Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for welcoming me. My parliamentary colleague and former Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Warren Snowdon, thank you so much for the support that you give to Legacy.
Before I formally address you, I do want to take a moment just to acknowledge the fire emergency which is still unfolding in New South Wales and to convey our nation’s sympathies to all those who are suffering, to all those who have lost homes, whose homes have been damaged, and in particular, to acknowledge that there has already been loss of life and we fear more.
Australia is a country which is prone to natural disaster but every time it strikes, it hurts and we grieve for all of those who are now hurting because of what’s happened in New South Wales. I hope later today to be in at least one of the affected communities, but I think I should begin this formal address with an acknowledgement of just what has happened and with our nation’s sorrow and sympathy for all who are suffering.
On that note, may I now move to begin my address to this Legacy conference. Of course, you were expecting the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Senator Ronaldson. I know he was very much looking forward to being here. I know some of his former constituents in Ballarat were very much looking forward to seeing him here. He is doing our nation’s work in Europe to help prepare for the Centenary of ANZAC but he does very much send his apologies. I gather he’ll be saying something to you by way of video message later in the conference and I’m very honoured to be here as the Prime Minister representing the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs!
Ladies and gentlemen, Australia has always played a significant part in the affairs of the world. We have always done what we can to defend our interests, to uphold our values, to protect our citizens and, where necessary, to support our allies. We’ve always done this – always have, and as far as I’m concerned, always will.
Our nation was formed in the midst of conflict and the new nation participated in the Boer War, then of course we sent large forces to World War I, large forces to World War II, significant forces to Korea, to Vietnam and, more recently, to Iraq and Afghanistan.
As well as our participation in war, there’s been our role in peacekeeping operations around the globe over the last 60 years. The British Commonwealth occupation forces in Japan, the forces that we’ve sent to Cyprus, Sinai and other parts of the Middle East, the forces that we sent to Somalia in the early 90s and, more recently, the forces that we’ve sent to East Timor and the Solomon Islands.
The truth is that you cannot have casualty-free combat. Even the best and most professional armed forces will take casualties in combat and we have suffered as a nation because of the stand that we have taken for justice and for our friends, right around the world. We suffered 60,000 war dead in World War I. We suffered almost 40,000 war dead in World War II. In Korea and in Vietnam there were hundreds of war dead and, tragically, we have lost 40 outstanding young men in Afghanistan. Then, of course, there are those who have died from complications arising from their war service.
We cannot ask our young men and women to put themselves in harm’s way for our country if we don’t ensure that we give them the best possible care on their return. And it’s not enough simply to care for those who come back; we must also care for the loved ones of those who don’t come back; for the widows and the orphans of those who have paid the highest possible price in the service of our country.
This is where Legacy has responded magnificently, on behalf of our country, to help the loved ones of those who did not return. For 90 years, you have been caring for the widows and the dependents of those who have not returned. In more recent times there are those who did return, but returned incapacitated or became incapacitated as a result of their war service and as time goes by, I am sure you will evolve as an organisation into that premier group, supporting the families of all who have suffered because of their service in the armed forces of our country.
There are 50 clubs, there are some 6,000 Legacy volunteers serving on average, as I understand it, 100 hours a year for this important cause, looking after right now some 100,000 widows and dependent children. This is magnificent and necessary work. Nothing can make up for a lost father, a lost husband, a lost brother, a lost parent, a lost spouse, a lost sibling, but Legacy does what can be done to fill that void, practically and emotionally, and I salute you for all the work you do.
You carry the torch for the families of our war dead. Be yours to hold it high, be ours to salute you for what you do.
So, I do salute you. I do encourage you in your work and I do very much encourage you in your deliberations over this conference as you work out how best to promote and advance not only the work of Legacy but the ideals of Legacy in the year and in the decades ahead.
I thought I might also – because you are part of the wider Defence community – say a few words about some other relevant issues, starting with the Defence policy of the new government.
