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Friday, 10 November 2000
Page: 19730

Senator CROSSIN (3:31 PM) —I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2000, but before I get into the body of my speech I want to recognise my colleague Senator Hogg, who is currently chairing the Senate. He indicated that he was going to speak in the chamber this afternoon. Unfortunately, because time is against us, he will not be able to do that. But I do know that Senator Hogg has had a long involvement in these matters and was on the Senate committee that looked into this legislation. He has reassured me and my colleagues that he will make some comments on the bill when it goes to the committee stage—comments that I know will be very profitable and worth while.

As a senator for the Northern Territory, I have a large number of Defence Force families in my electorate. Over the past two years, I have become very aware of the sacrifices and particular hardships suffered by defence personnel and their families which arise from the nature of their employment. I have represented ADF personnel on a number of issues concerning their employment conditions during this time. Like most Australians, I appreciate the important role of the Australian Defence Force, and I am sure all Australians endorse the principle that we as a nation should show our recognition of the difficulties that members suffer and offer our thanks for the sacrifices they make by providing appropriate conditions of service to ADF personnel. It is, of course, equally important that we ensure adequate health care and other services to our veterans community in recognition of their service to this country. The hardships that veterans suffer as a consequence of their service have not always been adequately recognised. This is particularly the case in relation to the significant psychological and health impacts on Vietnam veterans, which have only recently received the official recognition they deserve.

The bill we are considering today contains a number of measures which address these impacts. The ALP is supportive of these measures, which will provide greater support for both veterans and their families. The amendments in schedule 1 of the bill will extend access to psychiatric assessment and counselling services to dependants and former dependants of Vietnam veterans, and this is to be welcomed. Equally, the opposition supports the extension of the veterans' children education scheme to the children and former children of Vietnam veterans, who would not otherwise have been eligible. This measure is a response to the finding of the Vietnam Veterans Health Study that the incidence of suicide in the children of Vietnam veterans is three times that of the general community. Given the correlation between higher education and a lower risk of suicide, extending this benefit to the children of Vietnam veterans at risk of self-harm is clearly merited.

We are also supportive of the provisions in the bill to extend the benefits available to certain veterans who served in South-East Asia between 1955 and 1975. However, we are extremely disappointed that the government has chosen to ignore one of the main recommendations from the inquiry report that it commissioned in this area. The beneficiaries of this measure in the bill include all those recommended by a government commissioned report into service entitlement anomalies for this period—with one notable exception. It is the decision to reject this one solitary recommendation in the Mohr report that I want to spend some time talking about today.

To look at the service anomalies dealt with in this bill, a review was conducted. The government received the report of this review in February this year. The Mohr report recommended that a number of categories of people serving in South-East Asia between 1955 and 1975 be recognised as having performed qualifying service for repatriation benefits. Among those recommended were of course the Australian civilian surgical and medical teams serving in Vietnam between 1964 and 1972. But we know that the government, while accepting most of those recommendations, has chosen to reject this recommendation alone. For the civilian nurses and medical personnel who have been waiting for their Vietnam service to be recognised, it must feel like the real battle is happening right here and right now in Australia. In this instance, the real enemy is the uncaring federal government, which seeks to rely on technicalities to undermine the intention of the Vietnam Veterans' Entitlements Act, thereby denying those people access to repatriation benefits.

At this point, I think it is worth looking at the contents of the report to see why Justice Mohr made the recommendation he did in respect of the civilian nurses and surgical teams. The preface to the Mohr report gives context to the general rationale for providing repatriation benefits. The preface says:

Repatriation benefits are awarded in response to the dangers and hazards involved in undertaking service in warlike or non-warlike areas, and the stresses incurred from combat conditions against an enemy.

