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Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Page: 174

Mr EDWARDS (10:50 AM) —The Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Statements of Principles and Other Measures) Bill 2006 contains a number of changes that will help improve administrative procedures within the Department of Veterans’ Affairs focusing particularly on the procedures of the RMA, the Repatriation Medical Authority, in relation to their review of statements of principles. Statements of principles outline factors considered to be the causes of certain diseases, illnesses and injuries—this is according to the schedule that we are dealing with. SOPs are used to determine issues of causation in relation to claims for the acceptance of injury, disease or death as being service related. They are based on specific evidence derived from medical literature and other research findings. Importantly, the SOPs identify factors that must exist to cause a particular disease, injury or death.

With those things in mind, I want to turn to a letter I have received from the Vietnam Veterans Federation where they talk about the Vietnam veterans’ health study and they say ‘results even worse than expected’. This was released on 5 September 2006. There were three studies on the death rates and cancer incidence amongst Vietnam veterans. The first was the third Australian Vietnam Veteran Mortality Study 2005, the second was the Cancer Incidence in Australian Vietnam Veterans Study 2005 and the third was the Australian National Service Vietnam Veterans: Mortality and Cancer Incidence of 2005. The Vietnam Veterans Federation say this—and I want to quote them:

In the first two studies, the mortality (death rate) and cancer incidence among Vietnam veterans was compared to the death rate and cancer incidence of the same aged male Australian population.

But just how useful are comparisons between Vietnam veterans and the general population? It must be remembered that of those called up for National Service, 50% were rejected on medical or psychological grounds. Those applying to enlist in the regular forces had to satisfy similar high medical and psychological standards. This meant that the health of the group who served in Vietnam was of a very high order indeed, much higher than the same aged male Australian population. All things being equal, Vietnam veterans would now be expected to have a markedly lower death rate and less cancer than their equivalents in the general community. So comparing Vietnam veterans’ death rate and cancer incidence with the general community will lead to some very misleading results; results that hide the real damage that fighting the war may have done to veterans’ health.

I think that these are things that the RMA in considering SOPs must be aware of. The Vietnam Veterans Federation goes on to say this:

The third study compared the death rate and cancer incidence among National Servicemen who served in Vietnam with those National Servicemen who stayed in Australia. These two groups, on enlistment, enjoyed exactly the same standard of health. All things being equal, these two groups would now continue to exhibit a similar standard of health. But, of course, all things were not equal; one group served in Vietnam and the other did not. And this study, unlike the other two, is able to show just what a difference that service in Vietnam has made to the health of those who fought the war there.

In other words, the Australian National Service Vietnam Veterans: Mortality and Cancer Incidence 2005 is the only one of the three studies whose results do not hide the damage done to Vietnam veterans by their war service

And that damage is substantial. The death rate and cancer incidence for National Service Vietnam veterans are alarmingly worse than those of National Servicemen who did not serve in Vietnam.

Here are the key findings of the Australian National Service Vietnam Veterans: Mortality and Cancer Incidence 2005:

1. National Service veterans experienced a 23 5 higher death rate than those National Servicemen who did not serve in Vietnam.

2. Specific causes of death that were significantly higher among National Service Vietnam veterans include death from digestive system diseases, lung and pancreatic cancer. Notably there was a higher rate of suicide and motor vehicle accidents (the latter often a matter of suicide).

3. National Service Vietnam veterans had a significant 14 5 elevation in the rate of cancer, especially cancer of the lung, head, neck and pancreas.

4. There were no causes of death analysed for which National Service Vietnam veterans had a statistically significant lower death rate than National Servicemen who did not serve in Vietnam.

As we have said, this study clearly shows that fighting the war in Vietnam had a dramatically adverse effect on the health of those who fought it. The federation goes on to say:

And this, of course, is the real issue. How badly did fighting the war in Vietnam effect the health of those who fought it? What stunting of potential health, longevity, prosperity and happiness did the war cause its participants and their families. The National Service study shows just how much potential has sadly been lost. And one can imagine what anxiety and grief this ill-health has caused the families. Of course, these are the issues the government wants to avoid because it is the loss of this potential and the accompanying family grief that so strongly begs compensating.

It may have been for this reason that the Minister, in his television interviews and press release, started off with the reassuring news that the death rate of Vietnam veterans was even a bit lower than the general population (without adding that, but for the war, it would be very much lower) and seemed delighted that the suicide rate of Vietnam veterans is much the same as the general population (without adding that, but for the war, it would be dramatically lower).

Admittedly, the Minister mentioned that cancer rates amongst Vietnam veterans were higher than the general community, but failed to say how astonishing this was considering they would be expected, but for the war, to be lower.

But the Minister certainly didn’t lead his press release or his television interviews with the most important and revealing finding of all three studies; the startling news that the death rate of National Service Vietnam veterans was 23 % higher than that of National Servicemen who stayed in Australia. Indeed, the Minister did not even mention this statistic.

In other words, the Minister’s statements on television and in his press release were misleading, leaving the uninformed public believing that things weren’t too bad really.

That the Minister and the government would avoid the real issue, revealed so dramatically by the National Service study, does not surprise us. They have avoided and continue to avoid facing a number of Repatriation injustices that scream for redress.

It is interesting that the previous government speaker got up and said, ‘Well, everything is fine within the veteran community. The opposition could not find anything to criticise the government about in this bill.’ There are things in this bill that we support. The shadow minister for veterans’ affairs, Alan Griffin, is doing a fabulous job, I reckon, around the place. He is being widely recognised for the work that he is doing and for the fact that he is out there talking to and, above all, listening to the veteran community. That is important. It is just a bit bland for the government spokesperson to get up and say, ‘Things are pretty good within the veteran community.’

There are a number of issues that, as a nation, we need to address. The shadow minister, for instance, has been giving coverage of late to the long delays that are occurring with the processing of claims. This in itself is a major problem and it is a major problem that the government ought to be able to fix. Surely it is a matter of allocating the appropriate resources to ensure that veterans and their families do not face these undue delays in having their claims processed. There is a backlog; it needs to be shifted.

The other thing that the member who spoke previously referred to—and this is something that the government are good at quoting—was the high respect they have for people who serve in the ADF and people who have served in the ADF. I suspect that they are quite genuine in their views and in their admiration, but you have to go a bit deeper than that. As this survey has shown, national service veterans past and present who served in Vietnam experience a 23 per cent higher death rate than those national servicemen who did not. This is an appalling statistic. We as a nation, including the government, must bend over backwards to do what we can to rectify those problems, to make sure that the RMA is doing its job and to make sure that the SOPs are correct. We also need to make sure that the resources that are required are in place to ensure that when veterans, including national servicemen, get crook, when they have health issues—mental health or stress or whatever—these issues are dealt with without delay instead of seeing this incredible backlog, which is detrimental to the veteran community generally. Having said those things, the opposition supports the bill.