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Thursday, 24 May 2001
Page: 24282

Senator SCHACHT (10:03 AM) —On behalf of the opposition, I rise to indicate that we will support the Compensation (Japanese Internment) Bill 2001, which the government announced in the budget but which had been strategically leaked by the government some weeks ago. It was leaked because of the political damage that Mr Shane Stone's memo to the Prime Minister had caused the government. Lo and behold, out of nowhere, a story appears in the press that the government would be including in the budget a proposal to pay compensation to those who had been prisoners of war of the Japanese. In recent months, there had been some publicity and lobbying on behalf of the POW association and others in the veterans community for this compensation in view of the British government's announcement, within the last 12 months, that they would make a one-off payment.

As I say, the opposition welcomes the government's decision to pay this compensation and it has agreed to support the bill going through the Senate by the end of today so that the compensation can be paid as soon as possible. However, that does not stop the opposition from raising a number of questions about the structure of the bill and the way certain issues raised by the bill will have to be dealt with. The opposition indicates that, although we will not move amendments in committee, we will use the committee stage as an opportunity to ask further questions about certain matters in the bill.

First of all, on behalf of the opposition, may I say that we find it rather strange that these bills have to be rushed through parliament this week. I note that, in the compensation bill, the compensation payment is paid out of this financial year's budget. The PBS document provided to all senators for the estimates, and the minister's statement, state that the amount of compensation paid will total about $247 million. According to the minister's statement, apparently that will be paid out of this year's budget. No reason has been given as to why the money will come out of this year's budget. I presume there might be an argument that this means it can be paid as soon as possible. I do not know whether there is some difficulty for the government in trying to keep the budget surplus at $1.5 billion for the next financial year and they do not want the $247 million knocked off the $1.5 billion surplus as that might stretch their economic credentials, because they predicted two or three years ago that this budget would have a surplus of about $14 billion. That was the figure predicted for the out years in the budget papers two or three years ago. Of course, that shows that the government have gone berserk in the last couple of years, busting their own economic credentials by spending money in every direction when the Prime Minister has run into political problems. It shows that their claim to be economic managers is now extremely threadbare as they have turned a proposed budget surplus, as estimated three years ago, of nearly $14 billion, into $1.5 billion. I certainly want to get an explanation from the government of why the money has to be paid out this financial year rather than next year.

I note that the payment is to be made to all POWs of the Japanese who were alive at 1 January or their war widows or spouses who were alive at that time, and, if any of them has died between then and now, the money will be paid into their estate. I also see that the same provision is provided to the so-called internees—civilians who were interned and received the same terrible treatment as our POWs. We have no objection, of course, to the cut-off date, and we have no objection to POWs' war widows being eligible for the full payment. I had a query on this issue in my office this morning. I presume that the payment is made to the last war widow who is still alive. If a POW who had been married for many years divorced his wife and subsequently remarried, even for only six months last year, I presume that it is the last widow still standing—to use that phrase—who gets the payment.

I can imagine that there will be some complaint in the veterans community and amongst war widows. Some may have spent most of their adult life as the spouse of a POW and provided the care that went with that since 1945. It is now 55 years ago, so let us say they provided care for 40-odd years. After the marriage failed, the POW married somebody else, perhaps only six or eight months ago, and that person will get the full benefit. I am not sure that I have an answer to that, but I can imagine that there will be some angst amongst widows who spent most of their life with a POW and often had to be the informal, unpaid carer of a POW, but will get none of the benefit. That is unfortunate and I admit that I do not have a solution, but I am sure that the minister will informally and formally receive comments about such an outcome.

I also note that the bill does not amend the Veterans' Entitlements Act—it is a special bill. I can understand that, because it pays benefits to non-veterans—that is, civilian detainees. I make the point to the minister and to the department that they have established the payment of a special benefit, although it is not under the Veterans' Entitlements Act, to civilian people who certainly deserve it. I therefore see no reason why a policy decision cannot be reached that the 400-odd Vietnam civilian doctors and nurses should also receive special benefits, as we proposed earlier this year in an amendment to the Veterans' Entitlements Act or, if it has to be done, by a special act of parliament. The opposition would certainly support that. I appreciate that the government has established a precedent whereby, under the Veterans' Entitlements Act or by a special act, civilian nurses and doctors who were in Vietnam and who provided distinguished service should also be paid the same entitlements as those who served in our military forces in Vietnam.

I also want to make a point—it might be better to raise it in committee, if the minister cannot answer it in reply to the second reading debate—regarding a list of the civilians who were detained. How was that list compiled? For prisoners of war and those who joined various units, who were captured in the Pacific theatre of war and returned home, there are clear records in the veterans' affairs department and in the military. How do you establish a record that verifies that certain people were civilian detainees in the Pacific? Does the detainee have to be an Australian citizen at the time they were detained? An example that was raised with me only yesterday involves an Australian woman whose husband was a British citizen in PNG at the time of its occupation by the Japanese. Her husband was detained and executed by the Japanese, but he was clearly a civilian detainee. She is an Australian citizen. Is she, as the widow of a civilian detainee, entitled to the benefit? Minister, I would like an answer to that. I think that your advisers might be able to make some comment. I will not acknowledge the adviser politely making signals to me from the box. I appreciate that very much; they are trying to be helpful, but I want that answer on the record.

Are civilian detainees who were British citizens or other citizens and who subsequently came to Australia and took out Australian citizenship some time after the Second World War eligible for this payment to civilian detainees? Again, because this benefit is now available, many people in that grey area will ask why they have missed out. They have been citizens of Australia for a long time, or their spouses were Australian citizens, and they will miss out although they in no way suffered less pain than the Australians suffered and they were in an Australian colony at the time.

