House debates

Wednesday, 20 February 2019


Treatment Benefits (Special Access) Bill 2019, Treatment Benefits (Special Access) (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2019; Second Reading

4:41 pm

Photo of Nicolle FlintNicolle Flint (Boothby, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm delighted to speak today on the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) Bill 2019 and the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2019, which will provide long-overdue recognition to the members of the Australian civilian surgical and medical teams who served alongside our Australian Defence Force personnel during the Vietnam War. I am especially delighted to recognise the young nurses who were part of these teams who volunteered for service.

I'm sure everyone in this place would agree that nurses are very special people. They care for those who are sick and vulnerable. They go above and beyond to make sure people are as safe and as comfortable as they can be in their times of need. Nurses do wonderful work every hour of every day in our hospitals and throughout our healthcare system. And nurses go above and beyond to serve our nation in times of conflict and in times of war. As the director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, noted in his commemorative address at the Bangka Day 75th anniversary memorial service in 2017, which I was honoured to attend:

A nation reveals itself in certain subtle but powerful ways.

Beneath the Byzantine inspired dome of the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial is interred the Unknown Australian Soldier.

Standing silent sentinel above him are fifteen stained glass windows. Each depicts a serviceman and nurse from the First World War.

At the base of each is a single word—worthwhile intrinsic virtues, values informing character. Derived from the Greek word meaning the impression left in wax by a stone seal ring, transcending all else in life is—character.

The most prominent image chosen in the centre facing Anzac Parade across the lake to the parliament is neither the light horseman nor a Naval Officer.

It is a nurse.

In her hands is a basin containing instruments. Immediately above her head is the Red Cross—universal symbol of charity. Further above it is a pelican feeding her young directly from her bleeding heart, the ultimate symbol of the quality named below—Devotion.

To completely subsume yourself into the people and the cause to which you have committed.

Straddling Anzac Parade are our nation's sacred Memorials.

The nurses' memorial simply says, Beyond all praise.

I believe that the teams of young doctors and nurses who travelled to Vietnam as part of Australia's contribution to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization aid program were beyond all praise.

These mainly young people had little idea about the country that they were travelling to, the conditions they would encounter there or the lifelong physical and emotional impact it would have on their lives. In fact, one civilian nurse, Betty Lockwood, from my home state of South Australia, describes the naivety of these medical officers in the book Behind the Wire by Susan Gordon-Brown, which I recommend to everyone and I have here with me today. I quote from Betty's recollection:

I saw volunteering in Vietnam as an absolute adventure. I really was as green as grass. My parents were horrified because my father had been a sergeant major in the army and obviously knew all about wars. There was no in-depth training or preparation. We went over there totally ignorant of what to expect, with only the information that previous team members had given us.

These volunteers simply wanted to help and to do so by providing medical aid, training and treatment to local Vietnamese people in South Vietnam. They wanted to do their part to support our national effort in Vietnam and to, in their way, support our troops, who were doing their bit to serve our nation as well. These volunteers went to help at a time when Vietnamese medical facilities and capability had dramatically diminished as a result of the war. They did so while putting their own lives at grave risk.

These bills, the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) Bill and the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill, ensure that the surviving members of the SEATO surgical and medical team have access to the same level of health care provided to the ADF personnel whom they served alongside. These bills acknowledge that, like for many of our Vietnam veterans, the effects of the war in Vietnam have been enduring and have had a significant impact on their lives and recognise the hazards and dangers to which they were exposed.

Civilian nurse Betty Lockwood illustrates this in saying—and again I quote from Behind the Wire:

Our first visit to the hospital in Bien Hoa was a culture shock of monumental proportions. It was totally unbelievable to come from a facility like the Royal Adelaide Hospital and go to a unit where you wore thongs and no stockings.

We dealt with amputations, shrapnel from grenades and mines, repairs to bodies from mine explosions, high-octane burns and napalm burns.

We in this place will never be able to fully understand what it was like for the Australians serving in Vietnam in whatever capacity they found themselves there.

I have, however, been honoured to gain some insight from the time I've spent with my local resident Helen Taplin. Helen is an amazing woman. She has a fabulous and quite wicked sense of humour. She is a tough, determined, no-nonsense Australian and she's a person who never ever gives up. I've known Helen for some time now. I met Helen at a community event at the Brighton RSL and she said that she was keen to discuss with me the closure of the repat hospital by the state Labor government, which was devastating to all of our veterans and anyone associated with the veteran community. She outlined to me how important the services there had been and, as I said, she was keen to discuss it further. So I invited Helen to my office and we sat down and had quite a good chat about the repat hospital. In fact, I spoke about the repat hospital in the House today, because I've been working closely with the state Liberal government to see services returned to the site. On Sunday we announced the master plan to reopen the site and re-establish services there.

