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Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 67

Mr EDWARDS (10:46 AM) —I want to start by congratulating Mr Speaker on his election to the position of Speaker of the 39th Parliament. I want to wish him well, and I trust that his judgments, rulings and adjudications will reflect the balance, fairness and impartiality crucial to that high office and to the orderly conduct of the business of this chamber. Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker, I extend the same sentiments to you.

Like others, I want to record my thanks to a number of people who gave strong support to help win the seat of Cowan. First and foremost, to my wife, Noelene, who is in the chamber today, who has stood beside me for almost 30 years and given me the support that only a spouse can give, and to my two daughters, Kerryn and Jaynie, for their belief in their father. To those members of the ALP who strongly supported me during an interesting preselection process and during our campaign, I also say thanks. I particularly want to mention Jim McKiernan and Ted Cunningham, who did an incredible amount of work to ensure that Cowan came back to its rightful place in Labor hands. To my campaign team, who worked long and hard with spirit, enthusiasm and optimism, I again record my appreciation. Above all, I want to say to the people of Cowan—those people who put their trust in me to do the job and to do it well—that your trust has not been misplaced and that I will work with endeavour to ensure you the responsible and diligent representation and commitment to which you are justly entitled.

I had the opportunity earlier this year to attend the Constitutional Convention as an elected delegate representing the Australian Republican Movement in Western Australia. I want to quote from volume three, page 168 of the Hansard covering those proceedings, where I said:

I remember too as a young boy listening to the stories of veterans from Gallipoli, the Middle East and France and being told then by some of those veterans that one day Australia would break from the monarchy. I had the opportunity some years ago to visit Gallipoli. I must admit, it was an emotional experience. As I stood in awe at Anzac Cove, I came to understand the depth of feeling with which those men of my childhood spoke. Indeed, the first republicans I met, although I did not recognise it at that time, were some of those diggers who survived the horrors of the First World War.

I just ask you to reflect on these facts. In 1914-18 Australia had a population of some four million people. Of that sparse population, approximately 417,000 enlisted in Australian forces. Over 300,000 were sent overseas to serve on some three different continents. Sadly, 60,000 were killed and over 220,000 were wounded. That war on foreign soil ripped the heart out of our young nation. Indeed, I often wonder where Australia would be today if those young men had not been sacrificed for King and Empire.

I wanted to record those words here today for two reasons. Firstly, as a new member I want to strongly identify with the movement of this nation towards a republic and towards bringing home our Constitution, and to us having an Australian as our head of state. I also want the opportunity in the next parliament to swear allegiance to Australia and her people. Secondly, I want, in my first speech and on this 80th anniversary of the armistice, to record my appreciation and to salute those men and women whom we commemorate today.

I think it is worthy of note that, whilst there are many things of importance in our national capital, there are two buildings here of immense significance and importance to our nation. One is the national War Memorial, a place which reflects courage, sacrifice, service, mateship, honour and love of country. The other building of which I speak is this, our national parliament, which most Australians will tell you reflects none of those just mentioned qualities or characteristics. I raise that here not because I want to denigrate my chosen profession, but because I believe Australians have had an absolute gutful of petty party point-scoring politics and politicians. They simply want us to get on and resolve the real problems that confront this nation, and there are many of them.

It is, in my view, important to recognise that those qualities of mateship, of service and of courage have been crucial to the development of this nation, both in war and in peace, and to the development of the Australian character. Now, poised as we are on the eve of a new millennium, it seems to me that we need to grasp those qualities and carry them into the next century. Indeed, I hope that those characteristics are as evident in Australia in 50 years time and that they are as important to our future development as they have been to our past.

As a Vietnam veteran, I find some irony in being elected to this public office with an opportunity to speak on many subjects and issues that confront Australians. I say irony, because I cannot help reflecting that some 28 years ago I and a military plane load of other wounded and ill Vietnam veterans were snuck back into Australia in the dead of night, secreted away for 24 hours in an Air Force base hospital in new South Wales, and then quietly shunted off to other hospitals around Australia.

