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Thursday, 27 May 1993
Page: 1461

Senator GILES (1.08 p.m.) —In case at some time in the future somebody should look through my contributions to the Parliament and wonder where I was between September and December 1992, and because the official report of the delegation to the United Nations will not be produced until I no longer have the opportunity of commenting on it, it seems sensible for me to use this opportunity to make a very brief report about that particular time, and about some other activities in which I was privileged to be involved earlier this year.

  I am sure that the vast majority of people who take an intelligent interest in international affairs would be aware of the fact that senior officers of our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, experts on issues such as disarmament, chemical warfare, development, environment, aid and human rights, are brought in from the capitals of Europe and from Australia for particular agenda items. These officers are well known and highly regarded for their expertise and contribution to the development of international policy.

  Our permanent mission to the United Nations in New York also consists of talented and hardworking officers under the able and effective leadership of Ambassador Richard Butler and his deputy, Richard Rowe. A highlight of United Nations General Assembly 47 in 1992 was the election of Richard Butler to chair the committee which has the duty of preparing for the 50th anniversary celebrations of the United Nations in 1995.

  Although I knew that we have highly regarded officers and we have contributed significantly to many issues involved in international policy development, it was not until I was able to take part in some special sessions which were held last year that I realised that we are pre-eminent in a number of social policy issues. There were special sessions on people with disabilities at the end of the decade for people with disabilities; there was a special session on ageing, likewise at the end of the decade; and there was a special session on indigenous people at the beginning of the year for indigenous people. On each of those occasions, I was able to report to the General Assembly on behalf of Australia on measures that we had taken to fulfil, in the first two cases, the objectives of those two decades, and on the initiatives that we were in the course of taking in relation to indigenous people.

  When I spoke with people from those many other countries who were contributing to those debates I realised that the policies we have developed over the last decade or so are seen to be models for much of the world, of high quality, and that we compare very well with other countries with which we normally identify. In many cases, the social achievements of Australia over the past decade are seen to be superior to those of most of the rest of the world. I did not just rely on my own colleagues to confirm that; there were members of other delegations coming to us for information, with compliments and requests for further information.

  In the third committee, where I spent most of my time, we were also able to make excellent contributions to all the issues that were subsumed under the heading of human rights. On the occasion of the opening of the agenda item on the status of women, a prominent Australian constitutional lawyer, Dr Hilary Charlesworth, took part in a seminar and made an excellent contribution as a result of her analysis of international conventions, along the same lines as the analysis we have been applying to domestic law in Australia for some years, which is, in brief, that laws of this nature were developed principally by men from the thoroughly patriarchal establishments which have been running the world for a long time; that they have been interpreted by men; and that they have not lived up at all to the assumptions that might have been made somewhere along the way that they applied to all human beings. They did not explicitly or implicitly address the many breaches of human rights suffered by women.

  Coming out of the discussion that was held at the UN on this matter and other matters involving human rights, agendas and resolutions were developed that will be the subject of the world conference on human rights to be held in Vienna within the next fortnight. I can report that the Australian delegation had a great deal to offer as a result of the expertise of our human rights specialists, particularly Dr Colin Willis and Dr Martin Sharp. The three months that I had in New York were, for me, busy and stimulating and affirming of the high regard in which Australia is held at the United Nations and of the talent of our officers. The opportunity to be part of that process in 1992 was certainly one of the highlights of my parliamentary career and one for which I am intensely grateful.

  Early this year I was able to go to Paris at the time of the opening of the chemical weapons convention for signing. Parliamentarians for Global Action were conducting a symposium at the same time as the opening of the convention for signature, and about 30 members of parliaments from around the world made their way to Paris for that occasion. Our Minister for Foreign Affairs (Senator Gareth Evans), discovering that Senator Chamarette and I were in Paris for this symposium, invited us to be part of the Australian delegation at the UNESCO meeting where the official opening ceremony was held. Australia was among about 125 nations which signed the convention at that opening. We had the great good fortune and pleasure of hearing the people who spoke at the opening, such as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr Boutros Ghali, Mr Mitterrand and other dignitaries, mentioning with considerable warmth the enormous effectiveness of Australian officers during the last few years when the chemical weapons convention was being finalised and opened for signature.

