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Monday, 20 August 2001
Page: 26161


Senator HARRIS (8:48 PM) —I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2001. The bill refers to the veterans of World War I and World War II. As other senators in their speeches in the second reading debate have made reference to `other veterans', I will do the same, but in doing so I am in no way saying that any defence personnel is greater or lesser than any other. Last Saturday, 18 August, was the 31st anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. As I indicated to the members in the chamber earlier, I seek the leave of the Senate to incorporate into Hansard a speech on the dedication of Vietnam Veterans' Day in Mareeba by John Newman.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows

DEDICATION VIETNAM VETERANS' DAY Mareeba 2001

We of different faiths and some, perhaps of no particular faith, gather today as one to remember those of the Australian Armed Services who gave their lives in or a result of their involvement in the Viet Nam War.

We dedicate this day to their memory lest they and their noble deeds be forgotten and pass into oblivion. Like those of our nation who have deservedly won the respect and gratitude of its citizens in recent years in Peace Keeping Forces in various parts of the world, they went as representatives of Australia to Viet Nam. There they served with distinction and honour in accord with the highest standards and the very best of Australian Military tradition. But, unfortunately, they did not receive from all sectors of the Australian community the gratitude and respect which they deserved and to which they were justly entitled.

We dedicate this day also to all who survived that war, especially those who suffered physical and psychological wounds which, in so many cases, prevented their ever being able to resume their normal lives that were interrupted by their war and post war experiences. We dedicate this day too to their families and spouses who suffered along with them, especially when the damage of war service done to their lives made it impossible for them to resume the relationships that they had enjoyed and cherished beforehand.

The cost of war service is very high, its price list is long and varied. Lord God, may all in this nation remember with due gratitude every one of its Armed Service personnel who paid that price by being involved in the Viet Nam War.

BLESSING:

God our Father, we thank you for our gathering today. Grant to the surviving Viet Nam veterans gathered here on this occasion a convivial time together at the conclusion of this service, bless them with health and prosperity in the future and the opportunity to gather again in memory and solidarity in another years time. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen


Senator HARRIS —I thank the Senate. There are three major parts to the bill that the government is introducing, the main one being the extension of access to the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, RPBS, for Allied veterans. These Allied veterans will come from countries such as France, Brazil, Canada, Singapore and approximately 40 other very interesting and varied countries, many of them with economies many times the size of our own. The list is obviously very long. I cannot declare more strongly that the responsibility for those veterans belongs with their own countries and not Australia. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs stated in his media release on 22 May this year:

... this Government has worked hard to advance the interests of Australia's veterans by addressing areas of need identified in close consultation with ex-service organisations.

That is very commendable. However, the first part of this bill extends pharmaceutical benefits to those who did not fight in World War I or World War II as Australian soldiers. They were not Australian veterans. Their only association with our men was purely on an Allied basis. They were not fighting as Australian soldiers but there solely by chance or association. They were neither Australian citizens nor Australian soldiers, and any benefits they are entitled to from their war service originates from within the countries they represented during their fighting years. I have great difficulty in agreeing to extending any benefits to any veterans other than our own, and I clearly indicate to the Senate that there I include—as I do in the amendments that I will move in the committee stage—those from New Zealand. So I find it difficult to extend any benefits to any veterans other than our own, irrespective of their resident time frame upon our shores.

This section of the bill does not even specify a condition for Australian citizenship. Any legislation that comes into being in this country should be based on conditions of receivership, based on people's uptake of their obligations as Australian citizens. It is to Australian citizens only that we owe our allegiance. People who choose not to take up Australian citizenship obviously do not have Australia's best interests at heart. It appears that the government has no limits in extending its largesse to all and sundry, with no reciprocal responsibilities or commitments required by those so willing to enrich themselves at our expense. There is no precedent for this level of generosity in any other country on the globe. We are truly a country of extravagant gifts. It leads me to cynically wonder if this is another vote buying exercise by the government.

