House debates

Monday, 23 June 2008

Military Memorials of National Significance Bill 2008

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 19 June, on motion by Mrs Bronwyn Bishop:

That this bill be now read a second time.

upon which Mrs Bronwyn Bishop moved by way of amendment:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:“whilst not declining to the give the Bill a second reading, the House:

notes that the bill creates a new category of memorial—namely a Military Memorial of National Significance;

12:38 pm

Photo of Alan GriffinAlan Griffin (Bruce, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in continuation, after a very brief appearance before question time last Thursday, which some even described as ‘saucy’. The Military Memorials of National Significance Bill 2008 delivers the government’s election commitment to recognise the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat as a national memorial. The memorial is the result of an outstanding effort by the Ballarat RSL, the Ex-Prisoners of War Association and the city and people of Ballarat to recognise the bravery and sacrifice of more than 35,000 Australian prisoners of war held during the Boer War, the two world wars and the Korean War. They built this magnificent memorial with fundraising appeals and their own hard work. They sought and rightly received significant funding from the previous government in support of their project. But the previous government refused repeated requests to recognise it as a national memorial; they said it could not be done. They said only memorials located in the Australian Capital Territory could be national memorials. The Australian Labor Party insisted that it could be done if the government was willing. This bill delivers that commitment. I am pleased that the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat will be the first memorial declared under the new act.

This bill will also establish a clear process and stringent criteria to recognise other memorials of similar importance to our wartime history. The bill will apply to eligible memorials located outside the Australian Capital Territory and specifically will not apply to the establishment of national memorials in the national capital. The legislation will enable the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, with the written approval of the Prime Minister, to declare a memorial under the proposed bill.

The Commonwealth will not be responsible for funding or maintaining a memorial that has been declared, so the memorial must also be owned or managed by an authority at the state, territory or local government level. The responsibility for ongoing maintenance or any refurbishment of a declared memorial will remain with the authority that owns or manages it. I acknowledge the commitment and fine work of these levels of government in establishing and maintaining memorials around Australia during the last century and trust that they will continue to preserve these important components of our heritage.

National memorial status should not be something that is taken lightly. To ensure this is the case, the bill sets out strict criteria that must be met before a memorial can be declared. This legislation will support the strong tradition of commemoration in Australia’s communities, recognising significant memorials that are worthy of being declared national memorials.

This has been a long debate in the House, and I think that has shown the interest that exists on both sides to ensure that these issues are dealt with seriously and the real significance that commemoration has in Australian society—and I commend that. However, as is usual with a summing up with respect to a second reading, it is appropriate that I go through some of the issues that were raised by a number of speakers, in order to clarify some of the points that were made. The shadow minister, in moving this amendment, said that she spoke with some sadness. I guess I would have to say that in some respects I do too, because I think this is something where we could concentrate on what is positive and good about this bill rather than looking at aspects of what might have been said, could have been said or has been said, in order to confuse the matter.

I will go through a number of the points that were made by some speakers and make some comments in response. One of the things that has been said—by a number of members, including the member for Hinkler, the member for Ryan, the member for Fisher, the member for Moncrieff and, I think, also the shadow minister—is that this bill does not meet an election commitment but in fact breaks one by creating a new category of a military memorial of national significance. It has been said that national memorials can only be located in Canberra and that, in those circumstances, this is not the way to go forward.

I want to go through some of those points in some detail, lay out some of the history and go through what people have said on the record about some of these points, in order to ensure that we have it clearly understood what is being proposed here. The fact of the matter is that ‘national memorial’ and ‘military memorial of national significance’ are interchangeable terms, and they have been used by a number of people on an interchangeable basis. I will explain to the member for Mackellar, in the very near future, who some of those people are. To lay the groundwork with respect to that, I go to an exchange in the Senate estimates hearing just the other day, between the head of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Senator Cormann, which I think outlines the nature of the thinking, intention and understanding on behalf of government and the department with respect to what was done with this legislation:

Senator CORMANNCan you describe to us what the status of a military memorial of national significance is?

Mr SullivanIt is a national memorial. The current government, as you are aware, pushed for the fact that memorials outside of Canberra—and particularly the POW memorial—

Senator CORMANNSorry—I have made a technical error. As I understood it, the pre-election commitment was to make the ex-prisoners of war memorial in Ballarat the national memorial, rather than a military memorial of national significance.

Mr SullivanThat is semantics—it is a national memorial.

Senator CORMANNIs it semantics, or is there a statutory definition?

