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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 5664


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (11:14): I am very pleased to take part in this debate on the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment Bill 2011 and to support any bill that supports our veterans. I am pleased to note that the coalition will be supporting, as I will be, the bill insofar as schedules 1 and 3 are concerned. I am very interested to be following Senator Xenophon in this debate and will be interested to have a look at the amendment he has proposed. I wonder if he has some costings for that amendment. I have to say to Senator Xenophon that it is perhaps too little too late. We really needed your support a few months ago during the indexation debate.

Senator Xenophon: It was a different issue, though.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It is an issue of support for our veterans community. We desperately needed your support then, Senator Xenophon. You had your own reasons for not supporting us, which was a bit disappointing, but I am pleased to see that you are supporting those parts of this bill which will improve the benefits we give to our veterans.

I will come back the provisions of the bill, but I would just indicate how much our nation owes the veterans—those people who have defended our country in times gone by. What our veterans have done is fresh in my mind from a ceremony I attended yesterday morning in Townsville marking the 60th anniversary of national service. The dawn service yesterday, on the shores of Rowes Bay in Townsville, was a very moving service. It and the parade later in the day were the culmination of a week of activities, during which national serviceman got together in Townsville for this magnificent 60th anniversary celebration, celebrating those who were called up for national service from 1951 onwards and served in the Korean conflict and of course in Vietnam. It was tremendous to see the veterans together, renewing acquaintances, telling lots of stories and remembering friends and colleagues who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

The dawn service in Townsville, which is of course as senators would know classed, or we class it ourselves, as a garrison city. It is the home of Lavarack army barracks, one of the biggest army barracks in Australia, and of course RAAF Base Townsville, formerly Garbutt, which is a very significant RAAF base. A lot of veterans who have served in those services have retired to Townsville, so it is a community, a city, that very much values the work of our servicemen, including our national servicemen. Yesterday's ceremony was really a very moving service. The master of ceremonies was Mr Ben Hobson and the services were led by padre John Emerson. I particularly mention Brigadier Neil Weekes, retired, who has been a tower of strength to veterans over the years since he retired from active service in the army. Brigadier Weekes was a national serviceman himself—he was called up for the Vietnam War—so , many years ago. He later joined the regular army and rose through the ranks to become a brigadier by the time of his retirement. Brigadier Weekes gave a very moving tribute at the dawn service yesterday.

The dawn service was followed by a parade down the new Flinders Street. The veterans who participated were still sprightly—most of them were still in step. It was determined, probably not by them, that some veterans from the Korean conflict should travel in old Willys jeeps and other veteran army vehicles at the head of the parade. Of course, the Townsville regular army band provided the music for the march. The salute was taken by the Deputy Mayor of Townsville, Councillor David Crisafulli, and by Brigadier Stuart Smith, the current CO of Lavarack Barracks. It was a magnificent affair. It brought to mind, as Brigadier Weekes mentioned in his speech, some of the difficulties that some of the veterans of the Vietnam War lived through. The Whitlam government's treatment of veterans on their return from Vietnam is to its eternal shame. As I always say, and as many acknowledge, the decision to go to war in Vietnam was a political decision that a good 40 per cent plus of Australians did not agree with. That was no excuse for taking it out on the veterans when they returned. It was a quite despicable period in Australian history when those troops returning from Vietnam, after fighting for their country at the government's direction, were spat at and condemned and were shunned, even by family.

Brigadier Weekes gave a telling story yesterday. He mentioned that, in the walk of remembrance at Enoggera barracks, where all of those who were killed in Vietnam had a tree planted and a plaque placed, one soldier from Brigadier Weekes' platoon was not named and was not recognised. That is because his family was so totally opposed to the Vietnam War that they refused to put up the money to provide for the plaque and also refused to have their son's body returned to Australia. That is how hard the feelings were and how divided the nation was. I accept that there was a political division, but it does seem very sad and very unfortunate that the death of this soldier—who, as Brigadier Weekes mentioned, was over 21 and made his own decision to go to war in Vietnam to fight for his country—was not recognised through the placement of a plaque. We also heard of a similar incidence in which a family who did not agree with the Vietnam War do not want their son's name recorded on a plaque at the Australian War Memorial. There is space left for his name, but family members still refuse to have his service in Vietnam recognised. Perhaps they have their reasons. It just seems sad that Australians at the time could not distinguish the political element of that war from the magnificent service of veterans, in this case veterans who were national servicemen.

