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Transcript of doorstop: Townsville: 9 September 2008: Defence white paper; Vietnam veterans; single rate pension; Liberal-National Party merger; Steve Irwin Memorial; Clarke inquiry.



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LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION THE HON. DR BRENDAN NELSON MP

9 September 2008

TRANSCRIPT OF THE HON. DR BRENDAN NELSON MP, DOORSTOP INTERVIEW, TOWNSVILLE

Subjects: Defence white paper; Vietnam veterans; single rate pension; Liberal-National Party merger; Steve Irwin Memorial; Clarke inquiry.

E&OE………………………………………………………………………………......

QUESTION:

How important is it for you, Brendan, to be here today and address this Congress?

DR NELSON:

This is one of the most important meetings in the most important organisation in Australia. The RSL represents more than 400,000 Australians who have worn or wear the uniform of the Navy, Army and Air Force. We are free Australians because of the sacrifices made in war and peace time by these men and women. And it’s extremely important every single day that Australians when we sing the national anthem “Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free” - that we realise we are free because of the members of the RSL and the men and women serving in the defence forces today.

QUESTION:

You made some mention that there’s some delays on the white paper report, can you elaborate on that a little bit?

DR NELSON:

Well the white paper which will inform Australia’s defence strategic outlook for the next decade is supposed to be released before Christmas this year. We now know the white paper is not going to come out until well into next year. The Budget will be released in May. It gets put together late this year. And so all of the equipment which

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will need to be purchased, given the commitments of the Government to defence over the next 10 years, will be informed by the white paper. The white paper is late. That means the Budget will not have the defence capability equipment plan for the next decade and I am very suspicious that Mr Rudd is actually not going to buy the equipment for the Australian defence force to which the previous government, and he says, he’s committed.

QUESTION:

Dr Nelson since the new government did come into power, how is morale amongst veterans, particularly Vietnam veterans since Alan Griffin has been their minister?

DR NELSON:

Well look I don’t believe that the change of government has in anyway of itself affected the morale of Vietnam veterans or any other veteran. And I don’t think it’s appropriate for people to suggest that in some way the change of government has affected the morale of veterans. Veterans like all Australians have their own political views. Lots of them are Liberals. Lots of them are Nationals. Lots of them are Labor. That’s the nature of it. You don’t find many Greens though I must say.

QUESTION:

In general though how is the morale sorry, in terms of the veterans….this day and age?

DR NELSON:

There are many things of which we are rightly proud as Australians. But one thing of deep shame to this nation is the way in which our Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned to Australia. These men, whether volunteers or conscripts, went in Australia’s name wearing our uniform, under our flag, supported by the government of the day, and when they returned to Australia many of them were subject to the most appalling abuse, their families were subjected to criticism and ridicule, and I think it is time for our country to formally say that we are sorry for the way in which they were treated on their return to Australia.

QUESTION:

What kind of difference do you think a formal apology would make?

DR NELSON:

That’s a question that needs to be put to the Vietnam veterans themselves. Every one of those men - there were 50,000 Australians who served in Vietnam over 11 years; 521 gave their lives and 2,400 were wounded - those Australian men who returned from Vietnam were treated in the most appalling way by sections of Australian society. They were treated with ridicule, distain and criticism. In many cases subject to persecution. We had the appalling environment where they flew out of Vietnam and arrived in Sydney on a plane, they were told to get out of their uniform because

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there was a sense of shame, if not threat to their wellbeing when they returned to Australia. There are many things of which we are proud as Australians. This is one about which I think we should feel a sense of shame and I think we owe it to our Vietnam veterans, notwithstanding all of the things that are being done to assist them and their families, I think we owe it to them to say that we are sorry for the way in which they were treated on their return from Vietnam.

QUESTION:

Would you expect the kind of division in public opinion that perhaps you saw when the Indigenous apology speech was made?

DR NELSON:

Well that’s a matter for Australians. I think there is an enormous repository of goodwill in this country to men and women who wear our uniform, and particularly those who served in Vietnam. And all of us in our heart of hearts know that the way in which they were treated was wrong. It wasn’t everybody. It wasn’t all parts of Australia or Australian society. But there were significant pockets of resistance to the Vietnam War. There were people who took it out on our soldiers returning from Vietnam and their families, and I think it’s something that we need to understand and we also need to be apologetic for it. But it is a matter for the Vietnam veterans themselves to decide whether or not it would help. In my experience, with our Vietnam Veterans it’s something that they may not ask for but it’s something that they and their families deserve.

QUESTION:

Taking into account the ageing population of veterans do you believe the current levels of funding are sufficient?

DR NELSON:

I think we can always do more and Australia looks after its veterans the best, if not better than any other country throughout the world. But there is always more that can be done. There are new programs that are rolling out and we will certainly be developing new policy that we will be taking to the next election to further support and assist our veterans.

QUESTION:

Speaking of age Dr Nelson, there’s been a lot of talk today about the amount of money pensioners should receive. What do you think pensioners should get and how do you think the Government should fund that increase in pensions?

DR NELSON:

Well I think the Government should make a single lump sum additional payment to pensioners before Christmas. They also need to change the indexation of the pension to focus much more on the basket of groceries and goods that pensioners actually

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need to buy to survive on. It is obvious that $273 a week - with the cost of living pressures that have gone through the roof since Mr Rudd became the Prime Minister - is not enough for our single aged pensioners. It needs to be increased. Mr Rudd’s got an inquiry; he’s got another committee looking at this. And I say, Mr Rudd, in the meantime do the right thing. Give Australia’s pensioners additional money. Do it now. Do it before Christmas. And also let’s see if we can improve the indexation model that increases the pension year to year on the basis of what the pensioners actually have to buy to live.

