Monday, 8 February 2016
Private Members' Business
Vietnam Veterans Day
I am very, very pleased indeed to rise today to support this motion from the honourable member for Ryan. The first Vietnam Veterans Day was held on 18 August 1988 to mark the 22nd anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. Also in 1988, the government announced that a site would be provided on Anzac Parade for a Vietnam veterans memorial. The first Vietnam Veterans Day was commemorated at the 1988 National Congress of the Returned & Services League, and it was supported by financial assistance by the Hawke government and attended by Prime Minister Bob Hawke, of which I am very proud.
On 18 August 1966 the Battle of Long Tan was fought, primarily between Delta Company of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, supported by other Australian task force elements, and a force of up to 2,500 from both the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. Starting in the afternoon, the Battle of Long Tan was fought in a rubber plantation and lasted until the early hours of 19 August. The Australian forces were able to repel the enemy assaults and inflicted remarkably heavy losses on the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. It was perhaps the most significant battle of the Vietnam War for the Australian forces. Some 18 Australian soldiers died, and another 24 were wounded. It was, without a doubt, the most famous action fought by Australians over our very long period of engagement in the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War took a very heavy toll on our nation. Unfortunately, many of our Vietnam veterans did not receive the appropriate recognition for their service and sacrifice when they returned home from the war. As ever, the Australian soldiers serving in Vietnam upheld the very high traditions and standards of the Anzacs and remained faithful to one another and to their duty to our nation.
On Vietnam Veterans Day, Australians pause to remember the service and the sacrifice of all those who fought in the Vietnam War. More than 60,000 Australian service men and women were deployed to Vietnam between 1962 and 1975, with some 521 killed in action.
To recognise the participation of Australian service personnel in the Vietnam War, the Australian government is undertaking a range of commemorative activities over the next 12 months. Labor has provided and will continue to provide bipartisan support for these commemorations. Further, Labor has continued to support the government's offer to repatriate the remains of deceased Vietnam veterans who are buried at the Terendak Military Cemetery, in Malaysia, and the Kranji War Cemetery, in Singapore, if requested to do so by their families. These are important markers for what must be an important series of events for our nation.
It is vitally important that we remember that those who survived the Vietnam War nonetheless endured great hardship in the aftermath of that conflict and that they returned home with both physical and emotional scars. Sadly, the attitudes that they encountered upon their return to Australia can only have exacerbated their struggle with the demons of the past. These were people who were obeying the lawful instructions of their government, and to have thrown at their feet the sins of the Vietnam War was, of course, an enduring outrage. It was, very sadly, the fact that many Australians failed to provide those veterans with the recognition or, indeed, the gratitude to which they were entitled. It meant that the political conflict around the Vietnam War became for them a question of personal conflict and, all too often, of personal shame.
I am pleased to say that I believe Australia has learnt critical lessons from the Vietnam War, and one of those is that we properly recognise the work and contribution of the ADF and our veterans. We properly acknowledge the fact that our young men and women are serving overseas on the lawful instructions of their government and that they are not part of the political debate that deploys them. There is, I think, in today's political milieu a careful distinction with the political debate which gives rise to deployment—and, of course, that has in recent times been exemplified by the fact that those service men and women who served in Iraq are honoured by both sides of parliament and the community as a whole, notwithstanding the fact that that war itself was a matter of sharp political debate. This distinction is critical because those young men and women should not be held accountable for the decisions that deploy them. That properly rests with government and the parliament.
On that basis, I am very pleased indeed to support this resolution so that the scars of the past can continue to heal, so that the service of our Vietnam veterans is put into a proper frame and so that we as a nation can acknowledge and honour their work and their sacrifice, notwithstanding the fact that that war remains a matter of sharp political contest.