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Thursday, 19 June 2008
Page: 5425

Mr SNOWDON (Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) (12:30 PM) —I thank the member for Makin for his contribution to the Military Memorials of National Significance Bill 2008. It has been great to see the number of people who have spoken in this debate because of its importance. Of course, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this bill as it acknowledges the significance of the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat. The member for Makin, I think, gave us ample reason why we should be supporting the legislation, but it does more than that of course: it creates an opportunity to give recognition to other significant memorials throughout the country and, as members would know, the bill delivers on another government election promise.

During a visit to Ballarat on 27 June last year, the Prime Minister committed to the recognition of the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial as a national war memorial. This memorial was dedicated, as we know, in February 2004 and it recognises the bravery and sacrifice of more than 35,000 Australian prisoners of war held during the Boer War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Despite repeated requests, the previous government refused to recognise the Ballarat memorial as a national memorial. The current Prime Minister promised that, if Labor were elected, we would remedy this and ensure that the Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat would be declared a national memorial. This commitment was reaffirmed on the fourth anniversary of the memorial on 3 February this year by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, who set a date of midyear to achieve this outcome. So it is with this bill that we are seeking to achieve this goal and thereby fulfil the election commitment made by the Prime Minister in 2007. The bill also provides a stable, consistent and transparent vehicle for the future declaration of other deserving memorials which meet the criteria set out. Under this bill, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs will be able to deal with this and other memorials in a different way.

Australia has a very rich tradition of memorialising those who have served in wars. I think it is fair to say that Australians probably have more memorials to those who have fallen in serving their country per head of population than perhaps any other country. As Professor Ken Inglis acknowledges in his book Sacred Places, war memorials have long been a feature of the civilised world. Professor Inglis cites all the monuments and triumphal arches of Europe in particular which litter the landscape and which remain as historic reminders of past victories and triumphs. They are in fact monuments to power and glory, in many cases vested in an individual but with mighty nationalistic overtones. Importantly, this is not what war memorials represent here in Australia. War memorials here in Australia are about loss—loss of life, life wasted, lives to be remembered. While it is true they may be dedicated by a politician with some small moment of glory, they nevertheless reflect a common respect for those who died in battle. Whether it was the Boer War, World War I, the Second World War, the Korean War, Vietnam or any of the peacekeeping operations, these memorials all perform the same purpose. As well as recognising loss, bravery and commitment to the defence of our nation or our national interest, they symbolise a collective bond between the people who served.

So memorials in Australia are not about the glory of war and victory. They are about people. They are also about community. There are very few towns in this country which do not have war memorials with the names of the local community members whose lives have been lost in one or other of the many wars that we have fought in over the period since Federation. Mr Deputy Speaker, when you look at the list of names on these war memorials, most evidently when you look at the First World War memorials, you know that in a community where people joined up together they lost their lives together. Families can be seen to have had two or three sons—perhaps even more on some occasions—or cousins who died as a result of conflict and who are commemorated in the memorials in their local community. It is a sign of the need for the community to understand and recognise the sacrifice while at the same time giving those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice the honour that they properly deserve.

If you look at Anzac Parade here in Canberra, you will see that the memorials are about people. Here there are memorials to campaigns, but there are also memorials to the people—to the Air Force, for example, or to the nurses. The difficulty, however, is that throughout our history there has been a mix of local commemoration and national commemoration, which features as a major tension in this piece of legislation. As I said earlier, around Australia every community of any size after the First World War in 1918 erected a monument at a prime site which became the focal point on Anzac Day and remains so.

In addition, local shrines were erected in larger cities by the local community and remain jealously guarded by those communities—as they should be. They paid for their erection and they continue to pay for their maintenance. That responsibility is reinforced in this bill. It should be understood, however, that this is not some kind of power struggle. It is simply a fact that many local communities continue to jealously defend their local commemorative contribution. And we realise that an increasing number of local communities, especially in rural areas, have shrinking populations and find it extremely difficult to, or can no longer, honour that commitment which they once made.

Sadly, the demise of RSL communities in many areas has seen that support eroded. Nevertheless, commemoration remains a community based phenomenon—and governments have been keen in recent years to assist that for the benefit of their own profiles—and a respected and necessary tradition. The ex-POW memorial in Ballarat is an excellent case in point. There can be no doubt about the origins of this project. It came from the ex-POWs themselves. They properly consider themselves a national homogenous group of people, all of whom suffered at the hands of their captors. Sadly, there are none left from World War I, although there are some remaining from World War II and a small number from Korea. They decided to commemorate their joint identity with this memorial, reflecting in part the community spirit of the city of Ballarat, which we all know has prided itself for almost 100 years on its Memorial Drive leading into the city in honour of all the local lives lost.

Such avenues exist elsewhere as well. Kings Park in Perth is an outstanding example. Indeed, when I am in Perth I make a point of visiting the memorials in Kings Park, in particular the memorials to the 2nd/2nd Commandos from the Second World War whose lives were lost in Timor and New Guinea. I do that because it was the unit in which my father fought. In the context of the ex-POW memorial, it was a very ambitious project. The design, though magnificent, was expensive and, even though the local council recognised the attractive power it offered the local economy, they found it financially difficult to support. Thereafter, we witnessed an unseemly political bidding war, in election terms, about how to provide Commonwealth funding, not just in one-off grants but in perpetuity. Hence we have this bill which seeks to settle the issue that the Commonwealth has responsibility for funding memorials which are community based. Let me make it very clear that the community effort in building memorials is a valuable contribution and, quite frankly, it would be most improper if government sought to usurp this motivation. We must also remember that, in days past, military units were locally based and, as I pointed out earlier, local boys joined up together, fought together and died together.