Mr SullivanNo, it was decided to call this a ‘military memorial of national significance’. The current government’s intention was very clear: in opposition, they argued for the fact that a national memorial outside of Canberra could be nominated under the existing ordinance, and they had some legal opinion which, in their view, supported that fact. The policy intent of the then opposition, and now government, was to say, ‘We want national memorials outside of Canberra, and we will enact to have one.’

Senator CORMANNBut not a national memorial: memorials of national significance.

Mr SullivanA memorial of national significance is a national memorial—this is a Commonwealth piece of legislation. I think you have heard the minister, I have heard the Prime Minister, and I have heard members of the opposition describe the fact that what we are doing is catering for the recognition of national memorials outside of Canberra. If there was fault anywhere, maybe it was the fact that we came up with the name ‘Military Memorials of National Significance Bill’, which the minister accepted.

Senator CORMANNYes.

Mr SullivanIf I had known that the semantics of that title would suggest to anyone that we were not talking about national memorials, I would rue the fact that we called it that.

It is understandable why the question about what those terms meant was in fact confusing to some people. More to the point, as I will outline, a number of people associated with this debate over the years have used both terms in the context of the same situation. I quote from the Ballarat Courier of 17 February 2006 with respect to this very issue. It says:

The Federal Government has snubbed a new request from Ballarat MHR Catherine King to have the Australian Ex-POW Memorial in Ballarat listed as a monument of national significance.

Ms King wrote to newly appointed Minister for Veterans Affairs Bruce Billson last week asking the Federal Government to list the Ballarat memorial as nationally significant.

But Mr Billson last night said any listing would require a change in the law and could open up a flood of similar requests from across the country.

So that is the member for Ballarat, who has had an interest in this issue for quite some time now, utilising the terms in those circumstances. But that is not all. The Ballarat Courier, which has been one of the local institutions that has run very strongly on this issue for some time, has also had a view with respect to this terminology and the nature of what it means. I quote again from an editorial opinion in the Ballarat Courier of 23 January 2007. It says:

It should get the support of the Federal Government which must realise that monuments of national significance are not always situated in the nation’s capital.

So that is the local newspaper taking that view. But there is probably an even higher authority than that, probably even someone whom I would have to view as really central to this debate, because it was his decision around the question of what was done, and that is the former minister, the member for Dunkley, Mr Billson. I quote from an article, again in the Ballarat Courier, with respect to this issue. It says:

Mr Billson said the advice referred to the labelling of the monument, rather than its listing as nationally significant.

He remained firm that monuments listed as nationally significant must be in the ACT and questioned the relevance of the legal advice.

So in the context of the use of the terminology the situation is that everybody has used this terminology in a manner which would allow you to interchange it. That is the intention, that is the reality and that is in fact how it should be understood.

Again, this is a difficult technical argument in some respects around some of the other issues that have been raised. I want to go to a couple of other points. In the context of the position that was taken—and this needs to be very clearly understood—the circumstances with respect to the previous minister were very much this, and I quote again from the Ballarat Courier with respect to this issue. It says:

New Veterans’ Affairs Minister Bruce Billson says to declare it a national monument would require a change in the law and—

wait for it—

would potentially open the floodgates for many similar requests related to other monuments.

That is the point here: there was scope for the government to act but it required, in their view, legislative change. The key point to remember is that they refused to do it. To say it was illegal under the current standing in the law is an argument that can be put and it is an argument that the government stuck to. But rather than change the law—and this is the federal parliament; I thought that is what we did—the position the previous minister took was to refuse to change the law, and the position the current opposition are taking is endeavouring to confuse the matter about the question of the semantics of the wording in order to try to get away from the fact that this is a situation where the government is acting and doing something about something they refused to do, something the previous government refused to act upon. That is a really important point in terms of this debate.

Going on from there, on the issue of funding which, again, has been an issue that has raised some concern, there is no doubt over the long debate that occurred around this issue before this legislation that funding was a concern raised by a number of people. And some local officials have sought funding with respect to this. Our position has been clear from the start. We made an initial commitment around the question of a one-off grant with respect to the forward estimates in terms of funding for maintenance, with a very clear understanding that that was it. We have legislated on this occasion to deal with that issue around the question of recognition on an official basis. That is what we have done.

In the context of the funding issue, though, I think there a few points that need to be made. For one, it has been said that the 1928 ordinance attaches funding. It does not. Again I quote from estimates:

Mr SullivanIn terms of the 1928 ordinance, I have just been told that it does not have any provision for funding—that is, there are a range of systems that provide for its funding. The ordinance itself does not result in any funding.

