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Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Page: 69

Senator FARRELL (6:54 PM) —I rise to speak on this day, the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I—the war that was to end all wars. Of course, sadly, it did not. The horror, the waste, the death, the broken bodies and broken lives, and the wholesale destruction still go on today. And it is in the context of broken bodies and broken lives that I speak today. It relates to the study being undertaken into the intergenerational health effects of military service by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Australia’s proud military history consists mostly of our troops leaving Australia to do battle in someone else’s country. My good friend John Schumann, well known for his support of our veterans, has written elsewhere that troop departures are characterised by the raising of the national flag, the swelling of the national chest and the dampening of the national eye. He says that when a government sends members of our armed forces into conflict, ordinary Australians sometimes forget that we all share the responsibility.

Government has a responsibility to ensure that our forces are well trained and well equipped. We must ensure that they can be rested and replaced after an appropriate time. When our troops start coming home, we all have a serious responsibility to look after these people and their families when they return. Those with physical wounds must be treated, cared for and compensated, as must those who have been damaged psychologically. If history is a guide, physical and psychological damage will extend to the veterans’ families.

It is perhaps not always known that the physical and psychological traumas suffered by the men and women we send away to fight wars in our name are visited upon their families too—especially upon the children. This was certainly the case for our Vietnam veterans, and there is mounting evidence that the soldiers, sailors and air men and women who are returning from active service and their families are suffering too as a result of this service. The government is therefore to be commended for its open, honest approach to this issue and its willingness to search for the truth, however unpalatable it might be for all of the stakeholders.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has started using a random sampling process to select people with military service and invite them to participate in a survey. Ten thousand soldiers have been selected by the research group to register for the study, but the response rate to date has, sadly, been quite low. Many admit to receiving the request for assistance but, for reasons best known to themselves, they are yet to post back their replies and their agreement to participate.

I take this opportunity to urge ex-service personnel—combat veterans and national servicemen—and their families to register for participation. I urge all other Australians to talk to their ex-service and veteran friends and their families and encourage them to register. This is a critical study and it might well determine how future military generations—and in that I include military families—are treated by future governments. The participating numbers need to rise considerably if the study is to be successful.

The study applies to veterans who served overseas during the sixties and seventies as well as those who remained in the military on the Australian mainland. Without this latter comparison group, it might be difficult to use the study’s results to establish that a serviceperson’s overseas service has contributed to their compromised health or to that of a partner, children or, indeed, grandchildren. Much time and effort has been spent designing this study, and to have it fail through lack of numbers would be a tragedy that might well reverberate throughout the whole country for many generations to come.

This request to be part of the study is not made only to those with some lasting difficulties. The study needs the widest sample possible. My plea on Remembrance Day is for everyone who served during the sixties and seventies and served in Vietnam or remained in Australia to contribute to this study. National service personnel are very much part of this program. Their contributions to the information collected will significantly enhance the study’s depth and usefulness.

This study has no relationship to any pensionable status they may be entitled to hold, and personal physical information will not be made available to government agencies. This is a world-first study. No-one has ever done this type of work study before. All previous research done on these various topics does not cover the brief of this study. The Australian government, I am very proud to say, has set aside $13.5 million specifically for this study and a similar prospective smaller one for currently-serving troops. The research work will be done by tertiary university bodies that tendered for the studies. My understanding is that these independent bodies have yet to be selected, but the research work will not be done in-house by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

I understand that many ex-service people have been through studies before and may have felt uncomfortable about the outcomes. I urge those people to put those fears aside. This study is not just about veteran and service personnel; it is also about the families of all future serving personnel. The fact is that troops fighting a war put their lives and futures on the line. It is the very highest form of public service. The nation, through the government of the day, must respond generously and unreservedly to those who claim to be damaged by fighting these wars, and to their families if their lives have been affected in some way by that service. This important study is a measure of my government’s commitment to the health of our veterans and their families, and I urge all those who can participate to do so. All the information needed is available at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs website and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs phone-in centre.