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Friday, 10 November 2000
Page: 19721

Senator SCHACHT (2:41 PM) —I thank my colleague Senator Evans for saying a few words while I came from my office. I did not expect the previous bill to be so expeditiously completed by my colleague Senator Carr, with the help of other senators. The provisions of this bill before us, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2000, overwhelmingly are supported by the opposition, and I would imagine will be supported by the minor parties in this place. The bill carries out the promise the government made at the time of the last budget that it would introduce into the parliament improvements in entitlements for veterans in a number of areas. Most of these were as a result of committees of inquiry or reviews that had taken place in the previous 12 to 15 months in one case and for a couple of years in another case, where there had been controversy in the veterans' community about areas of entitlement.

One of the areas of controversy is the issue of the health of Vietnam veterans and their children. The government, with the support of the opposition, completed a morbidity study of Vietnam veterans and a validation study. Initially, Vietnam veterans were asked to put information to the department about the standard of their own health and their health problems. That showed considerable areas of concern in the health of veterans and their families. As a result, a lengthy validation study was conducted which came forward with a number of areas of concern, which led to the government in the budget improving entitlements to cover the areas of concern confirmed by the validation study. The validation study showed that in a number of areas Vietnam veterans have amongst their offspring a higher level of children born with the genetic defects of cleft palate, cleft lip and spina bifida. One of the most troubling things of all is that there is a much higher level of suicide amongst children of veterans up to the age of 35. I think it is over double the normal rate within the Australian population. All of us are concerned, and there have been many efforts in recent times, both in the community and in the government, to deal with the issue of youth suicide and suicide in this community. What the validation study showed is that, if you are a child of a Vietnam veteran, up to the age of 35 you are twice as likely to commit suicide as would be indicated by the national average. That really is a very disturbing figure. I also mentioned that among children of Vietnam veterans there is a higher rate of physical disabilities like spina bifida and cleft palate.

It is clear to many of us that those disabilities of cleft palate, cleft lip and spina bifida may well be the result of the use of chemicals in the Vietnam war such as the defoliant, Agent Orange. There has been much controversy over the last 25 years over the use of such chemicals in defoliant spraying in Vietnam, where soldiers of both sides were not given adequate protection. Some of the anecdotes from the various commissions that have looked at this show that soldiers were expected to prepare and use Agent Orange in a way that would now be considered a criminal offence in Australia. That is irrespective of those who were out in the jungle and may have accidentally been sprayed or were in the jungle after the spraying and collected directly and indirectly the effects of Agent Orange.

So we have the government in this validation report and in accepting the recommendations, which the opposition support, dealing for the first time with the children of a veteran whose health has been affected by the service of the veteran in a particular war. As far as I am aware, that has not been an issue that we have dealt with before in the long history of veterans' entitlements since 1919. It is a new area, a necessary area to move into. I only hope that the evidence that may come from the study that is now being conducted on Gulf War veterans, into what is called Gulf War syndrome in America, shows we have not also created a problem that, because of chemicals being used there directly and indirectly, there may now be some ongoing genetic effect on those veterans and subsequently on their families. Either way the government supports this proposition. I do not believe this will be the end of these issues for Vietnam veterans and their offspring in those areas of disability clearly created by some genetic defect from service in Vietnam. I think we, as a parliament, all have to keep this under review as further medical evidence and research evidence turns up. So, on behalf of the opposition, I make it clear that we have no argument with these recommendations. We welcome them and we look forward to seeing them come into operation. We will monitor them closely to ensure that we get the best benefit for our veterans.

The other area in this bill dealing with improvement is as a result of the Mohr report, as it is called, on the issue of service activity in South-East Asia between 1955 and 1975. The Mohr report is entitled The review of service entitlement anomalies in respect of South-East Asian service. The review was brought about by the activity of veterans' organisations for many years—and also by the opposition in the last couple of years, particularly in estimates committee hearings—over the anomalies that existed where clearly some people got access to veterans' entitlements and their service was considered active service while other people serving in the region did not get the same entitlements. I believe the report by Major General Mohr is an excellent one. When it came out, the opposition announced that we accepted all the recommendations of the report, and we encouraged the government to accept all the recommendations.

The government has accepted most of the recommendations on service anomalies except in one area where it rejected the recommendation that those who served in civilian medical teams in Vietnam should not have their service counted as an entitlement under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. I will come back to the nurses issue in a moment. I just want to touch on those other areas that have now been cleared up in this report and have been accepted. In particular there is the case of those who served in the Australian Navy in the Malayan Emergency during the mid- and late-fifties. It always seemed to me very odd that those who served on Australian ships patrolling the coast of Malaya during that period, at times for several months on operational duty, were not considered as being on active service. Yet, if a Royal Australian Air Force serviceman flew into the Butterworth air base, spent two or three days at the base and flew back to Australia, that would be considered as active service and that person would be entitled to the full benefits under the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

I do not deny the right of that Royal Australian Air Force person to receive those entitlements but I think that, if those people are eligible, then clearly those naval people who served on those Australian ships along the coast for a much greater period of time should be given equal treatment. Wherever humanly possible, there should always be, under the Veterans' Entitlements Act, equality and equitable treatment of all veterans where they were in equal service. Clearly the naval people were in equal service, so we support the government in coming round to accepting that recommendation. There are other areas of service in that period. I think there were some RAAF people who served at Ubon in Thailand during the Vietnam War. Their service has now been granted. I think there were other servicepeople in other areas between 1955 and 1975—in the Indonesian confrontation et cetera—and those cases have all been cleared up.

