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Monday, 3 November 2003
Page: 21713

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (1:02 PM) —I certainly put on the record my appreciation of the member for Paterson's raising this matter. It certainly represents a very studied rebuke to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. I am genuinely pleased today that Minister Brough has determined that there should be a roundtable discussion of these matters. They have been on the public agenda for quite a while. A series of other inquiries into this matter have failed to come up with the rational, logical conclusion that this service was as the campaigners claim. In my period in the portfolio I had a significant number of discussions with Mal Barnes, Richard Stone, Michael Morrissey and other Ubon veterans. I have to say that they have displayed a degree of analysis and work that should not merit the reported tantrum that the minister put on in the office of the member for Forde. It certainly would represent a very sorry state of affairs that people who think they have a legitimate grievance, think they have some rights and think that their service should be recognised were treated in such a fashion.

I have supported this campaign for the personnel who served at Ubon, Thailand, from 1962 to 1968, during an earlier part of the Vietnam War. I well recall that in 1997 the member for Mackellar, who was the then minister, sought to continue the fiction that our personnel were at Ubon `pursuant to our arrangements and our obligations under SEATO and it was separate from our involvement with the Vietnam War'. That was her comment on 13 February 1997, in an attempt to stonewall these people's rights. That laughable claim was demolished by the release of declassified United States military documents. These documents freely acknowledge that the US tactical control force in Thailand, with which the RAAF Ubon contingent was connected, was `assigned to the tactical air support group in Vietnam' and formed part of the South-East Asia Integrated Tactical Air Control System, which controlled strategic air operations. These operations included, of course, Operation Rolling Thunder, which involved the saturation bombing of Vietnamese National Liberation Front and Pathet Lao positions and supply lines.

Only diehard, self-interested partisans now deny that the real task of the RAAF Ubon deployment was to provide air and ground defence for US aircraft and personnel engaged in missions that originated from Thai soil. The SEATO `cover' was a ruse to deny the true nature of those operations, which were under American rather than Thai control. The fact that RAAF personnel were directed to remain in Thai airspace—and the opposition has always freely acknowledged that they were—does not detract from this reality.

Since 1997, when I first publicly supported the Ubon cause, their position has been considered by two service entitlement reviews that the government was forced to commission—and I mean forced, because of the pressure of these groups—namely, the 1999 Mohr review and the 2002 independent review of veterans' entitlements chaired by Justice Clarke. As a result they obtained repatriation pension rights and upgraded medal entitlements. Significantly, these acknowledge that RAAF operations at Ubon assumed a warlike nature from June 1965, when the original rules of engagement, which basically restricted the use of force to cases of self-defence, were revised.

The Ubon personnel continue campaigning for access to the Vietnam Logistic and Support Medal, the VLSM. Once again they have hit a brick wall with the coalition over recent months. It seems that the coalition are still reluctant to acknowledge the inextricable link between operations at Ubon and the Vietnam War. That is what the resistance to this medal is all about. Following the earlier reviews, the government are happy to concede that service at Ubon after June 1965 was `warlike' but they refuse to mention just which war was involved. Do they suggest that Thailand was under direct military attack between 1965 and 1968? Of course they do not. The truth is that Ubon was all about the Vietnam War, and their medal should acknowledge this fact.

In conclusion I again commend the initiative in bringing this matter forward. I hope that the pressure by the member for Paterson, members of the opposition and the service community is successful. I totally repudiate the minister's recent outburst in this House when she tried to say that giving these people their rights somehow besmirched or downgraded the Vietnam veterans who died in Vietnam. That is a total fallacy and I repudiate it totally.