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Thursday, 19 June 2008
Page: 5388


Mr MELHAM (9:42 AM) —The Military Memorials of National Significance Bill 2008 provides the mechanism that will enable a memorial built outside the ACT, and which meets specific criteria, to be recognised as a military memorial of national significance. I commend the minister for this initiative, which allows the recognition of national memorials to be established outside the capital city. At the same time I note the very specific criteria the minister has included in the bill. These criteria are important for future applications for national recognition, not to exclude memorials to our war veterans but to ensure that those which are included are worthy of the honour of the title ‘national’.

The genesis of this legislation was from activity in the city of Ballarat. The Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial was completed and dedicated on 6 February 2004. This memorial has inscribed on it the names of the 34,737 Australian prisoners of war. These are the names of the POWs who served Australia from the Anglo-Boer War, through the two World Wars and up to the Korean War, noting that there were no Australian POWs during the period of the Vietnam War. Also included at the memorial are the names of the 8,600 POWs who died in the various camps from brutality, starvation and disease. There are another 4,000 names of those for whom there are no known graves.

I am advised that the memorial itself consists of a pathway symbolising the journey of the POW. In the Botanical Gardens in Ballarat, a pathway has been created which is long and straight and interspersed with shapes like railway sleepers, symbolising the Thai-Burma Railway. Parallel to the pathway is a polished black granite wall which is 130 metres long. In a reflective pool are basalt obelisks up to 4.5 metres high, with the names of all the prisoner-of-war camps. One of the obelisks is fallen, symbolising those POWs who did not return home. The Ballarat memorial was built because of the dedication of the Ballarat RSL sub-branch, the Ex-Prisoner of War Association and the people of Ballarat. It is a tribute to their perseverance and hard work that the memorial was built, and I congratulate them on their achievement.

Those responsible for building the memorial were careful that this one should not detract from the Changi Chapel in the national capital. They were, however, concerned that there be a memorial to all Australians held captive in wartime, not just those from Ballarat. Dare I say it, Mr Deputy Speaker, but isn’t that what building a memorial is all about? It should not be about every man and his dog thinking that a memorial is a good idea and then jumping on the bandwagon to get government grants, and away you go. No, it must be more than that, as we have clearly seen demonstrated in Ballarat. The project took many people 10 years and an extraordinary community effort to finalise. This memorial stands in Ballarat today not because somebody thought it was a good idea at the time but because the veterans community and the local Ballarat community passionately believed in the need to establish such a memorial. Moreover, the community was prepared to work together over a long period of time to make it happen because they thought it important: a memorial which, apart from other factors, actually contained the names of all those men and women who were prisoners of war, as well as including those from all the conflicts where Australians were taken as prisoners of war.

This government has taken the first important step in allowing for such memorials to be called national memorials. I am sure that the minister and the member for Ballarat must be elated that this has finally come to pass through their representations and decision making. At the same time it is important that we are very clear as to the criteria which will be applied to future such memorials. I think it right that the process not be effortless. If it is easy, it would disrespect the people whom the memorials are built to remember, as well as the people who made it happen.

The explanatory memorandum to the bill details clause 4(3), which specifies the criteria for any memorial to be declared a military memorial of national significance. The memorial must be of a scale, design and standard appropriate for such a memorial; be dignified, in keeping with its purpose and standing as a war memorial; commemorate Australian military involvement in a significant aspect of Australia’s wartime history, and the commemoration of that involvement must be the sole purpose of the memorial; have a major role in community commemorations; observe Commonwealth flag protocols; be owned or managed by a state or Northern Territory authority, and that authority must be responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the memorial, including financial responsibility; comply with applicable planning, construction and related requirements; be located on public land within a state or the Northern Territory; be publicly accessible, and entry must be free; be constructed and functioning as a memorial; and not be associated with a commercial function that conflicts with its purpose. These criteria are reasonable and entirely suitable for the purposes that have been determined, and I am confident that most veterans would agree with me.

The minister has made it very clear that any ongoing maintenance or refurbishment is the responsibility of the authority that owns or manages it. A further measure within the legislation provides that the minister is able to revoke a declaration should a memorial cease to meet the legislated requirements. It is not easy to establish a national memorial, nor should it be. When in opposition, the government promised that this step would be taken—that legislation would be introduced to allow for national war memorials outside the ACT. So we continue the process of delivering what we promised.

