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Thursday, 19 June 2008
Page: 5409

Mr SHORTEN (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services) (11:15 AM) —I am happy to speak today in support of this bill, the Military Memorials of National Significance Bill 2008. Last year, the now Prime Minister visited Ballarat and committed to recognising the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial as a national war memorial. This legislation puts in place the mechanism to allow this to happen, and I am very glad of that.

War memorials repay the sacrifice of citizens through honour. I should acknowledge that, in the words I am about to use to talk about this, I have been heavily influenced by the American historian James Mayo, who shaped a lot of my thinking about the contribution of war memorials and indeed provided some of the inspiration for my views on this current piece of legislation. War memorials can be identified from even the classical Greek and Roman eras. The predominant themes through the ages have been religious expression and the proclamation of victory, but mourning and the re-creation of the human spirit are also present. From the Parthenon to the Roman memorial columns and into the mediaeval ages, the funerary architecture of the tombs of knights and princes in churches were memorials. In the 19th century, memorials tended to reflect the strand of nationalism, from the Arc de Triomphe to Trafalgar Square and indeed the Brandenburg Gate. Our American friends emerged from their first century, following the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, a wealthy and proud nation who in fact innovated commemoration and new developments which went beyond the classical approaches to war memorials.

To describe our own Australian history of memorials, I shall paraphrase the work of Australian historian Ken Inglis, who has written extensively about the history of memorials in Australia, from the colonial monuments through the wars of the 20th century to the extraordinary 1995 campaign commemorating World War II, Australia Remembers, sponsored by Prime Minister Keating’s energetic Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Con Sciacca. Mr Inglis has shown how the fashion in Australia has changed from heroic statues of leaders, such as the one in Melbourne to General Gordon of Khartoum, to the familiar obelisks and diggers of the Great War through to the halls and swimming pools that followed the Second World War.

The brief history of memorials, I think, reveals the relationship between politics and design. War memorials affect people’s emotions at a deep level. In fact, the decision about how a war and its participants are memorialised can be emotional. War, with its human cost, is the most drastic political act that a nation can make. Therefore, I believe that Australians understand that these memorials, these sacred memorials, are unassailable investments from which no economic return is expected. Can there any doubt that the service and sacrifice of our prisoners of war deserves national recognition and honour? Can there be any doubt that those 35,000 brave men and women suffered untold horrors in the course of protecting this nation? Of course there is no doubt—no doubt at all.

The Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat was dedicated in February 2004. It lists the names of each of those 35,000 prisoners of war. It is a magnificent memorial. Yet, despite repeated requests, the ex-POW memorial was constantly refused recognition as a national memorial. I congratulate the member for Ballarat, Catherine King, who has been a tireless advocate for both the memorial and the ex-prisoner of war community in general. This legislation before us has been a long time coming. As Lachlan Grant outlines in his paper What makes a ‘national’ war memorial?, when asked whether the government would reconsider recognising it as a national memorial, the member for Higgins replied:

 … the Government has just recognised it with a contribution of $300,000 … let’s not get hung up with syntax …

Syntax is important. What stopped the previous government from recognising this magnificent memorial to every Australian prisoner of war? Unthinking behaviour, it seems to me.

The current law requires all national monuments to be located in the ACT. Heaven forfend that a national government would actually amend a law to recognise such a worthy project! It might come as a surprise to those on the opposite benches, although not all, that not everything of national significance is enclosed within the bounds of the Australian Capital Territory.

The former government also said that we already had a national memorial to prisoners of war, the Changi Chapel at the Royal Military College, Duntroon. That is indeed a poignant and evocative memorial, but it is my understanding that it is directed solely at POWs interned by the Japanese—and, unfortunately, I do not believe it is fully accessible to the public. The Ballarat memorial, on the other hand, is the first memorial in the country to recognise all Australian prisoners of war, from conflicts from the Boer to the Korean wars. The names on that memorial are from every corner of this nation, just as the roll of honour at the Australian War Memorial lists the individual names of the 102,000 Australians who have paid the ultimate price for their country. I believe it is truly a national memorial and I am happy that this government has introduced new legislation setting up new criteria under which memorials outside of Canberra can be recognised.

In fact, Ballarat already holds a number of our national memories. For a small regional town, it certainly punches well above its weight. It is the home of the Eureka Stockade, our only civil uprising, born out of that intensely Australian yearning for a fair go for all. It is also, in fact, the birthplace of my former union, the Australian Workers Union, which sprang to life in the Ballarat district more than 120 years ago—32 years after the Eureka uprising and equally born out of the desire for a fair go. There is even, in Ballarat, the Prime Ministers Avenue, featuring bronze busts of each of our prime ministers.