The next issue, which comes to light as a result of the bill's being rapidly introduced into parliament, has not been properly explained or investigated. Of course, this bill will be passed by the parliament before the Senate estimates committee considers the Department of Veterans' Affairs budget, which is less than two weeks away. It is an unfortunate arrangement whereby the bill will be passed before the estimates committee of the Senate has a chance to examine the measure. This precedent should not be entered into by governments in a capricious way—it undermines the standing of the Senate estimates committee process, which is an excellent process, whether you are in government or in opposition. The estimates committee process has enhanced the status of the Senate and it probably gives more value to the role of the Senate than any other part of our activities. But the bill will go through, and even if we ask relevant questions and information comes out during the estimates hearings—which, as we know, go on for several days—it will be too late to amend it.

This is an unfortunate precedent and process because if we discover, through the Senate estimates, anomalies and weaknesses in this legislation that, because it is being rammed through the parliament at the request of the government today, we have not had a chance to find then it will be a deficiency in the parliamentary system for which the government has to take full responsibility. Nevertheless, we support the bill. But maybe at the committee stage some of these matters that I am now raising could be answered for me.

An issue in this bill that I note is that the payment is not exempt from the deeming provisions. This means, if I understand it correctly, that if somebody has already got an investment of $20,000 or $30,000 and gets the $25,000 payment and does not spend it—puts it into an investment—they therefore would have a deeming rate of around five per cent. That five per cent on $25,000 by my very rough mathematics—and I stand to be corrected—is an income of about $1,200 per annum. That will therefore be assessed as income if they have other benefits coming from elsewhere within the social security system. Therefore, that could reduce their other social security benefits.

I am not sure that that is a correct procedure because this is not a benefit: this is a compensation payment. Why is a compensation payment being hit by the deeming provisions? If the beneficiary of this payment takes the $25,000 and spends it on a trip overseas or blows it at the casino, the deeming will not apply because they have spent it—they have blown it. But why shouldn't we be encouraging veterans to invest it and use the income from it to guarantee their lifestyle and to improve their living standard while they or their widow are still alive? I think putting the deeming regime on this payment is an anomaly. I would like the minister to explain because the second reading speech of this bill, made and tabled by the minister in the parliament late yesterday, was deficient in so many ways in explaining these matters. That is a problem of rushed legislation—but we will come back to that later.

The final issue I want to raise in the time I have left is the issue of those who have missed out on the payment. Already, since the speculation occurred three or four weeks ago that it was to be paid to the POWs of the Japanese, many veterans who were POWs in the European theatre of war have been complaining. On Tuesday night, I returned from attending the 60th anniversary of the battles of Greece and Crete as part of the official delegation. There were a number of veterans there and seven of them from my count in the official book produced by Veterans' Affairs ended up being prisoners of war when captured in Greece or in Crete.

When you read their descriptions in the official book produced by Veterans' Affairs, you cannot say that these people had an easy time. I will quote one man in particular but draw everybody's attention to this document and the names of the veterans who were prisoners of war. They were Thomas Anderson, Francis Atkins, Terry Fairbairn, Charles Frampton, Arthur Leggett, Charles Parrot and Ian Rutter.

Let me read the description of what happened to Charles Parrot. When I first met him on the delegation in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Athens, I was walking down the row of tombstones of the Australians who lost their lives. Charlie was standing next to a tombstone and I said, `Did you know this man?' He said, `Yes, I did, Senator. He, a friend of mine, died of starvation in the Salonika prisoner of war camp in December 41. This is the first time in 60 years I have been able to stand here and put a red poppy on his tombstone.'

Charlie Parrot did not die of starvation. This is what his own words are in the document produced by Veterans Affairs', and I would have to say that if this is not a case for him individually to be given similar treatment I do not know what is! He said, `Despite hiding out in the hills, we were eventually captured and taken by cargo boat to Greece. Life in a POW camp in Salonika was terrible. The food was atrocious and many POWs died, mostly from starvation.'

The prisoners were moved to a POW camp in Germany, where they were put to work building a canal. They again moved, to Stalag 8B at Landsdorf, and were sent to work in a coal mine. After a long period of illness, including gangrene in his leg, Charlie was forced to take part in a 780-kilometre march ahead of the Russian troops, but at the end of the first day he hid in a cellar. When the Russians arrived, they were no better than the Germans. They left him in the snow until he was saved by two Poles, who took him to a nearby convent. He received treatment for several weeks and was eventually able to walk again on crutches. Charlie was then imprisoned by the Russians before being put on a British ship back to Britain.

By the way, he told me personally that he spent 17 days in an open cattle train going from Poland to Odessa in the Crimea before he was shipped back. He spent a year working in an underground Polish coal mine. He still has injuries in his hands from the work in the coal mine. Can you say that this man is not as deserving? I do not think you can.

I will turn to another story in this book produced by Veterans' Affairs. This is by Terry Fairbairn, who had similar treatment. The Germans, because they thought he might have been connected to Ireland, offered to put him into a special unit made up of Irish people who might oppose the British Empire, to go and fight for the Germans. He refused. When Terry refused to betray his country, he was singled out for special treatment and spent the next nine months in handcuffs. He was put in handcuffs for nine months. What sort of treatment is that? That is terrible.

After Terry was sent to the POW camp at Rotenburg in January 1945, the prisoners were marched out, first south and then westwards of the advancing Russians. He was forced into a march of several hundred kilometres by the German authorities. I draw the attention of the department to their own book. Look up the seven people here, representative of the 15,000-plus Australian prisoners of war in Europe. Look at the prisoners who were captured in either North Africa, Greece or Crete and look at the POWs who were shot down from Bomber Command and put into prisoner of war camps. (Time expired)