Standing up for Canberra

Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2016

Thank you very much to the previous member for those lovely comments. Also, I want to give a shout out to ADSO: I trust you are doing great work, that you are working with our fabulous shadow minister for veterans' affairs to ensure we provide to our veterans—those veterans who have served our country so selflessly—with the conditions and the support they deserve, and that veterans are acknowledged and, most importantly, are cared for as they age.

Our veterans and their families deserve world-class care and support, and Labor will always encourage and support measures designed to ensure that existing programs take account of the mental health requirements of veterans. Veterans' mental health is a huge issue at the moment. Everywhere you go, people are talking about it. I have spent a lot of time at Soldier On events. They do great work in terms of helping veterans—particularly young veterans coming back from Afghanistan—transition back into life. They do not just work with the veterans; they also work with the families. I am the daughter-in-law of a Vietnam vet, and my late mother-in-law always said that she got a different man back from that war. It is not just the impact that it has on that individual in terms of the effect, trauma and shock of war. It is also the impact it has on their spouse or partner and their family. We hear reports of intergenerational trauma. We see that from Vietnam vets and I am sure that it is bound to happen with our vets from Afghanistan too.

It is absolutely vital that we as a nation honour the service of our veterans—and honour the service of those who are currently serving as well—and ensure that they are supported, protected and safe when they return, because the incidence of mental health issues is increasing. We read about it more and more each day. This is because we are gaining a greater understanding of it. During World War I it was shell shock, and the treatment for that was pretty primitive and pretty barbaric and most people were shunned. A lot of people who experienced shell shock were shunned. It was the same situation in World War II. We are now gaining a greater understanding of the symptoms and the effects of trauma and also the symptoms and effects of the trauma of war and conflict. It is vitally important that we provide a sophisticated level of service and support to our veterans, because we have an increasingly sophisticated understanding of these issues and the many ways in which they manifest themselves.

As has been mentioned by the many speakers on this side who have been talking on Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2016, the amending legislation makes three specific adjustments. The amendments in schedule 1 provide for payments of interim compensation to incapacitated current or former ADF members while the actual amount of compensation is being determined. Currently, applicants are paid at the national minimum wage amount while their claims are being processed, which can be less what they were earning at the time of the injury. I have had conversations with veterans about that.

It has also been recognised that, for some mental health conditions, early intervention can result in better outcomes for clients. Prior to this change, ADF members were required to have had at least three years continuous full-time service or operational service and then lodge an application under the Veterans' Entitlements Act and then have a diagnosis. Under these changes, clients would be able to access the coverage immediately and would only need to have served one full-time day. It is estimated that around 67,000 additional current and former permanent members of the ADF will become eligible to receive this coverage, and this includes victims of abuse in the ADF who may have previously been excluded from coverage due to the period in which they served or the length of their service. This extension is limited to the following conditions: post-traumatic stress disorder, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder. Again, that just underscores the greater sophistication in understanding of the many different ways in which trauma can manifest itself: substance abuse, alcohol abuse, anxiety, depression and PTSD.

Schedule 3 aligns the incapacity payments cut-off age to the increases in the age pension eligibility. There are a range of elements that are covered in this—most importantly, those dealing with mental health challenges. Again, I just want to thank and acknowledge the work of everyone who has been involved in the consultation on this bill—and that it does acknowledge that there were gaps in the market, that there were gaps in coverage and that they have now been addressed.

I had the great fortune of attending, with the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the 65th commemoration of two specific battles of the Korean War, Kapyong and Maryang San. The Korean War is a forgotten war. People still talk about the Vietnam War as a forgotten war but after my visit to this commemoration in Korea I believe that there is a very limited understanding of our involvement in the Korean War, and I do believe that it is the forgotten war.

As I said, we were there to acknowledge those two very significant battles in which Australian troops played a major role in securing really critical areas of land, at Kapyong and Maryang San. I want to thank the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, with whom I tagged along—I represented the Leader of the Opposition there—I am very grateful to him for that because it gave me the great pleasure of meeting eight extraordinary veterans. I do hope that they are listening to us now: Graham Connor, 1RAR; Les Hall, 1RAR; Gordon 'Taffy' Hughes, HMAS Sydney ; Jack Lang, 3RAR; John Murphy, 3RAR; Les Powell, 3RAR; from the ACT, our nation's great capital, Peter Scott, DSO, also from 3RAR; and Ray Seaver, 77 Squadron. These men were extraordinary. It was just such a privilege and an honour to be with them on this return to Korea. For many of them it was the first time since they left the country after the war.