As an aside during the meeting, Helen mentioned to me that she'd volunteered to travel to Vietnam in October 1969 as a civilian nurse in the Australian SEATO medical team and that she had been fighting for decades for her and her colleagues to receive the gold card for veterans. She mentioned it and she said, 'But, Nicolle, I know we're never going to get anywhere.' She said, 'I'm not going to waste your time with it because I've told my story so many times.' I said, 'Helen, I'm really keen to hear about your experience and you just never know.' So Helen explained to me how she had been fighting for decades to see the measures that we're introducing in this bill implemented. Over the past year and over the course of numerous meetings together, Helen has told me about her experiences. She has illustrated them to me by sharing personal photographs and anecdotes of the injured children whom she cared for and let me know about the land mines that she narrowly avoided.

I'm just going to read from Helen's story in Behind the Wire explaining her very close call, which is explained in a way that only a lady as no nonsense as Helen can explain it:

This gorgeous young kid by the name of Cam had napalm burns and nothing was clearing his wounds at all. So "Weary"—

'Weary' Dunlop, who was her team leader—

suggested we try the maggot trick. So out we went and picked up maggots in the rubbish tip. Imagine the smell and the heat. The next thing we hear is the voice of an American army man yelling: 'Ma'am, what are you doing? You're in the middle of the minefields and this is POW outskirts. I suggest you leave immediately.'

Cam ended up well and everything worked, and Helen survived to tell the tale, thank goodness! Like all of our Vietnam veterans, Helen's stories are of bravery, mateship and survival in the toughest of conditions. I'm so proud that we have finally been able to deliver the benefits that Helen and her team deserve after all this time.

I'd like to also take this opportunity to note that, despite being ineligible for DVA gold card benefits—until now, with the legislation that is before the House—Helen is the recipient of an Australian Active Service Medal, awarded for service in or in connection with prescribed warlike operations. I would like to today pay tribute to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and, particularly, to the Treasurer, who has tirelessly raised this issue throughout his time in parliament and, I believe, is very much responsible for making today's outcome and this legislation possible.

Having met with Helen a number of times, I wrote to the minister and I also wrote to the Treasurer to outline my support for the provision of recognition and repatriation benefits to the members of the SEATO surgical medical teams, and I have been harassing both the minister and the Treasurer ever since on behalf of Helen and all of her colleagues. While I acknowledge that many of Helen's colleagues and friends are no longer with us to share in this long overdue milestone, I'm proud that we have been able to finally deliver the outcome that she and others have spent so much time and effort fighting for.

This bill will provide eligible recipients with medical treatment for any medical condition, including access to the mental health support provided to our veterans. It's expected that these measures will benefit the 200 or so surviving civilian medical team members who served in Vietnam, including Helen. Coming into effect from 1 July 2019, having been brought forward from July 2020, the provision of a Department of Veterans' Affairs gold card will provide the members of the civilian surgical medical teams with full access to the medical treatment they require as soon as possible. These bills are not just about medical care but also about recognition and acknowledgement of the service and sacrifice that the SEATO officers made.

It was also particularly special to me to have this announcement made on 14 February not because it was Valentine's Day but because that is a date that reminds us of other nurses who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. During World War II, 14 February 1942 was the date that the SS Vyner Brooke was bombed and sunk by Japanese bombers. Twelve nurses were lost at sea after that bombing. A further 21 went on to be massacred by the Japanese on Radji Beach on 16 February 1942, and more nurses lost their lives as they were held as prisoners of war. It was a significant coincidence that we introduced this legislation on 14 February to assist other nurses who have made such a significant wartime effort.

I just want to conclude with some of Helen's own words that best summarise the importance of the measures that we're debating in this place today. Again, I'm going to quote from Behind the Wire by Susan Gordon-Brown. Helen says in the book:

I am so honoured I went. So pleased I had the opportunity to go and see for myself what war is like. I just hope that, possibly, I gave them a little bit back. The Vietnamese are the most wonderful people. They'd give you anything when they had nothing.

Helen also said:

Thinking of my team members, there's not many of us who had children; many have suffered dreadful illnesses, including cancers. I have colon cancer, though there's no history in my family. Monty, a brilliant nurse, went on two tours. In 1983 she was very ill with cancer and she said to me: 'Keep fighting, we should have some recognition.' They had not acknowledged us because they say we were not under the Defence Force. I started writing letters to the government, trying to get some acknowledgement that we were Vietnam vets. We felt it was time that we were recognised. You've just got to keep fighting. And I will.

Well, Helen, my message to you today is that you can stop fighting. Today you finally get the recognition that you deserve.

Photo of Lucy WicksLucy Wicks (Robertson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Boothby for that outstanding speech.

4:56 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) Bill 2019. The effect of this bill is to create full health coverage for the civilian doctors and nurses and others who provided aid in Vietnam between 1964 and 1972—our 'MASH' personnel, for those fans of the 1980s show. I know that a couple of my friends who make a bit of music are big fans of that show. The Australian civilian surgical and medical teams provided medical aid, training and treatment to local Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War, and this bill will give them access to a DVA treatment card or a gold card.

