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Thursday, 19 June 2008
Page: 5431

Mr DREYFUS (1:04 PM) —I rise today to support the Military Memorials of National Significance Bill 2008. This bill serves two purposes: it enables the recognition of the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat as a memorial of national significance and it provides us with a mechanism for recognising other memorials as nationally significant. This bill, as other speakers have commented, is the fulfilment of an election commitment to the Australian ex-prisoners of war community. During a visit to Ballarat on 27 June 2007 the Prime Minister, the then opposition leader, committed to the recognition of the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial as a nationally significant war memorial.

As the House has heard from other members, the memorial in Ballarat was dedicated in February 2004. It is a memorial to recognise the bravery and sacrifice of more than 35,000 Australian prisoners of war held during the Boer War, the two world wars and the Korean War. The question of the level of recognition to be given to this memorial in Ballarat has regrettably been the subject of considerable discussion for several years. There were repeated requests made of the former government for the Ballarat memorial to be recognised as a national memorial, but, as the minister said in introducing this bill, that was something which did not occur.

Labor promised that, if elected, we would remedy the omission and ensure that the Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat was in fact declared to be a national memorial. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs confirmed this commitment at the fourth anniversary of the memorial on 3 February 2008 and set a date of mid year to achieve this outcome. With the passage of this bill, it will be possible to meet that more recent commitment.

All memorials to war and to loss are in some way significant. Memorials can be important to local communities. They can be important to the nation. Memorials like the Hiroshima Peace Memorial—recently visited by our Prime Minister, as the first Western leader to visit the memorial—or perhaps, as another example, the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, the memorial to Jews who perished in the Holocaust, are of significance to the world community. Certainly all Australians would be conscious of memorials in all shapes and sizes because, since the 19th century, communities have erected memorials to those who served in the many wars that have been fought since the 19th century, starting with the conflict in South Africa.

As someone who grew up in Melbourne, I was very conscious of the Shrine of Remembrance, because it occupies a very special place in a physical sense in the city of Melbourne, located as it is at the end of what is known as the shrine vista, looking down the length of Swanson Street and into St Kilda Road to where the shrine stands. I first visited the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne as a primary school student and to me, as someone then aged seven or eight, it was an awe-inspiring and mysterious place, using as it does Athenian classical architecture and occupying the huge space that it does. Even to a very young person, it is apparent that it is a special place, a place with a message.

The mystery of the place was perhaps acknowledged by those who built it, because carved into its grey granite walls are these words: ‘Let all men know that this is holy ground. This shrine, established in the hearts of men as on the solid earth, commemorates a people’s fortitude and sacrifice. Ye that come after give remembrance.’ Perhaps the builders of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne felt it necessary, recognising that the shrine was going to be there for hundreds of years to come—certainly that was their intention—to ensure that, even after all those who have been associated with the conflict for which the shrine was built to remember had passed, the message was there inscribed on the wall to remind all who saw the shrine what its purpose was.

We see very large monuments of a scale similar to that shrine in all Australian capital cities, but as well we see, perhaps more significantly, local memorials in every Australian town and in every Australian suburb that existed at the time of the First World War and, going forward, in the 1920s and 1930s. It is significant indeed that some of the local memorials that still stand across Australia were built as early as before the end of the First World War, in something of a rush to erect this kind of memorial. The large memorials that we see in the capital cities were often built a great deal later, the Shrine of Remembrance not being completed until well over a decade after the First World War had ended.

In his very fine book Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Ken Inglis details what he describes as ‘the war memorial movement’, which saw the erection of these memorials across the country, starting, as I said, during the First World War and continuing through the 1920s and into the 1930s. He makes the point in his book that the term ‘war memorial’ was itself a novel one. In the monuments that were erected for the South African war, the constructions tended to be referred to as ‘fallen soldiers monuments’ or ‘soldiers monuments’, but after 1918 the term ‘war memorial’ became the common one. In Ken Inglis’s words, the memorials were ‘created to stand as a community’s statement of bereavement, pride and thanksgiving’. In those multiple purposes one can see the acknowledgement that memorials do indeed serve different purposes. Their function as a statement of bereavement is one which passes, perhaps, in time as those who are bereaved pass with the passing of time, but certainly the other purposes of pride and thanksgiving remain, as does the larger purpose of remembering for national purposes the sacrifices of those who are remembered.

