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Tuesday, 2 December 2003
Page: 23520

Mr DANBY (9:10 PM) —A few weeks ago, like most MPs, I attended a Remembrance Day service—in my case, in the electorate of Melbourne Ports—accompanied by friends Bob Keeley, President of the West St Kilda RSL; Gerard McArdle, President of the St Kilda Army and Navy Club; and Jack Lawton, President of the Elwood RSL. The usual moving ceremony took place at the Alfred Square memorial, overlooking the upper and lower esplanades in St Kilda. After the ceremony, as usual we headed back to the St Kilda Army and Navy Club for a few drinks and a chat. Tonight I want to mention a couple of the concerns that veterans right across the age spectrum have at the moment.

First is the discriminatory treatment of POWs who were held in Europe compared with POWs who were held in Japan. In 2001 the government announced that former POWs in Japan—around 2,500 veterans—would receive an ex gratia payment of up to $25,000, yet POWs in Europe and Korea would not. Bert Stobbart, another friend of mine, former Pathfinder air serviceman and a member of the Elwood RSL, and other members of the Ex-Prisoner of War Association have been actively campaigning to redress this inequity, but so far the government has not been particularly forthcoming. On 16 July this year, Mr Gilbert OAM, National Secretary of the Ex-POW Association, wrote to the Prime Minister, saying:

The Association is most disappointed with the recommendation of the Clarke Committee of Review into POW compensation regarding the claim for a similar grant for POW [Europe] as that provided to POW [Japan], widows and civilians. It is estimated that up to 40 or more of the 141 items of the Convention were abused by the captors in relation to many of the POW. Some of these were rations ... clothing ... shackling - Interrogation ... physical abuse—Needless murders, shootings and physical abuse by both the German and Italian captors ...

When the Prime Minister's office eventually responded, the issue of compensation for POWs in Europe was not adequately dealt with and failed to explain the discriminatory treatment of POWs in Europe compared with POWs in Japan. The Clarke report referred to abuse claims:

One submission from the Ex-Prisoner of War Association of Australia is supported by the personal testimonies of 39 POWs [Europe], four POWs [Korea] and 15 widows of POWs [Europe]. Arguments presented in the submissions ... were:

POWs [Europe] were emaciated upon being freed but had recovery time in the United Kingdom before returning to Australia, and therefore did not receive the same level of public exposure and sympathy upon their repatriation ...

POWs [Europe] experienced similar levels of deprivation to POWs [Japan];

POWs [Korea] experienced similar levels of deprivation to POWs [Japan];

widows of POWs [Europe] and POWs [Korea] have experienced similar hardships to widows of POWs [Japan]; and

there is stigmatisation of POWs [Europe] and POWs [Korea] in the community because they did not receive the payment.

Although the Clarke committee recommended that ex gratia payments should not be extended to POWs in Europe, in my view this payment remains discriminatory and the decision by the government ought be reversed. It is clear that these people, the European and Korean POWs, suffered many of the same kinds of deprivation during their imprisonment for fighting for exactly the same just cause.

The second issue raised by my veteran friends was the gold card. Veterans and war widows needing urgent treatment by medical specialists will increasingly find that they are unable to use their gold cards, according to evidence given at Senate estimates by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The admission that 319 specialists had indicated they would no longer honour the gold card is a major defect in the operation of veteran entitlements. In fact, this situation is considerably worse because, on the department's own admission, a considerable number of specialists, on top of those 319, have simply not advised the department that they are not honouring the veterans gold card. Many specialists are committed to treating veterans out of respect for their contribution to Australia's defence but claim they can no longer afford to do so due to the increased costs of medical indemnity insurance. They claim the remuneration set for the gold card is now below cost. The problem is serious and getting worse as veterans and widows are forced to travel longer distances or simply pay the gap. Moreover, there is nothing being done because of the government's failure to negotiate any new agreement on fees.

The final issue that was raised, in particular by Vietnam veterans, was the cut to pensions for totally and permanently incapacitated veterans—TPIs. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs confirmed in question time that in the future TPIs would have their pensions cut if they were also in receipt of superannuation. This is a matter that I want to return to at a later date which is causing particular trauma to former members of the ADF who served in Vietnam.