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Monday, 27 November 2000
Page: 19737

Senator ABETZ (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (12:31 PM) —I continue my summing up of the second reading debate on this legislation. The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2000 provides to many Australians entitlements which had previously been denied to them. The bill extends full repatriation benefits, from 1 January next year, to more than 2,600 veterans who served in South-East Asia between 1955 and 1975. It also extends psychiatric assessment and counselling services to adult children and former partners of Vietnam veterans as one of the key initiatives in response to the Vietnam Veterans Health Study.

This bill is one that has received overwhelming support from the veteran community and the community generally. There has been the one issue in relation to whether or not the Veterans' Entitlements Act should be extended to people that have not been under the direct service and control of the Australian defence forces. The government's attitude on this is based on precedent and principle—that is, there is a need to ensure the integrity of the legislation. Certain claims were made during the second reading debate and I will try to deal with those in a way that is not as emotive as some opposite sought to portray the situation. People need to be subjected to military command or the strictures of military discipline to be able to fall under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. It is noteworthy that Major General Peter Phillips, the National President of the RSL, is supportive of our view on this.

The cause of nurses has been taken up by the opposition and the Australian Democrats in this debate, but it is interesting that they do not seem to want to take up the cause of about 1,100 other Australian civilians who worked in Vietnam during the conflict. That includes privately contracted entertainers, non-accredited war correspondents, Qantas air crew who transported troops to and from Vietnam, those who were involved in the private supply or contracting of trucks and mechanical support to trucks and bulldozers, and those employed at our embassies. The list goes on; there are about 1,100. You then have to ask the question: what is the distinguishing feature in relation to one lot of civilians, as opposed to all the other civilians, that makes them worthy of special consideration under the Veterans' Entitlements Act?

A number of Australian civilians made a substantial contribution. Those that were engaged under the SEATO treaty arrangements were employed by the Commonwealth through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There is some suggestion that, because we are not going to extend veterans' entitlements to those people, somehow they are devoid of any support whatsoever. That is wrong. As Commonwealth employees, the government owed a duty of care to them and, to this end, they were covered for compensation purposes under the Commonwealth Employees Compensation Act 1930—now the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988.

It is interesting to note that six nurses have applied to the Department of Veterans' Affairs for entitlements. Their claims have been rejected, but the interesting thing is that nine nurses have applied under Comcare and eight of them have had their claims accepted. The difficulty is that privacy considerations do not allow me to know whether the six that had applied to the DVA are part of the nine that applied under Comcare, so I am unable to assist the Senate in that regard. Nevertheless, the nurses who have legitimate claims can bring them under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988. It is not that they are left completely uncovered. There is appropriate legislation which applies to every other Commonwealth or government employee that was involved in Vietnam during this period, other than our people who were under the strictures of defence discipline.

The situation for those nurses—not that I would ever suggest they would do it—was that, if the going got tough, they were at all times at liberty to leave whereas, if our Defence personnel had left, they would have been subjected to a court martial. There is a very significant difference in the treatment that was afforded to two different sets of circumstances, given their presence in Vietnam. The support for the nurses has come out of the Mohr report. Whilst I think all of us would agree that Justice Mohr has done an excellent job in his consideration of the matters that were put before him—and he has put those matters to the government for consideration, most of which we have adopted—I simply say that the issues he dealt with in relation to the nurses were not part of the terms of reference. Therefore, the government was unable to appropriately respond fully to the suggestions that he made during the course of the hearing. As I have mentioned before, the one difficulty is that, if we are going to afford this extra cover to one lot of civilians, why not to all the other civilians as well? It is interesting that neither the Labor Party nor the Democrats have asserted that. What they have picked on is something that was put in front of Justice Mohr.

Senator Schacht —He made a recommendation. We have not picked on it; it is in the report. After careful study, we adopted the recommendations handed down by Mr Mohr.

Senator ABETZ —I take Senator Schacht's interjections. They have adopted or picked—

Senator Schacht —We did not pick it by chance; it was in the recommendations in the report that your government commissioned.

Senator ABETZ —I would have thought we could have had a friendly debate about something like this, but you can always count on Senator Schacht to demean the process. Yes, the Labor Party sought to adopt a recommendation from Justice Mohr that was not within the terms of reference put before him. As a result, due consideration was not given to the entitlements of all the other civilians who found themselves in Vietnam in similar circumstances.

I think that deals with the issues that were raised during the second reading debate. I thank honourable senators for their contribution. In conclusion, in relation to the issue of the SEATO nurses, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Mr Bruce Scott, has agreed to hold a meeting with those representatives, with appropriate staff from his department and with Comcare to see what the difficulties are and to see how Comcare can cover them. It is the government's view that it ought to be Comcare that looks after these civilian nurses, as opposed to the veterans' entitlements legislation. It is not that we are trying to be bloody-minded or hard-nosed in relation to the nurses—we want to ensure that they are properly cared for and catered for—but, if we do extend it to civilians who do not qualify under the Veterans Entitlements Act, the question remains: why not all the other civilians similarly engaged in Vietnam?

Having said that, I commend the bill to the Senate. This is an excellent piece of legislation which deals with the aspirations of many Vietnam veterans over a period of time. We commissioned a report which, with respect, should have been commissioned a lot earlier. It is nice to see the Labor Party coming on board and supporting a lot of these recommendations, keeping in mind that they had 13 years in which to commission such a report. They had 13 years in which to deal with the question of justice for the Vietnam veterans. We have done so, and we have delivered by the spadeful for the Vietnam veterans. It is a pity that this debate has been somewhat diminished and sidetracked on this one issue in relation to the nurses, but let me say that we as a government are anxious to ensure that they do get proper care and cover. We believe they have that through Comcare.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.