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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4219


Dr NELSON (7:11 PM) —I rise to support very strongly this motion. I commend the member for Fairfax for bringing it to the attention of the House and for his tireless, loyal and deep commitment to seeing that there is appropriate recognition for Australia’s submariners. In relation to that, I say to the member for Dawson that, whilst respecting what he said, submariners are not workers like any other Australian worker, which is why we have this motion before us. The recognition of Australia’s submariners, their service and sacrifice is, in itself, a metaphor for Australia’s history in submarines.

In 1914, three years after the formation of the Royal Australian Navy, the first two submarines were delivered from British shipyards to Australia. AE1 was lost off New Guinea but AE2, which would be known, sadly, to only a relatively small number of Australians, undertook that heroic mission through the Dardanelles on the morning of 25 April, 1915, getting through the narrow passage, the currents and the fortifications to sink a Turkish cruiser and to follow the orders it was given to ‘run amok’ and, five days after embarking on that campaign, to be disabled and scuttled. But how many Australians would know of it? And the truth of it is that this is a maritime nation. Maintaining a strong, technologically advanced submarine capability is vital. I commend the government for recognising that in its recent white paper by expanding Australia’s submarine fleet. This country has had 23 submarines commissioned since the establishment of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911. As Sir Winston Churchill said:

Of all the branches of men in the forces, there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than submariners.

There is an underlying stress in submarine service that will always be with us, and that stress is composed of habitability, long periods away from home, personal communication issues and communication whilst at sea. Submarine work is also hazardous and in some cases downright dangerous, particularly for those who are the subject of this motion in Oberon class submarines. The work Australian submarine crews undertake is known to very few in the Navy, to very few in Defence and, I can assure you, as a former defence minister, to very, very few in government. In fact, I would like it noted that, as a former defence minister, I am speaking in support of the motion but, for reasons that are obvious, I cannot speak specifically about my own experiences and operations that are being and have been performed by Australian submariners, but I am making a point of being here to support this resolution.

During the Cold War, the Oberon class boats undertook long and dangerous missions. Yes, we were not at war in any conventional sense, nor were the submarines engaged in peacekeeping operations. They were not authorised to use force, but had the presence of those submarines been detected and had they been captured, an international incident would have been triggered. What, for example, might have been the consequences for these men—indeed, for the nation they served—had they been detected under rules of engagement that allowed for hot pursuit of intelligence targets or for being in extremely close proximity to surface ships of other nations? It should not be necessary to paint a picture, particularly for those who lived through the Cold War.

It is very difficult to know precisely how many Australian men—and, more recently, women—have served in our submarines but it is at least 1,000. The Oberon class served this country from 1965 to 2000. We heard from the member for Fairfax that there were as many as 75 onboard in extraordinarily cramped and potentially dangerous circumstances doing what they had been asked to do by their country. I am very strongly of the view that both sides of parliament need to work earnestly to break through the intransigence of the military to see that these men, as they were from the Oberon class days, are recognised for the service that they undertook on the part of our country.

There is much injustice in life and there is even more in the recognition of military service. Every Australian man and woman that wears or has worn this uniform has given a special service to this nation. It is unfair to compare them, whether it is the cook on HMAS Warramunga or whether it is Keith Payne VC. For some of our personnel who are appropriately and rightly awarded an Active Service Medal, the comparison with what was done in submarines where they are denied this is one that I find difficult to justify, and I strongly support the resolution.