QUESTION:

What kind of figure would you be looking for in a lump sum?

DR NELSON:

Well, we’re having a look at that at the moment. I think any additional lump sum payment will be as welcomed by pensioners as it is desperately needed. Rents, groceries, petrol - everything’s gone through the roof since Mr Rudd took over. Australians are worse off today than they were in 2007. Pensioners know that better than anybody. And I think with close to a $22 billion surplus that Mr Rudd has the money available to look after Australia’s pensioners and he shouldn’t wait until the outcome of another committee, he ought to just do it. We want action, not words.

QUESTION:

Where should he pull that money from?

DR NELSON:

Well, there are two things that can be done. Either it is a question of Mr Rudd reordering his priorities, or he can have a look at his $22 billion surplus. His choice.

QUESTION:

When Wayne Swan was asked if he could live on the single rate pension he said no. Would you be able to live on it?

DR NELSON:

Well, look, I’d have to go back to my student days living on the bare bones of my backside and I can’t see that at the moment that an Australian pensioner can be expected to live on $273 a week with rents, groceries, petrol and soon, of course, health insurance going through the roof as a result of Mr Rudd coming to government.

QUESTION:

Having said that, why didn’t the government, the previous government do anything about it? They had such a long time to do something about it.

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DR NELSON:

Well, there were a lot of things that were done for pensioners by the previous government in terms of changing the indexation, utilities, lump sum payments - a whole variety of things to help pensioners. But what’s happened is in the last six months ,certainly, rents, groceries, petrol and cost of living pressures under Mr Rudd have gone through the roof.

The situation now has become urgent. Pensioners know that inflation, particularly for things that they’re buying, is higher than is being met by a lot of other Australians. They know that Mr Rudd is all talk and no action. They know he hasn’t got control of the Australian economy and that’s why pensioners need an increase above and beyond what they’ve had and they need it now.

QUESTION:

What conversations have you had with Warren Truss about the possibility of a merger?

DR NELSON:

We’ve been in negotiations now for about four months which has been truncated by a couple of by-elections. My view is that there is considerable merit in a federal merger of the Liberal and National parties and that is something that we are continuing to discuss.

QUESTION:

Do you anticipate that that would be supported by both sides, the Liberals and the Nationals?

DR NELSON:

We’ll see.

QUESTION:

Just on another topic. What’s your response to the article in today’s Australian regarding money given to buy land at Cape York as a Steve Irwin memorial?

DR NELSON:

Well, I think that supporting the memorial for Steve Irwin is something that most Australians would support. I certainly do.

QUESTION:

And are you comfortable with the grant approved by John Howard, seeing as though it’s likely to have breached guidelines?

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DR NELSON:

Well look, the most important thing is that Steve Irwin was a great Australian who loved the Australian environment, reached out to support Australian wildlife and put Australia on the map in so many ways. As far as I’m concerned, everything we can reasonably do to honour Steve Irwin, his contribution to Australia and that of his family has got to be supported.

QUESTION:

Just lastly, what about a merger between the two parties, would, do you think would have that positive effect? Why is that needed?

DR NELSON:

Well, as I said, we’re going through the process of having a discussion about the prospects of a merger between the Liberal and the National parties at the federal level and I’ve got nothing else to say about it at the moment.

QUESTION:

I’ve got one more. The federal environment minister has scrapped the Waratah Coals proposal for the port at Shoalwater Bay. I’m just wondering considering the potential economic benefit to the central Queensland region, has he made the right decision?

DR NELSON:

Well, we’ll have to look at the environmental advice upon which he made that decision. I’m also interested to know what the defence community think about the proposal and then I’ll give you some comment.

QUESTION:

Just on the Congress today. The announcement… the Government’s announced a review of the Clarke inquiry and some of the recommendations made there. Is that something you welcome or is it just covering old ground because it was covered by the last government?

DR NELSON:

Well look, the Government has made the decision to look at some of those recommendations that weren’t accepted. I think reviewing those non-accepted recommendations is a reasonable thing to do. The British Commonwealth Occupational Forces, for example, is something about which a number of us, including me, have great concern. So I think it is perfectly reasonable to have. Whilst this brings us to a committee or review number 165, I nonetheless think of this particular review to look at those recommendations is not unreasonable. But again, I do ask myself, why can’t the Government just make a decision?

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I mean, why is it not possible for the Minister for Veterans Affairs and Mr Rudd to actually decide whether they want to support those recommendations or not? Why do we have to have another committee? Why do we have to have another inquiry - notwithstanding the fact that very good people have been chosen to do it. But you do ask yourself, isn’t this Government capable of making any decision at all about anything?

QUESTION:

Did you think it was an oversight by the Government to let go some of those recommendations?

DR NELSON:

Well, the previous government made its decisions about the recommendations that it would support it or it would not. If Mr Rudd and the new government have a different point of view about it they should say so. But, again, the way they work is instead of making any decisions they just form a committee. And that’s the point; we’ve got another committee. Does Mr Rudd support recognition of British Commonwealth Occupation Forces or not? Does he support the recommendations that were rejected by the previous government in relation to Clarke or does he not? Instead of that he wants to send it out to another committee - populated by very good people I might add - have another committee, another inquiry, more submissions and then he’ll make a decision goodness knows when. That’s how they operate.

[ends]

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