The memorials across Australia, large and small, take many different forms. There are columns, obelisks, arches, statues of standing soldiers—the digger on the pedestal is a familiar form—and sometimes female figures. They use different materials: sometimes they are made of local stone; sometimes they use imported marble—like the little white soldier on the banks of the Patterson River in Carrum in my electorate. In every community these memorials are a focus for Anzac Day ceremonies. Certainly in the communities in my electorate of Isaacs we have a number of memorials that are significant to those local communities: at Carrum—the little white soldier I mentioned—at Edithvale, Cheltenham, Dandenong, Noble Park, Mordialloc and Mentone. This frequency of memorials in my electorate is one that is replicated right across Australia. Indeed we have heard reference from very many members during the debate on this bill to war memorials erected in their electorates and to the significance that those memorials bear.

Those memorials were often erected by local communities, very frequently to remember the members of those local communities who perished or who served in the wars that they commemorate. Just as we remember as communities, so as a nation we also remember. That is the purpose of memorials. We remember the sons and brothers, fathers and uncles, sisters, daughters, mothers and aunts who served our country. We remember for many reasons. We remember them for their actions, for their bravery, for their sacrifices and for their suffering. Remembering also helps us to understand where we have come from as a nation and how we arrived at the place where we now are, and part of remembering also is mourning—mourning the lives lost and the potential unfulfilled.

As the House has heard from other speakers on this bill, the memorial at Ballarat to Australian prisoners of war is a unique memorial. It is a memorial which serves a very special purpose in commemorating the service of Australian prisoners of war who served in the conflicts during the Boer War, the two world wars and the Korean War. As has been noted, between those wars—from the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century to the Korean War in the 1950s—some 35,000 Australian service men and women were incarcerated in prisoner of war camps. Many suffered atrocious and inhumane treatment at the hands of their captors. The Ballarat memorial is dedicated to these Australians in recognition of the pain and suffering that they endured in the service of our nation.

The memorial is in the botanical gardens in Ballarat. It is a monument that was designed by the well-known sculptor Peter Blizzard, and it is intended to provide ex-prisoners of war, their descendants and all other visitors in future generations with what has been described as a reflective experience, where they can pay homage to those who endured as did the prisoners of war. The design of the monument—and I would encourage anyone who can to visit it—uses the basic idea of a journey and an experience of time and place. The pathway is long and straight, heading off into the shape of railway sleepers—which is a reference to the Burma railway—and running parallel to the pathway is a polished black granite wall, 130 metres long, etched with the 35,000 names of all the Australian prisoners of war. Standing in a reflective pool are some huge basalt obelisks, up to 4.5 metres high, on which are the names of the prisoner of war camps. The columns are out of reach and across the water—which symbolises that all of the prisoner of war camps were away from Australian shores. Further on there is another wall with the words ‘Lest we forget’ engraved, allowing for an area of contemplation and reflection after the symbolic journey that the monument is designed to represent.

There is a particular reason why we should remember the experiences of prisoners of war. The experience of prisoners of war, of the men and women serving this country who were captured by our enemies in these various wars, was in almost all cases an experience of great privation, suffering and pain. The generation of Australians who were imprisoned by the Japanese during the Second World War is now passing, but the memory of their experiences has been passed to subsequent generations of Australians, including me. I had the good fortune to be taught English by Gordon Owen, who shared with me and the other members of our English class during the last three years of my secondary education his experiences as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in Changi and later in the war in Japan itself—some prisoners who had been captured at the fall of Singapore spent part of the war as prisoners in Changi and then were later moved to Japan. His descriptions of his experience as a prisoner of war, an experience that he shared with many thousands of Australian service men and women, were horrific. They were descriptions of starvation, of torture, of beatings, of the cruellest possible treatment that it is possible to imagine a human being can hand out to another human being. His descriptions of that wartime experience have stayed with me always.

When I hear people speak of war, the descriptions that he gave are a wonderful antidote to any notion of the glory of war or any notion other than that war is a dreadful experience. This bill, in enabling the recognition of the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat as a memorial of national significance and enabling, within narrow criteria, the possible recognition of other nationally significant memorials, is a very worthwhile piece of legislation. I commend the bill to the House.