Let us not forget, either, that Ballarat has long commemorated the service and sacrifice of our military through its Avenue of Honour, the longest in the world, and the Arch of Victory. It is entirely fitting that they should also honour those who often have not received their due—our ex-prisoners of war. As the member for Ballarat has said in this debate:

It is proper that we make it possible for our national remembrance to be undertaken outside Canberra. Australians remember their fallen all around the world. They remember them in Gallipoli in record numbers. They remember them as they walk the Kokoda Track.

Speaking of Kokoda, I am looking forward with some trepidation to walking the track next month with colleagues of mine—Earl Setches, from the Plumbing Trades Employees Union of Australia, and Luke Donnellan, Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier in Victoria. I will be doing it not just to try and understand the courage of the diggers but also to do something for a local school in my area. Through sponsorship, I will be seeking to raise funds and understanding of the Kokoda Track for the Western Autistic School, which has a 25-year history of delivering highly successful education programs to students who have an autism spectrum disorder.

I think that all of the political background noise that has been going on for the last decade must not be allowed to obscure the fact that our ex-prisoners of war deserve our full respect and recognition. The far-sighted people of Ballarat knew this, and they have created a memorial where these ex-prisoners of war, their families and their comrades can come to remember and honour them. As committee member Tom Roberts said in an opinion piece in the Ballarat Courier:

Should the Federal Government have wished to erect such a memorial, it has had 100 years to do so, and a site available since the establishment of Canberra. Ballarat acted because no one else has done so.

I am glad they did. I am glad that the now Prime Minister was so impressed with the memorial last year that he said he would ‘move anything necessary to ensure that this is properly recognised as a national war memorial’. Unlike some of his recent predecessors, the Prime Minister is not bound by the way things have always been done. Although a decades-old act states that national military memorials must be in the ACT, the Prime Minister knows that modern leaders change with the times.

My Lithuanian uncle, Tony Sungaila, married to my mother’s sister, fought in the Second World War. He lived in Lithuania and, in 1939, three of his brothers and sisters disappeared in the occupation following the Russian invasion. When the Germans invaded, in 1941, he joined them. Indeed, he won an Iron Cross for his actions on the Eastern Front. Yet in 1945 the Germans interned my uncle and the rest of his Lithuanian regiment because they were no longer trusted. Consequently, my uncle led a break-out from the camp and took his regiment to join the Americans. I like to think that the bravery and stoicism of this man is commemorated somewhere in the world for his time of internment. His name, and the names of all of the prisoners of war throughout the world, should never be forgotten. The calm defiance of prisoners of war, their determination to survive in the face of desperate conditions and often fearsome treatment, their pride in their country and their refusal to bow down and give in are things that we, in this age of luxury, plasma screens and alcopops, need to remember, honour and learn from.

This war memorial in Ballarat, like all our war memorials, is distinguished because it bestows honour—in this case, on our ex-prisoners of war. Honour cannot be bought or collected; honour can only be bestowed. Honour is bestowed on our ex-prisoners of war because of their suffering. The brutal fact of the Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial is that our families, friends and neighbours fought, suffered and often died. This memorial captures our genuine feeling of sorrow, loss and the need to remember them. This war memorial, like all our war memorials, is part of Australia’s political history. How our past is commemorated through our nation’s military memorials mirrors what we want to remember, and lack of attention often reflects what we wish to forget. The memory of our ex-prisoners of war enhances our national image; neglect defames it. To quote JB Jackson:

A landscape without political history is a landscape without memory or forethought.

The Ballarat memorial ensures our memory of the landscape of sacrifice in war. Defeat in war cannot be forgotten, and our POWs were defeated. Australia must find ways to respect and never to forget those who were captured and those who died for our country to help make that defeat honourable. This memorial honours the individuals who fought for the lost causes in particular battles. Remembering our ex-prisoners of war raises questions about how we make sure that people returning from war are respected and their memory commemorated. With our troops coming out of Iraq and still serving bravely in Afghanistan, we must never forget the danger they are in. Memorials like the one in Ballarat show us that all our military face more than physical harm when they volunteer to serve our country.

In conclusion, I believe that it is worthy and notable that, in the last 20 years, participation by Australians in commemorating sacrifice in war has risen steadily. I regard this legislation as another step to the reawakening of our memory of the sacrifice of those who have gone before us. I commend this bill to the House.