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Tuesday, 7 August 2001
Page: 29330

Mrs DE-ANNE KELLY (5:58 PM) —I rise to speak briefly on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2001. I often follow the member for Lowe; it must be a quirk of the speakers roster. I have regard for the member for Lowe and I often find myself in disagreement with him, which causes me some pain, because as an individual I find him an admirable person. However, I am delighted to be able to say today that I find myself in total agreement with the member for Lowe. I am pleased to be able to follow him as a speaker, and his gracious remarks and generous comments about the veteran community.

Honourable members interjecting

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. D.G.H. Adams)—Order! The outbreak of goodwill is well received by the chair.

Mrs DE-ANNE KELLY —I also would like to pay tribute to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the Hon. Bruce Scott, for the manner in which he administers this sensitive and sometimes difficult portfolio. In the time that he has been the Minister for Veterans' Affairs we have seen a great resurgence of interest in, and regard for, Australia's military history and returned service men and women. The spirit of Anzac, in particular, and the participation in Anzac Day ceremonies go from strength to strength. I am pleased to say that this is particularly evident in young people, from whom there is now a huge interest in Anzac.

At the last Anzac Day parade in Mackay, I saw an absolutely wonderful sight. You do see very young children, often with great-grandad or great-uncle, wearing medals and swaggering along with great pride, but I spotted a very earnest young mum with a pram, and pinned right across the front of the pram were, obviously, great-, great-, or great-, great-, great-grandad's medals. It was terrific to see this young family, a mum and a baby, with the medals on the pram. I thought, `This is terrific: the Anzac spirit is alive and well.' Obviously from the tiniest Australian to the eldest, the regard for our veterans is there. This is due in no small part to the minister's efforts, through the education and information programs that he has brought to our schools.

In my own electorate of Dawson, students from the North Mackay state high school embarked on an epic journey to Gallipoli. Many would have seen the televised account of their journey on Australian Story, which they produced in conjunction with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I trust that it will turn into an award-winning program. The pride those young students showed when visiting war graves, particularly throughout France, photographing them and coming back to Australia to surviving relatives and sharing that experience, touched the whole of the Mackay community. Certainly the effect on those young students has been profound. It demonstrates why there is little support to combine Anzac Day with some other public holiday. I doubt that such a proposition would get great support across the Australian community. I was also pleased for my own community when the minister agreed to support the effort to build a memorial to the Rats of Tobruk in Mackay and kick-started the fundraising effort with a Commonwealth contribution of $4,000. Thanks to the untiring efforts of Major Len Hansen, retired, one of the original `rats', and one of our councillors, Don Rolls, this memorial is now a reality.

The coalition government has provided significant recognition to Vietnam veterans and to national servicemen. In fact, on Saturday I was at the national servicemen's dinner at Walkerston. They originally booked the hall for 60 people; it was rebooked for 100 and, eventually, they ended up with 220 people, from a tiny club that originally had only a handful of members. So our national servicemen are delighted at the recognition they are receiving and are very proud to have made their contribution in Australia's time of need. I am delighted particularly that Vietnam veterans are now taking their rightful place among our returned service men and women. Shortly before the last Anzac Day parade in Mackay, I met members of the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club who, for the first time, were going to ride their motorbikes in the parade. I was invited to join them for drinks at the showgrounds the night before, and I have to say that they are a very cheerful group—but you have to watch out for the chilli wine; it is absolute dynamite. I met many interesting veterans that night and one of them, particularly, made an impact on me. His name is Arnie and he, as an Aboriginal, was exempted from the national service draft. Despite that, he volunteered to serve his country; he did not have to. He serves as an inspiration to the Mackay community. As an indigenous Australian he chose to go to Vietnam. I think we need to remember that many of our indigenous Australians made the choice to serve Australia.

I would like to now turn to the specifics of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2001. The bill provides recognition for the service and sacrifice of veterans and it serves to address some anomalies which have deprived some members of the veteran community of their rightful entitlements. The 2001-2002 budget again demonstrates the government's, and the minister's, commitment to the veteran community. A major anomaly in respect of war widow pensions has been removed. This bill amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 and restores full entitlements to war widows who remarried before 1984, and who had had their pensions cancelled. The war widow's pension was paid to compensate those women whose husbands had died either on active service or as a result of war-caused injuries or illness. The 1986 act ensured that widows who remarried in the future would keep their entitlements. However, this was limited to those who had remarried after 1984. The passage of this bill will now mean that there are no longer two classes of war widows and that they will now all be treated equally under the repatriation system.

Other amendments recognise the service of Allied veterans now living in Australia by giving them access to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Eligibility will be extended to Commonwealth and Allied veterans who are over the age of 70, who have qualifying service from either of the world wars and who have been resident in Australia for at least 10 years. They will also be eligible for a pharmaceutical allowance if they do not already receive it as a service or age pensioner. The bill also provides assistance for those veterans who are over the age of 55 but who are under the pension age. The government will not include in the income test for social security pensions any money drawn from superannuation assets by this age group. This bill makes similar changes to the income testing of such payments under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. This will ensure that affected members of the veteran community will receive fair and consistent treatment.