At the local level, who is responsible for the funding now? It is the Ballarat council. There is no doubt that at earlier times they did raise this issue as something they thought needed to be addressed. But let us go to more recent times, the last couple of years, to see the position that has been stated publicly in terms of this debate. I quote from the Ballarat Courier dated 2 March 2006 on this very question. It says:

However, Ballarat Mayor David Vendy said the issue of the memorial was not about council getting extra funds, but about the 36,000 Australians who suffered as prisoners of war.

Then again, a year later, on 6 February 2007, an article in the Canberra Times states:

But Ballarat City Council chief executive Richard Hancock said yesterday it allocated $48,000 a year for the upkeep of the memorial, without complaint from ratepayers. It was not seeking any funding from the Government, simply the national recognition.

Would some organisations like funding provided? Of course they would. That is the nature of organisations. I understand that, and it is quite an understandable position to take. However, we have been very clear about what we will and will not do. And the key organisation responsible for providing funding locally has also publicly, twice now in the last two years, made it clear that from their point of view that is not the issue.

The other point that has been made is that essentially we backed away from what we said very much in terms of the approach. I will concede this to the opposition: the situation we now face—and the shadow minister is correct here—is that we are dealing with this issue in the manner which the previous minister said was required in order to deal with it. I accept that. To give the background to it—and I want to make it clear that there is a bit of background, but I will be brief because of the limited time I have left—it goes like this: the member for Ballarat had a legal opinion which said that action could be taken under the ordinance. The government of the day had advice that that was not the case. The position the opposition took with respect to that, on more than one occasion, was to basically say, ‘We support the legal opinion as a basis to go forward, but we are prepared to act and do whatever has to be done in order to ensure this issue is dealt with.’ I want to draw on a couple of quotes. Again, I will go back a couple of years, to 24 February 2006. The then opposition leader was Mr Beazley. An article in the Ballarat Courier said:

Mr Beazley called on the government, which claims the current law does not allow for the listing of national monuments outside Canberra, to change it.

“It’s been said by the Federal Government that the ordinance doesn’t permit it—well, there are various legal opinions on that. But if the ordinance doesn’t permit it, the ordinance can be changed and we’d change it to ensure that it is possible to recognise the national memorial outside Canberra,” he said.

“The case here is impeccable and the government should adopt it. If they don’t, when we get into office, we will.”

I will now move to the current Prime Minister and what he has said on at least two occasions. One quote, which is from the Age of 28 June 2007, said:

Mr Rudd, visiting Ballarat yesterday, promised he would “move anything necessary to ensure that this is properly recognised as a national war memorial”.

And in a radio interview with Mike Cooper on 27 June 2007 on 3BA Ballarat, Mr Rudd said:

If we form the next government, I will move, I will move anything necessary to ensure that this is properly recognised as a national war memorial.

He goes on to say:

You know, I spend a lot of time in Canberra and I’m just as happy to see memorials outside of Canberra as well.

COOPER: Of national significance—

there is that term again, ‘of national significance’—

RUDD: Memorials of national significance, yeah, and Ballarat, beautiful city that it is, it’s a great location for such a memorial.

So the bottom line with these points is: there has been a long-standing interest from the government with respect to these issues. The member for Mitchell suggested this bill had come about from a mistake and a hasty promise. Well I would hate to see one that has taken a while to gestate! The fact of the matter is that this has been on the books for some years now. There has been considerable public debate about it, both locally and nationally, and the key point that I am making in response to what has been said is that the terms are being used by some to try to hide behind the fact that their original position cannot be defended.

The bottom line position here is that any government could act, but, in acting, would have required a change in the law. The circumstances here are that we accepted that position and we have acted according to that. The previous government had years to do that and refused to do it. So when members opposite stand up and say they support what is being done, as a number have done, but then at the same time say, ‘Actually, it’s not meeting the promise,’ it is a semantic argument that basically does them no credit. What we should be saying now is that this is a national memorial, a memorial of national significance. It is something we should accept and get behind. There are other aspects which relate to the amendment that I think are factually incorrect around aspects of what has occurred. I do not have the time today to go through those, but what I would say to all present is that this legislation deserves to be supported and the arguments that have been put in favour of the amendment deserve to be rejected. I commend the bill to the House.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be omitted (Mrs Bronwyn Bishop’s amendment) stand part of the question.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.