Thursday, 18 June 2020
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Supporting the Wellbeing of Veterans and Their Families) Bill 2020; Second Reading
There are many things that have given me angst, including the DVA and the situation with our returned servicemen. I'm just a little bit before Vietnam by a few months. I joined the militia because—I can't remember—we were either at war with Indonesia or we were going to war with Indonesia. They were scary times. I served some eight years in the militia. My father before me had joined the militia before the Second World War, again, I think with a view that war was going to come. I can't say that in my case I was being very patriotic. I felt if I got in early, I'd be giving the orders instead of taking them, so I was so probably anything but patriotic!
In the Second World War Uncle Dick, Uncle Bert, Uncle Allan, Uncle George—I think eight of my uncles, or my parent's cousins which we called uncles—were fighting in the war. I knew all of them when they came home. There were 62 that had fought in the war in Cloncurry. I cannot remember a single person that came back with a problem—not one! Did we have any alcoholics? No. Did we have any people with mental problems? No. Did we have any suicides? No. So what's going on now?
There have been two very excellent documentaries on this issue—and I can't remember what channels they were on—that concentrated on the Department of Veterans' Affairs. With all departments there are good people, but there's something seriously wrong. A government department administering this is just totally wrong. In every case that I have had the bloke is going along. He runs into a few problems. He's not at ease. He goes along and sees the DVA and then he falls right off the edge. That was the two documentaries. The minute they came in contact with the government department—and I'm not going to hazard a guess but I do know that they believed that the DVA was on their side and there to help them and they got the exact opposite reaction from the people they were dealing with.
I better not mention his name without his permission but a captain in the Army was having a fight with a major on the aeroplane and I was between them. The major said: 'There's no problem. It's all in their minds. They're just softies.' The bloke pulled out the photograph of his platoon, which he obviously carries with him wherever he goes. If my memory serves me correctly, there were five that had committed suicide, four who had been killed in accidents which were tantamount to suicide, and five who were under psychiatric care. Is that the average? It may well be the average.
If you've got public servants here in Canberra running this outfit, there is something terribly wrong. I represent a fortress city, Townsville. I represent the northern beaches areas of Townsville and Cairns, where most of the soldiers retire to, so I have a disproportionate number of retirees in the Kennedy electorate. There are a few people who say they have had a good experience with the DVA, but if I go into every single problem that arose when they went near the DVA—there's not a single person having any power up in North Queensland where all the soldiers are. There are about 2,000 naval personnel and related families in Cairns. That's quite apart from the 6,000 or 7,000 in Townsville in the Army, yet there is not a single representative that they have on a commission that controls this body, and the government is proposing that we have a commissioner! We know where he will be coming from. The good old boys, the ranking brass, will have a look at the generals or the colonels. But forget about the ordinary soldiers. They won't be getting a look in. Forget about the warrant officers, the sergeants and the lesser ranks; they won't be getting a look in.
So long as this Public Service mentality prevails in an area that should be supersensitive to people—if you want government of the people, by the people, for the people, then the first thing you should be doing is setting up a commission that reflects government of the people, by the people and for the people. You have it run by a bunch of public servants who probably didn't fire a rifle in their entire lives let alone a rifle in combat, so we shouldn't really be surprised what the outcomes are. I haven't done the research that I probably should have done on this but I don't doubt that the report is correct, but the fact is that many more people have died with post-traumatic stress syndrome than died in warfare in the Vietnam War or in subsequent wars that we've been involved in. We’re losing more people because of their treatment after the war than we lost actually in the wars.
When the boys came home from the First World War—Jack McEwen, I sit under his picture. Like so many of us he never actually went over. I thank the good Lord, I didn't get sent over. We were in a 24-hour call-up. We were F1 battalion, ready for combat, but it blew over—Indonesia—before we went over there. So I was lucky. Jack McEwen volunteered in the First World War. It blew over before he went over there. But as a returned serviceman he was entitled to a block of land, which he turned into a dairy farm, which he turned into five dairy farms, and he became one of the biggest dairy farmers in Victoria and the great leader of the dairy industry throughout Australia. He got his chance and his start in life as a result of the government looking after him after the war. As a soldier, he was looked after.
