Military Memorials

Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (10.27 a.m.)—I rise to support the Military Memorials of National Significance Bill 2008 and the amendment from the member for Mackellar. In doing so let me first pay tribute to all of those who have served in our armed forces—the returned service men and women—and all those who have had the unfortunate distinction of being prisoners of war.

If you go to many of our country towns and the town centres of our suburbs and metropolitan areas, you will find memorials to our brave soldiers who went to war. These memorials were generally funded by the people within those communities as a personal tribute to their soldiers. Indeed, they stand as a tribute to the true self-reliant spirit of this country in looking after each other and recognising those who did so much in our name.

It is a wonderful thing to think that each of these communities voluntarily got together to fund memorials to their soldiers. The rolls of honour will stand at the heart of our communities for evermore. In supporting this legislation I think it is important to recognise that, while there are memorials of national significance, every war memorial is indeed a memorial of national significance.

This bill will provide a mechanism to honour the government’s election commitment to declare the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat to be a national memorial. It has been said this bill has come about from a mistake and a hasty promise, but it is a mistake and a hasty promise that I am happy to support and to embrace as my own.

I note that national memorials are already recognised under the National Memorials Ordinance 1928 and are restricted to memorials within the Australian Capital Territory. This bill will recognise the national significance of the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat and will enable, in the future, other memorials that meet specific criteria to be recognised as a military memorial of national significance. And who indeed could argue with that?

The Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial located in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens records the names of more than 35,000 Australian POWs—8,600 died or were killed when they were prisoners of war and more than 4,000 have no known grave. The lists of names on the memorial are arranged in alphabetical order, grouped by conflict, commencing with the Boer War and going through to the Korean War, etched into the 130-metre black granite wall. Across Australia there has not been any recognition of the pain and suffering endured by prisoners of war in the service of our nation. The motto of these brave prisoners was, ‘When you go home, tell them of us and say that we gave our tomorrow for your today.’

This legislation is a good development for so many of the memorials in our country that deserve the recognition and tribute of our federal government as part of its ongoing commitment to the defence of our nation and the memory of those who served.

I had great pride serving in the Australian Army Reserve in one of my local community’s regiments, the 1st/15th Royal New South Wales Lancers. Indeed, it was some of the former exuberant members of my regiment who jumped their ships to participate in the Boer War. In 1899, before our nation had federated, a squadron of the regiment, which had been training in England, became the first colonial troops to arrive in South Africa for active service against the Boers in the South African War. They jumped their ships to be there—part of that great Australian spirit of having a go and wanting to be involved in the world and its events. I pay tribute to them. With 21 battle honours, the 1st/15th Royal New South Wales Lancers is one of the most highly decorated units in the Australian Army. It was an immense privilege to serve with the fine men and women who make up the regiment today.

This bill specifically will deliver on the promise in relation to Ballarat and other military memorials of national significance, creating a new category. It will bring greater status. It is of more concern, however, that there is an issue with the ongoing Commonwealth funding for memorials. There are many other places in our country that deserve federal government recognition and assistance and I have no concerns in supporting the legislation and its implications.

The importance that war memorials hold in serving as visual reminders of the sacrifice of the brave men and women who served our country was impressed upon me when I trekked the Kokoda Trail back in 2003. So many of our young Australians trek Kokoda today. They attend memorials at Isurava or the dawn service at Gallipoli, where so many of their young counterparts fought many years ago. They attend to pay tribute; they attend to remember. When you go today you see the rusty weapons in the jungle at Kokoda and the depressions where pits were dug by Australian soldiers. You see why the Aussie soldier earned the title ‘digger’. You actually can see, amongst the massive mountains and the valleys, the site of fierce fighting that saved our nation. It is very moving. I was deeply moved and humbled by the experience and the importance of the Kokoda campaign in the history of our country.

To the Howard government’s everlasting credit, they provided the funding for a memorial to be constructed at Isurava on the Kokoda track—a magical place—which has been done so well. A photo of the memorial and some of us who served as young officers in the Army is always on my desk. The incredible ambience of this place and the solemness of the beautiful memorial which overlooks the valley where so much fighting took place stay with me always. There are four words inscribed on the four granite pillars at Isurava, four words that mean so much to many who have served—courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice. Those words say it all about the service so many Australians gave and that must be remembered.

