House debates

Wednesday, 3 July 2024


War Memorials: Vandalism

12:20 pm

Photo of Matt KeoghMatt Keogh (Burt, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House condemns the act of defacing war memorials by pro-Palestinian protestors which is deeply insulting for current and former members of the Australian Defence Force and undermines the significance of these memorials as symbols of national pride and remembrance.

This motion mirrors the motion that was moved and agreed to in the Senate on Monday, and I want to be crystal about this: Labor's position on this motion is very clear. We supported that motion that was agreed to by the Senate on Monday. On Tuesday the Prime Minister spoke about this very issue, condemning these acts in question time, and his comments were endorsed by the Leader of the Opposition at that time. The member for Spence also spoke in this place yesterday condemning this vandalism, and I spoke in relation to an attempt to suspend standing orders by the opposition, also condemning these acts.

It is unfortunate, however, that the opposition attempted to politicise this matter by trying to proceed in moving a motion without notice to the government, where, if they had proceeded according to the normal form of this House, we could have dealt with this matter without adjournments earlier. I will say, also, that I would have thought that the content of the motion before the House today, as it was before the Senate on Monday, is a position that would have been agreeable not only to all members of the House but to all members and parties in the Senate. I think it is grossly unfortunate—and, in fact, abhorrent—that the Greens political party decided to vote against this motion in the Senate, because, as the motion says, what has occurred here 'undermines the significance of these memorials as symbols of national pride and remembrance'.

The starting place has to be: what are these memorials? These memorials are the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, the centre of our commemorative activity as a nation; they are memorials to particular conflicts and service that line Anzac Parade, such as the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial; they are the memorials that are dotted around our country in communities, in cities, in towns and in rural and regional areas; and they are the commemorative gates or plaques at schools. Our country is covered in memorials. Why is that? It's because we as a nation respect and honour those people that have put on our nation's uniform, those that have made the ultimate sacrifice, and those that have fought on our behalf. The names of members of our community are on these memorials, as they are on the Australian War Memorial. They are the names of the sons that went off to war. They are the names of families, so prominent in those communities that suffered such great loss, whether they be the children, the partners, the brothers or the sisters of those people left in those communities to mourn.

When we think about what it is that's being commemorated in that service, it's a dedication to our nation, and it is a dedication to the ideals and values of our nation—ideals and values that these people have fought to protect. Core to that is the concept and the actuality that is our democracy: a democracy that doesn't just happen in this place, in our parliament, but a democracy that happens in the living rooms, in the town halls, in the local government council chambers, in our state parliaments, and even on our streets. It is a freedom that comes with our democracy that allows people to protest, to express their views freely, and, yet, what has happened here is that protesters have decided to abuse that freedom, to undermine the memorials that stand for the people who actually fought to protect those freedoms in the first place. That is what is so abhorrent about what has happened not just on Sunday here in Canberra, not just what happened a month or so ago in similar places but what has also occurred in local memorials around our country.

I don't want to speak to the arguments being run by those protesters or the things that they scrawled across those memorials because I don't want to amplify their message, because we condemn what they have done. We stand, I think, together in this place in condemning that.

I endorse the comments that were made previously in this place by the Prime Minister and the member for Spence and the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Canning and the member for New England and others who have spoken in relation to this issue in this chamber, as well as in the Senate. What is really important here is that, in coming together today in this House of Representatives to debate this motion, we have an opportunity to be very clear not just to the Australian people at large but especially to those people who think that what they have done is in any way appropriate that we as a nation regard these places as sacred, as special because of the values that they represent for us as a nation.

