Senator the Hon. Michael Ronaldson
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC
Special Minister of State
PETER BUTLER: And I have in the studio with me Senator Michael Ronaldson, the Federal Minister for Veterans' Affairs, and we're going to have a chat about the Operation Bring Them Home. That's where we're bringing home the remains of the 25 Australian soldiers that were killed in Vietnam that are in cemeteries in Kranji in Singapore, and also in Terendak in Malaysia.
Senator good morning.
MINISTER RONALDSON: Morning Peter.
PETER BUTLER: And welcome to Darwin.
MINISTER: Thank you very much.
PETER BUTLER: I guess, before we get to the serious stuff, you used to quite like coming up here and fishing?
MINISTER: [Laughs] yes. Yes I've been a fairly unsuccessful fisherman on both the Mary and the Daly, but I love it so I've got good memories of Shady and other places.
PETER BUTLER: Mate it's very hard to be a bad fisherman up here. I can't fish, but I just- you throw a line in and then a fish comes back like seconds later usually.
MINISTER: Well I better come out with you then [laughs].
PETER BUTLER: [Laughs] Alright. Look, there's, as I said there in the intro, 25 Australian soldiers still overseas in the graves in Singapore and Malaysia. Bob Shewring from NT Vietnam Veterans up here was I think an integral protagonist for getting this whole operation going. And you've more than met him halfway on that?
MINISTER: Look, people like Bob - and I want to pay full credit to Bob, he's done a fantastic job, and Tash Griggs and others have also been pushing this very hard. But I got information, Peter, around September last year, from the husband of one of these who obviously remarried the widow of one of these fellows who was in the Malaya emergency, and is buried at Terendak. And then I met with the Vietnam Veterans Federation and the association, the RSL, in Sydney in about early December last year, just to get them to walk me through this, and see what had gone on. I was not fully aware of the dynamics of this until the Bring Them Home Campaign started, and meeting with the two veterans' associations.
But basically Peter, for the first time in this nation's history we treated troops, men and women, in this case men, in the same theatre of war differently. So post January '66 the rules changed, and we brought all those fellows home from Vietnam who had made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation. But those pre '66, the families had to pay. Now, that was huge amounts of money, it was 500 quid in those days, that was pre-decimal currency, it was a lot of money. And I looked at this and I heard what they had to say, and while there was some push-back from some quarters that it might open up a Pandora's box, my very strong view having spoken to these guys was this was a wrong that needed to be righted, and it will be so. Recently, I took a delegation of men across to Borneo for the 70th anniversary of the Oboe Landings. During this trip, I went down to Malaysia to spoke to the Minister down there about the repatriation. They are fully supportive, which is terrific. I went down to Terendak itself, had a look at it because I hadn't been there. The CO was very, very supportive.
So it is full steam ahead, and I would hope that we would have all of those who want to come home back here by June-July next year. They'll be accorded full military honours, and we will after a long, long time address what I think has been a very, very serious wrong.
PETER BUTLER: How do you steel yourself when you do to- or toughen yourself up when you deal with these families? Because it's quite sensitive, and they've been affected for, well, over 40 years. How do you personally approach that? It must be difficult.
MINISTER: Yeah look I … that's a really good question. There are five surviving widows, and I did not want them to get a letter from me out of the blue, 50 years on, saying oh by the way we're now going to make an offer to bring your man home. So I thought I can't do that to them, I need to ring them. So I rang all five widows personally and three were very, very emotional, and they wanted their men back. One definitely no, another one maybe so. But look, as Peter said this morning, I've made- Peter Chandler said this morning – I've made it quite clear that there's not to be any pressure on those families who don't want to bring them home, who want to leave them there.
I think- look, the way it's tracking at the moment, I think most will come home Peter. And there's some really lovely stories as well. There's a- we were contacted by a family member whose young sibling had died and they spread the ashes at Terendak. And what we're going to do is we'll get some soil from Terendak and we'll bring that home. It's not quite the same obviously, but the family's really, really thrilled we're going to do that, because Terendak's on the military base, it's actually quite difficult to get into.
PETER BUTLER: Okay.
MINISTER: They maintain it really well, but it is difficult to get into. So we'll bring some soil back representing the ashes of that young person. So there's 24 from Vietnam, one from Malaysia, one at Kranji, and there's eight dependents. And there were two who were killed in non-combat operations. So they're all coming home. The families of those who want to bring them, they're all coming home.
PETER BUTLER: Are you- I mean, concerned is the wrong word, but what about the Second World War? There's a lot of Australian diggers lying on the hill in Karangi in Singapore. Is there any talk or … about them …
PETER BUTLER: … logistically it would be impossible.
MINISTER: It would be absolutely impossible. And we all agreed at the outset with this that – both Vietnam veterans' associations, the federation and the association, and the RSL - that this was unique to the extent that you had the same theatre, and as I said before, and men were treated differently. And that's the wrong that needs to be righted, and that's what we'll do.
I mean look, they'll be accorded full military honours. This will be a very significant event for this nation. And there's been some terrific people who've been really sensible about their approaches; Bob and others have just sort of worked their way through this without the emotion, that's made my task a lot easier when you've got sensible people like that who are running a very legitimate campaign.
PETER BUTLER: And I understand you'll be catching up with Bob and a few other veterans today?
MINISTER: Yes, seeing Bob today, and I hope to possibly catch up with [indistinct] family tomorrow. So we're just trying to sort through that at the moment. I mean he was- his stories are quite remarkable, and he's very highly decorated by the South Vietnamese. And he was a very …
PETER BUTLER: Yes.
MINISTER: … he's a very brave man. And to get him back, I just think it will be fantastic.
PETER BUTLER: Well Senator, thank you very much for your time this morning. It's a sad but it's a great story.
MINISTER: Thanks Peter, appreciate it.
PETER BUTLER: Alright.
MINISTER: Thank you.
PETER BUTLER: Senator Ronaldson there, the Federal Minister for Veterans' Affairs, talking about Operation Bring Them Home.
Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) and Veterans Line can be reached 24 hours a day across Australia for crisis support and free and confidential counselling. Phone 1800 011 046