20th Anniversary Australia Prisoners of War Memorial

Prime Minister

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

I’m delighted to be here in Ballarat.

The course of our national history has been shaped and changed here.

It’s a place where leaders were born.

A place where the past is present.

And we find an important part of our past here at the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial, which speaks of a different chapter in our nation’s story.

It’s a story that needs to be told. No one instilled that idea in me more than my dear friend, mentor and father figure, Tom Uren.

Tom spent much of the Second World War as a prisoner of the Japanese – captured in Timor, incarcerated at Changi, forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway, then sent to Japan as a slave labourer – only to witness the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

I will always think with wonder of how Tom endured years of such depravity and cruelty – and emerged as a tower of humanity.

Tom saw humankind in its darkest depths, yet he was forever after driven to seek out our brightest heights. And when he held up the past to us, he was holding out the hope of a better future.

Tom always said Australians survived in the prison camps because of a simple code: The healthy looked after the sick, the strong looked after the weak, the young looked after the old.

Tom’s strength was inseparable from his gentleness, and I believe that it was that aspect of life in captivity that lay at the heart of who he was.

He knew that the very worst could bring out the very best in us. And I believe those values are at the heart of what it is to be an Australian.

That is why I am proud to be here to see the story of Australian PoWs being told.

It tells of the sacrifice, courage and mateship of the men and women who served our country in war.

And asks us to honour the POWs among them.

For whom captivity meant waiting in silence.

Long years of isolation and deprivation, without news of loved ones or mates, home or country.

When the sounds of war were muffled by chains and fences.

And the impulse to action was too often crushed by brutality and inhumanity.

For those men and women, their strength lay in the power to endure.

This memorial is an eloquent expression of their spirit.

It is a record of patience, perseverance and humour.

And, above all, hope.

The roll of names is a litany of endurance.

Its standing stones and sombre granite are a tribute to fortitude.

And the flowing water sings a hymn to constancy.

Through the centuries, war has led to a flood of diaries and documents, recounting life on and off the battlefield.

With them came objects and artworks, many crafted by POWs in the long, oppressive hours of imprisonment.

Often made in haste from materials scrounged from dumps, they are a storehouse of memory and a record of fidelity.

The work of men and women, imprisoned in the bitter cold of a European winter, or the heat of the tropics.

Sick, wounded, starving, exhausted.

But, while the breath of life remained, the spark of creativity enlivened their hands.

Shaping relics of a time and place no words could comprehend.

A pottery mug, inscribed with the plea of a loving father:

‘God bless and protect Bill, Jim, Ronnie, Eddie, Kenny and Dear Maud’.

A woollen blanket, crocheted in the muted colours of Red Cross-issued socks and jumpers.

Rosary beads, painstakingly fashioned from seeds and wire.

A Melbourne Cup trophy, improvised out of a can of bully beef.

Heartbreakingly, these artefacts often came home without their creators.

And for family and friends, they became a window onto the unimaginable – and a final, precious gift from their dear ones.

A symbol of the light of hope that burnt within them as the wretched weeks, months and years of captivity passed.

This is the spirit so poignantly captured in the arrangement of this memorial to Australia’s POWs.

On its 20th anniversary, I offer my thanks to those who saw and acted on the need for a memorial to honour Australia’s prisoners of war.

To tell us their story. A story that needed to be told. A story that needs to keep being told.

Lest We Forget.

/Public Release. View in full here.