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Thursday, 28 November 1985
Page: 2474

Senator GIETZELT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)(3.08) —It might be recalled that, before the suspension of the sitting for lunch, I was responding to Senator Lewis's questions about the allied veterans who served in the Pacific region. The estimated number of refugees and immigrants is currently 80,000. The figure of 4,000, which has been suggested to the Opposition spokesman, is based upon an assumption that some 15 per cent of that group would have served in the armed forces and one-third could become eligible for the service pension by 1990. That number needs to take into account members of the forces of, for example, the Republic of Korea and the United States who have migrated to Australia. Even if only half of the estimated number of veterans and their wives were granted the service pension the cost would still be considerable. It has to be recognised that these grants would be only the beginning of a flow of grants which undoubtedly would continue for the subsequent decade, with a progressively increasing cost factor.

The real problem is that my Department does not have records; it does not have access to any form of documentation to determine the precise service of any applicant for a service pension. I stress to the Committee that it would be virtually impossible to administer the provisions contained in the amendment moved by the Australian Democrats. Senator Macklin's position is that anyone who served with an allied force in Vietnam should be allowed to apply for a service pension. His argument runs along the lines that we should let them apply for the pension, have the Department of Veterans' Affairs go to a lot of administrative effort to investigate the claim, which it is obliged to do under the Act, and have the Repatriation Commission refuse the claim because there is insufficient evidence to justify the granting of a service pension. How hypocritical that position is because the Repatriation Commission-be it a single delegate of the Commission or subsequently any of the appeals processes available to the applicant-is not able to authenticate on the basis of reasonable satisfaction--

Senator Lewis —How is that different from now?

Senator GIETZELT —If the honourable senator will allow me to explain it to him, I will do so. When I was in Italy I took up with the Italian Government the fact that after the collapse of the Mussolini regime the re-formed Italian Government put forces in the field, together with the Allies under an allied high command, to fight the German occupation. Italians who fought under that high command and subsequently migrated to Australia became eligible for a service pension when they met the basic residency criterion. The difficulty that those Italian migrants were having with their applications for service pension, having reached the age of 60 years, was that they had to have their records authenticated to show that they were in fact part of the Italian regrouped pro-allied forces. They had to show that they were so designated and that their records had been so authenticated by the Italian Government. That is what I took up with the Italian Minister in that country.

Similarly, I took up this problem in regard to Yugoslav migrants who, having reached 60 years of age, applied for a pension. At a certain stage of the war Marshall Tito's forces were recognised by the British, American and Russian governments as being part of the allied war effort, so these partisans became eligible for the service pension on the criterion that they were not engaged in any activities with the enemy but were fighting the enemy and were part of a formal command structure, and had been recognised by the Allies as such. When these people came to Australia, as significant numbers did, as residents, they became eligible in the course of time, on reaching 60 years of age, for the service pension. That is the basis of the legislation; the basis of the processes at work.

A Vietnamese person who has come to Australia usually came as a refugee. He has to satisfy the Commission first that he was in the armed forces, so he has to produce some evidence to that effect. Then he has to meet our criterion that he was in an operational area and was not in Saigon, for example-that is the criterion we apply in respect of granting the service pension to members of the Australian armed forces, that they have been engaged in an actual combat operational area. It must therefore be admitted that it would be very difficult for any such refugee who came here and who satisfied the 10-year residence rule to produce that sort of evidence or get from the Vietnamese Government proof that he served in the armed forces in Vietnam and also that he was in an operational area and never at any stage was involved, as the Repatriation Act sets down, in activities with the enemy. By `the enemy' I mean the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong, in accordance with our legislative requirements. According to newspapers, a number of former Viet Cong became disenchanted with that Army, with the new regime, the newly established Government, in Vietnam and fled to countries such as Australia following the collapse of Saigon at the end of the war. It stands to reason that these persons cannot, under any criterion of the existing legislation, qualify for the service pension if at one stage they were involved in activities against our forces. That is the difficulty with which we may be faced if the Opposition gives support to the Australian Democrats amendment.

