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Thursday, 17 August 2006
Page: 61

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (2:01 PM) —Mr Speaker, may I have the indulgence of the House to speak briefly about the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan and Vietnam Vietnams Day, which will be marked tomorrow. As members know, there will be a reception in the Great Hall this evening to pay tribute to the hundreds of Vietnam veterans who have come to Canberra to mark this event.

Let me start by acknowledging and, on behalf of the House, honouring and paying tribute to the member for Cowan, Graham Edwards, who served in the Australian Army from 1968 to 1971 as a member of the Pioneer Platoon, 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. He is, in my understanding, the only currently serving member of the parliament who served in Vietnam. He paid a terrible price for his service—he lost both legs in a landmine blast. Following his discharge from the Army, he spent many years—and he continues to do so—assisting veterans. On behalf of my colleagues and I know all members of the House, we acknowledge his contribution and we honour his service and his bravery.

Honourable members—Hear, hear!

Mr HOWARD —Many well-known former members of this House served in Vietnam—most recently, the former Deputy Prime Minister and member for Farrer, Tim Fischer. Other former members who served in Vietnam include the former member for Isaacs, Rod Atkinson; the member for McPherson, John Bradfield; the member for Bass, the late Kevin Newman; and another former member for McPherson, the late Peter White, who was awarded the Military Cross for his courage and leadership during the 1968 Tet offensive.

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. That battle, which was the first major engagement in which Australia was involved in the Vietnam War, has come to symbolise the bravery and the struggle faced by our Vietnam veterans. It is fitting that the anniversary of that battle is also Vietnam Veterans Day. On the afternoon of 18 August 1966, Delta Company 6RAR, which was a force of 108 men, patrolling in the area of the Long Tan rubber plantation, encountered an enemy force estimated at some 2,500. A very fierce battle ensued, as a result of which 18 Australians lost their lives and a further 24 were wounded. Some 245 Vietcong combatants were found and other enemy casualties were carried away in the retreat.

In the time of the Vietnam War, some 50,000 Australians served in Vietnam. More than 500 died and about 3,000 were wounded. It should be said on this occasion that the Vietnam War caused considerable domestic political controversy. It is not my intention in any way to revisit the internal debate. I respect the fact that there were very strongly held views on both sides of politics on that matter. Any discussion of Vietnam reminds us of those divisions. I think we accept that people held their views with tenacity and with conviction, but it does have to be said that whatever views were held on the rightness or justice of Australia’s involvement in Vietnam—and the remarks I am about to make do not seek to distinguish between those who opposed and those who supported our involvement—an objective assessment would reveal our nation’s collective failure at the time to adequately honour the service of those who went to Vietnam.

The sad fact is that those who served in Vietnam were not welcomed back as they should have been. Whatever our views may have been—and I include those who supported the war as well as those who opposed it—the nation collectively failed those men. They are owed our apologies and our regrets for that failure. The very least that we can do on this 40th anniversary is to acknowledge that fact, to acknowledge the difficulties that so many of them have had in coping with the postwar trauma and to acknowledge the magnificent contribution that they have continued to make to our nation.

So this afternoon and tomorrow we will in different ways—and I know in a totally bipartisan fashion—pay proper regard to their bravery, their service and their commitment. They did what their country lawfully asked them to do at the time. They did it with distinction, with honour and with bravery, and they should have been more properly honoured for that some 40 years ago. I hope with the passage of time they will understand the goodwill of the current generation of Australians in relation to that matter.

There are just two other things that I do wish to mention. One of them relates to the issue of the bravery awards that came out of the Battle of Long Tan. They have become the subject of much debate. It does appear, on the assessment of many, that some injustice was done in relation to the changes that were made in the theatre of war to the original recommendations made by the commanding officers during that battle. It has been put strongly to the government—as I understand, it was put strongly to the former government—that a case exists for reopening the changes that were made between the honours recommended by the commanders in the field and the honours recommended by the ultimate commander of the Australian operations in Vietnam.

I do understand fully the sense of grievance and the sense of injustice that many of these men feel, and I had the opportunity this morning to spend an hour with Colonel Harry Smith and a number of his colleagues. Colonel Smith, of course, was the Commanding Officer of Delta Company 6RAR in the Battle of Long Tan. The difficulty faced by any government in reopening a particular set of recommendations, having regard to changes that might have been made on the original recommendations, is that as one sense of grievance might be addressed so many others are opened up. It is my understanding, and the understanding of many that have examined this issue, that it has frequently been the practice that changes are made on the original recommendations when the recommendations are received by the commanders further up the chain.

Whilst I will continue to engage with representatives of the Vietnam veterans community, and most particularly those who were involved in the Battle of Long Tan, as will the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, I would like to frankly explain to the House the difficulty of opening up in the manner requested this particular set of recommendations without also legitimately opening up others, indeed in relation to battles stretching back to World War II and in respect of relatives from battles stretching back to World War I and similar situations. That is the difficulty the government faces.

Finally, I would like to say to the House that, as a further recognition, the government has decided, as a living memorial to the Battle of Long Tan, to rename the Australian Defence Force Leadership and Team Work Awards for secondary schools to the Defence Long Tan Leadership and Team Work Prize, which is a particular recognition of the place that that battle holds—generally in a representative way—in the minds and the hearts of all Australians. I say to our Vietnam veterans that we honour everything you did. You deserve the respect and the affection of a grateful nation. We regret the inadequacies of the past, and we hope that the extension of the hand of friendship and honour by today’s Australians will be of comfort and value to all of you.