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Monday, 27 September 1993
Page: 1220

Senator McGAURAN (10.30 p.m.) —I rise to speak about the comments of the Prime Minister (Mr Keating), as reported in the media, whilst he was overseas. The Sydney Morning Herald of 27 September 1993 stated:

The Prime Minister attacked the French, asking whether the tens of thousands of Australia's war dead buried in France meant anything to the French. He said, `I was there with the names of 11,000 Australian servicemen and women engraved on the wall of that place'.

Mr Keating was referring to the Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux when he said `that place'. Referring to Australia's trade links and trade possibilities in Europe, Mr Keating went on to say:

And yet in Paris on a matter of international decency and fair play . . . you're flat out getting your view point registered.

Again, he stressed:

Did it mean anything to them?

That is, Australia's contribution in World War I. The linking of Australian graves that lie in France along the Western Front to an attack upon the French and France's current economic policies by our Prime Minister deserves the utter contempt of Australians. I say this with the deepest conviction and I say it with the qualifications to do so. Belonging to the National Party, representing the rural sector of Australia, I know only too well the lack of advantage given to our efficient farmers by European trade walls. I am on record in my time in parliament for stepping forward and condemning the French many times for their nuclear testing in the southern Pacific.

  So misused and destructive have been the Prime Minister's comments upon the honour and glory of young Australians who lie in the graves along the Western Front that I am personally prompted to write to the Ambassador of France regretting the comments of the Prime Minister and hoping that the exceptional feeling between the two nations in the matter of the First World War will endure during and beyond this Prime Minister's term.

  When the Americans visit their Lincoln memorial they see a nation forged from a tragic civil war. In many respects, they see the soul of America. I quote from that movie classic Mr Smith goes to Washington:

Mr Lincoln, there he is, looking straight at you as you come up the steps. Just sitting there, like he was waiting for somebody to come along.

When Australians visit the white crosses of the Western Front they see looking straight at them those forever young Australians representing the then young nation, just waiting there for somebody to come along. In many ways those visitors see the soul of Australia—the touchstone of our nationhood. But when this Prime Minister walked up to those white crosses he took the opportunity to desecrate their memory and to forge a lie—that their sacrifice meant nothing to the French. It is a lie because there is no doubt that between the Australian people and the French, and the Europeans generally, the worth of the Australian sacrifice has not been forgotten from generation to generation. As issues such as trade wars come and go, this memory shall remain as a constant link between Australia and Europe.

  On 11 November this year Australia will bring home the remains of an unknown soldier from a French battlefield to be reburied at the National War Memorial to honour the thousands of Australians who have no known grave. On this day today's Australians will again mark their respect for past Australians and acknowledge that they formed our national character. The French government has bestowed its highest prize—the Legion d'Honneur—on Australia's unknown soldier as a symbol of thanks for the courage and sacrifice of the diggers on the Western Front. At a reception for the veterans at Bullecourt memorial, Mr Jean Letaille, the mayor of Bullecourt, said:

I would like to tell Australians that we do not forget and we hope it will be the same for other generations.

I, too, seek to recognise the 75th anniversary and the homecoming of the unknown soldier.

  The town where Australia is most remembered is that of Villers-Bretonneux. Four Australian soldiers won Victoria Crosses in the battles which defended this town and the greater strategic target of Amiens from German occupation. A British brigadier-general later described the Australian contribution in this battle as perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war. It is said that the locals were in the process of fleeing the village of Villers-Bretonneux when the Australian 9th Brigade of the Third Division arrived, and the villagers had so much faith in the Australian soldiers that they stayed. The school in this village is called L'ecole Victoria and was paid for by the money donated by Victorian school children.

  If Australians should ever doubt the respect in which they are held in France and the rest of Europe, let them also know that in this quiet township of Amiens, which was protected and preserved from destruction by the Australian soldiers at Villers-Bretonneux, one can enter a quiet and picturesque chapel dedicated to the Australian diggers who so gallantly defended the township. In neighbouring Belgium in the cemetery of Ypres six buglers play the Last Post every evening at 8 o'clock, and have done so since 1929, to mark the sacrifices of those Australian soldiers who are buried there.

  In 1918, towards the end of the war, the key position of the German line was the hill known as Mont St Quentin. The Germans regarded the hill as impregnable but Lieutenant-General John Monash thought of a strategy with an unconventional flair which succeeded in capturing the hill and sending no fewer than five German divisions into retreat. Between 1916 and the end of the war Australian forces had opposed 39 enemy divisions on the Western Front and defeated all of them and forced six to disband. They had also held or captured several of the most significant strategic locations.

  I mention this roll call of honourable and heroic deeds not to glorify the war but to pay tribute to those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of others and who, in doing so, gave Australia an honourable place in the annals of European history.

  The World War I veterans also won for themselves an honourable place in Australian history and this should not be forgotten at a time when there is much public discussion about the contours of our national identity. The return of the diggers to Somme and Belgium has served as a reminder to us of the nobility of our history and the depth of their contribution to it and to our sense of national identity. In his play The Fire on the Snow the Australian writer Douglas Stewart said of physical and spiritual endurance that it survives after death as a `pyre to hearten our children, a thing burning and perfect'. It is the capital that future generations live on or are inspired by. That is what we will remember on 11 November 1993.