Bill's Speeches






MONDAY, 25 MAY 2015




Madam Speaker

Families of our honoured servicemen.

Today, we right a 50 year wrong.

The Government’s offering 25 families the chance to bring home their loved ones from a far corner of a foreign field.

In doing so we honour, equally and anew, all who served in Vietnam.

And we remind ourselves of our solemn duty that our country owes to the loved ones of the lost.

A duty not just to recite the words ‘lest we forget’ but to give them meaning: with lasting support and the full respect of history.

We can pinpoint when Australia’s involvement in Vietnam began and when it ended.

But for a generation of servicemen and their families, the end of the war is far less clear or demarcated.

Not far from where we sit, on a road running up to the Australian War Memorial, a memorial is dedicated to our Vietnam Forces.

It bears the names of all those Australians who died in the decade-long conflict and is inscribed with 33 quotes designed to capture the era.

There are statements from political leaders, as well as a line from John Schumann’s immortal: I was only 19.

And there are the haunting words of one returned serviceman:

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

Those two sentences crystallise one of our most confronting national failures…the long years of indifference to those who served our country in Vietnam.

The great, generous character of Australia deserted these men…our empathy and our imagination ran dry.

Television might have brought the Vietnam War into Australia’s lounge rooms – but insufficient of us not to take our veterans into our hearts.

TV may have given Australians a window into the world of all those who served – but millions saw without observing .

If you weren’t there, you can’t understand.”

For so many Australians the years of debate and division over the war in Vietnam were emblematic of a broader, wider fracturing in the world they knew.

An upending of the old familiarities and a new uncertainty to take its place.

In the face of this division, Australia opted to avert its eyes and change the subject.

And for a generation of service people, our nation’s ignorance wrought their isolation.

In his book Jungle Dark, Steve Strevens tells the story of Frank Hunt – the Frankie who “kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon”.

Hunt and a group of other wounded diggers were on a day trip to the movies from the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, when they were confronted by a group of protestors.

One came up to Frank - in his wheelchair - and rubbed a meat pie into his hair.

Frank looked at the young man and said “You forgot the sauce”.

Madam Speaker, Frank’s dignity cannot fully hide the shame.

As time passed, our nation worked to make amends.

It was at a ‘welcome home’ parade in October 1987 where more than 25,000 Veterans were cheered through the streets of Sydney by hundreds and thousands of Australians.

For many, it was the first time they had marched since their return home.

And at the front of the parade, went the loved ones of the lost, each family carrying an Australian flag in honour of the 521 fallen.

Five years later, in 1992, the Vietnam Memorial was opened.

In 2006, our Parliament apologised to all those who served for the way they were treated on their return.

Kim Beazley fought back tears as he read a letter from Graham Edwards, the then Member for Cowan, who was badly wounded while serving in Vietnam.

Kim said:

Today is a day when our Federal Parliament should honour our Vietnam Veterans, recognise their service and say to them that they did a good job in the best tradition of the Anzacs.

Today is a day when we should say we are proud of our Vietnam veterans.

A day when we honour and recognise their sacrifice, their service and their suffering. 

Those truths still hold firm.

I don’t believe anything can ever erase the hurt and sadness that so many families experienced when they lost their loved ones early in this war.

Many families fought to have the bodies returned to Australia but their pleas were rejected and this only added to the pain.

Today we offer an act of healing, a chance for the families of 25 Australian servicemen to bring their loved ones home at last.

All of us in the Parliament are privileged to have as our guests here: Ms Dianne Field, Mrs Marie Hanley and Mrs Sara Ferguson.

People who knew and loved the men we honour today.

People who knew them and remember them not just as a name carved on a wall, or a photo on a mantelpiece, or a bundle of letters in a drawer.

But as sons, brothers, husbands and fathers full of energy, and purpose

People who, when they close their eyes can still see the face of the one they loved: a cheeky wink across the dinner table at a secret joke, a crooked smile or perhaps just an infectious laugh.

Today is for all of you, and the memories that you cherish.

Madam Speaker

Francis Smith was the youngest member of his family, and he was killed by enemy sniper fire at Ben Cat on 21 September 1965.

His older brother Ken, wrote in an email:

He has been away from home too long, please bring him back to his home town for burial at his place of birth”.

And today is for the next generation too.

Kevin Conway was the first Australian to be killed in the Vietnam War, he was serving in a US special forces team and died defending their camp on the morning of 6 July 1964.

Kevin’s niece Kathy has just recently returned from the Kranji war cemetery in Singapore, where her uncle is buried.

She told the Member for Batman, she and her sister want Kevin to be brought home, to rest alongside his family and friends.

In offering to bring home these veterans, we give the remembering descendants the chance to come in quiet, and stand for a while before the grave of a relative perhaps they never knew.

To tell a brave, lost loved one of a generation about a graduation, a wedding, a family reunion or a new grandchild.

Madam Speaker

In the grand sweep of war’s tragedies and triumphs, today may seem a small thing.

But by such moments, a nation reveals itself.

In this long overdue act, as with the return of the last of our missing from Vietnam in 2009, we show ourselves to be both the great country – and a good one.

Good enough and decent enough to give the full respect of history, to those who have earned it.

Good enough to do the right thing by those we once wronged.

On behalf of the Opposition, I thank and congratulate everyone who has worked to make this today happen.

Particularly the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia and the Vietnam Veterans Federation of Australia – whose passionate advocacy has done so much to change minds and drive action.

Madam Speaker, Australians are proud of our veterans.

We always will be.

This moment reminds us that we always owe more than just pride.

We must keep our promises: to the families of our fallen and to all our veterans - including the next generation of diggers - as they adjust to life after Afghanistan.

So, Madam Speaker, let us all say our nation’s promise with special emphasis today.

We will remember them.

Lest We Forget.