  For many Australians, the first consciousness that they would have had of our role would have been in 1989 when the chemical weapons manufacturers were invited to Australia to take part in a discussion about how they might contribute to the process which had, at that time, been stalled for 20 or 21 years. The progress since then has been extremely encouraging, and it was enormously satisfying to see this convention, having come to the point where it was opened for signature, being approved by signature by a very large majority of the member nations of the UN.

  When I returned from Paris after this unique experience, I received a phone call from the former Minister for Veterans' Affairs. My response was a perfectly natural one: `Oh, he is going to ask me to lay another wreath'. It actually was the case, but was a wreath laying with a considerable difference. The former Minister was unable to leave Australia during the election campaign, so it was an occasion where he was asking me to deputise for him at the laying of a wreath on the island of Bangka at the dedication of a memorial to the Australian Army nurses who died when they were escaping from Singapore in 1941. Minister Humphreys felt that I was a reasonably appropriate person to send in his place as I had long ago trained as a nurse. Also, I had been closely involved in the development of policy for veterans over the years—

Senator Newman —They should have sent me.

Senator GILES —I am sorry, Senator Newman; maybe she will have a chance some time. But in any case this was a three-day exercise as far as I was concerned, though many people who came to the actual memorial service in Bangka on 2 March were taking part in a longer pilgrimage which took them to a number of other war graves in the area—in Jakarta and Singapore, I believe. The delegation actually included seven of the nurses who had survived 3 1/2 years of internment by the Japanese on this island of Bangka which, incidentally, is just a little north of Sumatra and 160 miles south-east of Singapore.

  I seek leave to have incorporated in Hansard the speech I made that night at the welcoming ceremony, not because of any great value that the speech has per se, but because I included in that quite lengthy references to the enormous privations that these women had suffered during the time that they had been interned by the Japanese under very, very harsh circumstances.

  Leave granted.

  The speech read as follows—

Speech at the Welcoming Dinner on the Occasion of the Dedication of the Memorial to the Vyner-Brooke Nurses

BANGKA 1 March 1993

I'm here tonight to represent the Minister for Veterans' Affairs who sends his apologies for being unable to leave Australia during this election period, and who sincerely hopes that this occasion will be a memorable one for you all. I feel honoured and privileged to be given the opportunity of deputising for him.

Everyone here tonight is an honoured guest.

There are, however two groups of people for whom this is a particularly poignant occasion.

The seven Vyner-Brooke nurses who are able to be here come with memories of a terrible ordeal, but with the knowledge that their bravery is almost legendary.

Relatives of the deceased nurses, many of them not knowing for years what had happened to their sisters, daughters, aunts, will, we all hope, be able at long last to say farewell to their long lost and loved ones. We feel for you and greatly admire the commitment that has brought you all here to Bangka.

In trying to describe the calibre of the nurses of the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps, I felt I could do no better than to repeat the words of Colonel AM Sage, CBC RAC who wrote the forward to the 1954 edition of Betty Jeffries remarkable book "White Coolies".

"They fought against anything that threatened to destroy life" she wrote.

"Theirs was a courage not stimulated by lust for battle, but born of women's natural instinct to tend the sick, the helpless, the suffering, the fearful".

"Despite terrible mental anguish and constant fear, they armed themselves with the weapons of good humour and resourcefulness, and an ability to overcome the greatest problems, and withal to keep morale at the highest possible level.

Professional and disciplined as they were, when commanded to evacuate and abandon their patients those sixty five nurses must have felt that nothing worse could happen to them.

The horrors of their ship being bombed and sunk; having assisted everyone else to leave, leaving the ship and struggling to stay afloat among oil and debris; losing sight of comrades, and being washed repeatedly towards and away from the shore; clambering exhausted and wounded through mangroves, thigh deep in mud; finally capture and reunion with only some of their numbers—what could then be worse?

The arrival of Vivian Bullwinkle bringing the miracle and joy of her survival, but the certain knowledge of so many sisters slain in cold blood must have brought home the greatest horror, of the constant and menacing threat to their lives as Prisoners of War with a deadly secret.

Betty Jeffries account of the following three and a half years should be read by all Australians.