There can be little doubt, as Senator Hutchins has pointed out in his contribution this afternoon, that civilian nurses and surgical teams meet these criteria. However, it was the task of Mr Justice Mohr to establish whether these men and women could be deemed to have performed qualifying service under the terms of the Veterans' Entitlements Act. In the chapter which deals with Vietnam, the report notes that civilian nurses and doctors in Vietnam worked under arrangements made by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, known then as the Department of External Affairs. However, the report goes on to note that these civilian teams were awarded the Australian Active Service Medal, an award made on the basis that `they were employed in Vietnam and were integrated in the ADF for significant periods of time, performing like functions with their ADF counterparts'.

Mr Justice Mohr did his best to establish whether these civilian teams could be regarded as having performed qualifying service for repatriation benefits. In questioning a witness appearing for the Department of Veterans' Affairs during the inquiry, Judge Mohr explored the status of these civilian employees. The transcript excerpt included in the Mohr report makes for fascinating reading. The DVA representative is emphatic that the award of the Australian Active Service Medal in no way has any bearing on qualifying for repatriation benefits. Yet he later agrees that the integration of civilian surgical and medical teams with the ADF—the very reason they were given the award—would form the basis for eligibility. However, at other points in the transcript the witness refers to the requirement of being under direct military command. This, of course, is the point on which the government majority report on the bill seizes, in singling out Judge Mohr's recommendation that civilian medical teams be deemed as performing eligible service for repatriation benefits.

During its own inquiry into this matter, the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee heard from the President of the Civilian Nurses, Dorothy Angell. Ms Angell told the inquiry that, although the civilian nurses were administratively under the command of the Department of External Affairs, operationally they were under the command of both the South Vietnamese government and the military advisory command for the whole of Vietnam. She also provided evidence that the nurses worked under very difficult conditions, treating both allied and enemy soldiers as well as civilians. They saw horrific sights in the course of their duties and were only given a week's leave from their duties every six months. On any analysis of the situation it is reasonable to say that these nurses worked under the same conditions as their counterparts directly employed by the ADF.

Let us look at the issues that are not under dispute. These civilian teams were sent to work in a warlike zone by the Australian government. They were exposed to danger. In fact, the Senate committee heard that the nurses in Vietnam had a price on their heads. They had little in the way of pre-service or post-service counselling. In fact, the committee heard that when some of these nurses returned to Australia, they were rostered onto normal duties almost as soon as they arrived. Ms Angell, one of the nurses who served in Vietnam, appeared before the committee and stated:

When we left Vietnam on Friday, it was literally leaving Vietnam on Friday, going on to an am shift as if we had been working at the Alfred all along.

It was also reported that some of the civilian nurses who went to Vietnam are suffering a number of illnesses or conditions which are limiting their capacity to work and thereby causing financial hardship. Many of the conditions which the civilian nurses are now suffering from are the same conditions suffered by ADF Vietnam veterans.

Given the evidence presented to both the Mohr and the Senate inquiries, it seems unjust that these nurses are denied access to the repatriation benefits available to others. These nurses have been given pretty shoddy treatment by this government—a government which has seen fit to accept every recommendation of the Mohr report on service entitlement anomalies except the recommendation that the civilian medical teams be deemed eligible for repatriation benefits; a government which has shown its contempt for women on many occasions. In this respect I can't help but concur with the comment made by my colleague Senator Schacht during the Senate inquiry when he suggested that perhaps the government might have looked more favourably upon the Mohr recommendation had there been a few more male nurses among the ranks.

The government in its majority report has justified rejecting this recommendation on the basis that the civilian nurses, doctors and allied health professionals who served in Vietnam were not under the direct command of the ADF. The government has made this argument on the basis that, technically, that is what is required under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. But we as legislators have both the capacity and the responsibility to amend legislation when there is a good case to do so. The opposition are strongly of the belief that this is such a case and, on this basis, we will move an amendment so that the civilian nurses and members of the civilian surgical teams who served in Vietnam will qualify for repatriation benefits and gain the recognition, at long last, that they so rightly deserve.