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Thursday, 19 June 2008
Page: 5402


Mr MARLES (10:44 AM) —I rise to speak in support of the Military Memorials of National Significance Bill 2008. I do so with a great deal of pride and a great deal of pleasure. Before I commence my remarks on the bill, I acknowledge the students, seated in the galleries, from the northern Lindfield primary school on my left and from the southern Scots School Albury on my right. I think it is fantastic that they are here in Canberra today and that they will hear this particular debate as it really does go to our nation’s history and to the essence of the Australian character. I certainly welcome them to Canberra, I welcome them to the House and I hope that they have a fantastic and educative time while they are here.

This bill honours an election commitment that was given by the Prime Minister on 27 June last year on a visit to Ballarat. In essence it will recognise the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial, which is located in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens, as a military memorial of national significance. It is a very appropriate, serious and significant act for that memorial to be declared in that way. I want to talk about the memorial and its significance to our country and, indeed, the significance of the experiences of prisoners of war to our country. Before I do, it would perhaps be beneficial to explain the purpose of the bill. This bill builds upon the National Memorials Ordinance 1928, which was enacted under the Seat of Government (Administration) Act 1910, which was in turn enacted by the then Fisher Labor government. That administration act remained the constitutional basis for law-making in the Australian Capital Territory right through until 1988, when the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act was enacted by the then Hawke government.

The National Memorials Ordinance establishes the Canberra National Memorials Committee, the chair of which is the Prime Minister. The committee’s role is to consider submissions relating to national memorials and to declare them as military memorials of national significance. Importantly, however, as it currently stands, the committee can only examine proposed memorials on ‘national land’. That obviously means land within the ACT. Memorials in other parts of Australia, as matters stand at present, can only be described as ‘national in character’. It is that condition that will be altered by this bill.

The importance of doing that is borne out by the particular history of the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat. The Ballarat memorial was first announced by the then Liberal member for Ballarat, Michael Ronaldson, who is now a senator, back in 1999. No doubt he will be very gratified by the fact that this memorial will ultimately be declared a military memorial of national significance. At the time of its announcement, Mr Ronaldson said that Ballarat would have an Australian ex-prisoners of war memorial of ‘national status’. The former Assistant Treasurer, Rod Kemp, referred to the memorial as a ‘national memorial’ when announcing that donations for it would be tax deductible. However, there were a number of people in Ballarat, including those who had been working on the memorial, who wanted the memorial to have a greater significance and for it to be declared a military memorial of national significance. However, at the time, the Howard government said that that was not possible as a result of the current framework of the law. Understandably, that was a matter which was a cause of significant frustration for those people who had worked tirelessly in bringing about that memorial. It was frustrating for those people who had raised the funds for the memorial, rallied public support for its construction, supplied goods and worked on its construction and, in fact, now curate the memorial. It was also frustrating for those organisations which had been at the heart of bringing the memorial into existence—namely, the Ballarat RSL and, of course, the Ex-Prisoners of War Welfare Association—and for the people of Ballarat themselves.

This was raised with the then Labor opposition at the time of the visit by the now Prime Minister to Ballarat in June of last year. A commitment was made that if Labor were elected to government then the law would be changed so that this memorial could be deemed to be a military memorial of national significance. In doing this and in presenting this bill, we acknowledge the work of all those who have brought that memorial into being—in particular, Liz Heagney, who was acknowledged in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her work in compiling the more than 35,000 names of those Australian service men and women who have been prisoners of war. That was in itself a very significant research task and is a very significant contribution to our national history. It will form a basis for families, seeking to learn about their own family history, who visit the memorial to find out whether or not a particular ancestor of theirs experienced being a prisoner of war.

The memorial and monument takes a special place in the Ballarat community. It is now the focal point of Anzac Day services there. The war memorial is very clearly a part of Ballarat’s social fabric. To understand it better, I consulted the secretary-trustee of the Ballarat memorial, Mr Bill Bahr. He sent me a letter, in response to my request, about what this memorial means to him and what it means to the people of Ballarat and to those who have been prisoners of war. I would like to convey his moving sentiments to the House today:

The Memorial has a place in my heart as it lists the names of relatives and friends of my father on its stark Black Granite walls; it is a quiet place of reflection on the enduring spirit of the Australian people, the ability of Australians to maintain their dignity and courage when all around them they experience horrendous atrocities and appalling hardships.