In 1933 we were warned that Japan would pose a major threat to Australian security. The Head of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, Professor David Horner, recently wrote:

It is now generally agreed that the Australian defence policy between the wars and until the fall of Singapore was, at the best, naively optimistic, and at the worst, some might say, close to treason.

While many political leaders of that time may have neglected the defence of Australia, the responsibility of the young diggers in answering the call is very inspiring. It is a lesson we must always remember. We must support our defence forces. We must support legislation such of this, which adds so much to the fine military traditions of our great country. Those Australian diggers were young, inexperienced, outnumbered and outgunned. During the ensuing three months, the Australians fought against overwhelming odds. They forced the Japanese to contest every inch of the rugged and treacherous Kokoda Trail as they advanced towards their objective of Port Moresby.

As I speak today, I still starkly remember the overwhelming emotion that I felt standing at the Isurava war memorial built by the Australian government. It was at Isurava where the first Victoria Cross was won on Australian soil. It was awarded to Private Bruce Kingsbury of the 2nd/14th Battalion. It was Kingsbury’s initiative and superb courage that made it possible for the Australians to recapture the battalion’s position and cause heavy casualties among the enemy. His coolness, determination and devotion to duty in the face of great adversity was not only an inspiration to his comrades but, through the establishment of the Isurava memorial, to all Australians who are the future of the country for which he so valiantly fought.

Private Kingsbury was one of the few survivors of a platoon which had been overrun and severely cut down by the enemy. Immediately, he volunteered to join a different platoon which had been ordered to counterattack. He rushed forward, firing the Bren gun from his hip, through terrific machine-gun fire and succeeded in clearing a path through the enemy. Continuing to sweep enemy positions with his fire, he inflicted an extremely high number of casualties on them. Private Kingsbury was then seen to fall to the ground by the side of a large rock, shot dead by a bullet from a sniper hiding in the wood. Private Kingsbury displayed a complete disregard for his own safety at Isurava but thereby saved his friends. When you stand at Isurava you can still see today the rock, the large boulder where Private Bruce Kingsbury was gunned down by a sniper. It is an experience in humility and gratitude that I would recommend to every Australian to stand at the war memorial at Isurava, to see the rock where Private Bruce Kingsbury was gunned down after conducting such a valiant action, which earned him the first Victorian Cross on Australian soil.

Today I am reminded of Kingsbury’s sacrifice each time I drive down along the memorial drive to Canberra. Another great initiative of the Howard government was to rename the road from Sydney to Canberra ‘Remembrance Drive’. At each rest stop, information about a Victoria Cross winner is attached—a wonderful initiative that reminds us of the men who showed such great courage and valour under fire. When Australians stop at these rest stops, they engage in an act of remembrance. Indeed, I make a point of stopping at the Private Bruce Kingsbury rest stop whenever I can on the road from Sydney to Canberra to remember.

The explanatory memorandum of this bill states:
The Bill will provide a mechanism to honour the Government’s election commitment to declare the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat, to be a national memorial.

The bill may have come about from a mistake, it may have come about from a promise that was made during the election campaign, but again I state that it is an error that I am happy to embrace if it leads to legislation that recognises more of our nationally significant war memorials. It is a mistake that I am happy to say I will embrace and be honoured to support here today.

As already stated, the government has delivered funding for maintenance of the memorial for the next four years. However, the bill is silent on the issue of funding thereafter, and I would suggest to those opposite that this is an issue that we do need to consider further and examine in the light of our future commitments to war memorials across Australia that are outside those within Canberra and considered to be nationally significant. The Register of War Memorials records two memorials in my own electorate of Mitchell: the Arthur Witling Park war memorial and the Dural Memorial Hall. There are two sites outside of my electorate which I often attend as well—they are in Glenorie within the council area of Baulkham Hills Shire—but there are just two war memorials in Mitchell. We are also served by a magnificent RSL club, the Castle Hill RSL club, which is an integral part of our community and also supports these war memorials.