These memorials not only commemorate individuals and our Defence Force at large but they also commemorate the values that those people fought for, put on a uniform to protect. Indeed, in some cases, they are memorials that commemorate wars that at the time were politically contested but, as a nation, regardless of that particular contest as to the engagement in those conflicts, we have all come together to recognise the sacrifice, to recognise the commitment of those people that put on our uniform, as we continue to do through to this day. It is why we don't just have those memorials and ignore them. It is why we come at the dawn on Anzac Day. It is why at 11 o'clock on 11 November every year we have silence. It is why we have special days of commemoration throughout the year like Vietnam Veterans Day. Because we recognise that service. We recognise that sacrifice. We recognise that loss. We talk about those that may be feeling absolutely a sense of loss in other parts of the world right now and we understand that. But we also recognise the sense of loss in communities felt by families, by wives and husbands, by children and parents, by nephews, by cousins—a hole that will never be filled, that will never be replaced.

In fact, a new memorial was recently dedicated at the Australian War Memorial.

To those who have brought home the scars of conflict and war, to those who feel the suffering of their loved one who wore the uniform and have had to support them, whether that is from active conflict or from any part of their service, that is what these memorials or stand for, individually and collectively, and it is why they hold such a sacred place in our community. It is why we regard them with reverence, it is why we gather at them at multiple times throughout the year and it is why we do well to remember their significance, not just for the individuals they represent but for the values of our nation, and how doing damage to these places undermines the very values for which they stand and for which these people fought and wore a uniform. We all collectively agree that the individuals involved in these acts, these senseless acts of graffiti, of damage, will feel the full force of the law coming at them—if anyone is ever caught doing things. Because that is a reflection not just of the law but of the values of this country.

I hope the motion being passed today—as I expect it will be—as it was passed in the Senate earlier this week, rings as a Clarion bell throughout our country not just what our lawmakers feel about this issue but how our entire community feels about any denigration ever being made of any of our war memorials and places of commemoration in this nation. For that reason, I commend this motion to the House and look forward to full agreement to it.

12:29 pm

Photo of Gavin PearceGavin Pearce (Braddon, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health, Aged Care and Indigenous Health Services) Share this | | Hansard source

In the gallery, I'm looking at some young Australians—young children that have come in from their school. I extend a very warm welcome to you. I want to say to you kids today up there in the gallery that you are part of the greatest nation on the planet. The future that you will enjoy and the potential in front of you is better by far than in any other country in the world. One day, one of you may be down here as the Prime Minister, and it is indeed a great democracy when we can see that in action.

You will notice, kids, that at the four corners of this chamber is the Australian national flag, and it's a very important symbol. It symbolises our country and our democracy. It is also representative of the democratic power that we have as a Defence Force. Our soldiers, our sailors and our aviators wear that on our uniform. We swear an oath under that flag to protect that flag and our country, and it's something that we as a country are extraordinarily proud of, and so should you be. It adorns our coffins of our dead—those brave men and women who defend our country. We adorn their coffins with that flag because of its significance. It means something. It is more than just a rag on a pole. It symbolises our country. And so too our war memorials symbolise the sacrifice that goes with the defence of this nation.

When a young Australian—maybe you later on; who knows—stands and swears an oath to Australia, its people, its government and our King, then you take on that onus as a member of the Defence Force. You will give your life in an instant for your country and your colleague on your right or your left. You do that because you are there to protect the democracy and the defence of this country. It's a very important thing. When we do lose members of our Defence Force, that flag is also significant, and it goes with the death and the life of that person—that brave young Australian. On Remembrance Day and ANZAC Day, we normally adorn our monuments around the country, as the minister has reminded us, with the Australian national flag.

Our memorials represent those young Australians that have given their lives to defend this country. They are sacred. It means more than anything else in the world. It's about those families that give up their loved ones—their brothers, their sisters, their sons, their daughters, their fathers and their mothers. That flag and those memorials mean everything. When we see them graffitied, walked upon and painted with terrible, terrible slogans, this is an indictment not only on those memorials, war dead and families but on the democracy of Australia itself. We cannot take a step back. We cannot flinch. We cannot hesitate in sticking up and standing for democracy and the protection of those monuments.

