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Thursday, 10 November 2011
Page: 8919

Senator FAULKNER (New South Wales) (19:34): Tonight I want to take the opportunity to update the Senate about recognition of the Australian Women's Land Army. I raised this issue in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Senate estimates hearings on 23 May and 17 October this year and then later on 19 October 2011 with the Department of Defence. I also spoke about appropriate recognition of the Australian Women's Land Army in an adjournment speech in this chamber on 13 September this year.

For some time I have been encouraging the government to use the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the formation of the Australian Women's Land Army, which occurs next year, to recognise the crucial role of the AWLA to the Australian war effort in World War II and to provide appropriate recognition to those who served in the Australian Women's Land Army. I have previously spoken about ways that this recognition might be made. Some suggestions have been put forward: the presentation of a brooch to surviving AWLA members—and I note that in 2008 a badge was awarded to members of the United Kingdom Women's Land Army and Women's Timber Corps; the development of a memorial history book or booklet, which could include a nominal roll of those who served in the AWLA; and the presentation of a formal certificate recognising service in the Women's Land Army. There may well be other avenues of recognition and I encourage consideration of them, but the key point is this: recognition is long overdue. I stress that there is no time to waste, because the number of surviving members of the AWLA is declining. This evening I would like to acknowledge the evidence given by Mr Duncan Lewis, the Secretary of the Department of Defence, at the recent Defence estimates hearing. Mr Lewis said this:

… we get back to the issue of your concern regarding the identification of which department now should be taking this matter forward. I acknowledge the awkwardness that you have faced in the last couple of hearings. I have spoken with Secretary Watt. I have spoken with several ministers. I think it is clear that there is a general shared view that recognition should be made. It remains now for me, Dr Watt and our respective departments to provide to government a recommendation and then it is entirely a matter for the government as to whether that recommendation was accepted.

Mr Lewis went on to say:

Senator Faulkner, I ask that you either acknowledge or indeed accept that I will work with Dr Watt and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet around this to ensure that between us, either individually or collectively, one way or the other, that the matter will be put before government.

After some further questions I thanked the two departments involved—the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Defence—for the commitment that Mr Lewis had given. This work by officials is crucial but I am the first to accept that a minister, or ministers, will need to make final decisions on these matters, and that the onus is on the government to act.

It was the Curtin government in 1942 that established the Australian Women's Land Army. I have noted before that Prime Minister Curtin recommended that the Women's Land Army be recognised as the fourth service, and the then Minister for Labour and National Service, Eddie Ward, said that the importance of the Women's Land Army's contribution to the scheme of rural labour could not be overestimated. Senators here tonight may be interested in a paragraph of cabinet agendum 413—perhaps today we would call it a cabinet submission—dated 22 December 1942. That paragraph—under the subheading 'General'—states this:

… The case for A. W. L. A., having regard to the shortage of rural labour has already been admitted—(vide inter alia Cabinet's adoption of the report of the Departmental Committee on Manpower) and there is abundant evidence of the success of similar armies in Great Britain and New Zealand. In view of the critical manpower position the Commonwealth is clearly justified in incurring expenditure on the A. W. L. A., provided such is reasonable in relation to the manpower shortage, relief provided and the results obtained. Moreover, it is vital to the success of the scheme that the A. W. L. A. be accepted as a national Women's Service of vital importance in the Australian war effort—a fourth Auxiliary—not necessarily recognised as such by law but accorded the distinction and recognition of national service well rendered.

Those words speak volumes. Mr President, for the interest of senators and others in the community, I would seek leave to table a cabinet memorandum of 18 January 1943 and its attachment, an agendum considered by cabinet on 22 December 1942 which contains the paragraph I have just quoted.

Leave granted.

Senator FAULKNER: I thank the Senate. I am pleased that we have made progress on this issue but I stress again: time is short. I strongly encourage the government to continue to work to ensure that appropriate recognition of those who served in the Australian Women's Land Army is given when the 70th anniversary of its formation is celebrated next year.