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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 51

Senator MARK BISHOP (12:59 PM) —I rise today to address the commemorations program for veterans in 2005, leading into 2006. It is clear that commemorations will be the major program for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs this year. That is no surprise because, it is also fair to say, all attempts to form better policy have failed in more recent years. The Clarke inquiry initiated by the government backfired and was pigeon-holed, failure to support the gold card gave veterans and war widows much unnecessary worry, and in Tasmania access to medical specialists remains a problem because the fee schedules, they say, do not compare with those of the private health funds. We are advised by the government that there are no new policies for implementation and there is no additional legislation to be introduced for the remainder of this term.

There is now little on the government agenda except commemoration. It is fair to say, from past example, that the Howard government is very keen on commemoration. It is a government obsessed with public relations and the reflected glory of others. Photo opportunities have become a major substitute for policy initiatives in this area of endeavour. It should be said that commemoration is in itself a good thing, but not to the exclusion of all else. The government’s budget for commemoration of veterans until 2006 will be some $4½ million plus an extra $7½ million promised during the election campaign, giving a total of almost $12 million.

The prime events will be the commemoration of the 90th anniversary of Gallipoli and the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. From the opposition’s perspective, these are fine events worth commemorating. Gallipoli is now deeply entrenched in our national psyche, though only three veterans from World War I remain. World War II is increasingly fresh in our minds. Hundreds of thousands of Australians served both overseas and on the home front during that period of conflict, and for them World War II is an indelible memory. Their families, too, honour that commitment with pride. However, the Australian community requires balance as the plans for these commemorative events evolve. Historians have a tendency to particularise war into campaigns, theatres and individual battles. The reason for this is simply that they were often significant turning points and often they entailed significant loss. They did not, however, represent the totality of effort that might have been involved through that protracted period.

As we have seen in recent years, the Kokoda campaign continues to attract publicity because of the continuing public interest now much apparent in younger generations. It is gratifying for those who served there to now see recognition of the conditions that they endured; likewise for Milne Bay, Buna, Gona and Sanananda—though perhaps we still understate the significance of campaigns in those areas of New Guinea during World War II. Together they are an example of a last-ditch effort to defend the Australian mainland. The level of hardship and the loss of so many young Australian lives cause us to remember those days, and as the year goes on we will be increasingly reminded of the significance of those losses. In many cases, as recent writers have noted in detail, lives were unnecessarily wasted. Too many of these lives were lost due to the political imperatives of a remote high command.

It is forgotten by some that the war against the Japanese continued in New Guinea for another two years, until the ceasefire settlement at Wewak on 15 August 1945. Prior to these commemorative activities over the last three years there was some focus on other events—for instance, the fall of Singapore, the tragedies of the Burma-Thailand railway and the campaign in Sandakan. To a lesser extent attention was paid last year to the campaigns of North Africa and Greece, including Crete. The $11 million memorial in London was also unveiled. Many feats of courage and endurance have been recognised.

It is difficult to do them all justice and avoid offending those whose contributions are often unsung. For example, little comment is made on Australians in Borneo and Burma and many other places. It is noticeable that so many veterans believe that they fought a forgotten war. That is often applied to Korea, but it is more noticeably applied to those British Commonwealth forces who took on the task of occupying Japan between 1945 and 1947, after World War II. Peacekeepers too are continually disappointed at the emphasis placed on military service other than their own.

While commemoration of major campaigns is appropriate, there is a risk of overlooking the breadth and totality of the effort involved, including the effort of those who stayed at home but nevertheless supported the war effort. Not everybody was sent abroad. As many remind us—and we are increasingly reminded through the RSL—people enlisted to fight wherever they were sent. Hence the long-term division, which is again becoming apparent, between those who returned and those who were not sent. That is a great pity, but perhaps now we have an opportunity to redress that feeling in the forthcoming year, without diluting the effort of those who were sent.

It goes without saying that there were many contributions from the Australian community to the war effort. All those in reserved occupations helped by keeping the home fires burning and by supplying our troops’ needs. As we all know, women of the Land Army are among those whose contributions are often forgotten. The war effort, as people of that generation—our parents and grandparents—will tell you, was a national effort. So my plea to those organising the commemorative program for the end of World War II is to be inclusive. We should certainly maintain the focus on the pivotal battles and the heroes who carried out their feats in those times, but at the same time we should not ignore or overlook those who helped in so many other ways.

I also raise the matter of the term ‘VP Day’, or Victory in the Pacific Day. The point has been made that the use of VP Day in preference to VJ Day, or Victory over Japan Day, is inappropriate. Some say it is a historic aberration. There is some merit in this argument. The war for Australia was certainly not limited to the Pacific Ocean. World War II was fought against the Japanese and Germany in the Indian Ocean and throughout South-East Asia as far as the Indian subcontinent. The formal surrender of Japan at the time was titled VJ Day. That was the phraseology of the time and, if you look at the extant newsreels, you will see that it was the common phrase used by the President of the United States at the time.

The reason for the shift to VP Day is not clear, except perhaps that some considered it less offensive to Japan in a new world, as part of a new alliance in a different battle, in them trying to put some of the vicissitudes of Japan during World War II behind them. Indeed, if that is why, it is probably a more than reasonable argument for the shift in the title. Having said that, it does constrict the notion of the war as being conducted in the Pacific Ocean alone, and that patently was not the case. For example, it is reported that more merchant ships were sunk in the Indian Ocean than the Pacific.

The other associated issue with VP or VJ Day is the actual date. As we know, hostilities ceased on 15 August 1945, although isolated fighting continued in some places in ensuing years. The actual surrender signed on the decks of the USS Missouri took place on 2 September US time or 3 September Australian time. That was the date used at the time for VJ Day. The actual date, however, seems to be of lesser importance.

For Western Australians, whom I represent in this place, the title of VP or VJ Day is relevant. Like all Australians, Western Australians served wherever they were directed. The defence of the west coast and passages to Australia’s north and north-west was conducted in large part out of Western Australia—out of Fremantle and, on occasion, from the more northern ports. Hence Western Australia was and remains strategically important. Its remoteness from immediate American military interest then and now makes no difference. Certainly, for Western Australians it is arguable that the term ‘VP Day’ is inappropriate. The restoration of the term ‘VJ Day’ should therefore be seriously considered.

It also goes without saying that Australia’s efforts in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East warrant remembrance, and on an ongoing basis. Australia’s contribution to the defence of the United Kingdom and to the defeat of the axis powers was considerable. So once again the plea is one of inclusiveness. We require balance. Above all, we should emphasise human endeavour and the survival of national spirit. Balance, too, between the pomp and pageantry and the educational purpose for younger generations is necessary. This balance thus reminds all subsequent generations of the struggles made by our forebears in our national defence. It is not simply a series of photo opportunities for the Prime Minister and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. Overt, continuing, large-scale political manipulation only cheapens this important commemoration of our forebears. Unfortunately, that is not the track record of the Prime Minister or successive ministers for veterans’ affairs, it must be said.

As we proceed through 2005-06 we need to continuously reflect on the history of our nation’s defence, particularly those dark days of 1942. We should reflect on the spirit of those who fought at the sharp end and the loss of so many. We should not forget the efforts of others in all walks of life who made their own singular contribution to the then national war effort. We in the Labor Party therefore join with the government in commemorating the end of World War II. As is always the case, we are more than pleased to endorse the 90th anniversary of Gallipoli. As elected representatives, we look forward to participating in this program in the full spirit of bipartisanship which is generally attached to this portfolio.