Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5999

Senator MARK BISHOP (10:59 PM) —I rise on Remembrance Day 2002 to discuss the annual report of the Australian War Memorial, tabled after the Senate last sat, and to speak to that report in my capacity as shadow minister for veterans' affairs. The annual report is brief in its coverage of achievements in the past year but rather fulsome on a lot of other material which apparently formed some part of the requirements of accountability, though I must say that its volume and cost of publication are somewhat hard to justify.

In the last nine months, as I have travelled around Australia meeting with veterans and ex-service organisations, I have taken the opportunity to familiarise myself with the operation of key elements of the portfolio, including the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service, some of the former repatriation hospitals, some other private health delivery services and, more recently, the Australian War Memorial. I would like to express my thanks to those officers who briefed me so professionally. Given the subject of my speech tonight, can I especially thank the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Major-General Steve Gower, and his staff for their time and courtesy when they gave me a guided tour of the operations.

It would be fair to say that most Australians who have visited the War Memorial periodically over the last 10 years in particular would have noted with great appreciation the extraordinary changes which have taken place honouring not just the deeds of our veterans and service personnel in all theatres but also the vision of the memorial's founders, who believed that such an institution was essential to keep the flame of remembrance burning for all future generations. The memorial is no longer a place of stagnation with exhibits frozen in time or a static museum of wartime relics, as it once was. As we see it now, it is a vibrant and changing display keeping true to the original intention of remembrance and commemoration but going that extra step to actively pass on to subsequent generations the meaning of past commitments in a strikingly visible and tangible way.

Some of us in politics often bemoan the decline in the teaching of history in our schools, where choice is paramount, including soft choices, from which I believe students emerge with a much inferior understanding of their own place in the world. This is important because of the context of modern-day government in which they will soon become the key participants. As students emerge from the education system, many proceed to highly-specialised skilling, which is necessary in this increasingly technical and complex society; thus they are increasingly missing out on an appreciation of their social context. Is it any wonder that we are constantly at risk of repeating the mistakes of the past? With our current brand of consensus, poll-driven government, this lack of appreciation of context and history puts us at even more risk.

That is why the War Memorial is so valuable. It is a history lesson of lifelike proportions. No-one seeing and absorbing its content can possibly leave without an indelible impression of the horrors of war, of the suffering and bravery but also of the stupidity that led the world into conflict and the determination of the right-minded not to be bullied into accepting the aggression and greed of madmen. Above all, the War Memorial reminds the generations that pass through the display halls of the spirit of mankind and the strength of principle that we must resort to if we are to sustain our values and protect what we all love.

For veterans, of course, this is a sacred place. It is also a place of nostalgia and memories, both sad and happy. It is a reminder to them of their pain and deprivation and of the bonds of friendship they forged which lasted a lifetime. For them, it is also a matter of pride and having the satisfaction of showing their families what they experienced in real terms. It is a reminder to them too that we as a nation do not just respect what they endured but also respect their service to such a degree that we need to preserve as much as we can in so many forms the physical reminders, the stories and the graphic portrayals of the real experience.

Beyond that, the War Memorial has also become part of our family fabric as so many seek to draw and fill their family trees with the details of the service and deeds of parents and grandparents. Knowing the details of our antecedents is a fundamental part of our personal context. The work done on storing and restoring official and personal records is of the utmost importance, taking families beyond the written history to the detail and minutiae of their own inner stories, which otherwise might be lost. We all know, for example, of the excellent portrayal in the Australian newspaper of personal diaries, which are the bread and butter of the memorial's very important task of preserving the individual record. That is the history which brings the past alive, because those diaries could have been written by so many at the time.

Our gratitude and congratulations, therefore, go to the staff of the War Memorial, to all the curatorial staff, to the volunteers who spend so much of their time helping to honour the commitment that we have made to the memorial and to the historians and other staff who provide so much of the intellectual input which packages it all together. In brief, all these agencies and service delivery organisations appear to me to be doing a fine job of delivering the care to veterans which we as a community promised them implicitly when we sent them off to fight in the defence of our nation.

The Australian War Memorial here in Canberra is an icon in its own right, as our national memorial to those of our countrymen who died in active service. But it is more than simply a memorial; it is a museum as well. Everyone will be familiar with the memorial, and it comes as no surprise to anyone when they are told that it is Canberra's most popular site and one of the most visited sites in Canberra. Indeed, for the third year in a row the War Memorial has just been awarded the best major tourist attraction award in the Canberra and capital region for 2002.

The War Memorial's primary purpose is to commemorate our war dead. The Hall of Remembrance and the eternal flame are very solemn and sacred features which strike all of us the most as we reflect on the deeds and the courage of those who served. Indeed, the values of our society as they are inscribed in the stained glass are of themselves a reminder that our society today would do well to reconsider for their continued relevance. They are values for us to reflect on and promote more actively as the cornerstones which bind our society together. These values have indeed stood the test of time and have served as the essence of what living in Australia stands for. In these very troubled times, when our values are clearly not shared by some, these simple words have a particularly salutary effect.

Turning to the detail of the annual report, there is one noticeable feature, and that is the flavour of enthusiasm and commitment which drives the memorial's program. There is not only an ambitious list of future of works allowing for growth but also a solid record outlined of the successful features of the past year's program. Prominent among those are the exhibitions, which have been most successful. Also, the travelling exhibition has clearly been most popular.

The Senate might note that, in the year being reported on, 936,000 people went through the War Memorial, which is astounding. More to the point, 66 per cent were repeat visitors. Add to this the 149,000 people who visited the travelling exhibition, and it must be agreed that the memorial's activities are in demand and really do form part of our society's treasured institutions. Other statistical information in the report on the high level of research inquiries and the number of schoolchildren visiting—100,000— bears testimony to the success of the Australian War Memorial. I commend the report to the Senate.