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The Hon Bruce Scott, MP

Minister for Veterans' Affairs

Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence

Federal Member for Maranoa

 

 

[RSL NATIONAL CONGRESS SPEECH]

 

His Excellency Sir Guy Green, Governor of Tasmania,

National President Major-General Peter Ph illips,

Rusty Priest, State President NSW,

Wally Sutherland, State President Tasmania,

Dr Neil Johnston, President Repatriation Commission,

Maj General Paul Stevens, Repatriation Commissioner,

Keith Lyon, Former Deputy President of the Repatriation Commission,

Roger Winzenburg, Deputy Commissioner of Tasmanian Office of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs,

Senator Chris Schacht, Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs,

Firstly, can I pass on the Prime Minister’s apologies for not being able to attend today. I am delighted to join you today at this year’s National Congress - the last before the year 2000 descends upon us with much fanfare and much excitement. That your organisation has operated throughout most of this century - unwavering in its values, maintaining its purpose and sense of being and working for the greater good of its members - is a unique achievement. And to each of you, to those you represent and to your forebears, I unreservedly offer my congratulations.

For all of us, it is humbling to stand upon the threshold of not just a new century but the new span of a thousand human years. A time to look forward to a future somehow wiped clean and bright, a future with new challenges and new opportunities.

I want to speak of those things and of what we must do to contribute to that future. I want to speak of specific measures you can expect of us in the near future to safeguard the wellbeing of our veterans.

But I also wish to speak of the past. Amid the celebrations to welcome in the 21 st century, we dare not forget the events and the legacy of the 20 th century - a century in which Australian families were torn apart by personal loss and yet one in which Australia as a nation was united and made whole by shared adversity and sacrifice.

It has been a remarkable period of history - in words far more profound than I could know it has been ‘a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to laugh and a time to weep, a time to get and a time to lose’. It has been a time made remarkable by the men and women who served this nation in time of war.

I want to speak of what will be done to preserve their memory and the memory of their achievements. And I want to speak of what has been undertaken in the recent past by this government in respect to veteran issues. You have raised concerns - we have made promises. And it is appropriate that today I report to you on the successes achieved and the milestones reached.

First, let me restate the obligation this government feels towards the veteran community and the tangible form that recognition takes. The Veteran’s Affairs budget for this financial year is $7.6 billion dollars and will grow to $8.2 billion by the year 2002/2003.

The health budget, acknowledging the specific and increasing needs of our ageing veteran population, has been raised by $240 million dollars and will grow by more than 710 million over the next 4 years.

It has been a recognition that has seen more than 63,000 White Health Care Card holders now qualify for a free annual home assessment under the HomeFront initiative, and be eligible for aids and appliances and minor home improvements worth up to 150 dollars a year.

That means approximately 354,000 veterans, war widows and widowers will have access to HomeFront assistance. It is only one such policy to assist ageing veterans and war widows to remain in their homes for as long as possible.

It has been a recognition that has seen the extension of the Gold Card to World War II veterans and mariners aged over 70 who served in the Australian defence forces and who have qualifying service from that war.

This was a top priority for the RSL and many other ex-service organisations for a number of years and I wish to acknowledge the important role your organisation played in its achievement.

Also resulting from the Budget, about 20,000 additional veterans, including self-funded retirees, have become eligible to receive the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card giving them access to cheaper medicines.

I acknowledge that there are other groups of veterans who are seeking automatic eligibility for the Gold Card such as Commonwealth, Allied, Korean and Vietnam veterans.

In the area of aged care, one of my key initiatives has been to establish the National Ex-Service Aged Care Round Table.

This committee, comprising representatives of all major ex-service organisations, is charged with developing an aged care policy and strategy for the veteran community. This policy will be included in the "National Strategy for an Ageing Australia".

The Round Table continues to explore how best to provide and manage residential and community aged care, and I take this opportunity today to thank Major General Peter Phillips for his valuable contribution in chairing the Round Table.

The health of veterans and serving defence personnel will always be a priority for this government and it has been interesting for me, now overseeing both the Veterans Affairs and Defence Personnel portfolios to recognise the similarity of needs that sometimes exists.

Operational service does entail quite unique physical, emotional and mental stresses and, learning from the past, we have recently developed a strategy to deliver more effective health care to personnel involved in recent and future deployments.

Gulf veterans will be the first to benefit from this strategy, but it will be available to help all Defence personnel who serve in overseas operations, including deployments such as Rwanda, Somalia and Bougainville, as well as any deployments in the future.