It is appropriate that these civilians receive this recognition and assistance. They provided invaluable service under trying and dangerous circumstances to people who desperately needed their medical aid, as we heard from the member for Boothby's speech. It is only proper that their service to Australia is recognised alongside that of our brave service men and women by providing them with the care that they might now need in their later years.

The government originally announced this proposal on 16 December, but they announced a start date then for the policy of 1 July 2020. Understandably, the delay in the start drew much criticism and some strong advocacy from members of parliament, from the former service community and from their families and supporters. Why delay this policy? The recipients of this health cover have waited long enough. Some of them especially need the health care now. So I'm pleased to see that the government have brought the start date forward.

Labor welcomes the expansion of the gold card to members of the Australian civilian surgical and medical teams who put their lives on the line to assist as part of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization aid program in South Vietnam. Service should be recognised, and it should be valued by all of us. That is the purpose of the gold card for eligible veterans and former members of the ADF, their widows or widowers and dependants: to recognise that great service to our country.

It is important that this parliament and all Australians recognise the unique nature of military service. We know that it is challenging. We know that it causes extra stress and possible health complications. We know that they are prepared to put themselves in harm's way on our behalf, on behalf of this nation, so we should not be complacent about our defence forces and those who are called to serve. We need to look after them while they're serving, and obviously we need to look after them when they return.

I'd like to particularly mention one of Australia's greatest institutions, and that is our returned and services leagues and all of their associated entities. I note the great work they do in supporting both current and ex-serving members of the Australian Defence Force and their families. I have five RSL clubs servicing Moreton: the Sherwood-Indooroopilly RSL, the Salisbury RSL, the Stephens RSL, the Sunnybank RSL and the Yeronga-Dutton Park RSL. I've spent quite a bit of time with these clubs over the last decade and worked very closely with them in recent years, particularly on their ceremonies for the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings and a few other community projects associated with this.

The RSL has a very proud tradition. All over this nation, RSLs have been working hard for veterans and their families—since 1916, in fact. As well as supporting and serving our ex-service men and women, the RSLs promote a secure, stable and progressive Australia. We're indebted to them for the services that they continue to provide, not only directly to the returned service men and women but indirectly through the community work that they do.

I want to touch on some of that. I mentioned the Sunnybank RSL and their work with the local Chinese-Australian community, led by the indefatigable Lewis Lee. As the make-up of the Sunnybank area has changed over the years, the RSL, rather than watch the community change, decided to engage with the local community. So they created a memorial for all the people of Chinese heritage who have served Australia in past wars. The memorial recognises soldiers like Billy Sing and Caleb Shang, who fought in World War I, and Jack Wong Sue, who served for Australia in World War II. Often these people were shot at, put in harm's way, but they weren't actually able to vote in the country that they call home, the country that they were prepared to die for.

There are many other great stories of courage and bravery from the Chinese-Australian diaspora, and they have been partly commemorated by this memorial at the Sunnybank RSL. One of the stories I want to focus on is that of private Billy Sing, a sniper with the 5th Australian Light Horse Regiment. He was originally a kangaroo shooter from Northern Queensland, but he was lucky to be able to weave his way through what was quite a racist call-up process and go to liberally. Conservatively, he is credited with 150 kills in Gallipoli. He was known to his fellow soldiers as the assassin and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous gallantry as a sniper at Gallipoli. To this day, the Australian Army snipers recognise the skill of Billy Sing, a Chinese-Australian who could not vote back here.

The physical memorial at the Sunnybank RSL was a labour of love for the Chinese community and it has contributed to stronger links between that community and their local RSL. It is a continuing reminder of the diversity, cooperation, understanding and friendship that exists on Brisbane's southside and also goes a long way to recognise some of the slights and horrible racism that existed in an earlier time when people were able to fight and die for their country but not actually allowed to own land because they were not seen to be Australian. Why? Irrespective of being born here, it was basically because they looked 'too Chinese'.

Whilst there is a physical memorial in Sunnybank, there is also an ongoing series of bursaries, with funds raised by the local Chinese community. Local school students enter an essay competition. They own the stories and tell them over and over again. Basically, the flame is renewed every year; it is kept alive by the Sunnybank RSL and the local students on Anzac Day.

I would also point out that the success of the Chinese war memorial project has inspired commemoration contributions from other communities. Now, the Indian community has a project underway. They have erected a memorial for the Indian-Australian service men and women who contributed to Australia's war efforts in the past. This also is a great project. I enjoyed working with the Indian-Australian community and seeing that memorial completed, dedicated and become a part of the local community. Like the Chinese memorial, there are also bursaries associated with this physical memorial which is also located in the grounds of the Sunnybank RSL. Again, there is a living bursary, where students from local high schools td the research and tell stories of Indian service men and women. It is a way to keep the Anzac tradition alive and reflect the local community.

It is important to, whenever we can, show our respect for all Australian service men and women. The Chinese and Indian war memorials are a permanent show of respect for these brave Australians. They sit alongside all the other war memorials in the grounds of our RSL clubs, which mention the names of service men and women who gave their lives for this country and some of the famous battles and wars.

