Bill's Speeches

ADDRESS TO THE RSL’S 100TH ANNIVERSARY CONFERENCE - MELBOURNE - MONDAY, 6 JUNE 2016

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Good morning everyone.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to elders both past and present.

And in so doing, I'd like to acknowledge the contribution that Aboriginal Australians have made to our defence forces from the very start of our defence forces.

Late yesterday afternoon, it was an honour to lay a wreath at the Shrine.

And it is a privilege again today, to be here to commemorate and give thanks for the RSL’s century of service.   

I wish to acknowledge the work of Admiral Doolan and the leaders and the delegates of the RSL. And of course, your families who support you in your endeavours.

I'd like to acknowledge our friends from across the Tasman who are here representing New Zealand veterans. 

I wish to acknowledge also the presence of the Prime Minister. 

It is good to be here with the Prime Minister - and it is important we are both here.

Not, for a moment, as leaders of competing parties – but as representatives of a united nation.

There won't be many times I suspect in the upcoming four weeks that we will get the chance to appear together and momentarily, perhaps if you like, not engage in the political and partisan debate but look backwards over 100 years and look forwards.

It is also pleasing, I might say, that in the current political environment there is a complete unity of purpose about matters of defence, about respect and support for the men and women of the Australian Defence Forces serving overseas as we speak and indeed, in our own country. 

And great support, of course, for the matters of veterans.

And for a moment the political rancour is stopped, and this is a good thing and I thank the RSL for performing yet another service in its centenary. 

I also wish to add, that last week, perhaps we got it wrong.

We perhaps should have been there, at Richmond Air Base, when 33 Australians were brought home at last from the far corner of a foreign field.

And I do acknowledge the work of former Prime Minister Abbott in terms of repatriation. 

I believe that at any other time outside of an election campaign, we would have been there.

I think I can say, that like me, the Prime Minister was concerned that – to put it diplomatically - the travelling circus of the campaign might have detracted from the dignity of a solemn ceremony.

So out of respect, we stayed away and the Governor General represented the Commonwealth. 

But I should have realised that the moment, the occasion was bigger than that – bigger than all of us.

And for Vietnam veterans, I wonder if our absence that day, inevitably carried the sad echo of a lack of respect from governments past.

An uncomfortable reminder of the old indignities inflicted on Australians who had answered their nation’s call.

I’m sure I speak for the political parties in this country when I say, we are sorry.

Friends

One hundred years ago, a Lieutenant in the 5th Infantry Battalion by the name of George Makin – already a veteran of Lone Pine – wrote home to his family from the Western Front.

His letter addressed the unspoken gulf between the new recruits and the old hands.

He wrote:

“The men who are left of the original expeditionary force now take life more seriously than they did 2 years ago.

You cannot see the death, misery and suffering that we have seen and still be the same.”

Along with 60,000 of his fellow Australians, George would not live to see the end of that devastating war.

That figure alone, 60,000, never truly tells the tale.

This was reminded to me most clearly last year.

I attended a baptism in the week before I attended the ANZAC Day centenary in Turkey.

I was there with an older member of the family tree, Uncle Brian. He told me a story I’d never heard before, about his two uncles who both died at Gallipoli.

William Burgess, 23, killed on the 26th of April, 1915.

And his younger brother Nathaniel, 21, who died in the November that same year at Gallipoli.

As Brian put it to me: “the family never recovered. It was two generations of loss.” 

He explained what he meant. 

The parents never got over the loss of their sons, their marriage simply disintegrated.

The mother found herself unable to care for her surviving daughters - the sisters of William and Nathaniel. They were then placed in foster care.

Two moments in seven months, on the other side of the world, damaged a family for two generations.

This is a story that went untold for so long.

And it is just one, from one campaign.

Beyond the fallen, hundreds of thousands Australians would return home wounded, or bearing the invisible scars of trauma.

And all who served, all who returned, were changed in some way by what they had seen, and what they had endured. 

For that generation – and for every generation who followed in their footsteps - things could not be the same.

And so often they could not find the words to explain why.

So often they could not answer the question: what did you do in the war? 

From this reality, in this silence, the RSL grew.

A welcoming place of camaraderie and quiet understanding.

A heart and a home in the community for Australians seeking the uncomplicated solidarity of those who knew what it was like.

From its very first days, the RSL fulfilled this mission – a mission that no government had turned its mind too.

You reached beyond rehabilitation, you looked further than commemoration.

You offer at your core instead the comfort of stability, normality, respect and community.

And even as the organisation has grown and diversified and broadened its mission and its ambition: to charity, to sport, to social welfare and aged care.

That fundamental respect has continued.

That unchanging devotion has endured. 

A century ago, in the aftermath of a war that cost our young nation so many young lives – Australia made a promise to remember.

Country towns planted seeds which grew into avenues of honour.

Coastal villages quarried white stone for monuments covered in a roll-call where surnames came in twos and threes, sons and brothers who fell, faces to the foe, sometimes on the same day and on the same ground.

That tradition of remembering has flourished and endured.

In a time when so many of the old certainties and old loyalties have faded in our society, the Anzac legend has only grown in resonance and meaning.

And it should be a source of tremendous pride – to all veterans and their families – that today those commemorations are overwhelmingly led and supported by our young people.

Young Australians, here and abroad.

Gazing up at the steep cliffs of Anzac Cove, shoulder to shoulder in the morning light at Villers-Brettoneux.

Retracing the Kokoda track and waiting for dawn at Hellfire Pass.

A resurgence of Australian pride: from Korea, Vietnam, Malaya, North Africa and the Mediterranean.

Treading lightly on the ground made hallow by those who died for their country.  

Gathering - at the going down of the sun and in the morning - to say ‘Lest we forget’.  

But those words, our oldest national promise, have to mean something for those who came home, as well as those who did not.

And the uncomfortable truth is that as a nation we have been better at honouring the memory of our dead, than offering decent support for the living.  

From soldier-settlement schemes that sentenced too many families to an incredibly arduous task on unyielding land, to the shameful treatment dealt to those who returned from Vietnam to a country divided. 

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

For all the memorials that enrich our landscape, there are no walls covered in poppies for veterans who would later take their own lives.  

Yet their loss is no less, the sadness of their passing no smaller.

Post-traumatic stress remains poorly understood and inadequately measured.

Shockingly, 1 in 10 of our fellow Australians who are homeless is a veteran.

Our country owes those who risked their lives in Australia’s name better than this.

None of us have the right to tell people who were prepared to pay the ultimate price, that we cannot afford to care for them.

And now, with a new generation of young men and women returning home from Australia’s longest war.

We must do better and we must do more.

We must add to the meaning of our national promise to remember.

We owe more than the respect of history, or solemn acknowledgement of honoured memory.

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

Our obligation is for practical help, a caring arm and a helping hand for those who come home and better support for their families.

Every time we pass an RSL, we should remind ourselves of this responsibility.

For 100 years, you the delegates and leaders of the RSL, have sought to hold governments and parliaments to this national promise.

For 100 years, the RSL has reminded Australia of the true meaning of duty and sacrifice.

Congratulations on a century of serving those who serve.

Long may your work continue.

Lest We Forget. 


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