Unfortunately the government did not accept one significant recommendation of the report about those who served in the so-called civilian medical teams in Vietnam in the 1960s. It seems extremely strange to me and to the opposition that the government would reject the recommendation of the review that they appointed. There has been no adequate response from the government other than to say, `We don't agree with this because it could set a precedent somewhere else.' Under the Veterans' Entitlements Act, we already have determinations that people who were not under direct military command should have entitlement to benefits. I remember that for a long time after the Second World War merchant seamen claimed they should get entitlement under the Veterans' Entitlements Act because, although they were merchant seamen on merchant ships, they were at great risk, whether they were in the North Atlantic, in the Pacific Ocean or in the Indian Ocean. Many merchant seamen lost their lives when their ships were sunk as a result of enemy action. It was my colleague Mr Sciacca, when minister in the early 1990s, who finally accepted and granted Australian merchant seaman entitlement to full veterans benefits under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. I believe that is the correct position. I certainly have not been lobbied by any merchant seamen veterans in the last couple of years since I have been shadow minister, so I presume they are satisfied with what they have received. As a result of that decision, I have not seen the Veterans' Entitlements Act and the veterans community fall apart, nor have I seen a mad rush of people claiming that there has been a diminution of the standing of veterans in our community.

It has also been mentioned elsewhere that people who were in dangerous areas during the Second World War and in other wars—people in the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and those sorts of people—have also been granted the entitlement. The government may say, `Yes, but they were serving under some form of direct Australian military command.' That is the ruling: you have to be shown to have been under some form of direct Australian military command to be eligible for veterans entitlements. The government's argument is that the civilian doctors, nurses and aids who worked in Vietnam—just over 400 of them—were not under direct military command. That is true, but at times during their period of service they helped and provided service to Australian soldiers and to South Vietnamese soldiers, who were our allies. I understand that at times they dealt with enemy soldiers who had been captured and needed medical attention. I also understand that from time to time they helped American soldiers. I would have thought that that alone presents a prima facie case that they were assisting the Australian war effort in Vietnam.

Further, when the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee dealt with this bill, the Nursing Federation, on behalf of 120-odd nurses, gave very compelling evidence about the service of Australian nurses as part of these teams. I heard the evidence live. When I reread the evidence and their statements, I found it impossible to believe that the government would still deny these people veterans' entitlements. Their lives were at risk. We had evidence given by the nurses that on the first day they arrived in Saigon a representative of our embassy gave them a short briefing to say that when they went out to the hospitals in the countryside there would be a price on their head from the enemy. That was the only briefing and the only counselling they received. In two days, they went from working in a hospital like the Austin Hospital in Melbourne to working in a hospital in the countryside in Vietnam. Some of them served several months with hardly a day off. When they returned, they left Vietnam on a Saturday night or a Sunday and they were back at work at the Austin Hospital on Monday morning. They got paid the same wage that they had been paid in Australia, plus $8 or $9 a day living allowance. They did have their meals provided, but they lived in accommodation and in circumstances that could only be described as very rugged.

Most of those nurses have developed similar complaints for which we have readily granted entitlements to Vietnam veterans. This government is penny-pinching when it says that these 400 who served in Vietnam, despite all of their service, do not deserve entitlements under the Veterans' Entitlements Act because they were not under direct Australian control. I think that is sophistry at its worst. I remind the government that it was the Liberal and National parties of this parliament who made the commitment to send 50,000 Australians to Vietnam and encouraged nurses to volunteer at a civilian level. The Labor Party opposed it, but we do not in any way criticise the people who served their country in Vietnam. We criticised the government at the time and, in the last 30 years, the rationale for our involvement in Vietnam has been exposed as utterly fraudulent. I would have thought the shame of this government in its predecessors committing us to Vietnam would have made them very willingly accept the recommendation of the Mohr committee to give the nurses and the medical people access to the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

Recently in an interview with John Laws, the minister has said, `They don't need to be under the Veterans' Entitlements Act because they can apply to get their complaints dealt with under the Commonwealth compensation act. It has been pointed out by the Nursing Federation that, as they were in service in Vietnam in the 1960s, the only act they can get access to for compensation is the Commonwealth compensation act of 1930. Then when they used that act to try to get compensation for post traumatic stress disorder, they were told, `You cannot get it because the act of 1930 does not allow that at all as a complaint.' So we give entitlements to veterans who served in Vietnam in the military command but, because of an outdated Commonwealth compensation act of 1930, we do not give them to nurses who clearly now have that complaint. That is the anomaly that is really sticky. The only way out of that for the government is to amend this act and to accept the Mohr committee recommendation.

The opposition feel very strongly on this. Therefore, in the committee stage, we will be moving an amendment to accept the Mohr report and have those 400-odd people who served in Vietnam given the benefit. I have to say to this government: even if you think the argument is only 50-50 or only 70-30, you would surely give the benefit of the doubt to those young Australian men and women who risked their lives to respond to the call from the Australian government to go and serve in Vietnam in medical hospitals. I would have thought that that case was unbeatable. I think it is a bureaucratic piece of sophistry to say that they are not eligible. According to the evidence before the committee, many of those nurses now are suffering, are not able to get work and are reliant upon pensions, and they cannot use the compensation act of 1930. When you read the determinations that have been made, it is obvious that that is unsatisfactory. Therefore we look forward to the committee stage when we will move that amendment, and we will insist on that amendment.