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Wednesday, 13 November 2013
Page: 186


Senator SMITH (Western Australia) (13:31): I rise to discuss a matter that is already of great interest to many people across Australia and which I hope will become of great interest to many more over the next 12 months. As our nation grows we celebrate and we commemorate. Just last month the Royal Australian Navy marked its centenary with the International Fleet Review in Sydney Harbour. National and international dignitaries joined with Australians from all walks of life in paying tribute to our Navy's proud tradition of service and the significant role it has played in keeping our nation secure and free. Appropriately, the tone was one of celebration, with music and fireworks displays entertaining the throngs of people who lined the many kilometres of the foreshore to take part in these historic events.

In just under one year from now, on 1 November next year, our nation will commemorate another significant milestone in the history of the Royal Australian Navy and our nation. Instead of Sydney Harbour, the national spotlight will be on Western Australia and its first European settlement, the township of Albany. It was on the morning of 1 November 1914 that 36 merchant ships sat anchored in the waters of Albany's King George Sound joined by the newly born Royal Australian Navy ships HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Sydneyalong with HMS Minotaur, which had escorted ships from New Zealand. Aboard the merchant ships were some 30,000 troops from the Australian Imperial Force and the New Zealand Expedition Force, 26 nurses from the Australian Army Nursing Service and 7,500 horses, who together would establish one of Australian history's most enduring chapters.

Yet the meaning of this chapter continues to arouse passions. In April this year, on the eve of Anzac Day, La Trobe University professor Marilyn Lake gave a speech in which she dismissed the Anzac experience as 'a myth that should be cast off'. At the same time, alleged comedian Catherine Deveny took to Twitter to dismiss the Anzacs as 'racists, misogynists and rapists'. I found it disappointing in the extreme this week when former Prime Minister Paul Keating chose to use his speech at the Australian War Memorial on Remembrance Day to continue what has been a consistent pattern of divisive behaviour by him. It is one thing for an attention-seeking quasi-celebrity like Catherine Deveny to say outrageous things about Australia's war dead—her comments are of little consequence and of even less value. However, comments from a former prime minister are quite different; by virtue of the position Paul Keating once held, his words are accorded weight. Knowing this, I was saddened that Mr Keating chose a solemn occasion such as Remembrance Day, in a place as hallowed as the Australian War Memorial, to say what he had to say. I am sure many senators are by now aware of the contents of Mr Keating's speech. I take particular exception to this passage:

Young Australians ... can no longer be dragooned en masse into military enterprises of the former imperial variety on the whim of so-called statesmen. They are fortunately too wise to the world to be cannon fodder of the kind their young forebears became: young innocents who had little or no choice.

Paul Keating's obsessive need to rewrite our nation's history, chiefly to recast the United Kingdom as the villain of the piece, borders on the absurd. As columnist Miranda Devine noted yesterday, many of those Australians who fought in the First World War, including her own grandfather, made a conscious choice to answer the call to duty. Moreover, at that time many of them did feel a deep and abiding connection to the United Kingdom—as alien and distasteful a concept as that may seem to Paul Keating and his like. Many of those Australians who fought in the First World War did not feel as though they were being oppressed by an empire; they saw it as their duty to protect and serve that empire. To reduce the heroes of Gallipoli to the status of simpletons who were marched off to fight Britain's wars is offensive in the extreme. It is the kind of low-rent dial-a-comment rhetoric in which this former prime minister has long specialised.

To try and retrospectively project the attitudes and thinking of a section of contemporary Australian society on those who lived a century ago is absurd. Yet it is something Mr Keating has often tried to do. I was working in this very building twenty years ago, in October 1993, as a staff member for the then member for Cowan. At that time Mr Keating was Prime Minister and preparations were being made for the service to bury the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial. It was announce   d that Mr Keating would serve as chief pallbearer. As I recall, the government had at that point made no provision for the Leader of the Opposition to participate as a pallbearer. This, of course, was outrageous. These occasions should always be bipartisan. And I think all senators and members of the public would agree that the recent joint visit to Afghanistan by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten set an entirely appropriate tone.