Sadly, some of these men and women may not have been shown the respect they deserved when they were alive and wearing the uniform of the nation that they call home—and I know that similar stories have been told of Indigenous Australians. We have only had protections in our laws from being offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated on the basis of race for the last 20 years or so. It is a reality, but we need to make sure that we work with our RSLs wherever we can to make sure that they are strong, vibrant service organisations that reach out and connect with former ADF personnel and make sure they have strong connections with their communities and the supports that come with it.

I have mentioned the Sunnybank RSL. I do recognise my other RSLs, so I do apologise to them for focusing on Sunnybank, but I want to commend Hugh Polson and all of his leadership team for their initiative to erect these memorials for the Chinese and Indian service men and women. These activities will create greater awareness of the role of all Australians in our history. As I said, it will counter some of the racist rhetoric that occasionally gets spouted in some political quarters. All Australian service men and women deserve to be looked after when their service is completed, and when they are serving this nation they deserve to be respected.

Sadly, I take this opportunity in talking about this legislation to also recognise a local returned serviceman who was very active in the community and was a member of the Sunnybank RSL. His name is Kim Chang. Kim Chang, a relatively young man, sadly passed away recently. Kim was secretary of the Australians of Chinese Heritage War Memorial Committee. He did great work there. He served in the Army, the Reserve and, later, in the Queensland Police Service. A lifetime of serving his community. As I said, he was a valued member of the Australians of Chinese Heritage War Memorial Committee and all the great work that flows from that and the great message it sends to our community.

Kim Chang also helped run RSL improvement projects like the interior repaint of the hall in Sunnybank RSL, which is not only used by RSL members from the local area but also many community organisations and groups. I've certainly used it on many occasions. Kim Chang was also a keen dragon boat racer, something that is quite an event held on the south side of Brisbane every year. Kim's love of dragon boating was not just a personal hobby; he was working with Mates4Mates, a support organisation for veterans in RSL Queensland, to create a program supporting veterans' recovery through dragon boating. I certainly hope it's a legacy for Kim Chang that this work will not be lost and the program to support veterans will continue to be developed and implemented, perhaps in his name.

Sadly, earlier this year Kim unexpectedly took his own life, leaving many of his close friends from the RSL in shock. I particularly mention Adam Lowe, a serving member of the RAAF who was completely surprised. Kim, you'll be sadly missed by many in the local community and at the Sunnybank RSL. I extend my condolences to his family. I mentioned Kim Chang and the great work of the RSLs in my community because we must recognise and continue to remember the sacrifices made by those who serve this country either on the front line or when they return home. As this bill reminds us, some of those who serve are not necessarily in the Defence Force uniform, but they serve alongside them and let them do their job. They also should be recognised and remembered. I commend this bill to the House.

5:07 pm

Photo of John AlexanderJohn Alexander (Bennelong, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a fact that medical practitioners are as vital a component of an armed force as any other role. They may not routinely carry a weapon, but nor do chaplains, quartermasters or intelligence officers. What they do is more important. Bluntly, they save lives. There are thousands of Australians who would not be with us today if it had not been for the prompt, professional care and attention of the medical teams. These teams deserve our gratitude and our praise. This amendment allows members of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, SEATO, surgical medical teams who were employed in Vietnam between 1964 and 1972, to become eligible for the Department of Veterans' Affairs DVA gold card from 1 July 2019.

It seems bizarre that this is only something we're fixing now, so let's have a look at the story so far. The SEATO medical teams have been advocating since at least 1990 for a DVA gold card. While most reviews stated that the teams were not entitled to receive veterans' benefits, the 2000 Moor review recommended that the team members be granted qualified service. This recommendation was rejected by the then government, as the team members were not under the command and control of the ADF and were not allotted by Defence for duty in Vietnam. As such, they were deemed ineligible for veterans' benefits. This decision was patently wrong.

These medical teams were serving on the battlefield under extreme danger, facing the same threats, traumas and dangers as their regular ADF comrades. These teams played a vital role during the conflict through providing much-needed medical assistance and training and treating thousands of Vietnamese civilian casualties. They provided this support at a time when Vietnamese medical facilities and capability had dramatically diminished as a result of the war. While the medical teams were not under the direct command and control of the Australian Defence Force during the Vietnam War, they were exposed to hazards and dangers as a result of working in a conflict zone for the Australian government. Team members experienced the effects of a war known for its brutality. While their experiences are not parallel to those of the ADF members, SEATO members were not untouched by their experiences.

Thankfully this government agreed to provide the team members with the gold card in December 2018. This was implemented through new legislation which will create a distinct and separate eligibility for this cohort rather than providing eligibility through existing veterans legislation. This measure provides important recognition to the civilian surgical and medical teams of about 240 doctors, 210 nurses and a small number of administrative and technical staff employed on the teams during the Vietnam War. The government expects about 200 surviving members of the teams could benefit from this measure. The SEATO medical teams are a special case in that they were particularly exposed to the horrors of war by virtue of their medical role. They were exposed to the dangers in that they were not protected by the ADF and were in areas where there was no frontline. Importantly, the Moore review advocated for benefits for this group.