As we know, for all sorts of reasons, Defence spending has dropped over the last few years; regrettably, to the lowest levels as a percentage of GDP since 1938. The incoming government will do its best – budgetary circumstances permitting – to restore Defence spending to two per cent of Gross Domestic Product and we hope to do so again – as soon as budget circumstances permit – by increasing Defence spending by three per cent in real terms every year.
In the meantime, there will be no further cuts to Defence spending. We will be as efficient as we can, but there will be no overall cuts to Defence spending under the incoming Coalition Government.
It’s important that we give our Defence forces what they need to do their job. It’s particularly important that we give our veterans what they need to live a decent life and what they need to appropriately acknowledge and honour their service to our country.
We will retain the Department of Veterans’ Affairs because you deserve a dedicated department to serve you.
We will properly index DFRDB and DFRB pensions come the 1st of July next year. Despite the difficult budgetary circumstances that the incoming government faces, this will be done in next year’s budget and it will apply for veterans over 55 from the 1st of July next year.
Finally, ladies and gentlemen, a few words on the Centenary of ANZAC – the business which detains my distinguished friend and colleague, Senator Ronaldson overseas right now. Yes, as all of us know, Gallipoli was in a sense, the cauldron that helped to shape a young nation. It wasn’t our first war – that was the Boer War. Nevertheless, it was the conflict, it was the battle, it was the campaign which seized the imagination of a young nation and helped to shape the way we think about ourselves as Australians.
We know a fair bit about the Gallipoli campaign. It’s a story that we tell again and again each year on ANZAC Day, but the coming few years mark not just the Centenary of ANZAC, they will mark the centenary of many First World War events and it is important while we acknowledge and honour the Centenary of ANZAC that we also acknowledge and remember the role that the First Australian Imperial Force played, not just at Gallipoli and in the Dardanelles Campaign, but elsewhere in that terrible conflict. There was the Australian Light Horse who effectively drove the Turks from Palestine and there was, of course, the mighty First AIF and work that was done over three years on the Western Front.
This was a time when Australia and Australians shaped the world. So, in thinking of the Centenary of ANZAC, we should think not just of Gallipoli itself, not just of the ideals of duty and service which motivated the young men who rallied to the colours in those days, but of our role in world history at that time.
So, the incoming government, as its predecessor before it, is determined to ensure that we appropriately celebrate and appropriately honour the Centenary of ANZAC. I thank the former minister Warren Snowdon for the hard and good work that he has done to this end and I am confident that we can build on that work to ensure that we leave a lasting legacy for the future.
We are increasing the amount that will be available for local Centenary of ANZAC commemorations and appropriate events to $125,000 per electorate. There will be a major travelling exhibition put together by the Australian War Memorial and in just over twelve months, there will be the opening and dedication of a memorial and commemorative centre at Albany in Western Australia, which was the last sight of our country that many of those troops had. These will happen.
I guess the question is, can and should we do more? There are a couple of projects which I think are worth considering.
First, a national war cemetery in Canberra – Australians’ Arlington, if you like – in which significant ex-soldiers could be interred.
Second, a major interpretative centre on the Western Front – something that does for Australia and for the Australians who visit the Western Front in such large numbers these days what the Canadians have done to commemorate their extraordinary work in World War I.
These are questions that I hope we might ponder and decide in the next few months so that we can ensure that we go through the four years, if you like, of the Centenary of ANZAC with something to remember and with a lasting legacy, so that this generation has appropriately honoured the sacrifice, the service, the achievements of our mighty forbears.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is an honour to be with you today.
Every one of you give up a significant and substantial part of your life to serve your fellow Australians – in your case, particularly deserving fellow Australians: those who have been left behind by those who have served our country in the armed forces.
I cannot think of a better cause.
I cannot think of a more honourable and worthy thing to do.
I thank you for it.
I congratulate you for it.
On behalf of our nation, I wish you well for the future.
If you've not been to the United States of America's most sacred place, the Arlington National Cemetery, here are some photos that show what it looks like. Nothing can convey the sense of reverence and honour for the fallen that you feel being there.