated young men, men who were once strong and robust soldiers. Of the prisoners of war captured in the Pacific, one in three died in captivity. Tragically, this included over 1,000 prisoners who were on unmarked war ships that were torpedoed by the Allies. Thirty Australians were captured during the Korean War and they endured much of the same brutal treatment as their forebears in the Pacific; however, they did so in the harsh conditions of a bitter Korean winter. Additionally, as this was a war fought over opposing ideologies, these prisoners of war were also subject to attacks on their minds, with attempts to brainwash these servicemen against the cause they served.

Simply mentioning these experiences does not do our prisoners of war, or their families, justice. Their time in captivity affected our prisoners-of-war veterans in different ways—from a positive experience of comradeship to the bitterness of questioning how it could have happened. Either way, the experience was harrowing and stays with those who suffered through captivity. This payment is a welcome recognition of that, and adds to the support payments made by the coalition to former Japanese prisoners of war, in 2001; former Korean prisoners of war, in 2003; and former German and Italian prisoners of war, in 2007. Our veterans have supported our country and we must support them.

With this in mind I must say that it was extremely disappointing to see $8 million in funding cut from grassroots veterans advocacy funding over the forward estimates. I fail to see how that is supporting our veterans. The ex-service community had no warning of this cut, and now must compete for a smaller pool of funding. This is in addition to both Labor and the Greens not supporting the coalition's commitment to military superannuation reform, specifically providing fair indexation to DFRDB and DFRB superannuants.

Whilst the payment to prisoners of war is a welcome addition to recognising our veterans, this government is simply not doing enough.