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Sunday Agenda -

View in ParlView

Helen Dalley: The Anzacs. You've seen the images of young and old troops marching on the streets of
Australia and New Zealand bringing pride to two nations, and you may have watched our first guest,
the Veterans' Affairs Minister, Alan Griffin, as he laid a wreath at Villers-Bretonneux on behalf
of the Federal Government in memory of those died in times of war, especially on the Western Front.
Mr Griffin also spoke eloquently about the 46,000 Australians who died in the trenches of France
and Belgium.

I spoke just a few moments ago to Alan Griffin in London on his way home from the Western Front and
began by thanking him for staying up so late after such a long day.

Alan Griffin: It's a great pleasure to do so but it has been a very long day.

Helen Dalley: Now, what was it like giving the commemorative speech and laying a wreath at
Villers-Bretonneux yesterday, or ANZAC Day for you still today? You did the same thing last year
but it must be a very special occasion for you, especially since your grandfather fought on the
Western Front.

Alan Griffin: Absolutely, Helen. It's an amazing place to be on such a special occasion. It's very
cold there at that time of day, as you'd expect, and that part of France often isn't warm. But in
the light under the tower of the Australian National Memorial with, I think, today something like
3,500 plus people, a lot of Australians, but also I think this year more French, there was a
tremendous feeling to the crowd. And yes, from my point of view, my grandfather fought on the
Western Front, was badly wounded there with trench foot and his unit, although he had ceased to be
with it at that stage, his unit actually attacked across that ground as part of the counter-attack
at Villers-Bretonneux, 91 years ago today.

Helen Dalley: So incredibly emotional for you. Now, you quoted the English poet John Masefield in
your speech who wrote about the Somme when the war was over. He wrote: "One summer with its flowers
will cover most of the ruin that man can make" and "these places will be hard to trace even with
maps". Is that partly why you want to make a $10 million Anzac trail for the Western Front so that
people won't forget?

Alan Griffin: Absolutely. We don't want people to forget because we need to understand what
happened to make sure it doesn't happen again. And a large part of what the local French
communities are about is not only remembering and saying thank you to descendants like Australians,
and others who came to their country and fought for freedom, but also to remember the horror of the
carnage, to ensure that future generations don't let it happen again.

Helen Dalley: Well, have the French Government, or the local French communities, pledged any funds
to help with the development of trail sites?

Alan Griffin: We haven't got specific figures yet but what we have had is a very positive reaction
to the concept and we've certainly had reactions back from almost all levels of government in
France that there will be some scope for support. What we need to do though is first off get some
plans, if you like, around the question of exactly what we should do at each of the locations we've
talked about and see what that will actually cost. And while we go through that process, also whole
discussions with the French authorities about what sort of support is available.

Helen Dalley: Well, you also inspected the site for the new cemetery at Fromelles last week where
the remains of up to 400 Australian and British soldiers were found just last year. Do you think
that will become a popular commemorative visiting place for Australians?

Alan Griffin: Well, I think that's one of the locations which has some real potential in it with
respect to how we can actually progress this issue. And, for example, there I've been talking to
the Mayor of Fromelles, representatives from the local tourism authority and the regional
government and they're all very positive about the concept and they think it's got a lot of
potential. When you look at that site you've got Pheasant Wood where the mass grave is currently.
You've got the new cemetery. You've got the Battle of Fromelles which occurred in the grounds just
behind there. And you've also had several other major battles in the early part of the war at
Aubers Ridge and Neuve Chapelle, which involved the British and the Indians. So it's a place I
think where we could tell a very important part of the story of what took place earlier on in the
war, and what took place in what was the bloodiest 24 hours of Australian military history with
over 5 and a half thousand casualties.

And when you look at that place and the links towards that mass grave, which is the largest mass
grave found on the Western Front since the 1920s when they did the entire consolidation of the
various mass graves that were there at the time, it's the largest mass grave by a factor of more
than 10, and therefore it's a very important location.

Helen Dalley: Now, some of the families of those who died at Fromelles wanted funerals for their
loved ones, individual funerals. Is this possible or will it more be a memorial service?

Alan Griffin: Well, it's very complex the process that's going to be undertaken now. What's
happening over the next few months is that the exhumation process is about to start. Hopefully the
bodies of the 'Diggers' and the 'Tommies' who were there will be out by around September at the
same time the new cemetery's being constructed. As you mentioned earlier we could be talking about
something like 400 different sets of remains. We have DNA information, if you like, regarding
something like around 190 or so Australian families. The question will be is how well we can match
that up. Also the issue of how well the British remains can be matched from information that they
have. So it's a very complex process. With so many people involved it's going to be very difficult
to have arrangements which relate to individual funerals. However, the process that's being
proposed will ensure that there's an opportunity for, at the very least, a proper memorial service
for families of those whose loved ones are established are there. I think that's reasonable and I
think it's fair and it's certainly more than what many were able to do in the years following
1914-18.

Helen Dalley: Okay. I want to move on to a couple more issues in our limited time. The Sunday Age
is reporting today that the RSL plans to close as many as 22 clubs to enable it to buy as many
poker machines as possible to help with gaming revenue after the State Government deregulates the
industry. Now this is going to hurt veterans, isn't it? What's your response?

Alan Griffin: Well, I have not seen the story, I've heard about it. So I'm not aware of the detail
other than I would say is that RSL clubs do close. It's a matter for the RSL as to what occurs on
that basis. The ageing of the veterans' population does mean that RSLs now often have a focus
beyond veterans into the general community and they're important community facilities. I don't know
which clubs they're talking about and I'm not aware of what's occurring around the deregulation of
the gambling industry that would lead to this situation developing. But obviously these clubs are
important community facilities.

Helen Dalley: Okay. We understand a specialist report on the ADF's mental health programme will be
released next week, along with a study into suicide among veterans. What will be some of the
recommendations, particularly on suicide?

Alan Griffin: Well, we're waiting to release that report, and you're correct that should be
happening this week. What we've tried to do is to consider the recommendations, consult within the
ex-service community as we'll be doing, but also preparing responses to those recommendations at
part of the release process. We're confident that we'll be able to address the recommendations that
are there and take some positive steps forward with respect to dealing with these issues. There are
a number of recommendations, some of those recommendations relate to the department better handling
some of the issues that they deal with with respect to dealing with veterans on a bureaucratic
basis, and that that can cause problems for veterans. We've already made some significant steps
forward since the election on exactly those sorts of issues, so I think we're already partway
towards addressing some of those concerns. But the problem with mental health issues is we're
learning new things all the time and we need to keep learning and we need to keep moving forward. I
believe that the response that the government will make to these two reports will be a very
constructive and positive step forward on what are very important issues for the future.

Helen Dalley: All right. Mr Griffin, there is something that's come up, the Sydney Morning Herald
reported yesterday that there was a backlog of some 8000 military personnel who haven't yet had
their post-operation psychological screening. Now again this is, sort of, the areas you're talking
about and even that hasn't been done properly with such a backlog.

Alan Griffin: Well, that relates to mental health treatment and testing within the ADF. What I
would say is that that's one of the reasons why this government moved soon after being elected to
establish that report into mental health treatment within the ADF because we realised there were
problems and we knew we had to look at that. This report that will come out this week, and the
response from the government to that, will be looking to address some of those sorts of issues.

Helen Dalley: Okay, Minister, we will leave it there and we do thank you again for staying up late
on your ANZAC Day. You've had a very busy week. Thanks very much for joining us.

Alan Griffin: Thank you.