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Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Page: 1060

Ms FLINT (Boothby) (18:39): In the introduction to her book, Well may we say ... the speeches that made Australia, author Sally Warhaft observes:

Even when we know that words are not enough, sometimes, offered humbly and humanely, they are all we have.

I cannot think of a more appropriate sentiment with which to begin this speech about 65 brave Australian nurses who endured the unthinkable 75 years ago today. There are no words that can truly do justice to these remarkable women who experienced atrocities and tragedies so awful they are difficult to recount.

The story of these 65 Australian nurses begins with their evacuation from Singapore as it fell on 12 February 1942. It was on the 12th that they boarded the small ship the Vyner Brooke along with many civilians and children. On board the Vyner Brooke and under the direction of matrons Olive Paschke and Irene Drummond, the 65 nurses gave up their quarters to civilians and took charge of serving food from the limited rations. The matrons determined early on that, in the event of an evacuation, the nurses would be the last to leave the ship. The ship was loaded far beyond its capacity and being small and alone on the sea, it was a target for the Japanese, despite the best efforts of the ship's captain to hug the coastline of the islands of Indonesia as they fled.

And so, 75 years ago today on Valentine's Day, the little Vyner Brooke was attacked by nine Japanese aircraft who bombed it no less than 30 times in five minutes, before damaging it so badly it began to sink. Many were killed during the attack. Even though the ship was quickly sinking, as per the orders of the matrons, the nurses ensured all other passengers left the Vyner Brooke before they jumped into the sea to cling to debris. Many of the nurses could not swim. All were at the mercy of the current. Injured and drifting, 53 nurses somehow made it to Bangka Island; 12 did not.

I acknowledge the wonderful work of the Australian Mint for releasing a coin today, which I have here with me, to commemorate the anniversary of this terrible tragedy. Of those who did make it to shore, some were captured by Japanese troops and taken to Muntok on Bangka Island, where they were held with civilian women and children. Eight of these nurses would tragically die in 1945 just before the end of the war. Nearby, 22 nurses, including several who were badly injured, along with civilians and servicemen from other ships, were washed up on Radji beach, Bangka Island. Matron Irene Drummond coordinated the 100 or so survivors. It was Matron Drummond who held her nurses together, when upon their surrender the Japanese troops proceeded to first kill the servicemen, who were surrendering with them, and then the civilians. It was Matron Drummond who said to her nurses as they marched into the sea to be machine-gunned, then bayoneted to death by the Japanese, 'Chins up girls. I'm proud of you and I love you all.'

Miraculously, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel survived this atrocity. Wounded and in shock, she not only dragged herself out of the sea but after coming across a badly wounded soldier cared for him for days until he was well enough to walk with her to the village of Muntok. Sister Bullwinkel survived the conditions in the internment camp that claimed the lives of eight of her fellow nurses and later gave evidence to war crimes tribunals in Australia and Japan. I cannot summarise the courage and dedication of these nurses better than Dr Brendan Nelson, the Director of the Australian War Memorial, in his address to the Bangka Day Memorial Service at the Women's Memorial Playing Fields in my electorate on Sunday, 12 February 2017. Describing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Dr Nelson said:

The most prominent image chosen in the centre facing Anzac Parade across the lake to the parliament is neither the light horseman nor a Naval Officer.

It is a nurse.

In her hands is a basin containing instruments. Immediately above her head is the Red Cross—universal symbol of charity. Further above it is a pelican feeding her young directly from her bleeding heart, the ultimate symbol of the quality named below—Devotion.

To completely subsume yourself into the people and the cause to which you have committed.

Straddling Anzac Parade are our nation’s sacred Memorials.

The nurses’ memorial simply says, Beyond all praise.

The brave and selfless actions of the 65 nurses who boarded the Vyner Brooke on 12 February 1942 demonstrated their courage, stoicism and devotion beyond all praise. It is our duty in this place to remember them and commemorate their brave and selfless actions.

In my electorate of Boothby, we do so through the Women's Memorial Playing Fields. The playing fields sit in the middle of the 130 square kilometres of my electorate. The playing fields' eight-hectare site was established by Liberal Premier Sir Thomas Playford in 1953 to encourage women's sport and as a war memorial to our servicewomen, particularly the 21 nurses massacred on Radji Beach. The service held to commemorate these women has been running for seven decades, and on Sunday we were honoured to be addressed by Dr Nelson to mark the 75th anniversary of the Bangka Island massacre.

The memorial at the Women's Memorial Playing Fields is one of the few Australian war memorials dedicated to women. As Dr Madeleine Turner writes in her honours thesis, Unsung heroes: the Australian Service Nurses National Memorial and the politics of recognition, it was not until the late 1990s, after a long, hard-fought struggle, that Australian service nurses were honoured with their own national memorial on Anzac Parade in Canberra. The Women's Memorial Playing Fields in my electorate of Boothby are more than just a war memorial. Through the presence of women's sport they are a living memorial, mainly to the 65 nurses of the Vyner Brookebut also to all servicewomen who have given their lives for our nation and our freedom.

Unfortunately, the playing fields and the memorial are in desperate need of an upgrade so they can continue to recognise our servicewomen and support our sportswomen in a fitting way. The memorial service and the memorial to Australian nurses and servicewomen is administered by a small but dedicated group of local volunteers, none more so than the president of the memorial playing fields, Mr Bruce Parker OAM, who received his honour for the work he has done there. Each year, volunteers from the trust and the sports clubs cater for hundreds of people at the service, as they did on Sunday with Dr Nelson and the trust patron, Mrs Lan Le, wife of our governor, His Excellency Mr Hieu Van Le AC. Each year, they make the case for assistance for funding to upgrade the modest memorial and the playing fields. Both are desperately in need of a refresh so they can cater for more visitors to the memorial, so more people can understand the importance of the site and so more women and, I would hope, men can play sport at the site.

I was disappointed to learn that the trust's attempts to gain tax-deductible gift status were refused. Like so many grassroots community groups who are doing invaluable local work and who want to raise significant amounts of money from within their community to fund local projects, they could not gain tax-deductible gift status. This is a policy issue I intend to pursue so that our local volunteers and local community projects can get the assistance that they deserve. I recognise this may be a difficult task. The area of law relating to charities is complex and carries the weight of centuries of case law and now federal legislation. However, I believe the true meaning of charity has strayed from where it began: in our homes and in our local communities.

Today, too many big charities have no grassroots members, do no work in our local communities, often benefit from generous government grants and often exist almost exclusively to attack our local businesses. These big charities reap the generous rewards of tax-deductible gift recipient status and associated perks like fringe benefits tax exemptions, while our community groups are reduced to begging governments for money for local sporting or war memorial upgrades. The best example I can give of this phenomenon is the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, otherwise known as FARE. They were created with a $115 million federal grant; have no grassroots members; spend most of their time attacking our family-owned pubs, wineries and breweries; and claim all the benefits of charitable status, including tax-deductible gift recipient status.

As the member for Boothby and the first woman to have ever held the seat since it was established in 1903, I believe it is my responsibility to do all I can to fight for the Women's Memorial Playing Fields and the memorial to our Australian servicewomen. I may not succeed, but I owe it to our Australian servicewomen and our Australian sportswomen to do my very best.