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Wednesday, 17 August 2011
Page: 8498


Mr ALEXANDER (Bennelong) (17:58): Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born on 30 August 1912 and died on 7 August 2011, just a few weeks short of her 99th birthday. Nancy Wake is revered as one of Australia's greatest war heroes, serving on the Special Operations Executive of the French Resistance during World War II. Her efforts earned her a listing on the Nazi's most wanted list and the nickname the 'White Mouse', which the Gestapo attributed in recognition of her elusiveness. Like so many great Australians, Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand. Following the success of her father's journalistic career, the family of eight moved to Sydney and established themselves in the northern suburbs of Sydney, not far from the electorate of Bennelong. Nancy developed respect for the military service from an early age, attending the very first Anzac Day service at Martin Place and returning every year after. This was a different time—a time when Australia was still very much ensconced in the yoke of mother England. Just prior to World War I, future Australian Prime Minister Andrew Fisher declared that Australia would fight on Britain's side to the last man and the last shilling. Nancy was conscious and respectful of this reality. In Peter FitzSimons's wonderful book Nancy Wake: A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine, Nancy states:

That was simply the way it was. I was brought up in a family where, although we were from New Zealand and living in Australia, we were of Great Britain and we were loyal to whoever was on the throne. It was never something we questioned.

Nancy had an adventurous spirit and was greatly influenced by Lucy Maud Montgomery's books, Anne of Green Gables and its sequel Anne of the Island, whose title character approached life with a level of enthusiasm uncommon for girls of that era. This spirit and imagination led to Nancy's strong desire to travel and explore the world. Nancy Wake trained as a nurse, then travelled to London to study journalism, becoming a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in Paris where she first hand saw the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. In an ABC Radio interview in 1985, she said:

I saw the disagreeable things that he was doing to people, first of all to the Jews. I thought it was quite revolting.

In 1939, Nancy married a wealthy French industrialist and when war broke out they helped British airmen and Jewish families to escape the occupying German forces, in the process planning escape routes for thousands of Allied troops. Her activities and reputation grew and by 1943 the Nazis were directly targeting her capture, putting a 5 million franc bounty on her head. Her husband was captured, tortured and then executed for refusing to provide the Gestapo with any information about her activities or whereabouts. Nancy fled to Spain, carrying the guilt of her husband's death for the rest of her days. If it had not been for her, she mourned, he would have survived the war.

Over the next few years, Nancy Wake trained as a special operations executive spy, parachuted into regions of France to organise the resistance, and facilitated ammunition deliveries and the establishment of radio links—all essential services in a war campaign. She helped to recruit an additional 3,000 fighters, nearly doubling the size of her force. She physically led fighters on guerrilla missions against German troops and installations, reportedly killing some soldiers with her bare hands and winning the respect of forces on both sides.

Stories abound of her selflessness and heroism to support the war effort. This was recognised by the post-war French who awarded her the Croix de Guerre and the Resistance Medal and later made her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. The British awarded her the George Medal, the Americans gave her the Medal of Freedom, yet, in a quirk of history, she received no formal recognition from her home country.

After the war, Nancy became bored with her desk-bound London existence and returned to Australia, deciding to try her hand in the far less noble world of politics. Showing great judgment and foresight she joined the New South Wales Liberal Party and quickly became a hero within a young party. She served on the party's state executive and stood at the historic 1949 federal election that brought Robert Menzies to power, choosing to battle Labor legend Doc Evatt in his home seat of Barton. It is said that after winning preselection she sent Dr Evatt a telegram reading:

Nancy Wake, Liberal candidate, parachuted into Barton tonight.

The 13 per cent swing that she garnered fell just short but she chose to challenge him again in 1951, this time falling short by only a few hundred votes. Never one to give up, Nancy contested the seat of Kingsford-Smith at the 1966 federal election, earning a seven per cent swing for the Liberal Party but again falling just short. Whilst Nancy was bitterly disappointed at her three losses, it must be remembered that she was no ordinary woman of the Liberal Party and, whilst I never had the pleasure of meeting Nancy, I am sure that there are some conservative ladies within current day Liberal branches who would find her brashness and brutal honesty quite confronting. When asked about this for her biography, she responded:

What did I care about trying to be a lady? After what I had been through the thought that I would worry about whether or not I wore stockings or a hat was completely ludicrous. If any of them ever wanted to chip me about it, I told them off in the strongest possible language.

The irony of going through the history of this legendary character is that she would have hated all of this fuss being made about her. A close friend of mine knew Nancy well, and when I asked what she would have thought about this speech the answer was a gin-soaked response: 'They're all talking bull-dust. Just shut up and have a drink!' Nancy was renowned for her straight talking and her plain speaking, and this never changed. She was incredibly brave, fun, happy-go-lucky, feisty and never ambiguous. When I asked this friend, who is far more eloquent than I, what the best way was to sum up Nancy, he simply said, 'She was a bloody good lady.'

It has been said several times already that Nancy enjoyed little more than a drink or three, and later in life she chose to sell her war medals in order to fund her lifestyle, being quoted at the time: 'There was no point in keeping them. I'll probably go to hell and they'd melt anyway.' When successive Australian governments offered her some belated recognition, she responded: 'If they gave this to me now it wouldn't be for love. They can stick their medals where the monkey sticks his nuts.' But she did have great respect and admiration for John Howard, who made time for a private meeting with her during one trip in London. As a result, in 2004 she accepted the Howard government's offer of recognition and was finally made a Companion of the Order of Australia.

Nancy Wake's life is an inspiration to all Australians and those across Europe, who have written with reverence since her death. I am informed that it was her wish that her ashes be scattered in central France, where she attacked the local Gestapo headquarters in 1944. I hope that in death her wishes can be recognised by her government in a timely fashion, in a way that perhaps her wishes during her life were not. There will never be another Nancy Wake. May she rest in peace.