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Monday, 20 August 2001
Page: 26164


Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) (9:03 PM) —I thank honourable senators for their contribution to the debate on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2001. The sixth Howard budget delivered more benefits for the veteran community, and this bill deals with three aspects of those benefits. I think honourable senators have adequately canvassed the provisions in the legislation.

With the greatest respect to Senator Harris, his suggestion that we should not include veterans from other countries in the provisions of the legislation is not one that we as a government will agree to. His first argument was that some of these people came from economically stronger countries. I am not sure that any economy currently enjoys the growth rate that the Australian economy is enjoying as a result of our good stewardship. However, even if we were to talk about the overall strength of the economy, what about a Kenyan veteran or an Indian veteran? Do you say that the Indian government or the Kenyan government has as good a capacity to look after these veterans? I add that the qualification is that they have to be over 70 years of age and they have to have been resident in Australia for 10 years. So these are not opportunists who come to Australia just to try to cash in on some veterans benefits; these are people in the latter years of their lives who have been here for some 10 years.

I also say to Senator Harris that the assertion that this is somehow a vote buying exercise is most distasteful. If it were a cynical vote buying exercise, surely we would have made the legislation to the effect that you have to be over 70 and an Australian citizen. But the qualification is that you have to have been a resident for 10 years. As a result, a lot of people who do not even get the vote will benefit from these measures. Undoubtedly, there will be some other condemnation of the government for doing that, but you cannot condemn this as a cynical vote buying exercise.

The most amazing comment of Senator Harris's was that the Allied forces were somehow together solely by chance or association and that there was really no greater bond between them. I would invite Senator Harris to go to the Menin Gate, where the Belgian community pays great tribute to Allied veterans. I had the great honour to be there when they played The Last Post. They play that at 8 p.m. every night. They did it after World War I. There was a very short period after World War II when they could not do it. I stood there, tears welling in my eyes, thinking, `Eric, get a hold on yourself. This is embarrassing.' But I looked around and realised that everybody else was crying as well.

I tell honourable senators who make comments like that that, when you experience something such as the ceremony at the Menin Gate or if you go to France and the Villiers Bretonneux—and you will never forget the Australians emblazoned in the school quadrangle—you will understand that the blood of these men and women who fought for freedom is intermingled in the soil of Europe and in the theatres of Asia. That intermingling of their blood was not solely by chance or somehow by mere association; that was a deep commitment by Allies right around the world who fought for freedom and for the values that have held this country in such good stead in its 100 years since Federation. To try to say that the Allied effort was just some sort of get-together that has not brought about a greater bond between those nations that fought for and won freedom, quite frankly, astounds me. I think that any Australian who has been to Gallipoli, or to the Menin Gate, or to Villiers Bretonneux or, I am sure, to many other places around the world, would take great exception to Senator Harris's contribution, which I think defies history and defies the personal experience of so many people around the world.

We, as a country, are very fortunate. We are in an economically strong and sound position. We, as a government, have made a determination that—I repeat the qualification, and it is a pretty stringent one—to survive for 70 years of life after you have been in the theatres of war is, in itself, a pretty good milestone. But then you also have to have been a resident of this country for 10 years. So it is not simple opportunism or that they have come here to gain some veteran benefit; they have to have been here for some 10 years. The fact that we are able to do this is indicative of our approach of trying to be as generous as we can be. Some, of course, criticise us because we have not made the gold card available to this group of veterans, and some people would want us to go a lot further. Senator Harris seems to argue that we should not go as far.

In relation to the references that the honourable senator made to the Vietnam veteran community, I am not quite sure—and I will have to seek detail or suggest that he provide detail to Minister Scott— what he meant by the reference to Vietnam veterans being able to sleep under the Southern Cross. I must say, with respect, that Senator Harris lost me. I am not sure of the detail of that. I am not sure whether it occurred on somebody's property. I am not sure of the circumstances. Suffice to say that the Vietnam community in this country got a terribly raw deal for a long, long time. The gesture of former Prime Minister Paul Keating, on behalf of the Labor government, to hold a memorial service in Canberra, was welcomed by the Vietnam veteran community and was a long overdue recognition. Might I add that it is one of those bizarre things in political life that if a Liberal-National Party government had done it then it may well have been seen as political point scoring. But the fact that a Labor government did it was very good and really healed a lot of the wounds from that conflict, from our involvement in it and, most importantly, from what I consider to be the shabby treatment of that veteran community until recent times.

We still have a long way to go, but since the initiation of the healing process by the Keating government—and I pay tribute to them for that—we have had the Vietnam Veterans Health (Morbidity) Study and we have sought to implement the recommendations of that. We are still following up on other outcomes of that to try to provide as much assistance as possible to the Vietnam veteran community. To say, `Let's support some Australian Vietnam veterans as opposed to some people who mightn't even be Australian citizens—heaven help us,' is to try to run the sort of politics of division that is not welcome in this country and that is especially not welcome within the community that we are seeking to assist with this legislation. It is a very unfortunate contribution to this debate, especially in the context of the veteran community.

I turn to the comments of Senator Bartlett. I will not be too harsh on him because I understand that the Australian Democrats are supporting this legislation. In my weaker moments every now and then I think, `Oh, to be a Democrat.' You can promise everything to everyone without having to balance a budget. It is not what Senator Andrew Murray would call Realpolitik. Basically, we have to balance what we would like to do with budgetary restraints. Whilst I can accept that it would be nice to deliver on all the items that Senator Bartlett has raised, there would be certain consequences to the budget. As I have attended many RSLs in my home state of Tasmania and the state conference from time to time, I am pleased to report that, in general terms, the veteran community is pleased with the progress that we are making in dealing with the needs of the veteran community. Whilst we are able to deal with some issues at a time, it is virtually impossible to deal with all issues all the time. It is very easy for a party that will never have to make government policy to suggest what ought to be done.

I simply say that we, as a government, recognise that more needs to be done for our veteran community, and indeed for the Vietnam veteran community as well. Senator Schacht made some contributions and, for Senator Schacht, I thought they were quite gracious. He could not quite bring himself to say that this was a generous measure so as a result he had to use a double negative and tell us it was `not insignificant'. I think that really means that it was a significant measure and for that I thank Senator Schacht. I will deal with some of the issues that Senator Schacht raised. He raised the issue of the $25,000 compensation for the Japanese prisoners of war. My understanding is that special circumstances will certainly be considered, but of course not all circumstances.


Senator Schacht —Sorry to interject, but is that from—


Senator ABETZ —That was from a note from the advisers—


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Murphy)—I suggest that we deal with the question in committee.


Senator ABETZ —If you are happy, Mr Acting Deputy President, I am happy to take the interjection, just so long as it—


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESID-ENT —We will conclude the second reading debate and then we will deal with questions in committee.


Senator ABETZ —In relation to the restoration of the widows' entitlement, I understand that, as at Friday, 17 August, there had been 2,728 inquiries. The budget had estimated 3,000. Chances are that unfortunately some of those 2,728 will in fact turn out not to be eligible, so it is very hard to put a figure on that. In relation to the cost of pharmaceutical benefits, the numbers of veterans from Commonwealth and Allied countries can only be estimated based on the 1986 ABS survey and mortality rates, as well as DVA's own statistics and Health Insurance Commission data and Health and Aged Care figures. That is the basis of the calculations, but how exact they are will remain to be determined when these veterans make their applications. I thank honourable senators for their contributions in the second reading debate.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.