Bill's Speeches

ADDRESS TO THE HOUSE – ANNIVERSARY OF THE BATTLES OF THE WESTERN FRONT & LONG TAN - CANBERRA - WEDNESDAY, 31 AUGUST 2016

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It is fitting we begin the sitting day by respectfully commemorating the centenary of the battles of Fromelles and Pozieres, and the fifty-year anniversary of the battle of Long Tan. 

The Australians we remember today risked and lost their lives, so we might live ours in peace. 

And in this Parliament, where conflict can be trivial, even contrived – we honour all who have faced real danger, who put themselves in harm’s way, and in some cases, made the supreme sacrifice in Australia's name. 

Mr Speaker 

At 6pm on 19 July 1916, the 5th Australian Division clambered out of their trenches and advanced on the German position.  

In the hours beforehand, as they waited for the final command, while shells split the sky above, many of those young men, undoubtedly, would have been afraid. 

Yet when the word came, they advanced as one. Reminding us that true courage is found not in the absence of fear, but in facing it. 

The seven hours of preparatory bombardment deprived the Australians and their British comrades of the element of surprise - but barely dented the well-entrenched German forces. 

The machine gun fire was fierce, the carnage unimaginable. 

By 8am the following morning, the Battle of Fromelles was over. 

More than 5,500 Australians lay wounded or dead.

A dreadful toll. 

And Fromelles was only the beginning. 

A few days later, a few miles away, more than 5000 Australians from the 1st Division would be injured or killed at Pozieres. 

In the words of Archie Barwick, who was quoted earlier:

             "It was something awful, for we were out in the open and unprotected and men fell fast as rain ..." 

When the 2nd Division came to relieve the 1st, they sustained more than 6800 casualties before the first week of August was over.  

Mr Speaker 

In a few hours, in a few weeks on the other side of the world, tens of thousands of Australian lives were fractured forever. 

Families where simple village names: Fromelles, Pozieres, spoke for a knock at the door, a war office telegram, tears in the night and an empty chair at every Christmas. 

Young Australians who came home, old before their time. Changed beyond understanding by what they had seen and endured.  

It is important that we honour the centenary of ANZAC because back 100 years ago, in only the second decade of our Federation, we suffered the greatest tragedy in our nation’s modern history. 

Two out of every five Australian men in our young nation, aged 18 to 44, enlisted. 

From a population of 4.9 million people, 61,000 died. 

8,000 taken prisoner. 

16,000 gassed. 

37,000 horribly disfigured, referring to themselves ever after as the ‘broken gargoyles’. 

4,000 who lost more than one limb. 

Tens of thousands permanently bearing the invisible scars of trauma. 

And so many whose lives were shorter and harder than they would otherwise have been. 

Nor can the loss be measured in one generation. 

In my own family, two sons went to war - neither returned. 

The parents broke up, the two surviving daughters were fostered out. Speaking to one of the relatives, he said it was two generations of families scarred by this conflict, and there are many other examples. 

Even our very landscape still wears the toll of memory. 

Seedlings planted to commemorate the fallen, have grown into magnificent avenues of honour. 

Humble white stone monuments form focal points in country towns and coastal villages. 

And when you read these list now in so many places, the list of names seems impossibly long. 

When you look at these country towns, and you try and imagine taking all of those young men out of the population, it makes you shake your head.  

And – even now – there is the flash of recognition, the echo of old pain, when you see two or three of the same surname grouped together. 

Brothers lost to their mother – sometimes in the same awful hour. 

Mr Speaker 

A century on, there is no-one among us who can speak first-hand of Fromelles or Pozieres. 

Even those left to grow old, have left us. 

Yet today in this house we declare again that age has not wearied their sacrifice. 

Their deaths were not in vain, and the memory of their courage lives with us still. 

Mr Speaker 

A full fifty years later from these dreadful battles, and 12,000 kilometres away, in red mud and monsoonal rain. 

A new generation of Anzacs clashed with North Vietnamese and VietCong forces, amidst the straight lines of the Long Tan rubber plantation. 

Most of the Nashos, were barely 20 or 21, fresh from training at Puckapunyal. 