I'll take you back to what it is like to be a soldier. If we hesitate on the battlefield for one split second, that will maybe mean not only my death but also the death of my colleague on my right or left. We do not hesitate. We remain clear eyed, mission focused and absolutely steadfast in the defence of this country. I cannot condemn this enough. I have been to Israel. I have been to Gaza. I have been in the Middle East. I have been on operations. And I cannot stress enough how important this is not only for our generation but for that beautiful generation I see up there in the gallery. You be proud of being Australian. You be proud of our flag and you be proud of all those who defend it.

12:34 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I hope that this House condemns in the strongest terms the act of defacing our war memorials, here in Canberra and anywhere else, by pro-Palestinian protesters. It is deeply insulting for veterans and current members of the Australian Defence Force and for others that have put their life on the line, including the Australian Federal Police, to do the work that must be done to protect the sovereignty of our nation and our democracy. It undermines the significance of these memorials, which are symbols of national pride and remembrance, when such actions are taken.

I heard on the weekend—I think it was on Sunday—about the defacing of the Vietnam and Korea war memorials. On the way in to this place, very early on Monday morning, I stopped by to see it with my own eyes. I could not believe that it had happened, but it had. Like other speakers, I won't give those messages any more oxygen, but it was an abhorrent thing to see, knowing the sacrifices of those that have given so much for our nation—their lives—but also the effect that has had on their families and those that came back from defending Australia. We owe them everything. We owe them our freedoms, our very lives.

It was with great disgust that I saw the damage to the Vietnam War memorial, given all that my father and his mates went through to do their bit to represent our country and serve our nation. Just before I came down here to the chamber, I received a call from John Haward—not that one, a different one—the president of the Box Hill RSL. John is a great man. I met him in Vietnam, and I gave him a dink on my motorbike out to the Long Tan cross. It was a magic experience to be there in the rubber plantation, as I'm sure those who have been there would agree, and see the Long Tan cross. It's so moving because you realise how lonely former generations of soldiers, sailors and airmen would have felt at times. They had their mates with them, but at times they would have thought, 'I'm so far away from home, and this is a really dangerous place.'

I was at the Vietnam memorial with dad and his mates when it was opened, and it was such a healing thing for them. For some idiot, some scumbag, to deface that is just totally disgusting. What John wanted to pass on to me was that he appreciated my words. The first thing I did when I got up to this place was speak to the media and say how disgusted I was at that. John had heard that, so he gave me a call to say, 'Thanks, mate.'

For the Korean War veterans—we think Canberra gets cold—how cold and difficult that operating environment must have been. Again, men and women of the Australian Defence Force served us in places like Korea. For someone to deface that memorial, given so many Australians died, is deplorable. The other thing that's deplorable is the Greens political party, because they do nothing but protest. They do nothing but grandstand. For them to suggest that in some way spray-painting a war memorial anywhere is freedom of speech is just so disgusting and so out of step with mainstream Australia. I just want all the veterans and their family members out there to know that we back you every day.

12:40 pm

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My great-uncle Murray Charles Davies was killed on 15 August 1941. He was killed flying off the coast of the Northern Territory in a Hudson bomber, exactly the same aircraft you see on static display in Canberra. I grew up always hearing about Uncle Murray from my dad. My dad turns 90 next month, and he still tears up when he thinks about and talks about Uncle Murray.

That's just one example of the 103,000 men and women who, over a hundred years, have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country and laid down their lives. There is a debt of gratitude that we in this generation will never fully repay; nor will we ever really comprehend or understand the scale of human tragedy that has gone before us in two world wars. And I pray that we never have to.

What we've seen in the last few months, and, in particular, what we saw at the Australian War Memorial a month or so ago and then what we saw just on Sunday with the war memorials that line Anzac Parade in Canberra, is an absolute travesty. It is a tragedy. No words can describe how everyday Australians feel about the actions of these Palestinian protesters. They're not activists; they are criminals. We shouldn't refer to them as activists, as though we somehow hold them in some high esteem. They are criminals.

