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Wednesday, 9 May 1984
Page: 1825

Senator COOK —Has the Minister for Veterans' Affairs seen Press reports concerning Australian Vietnam veterans' claims for compensation based on the alleged effects of exposure to chemical agents in Vietnam? Is it a fact that the only avenue for compensation to Australian veterans is the repatriation disability pension? Is it also a fact that, contrary to Press reports, Vietnam veterans have been singularly unsuccessful in pursuing that avenue?

Senator GIETZELT —A disability pension is granted to a veteran if he can prove that his disability or his state of health arises as a result of his war service . Of course, the difficulty for a considerable number of Vietnam veterans has been to establish that causality. They have been heartened by the decision that has been made in the United States of America in the belief that that will assist the cause of the Vietnam veterans to establish that their state of health arises out of their exposure to chemical agents.

As I indicated in a reply to a question yesterday asked of me by Senator Bolkus , that United States decision relates to the use of agent orange whereas the Royal Commission on the Use and Effects of Chemical Agents on Australian Personnel in Vietnam established by this Government deals with chemical agents generally. The prosecution in the United States was designed to establish facts and to the extent that there has been an out of court settlement, we are not much further advanced in establishing facts about the use of agent orange. It probably will not assist us in respect of our emphasis on chemical agents, which is part of the work of the Royal Commission which is currently sitting.

Of the 1,736 claims by Vietnam veterans for disability pensions for alleged chemical causes only four have been accepted by the Repatriation Commission as being related to chemical causes. It is that dissatisfaction that caused the Vietnam Veterans Association to press the previous Government and this Government-we accepted the responsibility-into establishing a royal commission. However, of those 1,700-odd cases to which I have referred, in 62 per cent of those cases the disability has been accepted by the Repatriation Commission as arising out of some aspect of veterans' service in Vietnam.

I point out to Senator Cook that the Repatriation Commission is an independent statutory authority. It makes a decision based on the evidence that is available to it. In rejecting a claim the determining authorities must be satisfied that it has been proved beyond reasonable doubt that the disability did not result from war service. So the honourable senator can see the difficulties that the determining authorities have. Chemical causation is only one of the bases on which a determining authority can arrive at that conclusion.

Senator Cook further asked me whether Australian veterans, like their American counterparts, can sue their Government for negligence. That course of action does not exist in Australia. American veterans took advantage of the judicial processes in that country to initiate a class action. I understand that it is possible-the Vietnam Veterans Association will be looking at the possibility- that there is no impediment to Australian veterans suing the American chemical companies arising out of the settlement that has taken place in respect of the American veterans. However, I think that is a matter that will have to be examined in the future. As the Royal Commission has only part heard the whole question of the effect of chemical agents, I think it would be premature to come to any conclusions about causation of ill health by chemical agents.