I want to say a few words about the war memorials in my electorate, which will be instructive to the House because, on Anzac Day of this year, I had the privilege of attending the dawn service at the Arthur Witling Park war memorial at the corner of Old Northern Road and McMullen Avenue in Castle Hill. It was a great experience—if anyone had any doubt about patriotism and the belief in the importance of remembering those who have served and paid the ultimate sacrifice—to turn up at a dawn service with 5,000 members of my local community to see teams of young people walking the streets at four o’clock in the morning and to see the entire site taken up by the memorial jam-packed with people. People were standing on the roads trying to get into this memorial site to attend the service. It is a great tribute, 100 years from the events that took place, to Australians and their capacity to remember those who have paid the ultimate price and given so much for Australia.

The memorial at Arthur Witling Park is large and well kept. The whole memorial is constructed in the shape of the rising sun badge. The centre point of the memorial is a large flagpole and a huge white painted rock with the words ‘Lest we forget’ in black, placed on brown and black marble. There is a swallow pool in the shape of an arch surrounding the centre point. Around the wall of the elevated garden are eight plaques, one each for the following: the RSL, Australian women’s services, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Australian Navy, the Australian Commonwealth military forces and Merchant Navy Australia. The whole memorial has a flagpole, and just off to the right of the memorial is a pine tree grown from an original lone pine of Gallipoli.

My community is well serviced by a strong veteran community, and the acts of remembrance engaged in at Arthur Witling Park are very important to the fabric of my community and our society. The inscriptions on the memorial dedicate the memorial to all those who paid the supreme sacrifice and who served in all wars and conflicts on duty for our country. One inscription reads:

This Memorial is dedicated to the men and women from the Electorate of Mitchell who have served in the Armed Forces of Australia and to those who paid the supreme sacrifice.

I also record my appreciation for the Dural Memorial Hall, which stands to recognise World War I. We do need to ensure that our war memorials overseas are also protected and preserved for future generations to witness. Whilst our well-known overseas war memorials at Isuarava and Gallipoli are well kept, some others are not. I recently became aware of a problem from a member of my electorate, Mr Garry Massie, who has recently returned from visiting the prisoner-of-war memorial, the JEATH War Museum, in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. The JEATH War Museum commemorates the work undertaken on the construction of the Burma rail line by, amongst others, Australia’s POWs during World War II. The JEATH museum bears witness to the suffering of those that fell during its construction. It is an open-air museum. JEATH stands for Japan, England, Australia, Thailand and Holland. It was built in 1977 by a Thai abbot in the style of the huts that were used to imprison prisoners of war. The museum contains bunks and original pictures of the actual soldiers who died alongside the articles and other authentic items on the site. The result is a picture of cramped squalor which gives visitors a genuine insight into the suffering of the soldiers on the Burma rail line. However, I am informed by Mr Massie and others that these artefacts are in some state of disrepair. Many of the pictures are currently held under plastic sheeting and the artefacts are clearly deteriorating. Considering their historical significance to Australia and to our nation’s military history, they are stored in unsuitable conditions. I call on the government to think about sending curators from the Australian War Memorial to visit Kanchanaburi and to undertake a project that could see this collection restored and placed on display in a way that would protect it from damage in the future.

I return to the legislation. It is wonderful to think that so many of our communities voluntarily got together to fund memorials to recognise the soldiers from their communities. Those rolls of honour will stand at the heart of the communities forevermore. They will stand there as a tribute to the spirit not just of the soldiers and the people who went but of those communities who got together to recognise them. One of the primary functions of government is to provide for the defence of our nation, to look after those who have returned from conflicts and to provide for the memory of those who served, who paid the ultimate sacrifice and who were prisoners of war. As a parliament, we must work to ensure Australia always has that self-reliant, caring spirit that sees communities construct memorials—that spirit of duty, service and voluntary sacrifice. I heartily endorse and support the Military Memorials of National Significance Bill 2008, and the second reading amendment moved by the member for Mackellar, and I thank the government for the legislation.