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Tuesday, 27 February 2001
Page: 24564

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (10:40 PM) —On Sunday 18 February I had the great pleasure of sharing the speakers dais with Lieutenant General Peter Cosgrove at Longford in Tasmania in the beautiful electorate of Lyons. I was there as patron of the Mersey Regional Branch of the National Servicemen's Association and also the Burnie Branch of the National Servicemen's Association, among hundreds of ex-nashos, celebrating the 50th anniversary of national service in Australia.

I remember commenting that the story of peacetime conscription was a rather controversial one in our country, and yet, for all that, it was about young men whose lives were brought together to train, to serve and, ultimately, to defend this nation. It was in every sense of the word `national service': young men were conscripted, their lives were changed and some, unfortunately, lost their lives. In all, some 287,000 national serviceman trained for, and served, their nation.

There were two main periods of national service between 1951 and 1972 and each of these surrounded real and/or perceived threats to our national interest. Between 1951 and 1959, it was in the context of the Cold War, the Communist victory in China, the Malay situation of 1948 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. It was designed to build up our depleted forces after World War II, to raise a force of partially trained men and `to improve physical fitness and the discipline of young men'. Between 1951 and 1957, about 33,000 young men per annum trained—all but 5,000 in the Army—in effect, spending something like three months in training and then three years in the CMF. In 1957, universal obligation was abolished and replaced with a selective training system which was eventually abolished in 1959.

In 1965, events in South-East Asia and, of course, closer, including New Guinea, saw a reactivation of the previous system, with conscripts being liable for overseas service. Apart from these strategic considerations, it was a time of full employment and recruitment figures were allegedly low. Selection for military service was by ballot—variously dubbed `Russian roulette' and `the birthday ballot'. Between 1965 and 1972 over 800,000 registered for national service. Of these, 64,000 were called up, 19,500 served in Vietnam alongside 21,000 `regs', 200 were killed with 1,279 non-fatal casualties alongside 242 regulars killed and 1,500 non-fatal casualties. National service was abolished on 5 December 1972.

Over 287,000 men had their lives interrupted, spent time and effort to be trained and were on call to defend their country. Some 200 died in service and over 1,200 were injured. They deserve our thanks. Whatever their views were on national service—and many supported and enjoyed it—they were conscripted for training in peacetime. Their lives were in the hands of others—they had no choice. They did their job and many found fellowship in each other's company, especially with the formation of the National Servicemen's Association of Australia in 1987—in my home state in 1995.

But their compulsory service is not formally recognised by this nation. This is not politics; this is a fact—a fact I raised before in the federal parliament in May 1999 after I learned of the situation. In 1998, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs said—and it has since been reiterated right up until recently:

National service was no more demanding than normal peacetime service and does not, in its own right, warrant the award of a medal.

But normal peacetime service is voluntary—national service was compulsory. National servicemen had no choice, but serve they did at the behest of their government and their nation. The National Servicemen's Association's request to have national servicemen's compulsory service recognised by the issue of an Australian Service Medal with a clasp for national servicemen has been rejected. Yet there is no real reason why it should be. I believe that members on both sides of the House should support their call. Many others get formal recognition for far less. Their call should be accepted.