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Friday, 10 November 2000
Page: 19727

Senator HUTCHINS (3:11 PM) —I welcome the opportunity, in following the shadow spokesman on veterans' affairs, Senator Schacht, and also the Deputy Leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Stott Despoja, to speak on this legislation. I point out that I have not been following the progress of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2000, and I was not a member of the committee that assessed the legislation. But I was fortunate, in a way, that this matter was brought to my attention by the officers of the Australian Nursing Federation—in particular, Debbie Richards. Miss Richards also made sure that I received a copy of the Australian Nursing Federation's submission to the Senate committee inquiry into the veterans' affairs legislation. To a large degree, as I understand it, the submission was prepared with a lot of persistence—as you would know, Mr Acting Deputy President Hogg, if you saw the submission. It was prepared with the assistance of two ladies who served in Vietnam, Miss Dorothy Angell—I suppose that is an appropriate name for a nurse serving in a war environment—and Miss Maureen Spicer. These ladies, along with the Australian Nursing Federation, sought to bring to the attention not only of the federal government but also of the community the plight of these nurses. As Senator Schacht said and Stott Despoja reiterated, about 400 doctors, nurses and some others served our country and our allies in Vietnam.

Along with many people in this house and in this country, I have never had to grab a gun and serve my country overseas in any warlike environment. I have never been shot at and have never shot at anybody. I have been lucky, as have a lot of Australians, to have lived in a very peaceful environment. I know, as Senator Schacht has said, our commitment to Vietnam was done voluntarily by the government of the day. A number of Australians who served there were volunteers and of course a number were conscripts. But, equally, a number of these doctors and nurses volunteered to represent their country in a time of conflict. As you can see from the submissions and the historical documents, we were asked by our allies to provide this level of medical assistance through USAID, which was the facilitating body through SEATO. We were at war with the North Vietnamese. We were supporting our allies in the United States, the South Vietnamese government and a number of other countries throughout South-East Asia which believed that it was important to make sure that South Vietnam's political integrity was protected.

As Senator Schacht said, at the time the Australian Labor Party did not support the commitment. However, as Senator Schacht and others would recall, that was by far not a universal view within the Labor Party. As I recall, before 1966 there was a certain amount of support for making sure that the incursions into South-East Asia by communist inspired forces were rejected. As more and more documents start to tumble out, I may disagree with a number of my Labor colleagues, but I do believe that we were facing a serious threat to political stability in our region and I do believe that in the end it may be seen that the right decision was made.

However, as I was saying earlier, the Australian Nursing Federation's submission shows how these men and women were despatched to South Vietnam, were despatched to a danger zone and were exposed to hostile forces, and their instructions were, as has been stated by Senator Schacht, to win the hearts and minds, which was a view that had been adopted by the Americans. It was with kid gloves as well as a mailed fist. As Senator Schacht has said, when these men and women arrived in South Vietnam they were told they were targets, and of course they were targets because they were flying our flag, representing our country and representing what the majority of people may have thought at the time were the liberal democracies against an incursion by a totalitarian regime in North Vietnam. They were representing our interests. The fact that they did not have khaki on should not mean they are overlooked by the government. These men and women did what they were asked to do. They were, as I said, in dangerous positions. They were in hostile zones and they were targets.

If I can quote the working conditions from the Nursing Federation's submission. Section 4.1 of the submission states:

The working milieu for the civilian medical teams at all of the provincial hospitals in South Vietnam was peopled with children too starved for revival; teenagers whose lungs had been honeycombed with tuberculosis, or whose bodies had been peppered by claymore mine fragments, or burned by napalm; emaciated young women ravaged by constant childbearing, hard labour and malnutrition; the elderly and infirmed and, Vietnamese military and paramilitary personnel—friend or foe.

It was not the task of the doctors and nurses on these teams to accuse, label or lay blame. Their task was to diagnose, to operate, to care, comfort and treat; to inject and transfuse, and let others ask the questions ... The teams were to offer help to all those who came through the gates of these hospitals.

So these were the conditions which these men and women worked under whilst they were performing their duties as medical personnel. We should be very proud that they did this in such appalling conditions in an area which would be so foreign to them. As Senator Schacht has said, these men and women in many cases simply packed up working in hospitals in Melbourne and were in the paddy fields in South Vietnam 24 hours later, doing our bidding, flying our flag and doing what they thought was in the best interests of this country, which was to use their skills and training to advance the cause of Australia and its allies. This is something that we should be proud of rather than, as has been so well put, not proceeding with assisting them.