To deface, in such a shocking way, the memorials that this country holds dear can never be forgiven. To see Senator Jordon Steele-John talk about this as somehow being an act of free speech is an absolute disgrace, and it says more about him and the Greens political party, their ideals and their beliefs than it does about everybody else who doesn't support the Greens—the other 90 per cent of Australians. I don't really want to make this a political statement, but can I implore anybody who, at the next federal election, is going to walk into the booth and come up to the ballot box entertaining the thought of giving a vote to the Greens to stop just for a moment and think about what the Greens stand for. Stop and think about this week. Stop and think that you might be considering voting for a party that stands for everything that most common and decent Australians would find abhorrent.

The Greens are no longer the party of conservationists. They are a party of reckless indifference to the traditions that have held this country together for so long. They are wreckers. They are spoilers. They're not the Bob Brown party of yesteryear. They are a party of anarchists. Do not put your name down to be associated with these people. They deserve nothing other than our condemnation. I call upon every single good-minded, fair Australian to stand with me, to stand with members present and to condemn the Greens. (Time expired)

12:45 pm

Photo of Tania LawrenceTania Lawrence (Hasluck, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

'All that is left is their name on that memorial.' These were some of the many fine words spoken by the member for New England yesterday. It was significant because he spoke not to the names but to the people behind those names—the people that they represent in each of our towns around the country. The member for Canning spoke to some 4,000 to 5,000 memorials and 103,000 people that died on the roll call. The reasons for which they died were different conflicts. This is not the time to ponder why they went. Instead, it's to consider the reality that they did. And then they died for it. What we have left are memorials around the country. I've got so many memorials in my own electorate, and they represent ordinary people who came off the farms to go and fight. We've also got soldiers, from Chidlow to Guildford, who were awarded the VC. We do the most to recognise that because many of their families never even had their bodies returned.

As the member for New England spoke to, that brass name is all that's left for a family to walk to, to reflect upon and to remember. So for the Greens Western Australian Senator Steele-John to say that these are not politically neutral spaces is wrong. These are the equivalents of grave sites. This is not a place to get political. This is purely to remember the individuals who gave their lives in our name. It is absolutely shocking to hear of past events that the member for Burt has referred to, the desecration of the war memorials. It is not just here in Canberra, where we saw everything from red dye being spilt into the reflection pool and different memorials for Vietnam, Korea, World War I and II being desecrated with slogans; what is also absolutely shocking are the terms in which it's been done. If vandalism, as Senator Steele-John and the member for Melbourne seem to believe, is a part of freedom of expression, then we will have no safe way of commemorating anything—no safe way to respect the fallen; no safe way to pay homage to those whose sacrifices have in fact enabled the Greens to stand here in this parliament and spout those ugly sentiments.

We often say in this place that the standard we walk past is the standard we accept. The vandalism that a member of parliament won't call out is the vandalism that that member, by omission or otherwise, actually endorses. I don't see Senator Steele-John out there with a paintbrush, nor do I see the member for Melbourne with one. But the fact that they are not out there with a spray can is inconsequential. It's the fact that they are actively encouraging it that needs to be called out.

And it's not just them. I know that there are WhatsApp groups, Signal groups and people organising themselves around the country to be able to demonstrate their frustration and their anger about what's happening in the Middle East. I get that and I respect that because we all feel the same frustration. We all feel concern for the absolute catastrophe that is happening before our eyes. We're seeing tens of thousands, up to 40,000 people, now dead in Gaza alone. But this is not a reason to then turn on our fallen and desecrate their names for a cause that they have nothing to do with. That completely detracts from what they died for. This is not the time. It's not the place. There are so many other ways in which to conduct peaceful protest, and I call upon those who are community leaders, who are rallying people around them, to demonstrate their anger and what change they would like to see. But I especially call on people in this House and in the Senate from the Greens, who are actively not condemning these acts, to stand up for what is actually right and the peaceful way of expressing our democratic right to protest. To all the veterans back in my electorate of Hasluck, I'm sorry for what has unfolded. I'm sorry for what you must be experiencing. Particularly those from the Vietnam War, who have always felt that they've been treated differently, I'm sorry again.

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allocated for this debate has now expired.