The issue of war memorials brings to mind a recent visit to an overseas memorial made by one of my constituents. He was part of a representative veterans group present at the dedication of the Park of the Australian Soldier and the unveiling of the Australian Light Horse Memorial in Be’er Sheva, in Israel. This memorial commemorates the famous charge on Beersheba, as it was then known, of Australian Light Horsemen. The units involved were the New South Wales 12th Light Horse Regiment and the 4th Light Horse Regiment from Victoria. The park was funded through a private donation, with contributions by both the Australian and Israeli governments and the local council.

The history of the charge at Beersheba is breathtaking in its audacity. According to the official history, written by HS Gullett:

From the crest of the ridge Beersheba was in full view, four miles away to the north-west. The course of the Australians lay down a long, slight slope broken occasionally by tracks cut by heavy rains, but bare of growth or other cover. Somewhere between them and the town lay a system of enemy trenches.

…            …            …

At 4.30 the two regiments moved off at the trot, deploying at once until there was a space of five yards between the horsemen. Surprise and speed were their one chance, and almost at once the pace was quickened to a gallop.

…            …            …

After going nearly two miles, hot machine-gun fire was directed against the leading squadrons …

…            …            …

Many horses in the leading line were hit and dropped, but there was no check to the charge ... These Australian countrymen had never in all their riding at home ridden a race like this; and all ranks, from the heroic ground scouts galloping in front of the squadron leaders, to the men in the third line, drove in their spurs and charged on Beersheba.

The action, as we know, was successful, and Beersheba, with its critical water wells, was taken. This successful charge is perhaps not so well known as other actions of the First World War, but it is one of the most significant, both in the boldness of the charge itself and in the impact it had on the direction of the war in the Middle East thereafter.

Among the Australians invited to attend the dedication of the park and the unveiling of the memorial were seven former light horsemen from the Second World War. There are no survivors now alive from the First World War. Two of these men had relatives who participated in the charge across the desert on 31 October 1917. The ceremony occurred on 28 April at Be’er Sheva, now in Israel. The park was dedicated by the Governor-General of Australia and the President of Israel in the presence of the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Hon. Alan Griffin. The members for Mackellar and North Sydney were also present. I understand that the grandfather of the member for North Sydney was appointed by the occupying British force to supervise the rebuilding of Beersheba. Reports of the ceremony indicate that the Israeli President was fulsome in his praise of Australia and Australians. The centrepiece of the memorial park is a memorial sculpture of a light horseman leaping the trenches during the charge on Beersheba held by the Turkish. The fact that Australia now enjoys such warm relations with Turkey is proof, if any were needed, that the lives forfeited on that day on both sides were not in vain.

There are 773 Australian war dead commemorated in Israel: 544 from the First World War and 229 from the Second World War. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the nearby Beersheba War Cemetery, which contains 1,241 graves of the First World War, of whom 175 are of Australians. I would like to take a moment to consider the issue of the maintenance of war memorials and war graves. The charter of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is to mark and maintain the memorials of the Commonwealth war dead, including Australians. The Office of Australian War Graves, on behalf of the Commonwealth commission, maintains CWGC cemeteries and memorials in Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Norfolk Island. Official overseas war memorials are the responsibility of the Office of Australian War Graves. These are maintained on a regular basis, and a program of specific works is drawn up annually to identify projects.

There are many privately constructed memorials to Australians overseas, and maintenance is the responsibility of those who constructed them. In some very specific cases, some government grants are available to assist with their restoration and preservation. Generally these funds apply to those overseas privately constructed war memorials where Australian veterans, military associations or other associations recognising the contribution of Australian service personnel have some involvement. My understanding is that the Australian Light Horse Memorial at Be’er Sheva is covered under the Office of Australian War Graves Overseas Privately Constructed Memorial Restoration Program. This contribution by the Australian government is for the maintenance of the actual monument itself, not the works associated with the Park of the Australian Soldier in which the monument stands.

I commend the Bill to the House. I know that in effect it is supported by all sides of the House. These are issues that rise above politics. We play our political games at times, but not in relation to this. We honour our war dead. These memorials need to be preserved, protected and, when appropriate, erected so that we never forget the sacrifices that have been made that allow us to conduct the democracy that we have today.