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83rd State Congress of the Tasmanian RSL State Congress, 10.00am, 1 May 1998, Ulverstone: speech at the opening.

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Speech for the Minister for Veterans' Affairs 

Bruce Scott MP 

at the 

Opening of the 83rd State Congress 

of the 

Tasmanian RSL State Congress

Time: 10.00am 

Date: 1 May 1998 

Venue: Ulverstone

His Excellency Sir Guy Green, Governor of Tasmania

Major-General Peter Phillips - RSL National president

Mr Rusty Priest - RSL Deputy National President

Mr Wally Sutherland - Tasmanian State President

Mr Bruce Ruxton - RSL State President Victoria

Mr Derek Robson - RSL National Secretary

Mr Ian Kennett - Deputy State President Tasmania

Dr Neil Johnston - Secretary, Department of Veterans' Affairs

Major General Paul Stevens - Commissioner , Repatriation Commission

Mr Bruce Bates and other official visitors

Distinguished guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

I am delighted to be here today for the Official Opening of the 83 rd State Congress of the Tasmanian RSL.

It is good to be back. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit here last month to officiate at the opening of Launceston's new ANZAC house.

As we come together here today, there is much to talk about and much to celebrate - the Gold Card initiative, Anzac Day and the Hellfire Pass mission, and now the Legion of Honour - it has been a remarkable week, and rightly so, with the focus on our veteran community.

I am proud to stand here today following the announcement by the Prime Minister this week of an initiative which I know has been a top priority of the RSL and other ex service organisations for some considerable time.

I talk of course of the extension of the Gold Card.

On Monday, the Prime Minister announced that all World War II veterans aged 70 years or over who faced danger from the enemy during that conflict would be entitled to the Gold Card. This is the single biggest veterans' initiative from any Government in an awfully long time.

It is an initiative for which you have lobbied long and hard - and you have heard me in these forums saying that it was something that I would work to bring about as soon as I could.

I am delighted to be able to say that day has now arrived and the Gold Card will now be a reality for 50,000 members of our veteran community, who saw active service and faced hostile forces, from 1 January 1999.

In doing so, the Government has met what was a key electoral commitment.

Please spread the word, we don't want anyone to miss out, so we'll be working with the RSL nationwide to ensure veterans know about this.

Those eligible for the new Cards will join approximately 135,000 veterans - including those with some form of wartime disability - who already have the Gold Card and therefore have access to the comprehensive health care available under the Veterans' Affairs Repatriation Private Patient health scheme.

The Gold Card provides health services including private patient hospital care, choice of doctor, a wide range of other specialist treatment including psychiatric, optical care, physiotherapy, dental care, podiatry care and products, and chiropractic care. Care for any and all medical conditions is provided whether or not they are war related.

Veterans will also be able to access a wide range of concessional pharmaceutical products under the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Mr President

On Anzac Day last Saturday - which I'm sure is still fresh in all our minds - I had the wonderful privilege to be in Thailand with many veterans who suffered as former prisoners of war in Thailand. Most of them had not been back there for 50 years.

The Dawn Service at Hellfire Pass is something I, Laurie Ferguson and I'm sure the Prime Minister will always remember.

The official pilgrimage group, which I had the honour to lead, visited Singapore on the way to Thailand to participate in commemorative services at Kranji Cemetery and at Changi Chapel - all places that resonate in Australian history, and are etched into the personal experience of the many heroic men who worked the terrible Burma - Thai railway.

More than 16,000 POWs, including nearly 3,000 Australians, died during construction of the railway. My visit enabled me to understand, in a small way, what those men went through.

A place of particular significance to Australian POWs was a name the nation has heard much of this week - Hellfire Pass - so named because POWs were made to work through the night by the light of small flares and fires. A place where 68 Australians were be aten to death because they were too sick or weak to work.

I can report that the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum opened by the Prime Minister on April 24 provides a fitting and permanent tribute to those who endured the Burma-Thai railway. It will stand out as a beacon like Gallipoli, Kapyong, the Somme and Long Tan.

The challenge is to ensure that we do not forget the sacrifices made. We have the responsibility to tell future generations what happened. I hope that our two latest Their Service- Our Heritage programs - Memories and Memorabilia and Valuing our Veterans, will help us all to do that.