Notwithstanding that, it was a magnificent week in Townsville, with a lot of activity. The dawn service was certainly very moving. I congratulate the Townsville City Council on the naming of the park on the shores of Rowes Bay, where the national service memorial was constructed a few years ago. Yesterday, following the dawn service, the park was dedicated as National Service Park. The unveiling was conducted by Councillor Deanne Bell on behalf of the Townsville City Council, Mr Warren Hegarty on behalf of the National Servicemen's Association and Brigadier Smith, the current CO of Lavarack Barracks, as I have mentioned.

I congratulate Warren Hegarty and his team on a fabulous week recognising the national service given by so many Australians over so many years. I know Mr Hegarty and his team have been working very hard for years now to ensure that the of 60th anniversary celebration would go off without a hitch, and they certainly succeeded in that. It was a great credit to them and a great recognition of the service of so many young Australian national servicemen to their country over the past 60 years.

I want to comment on the matters that Senator Xenophon raised about Maralinga. I have only recently seen his amendments, and Senator Ronaldson will no doubt deal with those in the Committee of the Whole. If Senator Xenophon is embarking upon this process, perhaps some investigation should be made into disabilities suffered by children of veterans who worked at Maralinga at the time of the atomic and nuclear test research. A constituent in of mine in Townsville has certain deformities which medical advice has suggested to her are the result of radiation that her father would have received during his service at Maralinga, prior to her conception. Clearly the department and governments should look at causal effects and costs and ensure that appropriate consideration is given in this area. I think this area should be looked at a little further. I have raised it at estimates hearings and have written to the minister about it. Perhaps it is something that Senator Xenophon might have considered. I hasten to add that, having only just seen his amendments and having only briefly heard him speak, I have not thought the matter through completely. I am sure that Senator Ronaldson, on behalf of the coalition, will have looked at this a bit more closely and will be able to indicate the areas in which the coalition perhaps does not agree. Clearly there is a need to look at this matter to see whether any harm may have been caused to Australian servicemen and perhaps their offspring as a result of service performed at Maralinga.

I am pleased that the coalition will be supporting schedules 1 and 3 of the bill before us. I will not go into those schedules in any great detail as I am conscious that Senator Ronaldson and other coalition speakers have done so. Suffice to say that, in relation to schedule 2, I am persuaded by the evidence given by Rear Admiral Doolan, head of the RSL, during the Senate inquiry into this bill, where he said:

… the RSL view is that it is much better to have the legislation being the basis for all these matters than to have it by regulation.

I agree with that sentiment. I am concerned that, under the amendments proposed to schedule 2 to clarify the operation of the act, there will still be a requirement for guidelines by regulation or by departmental decree to ensure that they are properly applied. I thought I heard the Greens say in their contribution to this debate that they were now satisfied, because of an explana­tory memorandum, that all would be well. Under the Acts Interpretation Act, explana­tory memorandums can have some influence on the way legislation and regulation are administered. It would seem to me that if the parliament's intention can be written into an explanatory memorandum it can just as easily be included in the legislation. So, I am concerned about schedule 2. Senator Ronaldson has indicated that he will be moving an amendment to omit schedule 2, and the coalition is doing that in the best interests of our veteran and ex-service community. I certainly urge the Senate to support that amendment.

In conclusion, I congratulate our veterans for all the work they have done over their lifetime. We are certainly as a nation indebted to them. I am particularly grateful that the 60th anniversary celebrations of national service held in Townsville yesterday yet again highlighted for the Australian community the work done by all of those who have served in the defence of our nation.