The significance of the Memorial to the people of Australia is one that can only be measured in the strength and deeds of the 35,000 Australian men and women whose names are listed on the Memorial walls. We as a Nation owe them a debt of gratitude and our enduring thanks for their contribution to the building of our great Nation. Prior to the establishment of this Memorial, no definitive list of names of Australian ex-POWs was available from any official government source. The Memorial has since its opening become a focal point for those doing research on family members and those that are visiting a loved one. The 35,000 Australians listed on the wall continue to educate younger Australians on the human cost and the futility of War.

“Lest We Forget”.

I am sure you will agree with me, Mr Deputy Speaker, that they are truly moving words and do convey to the House the significance of this memorial both to the nation and, of course, to Ballarat.

It is wonderful to see how many people who have spoken in this debate. It indicates a significance that I think all of us in Australia find in our own military history and the way in which it speaks to the essence of the Australian character. We are not unusual in looking to our military history to find the elements of our national character—many countries do it. But what we find when we engage in that exercise is extraordinary, and it is different to that of other countries because we do not necessarily celebrate the victories or the military conquests, albeit that that, of course, is the aim of military activity. What we find as Australians when we look to our own military history to see how it speaks to our character is a sense of camaraderie in adversity. We find Australians working together in the most difficult of situations. We see brothers and sisters helping each other through horrendous situations. In a word, what we find is mateship.

The two iconic battles of our Australian history, Kokoda and Gallipoli, are not necessarily about their military outcomes—indeed, they are not about those outcomes at all. What they are about is the experience of those who participated in those campaigns. One of those campaigns, Gallipoli, by any measure was a terrible military failure. Even in Kokoda, which ultimately led to a victory, it was in that grinding retreat along the Kokoda Track that we find the stories which capture the heart of the Australian imagination. These are stories of Australians working together in the most difficult of circumstances, being there for each other and helping each other through. It is a wonderful characteristic, it is uniquely Australian and it is a lesson that we learnt from these conflicts that, I think, in many respects other nations do not learn, or at least not to the same significance.

In that context, it is not surprising that the history of prisoners of war would speak to this particular Australian character, because those who were prisoners of war experienced the most horrendous circumstances and performed great acts of courage in assisting others to get through that terrible experience. More than 35,000 Australians, as I have stated, each of whom’s name is now listed on this memorial in Ballarat, have been prisoners of war. Approximately 200 were in the Boer War, 4,000 in the First World War, 30,000 in the Second World War and 29 in the Korean War. Of those 35,000, nearly 8,600 lost their lives, 8,000 of which lost their lives during the Second World War. So it is not surprising that when we look at the history of prisoners of war in Australia we have a particular focus on the experience of the Second World War.

The Thai-Burma Railway typified the horrendous experience of prisoners of war during that conflict. It was on the Thai-Burma Railway that we saw one of Australia’s greatest war heroes emerge. Again, like Simpson, a medic at Gallipoli, this war hero was not a warrior as such. He was a doctor. He was a person who helped others. He was, of course, Weary Dunlop. Three-hundred and thirty thousand people worked on the Thai-Burma Railway; 250,000 of those were Asian local workers, and their sacrifice should never be forgotten. Nearly 90,000 of their number ultimately lost their lives. In addition, 61,000 were allied prisoners of war, of whom 12,000 were Australians, and it is estimated that 2,700 of those died on that terrible railway line.

It is hard to imagine the horrendous conditions which those prisoners of war experienced or the unfathomable circumstances that Weary Dunlop triumphed over. These prisoners of war experienced terrible malnutrition, which in turn led to beri-beri, a condition which sees the swelling of the stomach. Cholera was endemic and there was the particular scourge of tropical ulcers. These ulcers spread rapidly in the damp tropical conditions. Just a small scratch could give rise to one of these ulcers. They were very difficult to heal and ultimately could become fatal. The kind of medicine used to deal with these ulcers was to sharpen a spoon to scoop out the rotting flesh. On other occasions, these soldiers were told to stand in rivers where there were flesh-eating fish to try and clean the wound. In many cases, there was no remedy for these ulcers but to engage in amputation. When that occurred, more often than not the prisoners of war were in such a condition that they were unable to withstand the shock of that procedure.

