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Thursday, 19 June 2008
Page: 5384


Mr JOHNSON (9:23 AM) —I rise in the parliament today to speak on the Military Memorials of National Significance Bill 2008. Let me say at the outset that, as the son and the grandson of two men who have worn the uniforms of their respective countries in different eras and different theatres, in the execution of my duties as the federal member for Ryan and as a member of the Australian parliament I will always have a special commitment to the interests and welfare of serving and former members of the Australian Defence Force. I want to take the opportunity to thank all those in the Ryan electorate, which I have the great honour of representing in this parliament, who give generously of their time to honour the memory and deeds of all those who have served our country.

This bill provides a mechanism that seeks to permit memorials outside this nation’s Capital Territory to be recognised as military memorials of national significance. This bill specifically has in mind the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat. The memorial, which was completed in 2004, is etched with the names of more than 35,000 Australian prisoners of war, from the Boer War through to the Korean War. Initially, it was the election commitment of Mr Rudd that the memorial in Ballarat be recognised formally as a national memorial. But, despite the character and theme of this memorial, which would otherwise satisfy the current criteria applicable to the ACT, it is not currently recognised as a national memorial. I should say that this bill still does not allow for the memorial to be given national memorial status. So, interestingly, the bill goes against the grain of the Rudd Labor government’s election commitment made last November.

As the Liberal federal member for Ryan, I am certainly not going to let the Rudd Labor government and the Australian Labor Party get away with misrepresenting to the constituents of Ryan the commitments and the great work of the Howard government when it came to the construction and maintenance of our war memorials, and especially the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat. The people of Ryan, and especially the veterans of Ryan and the members of the various RSL sub-branches in Ryan, would expect me to accurately record the Howard government’s policy. The former Howard government and previous Howard government ministers were strong advocates of the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat, and this was demonstrated by that government’s allocation of some half a million dollars to the memorial, which is the largest federal government grant allocated to a memorial outside of Canberra.

As I say, at the last election Mr Rudd promised the people of Ballarat and those interested in this issue that, if elected, he would formally recognise the Ballarat memorial as a national war memorial. Let me quote the words of Mr Rudd. I know that the people of Ryan will certainly be interested in this because they have a great interest in the performance of the Labor government. I am sure that anybody listening to this debate in the Ryan electorate will be particularly keen to know of the clear inconsistency that will be highlighted. Mr Rudd, when he was interviewed on radio 3BA, said:

And I think it’s entirely appropriate that this community—

that is, the Ballarat community—

has put together a memorial for them. If we form the next government, I will move anything necessary to ensure that this is properly recognised as a national war memorial.

In being critical of the Howard government, Mr Rudd stated:

Mr Howard and his Minister think that the only national memorials that can exist for the war have to be in Canberra. Now, if that is true, if that is actually their view, I just don’t agree with it.

Given that this bill does nothing of the kind, it is yet another crystal clear example of the behaviour of the new Prime Minister and his government, who simply cannot keep their promises. They reach for the moon but are unable to deliver. Simply put, it is a broken election promise and another attempt to deceive the wider public and certainly the people of Ryan.

If this bill does not in fact make the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat a national memorial, then one might ask: what does it do? Quite simply, what the government has done in a very cunning way is to introduce an entire new category and label it ‘military memorials of national significance’. This is very different from declaring memorials as national memorials. This is the fundamental point that I wish to raise in this parliament and which I wish to draw to the attention of the constituents of Ryan. The public needs to be made aware of this, because Mr Rudd is clearly being very mischievous. At the election he said one thing and now in government he is clearly doing something else.

