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Thursday, 16 June 2011
Page: 6355

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (MaranoaSecond Deputy Speaker) (13:14): I rise to speak on the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment Bill 2011. I will make only a few comments, to ensure that other members from this side of the House are able to speak prior to question time today. I note the member for Dunkley is sitting at the table. We share a lot in common, both being former veterans' affairs ministers.

This bill will extend an ex gratia payment to ex-prisoners of war of $500 per fortnight. We in this House welcome that payment, and I am sure that Australians wherever they are would recognise that this is a payment that no-one could object to. This payment will be exempt from income tax for the purposes of the Income Tax Act. The bill will also clarify the longstanding compensation-offsetting arrangements that have been in place in the repatriation system since 1973. This follows a full Federal Court decision which highlighted the need to clarify the legislation. This does not vary the disability pension in any way.

This payment builds on a longstanding commitment from both sides of the House to do whatever we can whenever there is money available to support our veteran community. These amendments certainly build on the strong record of the coalition and the Labor Party in providing assistance to the ex-service community and ex-prisoners of war. On my watch as Minister for Veterans' Affairs, I was privileged to be able to ensure that ex-prisoners of war of the Japanese were granted a $25,000 tax-free ex gratia payment, and this was built on by the member for Dunkley while he was Minister for Veterans' Affairs, when it was extended to ex-prisoners of war from the Korean War and ex-prisoners of war of the Germans and Italians. So I think both sides of the House have a very credible record when it comes to supporting this very special group of Australians who we as a nation should never, ever forget.

As the generations go on, it is important that the new generations understand the reason why we have a veterans' entitlement to protect the interests of our veterans. We see members of our Defence Force serving in peacekeeping operations in East Timor, the Solomons, the Sinai—the list goes on—and in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have many defence personnel serving overseas who are prepared to put their lives at risk in the service of our nation and to do as the government requires of them, always protecting and supporting the values that are enshrined in our Constitution.

This legislation reminds me that next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Milne Bay. It reminds me that it will be 70 years ago next February that Singapore fell. It reminds me that next year will mark 70 years since the horrific massacre of nurses on Bangka Island, which we learnt of only after the Second World War. It also reminds me that next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin. So in many ways next year is going to be a significant anniversary—not that they are not all significant, but I hope that the government will make sure that we do commemorate the 70th anniversary of such significant events.

The Battle of Milne Bay was the first major defeat of the Japanese. Corporal French of the 2nd/9th Battalion was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. Next year we should make sure that we focus on a major commemoration of this. We should also remember the fall of Singapore and the horrific massacre by the Japanese on Bangka island, where nurses were told just to march into the water of the ocean off Bangka island and were massacred from behind with machine guns. The sole survivor was Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, and what an inspiration she was. If it had not been for her miraculous survival of that massacre, the world and we in Australia would never have known of that horrific event. We should remember the bombing of Darwin and other events. But the Battle of Milne Bay was a most significant defeat of the Japanese, which in many ways was a turning point in the battle in the Pacific. We should also remember the 70th anniversary of Kokoda and all the battles across the great archipelago to our north. I hope that the minister, through the department, is able to focus on comm­emorative occasions next year.

I know that the department run a very, very good commemorative section. On my watch and on the current government's watch they have put on very significant commemorative pilgrimages back to the sites of great battles where there was great loss of life. Given that we are debating this bill to do with prisoners of war, I want to say that next year should be a time for significant commemorations—not just pilgrimages to those places across the great archipelago to our north but also commemorations across Australia as we lead up to those dates throughout 2012. We should also engage with the young generations at schools, through scholarships or essay competitions, making sure that our young generations, 70 years on, are still learning something of our military history—the record of Australians and their sacrifices.

I am using this bill to put this on the public record, but I hope that the minister and the government, through the department, which has a wonderful record when it comes to commemoration, look next year at commemorating the Battle of Milne Bay, the fall of Singapore, Kokoda, the bombing of Darwin, the massacre on Bangka island and the Thai-Burma Railway. There is so much there. These are horrific stories to tell but we should never, ever forget. It is important to bring these things to the consciousness of all Australians, particularly our young generations. Next year will be one of those times when we can have a focus on it. I know the government and the minister will be looking at the centenary of Gallipoli in 2015, several years away. I urge the minister, when they look at that, to make sure once again that there is a focus back here in Australia. Whilst Gallipoli is a touchstone for many young Australians for what it meant when we first went ashore—and I think that, at that moment, we as a young nation, so soon after Federation, lost our innocence forever—it is not only Gallipoli that we see as marking major occasions when Australians have been involved in making the world a better and hopefully a safer place. I think it is important that it is not just at Gallipoli but back here in Australia that we connect it to a younger generation particularly, because it is their legacy. The 100th anniversary year in 2015 is a touchstone, but let us make sure that we focus also back here in Australia, because not everyone can have the opportunity to go to Gallipoli, perhaps neither on Anzac Day 2015 nor in their lifetime. As we prepare for that centenary year we should keep our focus not only on Gallipoli but also very much here at home.

I commend this bill to the House, and I thank the House for its indulgence in allowing me to put on the public record a couple of other thoughts I have had to do with next year and the centenary in 2015 of the landing at Gallipoli.