The then member for Cowan made a contribution to the adjournment debate to highlight the then government's appalling decision. He said:

This Armistice Day will be a particularly unique one with the entombment of Australia's own Unknown Soldier. The date of 11 November 1993 has been marked as a national day of importance, and correctly so. However, I am personally distressed and saddened by the decision to allow the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) to be the chief pallbearer.

The member for Cowan went on to say:

When we examine who the other five pallbearers are on this occasion—the Chief of the Defence Force Staff, the chief of each of the services, and the Vice-Chairman of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—the decision to make the Prime Minister the chief pallbearer leaves me very concerned.

The Prime Minister should take his rightful and respected position behind the official mourner, the Governor-General, in the company of other parliamentary and political leaders, the mayors of two French cities which were located on the western front and representatives of national veterans and widow organisations.

I recall Labor MPs that night affecting outrage that Mr Keating's right to serve as chief pallbearer would even be questioned. I recall the even rarer sight of Mr Keating himself—who generally tried to limit his parliamentary appearances as Prime Minister—wanting to come back to the chamber. The then member for Cowan was speaking for many in his own electorate and, I am sure, across the country and in the wider community.

Eventually, on that occasion, Mr Keating was forced to back down. That has not stopped his relentless campaign to rewrite Australian history to suit his own ends. In this task, he can always be relied upon to support a small but vocal group of academics and attention-seeking public figures who think that they are wiser or more virtuous than others in the community. Happily, these embittered and irrational voices are drowned out by a more enlightened and enduring perspective. The vast majority of Australians recognise that what occurred at Gallipoli birthed a determination that remains one of our nation's defining characteristics—the Anzac spirit.

The departure of the first ANZAC convoy that November morning in 1914 was a dramatic spectacle. Albany residents lined the shores to bid the troops farewell. Some climbed to the top of Mount Clarence to obtain a fuller view over King George Sound, and watched as the ships sailed over the horizon. For those on board the convoy, it felt like the start of an exciting adventure. Few could have anticipated the horror of what was to come when they arrived in Gallipoli in April of the following year. For many, what started as an adventure would end in the ultimate sacrifice.

All Australians of the generations that have followed have heard the story of what was to come. But the sheer enormity of it remains staggering. When the guns finally fell silent at Gallipoli in December 1915 after eight months of fighting, some 8,700 Australians were dead, and a further 19,000 had been injured. Nine Australian Victoria Crosses were awarded over the eight-month Gallipoli campaign—seven of them in the three-day battle at Lone Pine. In military terms, the battle was a failure. Yet in the calamity there was birthed a determination that remains one of our nation's defining characteristics to this day—the Anzac spirit.

Just as many thousands of Australians make the pilgrimage to Turkey each year to stand on the hallowed ground at Gallipoli, Western Australia's central role at the dawn of the Anzac legend is now set to receive its due recognition. In November 2014, Albany will commemorate the departure of the convoy from King George Sound with a series of events that will be the subject of national and international attention. Among the highlights will be a re-enactment of the convoy's departure, comprising ships from the Royal Australian Navy, along with ships sent by our friends and allies abroad. The brand new Anzac Interpretive Centre near the Princess Royal Fortress on Mount Adelaide will provide all visitors, but especially younger Australians, with a deeper appreciation of our state's role in the Anzac story and of the heroic sacrifices made by those who never returned. The construction of the new centre, along with a commemorative walk, will help to cement this part of Western Australia as a site of tremendous historical significance.

Of course, the events in Albany next year will differ in tone from what we witnessed just recently on Sydney Harbour—they will be a commemoration, not a celebration. As noted in the report of the Anzac Centenary Advisory Board to the previous government, the focus will be on a 'small scale symbolic event that is reflective of the sombre reality of the experiences that faced the servicemen and servicewomen on board the convoys when they reached Gallipoli and later the Western Front'. Nonetheless, West Australians, particularly those from Albany and the Great Southern region, will take enormous pride in their community's central place in the Anzac story being commemorated so significantly and 1 November 2014 will be the first of many commemorative events that mark the centenary of the Great War. It will be a fitting tribute to that Anzac spirit first recorded by Australian historian Charles Bean; a spirit that stands for 'reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat'.