It is also important to recognise that the team members were all civilians. They all volunteered to do something dangerous that was not part of their job, that put their careers on hold, to willingly travel to a conflict zone in order to provide aid and support to an ally whose civilian medical facilities had been dramatically diminished as a result of the war. They played a vital role in the broader Australian government's support to the South Vietnamese during this conflict and they did this completely separate from the ADF. To date, these civilians have not had the same access to treatment and counselling for a range of mental health conditions that ADF veterans have had. The gold card will now provide the necessary support. With the gold card, regardless of whether it is related to employment in Vietnam, eligible SEATO members will be provided with access to medical treatment for any medical condition.

However, there is still an outstanding issue: timing. The original start date of 2020 was predicated on the legislation not passing until later in 2019 and the need for DVA to develop new eligibility criteria, processes, procedures and IT systems for a group that is not a usual DVA client group. Members of the team raised a number of concerns about their failing health, and advocacy was received from them and a number of associations requesting the measure be brought forward. The government has listened to these concerns and has brought the measure forward as a result, and it's great to see that Labor is supporting this measure. Thank you, Labor. This is one of those times that government is uncontentious and doing the right thing, even if it should have happened many years before.

Bennelong has a great history as a home for veterans. While Ryde provided the largest per capita number of volunteers for the First World War, large parts of the area were settled in suburban blocks designed for veterans of the first two world wars. It was veterans from the first three local RSL sub-branches that were amongst the five founding clubs that instigated the first Anzac Day march a century ago. This heritage of caring for veterans continues to this day, with large DVA housing developments by the Parramatta River in Ermington at the site of the old torpedo factory. Today 1,500 people live in this development named the AE2 in memory of the only submarine to penetrate the Turkish defences at the Dardanelles. Bennelong mixes a memory of our rich military history with care for the veterans who call our region home today.

We're also very lucky to have a dedicated group of sub-branches looking after our local veterans. Our local sub-branches have looked after our veterans and those who've served for decades. Some of these clubs were amongst the first marchers on Anzac Day a century ago. We have great advocates for veterans, like Bernie Cox, John Prestige and John Curdie, and, with such a large multicultural community in Bennelong, we also have multicultural veterans who served in the Korean War, like Paul Kim, a veteran of the Korean War and a great supporter of our Korean community. Our local ex-service members are well served by these dedicated people.

Finally, before I sit down and while on the topic of celebrating veterans, I'd like to commend the Minister for Veterans' Affairs on the outstanding work he's done of late, including the Saluting Their Service program. This is an excellent initiative to acknowledge the exceptional work of our men and women in uniform. We're all well acquainted with the uniquely Australian habit of remaining quiet about one's achievements, but all too often that means the sacrifices and hardships of our veterans and currently serving members go unrecognised. This is deeply regrettable. Every person who has worn the uniform in defence of Australia has protected our shared freedoms and our way of life.

I'm proud to say my office is currently organising a promotional campaign to ensure the Saluting Their Service program is advertised far and wide across Bennelong. We hope to see as many veterans as possible included. I would like to especially thank the three RSLs in my electorate for their efforts—the North Ryde RSL, the Gladesville RSL and the Epping RSL sub-branch. We hope that together we'll be able to reach out to as many veterans in our community as possible.

5:16 pm

Photo of Damian DrumDamian Drum (Murray, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to congratulate a couple of people with regard to this legislation that is going through the House today. Firstly I'd like to congratulate Bob Elworthy, who heads up the Vietnam Veterans' Association in Victoria. A few months ago I attended the annual meeting of the Vietnam Veterans' Association's Victorian chapter They actually held it over the river, in Mulwala, on the border of Yarrawonga-Mulwala. However, the message from the Victorian chapter of the Vietnam Veterans was very, very simple: 'If you can do anything to help us, we want to help our SEATO nurses and doctors. All the other things we can squabble about—our pensions, our crook backs, our bung knees, a few of our members who need a bit of additional help and all of that—but give our SEATO doctors and nurses the same benefits that we enjoy, primarily the gold card access to medical assistance. That's our No. 1 ask.' And I'm sure other states were just as vocal about wanting these benefits for their colleagues, who might not have been signed up to the military of the day but were just as important. They were helping our people in the Defence Force in that conflict in Vietnam in every way, just as much as those who were part of the Defence Force.

