Launch of The Good Neighbour: Australian peace support operations in the Pacific Islands

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Associate Professor Bob Breen

May I begin by acknowledging the original custodians of the land we meet on this morning, especially as this is NAIDOC Week.  I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples and pay my respects to their elders past, present and future for they hold the memories, the traditions and the culture, as well as the future hopes of Indigenous Australia for a fully reconciled nation.  

May I acknowledge members of my family who are here. My daughter Kelly and her husband, Clint, have driven down from Sydney. Kelly asked me a while back about what would happen today. I said that Dr Nelson would speak, then Mr Howard would launch the book, and then I would speak.   She commented, ’So you are speaking after the Director of the Australian War Memorial and former leader of the Liberal Party and a Defence Minister, as well as a former Australian Prime Minister. ‘No pressure, Dad.’

My brother, Peter, and his wife, Rhonda are here. My sister, Annette, is in China, but her son, Philip, is here with Caela, and my other sister, Helen, lives in Victoria. There would have been no prouder person in this room this morning than my late mother, Gwen, who passed away aged 87, several years ago. In 1960 she was a solo Mum with four children under the age of eight years. She had to leave school aged 13 years and made significant sacrifices to ensure that my brother, two sisters and I received opportunities for a good education. She persevered in adversity and inspired us with her resilience when major health issues set her back.

Resilience is important. Dr Nelson and Mr Howard know how it feels to have to bounce back after life and career take unexpected and unhelpful turns for the worst. This launch is a ‘comeback’ event for me after an unexpected and unhelpful turn of events in my personal life two years ago. Six months ago I could not have attended an event like this, let alone delivered a speech.  I want to acknowledge several people who understood what I was going through and provided great support. Peter and Patrice Johnson, Bob and Stephanie Flynn and Greg McCauley have travelled from Sydney. Brian Dawson and Warwick Moore and their families in Canberra scheduled me in for family dinners on many occasions when I was not travelling so well. Glenn Crosland and Ian Gordon proved to be the mates one needs in tough times. I acknowledge Jeff and Pam Wilkinson and Roger and Rhonda Powell who are not here, for their hospitality and encouragement as well.    

It is fitting that Dr Nelson and Mr Howard officiated at this book launch this morning. This is a book about Australian peacekeepers. Dr Nelson’s recognition and honouring of Australian peacekeepers at the Memorial has been unprecedented.  Mr Howard’s political courage, in conjunction with his Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, in deciding to intervene to support peace in the late 1990s in Bougainville, and the first half of the 2000s in Solomon Islands was also unprecedented.

I was particularly struck by the political risks Mr Howard took to put departmental advice aside, especially the Department of Defence, and intervene because it was right thing to do. The community of nations looks to Australia to support peace in its regional neighbourhood and Australia did so during troubled times. John Howard and Alexander Downer should be proud of their collaboration for peace in the Pacific Islands. The absence of serious civil unrest and political violence since the last interventions in 2006 is one of the Howard Government’s enduring legacies and finest achievements. May the last ten years of peace in the Pacific Islands continue forever.

Australia’s armed forces, police and unarmed civilian peacekeepers should also be proud of their legacy and achievements in the Pacific Islands. The fact that during just under ten years of intervention not one shot was fired by Australian peace enforcers is a testament to the intentions of the Australian armed forces and police to do no harm.  They created a deterrent presence and worked closely with Pacific partners. Their professionalism, and individual and collective discipline, are tributes to those who trained them and the society they came from.  

The fact that unarmed Australian military, police and civilian peacekeepers served amid traumatised societies where fighters still had access to weapons is not only a testament to their individual courage but to the protection extended by Melanesian societies to young men and women who came to help them reconcile and rebuild their lives after the nightmare of civil war.  Five Australian peacekeepers gave their lives during these operations. I have dedicated this book to them. I trust that this recognition gives their families some solace that these five young men will not be forgotten and that their nation is grateful for their sacrifice.

Before I offer thanks to those who have contributed to the book, I want to make a couple of brief observations. The first is about the cover. In order to comply with the use of art work rather than photographs on the covers of each of the volumes in this Official History series, I received permission to commission a painting. I met the artist, Lisa Foley, at Ward 17, the ADF’s Psychiatric Ward at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne. Her painting gives prominence to three female civilian peace monitors who served with the first contingent to deploy to Bougainville in 1997, Sarah Storey, who is here, Barbara Wymerra and Sari Sutton. In my opinion they epitomised the bravery, as well as the importance, of women to supporting peace in Melanesia.  Behind them stands a young RAAF doctor, representing the influence of providing compassionate medical services to promote peace.  There are other ADF personnel depicted who were in support, rather than in the lead, for the unique type of peacekeeping required in the Pacific Islands. In a perfect world, Jan Gamage’s photo on which the painting is based would have had a Federal Police peacekeeper on the cover to further characterise Australia’s contribution to Pacific Islands peacekeeping, but there a plenty of police men and women in the photos in the book.   