I say irony, because the then Liberal government took every action to hide wounded diggers away from the media and away from public view on their return to Australia during those controversial Vietnam War years. I say to the Liberal government that you will find it harder to hide me now, just as you will find it hard to hide the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and the Minister for Defence from some of the issues relating to veterans that I intend to raise here today and in the future.

The first issue I want to raise relates to the health and wellbeing of Vietnam veterans, their spouses and children. The Vietnam veterans health study indicates that Vietnam veterans suffer a higher incidence of mental health conditions, including panic attacks, anxiety disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

This report also reveals that 25 per cent of veterans have been diagnosed with some form of cancer since their first day of service in Vietnam. The report also shows that some specific disease conditions and the prevalence of cancer are higher amongst Vietnam veterans than amongst other Australians of comparable age. The report also indicates concerned over the level of stress caused to partners and spouses resulting from the health of veterans.

A matter of major concern in the report comes under the heading `Congenital abnormalities and deaths of children'. That alone should cause this government to deal with this whole report as a matter of urgency. I urge the Minister for Veterans' Affairs to attach high priority to the health issues of Vietnam veterans and their families, particularly where those health issues impact on the children of veterans. I want to tell the Minister for Veterans' Affairs that the Vietnam veterans community is becoming increasingly cynical and impatient at this government's lack of response to this health report, and further delays by the government are simply exacerbating the problems and causing great anxiety and anger.

The second issue relating to veterans which I wish to raise flows from the disgraceful decision made by the former Minister for Defence Industry, Science and Personnel, Mrs Bishop, who refused to award medals of gallantry to six diggers, at the same time as she conferred those same awards on officers. Her decision caused those six diggers to knock back her downgraded commendations and it led to the largest refusal of awards in Australia's history.

I want to raise the circumstances of one of those diggers, a bloke by the name of John Burridge from Western Australia. His circum stances are no more nor less compelling than those of the other veterans involved. I want to quote from a document headed `Recommendation for honours or awards'. It is dated 8 May 1969, and was signed by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Khan, in Phuoc Tui Province in South Vietnam. It says:

Private John Burridge commenced his National Service obligations on 1st May, 1968 and after recruit training was posted to the 5th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment on 9th July 1968. He arrived in South Vietnam on 15th February, 1969 as a machine gunner in 11 Platoon.

On 4th April, 1969, while on Operation OVERLANDER, 11 Platoon came under heavy enemy machine gun and rocket fire from a bunker position at a range of 20 metres. Two members of Private Burridge's section were killed and the section commander wounded.

Private Burridge moved forward, on his own initiative, to a position 15 metres from the enemy and commenced engaging the bunkers. He maintained his position for over an hour and effectively prevented the enemy from moving to other bunkers on the flanks of the platoon. His actions drew most of the enemy rocket fire onto his position and as a result he was wounded in both legs.

Despite his wounds and further enemy engagement of his position, Private Burridge continued to fire on the bunkers and restrict the effectiveness of the enemy fire until the remainder of the platoon could move to a new position.

His courage and complete disregard for his own safety were major factors in preventing further casualties to the platoon and his conduct was an inspiration to all.

The recommendation that he received was for a Military Medal. John Burridge never received that award because he was excluded by a quota system. In short, the quota system meant that Caesar looked after Caesar, and the quota saw precedence given to officers, many of whom had not seen a shot fired in anger, to the exclusion of diggers like John Burridge and his five cobbers who put their own lives on the line to protect their mates.

The unfairness of the quota system came to light in about 1994-95, and it was revealed that the quota system included both operational and non-operational awards. In every other war in which Australia has been involved, an end-of-war list was implemented to enable a review of commendations for awards. That did not happen after the Vietnam War. To their credit, the coalition made a pre-election commitment in 1996 to rectify the problem and implement an end-of-war list, which they did. However, they have now refused to fully honour their commitments. Under the old imperial awards system, officers recommended for this level of gallantry received a Military Cross. For the same level of gallantry, diggers received a Military Medal.

Debate interrupted.