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Thursday, 19 June 2008
Page: 5419

Mr CIOBO (12:01 PM) —I am pleased to speak to the Military Memorials of National Significance Bill 2008, and I do so having the great fortune of being the representative for the seat of Moncrieff based on the Gold Coast, a city that has one of the highest concentrations of veteran communities in Australia. This bill is important because it effectively seeks to establish a new classification of Australian military memorial—that is, the Military Memorial of National Significance. As is already on the record, the coalition support this bill, subject to the amendment moved by the member for Mackellar, the Hon. Bronwyn Bishop, the shadow minister for veterans’ affairs.

The components of the amendment that we seek to have incorporated into the bill deal with some of our concerns about the government’s attempts to play party politics with the veterans’ community, and the fact that in the budget papers the Rudd Labor government have said they have declared the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat a national memorial when they have not done so. The fact is that there has been a misleading, in our view, of the veterans’ community by the Rudd Labor government, who claim to have met an election commitment to declare the Ballarat memorial a national memorial when in fact they have failed to do so. Effectively, this bill allows for special recognition of military memorials outside of Canberra, subject to the approval of the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the Prime Minister. The bill does not, however, allow for the Ballarat prisoner of war memorial to be established as a national memorial, as was promised by the Prime Minister in June 2007. So, in that respect, we believe this bill to be deficient.

But, speaking from a local perspective, speaking as a representative of one of the largest veteran communities in Australia, I am pleased that we are now paving the way for national recognition of national memorials outside the Canberra area. I have worked with a number of local community groups on key memorials that have been developed on the Gold Coast. In particular, I would mention the development of the Kokoda memorial. We know that the 39th Battalion played a fundamental and crucial role in the defence of our nation with respect to an offensive by the Japanese in Papua New Guinea. The Kokoda Track, as it is now known—some refer to it as the Kokoda Trail, but I have always preferred the Australian vernacular, the ‘Kokoda Track’—really became, in many respects, a renewal of the Anzac spirit. The 39th Battalion, fighting against the Japanese in Papua New Guinea along the Kokoda Track, faced some of the most hostile conditions imaginable.

I was certainly very pleased to work with George Friend OAM, especially. He, together with his local Rotary Club and others on the Gold Coast, worked for many years to develop this new memorial. I am not suggesting that this memorial should become a national memorial. Perhaps it will; perhaps it will not—we will see with the passage of time. But what is important is that Australia takes the time, as it does in many respects, to truly honour those in the veterans’ community and those who have passed away, and this bill goes to doing exactly that. The Kokoda memorial that is being developed currently on the Gold Coast has been, in many respects, a very effective way of recognising and honouring those men from the 39th Battalion. Bill Bellairs, a local Gold Coaster whom I have met with on many occasions specifically with respect to the Kokoda memorial, and one of the men who served with the 39th Battalion, was especially pleased to see the Kokoda memorial developed. It has really been a partnership between the Gold Coast City Council, the Queensland state government, the former Howard government and the local community. By bringing together all these groups, driven as it was by George Friend and as it continues to be driven by George Friend, the local community is truly creating something you can be proud of: a memorial for the local community to visit and to reflect on and consider the tremendous personal sacrifice that was made by the 39th Battalion in defending our nation of Australia.

Those gentlemen who are honoured by this memorial truly have made a remarkable difference and they deserve to be adequately recognised by this Kokoda memorial. But across the board there are many other examples in my electorate of significant military memorials, and these memorials do not glorify war. These memorials do not in any way condone some of the excesses that take place during wartimes. What they do is to provide an opportunity for the local community to come together and reflect on the contribution that has been made by veterans. They should be honoured.

I note as well that, in many respects, this bill also addresses the significant sacrifices that were made by those Australian troops who were engaged by the enemy and ultimately became prisoners of war. Between the Boer War, which for Australian troops commenced in November 1899, and the Korean War, where a ceasefire took place in July 1953, there were some 34,737 Australians who were captured by the enemy as prisoners of war. The previous coalition government gave special recognition to prisoners of war, with some 2,200 veterans who were held as POWs in Europe receiving a $10,000 ex gratia payment in last year’s budget at a cost to taxpayers of some $57.2 million. It was a contribution that the coalition felt very strongly about; a contribution that the coalition thought was appropriate for those who were held as prisoners of war, often in the most degrading and extraordinary circumstances—circumstances that many Australians would simply fail to comprehend.