It was only after the conflict was well established that Australia realised that we didn't have the medical expertise that we needed to support our troops in Vietnam. It was only sometime well into the conflict, which started in 1962, that we realised we were going to be short on support. The whole concept of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization enabled the civilian medical teams to arrive, and certainly what they were able to achieve was quite amazing. There's a whole list here, with the legislation, of what looks to be some 30 or more specialists that were over there helping our troops. As I said, many of these health specialists were over there for a long period of time. They saved an enormous number of lives and helped so many of our troops when they were injured. They helped to nurse them back to health. They assisted them in every way. Yet, as it turned out, once they returned back here, whilst they were acknowledged, respected and appreciated, they weren't given the same assistance as our troops were given to get on with their lives life.

Having thanked the Victorian chapter of the Vietnam veterans, I now want to give special thanks to the minister here, in the chamber, because Minister Chester picked this issue up and ran with it, with genuine fervour so that we could achieve this in a very short time frame, before the upcoming election. He was very keen to knock over this issue. I also want to thank Minister Chester for what he is doing in relation to the covenant, the lapel pins and making the card available to all of our troops who have served overseas. All of our troops who are proud veterans will now be able to wear a very stylish lapel pin. It's subtle. There is no big-noting about this. It is just a subtle acknowledgement that, yes, I have served my country; yes, I have served overseas. It is a great initiative. I think it's going to be really well received. As we know, most of our military troops, our returned servicemen, do not want to talk or brag about or even enter into talking about their service too much, but I think most of them really do appreciate the fact that Australians hold them very, very dear. Australians do appreciate their service. We are becoming much more relaxed about acknowledging our servicemen and thanking them for their service.

We have about 200 surviving members who will benefit from this measure. We understand that the conditions which they were working in at the time were appalling. The injuries which they had to deal with would have been significant, yet they were able to work miracles with the work that they did. When they came home, some of them would have suffered exactly the same injuries and illnesses that many of our troops suffered, yet they weren't eligible for the same treatment as our troops. With the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) Bill 2019 and the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2019, they will be able to get the treatment that they need.

If you receive a gold card following your service overseas, it entitles you, the holder, to DVA funding for all necessary clinical healthcare needs and for all health conditions, whether they are related to war service or not. This is going to be very much appreciated by these professionals, most of whom, I would imagine, would be well and truly retired. Hopefully, this is now going to help them. Most of them would be in their 70s by now and looking to get some of their ailments treated into the future. Medical consultations and procedures covered by the Medicare Benefit Schedule, medical services and surgical procedures listed on the MBS in public and private hospitals and day surgery facilities, medical specialist services listed on the MBS as well as medication reviews will all be covered under the services that are delivered through the gold card.

It is a fantastic story and, again, I just want to acknowledge the advocates who have been pushing for this reform for a number of years. It's great to think they have had their voices heard. For the 200-odd professionals who are now going to be able to receive the medical attention that they need, it must be fantastic for them to know that it wasn't just their own lone voices but also the entire weight of the Vietnam veterans pushing this cause on their behalf.

I want to again acknowledge those advocates who have worked hard for this. I want to acknowledge the minister, who has gone above and beyond, not just for this reform which is going to pay acknowledgement to a special and select group but also for the work he is doing in relation to ensure the respect and, I suppose, self-esteem that our returned servicemen would have had privately is now going to be able to be shared by all Australians as we acknowledge our returned servicemen in the way they always should have been.

5:25 pm

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Batman, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Murray for his encouraging words. I too rise to support this very important bill, the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) Bill 2019. It's been nearly 20 years since the plight of members of the civilian surgical teams who served in Vietnam was raised by a civilian nurse who became seriously ill with a condition associated with exposure to herbicides and identified in studies documenting the cancer incidence of Vietnam veterans. In 1999, after her claim for benefits under the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 was rejected, the matter went before the Veterans' Review Board. The board affirmed the decision; however, it expressed regret that the nurse was not able to be compensated under the act and identified an anomaly whereby the act makes a distinction between different conflicts when it comes to Commonwealth employees performing special missions outside Australia. It identified two options: an amendment to the act or a claim to Comcare.

Despite a positive finding from an independent review into service anomalies in February 2000 recommending that members of the civilian, surgical and medical teams operating in Vietnam be deemed as performing qualifying service for repat benefits, the government refused to acknowledge the nurses' claims on the basis they were not attached to the ADF. Comcare, the Commonwealth workers' compensation scheme, was the only option for those nurses who developed illnesses and injury as a result of their service in Vietnam. For a number of reasons, this scheme is not suited to deal with war-related injury and illness. Despite the processes put in place to facilitate claims through Comcare, nurses were still disadvantaged in comparison to the veteran community. Fundamentally, because it's a workers' comp scheme, it is not designed to deal with the complexities arising from injuries incurred as a result of the trauma of war. This is precisely why there is a different system for veterans.

In 1962, the Australian government was asked by the USA to supply an army training team as well as surgical services and medical care to the South Vietnamese people and the large refugee population from North Vietnam. Both groups were part of the contingency planning of the bipartisan SEATO—the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation—by the Department of External Affairs and the Department of Defence, as was the major commitment of ground troops in 1965. The SEATO civilian surgical teams were the first official Australian medical surgical support group sent into South Vietnam. The other military services did not arrive until 1966. The civilian team was also the last Australian medical surgical group to leave. The overall time in Vietnam ranged from October 1964 to New Year's Eve 1972. Approximately 450 civilian nurses, doctors and other allied health personnel served on these teams. This represents the largest group of Australian doctors and nurses to serve in South Vietnam during the war.

