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REPAT - A Concise History of Repatriation in Australia - Introduction

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‘Repatriation’ – or ‘Repat’ for short – is uniquely Australian in concept and meaning.

Soon after the First World War broke out, the Commonwealth Government recognised that provision must be made for the wounded and the widows and families of the war dead and enacted the War Pensions Act 1914. It was the aftermath of the dawn landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 that galvanised public opinion, however, and in subsequent weeks and months there was a groundswell of voluntary activity as a wide range of groups – some local, some national (such as the Red Cross) – poured their energies into fundraising and other activities to support the injured who were already returning home. But it soon became apparent that voluntary effort, vital as it was, would not be enough and that a comprehensive repatriation program managed by the Commonwealth Government would be necessary. Accordingly, the Australian Soldiers’ Repatriation Act 1917 entered the statute book, and in April 1918 the newly formed Repatriation Commission and Repatriation Department began their work on behalf of Australia’s war veterans and widows.

By the war’s end, ‘Repat’ had become a household word, on the lips of all and sundry, and had already begun to take on its multiplicity of meanings – a meld that was distinctly Australian. ‘Repat’ referred to the return and demobilisation of the Australian Imperial Force – the able-bodied as well as the wounded – but it meant much more than this. As we shall see in this book, ‘Repatriation’ was many things – war pensions, health care, education, vocational training, employment assistance, help with housing, soldier settlement on the land, remembrance and commemoration – all administered through the Repatriation Commission and its department, with the continuing assistance of the voluntary sector, especially the Red Cross and the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (today known as the RSL or the Returned and Services League of Australia).

The Second World War changed and expanded the repatriation system, making it far more accessible to the hundreds of thousands of demobilising men and women, and its provisions were continually under review. The Vietnam War and other post-1945 conflicts and peacekeeping tasks posed yet further challenges for the commission and department, which continued to innovate across the whole spectrum of provision, in the process becoming major initiators of health-care research in Australia. On 5 October 1976, the Repatriation Department was rebranded the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), a prelude to the decades ahead – at the end of the old millennium and into the new – when DVA would shift from being a leading provider of health care to become a major purchaser. This would also be the era of information technology, in its infancy at first but soon a remarkably powerful and flexible tool that would enable DVA to provide ‘joined up’, ‘veteran-centric’ support direct to veterans and their families, wherever in Australia they might be.

A hundred years after their foundation, the commission and department continue to provide a comprehensive range of repatriation services for veterans and serving Australian Defence Force (ADF) members. Although many of the provisions have changed out of all recognition during that century, the commitment to maintaining a range of support to meet emerging needs has remained steadfast, as has the wider Australian allegiance to the repatriation ethos. This, then, is a history of repatriation in Australia, from those tentative early steps at the beginning of the First World War to the root-and-branch transformation process of the early twenty-first century that, a century and more after the dawn landing, typifies DVA today.

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