Peter Khalil: I also rise to speak in support of the Australian Veterans’ Recognition (Putting Veterans and Their Families First) Bill and acknowledge the work of the member for Blair and the minister in what I think is an admirable, bipartisan approach to such an important area of policy—that is, the recognition, support and honouring of our veterans who have served our country in so many ways over the decades. We should always, as many of the previous speakers have pointed out, strive to remember and recognise the sacrifice and service of our armed personnel and of their family members. Labor supports any efforts the government makes to recognise and to support veterans. Labor did announce plans to create the first covenant for defence personnel in September last year and we are very pleased to see the government taking up this idea through this bill.
Mr Chester interjecting—
Peter Khalil: Thank you, Minister. We would have liked to see people currently serving in our defence forces included, but the government has decided not to include them. Nonetheless, the bill has the broad support of the veterans community, and Labor supports the bill on this basis.
We talk a lot about the decision a person makes to join the Australian Defence Force, a decision that is about sacrifice and love of country—in many respects a difficult one, because of the pressure that’s placed not just on that person who has made the choice but also on their family. Although people did not always have the choice to join, we as a society should always respect, recognise and remember that choice made by so many thousands of Australians. I think that recognition and remembrance of service comes in part because of the personal connections so many Australians have with men and women who’ve served. We have seen this amazing phenomenon of our Anzac Day celebrations growing over the decades and becoming more and more popular, particularly with younger people. Perhaps it is that personal connection, wanting to remember the service of a great-grandfather who fought and died in World War I, a grandfather in World War II or an uncle in Vietnam.
I think of my uncle, who served in the Australian Army driving the Leopard tanks at Puckapunyal, and my grandfather, who was an Egyptian auxiliary for the British in Montgomery’s Eight Army in North Africa during World War II. He used to tell me snatches of stories about that service. He reckons that he singlehandedly, with just his rifle, took prisoner a whole unit of Italian artillery. I was too young to tell whether he was having me on. He noted that the enemy Italian units he took prisoner just wanted to get out of the hot desert and to the relative comfort of a British POW camp in Cairo. I wish now that I had asked him more questions about that period, so that I could remember more and better. Now he has passed away and that opportunity no longer exists.
So it’s a bit personal, obviously, to many of us who have relatives who have served, but I think it’s more than personal. Bills like this one come from our acknowledgement as a nation of something more than just the personal. Obviously, deep in our hearts, deep inside the marrow of our bones, Australians know, through the history of our nation, the service of two million men and women in uniform and the ultimate sacrifice of 102,000 diggers, that that is pretty much why we enjoy the freedoms of Australian democracy. I think we know that; we understand that. Our diggers today are deployed in some of the far-flung places that so many of our diggers are buried, such as among the rocky hills and deserts of the Middle East. Today, as did our forebears, they defend our nation, they protect our way of life and they defend our democracy, ensuring we can continue to enjoy the freedoms that we have. That is why Australians want to recognise and commemorate their sacrifice and their service.
This covenant is another way that we will remember them. I’ve always stood in solemn respect—and I’m sure all of my colleagues here would have done so—at least intellectually understanding the history of that sacrifice. However, it never really hit me, at least emotionally, until an Anzac Day dawn service I attended when I was in Iraq in 2004. I spent almost a year in Iraq, posted by the Australian government in 2003 and 2004, working on a whole range of national security and counterterrorism tasks. There was the 2004 dawn service in Baghdad, at the Australian headquarters. You’d see, every morning at dawn, the coalition headquarters being hit by mortars and rockets, so the Anzac service had a particularly eerie feel about it, especially because of the backdrop we had. You would see tracer fire lighting up the pre-dawn and the background noise of helicopter gunships rumbling across the skies as we commenced the service. As the sun rose and the Last Post was played, I saw the silhouette of the bugler against the blood-orange sky. At that moment, an emotion hit me that is difficult to describe. I intellectually knew that diggers all around me at this service were putting their lives at risk every day. They were protecting us as we moved around Baghdad and other parts of Iraq in the ASLAVs and other convoys, but those experiences really opened up a better understanding, a deeper understanding, of what the first Anzacs had to go through—those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in France, the Middle East and of course Gallipoli. How many more have made that same sacrifice since then? At that particular moment during the service at Baghdad, I felt an enormous gratitude for the generations of our service men and women who fought and died for our freedoms. I don’t do it often, but I did shed a tear at that service.
I’m reminded through these experiences in my electorate of Wills that there’s always more work to do to fully recognise our veterans. There are a number of veterans who live in my electorate, and there are those who are currently serving, with families in my electorate. We need to look after them when they return and look after their families and their loved ones if they don’t. RSLs have obviously been doing this on the ground for generations. After the end of World War II, RSLs were at the very heart of many of our local communities and they played a huge role in supporting our veterans and connecting people through shared experience. There are many other organisations now that also do some of this great work.
I visit the RSLs in my electorate—the Coburg RSL, the Pascoe Vale RSL, the Glenroy RSL and the Fawkner RSL—and speak with some of the older diggers there, but unfortunately I don’t see a lot of the younger ones. The next generation is largely missing. A lot of the men and women who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor don’t tend to go to these RSLs as much as previous generations of veterans. Maybe that’s changing or it will change as they get older and they seek to be with their fellow veterans in a setting.
I know there are many from the more recent conflicts who are struggling. Many of them are struggling; many families are struggling. A lot of veterans have issues such as PTSD and they have mental health issues. The issues are not just physical; they are emotionally affected by what they’ve seen and what they’ve experienced. It’s really up to us to not just recognise them, remember and commemorate. That’s all very important. Those Anzac Day services and Remembrance Day services that we all attend are critically important to keep the memory alive.
Mr Chester interjecting—
Peter Khalil: Yes. But it has to be for 365 days a year. It has to be an ongoing and constant sense of obligation to those who have served our nation. So it is up to us to support them, and this bill goes some way towards doing that.
The bill and the creation of the covenant serve as a reminder to us and a recommitment to those veterans that we will keep doing the work to help support them and meet their needs and the needs of their families. No matter where or when the person served, we as a nation should always recognise and remember those who gave the ultimate pledge of service to our country. It is our responsibility to protect who we are and the freedoms that we hold dear, in the same way that they did for us.