House debates

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Constituency Statements


11:16 am

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Nick Xenophon Team) Share this | | Hansard source

Last Sunday I attended a profoundly moving headstone dedication for Mr August Nicolai, who served on the Western Front in 1918. He died by suicide 12 years after returning from the war and, with no immediate family to pay for a headstone, has lain in an unmarked grave for 87 years. The funding for this headstone was raised by both the Macclesfield RSL and the Meadows Community Association. Despite the wind and the cold, over 60 people, including me, paid our respects to this soldier, whose sacrifice for our country had not been acknowledged for almost a century.

I recognise that there is a provision for the Department of Veterans' Affairs to pay for headstones where death can be directly linked to a person's active service, under specific guidelines. With our more sophisticated understanding of the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder, arguably Mr Nicolai's death could have been attributed to his war service, but my purpose here is not to push the boundaries of the guidelines. However, I believe that a strong case can be made for the government to provide grant funding for headstones for World War I veterans who are currently in unmarked graves in cemeteries across Australia. In many cases these men died during the Great Depression, when, if there were surviving family members, their choice was to pay for a headstone or to put food on the table for the children of the veteran. Had these men been receiving DVA pensions, the department would have paid for headstones. However, many servicemen did not apply for pensions, even though many were likely entitled to one.

Every Anzac Day we say 'lest we forget', yet these servicemen in unmarked graves have, indeed, I believe, been forgotten. In Tasmania, because of the community work of the great Andrea Gerard, supported by the member for Denison, many headstones have been laid, but this is one state of many, and I believe we need a national response, a national leadership. So I would ask the government to consider establishing a capped program to provide for headstones for World War I veterans currently in unmarked graves. I understand that there are an estimated 12,000 World War I veterans lying in unmarked graves in Australian cemeteries and that the average cost of a headstone is approximately $500.

If the program were to be funded over four years and capped at $6 million, it would be only $1.5 million per annum. This would be a small investment to provide appropriate recognition for the men, like August Nicolai, who were willing to sacrifice their lives for Australia. If we mean 'lest we forget', we must not forget them.