After the Second World War, you again got free university education if you wanted it, free trade training if you wanted it, and, again, soldier settler blocks were made available. The average size of a station property in North Queensland is probably 100,000 hectares. I myself owned 100,000 hectares, and mine was the smallest station in the area where I was. Now, if you put a few dams and weirs in, you could have your soldier settler schemes for these people. But they get nothing. They come home now and they get absolutely nothing. I've asked thousands of people—well, hundreds anyway—this: 'What's the problem?' And they say, 'Well, we're in a family. We're in a team. We had clear-cut objectives. Our life was mapped out for us, and suddenly we're just wandering, lost souls. No direction, no jobs, no family, no team. Just ships cast adrift.'
I think that, to start, we should set up a commission, and that commission should not represent the 20 or 30 people who have served as colonels, generals, brigadiers or whatever. In saying that, one of the finest Australians I've ever met in my life, and one of the most outstanding soldiers this country has ever produced, is the famous brigadier of the 'mad galahs', as they call themselves. I'm not necessarily knocking them; there are exceptions to the rule. What I'm saying is: if you in this place seriously believe in government of the people, by the people, for the people, then, for every colonel, you have thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen, and that is where that commission should come from. I'm not saying there shouldn't be some from the higher ranks, but the vast, overwhelming bulk should represent the vast, overwhelming bulk of the Army, and that would be a good starting point to turn this around.
I want to pay tribute to people like Tim White, an ex-captain in the Army—and he's not Robinson Crusoe; there are many others like him. He's taken it upon himself to look after his boys after they get out. And they've taken it upon themselves to look after First Australians. His first mission was at Wujal Wujal. There were 23 young men who did the bushcraft course there and, of the 23, I think six became regular soldiers and 12 joined the militia, which was an excellent outcome. But, knowing Tim well, I think that he's doing this more for his soldiers and for the terrible suffering of his own platoon, whose horrific figures I have quoted here. I hope I've quoted them accurately; I couldn't get hold of him before I got up to speak. There'd be 1,000 Tim Whites out there, screaming out for something to be done. But I don't want to say what should be done. I don't even want to analyse the problem, because, even though I have spoken to hundreds of them, I'm not 100 per cent sure. But this I know: they'll be going along alright; they go to see the DVA and then they walk straight over the edge—and, in many cases, quite literally over the edge.
I was in a hotel on the last night that I spent campaigning in the last state election, and there were five blokes there who had retired from the service. One was a senior officer, and he was not in a good state. There were two others; one of them very seriously in trouble. I again pay very great tribute to the president of the RSL and of people like myself who were in the militia for Far North Queensland. I went over to him and said, 'Are you aware of what's going on?' He said, 'I'm watching everyone of them on a daily basis.' We have good and saintly people who go out of their way to look after these soldiers, but we are falling well short of where we should be.
I listened to the address by the professor of agriculture—the dean of the faculty at the biggest agriculture university in Australia, the University of Queensland. In his address he said that there are three great shames of this nation: the way we treated the First Australians; the way we treated the people who came home from Vietnam—returned servicemen—in general; and the way we treated the dairy farmers of Australia. I would have added to that our participation in the Boer War, where 28,000 women and children were starved to death as policy by the British Army and in which we participated; and the great shame that we would only allow 15,000 Jewish people in here before the Second World War. Six million of them couldn't get any country on earth to take them, so they perished in the gas chambers of Adolf Hitler. Sadly, we must share some of the horrific blame here. We could have taken half a million of those people and not even noticed they were here in Australia.
One looks back on these mistakes, but here is one that we can address now. Jacqui Lambie has served notice, and I am one of her lieutenants in this battle. Jacqui has promised me that she'll visit us, in and out of Townsville, on a regular basis, and we're going to start to shake things up. So either go along peacefully or it's going to be done hard, and that's not going to be very pleasant for anyone.