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Monday, 3 March 1997
Page: 1677

Mr MARTIN(1.19 p.m.) —I can assure the honourable member for Parkes (Mr Cobb) that the motion he has brought before the parliament today on the Kokoda Track campaign enjoys bipartisan support, but with one or two minor qualifications which I will come to in my contribution today.

It is important at every opportunity to think of these sorts of issues, particularly on a day such as today when the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Mr Bruce Scott) has launched a four-year campaign to ensure that education processes are under way in this country which will enable people to have a full understanding of Australians' contributions in theatres of war.

My colleague the member for Parkes has indicated that he believes that, through some simple actions—in education, health and so on—the contribution of people in Papua New Guinea can be recognised. This is particularly important because their contribution, along with those very valiant members of Australia's defence forces who were along the Kokoda Track during the Second World War—let us not put too fine a point on it—saved Australia. As graphically described by my colleague, every inch of the way literally had to be fought for to stem the attack of the Japanese. If they had not been stopped where they were there is no question that Port Moresby would have fallen and that it would have been used as a launching base for further attacks on Australia. Anyone could hazard a guess about the outcome of that. When you put in the time frame and perspective as to when super powers like the United States got involved in the war, it may well have been a little too late for Australia.

The battles that occurred along the Kokoda Track in 1942—as we have indicated, they culminated in the complete defeat of the 15,000-strong expeditionary force sent to capture Port Moresby—are amongst the most important fought in the history of Australia. The member for Parkes is absolutely right to describe the battles on the Kokoda Track as the Second World War version of Gallipoli for Australia. He is absolutely right there. If our troops had not succeeded, the Japanese would have had a very commanding launch pad, as I have said, against the Australian mainland.

Whilst the name Kokoda certainly evokes emotion in the hearts and minds of most Australians, few are familiar with the names of many critical battle sites along the track such as Isurava, Templetons Crossing, Efogi or the beachhead battles of Buna or Gona. These names should be seared into the minds of Australians but, sadly, for whatever reason, they are not. Perhaps, as part of the commemorative activities which the Minister for Veterans' Affairs launched today, that may form part of that particular program.

At Isurava, for example, the 39th Militia Battalion and the 2nd/14th and 2nd/16th Battalions of the AIF fought a pitched battle against overwhelming odds. They saved the day by slowing the advance of the Japanese who were eventually turned back just outside Port Moresby. I think Australians should learn more about this important battle.

Private Kingsbury is one such hero of this conflict. Private Kingsbury won the Victoria Cross when he flew into a withering hail of fire to make time for his embattled colleagues. Regrettably, he lost his life while saving his country from invasion. That is a very important point because that is what the Pacific-PNG campaigns were all about. Australia was under threat. There was no ambiguity. We were not involved in a far away campaign; it was on our doorstep. That is what made these battles so real.

The efforts of Australian soldiers along the Kokoda track were beyond belief. There were two enemies: the Japanese and the track itself. It was interesting to note the comments of my colleague the member for Parkes when he related his own recent personal experiences. I am sure the member for Lindsay (Miss Jackie Kelly) had similar experiences as she too was a member of the party that made that visit.

I too have been to the track, back in 1968, from memory. I was chosen to be a member of an Australian university rugby union side to go to Papua New Guinea. We lost, but we had the opportunity to visit the track. I concur with everything that my colleague has mentioned about the nature of the track. You did not have to venture too far along it to experience the sorts of hardships that people clearly, particularly in a war setting, would have experienced. The soldiers of the time had to battle extreme exhaustion, disease, hunger and a lack of supplies and, at the end of the day, had to fight a significantly larger, better equipped and better disciplined army which was fresh from a string of victories. The Australians defeated their foe in Papua, but at a terrible cost. War cemeteries at Bomana, Lae and other sites contain the graves of thousands of Australians, many as young as 17 or 18, who died to save Australia.

I also had the very great pleasure, as was mentioned by my colleagues in the debate immediately preceding this one, of visiting a number of those war cemeteries when I visited PNG when I was Speaker of this parliament. I, too, reflected upon the ages of the Australian soldiers who laid down their lives in defence of our country.

It should be remembered that it was overwhelmingly Australian combat troops who achieved this. American troops did not arrive on the scene in Papua New Guinea until the battle of Buna in late 1942-early 1943, and even then there were more Australian troops involved in the theatre of operations. It is often easy to overlook that very point. This is not to say that Americans were not critical in the eventual defeat of the Japanese, particularly in respect of the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, but we should not lose sight of the fact that it was the Australians who inflicted the first defeat on the Japanese army.

The Kokoda campaign was critically aided by the Koiari people in Papua who became known, very affectionately, as fuzzy wuzzy angels. Their compassion and devotion to duty is well remembered by Australian troops. Many more Australians would have died from their wounds if not for the stretcher-bearing fuzzy wuzzy angels. One only has to think back to some of the more memorable and moving movie footage that came out of the Second World War, emanating from the Kokoda track, to see these likeable people doing what came naturally to them—that is, helping Australians who were fighting to save not only Australia but also their own country. I think that is a very important point.

In 1995 a pilgrimage of 117 World War II veterans returned to Papua New Guinea to commemorate the battles fought there and the comrades that did not return. Con Sciacca, our distinguished former minister for veterans' affairs, presented the Koiari people with a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the Australian government at a ceremony just outside Port Moresby.

I take the point that this motion is attempting to make: that is, efforts such as that and recognition in the form of a certificate of appreciation go part of the way towards saying thankyou from a very grateful nation. But I also take cognisance of the suggestion of the member for Parkes that maybe we could do something else. He suggested we should perhaps strike a medal. Perhaps an ex gratia payment might be made or, more importantly from my perspective, perhaps a real contribution could be made as part of our tied aid program to these people—recognition, perhaps, through sanitation programs; much better education programs, or the provision of radios, as has been suggested, which is much more tangible when it comes to improving their lifestyle than the giving of a gong. That is the only note of disquiet I express today when supporting the motion that has come before the House.

Allied to that, of course, is the fact that since 1975 Papua New Guinea has been a sovereign state. If you have had anything to do with our Pacific Island neighbours—and my colleagues immediately before this debate were talking about the South Pacific conference—you will know that many of these people would not like to feel that Australia was in some way perhaps being overly generous or big brotherly. As I have suggested, the deeds of the fuzzy wuzzy angels should live on in our collective memory for many years to come, so I think we have to look at tangible ways of doing that.

Certainly the opposition supports any effort to further commemorate significant battle sites along the Kokoda trail and the deeds of the fuzzy wuzzy angels. I think there is a precedent for funding health and education facilities along that track. I understand that one such facility exists already at Kokoda village and that this was an initiative of the former government but with bipartisan support. Anything such as that—which will improve the lot of these people to whom we owe so much on behalf of so many—should not be taken lightly. (Time expired)