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Wednesday, 31 August 2016
Page: 48

Mr SHORTEN (MaribyrnongLeader of the Opposition) (09:17): It is fitting to begin this sitting day by respectfully commemorating the centenary of the battles of Fromelles and Pozieres and the 50th-year anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. The Australians we remember today risked and lost their lives so that we might live ours in peace. In this parliament, where conflict can be trivial and even contrived, we all honour those who face real danger, who put themselves in harm's way and, in some cases, make the supreme sacrifice in Australia's name.

At about 6 pm on 19 July 1916, men of the 5th Australian Division clambered out of their trenches and advanced on the German position. In the hours beforehand, as they waited for the final command, while shells split the sky above, many of those young men undoubtedly would have been afraid. Yet when the word came they advanced as one, reminding us that true courage is found not in the absence of fear but in facing it. The seven hours of preparatory bombardment deprived the Australians and their British comrades of the element of surprise but, sadly, barely dented the well-entrenched German forces. The machine-gun fire was fierce, the carnage unimaginable. By 8 am the following morning the Battle of Fromelles was over and more than 5½ thousand Australians lay wounded or dead. This was a dreadful toll, but Fromelles was only the beginning.

A few days later, a few miles away, more than 5,000 Australians from the 1st Division would be injured or killed at Pozieres. In the words of Sergeant Barwick, who was quoted earlier:

It was something awful, for we were out in the open and unprotected and men fell fast as rain.

When the 2nd Division came to relieve the first, they sustained more than 6,800 casualties before the first week of August was over.

In a few hours in a few weeks on the other side of the world tens of thousands of Australian lives were fractured forever. For some families, simple village names such as Fromelles and Pozieres spoke of a knock at the door or a War Office telegram; tears in the night and an empty chair at every Christmas thereafter. Then there were the young Australians who came home old before their time, changed beyond understanding by what they had seen and endured.

It is important that we honour the Centenary of Anzac, because back 100 years ago in only the second decade of Federation, we suffered the greatest tragedy in our nation's modern history. Two out of every five Australian men aged 18 to 44 in our young nation enlisted. From a population of 4.9 million people 61,000 died, 8,000 were taken prisoner, 16,000 were gassed, 37,000 were horribly disfigured—referring to themselves ever after as 'the broken gargoyles'—4,000 lost more than one limb and then there were tens of thousands permanently bearing the invisible scars of trauma. And there were so many whose lives were shorter and harder than they would otherwise have been.

Nor can the loss be measured in just one generation. In my own family two sons went to war; neither returned. The parents broke up and the two surviving daughters were fostered out. I was speaking to one of my relatives, and he said it was two generations of family scarred by this conflict—and there are many other examples. Even our very landscape still wears the toll of memory. Seedlings planted to commemorate the fallen have grown into magnificent avenues of honour. Those humble white stone monuments form focal points in country towns and coastal villages. When you read these lists now in so many places, the list of names seems just impossibly long. When you look at these country towns and you try to imagine taking all of these young men out of that population, it makes you shake your head. Of course even now there is that flash of recognition, the echo of old pain, when you see two or three of the same surname grouped together on the list—brothers lost to their mother, sometimes in same awful hour.

A century on, there is no-one amongst us who can speak firsthand of Fromelles or Pozieres. Even those left to grow old have left us. Yet today in this House we declare again that age has not wearied their sacrifice; their deaths were not in vain and the memory of their courage and lives still lives with us. A full 50 years later, after these dreadful battles and 12,000 kilometres away in the red mud and monsoonal rain, a new generation of Anzacs clashed with North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces amidst the straight lines of the Long Tan rubber plantation.

Most of the nashos were barely 20 or 21, fresh from training at Puckapunyal. The regulars enlisted at 19. The commanding officer of Delta Company, Harry Smith, himself was just 33. Long Tan was a feat of arms achieved against overwhelming odds. D Company inflicted more than a thousand enemy casualties as wave after wave crashed against their professional, determined, unbroken defensive fire. When reinforcements came and victory was won, it probably did not occur to any of these men that they were heroes in the finest tradition of our first Anzacs. After all, how could what they achieved possibly sink in, with half of their mates either dead, wounded or in hospital? How could they feel like the heroes that they in fact were? And then, bare weeks and months after these young Australians had fought for their lives, many found themselves back home in Australia—off the boat, handing in their rifles and their pay books at Enoggera.

Now, in Brisbane the record reflects there was a parade, but there was no subsequent counselling, no rehabilitation, no attempt to help reconcile the experience of war with a return to the suburbs. How could they explain to the people they returned to what they had been doing barely weeks earlier? Instead, our servicemen were left to adjust to a life in a country shamefully and, in too many cases, deliberately ignorant of their service, their suffering and their sacrifice.

For those of us too young to remember the temperature of those times, the stories of those who were there echo across the years. One veteran I had the privilege of meeting at a commemoration ceremony in Darwin earlier this month, told me of a friend who had been called up, fought, sent home and demobilised before the age of 21. The following weekend he went to a party with some of his mates from uni. A girl there asked him what he had been up to. He told her where he had been. In front of the whole party she slapped him across the face. With the passage of time, I can understand the political disagreement of the war and, indeed, the conscription, but I cannot, for the life of me, understand blaming the soldiers in the conflict.

The hard truth of those times is that far too many Australians sent into the jungle dark of Vietnam were shunned on their return. There are some haunting words of returned service people inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial on Anzac Parade, but one in particular stands out to me. It goes: 'I don't seem to have many friends since I came home. If you weren't there, you cannot understand.' Not only did Australia fail to understand; with a few noble exceptions, we failed to try.

For too long our nation closed its eyes and its heart. Thankfully, from the return home parade of 1987 and onwards, the failure has been gradually corrected. The wrong is on its way to being righted, and in a time when so many old certainties and old loyalties have faded, the story of the Vietnam War and the Anzac legend, as a whole, has only grown in resonance and in meaning.

It should be the source of tremendous pride to all the veterans and their families, and to all Australians, that our commemorations, here and overseas, are overwhelmingly led and supported by our young people. It should be, perhaps, the source of pride to our veterans that every member of parliament who serves in the parliament regards the attendance at these memorial events as possibly the best part of the job. But no words we say today can truly draw out the details of the battles long ago.

Our obligation as leaders, as legislators, is to be practical rather than sentimental. Uncomfortable as it may be, we should acknowledge that as a nation we have been better at honouring the memory of our dead than offering decent support for the living. We have not always fulfilled the duty we owe to those who have done theirs. For all the national local monuments that instruct us to remember, there are no memorials, no walls covered in poppies for the veterans who take their own lives, yet their loss is no less, the sadness of their passing no harder for those who love them.

Despite its prevalence, post-traumatic stress disorder remains poorly understood, inadequately measured. One in 10 of our fellow Australians who are homeless is a veteran. We have to do better than this. When people are prepared to pay the ultimate price for our country, none of us has the right to say that we cannot afford to care for them. Right now with a new generation of service men and women coming home from Australia's longest war, we owe our veterans more than the respect of history or a solemn tribute to honoured memory; more than a poppy, a sprig of rosemary or a rising sun badge on the lapel, more than a few coins in the Legacy tin. Saying 'Lest we forget' must be matched with practical help, a caring arm and a helping hand for those who come home, and better support for their families. This is a place of many promises: some are good and some are even honoured. But, today, let us vow to give new, tangible meaning to Australia's oldest promise: 'We will remember them. Lest we to forget.'