Time to revisit Agent Orange

Aug 28, 2019

The recently deceased former Nationals Leader Tim Fischer was widely respected for his sincerity and integrity, two qualities in short supply in parliament today. He always behaved with dignity and self-control. While some of that self-discipline might be attributable to his time in the military, his service in Vietnam could have shortened his life.

Coincidentally in the week Mr Fischer died, the Prime Minister was in Vietnam talking up the trade relationship. Also, perhaps not quite so coincidentally, the Sydney Morning Herald published from the archive a 1985 report on the Royal Commission into the effects of the defoliant Agent Orange on Australian service personnel. The inquiry exonerated the chemical, finding no link between serving in Vietnam and an increased risk of developing cancer. https://www.smh.com.au/national/from-the-archives-royal-commission-findings-clear-agent-orange-20190805-p52e0d.html

Last week a Vietnam veteran told me that he was about to travel to Newcastle to bury yet another comrade who had died of leukaemia which was most likely attributable to the dioxin in Agent Orange. This veteran had been a good mate to the deceased and regularly visited him. The camaraderie among veterans is remarkable and has probably been far more important to their repatriation and rehabilitation than the sometimes begrudging support shown by governments. Many veterans were bitter about the reception they received on their return. Certainly many Australians believed they should never have been sent by a mendacious Coalition government. Many more believed that there was no moral base to the conscription which was needed to maintain army numbers. What the war supporters have not admitted however, is that it was they who promised that the veterans would return to a land fit for heroes, and it has been they who have dismally failed to deliver on their promises. This failure has been callous. And still veterans of more recent conflicts feel they have been let down as they struggle to survive post-traumatic stress disorder. It seems disgraceful that veterans have to organise public appeals to fund the care which ought to be theirs by right.

The Agent Orange Royal Commission would have been unnecessary had repatriation policies been adequate. Some campaigners died before the Commission reported its findings. Because the Royal Commission was held within a decade of the troops’ return, it seems likely that the long-term effects of the chemical had not yet been felt.

Also this week yet another contingent of defence force personnel was bound for the Middle East. The government used Orwellian language saying the commitment was for ‘de-escalation’ but it was intended mainly to make the USA feel good. Iit is timely to remember that Agent Orange was inflicted on Australians in Vietnam not by the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese or the rumoured Chinese soldiers. Agent Orange was sprayed by US forces with total disregard for the environmental impacts.

It is interesting that so few of those remembering Mr Fischer mentioned his time in East Timor. In his book Seven Days in East Timor: Ballot and Bullets he reported on his experiences as part of the Australian parliamentary delegation observing the East Timor plebiscite in 1999.And while some observers were calling out the abusive comments by one federal Minister this week, https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/matt-canavan-attacks-mining-contractor/11437110 few noted the obvious contrast with the demeanour of Tim Fischer who exuded great understanding and tolerance of political differences.

Tim Fischer’s leukaemia might or might not have been related to his military service. One thing that is certain is that he was a strong advocate for veterans. Mr Fischer would in all likelihood wish that the tragic circumstances of his far too early death could result in some benefit for his former comrades and the loved ones they leave behind.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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