Tuesday, 24 November 2015
National Anzac Centre
I rise this evening to acknowledge and pay tribute to the commitment and service of two community stalwarts of Albany in my home state of Western Australia. Other Senators in this place will have heard me speak on many occasions about Albany's special place at the heart of the Anzac story. Of course, it was from Albany that the first Anzac convoy set sail bearing Australian and New Zealand troops bound for Gallipoli. As the Albany Advertiser noted upon the departure of the convoy, 'In no other port of the Commonwealth were the ships seen together... in the full magnificence of their numerical strength.' This seminal moment in history was commemorated just over one year ago, when more than 40,000 people attended a series of events held over the weekend of 31 October to 2 November 2014, which marked the centenary of that first convoy's departure.
I think it is fair to say that it was the largest-scale series of events that Albany has ever hosted. Certainly, it gave Albany an unparalleled opportunity to showcase both its outstanding natural beauty and the warmth of its local community for a national television audience. While it is true that these events received significant financial and logistical support from both the federal and West Australian state governments, it is the local contribution I want to focus on this evening. Because these commemorative events would not have been as moving nor the resounding success they became were it not for the commitment and enthusiasm of two leaders within the Albany Returned Services League. They are the former President Mr. Peter Aspinall and his colleague Mr Laurie Fraser MBE OAM, the chair of the Special Functions Committee.
Between them, these two gentlemen were a crucial bridge between all levels of government, the veterans' community and Albany's local community during the planning and running of last year's commemorative events. Without their energetic input and drive, I think it is doubtful that the local community in Albany would have felt the keen sense of ownership it did in the commemorative events. Their active involvement is all the more inspiring to me because both Peter and Laurie came to these positions having already given so much in the service of their nation and their community.
Peter Aspinall is a veteran of the Battle of Long Tan, which was the deadliest battle of the Vietnam War for Australian troops. On 18 August 1966, he was an artillery forward observer, directing artillery fire as part of A Company, sent in to relieve D Company, who lost 17 men in the battle. Peter's strongest recollection from that day is 'the blinding rain and visibility down to only a few metres. In the armoured personnel carriers, we were driving through and over the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong.' He also recalled the 'absolute, eerie silence' upon arriving at the rubber plantation where D Company had been pinned down, noting that 'rubber trees were shredded, trees completely blown apart...not the sound of a single bird.' Like many Vietnam veterans, he also recalls the 'direct confrontations and some very personal attacks' experienced by those who returned home. For many years, he avoided commemorative events but eventually become involved with the Albany RSL and feels that in addition to honouring those who did not return, we should be 'thinking of those, who along with their families, have suffered enormous psychological damage.'
Likewise, former SAS solider Laurie Fraser MBE OAM has been instrumental in efforts to ensure that Albany's place at the heart of the Anzac story is understood nationally both as the point of departure for the Anzac convoy and as the birthplace of the dawn service, which is now an Anzac Day tradition nation-wide. Laurie's indefatigable efforts were especially important in shaping what is now the National Anzac Centre, a magnificent interactive museum and memorial experience which opened on 1 November 2014. It sits atop Mount Clarence, looking out over those same waters of King George Sound through which the Anzacs sailed over a century ago. The centre has attracted enormous interest since its opening, with visitor numbers confirmed as being well above original forecasts. I would also note at this point the outstanding contribution of Mr Geoff Hand, who, with Peter and Laurie, brought the Albany Anzac Centenary Alliance to the centre's development. We commend their fantastic local effort.
It was especially pleasing to be in Albany on 14 November this year as His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall became the National Anzac Centre's highest-profile visitors to date. Their visit was a fitting acknowledgment of all the community has achieved. As both Peter Aspinall and Laurie Fraser retire from their roles with the Albany RSL, all Western Australians owe them an incalculable debt of gratitude, not just for their own military service but for all they have done to honour the service and sacrifice of others, and to lift the profile of our great state.