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Wednesday, 20 February 2019
Page: 14247


Mr ALEXANDER (Bennelong) (17:07): It is a fact that medical practitioners are as vital a component of an armed force as those in any other role. They may not routinely carry a weapon, but nor do chaplains, quartermasters or intelligence officers. What they do is more important. Bluntly, they save lives. There are thousands of Australians who would not be with us today if it had not been for the prompt professional care and attention of the medical teams. These teams deserve our gratitude and our praise. This amendment allows members of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, SEATO, surgical medical teams who were employed in Vietnam between 1964 and 1972, to become eligible for the Department of Veterans' Affairs DVA gold card from 1 July 2019.

It seems bizarre that this is something we're fixing only now, so let's have a look at the story so far. The SEATO medical teams have been advocating since at least 1990 for a DVA gold card. While most reviews stated that the teams were not entitled to receive veterans' benefits, the 2000 Mohr review recommended that the team members be granted qualified service. This recommendation was rejected by the then government, as the team members were not under the command and control of the ADF and were not allotted by Defence for duty in Vietnam. As such, they were deemed ineligible for veterans' benefits. This decision was patently wrong.

These medical teams were serving on the battlefield in extreme danger, facing the same threats, traumas and dangers as their regular ADF comrades. These teams played a vital role during the conflict through providing much-needed medical assistance and training and treating thousands of Vietnamese civilian casualties. They provided this support at a time when Vietnamese medical facilities and capability had dramatically diminished as a result of the war. While the medical teams were not under the direct command and control of the Australian Defence Force during the Vietnam War, they were exposed to hazards and dangers as a result of working in a conflict zone for the Australian government. Team members experienced the effects of a war known for its brutality. While their experiences do not parallel those of the ADF members, SEATO members were not untouched by their experiences.

Thankfully this government agreed in December 2018to provide the team members with the gold card. This was implemented through new legislation which will create a distinct and separate eligibility for this cohort rather than providing eligibility through existing veterans legislation. This measure provides important recognition to the civilian surgical and medical teams of about 240 doctors, 210 nurses and a small number of administrative and technical staff employed on the teams during the Vietnam War. The government expects about 200 surviving members of the teams could benefit from this measure. The SEATO medical teams are a special case in that they were particularly exposed to the horrors of war by virtue of their medical role. They were exposed to the dangers in that they were not protected by the ADF and were in areas where there was no front line. Importantly, the Mohr review advocated benefits for this group.

It is also important to recognise that the team members were all civilians. They all volunteered to do something dangerous that was not part of their job, that put their careers on hold, to willingly travel to a conflict zone in order to provide aid and support to an ally whose civilian medical facilities had been dramatically diminished as a result of the war. They played a vital role in the broader Australian government's support to the South Vietnamese during this conflict and they did this completely separate from the ADF. To date, these civilians have not had the same access to treatment and counselling for a range of mental health conditions that ADF veterans have had. The gold card will now provide the necessary support. With the gold card, regardless of whether it is related to employment in Vietnam, eligible SEATO members will be provided with access to medical treatment for any medical condition.

However, there is still an outstanding issue: timing. The original start date of 2020 was predicated on the legislation not passing until later in 2019 and the need for DVA to develop new eligibility criteria, processes, procedures and IT systems for a group that is not a usual DVA client group. Members of the team raised a number of concerns about their failing health, and advocacy was received from them and a number of associations requesting the measure be brought forward. The government has listened to these concerns and has brought the measure forward as a result, and it's great to see that Labor is supporting this measure. Thank you, Labor. This is one of those times that government legislation is uncontentious and doing the right thing, even if it should have happened many years before.

Bennelong has a great history as a home for veterans. While Ryde provided the largest per capita number of volunteers for the First World War, large parts of the area were settled in suburban blocks designed for veterans of the first two world wars. It was veterans from the first three local RSL sub-branches that were amongst the five founding clubs that instigated the first Anzac Day march a century ago. This heritage of caring for veterans continues to this day, with large DVA housing developments by the Parramatta River in Ermington at the site of the old torpedo factory. Today 1,500 people live in this development, named the AE2 in memory of the only submarine to penetrate the Turkish defences at the Dardanelles. Bennelong mixes a memory of our rich military history with care for the veterans who call our region home today.

We're also very lucky to have a dedicated group of sub-branches looking after our local veterans. Our local sub-branches have looked after our veterans and those who've served for decades. Some of these clubs were amongst the first marchers on Anzac Day a century ago. We have great advocates for veterans, like Bernie Cox, John Prestige and John Curdie, and, with such a large multicultural community in Bennelong, we also have multicultural veterans who served in the Korean War, like Paul Kim, a veteran of the Korean War and a great supporter of our Korean community. Our local ex-service members are well served by these dedicated people.

Finally, before I sit down and while on the topic of celebrating veterans, I'd like to commend the Minister for Veterans' Affairs for the outstanding work he's done of late, including the Saluting Their Service program. This is an excellent initiative to acknowledge the exceptional work of our men and women in uniform. We're all well acquainted with the uniquely Australian habit of remaining quiet about one's achievements, but all too often that means the sacrifices and hardships of our veterans and currently serving members go unrecognised. This is deeply regrettable. Every person who has worn the uniform in defence of Australia has protected our shared freedoms and our way of life.

I'm proud to say my office is currently organising a promotional campaign to ensure the Saluting Their Service program is advertised far and wide across Bennelong. We hope to see as many veterans as possible included. I would like to especially thank the three RSLs in my electorate for their efforts—the North Ryde RSL, the Gladesville RSL and the Epping RSL sub-branch. We hope that together we'll be able to reach out to as many veterans in our community as possible.