Weary Dunlop was at the forefront of all of this, and it needs to be remembered that in the midst of this Weary Dunlop was himself a sick man, suffering from exactly those same tropical ulcers. But, with his hat on its particularly odd angle and with his determination, he put his own life on the line. He stood up to those who were administering the camps and he became an inspiration for all of those who were suffering in these conditions. Arch Flanagan, a prisoner of war, said this in relation to Weary Dunlop:

Colonel Dunlop kept devotedly to his rounds. His legs bandaged for ulcers, his face etched with responsibility and sleeplessness, his cap as ever defiantly askew, he was our symbol of hope. More than ever now we thought, ‘If Weary goes we all go’.

Donald Stuart, another ex-prisoner of war, said:

When death and despair reached for us he stood fast, his only thought our well-being. Faced with guards who had the power of life or death, ignoble tyrants who hated us, he was the lighthouse of sanity in a universe of suffering and madness.

These are incredibly moving words and they do speak to the amazing difficulty of that situation, but they also speak to the inspiration and the triumph that was Weary Dunlop and the Australian spirit in those circumstances.

The Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens is a wonderful testament to the sacrifice and experience of all Australian prisoners of war. It was designed by a local sculptor, Peter Blizzard. It resides at the intersection of Wendouree Parade and Carlton Streets in Ballarat, near Lake Wendouree. Its size and scale are very large in design. It consists of six basalt obelisks that name all of the countries in which Australians were prisoners of war. The polished 130-metre black granite wall, which cost $1.8 million to build, names all of the prisoners of war in our history in historical order. A large reflective pool feeds into other overflows and waterfalls throughout the memorial, and in the memorial the presence of flowing water is described as ‘symbolising spirituality, healing, cleansing, birth and rebirth’.

This debate, this bill and the monument in Ballarat are, I think, indicative of a search that all Australians are finding for our own character through a renewed interest in our military history, and we really see it in the intense interest which is now shown in Anzac Day ceremonies around Australia. This is not just in the major capitals of Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney but in a range of regional centres as well—for example, the 2,000 people who attended Broome’s Bedford Park this year and the same number who went to Albany’s Desert Mounted Corps Memorial on Mount Clarence. Over 1,000 people went to the Wollongong Cenotaph and 2,000 were in Burleigh Heads. In my electorate of Corio, which, of course, includes part of the city of Geelong, 7,500 people attended the mid-morning service in Johnstone Park, which was the focus of ceremonies on Anzac Day.

Johnstone Park is overlooked by the most significant military memorial in Geelong itself, which is the Geelong and District Peace Memorial. This memorial has long been a focal point of Geelong’s military history and memorial services. The foundation stone for this memorial, built at a cost of £13,106 and opened by Governor Lord Somers in 1925, was laid in 1922. It is a very significant memorial. On the east and west walls lie the names of those who have fought in the First World War and on the south wall have later been added the names of those who fought in World War II. The Geelong Advertiser on 1 November 1926 said, in relation to the peace memorial in Geelong: ‘The permanency with which these tablets are framed in bronze leaves no doubt that the roll of honour will outlast many generations who will be constantly reminded of the sacrifices made by those who fought in defence of their country.’

I mentioned the memorial in Geelong because an important aspect of this bill is that it does now raise the possibility for other memorials around Australia to be deemed military memorials of national significance. In saying that, it is important to understand that there are now strict guidelines around that so that the deeming of a memorial in those terms is, in a sense, not devalued. It is important that these memorials are of an appropriate scale and design. It is important that they are the focal point for lots of community commemorations. It is important that they serve a national character. A wonderful outcome of this process and of this bill is that we have the possibility now of commemorating many more aspects of Australia’s military history through deeming more memorials as military memorials of national significance.

This is a very fitting acknowledgement of all the Australian service personnel who have experienced time as prisoners of war. This is a wonderful debate to have been a part of. I would like to finish by commending to the House the work of the current member for Ballarat, Cathy King, in ensuring that this honour is bestowed upon this memorial. It is also again worth mentioning Michael Ronaldson for his work in initiating the memorial, along with the Ballarat RSL, the Ex-Prisoners of War Association of Australia and all of those in Ballarat.