I reiterate my earlier comments about having a responsibility to Australian citizens. I would like to raise a couple of issues that were relayed to me last week from the Vietnam Veterans Association. The Vietnam Veterans Association at this time are camped on a pastoral property called Kalpawer in Queensland. It is not that they have not attempted to have their issue raised in the proper manner. They have approached the federal government; they have approached the Queensland state government. Neither of those governments has indicated a willingness to assist them. I travelled approximately 900 kilometres in a round trip to spend one evening with these guys. As I rolled my swag out beside them under the Southern Cross, they raised the very relevant issue that the flag of the country they had fought for bears the symbol of the Southern Cross. It was that same Southern Cross that we were sleeping under that night. They challenged any man or any government anywhere in this country to tell them that they cannot at their discretion camp out under those stars anywhere in Australia. I believe it would be a very brave government that would come out and say that they do not have that right after having served their country in that way.

Again I must ask the minister why this generous donation of taxpayers' funding cannot be more appropriately directed to our own needy veterans and their families. Many of these families are now acting as carers for their loved ones who are World War I and World War II veterans and who are now placing heavy nursing requirements upon their families. These family members would be only too grateful to have respite facilities to ease the burden and give them some degree of temporary relief. A loving, caring home environment is the optimal arrangement for these people. But even love has some limitations once exhaustion has set in.

The opportunity for offering top quality health care facilities to these people should not be missed. We owe it to these soldiers. They, in the prime of their life, willingly offered Australia and its citizens their most precious gift, their lives. We should also recognise that, of those of the Australian Defence Force who went to Vietnam, 501 did not return. These people, the ones that we are speaking about this evening, are the fortunate ones who were lucky enough to come home. These people never asked for any special services, benefits or privileges. Australia took up the social responsibility to care for these returned servicemen as their needs arose. This was an obligation that we as a country owed to these people, an obligation that we took upon ourselves willingly and with gratitude.

We also have to look at the looming responsibilities that we as a nation will have towards our Vietnam veterans when the time arises. These returned servicemen will require and expect relevant assistance when needed and no doubt will be justifiably resentful should there be any attempts to limit our liabilities while at the same time upholding payments to non-Australian soldiers. The logic is going to be very difficult to justify.

I am aware that the rationale for the range of medicines and treatments on the RPBS and not on the general Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is that some conditions arising from war service and/or present in the veteran population should be covered. However, the examples quoted in the government's explanatory memorandum go to such things as nicotine patches and Viagra. These are argued to be needed for stress related conditions arising from war. Bandages are also covered under the RPBS, but not under the public PBS. Again, the ordinary elderly Australian citizen is not considered needful of such basic medical requisites, yet non-Australian World War I and World War II soldiers are. How do we justify the issuing of Viagra for stress relief for non-Australian soldiers while at the same refusing this medication for Australian citizens of the same or comparable age in equal need of the medication?

I reiterate my objection to this part of the bill and its granting of taxpayers' funds to soldiers whose only association with Australia was by accident, military orders, conscience or plain good luck and not by any direct loyalty to or empathy with Australia. I would strongly support this bill if the funds were restricted to Australian soldiers and their New Zealand counterparts, who were part of our heroic Anzacs. These gallant men were united by a combined goal to protect our South Pacific area, to the benefit of all. We have not only close economic ties with New Zealand but also close historic and defence ties. These links need to be recognised and supported. Thus, I will move an amendment that limits the benefits, with very justifiable reasons.

The second major part of the bill relates to the reinstatement of widows pensions to those war widows who were foolish—and I say that with tongue in cheek—enough to fall in love and remarry before 28 May 1984. Others were more astute and married after this important date.

These women did not choose to lose their husbands, but like their husbands they too were to be victims of the terror of war and they have had to live with the consequences ever since. With 107,953 war widow pension recipients at June 2000 and an estimated 4,000 war widows to be the recipients of this reinstated pension—at an estimated cost of $52 million to $65 million over four years—an asset test should be applied under some circumstances.

I have covered the sections of the bill that I think require the most attention and are therefore of the greatest concern. My justification for raising these issues is based on the use of taxpayers' funds in the most responsible manner, given our budget limitations and our social responsibilities, not only to our veterans and our war widows but also to our grossly underfunded health and aged care facilities. I feel these areas in particular are in dire need of massive injections of additional funds and, should conscience exist or even play a part in our decisions, I have placed on record my views on the justice and injustice of this interesting piece of legislation.