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Thursday, 19 June 2008
Page: 5438

Dr KELLY (Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support) (1:42 PM) —I am very pleased to speak in support of the Military Memorials of National Significance Bill 2008, for many personal and policy reasons, which I will come to. I think it is worth while to reflect that this legislation’s immediate impact will be to enable us to designate the wonderful Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat as a national memorial.

It is worth while to reflect briefly on what is involved with this memorial, which was designed by local sculptor Peter Blizzard. What particularly impresses me is what is behind this memorial. The Ballarat RSL, assisted by volunteers, worked for over 10 years to compile the names to form the first national database of Australian prisoners of war. That is one of the most significant and commendable things about this memorial. That involved tracking down the names of over 35,000 prisoners of war. Particularly poignant for me is that one of those names is that of my grandfather. His prisoner of war experience was based upon his time as a prisoner of the Japanese on the Burma-Thailand railway. The design of the memorial is significant in that it pays particular tribute to that experience as being one of the most intense prisoner of war experiences Australians have ever endured. The memorial is approximately 170 metres long and it features a long pathway of light grey basalt pavers cut to resemble the railway sleepers used on the Burma-Thailand railway. On the southern side are two canted black polished granite walls with the names of all known Australian prisoners of war. It is very significant that it commemorates that experience and those names.

I was a bit disappointed by the member for Mackellar’s proposed amendment in relation to this legislation. I have been fortunate to share participation in events with the member for Mackellar and I have no reason to doubt that she is very sincere and supportive of a lot of veterans issues. The issue in her amendment about politicising veterans affairs is a risk she runs with this proposed amendment. I ask her to reflect on that amendment and the possibility of perhaps withdrawing it. Before I come to that, I would also like to reflect a little bit on the personal history that I mentioned earlier. My involvement with veterans did not begin with my Army service or service in Iraq. It goes back to the experience of my grandfathers. My grandfather on my mother’s side suffered in the Second World War fighting in New Guinea and was severely injured. I remember very much his struggling through life on crutches afterwards. I will also reflect on my other grandfather, who was a prisoner of the Japanese.

Before I speak about his experiences I would like to reflect on my own experiences of working directly with veterans. I was in the Lady Davidson Hospital, which is a veterans hospital in Sydney, as a cleaner and support staff member. I was working there as a young man while going to university. It was a very poignant experience. When you clean the toilets in a rehabilitation ward and see the actual practical effects of being a disabled veteran, it has a profound impact on you. When a veteran would pass away during the course of the evening, it fell to me to help clean him up and take him to the morgue. Removing those people from amongst their friends and colleagues was a profound experience for me and it was also a very emotional experience for them. They shared their experiences and stories with me, and those important memories have been with me ever since. When I joined the Army I benefited greatly from the training of some wonderful Vietnam veterans—Rockie, Tracker, Peeps and Cowboy—who gave me the combat skills that helped me survive four deployments. The person who recruited me to the Defence Force, Brigadier Billie Rolfe, who now plays a significant role in veterans affairs, was always an inspiration to me. He lost both his legs in Vietnam but he did not let that hold him back. He has been a model to people who wish to get on with life and make something of themselves, so I salute Brigadier Billie Rolfe here today.

Last year during the election campaign I got heavily involved with a lot of veterans who saw me as an opportunity to bring veterans issues to the attention of the parliament and to deal with their issues. At one particular point I got the sense that there was a great dissatisfaction amongst the veteran community. It was starting to get quite vitriolic—as anybody who experiences the email chain in the veterans community would know. Of course, being veterans and having been through many emotional experiences, some of their correspondence can be quite vigorous. They started, unfortunately, using terms like ‘Howard’s Anzac haters’ et cetera, which I think was certainly exaggerated and over the top. It is of concern to me because we all want veterans issues to be completely bipartisan and for there not to be a wafer of paper between each side of this House in relation to veterans issues. But they certainly rallied around me, which I greatly appreciated, during an incident in the election campaign in which the chief of staff of my predecessor, Gary Nairn, assailed me as a ‘war criminal’, ‘Nazi’ and ‘murderer’ in relation to my service in Somalia and Iraq. For the Vietnam veterans, this brought back reminiscences of how they were treated on their return from Vietnam. They wrote some very powerful and emotive pieces of correspondence to me and to others, such as the RSL. I found this event extremely unfortunate, and it shows how much care we have to take in maintaining a common bipartisan position in relation to veterans affairs.

