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Tuesday, 22 June 1999
Page: 7113

Mr EDWARDS (9:37 PM) —Earlier this year a group of Gulf War veterans came to see me, young men who served in the Navy and who had become ill after their time in the gulf. After listening to them I became rather impressed with their story and sympathetic to the problems they have.

Following the meeting, I put some questions on notice to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. On 6 June, three months after asking the questions, I received an answer which showed that 213 Gulf War veterans had submitted claims covering 490 illnesses. The minister stated, however, that each of the accepted conditions:

Have been shown to be due to osteoarthritis, the effects of trauma and well known and understood diseases.

The minister went on to say:

Thus far, my department has found that all of the diseases have been claimed by these veterans have been covered by diagnoses that do not include Gulf War illness.

Chief scientific officer and research professor, Dr Garth Nicolson, in doing American research, has found:

That Gulf War illness presents as complex, multi-organ signs and symptoms that overlap with other chronic illness. These include chronic fatigue, headaches, memory loss, muscle pain, nausea, gastrointestinal problems, joint pain, lymph node pain, memory loss and other signs and symptoms.

The American government established a Gulf War illness office and in its second annual report the defense department's Special Assistant for Gulf War Illness, Bernard Rostker said:

When we started many at the Defence department asked, `How did we get into this mess?' The best answer that we can give is that the Department of Defence finds it very hard to deal with battlefield casualties that don't manifest themselves in traditional ways. The loss of public credibility over Gulf War illness follows similar problems with Agent Orange after the Vietnam War. In this case, as the crisis over Gulf War illness grew, we did not listen to the veterans nor did we provide them with the information they needed to alleviate their fears and answer their questions.

Today, much has changed in the way the Defence Department relates to those who served in the Gulf. We are working very hard to answer the question most frequently asked—why are so many veterans sick?

Despite a substantial increase in funds allocated to medical research, we still do not have answers to that basic question. While a careful review of past medical studies, now underway, may yet provide some new insights, recently funded research is not likely to provide answers either quickly or easily.

Even though the cause of unexplained Gulf War illnesses remain elusive, the men and women who served in the Gulf also want and deserve to know if they were exposed to anything that could threaten their health. This question is the unique responsibility of the Department of Defence. We owe it to those veterans of the Gulf War and to those who serve today to ensure that we learn from the experiences of the war in order to better protect those who will serve in the future.

The British government also takes a strongly proactive approach in support of their Gulf War veterans. In principle the government has adopted three principles: firstly, that all gulf veterans have prompt access to medical advice from a medical assessment program; secondly, that there is appropriate research into veterans' illness and factors which might have a bearing on these; thirdly, that the Ministry of Defence will make available to the public any information it possesses which is of potential relevance to this issue.

The central element of the Blair government's approach is to be open and honest with the gulf veterans, to listen to what they have to say, and to engage in dialogue. A British representative sits on the US Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board Research Working Group which oversees all US federal research looking at gulf veterans' illness.

I do not expect that Australia should be duplicating that research but I do call on the minister to launch an immediate inquiry into the health and wellbeing of Australian Gulf War veterans. Such an inquiry should include a thorough survey of those veterans to ascertain their status. All Gulf War veterans should be given the opportunity of a thorough medical examination carried out by Department of Veterans' Affairs. Any veteran requiring ongoing treatment which can in any way be related to Gulf War illness should receive that treatment at DVA expense.

We were advised today that this government has allocated $180,000 to do research into share ownership in Australia. If this government has that sort of money to throw around one would have thought that a priority in expenditure may well be these Gulf War veterans, our youngest veterans, who are suffering an illness that is, while difficult to diagnose, recognised as a problem in the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

I want to ask the minister to stop turning his back on these young veterans, to give them a bit of support and find out what it is that is making them sick. Do not tell me they have claims on the department. He knows and I know and the veteran community knows that you do not get claims accepted on the department unless you can relate those claims to service conditions. (Time expired)