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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 81

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:30 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Defence (Senator Hill) to questions without notice asked by Senators Bartlett and Bishop today relating to veterans' affairs.

In question time today Senator Bishop from the ALP addressed a growing and continuing problem with veterans in Australia, particularly in Tasmania. We are seeing a range of different examples of how this government does not properly address the needs and concerns of veterans. We have a government that is quite happy to make lots of political capital out of waving the flag when sending Australian men and women off to war and doing all the chest beating and drumbeating that accompanies that: welcome home parades, medals, plaques and memorials. These are photo opportunities for government members. But the real test of commitment is how you treat veterans once they are back in the community, once their duty is done, and once they are feeling the physical, mental, health, social and economic effects of their service to the community. That is the hard part and that is the part where this government continues to fall down.

It is being made worse at present because of the difficulties that the new Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Mrs De-Anne Kelly, is finding herself in. I do not know whether Mrs De-Anne Kelly will be a good minister; my personal experience with her would suggest that she is probably quite effective in many areas. But the fact is that her attention at the moment is very much caught up in defending herself and explaining her behaviour and actions in relation to activities before the election. There is no way she is able to give the sort of attention that is needed and that veterans deserve, particularly given that she is a new minister just getting up to speed with the portfolio. That I think is an extra concern. It is certainly justified for the Senate and the public to require answers from Mrs Kelly about her prior actions. We need to make sure though that veterans are not disadvantaged by having a minister whose mind is elsewhere.

In question time today we had more information coming forth and further studies showing that there is clearly an extra health impact—physical and mental—on Australian veterans from the first Gulf War from 1991, with a much higher incidence than for other defence personnel. That fact needs to be acknowledged and those people need to be assisted. The extra concern is whether or not proper monitoring was done following the first Gulf War and whether proper monitoring is being done following the current Gulf War of the health impact on veterans. These veterans also had immunisations, which received some publicity, and also had their health potentially affected by being exposed to other dangerous environments such as those with depleted uranium. Those things need to be properly assessed. There is certainly evidence that it has not been done properly in the past. The reason the Democrats keep raising this issue is to keep pressure on the government to make sure that they do the job properly now—by monitoring the health, dangers and risks to Australian defence personnel in the fields—as they will be the ones who will pay the price down the track.

Senator Bishop raised the issue of veterans whose gold card is not being accepted by a growing number of specialists. This problem is becoming particularly chronic in Tasmania where veterans are being flown at government expense to the mainland to get specialist treatment. That is not only far more expensive but also, depending on the health conditions, far more inconvenient, uncomfortable and painful. For many of those veterans, travelling in aircraft or long distances can be extremely painful, depending on their condition. Follow-up treatment afterwards is also much more difficult. These are problems that the government should be preventing from happening rather than having the Senate and veterans' organisations continually having to bring them to the attention of the government. It is very easy to talk about handing out gold cards to veterans and saying that that is going to guarantee them service. The fact is that it does not. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.