The fact is that the National Memorials Ordinance provides that national memorials can only be located within the boundaries of the ACT. Whilst the Labor Party, throughout the time they were in opposition, strongly argued that there was no legal impediment to declaring the Ballarat prisoner of war memorial a national memorial, as brightly as the sun shines in our Australian skies the introduction of this bill now demonstrates that the Rudd Labor government clearly agrees with the previous position of the Howard government—that is, that it is not possible to make memorials outside of the ACT. Just as an election commitment is easily made, so too is it easily broken by this new Prime Minister. But as the member for Ryan I will continue to shine a very bright torch on the Rudd Labor government’s modus operandi. It is clearly unacceptable that a commitment is made at the election for something that is pretty black and white and yet, when it comes to being in government, there is a very different course of action. Indeed, there is a certain pattern of political behaviour starting to creep into this government and to become very clear to the people of the Ryan electorate, which, as I say, I have the great honour of representing here in the national parliament.

In the context of this bill, I would like to draw to the attention of the Speaker, the government, the Prime Minister and particularly the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs the great story of a gentleman by the name of Mick Dennis. I am sure that most if not all of my colleagues in this parliament would be very keen to honour those Australians who have worn the uniform and shown their remarkable spirit of courage and determination in great adversity.

I also want to draw to the attention of the parliament a book called The Guns of Muschu. It was written by Don Dennis, a Vietnam veteran. Don’s son has worn the Australian uniform and has served in Iraq. But of relevance here is that Don Dennis is the nephew of Mick Dennis, an incredible Australian who served in World War II but whose name very few Australians would know. Mick Dennis was part of a special and highly secretive intelligence operation with seven other highly trained commando colleagues in Papua New Guinea that went tragically and horribly wrong. I would like to read into the Hansard from the back cover of this book, The Guns of Muschu. I thank the Parliamentary Library for their wonderful work in making the book available to me. It is not actually available in our library so, with great diligence, they managed to get it to my office on loan from the National Library of Australia. For those of my colleagues, particularly the newer members of this parliament who do not use the services of our Parliamentary Library, let me say that it is a wonderful repository of resources for our work.

I quote from the back cover of The Guns of Muschu:

During the night of 11 April 1945, eight Australian Z Special commandos landed on Japanese-held Muschu Island, off the coast of New Guinea. Their mission was to reconnoitre the island’s defences and confirm the location of two concealed naval guns that commanded the approaches to Wewak Harbour.

But the secret mission went horribly wrong. Unknown to the commandos, their presence had been discovered within hours of their landing. With no means of escape, the island became a killing ground.

Nine days later, on the New Guinea mainland, the only survivor staggered back through the Japanese lines to safety...

This is the remarkable true story of that survivor.

That survivor is Mick Dennis, and his nephew, Don Dennis, wrote this book, The Guns of Muschu. Anyone who is interested in Australian military history must read this book. It is a story of rare courage and fortitude. It is a story of a man’s determination to survive in surroundings that must have been terrifying and which few people would survive.

The story of Mick Dennis came to my attention via my father, who has actually seen the guns of Muschu. I have taken an interest in how we can honour Mick Dennis’s courage and his remarkable survival. The book reports that the guns are still in remarkably good condition. I have taken an interest because I grew up in Wewak in Papua New Guinea. I was never aware of the guns of Muschu but I certainly hope that one day I can see them for myself. My fervent hope is that Mick Dennis, who is now in his 90s, has a chance to see the guns of Muschu in his lifetime. I hope that the man who was sent to confirm their location more than six decades ago—but never saw them and lost his seven commando colleagues in the raid—can one day see them with his own eyes.

In the context of this bill, I want to ask the Rudd government to honour Mick Dennis’s courage in some way. I will be writing to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs to see if the federal government can invest in a plaque or something similarly appropriate that honours the courage and commitment of Mick Dennis. We should do this because it is the right thing to do.

I would like the Rudd government to consider discussions with the government of Papua New Guinea to see if we can construct a memorial on Muschu Island. With the guns still there, I am sure the locals would be pleased. It could become a tourist attraction and generate a revenue stream for the locals in much the same way as the Kokoda Trail does for Papua New Guinea. The Kokoda Trail has become something of an iconic place to visit for Australians with a deep interest in Australian military history and a wish to honour those Australians who served in PNG.