My other observation is that, though the title of this Volume specifies a history of peace support operations, suggesting a military history, it is better characterised as the story of whole-of-government and whole-of-region engagement for peace in the Pacific Islands. Australia moved from ambivalence in the early 1980s to full government and regional partnership by the end of the period this volume covers in 2006. Indeed, every nation in the Pacific islands participated in peace support operations in Solomon Islands in the 2000s – the unique and innovative Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.

My final observation is that this book, though sizeable at 540 pages, is a small part of a larger story that is worth telling. I did not have the time or space to include the recollections of hundreds peacekeepers contained in recorded interviews, let alone peruse diaries and private correspondence, in order to tell the story of community-level peacekeeping.  Kim Doyle, to whom I am most grateful for her annex on the experience of frontline peacekeeping, has only gone across the wave tops of the community level peacekeeping story. There is another book that needs to be written. There is also a further book required that covers the special contribution of Australia’s aid programs to building peace in the Pacific Islands.

This book is written through ‘Australian eyes only’. I hope that it prompts New Zealand and other nations who supported peace diplomatically, as well as by deploying peacekeepers with Australians to the Pacific Islands, to tell their story.  Finally, I hope that Pacific Island authors will write through their eyes only about Australia’s efforts on their behalf to support peace.

May I conclude with some acknowledgments and thank yous.  First and foremost I would like to acknowledge and thank Emeritus Professor David Horner, the Cabinet-appointed Official Historian for this series. David has been my mentor from the beginning of my journey in the early 1990s to write contemporary Australian military history books. He and I are members of an eclectic group of Duntroon graduates, beginning with Professor Robert O’Neill, who have written Official history volumes. As David has inspired and encouraged me, I have done my best to do likewise for younger authors, such as John Blaxland and Craig Stocking, who, as David and I retire, continue the tradition of service by Duntroon graduates to our nation’s Official histories.

David Horner assembled a first class group of historians and research assistants for this series, all of whom made important contributions to refining the content of this volume. I acknowledge and thank those who are here, and single out Miesje de Vogel for her tireless work in bringing this volume to fruition. I wish Drs Peter Londey, Jean Bou and Steve Bullard all the best for their volumes.

There are a number of commanders of Australian peacekeeping operations here this morning. I had the great privilege of working with all of them in my former life as the Land Commander’s Operations Analyst.  Thank you for attending today. You should all be very proud of your service, especially as, like me, you began with little understanding of Melanesia and had to adapt very quickly to unique, unfamiliar and, at times, dangerous challenges. 

All of us in uniform benefitted from the professionalism and experience of Australian diplomats, such as David Ritchie, Nick Warner, Greg Moriarty, James Batley and Matt Anderson, who I made sure are pictured in the book, and are prominent in the story. While the ADF and AFP contributions to peace are obvious through both numbers of personnel and assets, such as ships, landing craft, transport aircraft, helicopters, vehicles and equipment, the work of diplomats behind the scenes was crucial to success. Indeed, it was the main game. Also, from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is Ian ‘Fred’ Smith, the wandering minstrel of Australian peacekeeping in the Pacific islands and peace enforcement in the Middle East. Thank you, mate. You should also be proud of your service.

My thanks go to Cambridge University Press for producing this handsome hardback. Thank you to Anne Bennie and her staff here at the Memorial, especially Catriona Smith who distributed invitations and managed the RSVPs and today’s event.

My final thanks go to four individuals who made timely and crucial contributions free of charge. Anthony Regan and James Batley, two experts on the Pacific Islands, spent many hours giving the draft manuscript a final ‘kick and punch’ that made it a much better contribution to this important peacekeeping story. I stand on their shoulders and greatly appreciated their advice, encouragement and friendship.

The last two individuals I would like to single out for acknowledgment and thanks are His Excellency General the Honourable David Hurley and his wife, Linda, whom I have counted as friends for many years. After Easter last year, I was on indefinite sick leave, despairing that I was unable to do a final edit and write the Conclusion to the Volume.  David Horner and others in Official History team had quite rightly pointed out several times that I was short of the mark.  At short notice, David and Linda made the apartment at Government House in Sydney available for me to dig deep to both complete a final edit and then write the Conclusion.  Without their unconditional support and encouragement, I would not be standing here this morning. Thank you all for coming.

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