SEATO nurses were sent to Vietnam by the Australian government to serve in civilian surgical and medical teams as part of Australia's strategic and military commitment to the Vietnam War. Many of the nurses have suffered the same illnesses and medical conditions as have Vietnam veterans and that are similarly war related. Conditions include post-traumatic stress, other anxiety disorders, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, cancers and other immune system disorders. The claims set out conditions that were not all covered by Comcare.

One wonderful nurse was Dot Angell. She was a free-spirited 20-something when she answered the Australian government's call for civilian volunteers to head over to Vietnam in the thick of war and serve in the relief effort. It was 1967 and Dot became part of the Alfred Hospital civilian, surgical and medical team which would spend several months at the Bien Hoa Provincial Hospital, tending to anyone and everyone who walked through the door. The project was run under the umbrella of SEATO, with more than 450 nurses and doctors signing up to the cause, as I said before. The civilian teams had begun journeying to Vietnam in 1964. Dot said:

Nobody said anything to us. Nobody told us what it would be like. Being young and having just got back from three and a half years overseas and it being the Swinging Sixties I was young and foolish and decided it would be an adventure so I volunteered.

Dot recalls working around the clock in a race to treat the scores of patients caught in the crossfire of war:

We treated anybody who came through the gates at the hospital, whether they were friend or foe. We were dealing with war injuries. We were dealing with traffic accidents because Bien Hoa was a refugee town and packed to capacity. We also dealt with illnesses, some of which we had never seen before, such as plague, typhoid, and cholera.

She said that she had vivid memories of one two-year-old who was brought to them by his sisters, who were aged seven and 10. The parents were nowhere to be seen, presumed dead. The child weighed less than 50 per cent of the normal weight for his age. She remembered a six-year-old in the same condition, who was brought as a last resort by his mother who was very frightened because the VC had spread a rumour that the Australian medical teams castrated little boys.

Tuberculosis, infestation with intestinal parasites, leprosy and malaria had always been major causes of morbidity in Vietnam, but by 1967, with the overcrowding and squalid conditions, bubonic plague had spread to 24 of the 41 provinces of South Vietnam. Cholera was also on the rise and there was a possibility of a widespread epidemic. These nurses and doctors worked amongst it all.

The aims of the surgical team were to provide a general surgical/medical service of quality for the South Vietnamese; to teach, mainly by example, new surgical techniques and procedures; and to establish mutual goodwill—to establish a relationship of confidence and trust with the local people. The nurses from Bien Hoa are still very proud of the school of nursing that has a bachelor degree that exists today in that country.

To sum up the situation in which they found themselves whilst working in isolation with the civilian population, they bore witness to:

… the broken men, women and children; the villages destroyed; fields turned fallow and poisoned; cities where the rats found a better life than humans; epidemic diseases moving remorselessly with the tide of war; chronic diseases striking down the homeless, the undernourished and the starving … and over it all was an aura of ceaseless battle. In South Vietnam for the dazed, bewildered people, harassed by Vietcong, burned and burned again by American Napalm, uprooted from their thatched huts, herded from one refugee camp to another … there was no escape, for around them endlessly churned the vast technology of war, which had been let loose on their country.

However, each civilian surgical team was able to create a small island of sanity, security and care in the chaotic wilderness of the war zone. Dot Angell said:

We did not notice who it was who had fired the bullet, thrown the grenade, set the booby traps or released the napalm; what did have meaning for us was the burned or mutilated flesh, and the familial destruction and degradation which had been brought about by the war …

…   …   …

It was not our task to accuse, label or lay blame, our task was to diagnose, to operate, to care, comfort and treat; to inject and transfuse, when we had the equipment, and let others ask the questions. Our medical and nursing skills were to be offered to all who came through the gates of each hospital—friend or foe.

Dot Angell stands here before us today—she is still alive—but she is very sad for approximately one-third of the SEATO nurses who have died. Dot was part of the last of the Alfred squads to head to Vietnam. Her crew handed over the reins to a unit from South Australia. When she returned home she had to go back to business as usual. Decades later, while undertaking a PhD and interviewing a handful of civilian nurses who served in Vietnam, Dot suddenly realised that many of them were experiencing the same health conditions suffered by military forces, such as cancer and post-traumatic stress. This led Dot to establish a special interest group with the Australian Nursing Federation, which I was very proud to be a member and, in fact, secretary of. In 1998 she embarked on an unwavering campaign demanding recognition for civilian nurses who served in Vietnam and claims to the same health entitlements accessed by the military under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. Dot and many like her are adamant that the toll of Vietnam remains profound, with many nurses suffering cancers, including lung, bowel and breast cancer, as well as nightmares and flashbacks associated with PTSD.