Mick Dennis is still alive and I look forward very much to the deep honour of meeting him and also his nephew, Don Dennis, who wrote this book. I want to read a passage from The Guns of Muschu that really gives a flavour of the terror and the feeling that he must have had when he was swimming from Muschu Island to the mainland of New Guinea to survive. It is a remarkable story and I encourage all those who might have a little bit of time to read as much as they can of this book or certainly to read passages from it. I quote from page 158 of the book, which describes the beginning of Mick Dennis’s swim from Muschu Island to the mainland of New Guinea:

Removing his trousers, he stuffed them with his boots, weapon and ammunition, then bound them to the plank with vines. Pushing the plank out into deep water, he crawled onto it and used his arms to paddle out into the lagoon.

Although there was only a partial moon, it was very bright. As he stroked away from shore, he expected any moment to hear the zip of bullets around him. But none came, and he soon reached the reef. There was only a low swell and he crossed it without trouble, then headed out into deep water. Breathing easier now, he checked his course by the moon, set himself into a steady rhythm and began the long paddle towards the mainland.

From page 162:

Dennis was two hours into the crossing when the first shark came. He was paddling through calm water alive with phosphorescence, every stroke leaving a fiery trail that flamed and sparkled with blue-green light. He heard splashing behind him, then the hiss of a fin cutting through the water. The shark swept past his right side, trailing phosphorescence, then arced around and headed back towards him. Dennis stopped paddling, raised his arms out of the water and tried to keep his balance as the shark streaked past his left side like a glowing torpedo. It then slowly circled.

For what seemed an eternity the shark cruised around, approaching close, then suddenly turning about as if taunting him. Finally it lost interest and swam lazily away.

Then from page 163:

Dennis could see down into the black water, where deep below fish—or sharks—were leaving trails like meteors in the sky. In some ways this was even more frightening than coming face to face with a shark ...

After another hour, a rain squall hit lashing the water, driving waves that broke over him and threatened to wash him off his plank ... Dennis resumed paddling, judging direction by the moon and straining to see the mainland. However, he’d lost all sense of time and had no idea where he was.

Still the shapes swam past him, below him, around him. It took every ounce of strength to keep going, making one stroke after another ...

The Guns of Muschu is a book that records the remarkable, rare determination of an Australian to survive in adversity that very few—I suspect none in this parliament—could contemplate. It is the story of an Australian soldier, but very few Australians would know his name. In his 90s now, I think the time has come for the Australian government to recognise and acknowledge him. I regret very much that the former Howard government did not do that. In my case, I had no idea of Mick Dennis’s existence, but now that I do I will write to the Prime Minister. I ask for the support of not only my colleagues in the coalition but also colleagues from the government who have a particular interest in this area.

For those who might be interested, the landings at Wewak that went ahead in May 1945 showed just how skilful, courageous and special our Australians were because, in that battle at Wewak, 451 Australians were killed and 1,163 were wounded while by comparison 7,200 Japanese died in the campaign. That is a remarkable difference in statistics, with over 7,000 Japanese dying compared to 451 Australians in the battle for Wewak.

To end my remarks on this bill, memories have made The Guns of Muschu an important historical document as well as a very human story of courage, sacrifice, resourcefulness, luck, sadness and recovery. I want to place on the record my strong commitment to all those in this country who have worn the uniform. Especially as the member for Ryan I want to place on record the very deep appreciation I have for members of the RSL sub-branches who do all they can to honour the sacrifices of those who have served in theatres throughout the world both in this century and in the past. Australians must be very mindful of the great responsibility that we have in this generation to honour those who have fought in the name of freedom, in the name of democracy, in the name of Australia and under the flag of Australia.

Certainly, in Ryan all the RSL sub-branches work very closely with the community and they receive remarkable support at times like Anzac Day and Remembrance Day when their voluntary deeds come to the fore. In conclusion, I want to thank the sub-branches which this year on Anzac Day organised very special services yet again, and to thank all those from the Ryan communities that went out to the various services, particularly the dawn service in Bellbowrie, which I attended. The Kenmore Moggill sub-branch of the RSL put that together with great skill and great pride. In the parliament, I honour all those who have worn the uniform in Ryan and particularly the families of those who have served our country.