‘Commemorating Past: Safeguarding Future’ Panel

Thank you for inviting me to join you today.

I’d like to thank the Royal United Service Institute for hosting this unique event.

I also want to acknowledge the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Australia is proud to be a founding member of the Commission and I recognise the more than a century’s worth of work you’ve undertaken to honour the memory of the personnel of the Commonwealth who lost their lives during the First and Second World Wars.

In a few days we will pause to observe Remembrance Day.

It is a moment of solemn reflection as we remember those who lost their lives during the First World War, and all wars and conflicts that have followed.

This year marks the 105th anniversary of the Armistice that brought an end to fighting on the Western Front.

And even though more than a century has passed we still gather, we still pause, we still remember.

Some people may ask why.

In Australia, honouring our veterans’ war service is deeply entwined with who we are as a nation.

The Anzac legend has helped shape our national identity.

While the Anzac campaign ended in military defeat and retreat, the conduct of our Aussie Diggers during this campaign and those that followed it have come to represent the values that speak to our national character.

Writing of the Australian evacuation from Gallipoli, historian Charles Bean captured the essence of the Anzac:

Anzac stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat.

And in part, this is why a hundred years on we still commemorate and remember the service of those who have long since passed.

It’s about honouring the sacrifice that more than 103,000 Australians have made in service of our country.

But it’s not just about commemorating those long dead, or indeed those who have lost their lives for our nation.

Rather, on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day in 2023, we pay tribute to all those who have pulled on our uniform to serve – in war, conflict and peacekeeping operations.

We also pay tribute to their families, who have each made unique sacrifices in supporting a Defence member.

We must say thank you, we must make it known that we hold our Defence personnel, veterans and families in the highest regard.

We are a grateful nation for what they have done.

And we are also a grateful nation for what we ask our personnel to do now, and what we will ask of them in future.

It is incumbent on us to commemorate all their service.

In Australia, commemoration has multiple purposes.

As I said, it is a way to honour the service and sacrifice of all those who have worn our nation’s uniform in times of war and peace.

It is also a way for families and friends to learn about the experiences of their loved ones.

It is a way to pass down our traditions and stories to the next generation.

Telling stories, participating in rituals, just as our Indigenous Australians record family and community histories.

In Australia our commemorations are never about the glorification of war, nor are they a celebration of the victor over the vanquished.

Rather, they recognise the self-sacrifices of the past and serve as a lesson for the future.

Proper recognition and respect for our service personnel is important in contributing to their overall wellbeing.

While for a few, it is easy to cast war as some nihilistic endeavour.

For those who have served – who risked their physical and mental wellbeing, and for the families who support them, it’s important to find meaning in their service.

While for many the meaning is clear and obvious – we cannot and should not take this for granted.

Finding meaning in our lives contributes to our sense of purpose and wellbeing.

Many who choose to serve want to be part of something bigger.

They want to give back to the nation.

They want to stand up and defend the values we cherish.

Those same values the Anzac spirit encapsulates: courage, integrity, endurance, the bond of mateship, but also the nation’s freedom, democracy and justice.

These are lofty ideals, often used as political catch phrases.

But for our service personnel, they are not just closely held beliefs, but ideals that they quite literally fight to protect.

It takes a remarkable person to decide to put themselves second to defend those values.

That should be acknowledged, it should be respected, and it should be honoured.

How we treat our veterans is a reflection of this – they certainly regard it this way. That includes not just the services and supports we provide to them but in the way in which we commemorate their service and the service of their fallen comrades.

Just this year in Australia we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

It is true that some veterans who returned home to Australia felt appreciated, but many felt unrecognised and unsupported by the nation they had served.

Today we have a greater understanding of the role genuine recognition and support plays to instil meaning and pride in one’s service and to support those in our Defence Force.

Over the years, Australia has taken steps to improve recognition for the Vietnam veteran community, a process that was for some time incomplete, yet this work remains ongoing and vitally important.

It began with the Vietnam veteran community itself, who they themselves, first set up a counselling service to help their mates out – the “Open Arms – Veterans and Families Counselling Service”.

Then, they came together to commemorate Long Tan Day – one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War for Australia, where so many lost mates.

Long Tan Day became Vietnam Veterans Day, a day chosen by those Veterans, to remember their mates.

A day of healing and commemoration culminating in a day of commemoration where all Australians had the chance to offer a heartfelt thank you this year.

A large part of what made that day successful came through engaging with and listening to the community, including their families.

And it is important that we include the family experience, because service impacts many more than just those serving.

Such as young children who never knew a parent because they never returned home.

Others came back drastically changed as a result of their service.

Families were critical in helping them deal with what they had been through, and were themselves affected by that.

This is true of all conflicts.

So to have meaning, our commemorations need to reflect those experiences.

Looking to the future of how we hold commemorations, this should be kept in mind.

We need to remain engaged with the veteran community, current and former serving personnel as well as families to ensure we continue to reflect and appropriately honour their experiences, in the way they desire.

It is also no secret that Australia, like many comparable nations are currently encountering recruitment challenges into our respective Defence forces.

There are many and complex reasons for this.

We must also make sure we don’t lose sight of appropriate acknowledgement and commemoration.

More obviously, we need to ensure we provide to veterans the support and services that they need and deserve.

Putting to one side the inherent good of this for a moment, if there is a constant chorus that Government is not providing what veterans need, it is of course a disincentive to service.

In Australia we have a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide underway.

It is necessary, and this work extremely important.

However, a negative side effect of the increased attention on these matters has been the false impression that all veterans are broken.

The truth is that the very opposite is the case.

The statistics tell us the vast majority of those who serve in Australia’s Defence Forces go on to have successful lives and careers when they transition to civilian life.

Indeed, they out-perform the general population: they are more likely to be employed, they earn more, they have a higher level of education, they are healthier and more likely to own their own home.

The skills they gain through service, the attributes they possess – leadership, teamwork, agility, an ability to work under pressure – are the skills in demand in every organisation, by every employer.

Joining the Australian Defence Force sets up young people for success, they rightfully should be acknowledged as some of the best in the business – no matter the business.

So when the narrative tells us that veterans are broken, we need to change the story.

There are many ways to do this but a significant part of it is commemoration – commemoration that not only tells the stories of war and conflict, of the lives lost, and families that mourn but it also acknowledges triumph over adversity, valour, bravery and success.

In this way, commemoration doesn’t just speak to then, it speaks to now. It helps inspire, gives meaning and improves wellbeing.

Commemoration done well and appropriately, accurately reflects why it is so important to be a part of our Australian Defence Force now and into the future.

In the act of remembering those who served and lost their lives in conflict, we also make a pledge to work for peace in our own time.

There is no greater champion of peace than those lost, silent witnesses of war.

Through commemoration, it is our solemn duty to give those silent witnesses a voice.

In Canberra, our Australian War Memorial commemorates some 103,000 people who lost their lives in Australia’s name.

Those are 103,000 stories, 103,000 people who never came home, all with families left to mourn.

In Australia we value and honour the service of our veterans.

We tell their stories and remember their sacrifices.

And we want to do everything in our power to prevent that number from growing.

Commemoration of war will always have a role to play in the cause of peace.

Thank you.

/Public Release. View in full here.