We are confronted also with another difficulty. Whether the Opposition likes it or not, the fact is that in the existing legislation we have taken away approximately 6,000 service pensions from Australian veterans who were eligible in terms of meeting the other criteria I have referred to. On the other hand, it is being suggested that, having taken it away from those people-the Democrats supported that proposition; it was Government policy and there has been an election so it has been endorsed by the people to the extent that it did not impede the re-election of the Hawke Government-we should now extend the service pension to a new group of people.

Let us make sure that we understand what evidence is required. First of all, a claimant must satisfy the definition of `allied veteran' in clause 35. It provides for a person who served as a member of the Defence Force established by an allied country during a period of hostilities, but not a person who served with or assisted the enemy in any way. This amendment would give to the Repatriation Commission the responsibility of making a judgment in respect of that matter. Secondly, the person must have had qualifying service as defined in clause 36 (c), which states the test for qualifying service for allied veterans as follows:

(c) if the person is an allied veteran who, during a period of hostilities, has, as a member of the defence force established by an allied country, rendered, in connection with a war, or war-like operations, in which the Naval, Military or Air Forces of Australia were engaged, service in an area within or outside the country in which the person enlisted in those forces, being service in respect of which the person incurred danger from hostile forces of the enemy;

Can anybody tell me how the Repatriation Commission can establish that criterion on the basis of an affirmation of statement by a Vietnamese person who has become an Australian citizen after 10 years residence? Honourable senators must appreciate that before an allied veteran receives a service pension he is required to do more than merely produce a piece of paper which says that he served with the South Vietnamese forces. I do not know whether we have been affected by the propaganda or the way in which the Press dealt with the arrival in Australia of large numbers of Vietnamese refugees, but my recollection of these people is that they came here literally penniless and with only the clothes in which they stood.

The amendment would mean that the Repatriation Commission would have to be satisfied on the following matters: That the person served in the South Vietnamese Army during the period from 31 July 1962 to 11 January 1973; that the person had at no stage served with or assisted the enemy in any way; that during that eligible service he was engaged in war-like operations. Those are the criteria which must be applied to Australians if they are to qualify for the service pension. They must also prove that during their eligible service they incurred danger from enemy forces. The criteria which are applied to Australians are far more sophisticated than Senator Macklin seems to appreciate. This is a test which would be almost impossible to satisfy on the civil standard of proof in relation to Vietnamese refugees. There is no way that any officer in the Department of Veterans' Affairs or the Repatriation Commission would be able to verify the full range of qualifications and conditions.

I put the same point to the Italian Government. We required authentication by the appropriate department in the Italian Government that persons A, B and C who are resident in Australia enlisted on a certain day and served in a particular unit. It then must be established that that particular unit was under a formal command structure. That test is the same as that which is in Part V of the Repatriation Act.

I stress to the Opposition that there is no support at all in the veteran community for this proposal. I know of only one veteran-a person whom I respect very greatly-who has put forward this view. The advisory committee made no recommendation in favour of this proposition and the principal veterans' organisation is totally opposed to it. In fact, that organisation-the Returned Services League-has asked that the 90,000 Australian veterans who, as a result of no decision of theirs, did not meet the service pension criteria of serving in an operational theatre and facing hostile troops and who have reached the age of 60-some of them are now 62 or 63-be given access to the service pension. The Government has had to refuse, not only because it disagrees with the proposition but because in this period of economic restraint such expenditure cannot be regarded as a priority area.

Having made that decision, I have also had to make a decision in respect of members of the Greek community in Australia, many of whom served in partisan units but unfortunately did not serve under a formal command structure. Even as late as yesterday I had to write a letter to a Greek member of parliament in Victoria to say that because certain Greek veterans did not meet the criteria I have referred to, even though they fought very valiantly on our side during the war, sometimes with Australian troops, as in Crete, we were not able to give them the service pension. Do Opposition senators realise what a can of worms they are opening? Also there are many thousands of allies from Yugoslavia who do not meet the criteria because at some stage they fought with the Chetniks. There are people from Greece who are here in great numbers--

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Senator Jones) —Order! The Minister's time has expired.

Senator Lewis —If the Minister wishes to carry on, he may do so.