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Friday, 10 November 2000
Page: 19725

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (Deputy Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:01 PM) —I rise on behalf of the veteran affairs' spokesperson of the Australian Democrats, Senator Andrew Bartlett, to convey the views of the Democrats on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2000. In relation to Senator Schacht's speech, I commend him on how strongly he feels about the issue he has referred to. The Democrats are of a similar view, and we will be supporting the Labor Party amendment when it gets to the chamber. I certainly again commend the Labor Party on their passion on this issue and point out the irony that we are debating this speech on the eve of the very important national day of remembrance tomorrow. Perhaps this is an appropriate time for the government to reconsider the amendment and its approach. During the Vietnam War the Australian government provided—

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —We did hear Senator Schacht in silence, Mr Acting Deputy President.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Hogg)—Continue, Senator Stott Despoja. I am sure Senator Schacht and Senator Abetz will be quiet.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —I will listen to Senator Abetz in silence, I promise. We provided medical services to the Vietnamese population—civilians and service personnel—between 1964 and 1973. On occasion they also treated Australian service personnel. The program was administered by the then Department of External Affairs. Senator Schacht has referred already to the Mohr review, the review of the service entitlement anomalies in respect of South-East Asian service from 1955 to 1975, which was released to the parliament on 2 March this year. One of the recommendations was that the Australian civilian surgical and medical teams operating in Vietnam during the Vietnam War be deemed as having qualifying service for repatriation benefits. That was one of the recommendations.

The Democrats urge the government to act on the recommendations of that review. Unfortunately, in the 2000 budget, the government chose to ignore this recommendation and not extend those repatriation benefits to members of the Australian civilian surgical and medical teams in Vietnam. I should note that the government acted on nearly all the other recommendations contained in that review; for example, extending repatriation benefits to around 2,600 veterans for qualifying service and another 1,500 for operational service during the Malayan emergency and other South-East Asian conflicts between 1955 and 1975. This reflects blatant discrimination against the civilian surgical teams, and it appears that this is the only recommendation that was ignored by the government that arises out of that review.

Many of the civilian nurses who served in Vietnam are suffering from the same illnesses and medical conditions as the troops, and their health is deteriorating. The Australian Nursing Federation has said it is apparent that many of the nurses are now suffering from the same health conditions as the Vietnam veterans, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, thyroid disease, auto-immune disorders, multiple sclerosis and post traumatic stress disorders. They are having difficulties pursuing claims under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 administered by Comcare, in part because of the length of time before conditions appear, leading to protracted disputes. An ANF submission provided to the Senate inquiry details some of those conditions and problems on page 5. The civilian surgical and medical teams were there to provide medical services to the South Vietnamese population—our allies. In light of the sort of war Vietnam was, with a lot of guerilla activity, that was clearly an essential task in generating goodwill between our troops and the South Vietnamese population. They also provided medical assistance to our troops on occasion.

I note from the official history of Australia's involvement in South-East Asian conflicts between 1948 and 1975, Medicine At War, in the chapter called `Battle casualties and the staffing crisis, 1969-1970' that at one time the one Australian field hospital was almost left without an anaesthetist—there is a thought. The official history said:

At the eleventh hour the problem was solved when Watson managed to obtain the services for the week of an Australian civilian anaesthetist, Dr Rosemary Coffey, who was serving with one of the Australian civilian medical aid teams in Vietnam.

By and large, the civilian medical personnel did work with the South Vietnamese civilian population. They also on occasion treated Vietnamese troops. Both a soldier who shot enemy soldiers and a nurse who removed shrapnel from Vietnamese children served Australia's then interests and incurred the danger and damage of war.

Senator Bartlett has received a lot of letters—in fact, we all do in this place—and of course all Democrat senators have received a number of letters on this issue, but Senator Bartlett in particular. He wanted me to note one from a veteran, which he also sent to the Prime Minister's office. It was a letter received from a veteran who had seen an article by Mark Ludlow which appeared in my home town paper, the Adelaide Advertiser, on 11 October. I believe this issue has also now been mentioned in the Herald Sun and the Courier-Mail. The veteran says in his letter:

They worked in appalling conditions in villages, hamlets and orphanages: no hygiene facilities, little medical supplies and at constant risk to their personal safety. They would beg and borrow what they needed. We assisted them in these efforts.

Despite all the adversity, anguish and torment, these people proved Australia really cared! Their dedication and duty of care is as yet unsurpassed. They are truly Australia's unsung heroes.

As Senator Schacht pointed out, this issue has twice been raised on the John Laws program. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Mr Bruce Scott, went on that program and insisted that they should be looked after under the Safety, Compensation and Rehabilitation Act. The Australian Nursing Federation, who have been most active on this issue, were on the John Laws program on 2 November correcting a number of the statements that the minister had made. The Safety, Compensation and Rehabilitation Act is not designed, as the Veterans' Entitlement Act is, to recognise war injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder or the skin cancers which sometimes are accepted as being related to service. The nurses received no counselling or debriefing after their periods of service in Vietnam. Basically, they got off the plane and next day went back to work in Australian hospitals. It is particularly disappointing, therefore, that the coalition is not acting on this issue. The government's only argument seems to be—as stated in the Department of Veterans' Affairs `Budget Fact Sheet 2000-2001'—that, for repatriation benefits for civilians, it is:

... required that they be attached to the Australian Defence Force.

The civilian surgical and medical teams worked under the then Department of External Affairs. That makes no difference whatsoever to their exposure to chemicals, to the stress or to the war related injuries they incurred side by side with service personnel. There is agreement that members of the civilian surgical teams incurred danger; that they were in war zones. But the sticking point is that they were administered by the wrong department—by the Department of External Affairs, which no longer exists. That department has been replaced by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Australian government does exist, the Department of Veterans' Affairs does exist, and the obligation we owe these people certainly exists.

Some of these nurses who worked as part of the civilian surgical and medical teams have been awarded the Vietnam Logistics Support Medal and the Australian Active Service Medal on the basis that they were:

... integrated with the Australian Defence Force for extended periods of time and performed like functions with their Australian Defence Force counterparts.

So surely the government's rationale is a complete furphy. As I have quoted from the official history, at least some of the nurses definitely worked in Australian military hospitals treating Australian military personnel. That is established—it is on record. We believe that the minister and the government are hiding behind a technicality. The arguments are a furphy, especially when the established history tells us that they were working not only in military like situations but also in military hospitals and, on occasions, treating military personnel. The fact that a department no longer exists is quite a spurious argument given that, as I said on behalf of Senator Bartlett, clearly these people and their concerns still exist. These civilian doctors and nurses assisted the Australian defence forces in wartime, and they incurred danger from hostile enemy forces during that time. They have a right to apply for repatriation entitlements under the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

As I have said, the Democrats will be supporting the amendment to be moved by the opposition to see that this situation is rectified. We urge the government to see sense and to adopt this recommendation—that has been ignored thus far—from the Moore review. What more timely opportunity than to announce such support on the eve of 11 November. I hope the government will recognise that this is not only an important symbolic issue; it also is an issue of equality, an issue in relation to health and an issue of recognising the achievements of these people—our unsung heroes, as the veteran whom I quoted said in his letter.