I commend the minister for his decision to provide former prisoners of war and civilian detainees—or their surviving widows—of the Japanese with a $25,000 tax-free ex gratia payment. There is no doubt that those who suffered under the Japanese in prisoner of war camps suffered a great deal. I was talking in Mackay to the wife of a former prisoner of war, and she said, `I can never get him to talk about his experiences. He just weeps.' I think that gives us an example of the depth of deprivation and suffering that our prisoners of war had to withstand under the Japanese. This is a payment not in compensation but in recognition of what they suffered. I have to say that I was extremely proud to hear it read out on budget night. It is a wonderful recognition of those who suffered for Australia.

I would like to move on to another topic associated with veterans. I understand that another speaker, the member for Cowan, has mentioned this as well. First of all, can I say that I have always gone to Anzac Day parades, and I have no doubt that other members have. I generally start with the dawn parade in Mackay—and it was a great honour this year to be asked to give the address there—and then I try not to break the speed limit getting down to Sarina for the parade. I then have lunch with the Rats of Tobruk and members of the RSL in Mackay, and then I go up to Finch Hatton for their service at 6 o'clock. By the way, the Finch Hatton RSL puts on a wonderful show after their service. Everyone is required to tell an amusing joke and provide entertainment, and there are some wonderful singers at Finch Hatton. There are also some good joke tellers, but I will not share them with the House tonight.

I find that the interest in the smaller communities is enormous. In Finch Hatton, all of the schools come out, the RSL community is there, and the women in the community provide the evening meal. It is a wonderful expression of gratitude to the veteran community. Having gone to all of those events and having met many veterans and their families, I get particularly proprietorial about the heritage they have left us.

That leads me to Athletics Australia and their unfortunate decision to use the term `digger'. I have no doubt that all of us support young Australian athletes—as we should. They are a source of great pride to Australians. But the reality is that there are some things in Australia that are sacred. Could I draw to your attention something that really shocked me last year. I was driving to work and listening to one of the commercial radio stations, and an ad came on for one of the local nightclubs. We actually do have nightclubs in Mackay; I have not been to any of them, but we do have them. As part of an ad for a nightclub, they played the last post. I have to say that I was quite shocked. It jarred with me, and I am sure that most members of the House would agree with me. The last post is something which is quite sacred and special. Obviously other citizens in Mackay must have found it equally jarring, because I noticed that it was taken off the air pretty quickly.

This incident lodged in my thinking that there are certain aspects of our heritage from our veterans that all of us react to when they are exploited, including the term `Anzac', and I am pleased that the minister has ensured through legislation that the term `Anzac' remains sacred to the Anzac heritage and that it cannot be exploited, adopted or seconded by other groups. I thoroughly support that, as I know most members of the House would. But I do think we need to consider extending that further, possibly to the last post and perhaps even to some other terms, such as `digger', that are part of our Anzac heritage. It should not be necessary. I would have thought that most Australians would be quite sensitive and would treat the Anzac heritage almost with reverence. Unfortunately, I think there are some who do not. I found jarring the suggestion that Athletics Australia would use the term `diggers'. I thought, `Come on. Our veterans have given so much. We should allow them that term as part of their history and their heritage.' I wrote to the minister about it and issued a media release in my electorate.

As a member of parliament, it is always nice to know what people's reaction is to the things you say—whether they agree with you or whether they do not. My reaction was an instinctive one, but I would like to read out an editorial from my local paper, the Daily Mercury. It was headed `Diggers' image must stand alone' and it says:

Athletics Australia is going down the wrong track if it persists in the idea of naming the Australian team the Diggers. Member for Dawson has said the idea would degrade the image of the Aussie Digger, the men and women who fought and died in many wars to protect this nation.

I do not read this out because it is flattering of me. Like the member for Lowe, I will include the comments, but I think it is the view of the Australian people that is more relevant in this context. The editor goes on:

She is spot on. The great tradition of the Aussie Digger should stand alone, dignified and solid.

In these days of commercialism in sport, Mrs Kelly is again on the money when she said it would be sad to see the name Digger attached to a commercial operation. After all our top athletes are professional sportspeople out there to excel for their country but also make a living.

There is also the point that the name would be meaningless in many parts of the world. Those ignorant of Australian history could be forgiven for thinking our athletes were named after someone who digs holes.

Athletics Australia would in no way deliberately set out to denigrate the image of our Diggers. But they must have been aware that some sections of the community would be offended by the suggestion. It is hoped they heed the comments.

I certainly trust that the minister will take our advice to heart on the matter of preserving our Anzac heritage—the terminology and the symbols—as something sacred to our veteran community.

I commend the minister and the government on the bill. It is certainly another step that the government has taken in recognising and acknowledging the debt of gratitude that we owe to our ex-service men and women. I commend the bill to the House.