The next significant experience for me, in my immersion in the veteran community following my departure from the regular Army, was on Anzac Day this year in Bega. It was a very significant event for me as I have many family names on the memorial in Bega. It was also a great experience to march that day next to a bloke named Ron Stanton, who was a survivor of the Burma-Thai railway. If we reflect on that for a moment, it is significant in itself. This man has survived the Burma-Thai experience and, in his 80s, he is able to march on Anzac Day and show his pride. He is a very special man too, which illustrates the heart of some of these prisoners of war. He regaled me with a story about his release from imprisonment by the Japanese. He was asked to take guard of some of the Japanese who were ex-guards of his. During his experiences as a prisoner he had watched brutal treatment of his comrades and he had often said to himself that if he ever got the chance he was going to do those chaps in. So there he was, with a rifle and ammunition, in charge of unarmed Japanese whom he had to supervise digging a hole—and often during that time the Japanese would get prisoners to dig their own graves. That was a situation of great moment for this gentleman, Ron Stanton, but, instead of taking his opportunity for revenge on these guards, he actually gave them his cigarettes during a smoko. He had decided at that moment that he would move on and put things behind him. He had decided that he was not going to be like his guards and that he would make this the beginning of his healing experience from the Burma-Thai railway. It just shows what great-hearted men were those who served on the railway.

As I said, my grandfather, who was a member of the 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, served on the railway as well and he had been in the Middle East with the battalion before arriving in Batavia along with Weary Dunlop on the Orcades. They formed an impromptu battle group which was put under the command of Arthur Blackburn VC, a famous war hero from the First World War. Unfortunately, they were ill equipped. Their heavy machine gun equipment had returned to Australia and they were effectively abandoned on Batavia, but they battled on as best they could with scrappy elements of British and American troops until they were finally cornered, out of ammunition and food, and forced to surrender to the Japanese. They went straight from Batavia to the Burma-Thai railway. An interesting aspect of the service record of my grandfather—and I have a copy of it here—concerns his wife, who was left at home. If you look at the recordings in that statement of service, you see, firstly, on 28 April 1942, he was simply listed as missing, so his wife really had no idea what had happened to him at that point; and, secondly, on 2 November 1942, he was recorded as ‘Missing, believed prisoner of Japanese’. It was not until 18 September 1943 that it was confirmed that he was a prisoner of war. So through this whole period from April 1942 until September 1943 his wife would have had no idea what had happened to him. He was eventually found alive on 12 September 1945 and recovered from the Japanese in what was then called Siam, and he was evacuated to Australia in October. He was sent to Heidelberg hospital to recover and was eventually able to resume life with his family in April 1946.

The experience of the families and those veterans did not end there, of course. Many years of suffering lay ahead in coming to grips with that experience. It was a really tragic situation for us to bury Thelma Waters, a constituent of mine, a few weeks ago. She was one of those widows who suffered through 20 years of having to live with the outcome and the psychological problems of a prisoner of war veteran. For these veterans, and for me, this memorial is incredibly significant. It is a place of reflection, a place for us to pay tribute to that suffering and experience. It does not really matter to me, as someone who is the grandson of a person listed on that memorial, that it is in Ballarat; I am just comforted by the fact that it is there. National memorials should not just be confined to Canberra. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to open the National Timber Workers Memorial in Eden, which commemorates a number of timber workers who lost their lives in the industry, and $50,000 of Commonwealth money went towards that memorial. I am happy to say that my predecessor, Gary Nairn, who helped obtain that money from the Commonwealth, also attended that ceremony.

It is entirely appropriate that we have national memorials outside Canberra, and I pay tribute to the previous government for their contribution to the creation of this wonderful ex-prisoners of war memorial. Far from politicising veterans affairs, the Rudd Labor government has been actively delivering on all of the measures that have made and are making the lives of veterans greatly relieved and improved. I note that the member for Mackellar did acknowledge that. We have now moved on to resolve a lot of the legacy issues for those veterans who want peace of mind. It was a great pleasure of mine to assist the members of the second D&E Platoon in finally resolving acknowledgement of their service and what they endured in Vietnam. We are also proceeding to assist Korean armistice veterans and the Long Tan veterans. This is about peace of mind; it is about healing, sharing, alleviating pain and grief and remembering so that the stories of these prisoners of war—these veterans—are honoured and that future generations know the price of freedom. The veterans know they have a friend in this government. We have a lot to deliver on and a lot of expectations to meet, but I believe they will also find that they have the best Minister for Veterans’ Affairs this country has ever seen. They are certainly already reflecting to me their appreciation of his directness, his truthfulness and his efforts on their behalf. In that respect, I would invite the member for Mackellar to withdraw her amendment which, I must warn her, is not being well received among the ex-prisoners of war. I encourage all in this House to refocus on what should be unqualified bipartisan support for this legislation.