Veterans who are suffering ill health -where a specific illness cannot be identified - will be able to access early treatment.

Those suffering from diagnosable medical conditions will continue to have access to compensation and treatment through the Defence Health system or under the Repatriation system.

And it is worth recording that 140 Gulf War veterans have already successfully claimed assistance from Defence or Veterans’ Affairs.

The Government has already allocated funding in the Federa l Budget for the development of a nominal roll of Gulf War veterans. We will use that roll as the basis for a health review and I will be looking to have the review’s terms of reference include the effect of all actual or likely exposure to health threats, including research into vaccinations and medications given to deployed Defence Force personnel.

Other initiatives in the health strategy will include:

The establishment of a Medical Advisory Panel between Defence and Veterans’ Affairs;

Earlier and closer co-operation between Defence and Veterans’ Affairs on health threats and precautions when personnel are deployed overseas;

The Repatriation Medical Authority will also continue its vital role of investigating research into disease causation.

Might I say the value of the RMA has been highlighted by the recent release of new Statements of Principles, which enable veterans to claim benefits and treatment for diabetes, and for non-Hodgkins’s Lymphoma arising from exposure to dioxin.

The RMA is believed to be the first regulatory body in the world to accept the link between exposure to dioxin and diabetes.

This is a finding with important implications for Vietnam veterans, but I would remind you that it applies to veterans of all conflicts.

As you can see, we have learned valuable lessons - we are now more prepared than ever before to respond to the medical needs of veterans and serving personnel. But I should say, notwithstanding this preparedness for the future, we continue to ‘make good’ to those involved in past conflict.

The forthcoming major three-year mortality study of Korean War veterans now under way is one such initiative.

In addition, we stand ready to respond to the findings of the validated Vietnam Veterans Health Study when it’s available. The validation process has been complex and it’s taking time to finish- longer than I had hoped.

I promise you that once we have definitive results, the Government will respond, comprehensively and appropriately to deliver the best possible outcomes for veterans and their families.

We are also examining the concerns about access to medals and repatriation benefits of those who served in South East Asia between 1955 and 1975 - those who served on the RAAF bases at Ubon in Thailand and at Butterworth; in Malaysia during the period of c onfrontation with Indonesia; with the naval component of the Far Eastern Strategic Reserve; or other service in South East Asia during that period and I expect to be able to release the review’s findings by the end of October this year.

This review was initiated as a direct response to veterans’ concerns. Similarly, I have acted over concerns raised over the appropriateness of the awards offered to 6 soldiers within the End of War List for Vietnam.

Taking advice from an independent committee comprising your national President, Major General Peter Phillips, the President of the Vietnam Veterans Association, Clive Mitchell-Taylor and Mr Noel Tanzer, I am pleased to announce today that the Governor-General has accepted the Government’s recommendation that the six soldiers who were recommended at the time of the War to receive the Military Medal be given the Medal for Gallantry, as the most "equivalent" award within our Australian system.

This means that the soldiers will receive the same medal as officers on the List who were recommended for the Military Cross at the time of the conflict, ensuring that our Australian system of honours and awards is truly egalitarian.

The decision finalises the End of War List for the Vietnam conflict, and completes the Government’s commitment to recognise the contribution of our Australian servicemen during that conflict.

We respond to the concerns such as those raised by the ex-service community over the recognition of these six soldiers because fairness, an intrinsic Anzac virtue, is at stake.

I know the strong role that the RSL plays in the debate over Defence and security policy in Australia. I thought I might just touch on a couple of the key issues facing the broader Defence portfolio, because of that role, and because of the topical nature of the current Defence debate.

We have quarantined the Defence Budget and embarked on the Defence Reform Program - which is ensuring that the $12 billion Defence budget is spent on what the ADF is there to provide - combat capability. The Program is moving uniformed personnel from administrative areas to combat and combat related areas.

A prime example is the move to place an additional brigade - 1 st Brigade in Darwin - at 28 days readiness.

The Reform Program is building the strengths of the Defence Force, a force that has answered every call the Government has made on it in recent years.

This has been achieved at the same time as the ADF has introduced new capabilities like night fighting equipment and the new high speed catamaran HMAS JERVIS BAY, and undergone continued structural change.

So, I understand your calls for an increased commitment to Defence. I know that you recognise the traditional strengths of our Defence Force, and respect the efforts of the young men and women who are today’s force.

