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DVA celebrates 100 years of repatriation

This image depicts Senator Edward Davis Millen and members of the Repatriation Commission, meeting in May 1920 at the Repatriation Department in Melbourne.

Senator Edward Davis Millen (foreground) and members of the Repatriation Commission, meeting in May 1920 at the headquarters of the Repatriation Department in Melbourne. (AWM 12880)

In April 2018, the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) celebrated the centenary of the establishment of the Repatriation Commission and Repatriation Department, marking the beginning of the nation's commitment to provide for Australians who served in war, and their families.

As part of the celebration, DVA published 'Repat'—A concise history of repatriation in Australia by Professor Philip Payton of Flinders University. The foreword to the book, extracted here, was provided by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs.

In early 1917, in the midst of the First World War and with an Allied victory not yet in sight, Prime Minister W.M. 'Billy' Hughes made a promise to the country's armed forces on behalf of the Australian people. 'When you come back we will look after you', he declared. It was a solemn and binding promise and Hughes recognised returning soldiers would be entitled to say to the Commonwealth Government: 'You made us a promise. We look to you to carry it out'.

Earlier in the war, public opinion had imagined the numerous voluntary patriotic funds which had sprung up across Australia would be enough to support the rehabilitation of returning men and women into civilian life. By 1917, however, the enormity of the task had become clear and both State and Commonwealth Governments understood legislative action was required. The result was the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Act 1917, its chief architect Senator Edward Davis Millen who would become Australia's first Minister for Repatriation. In April 1918, 100 years ago, the new Repatriation Commission and the Repatriation Department began work in earnest, aiming to fulfil the promise Hughes had made.

As well as bringing home the troops from overseas, 'Repat', as it was universally known provided war pensions, healthcare, education and training, employment and housing, soldier settlement and remembrance and commemoration. Ambitious in scope it attempted to address the widely varying needs of veterans and their dependants. The Repatriation Commission and Department were also anxious to work closely with the voluntary sector including the Returned Services League, Australian Red Cross, and Legacy, setting an example which continues to this day.

This image shows the book cover of 'Repat' — A concise history of repatriation in Australia.

Book cover image (AWM 126088)

At first, it was imagined that once all the veterans of the First World War had been successfully 'repatriated', in the fullest sense of the word, the Commission and Department would quietly wither away, their job done. However, the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 led to a new 'second wave' of veterans, perpetuating the work of the Repatriation Department, as did early post-war conflicts such as the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency and the Indonesian Confrontation. Soon there was to be a significant 'third wave' of veterans as a result of the controversial Vietnam War, leading to lengthy and often heated debate, as well as extensive new medical research, about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the effects of Agent Orange, from which many hard lessons were learned. More recently military operations in East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, have led to a 'fourth wave' of veterans, different in many ways from those who had gone before.

In October 1976 the Repatriation Department was renamed the Department of Veterans' Affairs and in the years ahead it embraced change enthusiastically as it responded to new opportunities and challenges. The Department proved an early advocate of the possibilities of technology and moved from being a major provider to a major purchaser of healthcare services. Increasingly 'veteran‑centric' in their outlook as they approached their centenary, the Repatriation Commission and the Department of Veterans' Affairs embarked upon an all embracing transformation process which aimed to engage with 'all the domains of veteran well-being' to ensure veterans and their families had a healthy and productive life.

By now the methods of the Commission and Department had changed out of all recognition since those early days in 1918. But Billy Hughes' promise, made a hundred years ago, still holds true as 'Repat's' guiding principle.

The Hon Darren Chester MP
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
March 2018

As the Minister describes, DVA's current program of transformation is the latest milestone in a century of progress towards ensuring that the needs of veterans and their families are understood and met, and that their service and sacrifice are commemorated.

'Repat'—A concise history of repatriation in Australia can be downloaded free of charge from the DVA website.

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