As I understand it, the government set up an inquiry headed by former Justice Mohr to look at who may access veterans' benefits. Quite conclusively, Mr Justice Mohr recommended that these men and women be treated as veterans. In fact, of all the recommendations that were made to the minister, only one recommendation was not proceeded with, and that was the one dealing with the civilian doctors and nurses who served in Vietnam. I think that is appalling, particularly as these men and women did carry our flag, did represent our country and put themselves into positions that none of us have ever been confronted with. I have a copy of the submission. Shortly, I will be reading an excerpt from Dr Brian Smith on his experiences whilst he was serving in Vietnam.

As has been highlighted, a number of Australians who did not necessarily wear khaki have been recognised as veterans for the purposes of the legislation. Senator Schacht spoke about merchant seamen. I used to work with an old bloke; his name was Dick Sargeant. He passed away. Dick was a merchant seaman in the Pacific during World War II. Dick was actually sunk twice by the Japanese, because he was doing some carting along the Australian coast. On one occasion, he and another fellow were the only survivors of the sinking of their ship. He was only a young bloke at the time. Dick had to wait a long time before his contribution to the war effort was recognised. He was sunk not once but twice. He went on to live a very rewarding life and, if someone like Dick Sargeant were around today, he would go over and box the parliamentary secretary's ears and tell him that the government should adopt the Mohr recommendation and let these women and men be rightfully acknowledged.

We must look at righting some of the wrongs that have occurred because of this view about those who did not wear khaki. We remember that, in 1983 or 1984, the Hawke government compensated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen from World War II who had not been paid the same money as white Australian servicemen from that period. I used to know a fellow called Wally Lombo, who lived down at Bundeena in the southern suburbs of Cronulla. He also was a serviceman in World War II. I do not think Wally was ever discriminated against in terms of wages, but he was quite black. I do not know if they ever escaped paying him or not. But we ended up paying $7.4 million to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who had served in World War II.

In 1992, Prime Minister Keating, on a trip to Papua New Guinea, said that he would reconsider the position of the fuzzy wuzzy army, those natives of Papua New Guinea who helped out the Australian troops during our times there when we were making sure that Japan did not invade this country. And we have already recognised the position of, say, merchant seamen. So there is a logical opportunity for us to reconsider the definition of men and women who served our country overseas and in combat zones and who can be identified as having been in a war zone. I will read one of the harrowing tales from the report. This is from an unpublished PhD thesis by Ms Angell. This quote is from an interview with some civilian nurses and doctors:

... We were coming back down the highway after curfew, as you know it was 5.00 o'clock and we were past 5.00 o'clock, and we thought we'd make it, and our car was shot at by the VC.

... We were on our way somewhere in the jeep, we were in convoy and the car in front blew up.

... One of the other girls and I, we went to Mass over on Bien Hoa airbase ... we're about two thirds of the way through the service (and) she felt sick, she felt awful and she said `I don't think I can stay here, will you drive me home?' Just as we got to the gate (of the airbase), which would have been about 1000 metres from the chapel, there was this most ungodly bang. The VC used to set timers on (their) rockets (so that) when they went off, they would be a long way away from them. One of the rockets landed on the chapel and blew it to pieces and everybody inside—there were about 20 people killed. We were just so lucky.

... There was a rocket attack and a whole lot of houses across the road from us got bombed. One of the guys and I went across to see if there were any survivors went (into this house) and there was a woman lying in the bed, she had one child across here (indicating the chest) and a baby in her arms, they were black you know, like third degree charcoal. It took me awhile to get over that. I sort of kept having flashbacks and for a while after I'd wake up in a sweat.

... The Tet Offensive was definitely very exciting and there were lots of bullets whizzing around quite close to us. Someone put a couple of mortars into the army barracks just down the road, and the Americans fired at nothing until dawn. We were all laying in the corridor (of the house) with our heads in rubbish bins, but we were more frightened of our allies than our enemy.

If that is not clear evidence of being in a war zone then I do not know what is. These men and women suffered war. You have already heard that they suffer the same symptoms as other Vietnam veterans. We would be very mean-spirited and dishonest if we did not look after these men and women. It is up to the government to change its mind on this and to be generous. We are on the verge of 11 November. Tomorrow at 11 o'clock we will remember all those men and women who suffered, and who are still suffering, in war. We will commemorate. We will not forget them.

What we will be saying to the government in these amendments when it comes to the committee stage is, `Let's not forget these brave men and women who did carry the flag for our country in South Vietnam, who did believe they were acting in the best interests of their country and who offered their services to make sure that the flag was flown for their country and what their country represented.' All we ask from the government is to be generous and to recognise these men and women in this area, because they have been recognised in parts of other legislation in terms of medals. All you need to do now is go that one step further. I do not know anyone out there who is saying that these 400-odd people should not be looked after by our government. There is only one roadblock, and that is the federal government. In the spirit of conciliation, Parliamentary Secretary, we ask you to get up this afternoon and accept our amendments. Look after these 400 people and you will be remembered.