Without a trace of melodrama or self-pity, she describes their systematic deprivation of all the basic and vital requirements which are acknowledged rights of prisoners of war—of clean adequate, food; of safe water, for much of the time; of decent shelter; of clothing, fuel, prophylactic drugs and medical attention, even at times of sleep.

Never, however, do these women, interned, and working with a community of four hundred women and children, lose their dignity, their professionalism, their wit, inventiveness or compassion, or their courage.

Despite the fact that all of the nurses contracted malaria, and there were frequent outbreaks of typhoid typhus and dengue, and despite their malnutrition and the physical exhaustion that inevitably resulted from this combination of factors, they made life tolerable. They cleaned filthy rice and improvised variations on their meagre rations in a myriad ingenious ways.

Their creativity knew no bounds.

One nun's habit plus a rusty needle plus a determined nurse was converted to five pairs of shorts.

Long before hippies and yuppies nibbled these delights, melon seeds were dried for nutritious but not very filling desserts.

When supplied with fish for the first time for twelve months, they dried the bones and crushed them to make a fair approximation of anchovy paste—and a much needed calcium supplement.

They made hats of straw mats, mattresses of rice sacks, and even shoes held together with the tacks salvaged from old furniture.

As if just existing were not a full-time job the nurses were forced to work as labourers by their captors, digging out sewerage channels, at a time when rain was the only source of washing water. They went on nursing the sick and helping with the babies. They nurtured each other, rehearsed for choral concerts, held classes for the teenage girls, created art and craft. Theirs was a wonderful example of human resilience and spirit amid the horrors and atrocities that were the appalling hall-marks of the Asian war.

We are all immensely privileged to be here on the eve of the ceremony which will dedicate the memorial to those nurses who did not return home, and which will renew in our hearts and minds the brave history of those nurses who survived.

Such wartime experience forged a link between the Australian people and the territory that is now Indonesia. Bonds of friendship, understanding and respect have grown over the years. Australia and Indonesia are closer today than at any other time.

Mr Deputy Governor the warm and colourful welcome that we received at the airport today and the presence of many local dignitaries was very much appreciated and we sincerely thank you.

The time and effort contributed by the people of Bangka has been fundamental to the success of this important and complicated excursion. Without the people of Bangka it couldn't have happened.

Following from Matron Statham's initiative and the willing and wholehearted support of the government of Indonesia and Australia we will tomorrow honour here in Bangka those fine servicewomen of the Vyner-Brooke.

Creation of the Memorial, arrangements for its Dedication and for the pilgrimage could not have been made possible without the support and cooperation of the:

  Government of Indonesia

  People and Industries of Bangka

  Indonesian and Australian Veteran's Organisa   tions

  Defence and Police Forces of Indonesia

  Australian Embassy in Jakarta

  Australian Defence Force

  Australian Department of Veterans' Affairs

  Ansett Transport Industries

Many people have come to Bangka to be part of this Dedication. We welcome and salute them.

Bangka today is a place of great beauty and traditional Indonesian hospitality. I am delighted to be here representing the Australian Government. I am delighted to welcome the Australian group and the Indonesian hosts to this gathering.

Tomorrow will see an event of great significance to Australia's heritage and, I hope, to that of Indonesia, especially Bangka. It will be an occasion when we will honour the bravery of our Army Nurses of fifty one years ago, and the participation of the present-day Matron in Chief and her youthful colleagues will symbolise the handing down of those values that sustained those seven women and their colleagues through such difficult times.

Thank you all for being here.



5 March 1993

Senator GILES —Once again, it was an enormously satisfying experience, a very moving but not a maudlin occasion. The people who were there were, in many cases, having the opportunity for the first time of properly mourning their lost loved ones. The women who died, who drowned, who were assassinated or who subsequently died of disease did so without their relatives in Australia being aware of their fate. It was often years later before they knew. This was the occasion for these people to come to Bangka to mourn and to throw flowers into the sea in memory of their relatives. It was another occasion which has made my parliamentary career extremely rewarding. Once again, my thanks should go to a system that not only initiates and implements such measures but that also involves humble backbenchers, much to their pleasure and satisfaction.