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Thursday, 8 March 2001
Page: 22816

Senator SCHACHT (12:41 PM) —The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Application of Criminal Code) Bill 2000 is fully supported by the opposition. It is what you might call a housekeeping bill, as changes to update penalties in the veterans affairs area are also being updated in many other areas of government administration. It has been to the appropriate Senate committee, which unanimously recommended that it be supported. I cannot recollect any member of the veterans community raising the bill with me in any way—good, bad or ugly. Anyone who knows the veterans community knows that there has to be only the slightest hint that something may be wrong in a veterans bill before people, quite rightly, raise their queries. So the opposition supports the bill.

I would like to take a couple of minutes to make some other remarks about veterans matters. I take this opportunity to put on record that, although we recognise the very good work of the staff of the Department of Veterans' Affairs in providing services to the veterans community, the downsizing—the reduction in staff—that has been going on in the department over the last few years under the present government is a matter of considerable concern to the opposition and to the veterans community. Some of it has been done because of the claim that, because of mortality, there are fewer veterans to be serviced, so to speak. But, of course, the bill for veterans affairs is going up because so many of the Second World War veterans are now well into their late 70s and early 80s and their need for aged care, and the services that go with it, keeps increasing. There is also an increasing demand for a full range of services, not only on the compensation side and the pension side but also on the aged care side, for veterans of the Vietnam War, who are a large number now getting well into their 50s.

What concerns us with the downsizing—the reduction in numbers—in the department is that a lot of the people who have left the department had spent a lot of time in the department and had a good `institutional memory', to use that phrase, and a good understanding of the intricacies of the veterans system. Once those people leave, their skills are gone for good. There have certainly being many complaints about some of the newer staff recruited into Centrelink, which is often the first place that people go to to find out whether they are entitled to a veterans benefit or a benefit in the non-veterans area. Veterans are complaining that some of the newer staff have not received the appropriate training to explain to them what benefits they are eligible to receive under the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

That is a matter of concern to the opposition and we will monitor that very, very closely. We believe the obsession this government has with downsizing and outsourcing has reduced the quality of service to the Australian public across the board as well as to veterans. That is one issue I wanted to mention.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the many members of the veterans community who have taken the trouble over the last couple of days to contact me and my office about the publicity received from my announcement to the full caucus committee on Tuesday that we are going to grant an appropriate award to all national servicemen who were called up in Australia between 1951 and 1972. That has been very well received by the national servicemen themselves and their association, but I was pleased to hear that the RSL, which had previously taken a decision that they wanted to look at a wider, ongoing award, have apparently in recent days supported the awarding of a national service medal, according to one of their senior officials at their national executive. The opposition want an appropriate award, but in opposition we cannot estimate the actual cost of producing a medal. They are not inexpensive and there are a large number of ex-national servicemen living in Australia, but we certainly want to recognise that service.

The other issue which was publicised from the parliamentary Labor Party caucus meeting was the granting of Victoria Crosses posthumously to three individual service people: firstly, to the famous Simpson of Simpson and his donkey fame from the First World War; secondly, to Teddy Sheean, the famous able-bodied seaman from the HMAS Armidale in 1942; and, thirdly, to Gunner Albert Cleary from the Sandakan death march. I have found it most interesting that this has created considerable positive interest and discussion not only in the veterans community but in the broader community. But people also have raised legitimate questions. Why pick these three to posthumously receive a medal? What about the many other tens of thousands of service people who did equally brave things but who also missed out at the time? How do you cater for them? This is an argument which cannot be ignored. The opposition's view is that we believe the three people we have identified not only deserve the medal but represent the broader areas of service at the time.

Sheean is well known. He received a mention in dispatches, but the reason he did not get a Victoria Cross recommendation is twofold. Firstly, no officer was available to report on his bravery. No-one disputes the bravery, but a Victoria Cross in the Navy was only granted on the recommendation of a commissioned officer, and none was available in the circumstances of the sinking of the Armidale. Secondly, and something that I found very odd, up until some time after the Second World War, any recommendation for an Australian Navy service person to receive the Victoria Cross had to be referred to the British Admiralty for acceptance. I find it rather odd that the British Admiralty would have the final say on whether an Australian service person in an independent Australian Navy should receive the Victoria Cross. So Sheean, whose bravery is undisputed, may have missed out on getting a recommendation for a Victoria Cross at the time because of bureaucratic structures, not because of any lack of bravery.

In relation to John Simpson Kirkpatrick, there is now evidence that at some stage during the First World War, the rules for eligibility to get a Victoria Cross were changed to put more emphasis on those who actually conducted an act of valour in the face of enemy fire. In the Boer War it was different, and doctors and medical staff did win Victoria Crosses for their bravery in saving people. It appears that that may have worked against a recommendation for Simpson at the time. I think, even 85 years on, it is not too late to rectify that omission and grant a Victoria Cross to one of the most famous ANZACs at Gallipoli.

Finally, we have Albert Cleary. The circumstances of Cleary's death are quite horrific and can only be called murder. He was on the Sandakan death march. With a number of survivors from that death march, he arrived at Ranau and was put in a very awful camp. He attempted to escape, knowing that recapture by the Japanese after attempting to escape was a death sentence and that he would be executed. He was recaptured. He was badly tortured and beaten for a couple of days in Japanese headquarters in the small village at Ranau. He was then taken out and chained to the ground and left in the open for about 10 days, with no food and apparently only some, if any, water. He was further beaten whenever a Japanese guard took the opportunity of going past him. At death's door he was handed back to his mates in the hut, and he died the next day from the torture and beatings he had received. The fortitude he showed is an example to all of us, and it was at a level most of us find hard to believe could be endured for so long by any human being.

The argument is that 23,000 Australians were captured by the Japanese and most suffered a horrible experience, so why pick Gunner Cleary to be the recipient of an award 45 or 55 years after the end of the Second World War? One of the reasons for the opposition having raised Cleary is that his example is well known. Also, he was one of the 1,700 Australian servicemen who were murdered—and I use that term quite openly and knowingly—by the Japanese in the Sandakan death march and associated areas.

The other thing I have noticed in my research into this is that there appears to be no attempt to give awards to prisoners of war, like Cleary and many others, who showed bravery. For example, we all know of the great work of Weary Dunlop, the doctor who saved many Australian lives. He did not get an award for his service. Later on he got an Order of Australia award, which was more than thoroughly deserved. But, again, there may well have been an attitude at the time that being a prisoner of war meant that you were not eligible for a decoration for valour, courage and bravery and that you could only get an award in battle. I think most Australians would be of the opinion that, whether you were a prisoner of war or in battle, being a prisoner of war of the Japanese and suffering those sorts of experiences showed those men and women to be uncommonly brave. Therefore, we believe that, though we have selected three people—many of them being called on publicly by others in the community to be decorated—it is not unreasonable to choose those three and propose that, in government, they receive the highest decoration on behalf of the Australian people.