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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 12051

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (6:55 PM) —I call on the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to take appropriate measures to contact our service men and women to whom this determination applies. I also openly express my admiration for the members of the Citizen Military Forces in its various forms over the last century and a half. The younger generations of our nation today may not recognise the term CMF, as now it is known as and its role is filled by the Australian Army Reserve. Australia’s volunteer defence force has been helping to protect Australia’s sovereignty since before Federation. In fact, it was the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 that prompted the formation of volunteer forces in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. Since then Australia has always had a reserve force ready to commit its support to the defence of our nation.

When Australia became a federation, a part-time force of citizens known as the Commonwealth Military Forces, or CMF, was formed to protect Australian territory. The Australian Regular Army was established after World War II, in 1947, and to support it the Citizen Military Forces was reformed. The CMF, which was renamed the Australian Army Reserve in 1974, has been a crucial support base for the Navy, Army and Air Force and has been involved in a number of conflicts since 1947, including the Korean War, the Gulf War and the current fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.

It was during the Vietnam War, however, that members of the CMF again showed their courage and their willingness to fight for the freedoms we in Australia so often take for granted. In 1964, in the face of rumbling conflict in South-East Asia, the Australian government reintroduced national service to strengthen Australia’s military power. A year later, an infantry battalion was sent to South Vietnam at the request of the South Vietnamese government. By 1967, 8,000 personnel were deployed in South Vietnam, including a large number of CMF members. Many of these CMF soldiers saw what our full-time and conscripted troops saw—death, destruction and the other horrors of war. Yet it was not until the end of the century that their service in Vietnam provided them the same recognition as the rest of our brave war veterans.

In August 1998, just over a month after the inaugural Reserve Forces Day was held to celebrate 50 years of service by reservists, the continuous full-time service determination was signed, which enables members of the CMF who served in Vietnam to be legally considered veterans. This allows them to enjoy the same recognition as other brave veterans and to receive the same entitlements.

The members of the CMF who had served in Vietnam were notified of their tour by an instruction that said:

You have been selected to visit South Vietnam on attachment as an observer to an Australian unit for a period of approximately two weeks.

They were also told, and I quote again:

Members on short term visits to South Vietnam are not allotted for special duty. However, benefits under the Repatriation (SOS) Act are provided (even though no allotment for special duty has been made) when a member dies or suffers a disability as a result of action by hostile forces whilst outside Australia ... Any other disability is compensable under the Commonwealth Employees’ Act.

During my time as the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, I had many former members of the CMF come to me to discuss eligibility for veterans entitlements and the war service pension. They believed that those CMF members who had undertaken continuous full-time duty of 14 days in Vietnam were considered worthy of veteran status. And I agree with them, as the Commonwealth government’s Veterans Entitlements Act defines a Commonwealth veteran as:

… a person who served on a continuous full time basis in the defence forces of a Commonwealth country during a period of hostilities.

According to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, ‘continuous full-time service in relation to a member of the Defence Force means that a person must have served on a continuous full-time basis, as opposed to a part-time basis. A period of continuous full-time service is required by a member of the Defence Force if they are to be considered as having eligible war service, operational service or defence service and access to the benefits associated with those forms of service’.

The former Liberal-National government’s decision to deem CMF officers as Vietnam veterans led to me, six months later, calling for a review of possible anomalies in service entitlements affecting those members of the Australian Defence Force who served in South-East Asia during the period from 1955 to 1975. This independent review was conducted by Major General Mohr, with the assistance of Rear Admiral Kennedy, and it supported our decision to deem CMF officers eligible for veteran entitlements. Major General Mohr reviewed the particular service entitlement anomaly in which CMF officers sought full repatriation benefits, and expressed his opinion that officers are ‘entitled to claim the full range of repatriation benefits’. He then went on to comment in the report:

Apparently this was not known to the CMF officers concerned.

Major General Mohr also noted that the officers concerned have had full cover under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act since 1986. This determination not only signified a change for our selfless CMF members and officers but also signified that the former Liberal-National government—and indeed all Australian governments in the past—has long valued the work that is done by all involved in Australia’s war effort, not just those on the front line. Australia’s ability to defend our sovereignty has been possible because of both those overseas and those behind the scenes at home.

Our reservists are a crucial part of our defence and many, just like the CMF officers in Vietnam, would be more than willing to head overseas, away from their family and friends, and straight into the firing line if it meant defending the values and freedoms that we so often take for granted in Australia. So it was with a sense of frustration and sadness that I learned that some members of the CMF who did serve in Vietnam were unaware they were eligible for Commonwealth support. Indeed, some may still be very much oblivious. I understand the Department of Veterans’ Affairs claim that they had no obligation to establish who may or may not have been affected by the determination. Yet the service charter of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs states that the department is committed to providing ‘accurate, clear and consistent information’ and committed to keeping veterans and returned service men and women ‘fully informed of their rights and entitlements’.

Surely, then, it is the role of the department to make the effort to notify those to whom this determination—or indeed any change to legislation or process—applies? Surely letters, emails or even an advertising campaign in newspapers would allow those concerned to learn of their eligibility? RSL sub-branches and other returned service support organisations are more than willing to help out their fellow service men and women, and I am sure they would be very enthusiastic about supporting the department in passing on very important information.

I would like to temper this criticism to ensure I am not mistaken for being disrespectful to the department—far from it. As a former Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, I have worked closely with department heads and officials and I applaud them for their tireless efforts to ensure that Australians never forget what our service men and women have done for our nation. The employees of the department show the respect deserved by our veterans, war widows and widowers and deal with their issues and concerns with sensitivity, empathy and regard to privacy, and I admire their work. I also understand that the department works within its ability and legal limitations as set out by the minister and government of the day. That is why I call on the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, for whom I have great respect, to take measures to contact those to whom this determination applies and compensate them accordingly. (Time expired)