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Tuesday, 13 September 2011
Page: 5957


Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (19:22): This year, the Australian Women’s Army Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force and the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service celebrated their 70th anniversaries and it is appropriate we honour their service. Tonight, however, I would like to draw the Senate's attention to a group of women who are not always remembered with other women's auxiliary services, the Australian Women's Land Army, which was active from 1942 to 1945. The 70th anniversary of the Australian Women's Land Army will be celebrated on 27 July 2012.

The Australian Women's Land Army reached its peak strength in December 1943 with 3,400 women, both permanent and auxiliary members. The women in the land army, some as young as 16, volunteered and were recruited to work on farms and in factories left empty by men at war. Their service and sacrifice ensured that production on the home front continued—it ensured the wheels kept turning.

The Women's Land Army functioned with military style and precision. The women were supervised by land army matrons. They wore uniforms, were rotated around a number of manual tasks, lived in dormiĀ­tories, were assigned leave passes and were confined to barracks for undisciplined behaviour. An initial six-month probation period determined their capacity to manage often intensely physical tasks. These women never served overseas, nor were they required to wield a weapon, pen or thermometer, but their strenuous physical work was essential to the war effort. If our farms had failed, so too would have our fighting forces. These women made sure that Australians, in and out of uniform, continued to eat.

The stories of the Australian Women's Land Army are inspiring. Members of the land army believed it was their patriotic duty to feed the troops, a task more important than the sprained ankles, aching muscles, broken ribs and sheer exhaustion which resulted from their demanding physical labour. Land army work ranged from fruit picking, vegetable growing and packing, to wheat, sheep and dairy farming. The women, primarily from cities and towns, were never warned about snakes, dust storms, locusts and leeches. They endured hardships they never imagined for the sake of 'doing their bit' for their country and its troops overseas. The women's stories detail wonderful camaraderie, strength, determination and, to be fair, fun.

In 1942, Prime Minister John Curtin recommended that the land army be recognised as the fourth service. 'Eddie' Ward, the Minister for Labour and National Service at the time, stated that the importance of the land army's contribution to the scheme of rural labour could not be overestimated. To ensure the success of the program, Ward recommended that the land army be accorded the same status, conditions and privileges as those experienced by other women's services. The war cabinet gave its approval in 1943, but unfortunately, the land army was not formally constituted under the national security regulations until 1945 and was never validated by parliament.

During the war, land army women received lower wages, fewer concessions and fewer medical benefits than the other women's services. Land army women were also refused entry into many service clubs and hostels. The end of the war brought demobilisation and the abandonment of the service recognition recommendation for land army women. In the years following the war, members of the Australian Women's Land Army campaigned long and hard for specific recognition of their efforts.

To date their struggles have gained, in 1985, the opportunity to march on Anzac Day; in 1991, the opportunity to join the RSL, and access to the Civilian Service Medal. And today former members of the land army are still campaigning for appropriate recognition. In 2010, the Australian Women's Land Army stalwarts appeared to have made some progress. A draft submission to the Minister for Defence was negotiated and finalised by Ms Maxine McKew, the then member for Bennelong, and Defence's Nature of Service Division and Honours and Awards Division. This submission detailed appropriate, separate recognition for the surviving members of the land army, in the form of the presentation of a formal certificate recognising the service of the Australian Women's Land Army; the presentation of a brooch, similar to that awarded to the United Kingdom Women's Land Army and Timber Corps, designed by Defence Honours and Awards in consultation with the Australian Women's Land Army; and, the development of a memorial history book or booklet including a nominal roll of all members of the Australian Women's Land Army. In my view, we must waste no more time in recognising the surviving land army women and those who have gone before them. It is long overdue that their service be recognised and honoured.

I note the answer to my question on notice—No. 56—in this year's budget estimates for the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio. It reads:

PM&C will engage with the Department of Defence on this issue to identify any further opportunities to recognise the members of the AWLA.

I hope that by the next estimates round both departments will be able to report significant progress.

I strongly believe that the government and the parliament should ensure that appropriate recognition of the Australian Women's Land Army is given on the occasion next year of its 70th anniversary, and I ask all parliamentarians to support this worthy objective.