The regulars enlisted at 19. 

The Officer commanding Delta Company, Harry Smith was himself only 33.   

Long Tan was a feat-of-arms achieved against overwhelming odds. 

D company inflicted more than 1000 enemy casualties, as wave after wave crashed against their professional, determined, unbroken defensive fire. 

When reinforcements came, and victory was won, it probably didn’t occur to any of these men that they were heroes, in the finest traditions of our first Anzacs. 

After all, how could what they had achieved possibly sink in?  

With half their mates either dead, wounded or in hospital – how could they feel like the heroes they were? 

And –then, bare weeks and months after these young Australians had fought for their lives - many found themselves back home in Australia.   

Off the boat, handing in their rifles and their paybooks at Enoggera. 

In Brisbane, the record reflects there was a parade – but no subsequent counselling, no rehabilitation, no attempt to help reconcile the experience of war with a return to the suburbs. 

How could they explain to the people they returned to what they had been doing weeks earlier? 

Instead, our servicemen were left to adjust to life in a country shamefully – and in too many cases deliberately – ignorant of their service, their suffering, their sacrifice. 

For those of us too young to remember the temperature of those times, the stories of those who were there, echo across the years.   

One veteran I had the privilege of meeting at a commemoration ceremony in Darwin this month, told me of a friend - who’d been called-up, fought, sent home and demobilised before the age of 21. 

The following weekend went to a party with some of his mates from uni. 

A girl there asked him what he’d been up to. He told her where he’d been.

 In front of the whole party, she slapped him across the face. 

With the passage of time, I can understand the political disagreement of the war and indeed, the conscription.  

But I can't, for the life of me, understand blaming the soliders in the conflict.

 The hard truth of those times is far too many Australians sent into the jungle dark of Vietnam were shunned on their return. 

In the haunting words of one returned serviceman, inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial on Anzac Avenue: 

I don’t seem to have many friends since I came home…If you weren’t there, then you can’t understand”. 

Not only did Australia fail to understand, with a few noble exceptions, we failed to try. 

For too long our nation closed its eyes, and its heart. 

Thankfully, from the return home parade of 1987 and onwards, that failure has gradually been corrected. The wrong is on its way to being righted. 

And in a time when so many old certainties and old loyalties have faded, the story of the Vietnam War - and the Anzac legend as a whole - has only grown in resonance and in meaning. 

It should be the source of tremendous pride to all veterans and their families and to all Australians, that our commemorations, here and overseas, are overwhelmingly led and supported by our young people. 

And should perhaps be the source of pride to our veterans that every member of the Parliament who serves in this place, regards the attendance at these memorial events as possibly the best part of the job.  

Mr Speaker

No words we say today can truly draw out the details of battles long ago. 

Our obligation – as leaders, as legislators – is to be practical, rather than sentimental. 

Uncomfortable as it may be, we must acknowledge that as a nation we have been better at honouring the memory of our dead, than offering decent support for the living.  

We have not always fulfilled the duty we owe, to those who have done theirs. 

For all the national and local monuments that instruct us to remember, there are no memorials, no walls covered in poppies for veterans who take their own lives. 

Yet their loss is no less, the sadness of their passing no harder for those who love them. 

Despite its prevalence, post-traumatic stress disorder remains poorly-understood and inadequately measured. 

One in ten of our fellow Australians who are homeless is a veteran. 

We have to do better than this. 

When people are prepared to pay the ultimate price for our country, none of us have the right to say we cannot afford to care for them. 

And right now, with a new generation of service men and women coming home from Australia’s longest war. 

We owe our veterans more than the respect of history, or solemn tribute to honoured memory.

More than a poppy, a sprig of rosemary, or a rising-sun badge on the lapel.   

More than a few coins in the Legacy tin. 

Saying ‘Lest We Forget’ must be matched with practical help, a caring arm and a helping hand for those who come home, and better support for their families. 

This is a place of many promises. 

Some good, some even honoured. 

But today let us vow to give new tangible meaning to Australia’s oldest promise: 

We will remember them. 

Lest We Forget.


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