I can assure you that the Government will continue to give national defence the highest priority, and we will continue to improve the ADF’s combat effectiveness.

Ladies and Gentlemen, in my opening I mentioned my desire to speak on how we must find ways to keep alive the spirit of those that fought and served and were sacrificed.

Commemoration will no doubt play a fundamental role in this and we are committed to playing our part in ensuring all Australians recognise the cost of the freedom we enjoy.

Anniversaries present ideal opportunities to raise public awareness. For instance, activities are being planned for this October, marking the centenary of the outbreak of the Boer War, the first national deployment of Australian troops by all pre Federation colonies and the first conflict in which Australians served as members of a new nation.

Additional government funding of $500,000 will see the 50 th anniversary of the Korean War commemorated by the unveiling of a new national memorial being established on Anzac Parade in Canberra.

A similar amount has also made possible the establishment of a memorial recognising the Century of service of Australian Service Nurses to be located close by.

Memorials - permanent reminders of our nation’s loss and gain - have always played a vital role within our communities. In a very real sense they replace the gravesites and the battlefields denied to us by distance.

Through the ‘Their Service - Our Heritage’ program, many hundreds of regional war memorials have been restored to their former glory, and now serve as the local community focus for commemoration.

Further afield, we have initiated outstanding, world class monuments at Hellfire Pass, Sandakan, Le Hamel and Fromelles - small pieces of foreign soil that have been made forever Australian.

And as you may be aware, earlier this year $1.2 million was allocated to establish a new commemorative site on the Gallipoli Peninsular near Ari Burnu as the venue for annual Dawn Service - a move made necessary by the overwhelming popularity of this occasion. It is hoped that construction will be complete in time for the first Dawn Service of the new millennium despite the recent tragic earthquake in Turkey.

Recognising that more can be done to promote the Anzac achievement to our young at home, two significant projects have commenced.

The first, the construction of Anzac Hall at the Australia War Memorial will give Australians the opportunity to view the larger relics of our war service - a restored "G for George’ will find a home there, Sydney Harbour’s Midget Submarine, artillery, armour.

The second will see the production of a documentary series entitled ‘Australians at War’ in time for Anzac Day 2001 - the year of the centenary of Federation. At a cost of some $5 million this will be a landmark television event and provide educators and general viewers with a permanent and concise record of the Anzac Legend.

Charles Bean, the War Memorial’s famous founder stated that, in his view, that legend was, for this nation, a possession ‘forever’.

None here could disagree but it must be accepted that at some point in the next century no war veterans may remain in Australia to tell of their experiences first hand or to provide the focal point for Anzac Day or Remembrance Day or other anniversary commemorations.

I believe it is important to ensure that there is a concerted effort to perpetuate the commemoration of the service and sacrifice of those who defended the freedom we all enjoy today.

Our common goal, I am sure is to ensure that young Australians can appreciate, honour and learn from the heroism, sacrifice and service of Australia’s service men and women.

Another component of our commemorative program is the Valuing our Veterans initiative, which encourages students to gather and share the memories and experiences of veterans. Linked with this is our Memories and Memorabilia program which encourages local communities to work together to discover, preserve and display Australia’s war heritage for current and future generations.

Despite our best efforts of the sort I have spoken of in the last few moments, frankly I am worried that more must be done to ensure the ongoing relevance and presence of the Anzac record in the every day lives of future generations.

So in conclusion, I raise this as a plea, a challenge, an issue to be formally confronted and resolved by those of you who are the guardians of the Anzac legacy. The ‘possession’ Dr Bean wrote of, must be properly bequeathed to the future generations of Australians.

The future is bright but there will no doubt be uncertainties, tensions and pressures placed upon this nation. The cohesion and the sense of identity that the Anzac legend can bestow on Australians of the 21 st century may be sorely needed and I simply ask that, in coming years, you consider how best it might be imparted to those of us who took no part in its creation.

The selflessness of such a gift would match the selflessness demonstrated so often by Australians in time of war.

In Closing, I would like to make a personal commitment to the RSL. I will do all I can over the next nine and a half weeks to convince my fellow Australians that the answer to Malcolm Turnbull’s Republic is a resounding "NO" in November.

I strongly believe in preserving our current constitution and that our national flag is the most significant national symbol that must be preserved.

The defeat this referendum question will require a significant effort on the part of all those Australians who wish to defend our constitution, and I will all I can to assist in this regard.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today and I wish you well in your deliberations.

 

 

jy  1999-09-16  16:50