Treatment Benefits (Special Access) Bill 2019

20 Feb 2019 speechSpeeches

Ms FLINT (Boothby) (16:41): 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 Organisation 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.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mrs Wicks ): I thank the member for Boothby for that outstanding speech.