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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 5262

Senator McEWEN (7:20 PM) —Today is Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day and therefore it is an appropriate day to reflect on how we as a nation remember and honour our veterans of all conflicts and to also reflect on how fortunate we are to have a serving Defence Force of extraordinarily skilled, loyal and courageous personnel. As members of parliament we are in a unique position to observe what is happening in veterans affairs and in our defence forces. More importantly, we are in a position to influence government policy and legislation in these areas of public administration, and it is a responsibility that I know all of us take seriously.

I have not always been as mindful as I should have been about the welfare of our veterans and of our defence forces. I was a teenager during the Vietnam War and I supported the campaigns to end that war and bring our troops home. I was, I admit, at that time fairly insensitive to the plight of Vietnam veterans and serving defence personnel, despite the fact that my own father was a veteran of World War II.

Today, as was acknowledged by the Prime Minister during his address at the Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day service, we should all take time to remember the 60,000 Australians who served in Vietnam, especially the 521 defence personnel who died and the 2,400 who were wounded in that conflict.

As a nation we failed on many accounts to adequately support the veterans of that war, and their families. I am sure most MPs and senators would have constituents who are Vietnam veterans and who still need our assistance to access the support and services they need. I acknowledge the work of the numerous ex-service organisations who do an excellent job supporting their members and I would also like to commend the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Mr Alan Griffin, whose genuine care and concern for our veterans has led to many important policy initiatives, including the Vietnam veterans family study currently underway.

Many Australians are paying more attention to Australia’s military history and are actively choosing to honour our veterans and ADF personnel. I am sure all senators would have acknowledged the ever-increasing number of people, including large numbers of young people, who now attend Anzac Day dawn services in our electorates. Visiting Gallipoli as part of the grand tour and walking the Kokoda Track are other ways that Australians are choosing to honour their veterans.

The nine Australians who died last Tuesday in the tragic plane crash near Kokoda were doing just that, and I would like to express my sincerest sympathy to the family and friends of all those who died in that terrible crash. Like quite a number of MPs and senators, including Senator Barnett, I have been to Kokoda and I have flown that flight path through the Owen Stanley Ranges on the way to Kokoda, and I feel deeply for those who were undoubtedly feeling very excited and also apprehensive about the adventure to come but who were robbed of that opportunity. It is a privilege to walk the Kokoda Track and last week’s incident brought home just how much of a privilege it is. The pilgrimage that many Australians make to the Kokoda Track—and I sincerely hope that Australians continue to do that—is a fitting way to remember the service of our veterans and our current serving defence personnel.

I was very pleased to note that the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs has also recently announced some very welcome initiatives to assist us to remember the sacrifice many have made, and continue to make, to keep Australia safe and to recognise those who have supported our defence personnel. On 23 July 2009, which is Papua New Guinea’s Remembrance Day, at the beautiful Bomana War Cemetery near Port Moresby, the minister issued the first commemorative medallion honouring the so-called ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’ who cared for Australian soldiers on the Kokoda Track during that terrible campaign that saw nearly 600 Australians killed and another 1,000 injured. In June this year, the government announced a grant of $12,000 to upgrade and refurbish the southern entrance to the Kokoda Track at Owers Corner. This has become a special place for Australians and Papua New Guinean locals alike and the upgrade will make sure this important place is improved and maintained.

Just yesterday, in recognition of the infamous Sandakan prisoner of war camp in Sabah, Borneo, and subsequent death marches in August 1945 from Sandakan to Ranau that saw 2,400 British and Australian soldiers die in terrible circumstances, Minister Griffin announced the opening of an Australian government funded memorial hall at the privately operated memorial gardens in Kundasang in Borneo. Those people who have been to that memorial garden would know what a special memorial that is and it is so worthy of the $155,000 that the Australian government has provided. It is good to know that the government is determined to honour our service personnel with support for these memorials and acknowledgements of service.

As I said at the beginning, senators and members are in a very fortunate position to know about and to influence veterans and defence policy. One of the ways that interested senators and members can become better educated about our defence matters is by participating in the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program. This program has been in place since 2001 and I have, since I came here in 2005, listened with much interest to the speeches of other senators who have been able to participate in one or more of the activities provided under the program. The aim of the program is to provide members and senators with practical experience of the ADF so that we can take a more informed and constructive part in the debate about defence. The objectives of the program are: to provide an understanding of a unit’s role and missions; to provide an opportunity to experience the life of a service person; and to provide an awareness and understanding of defence capabilities, personnel and management issues.

In July this year—in fact in the week immediately following my return from walking the Kokoda Track—I was very fortunate to join the ADF Parliamentary Program and was placed with the SAS, the Special Air Services Regiment, for five days during part of the regiment’s selection course. It is without doubt one of the best things I have ever done. The regiment, with its famous motto ‘Who dares wins’ was formed on 4 September 1964, although its predecessor, the 1st Special Air Service Company, which was part of the Royal Australian Infantry, had been in existence since 1957.

The SAS Regiment has a long history of operations in Borneo, Vietnam, Rwanda, Somalia, Cambodia, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan and probably other places. The members of the regiment are extraordinary men who undertake extraordinary operations and do so with little regard for the accolades and recognition they deserve and occasionally get, but certainly never seek. It was hard finding much material for this speech about the regiment because, as is entirely appropriate, not a lot of official material is written about their operations or about their citations and achievements. Suffice to say, it is not easy to become a member of the regiment and those who make the grade certainly deserve to be there.

I have to say that the willingness of the officers and soldiers of the SAS to take on board two members of parliament to participate in and observe part of the challenging selection course was very much appreciated. It was an honour to be there. Being there did give me the opportunity to learn a lot more about life in the forces, about the issues ‘from the ground’ in Defence, as opposed to from the across the table during Senate estimates, and about the importance of supporting our defence personnel and our defence capability. I was very pleased to note the announcement today by the Minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science, Mr Greg Combet, that the ADF is currently experiencing its lowest separation rate for the last decade, which is extremely welcome news indeed.

While there are many differences between the wars and warfare that I have mentioned in this speech—World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan, and of course also World War I—regardless of what capacity our veterans and defence personnel have served in, or are serving in, we should always honour their service, as the Prime Minister did today, and we should also use our privileged positions as members of the parliament to do what we can to support our former and current servicemen and women.