The battle of Fromelles, which I have acquainted the House with over the last couple of weeks, is a good example. The Friends of the 15th Brigade are Victorian based. The four battalions in that brigade were recruited from Melbourne and rural Victoria. They were almost completely wiped out on the night of 19 October 1916 on the Sugar Loaf Salient. Every year, on that date, a service is held at the shrine, with the local French community, to remember the awful loss, with a bugler playing the last post at each of the four plaques under those beautiful oak trees. As I mentioned yesterday, on 19 July this year there will be an unveiling of a replica of the ‘Cobbers’ statue in the gardens nearby. The point here is that this statue was funded by public subscription, so it becomes the responsibility of the shrine. It represents local loss and grief, but clearly with national ramifications. Frankly, I think it is of enormous benefit and a wonderful thing that this tradition continues at the grassroots level—and it should remain so for any other local group and indeed unit associations.

Of course there is separation between a financial contribution and ongoing responsibility but, in short, I think we have the balance right—though from time to time there will be a unique set of circumstances in which we will need to be flexible. I know we would all want to commend the motivation of the ex-POW associations, just as we would commend the Friends of the 15th Brigade. This is about Australians remembering their own. It is not about fanfare and the cutting of ribbons in a one-off photo opportunity. There is an ongoing Commonwealth responsibility, and that is clear. Anzac Parade in Canberra is a key example and so are the monuments overseas—on the Western Front, in North Africa, in London and wherever we were involved as a nation and our heroes are buried. I know that my colleague opposite has an interest in this subject.

I want to speak about two memorials which I have been fortunate enough to attend since becoming Minister for Defence Science and Personnel—the commemorations for Sydney in April of this year, and the Dare Memorial in Timor-Leste, which is perhaps outside the scope of the legislation but still relevant as a military memorial of national significance. I will turn first to the Sydney.

As we all know, the wreck of the Sydney was found on the 16 March 2008, a few days after the Kormoran on 12 March 2008. The discovery of the Sydney’s final resting place means an enormous amount to not just the families of those 645 men who lost their lives but also the Australians for whom their lives were given. This loss of life, like all those lives lost in war, was a tragedy. Every one of the lost men of the Sydney left behind family—children they never saw grow up, mothers who outlived their sons. Two services were held to mark this tragic loss of life, services which were befitting its importance to Australia.

On 16 April 2008, a small service was held at sea on board HMAS Anzac. This included the laying of wreaths and a 4.5 inch brass shell, inscribed with the names of all 645 men lost, over the wreck site. Then, on the eve of Anzac Day on 24 April, an open service was held at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney. It was a solemn and moving affair. St Andrew’s Cathedral was where the commemorative service was held during the Second World War after it became known that the Sydney had been lost. More than 770 relatives of the HMAS Sydney II—from all over Australia—attended the service. For them, it was a chance to say goodbye. The church was at full capacity and more people were able to watch the service via a large screen in Sydney Square. A further service is planned for later in the year, in November, to ensure that these brave Australians are properly remembered. This will involve both another commemoration at sea and a land commemoration.

The loss of life on the Sydney is commemorated in the Sydney memorial in Geraldton. It is beautiful and poignant, situated on Mount Scott, overlooking the town. It is a fantastic memorial. It was designed by Joan Walsh-Smith and Charles Smith. The Smiths have designed a number of other Australian memorials, including the Australian Army memorial on Anzac Parade leading to the Australian War Memorial. When it was officially opened in 2001, more than 3,000 people attended, including German survivors from the Kormoran.

The memorial consists of an impressive silver dome—the Dome of Souls—in the form of 645 seagulls in flight, to represent each of the lost Sydney sailors. An anchor is suspended from the middle of the dome and the structure rests on white pillars. To the north of the dome, a bronze statue of a woman gazes desperately out to sea as she awaits news of the ill-fated Sydney. Nearby is the stele—a single, dramatic shape representing the bow of the ship. The combination of these elements results in an extremely moving and fitting memorial. This bill provides the perfect avenue to recognise the Sydney memorial as it should be recognised. Geraldton is perfect as a site for a memorial of national significance.

On Anzac Day, I was fortunate enough to be in Dare, 10 kilometres south of Dili. The Dare war memorial was built by members of the 2nd/2nd Independent Company, later to become the 2nd/2nd Commandos in 1969. During World War II, members of this company, plus remnants of the Tasmanian 2nd/40th Battalion and reinforced later by the 2nd/4th Independent Company, later Commandos, served as a guerrilla force against advancing Japanese forces across Timor. Their success was only made possible by the support they received from the local Timorese—the ‘criados’. The Anzac Day service was an extremely moving affair. In attendance were a member of the 2nd/2nd Battalion and a mate of my father’s, Paddy Keneally, and the last Timorese World War II veteran Rufino Alvez, who planted a figtree to act as a living memorial.

I want to affirm how important these memorials are and the privilege I have had, in my current role in this government, in observing the diligence with which members of the Defence Force and indeed the wider community have undertaken the role of reinforcing our obligations to the fallen—it is not to be underestimated. I am really appreciative of it. I commend the bill to the House.