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Tonight – with special emphasis and pride – I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.
I pay my respects to elders past and present.
And I pay tribute to the honoured memory of all our First Australians, who risked and lost their lives in the service of their nation.
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests one and all.
When the great John Curtin opened this sacred place, almost exactly 75 years ago, Australia was engaged in a deadly global struggle between freedom and tyranny.
On that day, 11 November 1941, with vast tracts of Europe beneath the Nazi dictatorship, Curtin’s speech was not just a tribute to the first Anzacs, their service and their sacrifice.
It was a rallying cry for all those engaged in that crusade for democracy.
‘Let Hitler boast that every citizen is a soldier.
In Australia we are proud every soldier is a citizen.’
But, in hindsight, that noble sentiment wasn’t quite true.
Private John Miller, from the 12th Battalion killed in action on 25 April 1915, still at rest in Baby 700 Cemetery on the Gallipoli Peninsula – was not considered a citizen.
Cobar Williams, who walked over 300 kilometres to enlist in Forbes, New South Wales, served as a messenger in the Somme Valley and was later captured by the Germans south of the Hindenburg line – was not considered a citizen.
Corporal Albert Knight, who joined his two brothers on the Western Front, survived Bullecourt, was wounded at Passchendaele and won the Distinguished Conduct Medal, when he and another moved through 300 yards of battlefield in broad daylight with only shell-holes for cover to discover the positions of the enemy gun - was not considered a citizen.
Instead, the more than 1300 Aboriginal Australians who enlisted with equal patriotism, who fought with equal courage…
…who risked and lost their lives in equal danger and were mourned by their loved ones with equal grief…
…were denied equality by the country they served.
Those who lived, came home to a nation where RSL doors were closed in their face.
Many were banned from wearing the uniform in which they served and the medals they had won.
And they watched as land originally promised to their people was confiscated for soldier settlement schemes, which they were shut out of.
Yet in spite of these deliberate indignities, these callous acts of discrimination, when war came again a new generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples answered Australia’s call.
Sometimes, even this act of selflessness was rejected.
Sandy Togo was rated ‘A1’ on his preliminary fitness test at Murwillumbah and travelled the 500km to Sydney to enlist.
He was one of three Indigenous men in a group of 16 new volunteers.
The 13 white Australians were signed up on the spot.
The three Aboriginal men were given a train ticket home and a meal voucher for the station dining room.
When the story of their 1000 kilometre round-trip made the Sydney papers, the Secretary of the Army simply said:
“Army instructions preclude the enlistment of full-blooded Aborigines.”
Yet, at the same time as military regulations were denying their presence, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers were doing their nation proud.
On the hellish Burma-Thai Railway, Private Bill Carlyon’s mate burst an ulcer – and Bill carried him through two kilometres of jungle in time for the camp surgeon to save his life.
In Dutch New Guinea, Morotai and Borneo, Warrant Officer Leonard Waters, from the 78 Squadron in the RAAF, flew Kittyhawk fighter missions in a plane nicknamed ‘Black Magic’.
And Captain Reg Saunders fought the Germans in North Africa and Crete – surviving in secret on the island for a year after it fell, before escaping and re-joining the war against the Japanese in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.
This remarkable exhibition records those deeds of heroism, courage, sacrifice – and more.
In every conflict, in every theatre, it carries more than century of stories of a people whose loyalty and bravery was much more than their ungrateful nation deserved.
And in doing so, it does what all good history should do.
It challenges us, it faces us up to a bigger question.
It makes us ask: why?
Why would Aboriginal people, so often treated with either neglect or contempt by their nation, be willing to risk their lives for it?
How could Aboriginal women, mothers who had children taken away, put on a nurse’s uniform, or work as a camp cook or cleaner, for an Australia they had every right to fear and distrust?
How could someone like Sergeant ‘Buddy’ Lea – exempt from National Service because he was not counted as a person –volunteer and fight with such bravery at the Battle of Long Tan?
Truly, there is no greater love than this.
For Country, For Nation, inspires us, it moves us, it provokes us and it teaches us.
It proves, time and again, Aboriginal warriors were stronger than the prejudice levelled against them.
Braver than the cowardice of racism.
Bigger than the small minds and hard hearts of the people who sought to deny their service.
And far more loyal to Australia than it was to them.
For Country, For Nation tells a truth worth honouring.
It illuminates a chapter in our history that ought to better known.
And I congratulate all of you who have worked to bring these stories to the sacred home of Australia’s memory.
Let us thank all the Aboriginal men and women who served, like every member of our Australian Defence Force, they make us all more proud to be an Australian.
Let this exhibition come as a timely reminder that Australia is always diminished, when we seek to exclude minorities, or marginalise the alienated and the less powerful.
Let the individuals remembered here, inspire us and guide us on our journey to Reconciliation.
And at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, let their deeds and lives be equally honoured in Australia’s oldest promise.
We will remember them.
Lest We Forget.