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Prime Minister announces that civilians and the military, who are not involved in combat operations, will be eligible for the Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal.

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Wednesday 13 April 2005

Prime Minister announces that civilians and the military, who are not involved in combat operations, will be eligible for the Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal


TONY EASTLEY: The victims of the Sea King helicopter crash on the island of Nias will be awarded an Australian medal, posthumously. 


The Prime Minister has announced that new arrangements will honour the nine dead Australians and will recogn
ise all military personnel who delivered emergency assistance to the victims of the Boxing Day Tsunami, as well as the Indonesian earthquake. 


Debate has raged about the awarding of medals since the Indonesian President bestowed his country's medal of honour on the Australians who were in the Sea King, which crashed ten days ago. 


Under the new regulations, both civilians and the military, who are not involved in combat operations will now be eligible for the Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal.  


Until now, the medal has only been awarded to civilians who've provided assistance in areas of conflict. 


The Prime Minister John Howard has been speaking to Stephanie Kennedy in Canberra. 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, what's happening is that we are changing the regulations governing this medal which were found to be deficient because under the existing regulations, service in the wake of the tsunami was not eligible, whether you were a civilian or a military person, for humanitarian service because it wasn't deemed to be a hazardous area.  


In the past, most of these humanitarian operations had been carried out in places like Kosovo, Iraq and so forth where self-evidently there was firing and danger, and regarded as a hazardous area of operation.  


And although the tsunami involved great loss of life and tragedy, the people carrying out the humanitarian work, whether they were soldiers or civilian people, were not being fired upon. 


STEPHANIE KENNEDY: So prior to now, has this been a civilian medal only, or also a military medal? 


JOHN HOWARD: Prior to now, it's been a medal that's been awarded exclusively to civilian people. From now on of course, it can be awarded to both civilians and military people, although technically it could have been awarded to military people in the past, but normally, the military people would get some campaign medal associated with the military operation and also involved in humanitarian work. 


STEPHANIE KENNEDY: And how many people do you think this medal will be awarded to? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I'm not in a position to say. Obviously, quite a lot of people have carried out humanitarian work, both civilians and also military people. The valuable thing about this extension is that it does not involve the creation of a new military medal.  


The existing military system remains intact and if any changes are made to that, well they will be made after a full consultation with the military and with the RSL. But what this does sensibly do, is recognise two things - it recognises that you often have humanitarian operations where the work is carried out in a non-violent atmosphere.  


And secondly, and very importantly, increasingly now and into the future, military people will be carrying out humanitarian work not accompanied by military activity. In the past it's tended to be a military operation plus humanitarian work. Here you just have the humanitarian work without the military operation. 


STEPHANIE KENNEDY: Will the nine victims of the Sea King crash be eligible? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, they'll certainly be eligible yes, and the medal can be awarded posthumously. 


STEPHANIE KENNEDY: Did you feel concerned when the bodies of the nine returned home to Australia that day at Sydney Airport, when the President of Indonesia was able to lay a medal of honour on their coffins - did you feel concerned about that and is that why you've moved to make these changes? 


JOHN HOWARD: No. I always saw quite a difference between the procedure for awarding in special circumstances a medal to the citizens of another country. That could theoretically happen in reverse where we were honouring the dead of another country - the various medals in the Order of Australia are in the automatic gift of the Government in a way that medals under the Order of Australia for Australian citizens are not.  


I didn't feel concerned about that. I understood that some Australians were, but I saw quite a difference. It was a special one-off thing done by the President of Indonesia to recognise the gratitude of his country to these wonderful people. That's not the reason. 


STEPHANIE KENNEDY: Did it demonstrate though that the Australian Government needed to find some way of awarding - particularly those nine - some sort of medal in recognition of their sacrifice? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I think the whole sad events have exposed a shortcoming in our medals system for humanitarian work. I didn't realise until last week that the humanitarian medal could not be awarded to anybody unless the work was actually carried out in an environment where shooting was taking place or there was immediate danger to the people carrying out the work.  


And plainly that was a deficiency and that deficiency has been identified and it's going to be rectified and that will be important, not only in potential recognition of the nine service people who have lost their lives, but also many other people - both civilians and service people - who have carried out their work. 


STEPHANIE KENNEDY: At the time, the RSL did say that just because someone dies, that doesn't mean they're entitled to a medal. Do you think this step that you've taken will resolve that problem? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I don't want to comment on that. I mean, I feel like all Australians, and I know the RSL does - very upset about the deaths of those nine young Australians.  


I think this is a sensible and proper extension for both military people and civilians who carry out humanitarian work in tsunami type or indeed other situations, and the new regulations will now cover the field and it'll be appropriate to recognise the humanitarian work of both military people and civilians in these situations. 


TONY EASTLEY: The Prime Minister Mr Howard speaking to Stephanie Kennedy.