Also this week was a generous gesture by the French Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Monsieur Masseret, to award his country's highest military decoration - the Legion of Honour - to Australian veterans who defended his country in World War I.

This announcement underpins the friendships forged in World War I and World War II and strengthened with the return of the unknown Australian soldier from the battlefields of France.

The Legion of Honour - which dates back to no less a figure than Napoleon Bonaparte nearly 200 years ago - will be awarded to all surviving Australian veterans who fought in France or Belgium during World War I.

The Department of Veterans' Affairs is now preparing information on surviving World War I veterans who might be eligible for the honour, for the French Government's consideration.

I encourage you to publicise this wonderful gesture by France to any surviving veterans that you know of who may not have any ongoing dealings with the Department. They need to come forward and contact the Department as soon as possible to ensure that they are considered for the award.

A minute ago I touched on the fact that this year marks 80 years since the end of World War I.

This is a major milestone in our nation's history and there will be a series of international events leading up to 11 November to commemorate the 80 th Anniversary. For the first time last year, the Governor-General signed a proclamation for one minute's silence.

In July, I will be going to France as a guest of the French Government for the opening of two memorial sites at Fromelles and Le Hamel.

Fromelles was the AIF's first significant battle on the Western Front in 1916. For the Australians, it was also one of the most costly and devastating of the entire war. The 5 th Division suffered 5533 causalities in 27 hours of incessant fighting.

It is inconceivable to imagine the sheer numbers involved - the equivalents of whole rural towns and suburbs wiped out.

The camaraderie that existed is immortalised in the new memorial to be dedicated at Fromelles on July 5, 1998. It depicts the story of Sergeant Simon Fraser of the 57 th Battalion, one of the many who risked his life to answer a cry from one of the wounded: "Don't forget me, cobber".

A specially commissioned statue, entitled "Cobbers" will be unveiled at the site on 3 July 1998.

4 July 1998 will mark the 80 th Anniversary of the Battle at Le Hamel - the scene of a great Australian military victory led by Lieutenant General Sir John Monash - and the opening of the new Australian Corps Memorial.

The Battle of Le Hamel was in fact, the first time Australian troops served under Australian command, and the combination of tanks, artillery and air support, remains a key element of the tactics used today.

History records that at the time M. Clemenceau, the then Prime Minister of France, cancelled his weekly trip to his own battered troops on the front line and went instead to embrace Monash and the Australians. "When the Australians came to France," he said, "the French people expected a great deal of you. We knew you would fight a real fight but we did not know that from the beginning you would astonish the whole continent."

Mr President,

Significantly, the 80 th anniversary of the war also marks the 80 th Anniversary of Repatriation.

In my Ministerial Statement to Parliament on 7 April 1998 to mark the occasion I said:

"Our young nation's willingness to offer itself so completely for the cause of freedom and justice this century - not just in World Wars, but in Korea, Vietnam, Malaya a nd other conflicts - has required a repatriation system able to provide support, compensation and of course, health care."

The work is not done and I want to give you a commitment that I will continue the work.

This Government is committed to maintaining and improving veterans' benefits and entitlements.

For example, on 26 March the Government moved to adjust the war widow's pension to 25 percent of male total average weekly earnings. This has ensured the war widow's pension continues at the same rate as the service pension. As standards of living rise, so too will the war widow's pension, so that they enjoy the higher standard of living.

In recent weeks we have also released the findings of the Vietnam Veterans' Health Study. The Government is taking very seriously the findings of this self completed study and is now proceeding with some extra work to validate the key findings within this calendar year.

The outcome of this further work will assist the Government and my Department in developing appropriate policy responses towards the various health and other issues facing the Vietnam veteran community.

As many of you will already know, I am initiating a Korean Veterans' Mortality Study this year.

A proposed protocol for the study has been developed and is now being finalised. Work has also commenced on compiling a nominal roll of all Korean veterans who served. This will serve as the basis for the mortality study.

Ladies and Gentlemen I have no doubt the military service of Australians during this century will forever be the corner stone of this nation's heritage. Future generations will inherit a great legacy.

I would like to also acknowledge today the debt of gratitude that the Australian people owe to the Returned & Services League.

I have said before that the RSL's tremendous loyalty to their members and the memory of fallen comrades has been a force for social good without parallel in the annals of this country. I say it again today, and I'd like to thank you.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you very much.