The Honourable Dr Brendan Nelson AO
Director of the Australian War Memorial
Sculpture Garden, Australian War Memorial
28 March 2019
Before I begin, I firstly want to say that just over 3 years ago we conceived the idea of this Memorial, this tribute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service to our nation Australia over 120 years.
As is always the case, the idea is a lot easier than the money. With all of the sculptures that we conceive and are able to place of these grounds we have to raise the money. The Australian War Memorial of course committed initial funds for it, but what you see before you has been delivered as a result of the generosity of Mr Kerry Stokes AC, the Drummond Foundation and the Bruce Rivers Ellis bequest. The Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans Affairs both agreed to my request that we contribute $265 000 from money that we had saved from the Spirit of the Anzacs centenary exhibition.
But I also want to say, that having just conceived the idea of the Memorial, I was explaining it to the Indigenous Affairs Minister, Senator the Honourable Nigel Scullion. He asked me how much it was likely to cost. Having listened, he said, “okay, we’ll give you $225 000”. He said we’ll shake hands on that, and that’s exactly what he and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet have done.
So to those that have contributed, and that’s all Australians through our government and the individuals, I say thank you.
The most important year in this continent, this nation’s history, is by any standard 1788.
The British first fleet arrived. Captain Arthur Phillip, eleven small ships on the 26th of January 1788. George III’s instructions to Phillip were to apply “maximum beneficence to the natives”, as they were then described. That event devastated - simply devastated, millennia of rich Aboriginal history, culture and custodianship.
But from that event and everything that would follow, the origins of the Australia we now are, and the people we have now become. Inevitably and tragically, over more than a century, in the process of dispossession, violence and brutality was perpetrated against the first peoples, by pastoralists, police, and at times mounted Aboriginal militia.
Yet only four or five generations after that, with all that they had endured, they then denied their Aboriginality, denied their kinship and families to enlist, serve, fight, suffer and die for the young nation that had taken so much from them. They were often enlisting alongside the sons of those who had perpetrated violence against their own families.
They then gave their all, and in many cases - their lives for us, for Australia.
Enlisting from a society and an Australia of desperate inequality, they found for the very first time ever, equal treatment in the Australian Imperial Force.
Charles Mene was born on Mabuiag Island in the Torres Strait. On the 1st June of 1944 serving in the 2/33 Battalion, he was reported in the Tribune Newspaper here in Australia, speaking from New Guinea.
He said, “I know that I am fighting for a new world in which my people will get a better deal. I want to come back to an Australia where my people will have full rights as citizens; to an Australia where Aboriginal children will have the right to education, to work, and to a healthy, happy life.”
That man served and fought in Syria, the Kokoda Trail, Shaggy Ridge, Gona, Balikpapan, then the British Commonwealth and Occupational Forces. He fought with 1RAR in Korea, was awarded the Military Medal, and then served in the Malayan Emergency.
And over the 22 years of his service, not a thing changed, not a damned thing.
This Australian War Memorial was conceived in the bloodbath of Pozieres in July and August 1916. Charles Bean, the First World War official historian, witnessed 23,000 Australian casualties over 6 weeks.
One of them was Harry Thorpe MM (Military Medal) from the Lake Tyers Mission in Lakes Entrance Western Victoria. Thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, his headstone is displayed in the galleries here at the Australian War Memorial.
A mortally wounded Australian asked of Bean, “Will they remember me in Australia?” Bean subsequently conceived and resolved that at war’s end he would build this, the finest museum and memorial to these men of the AIF and to the nurses.
This is a unifying institution in a nation that at times - including today, one would be forgiven for thinking is not so unified. But here there is no party politics, there’s no religion, everyone is equal in death, no rank, no military honours, no race.
But we say to Australians, and to our political leadership, from this unifying institution, within that framework of equality, we can demonstrate to Australians that there is, can and should be a special place afforded to the first Australians, of which For Our Country is but one of practical demonstration to the nation.
Graeme Davison in the ‘Uses and abuses of Australian History’ wrote that,
‘…ethical and responsible citizenship requires each one of us to be imbued with the imaginative capacity to see the world through the eyes of others. ’
And through Daniel Boyd’s magnificent work, when you sit behind that mirrored glass and look through those rings towards the dome of the Australian War Memorial, you will see through the eyes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians - the service that they have given to this country - and continue to give, wearing the uniform of the Royal Australian Navy, the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force.
And in doing so, be imbued with respect for all Australians that served and especially this remarkable group of Australians.