Previously the coalition government also funded ex gratia payments for POWs of the Japanese and Korean theatres of war. In its first seven months the Rudd Labor government has failed to continue this same standard of recognition, falsely claiming to deliver the Ballarat POW memorial as a national memorial when it is not. I take this opportunity to reassert to the Rudd government that now is the time to stand true to that pre-election commitment and to acknowledge that this memorial should in fact be a national memorial. If there is one group of Australians who especially deserve and require due recognition, it is our POWs. The fact that some 35,000 Australians were captured and held by enemy forces throughout the various theatres of war in Australia’s history truly is worthy of recognition. Those who endured through those especially difficult times certainly require due recognition from the community, and this memorial is one way that we can go about doing that.

I would especially like to mention the Gold Coast and District Ex-Prisoner of War Association. I have enjoyed the strong relationship I have had with Allan Mahoney and others, especially Norm Anderton and Rhonda Apps, who are involved with the Gold Coast and District Ex-Prisoner of War Association and all of whom have played a key role in servicing the needs of that community on the Gold Coast. I find it particularly interesting that their motto is, ‘We honour our dead by caring for our living.’ This in many respects really goes to the core of this recognition of the contribution and sacrifice made by this community.

I convene on a semi-regular basis a veterans kitchen cabinet in my electorate office. It is a chance for veterans and ESOs to come together and sit around the table with me to discuss those issues important to the veteran community. This is not always confined to memorials. It is not always confined to the deliverance of payments, the Gold Card or other such issues. But what is clear—and I notice this especially on the Gold Coast—is that if there is one key yearning that comes from the veteran community I could sum it up in the simple word ‘recognition’. They yearn for recognition of the contribution they made, for recognition of the sacrifice they made and for recognition of what they did when their nation called upon them. There is a very genuine need to recognise these very brave Australians for what they did, not only by the men who served but also by the women who supported them and the family structures around them, as well in more recent times those of them who actually served. In that respect, I certainly subscribe to the motto of the Gold Coast and District Ex-Prisoner of War Association when they say, ‘We honour our dead by caring for our living.’

This bill before the House goes some way to doing that. I guess it is more of a commemorative recognition but nonetheless it is still a crucial part. Other members of the Gold Coast and District Ex-Prisoner of War Association such as Merv Cox, Marial Day, Norm Hutley and Noel Jensen are all active in the local community, and I look forward to when, in just a matter of a month or so, we will be holding another veterans kitchen cabinet in my office with Bronwyn Bishop, the shadow minister, coming up to talk about these and other such matters. I certainly look forward to this bill’s passage, I look forward—I hope—to the amendment being accepted by the government and I look forward in due course to seeing those worthy memorials being duly recognised as being national memorials of significance that are accessible to the community and that extend beyond the city of Canberra.

We can recognise veterans in other ways. Under the former coalition government I was pleased to see—and I trust this will continue under the new government—continuing ongoing recognition of our veterans through other avenues. On 5 March I was pleased to attend the sod turning of the new veterans centre at Nerang with Mal Wheat, who is state president of the Vietnam Veterans Federation. This initiative, due for completion in early 2009, was partly funded by the previous coalition government to an amount of around $52,000. But it was supported by the veteran community, showing that the pride of our veterans is a source of national inspiration. We must recognise that in a number of respects there have been veterans who have not been well served upon their return.

One of the key and most fundamental aspects that I look forward to recognising as part of the VVF’s work through the veterans centre at Nerang is that there will be veterans support for the veteran community. Those who served in a theatre of conflict, those who served in a time of war and those who fought in some of the most fierce battles in Vietnam find that when they return they have difficulty coping. In that respect, a hand that reaches out from the local veteran community in a non-threatening environment such as a veterans centre can often in some respects be the difference between veterans getting their lives back on track or, unfortunately from time to time, letting go because they cannot cope with the various pressures that they face. In that respect, both the government and the opposition need to be mindful of the fact that right at this moment we have our Defence Force serving in a variety of theatres around the world. Whether it is troops in Afghanistan or Iraq or, on a regional level, those involved in the RAMSI mission, we know that these men and women will be looking for support when they return. They will be looking for recognition as well, and to some extent this bill goes to that. But they will also be looking for support, and veterans centres, for example, are such a key part of that recognition.

I certainly support this bill. I hope that the amendment is accepted by the government. I look forward to ensuring that memorials such as the Kokoda memorial on the Gold Coast and others associated with the Nerang RSL, Surfers Paradise RSL and the Southport RSL can play their role as a rallying point for the community to collective join and honour the contribution and sacrifice made by those brave Australians who answered the call when their nation called upon them to help serve our interests abroad.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—Before calling the honourable member for Makin, I remind all honourable members that they ought to, under the standing orders, refer to other honourable members only by the name of their electorates.