Almost two decades on from attempting to seek compensation from the government, the battle for Medicare and entitlements is over. In the early 2000s, a handful of government reviews—chiefly the inquiry conducted by Major General RF Mohr—found that civilian teams were suffering higher rates of illnesses than in the general community and had performed services that should qualify them for repatriation benefits.

Dot quipped bluntly to me: 'I think the government's just hoping we'll all die out.' Dot—who suffers from two autoimmune disorders and PTSD, which she attributes squarely to her time in Vietnam—and the close-knit group of civilian nurses remain steadfast in their commitment. She says that the most important thing is that it should never happen again.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation has backed the nurses' plight since the campaign began and says it will continue to support the nurses. 'These brave nurses,' said Lee Thomas, the general secretary, in 2016, 'went above and beyond to work in demanding conditions in a relief effort assembled by the Australian government. Their service deserves full entitlements and anything less is a slap in the face.'

There are other nurses—like Helen, who has suffered from cancer of the bowel and autoimmune problems and believes Vietnam is the missing link. Many of them enjoy gathering on Anzac Day to share stories. Helen specifically says she has no regrets, and she remembers the Vietnamese people she met that fill her heart with warmth and joy all these years later: 'I often wonder where they are. They were very special to us.'

The unwavering fight for recognition was reignited by a petition presented to the House of Reps calling for gold cards to be granted to all surviving Australian nurses, doctors, physios, radiographers and lab technicians who served as part of the civilian teams from 1964 to 1972. Dot said, in a very special speech last year at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne:

Today brings back memories of the stoicism and friendliness of the Vietnamese people and the collegiality or 'mateship' between the team members with whom I worked and lived, in what could only be described as the most chaotic and primitive conditions.

She said:

I stand here before you as one of the survivors for approximately one third of us have died. Like you we honour those who have died but we will continue to fight for those who live and suffer.

Today, to Dot and Helen and all the nurses and all the civilians who served in those civilian teams in Vietnam, under the SEATO arrangements: thank you. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for what you did, for your service and your sacrifice. We recognise what you did, and we are very pleased to say that, at last, you have the justice you deserve.

5:37 pm

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party, Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

In summing up, I'd like to thank all members who've contributed to the debate on these bills and acknowledge the continued tradition of bipartisan support for veterans' issues demonstrated by both the opposition and the crossbench. These bills will fast track access to medical treatment to eligible members of the Australian surgical and medical teams who worked in South Vietnam from October 1964 to December 1972 under the Commonwealth government's Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or SEATO, aid program. Members of the Australian surgical and medical teams included about 210 nurses and 240 doctors and a small number of administrative, technical and support personnel.

During the Vietnam war, the Australian surgical and medical teams worked under the Commonwealth government's SEATO aid program to provide medical aid, training and treatment to local Vietnamese people in South Vietnam. These people played a vital role during the conflict, providing much-needed medical assistance and training and treating thousands of Vietnamese civilian casualties. They provided this support at a time when Vietnamese medical facilities and capability had dramatically diminished as a result of the war.

The bills recognise the valuable contribution of these teams engaged by the Australian government. While not engaged in combat, members of these teams were exposed to hazards and dangers similar to those experienced by veterans. The Department of Veterans' Affairs estimates that there are approximately 200 surviving members of these Australian surgical and medical teams who, under these bills, will benefit from immediate access to medical treatment from 1 July 2019.

The passage of these bills through parliament would expand the level of medical assistance available to these team members to a DVA gold card, extending medical treatment to any injury or disease. This includes injuries, illnesses or diseases unrelated to their work performed in South Vietnam. These bills also provide for a pharmaceutical supplement and payment for travel costs related to receiving medical treatment. The bills do not provide compensation, as this is already available for these men and women and other civilians through Comcare.

The Treatment Benefits (Special Access) (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2019 is equally as important as the Treatment Benefits (Special Access) Bill 2019 to ensure we can make the necessary amendments and transitional provisions to other legislation required be able to implement this measure.

Our government has listened and brought this measure forward to ensure that Australian surgical and medical team members can access the health care that they need from 1 July 2019.

I would like to acknowledge the contributions of members to the debate on these bills, including the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Amanda Rishworth, who recounted the personal stories, as others have, of nurses including Janet Glasson and Dot Angell and confirmed Labor's commitment to pass these bills through parliament. I'd also like to thank the member for Boothby, Nicolle Flint, who's had a very keen interest in this measure. She spoke passionately today about this issue, and she's been an outstanding advocate on the topic on behalf of the SEATO medical teams. Can I also thank the member for Bennelong, the member for Moreton, the member for Batman and the member for Murray. I'd also like to acknowledge the support of the Treasurer, who, while he didn't speak on the bills, has been outstanding in his advocacy on behalf of the SEATO teams and whose ongoing interest in and contribution to Veterans' Affairs issues should be recognised in this place. I commend these bills.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.