What was so extraordinary was the fact that there was a genuine curiosity there. There was a degree of reservation and hesitation about returning to areas where they had lost mates—and there was that degree of reservation and hesitation. These men—we are talking mid- to late-80s to early-90s—had the constitutions of oxen. They were extraordinary. We were up at the crack of dawn. The pace was just constant throughout the day. We were getting to bed at nine o'clock. But there they were: chipper, chirpy, up at five in the morning, ready to take on the new program for the day, 'eating like pregnant sharks', as my mother says. They were keeping up with the drinking with some of those young things from 3RAR. They were breathtakingly resilient.

They were there to enjoy themselves and to commemorate and honour the mates they had lost, the contribution they had made and the contribution of the Korean people. So, if any of them are listening, I say: 'Hello to you all. I miss you. I missed you a lot when I got back from Korea. I must admit I really enjoyed our conversations. It was great talking to you about your experiences.'

They were just overwhelmed and amazed at the change in Korea in those 65 years. When they left, four million were dead—two million from Korea. The country was completely decimated by the ravages of war. There was poverty. There were people wandering around in rags, in tatters. There were people who had lost loved ones— relatives. There were people whose villages and houses had been completely blown apart, whose lives had been completely shattered. Then they went back to South Korea and saw what it is today. We went to Busan and Seoul and we saw this economic powerhouse that is Korea now. It is quite extraordinary. They could not believe the transformation of that nation. They acknowledge their contribution to it, but they attribute it to the strength of character, the courage and the bravery of the people of Korea, because it is quite a transformation in a very short period of time, particularly for a nation that went through a real hit with the Asian crisis in the late 1990s. And again their response to that was quite extraordinary.

Just going back to the Korean War—as I said, the forgotten war—18,000 Australians served, 340 died. Many of the Australians who went over to serve in the war were basically reconstructing Japan just after the Second World War, so they essentially moved over from Japan straight into action in Korea. This is something that not many people know: it was the first and the only United Nations initiated war.

The amount of Australians who served, the amount of Australians who died there, fighting to ensure prosperity for future Korea—the fact that it was the UN actively involved in this. There were 20 or 30 nations involved in it, and they also lost young people there. It was a significant international contribution to ensure the security and the prosperity of the Korea of today.

There are many wonderful stories that I gleaned from that commemorative visit but what I was really touched by was the fact that the vets were accompanied by young current members of 3RAR. I asked these young men, 'So how did you get chosen to come on this mission?' and they all said, 'It was our good looks.' I do not know about that but, anyway, they were there and they were respectful and decent and they are young soldiers of whom we can be proud. 3RAR made a significant contribution to the war. It was essentially where it was nicknamed 'Old Faithful'. 3RAR was there at the beginning and was there at the end, and you could always rely on 3RAR, Old Faithful, to be there to help you out during difficult times. So these young men were there to commemorate some of their former members who had lost their lives in the Korean War. At Busan United Nations War Cemetery, they held little services at each of the graves of the members of 3RAR. They laid a poppy and they paid tribute and acknowledged the contribution that 3RAR had made.

I want to acknowledge, and make mention of, three extraordinary Australians because their stories kept coming up during the course of time that we were there. The first one really touched me. In fact, when I was told about this story by the historian, I burst into tears. I was a complete mess. She was used to it; she has heard this story a million times but, for me, it was a first. Sixty-five years ago, Sister Nancy Hummerston married her beloved Captain Ken Hummerston in Tokyo. Six weeks later, Captain Hummerston was in Korea when the jeep he was driving was blown up by landmine. He and his driver were killed in the explosion and were the first Australians to die in the Korean War. Captain Hummerston had been in Korea just six days and had been married for such a very short time. Nancy was heartbroken but threw herself into her work and returned to Japan to continue nursing. She never remarried and she devoted her entire life to helping veterans. Her one wish—and I hope I am going to get through this—was that when she died her ashes would be buried with him. It was about six years ago, I think, that those ashes were returned to his grave and she was buried with him, her great love—finally, beside the love of her life, Captain Kenneth Hummerston, 60 years after they last parted ways. Rest in peace— I did not quite get through that without getting emotional.

Another extraordinary Australian, Private Horace Madden—one of 29 Australians taken prisoner in the Korean War. He was a signaller with 3RAR and was captured at Kapyong on 24 April 1951. He was forced to march 300 kilometres in freezing conditions to Yalu River. Despite poor health and deprived of food, he defied his captors and gave the little he had to those more needy, and he died of malnutrition just months later–again, an extraordinary Australian.

It is a privilege to speak on this bill today and, most importantly, a privilege to honour the veterans of our nation and those who are currently serving. To those Korean War veterans, I look forward to seeing you again, hopefully next year when you are here, for another acknowledgement of your service. I miss you. Again, thank you so much for all you have given to our nation, to all the veterans who have given so much to our nation, to our people, to our democracy. Lest we forget.

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