Posted on July 31 2018
Happy Australia Day to all!
I would acknowledge all the VIP’s here this morning, especially the Deputy Mayor and Members of Council.
I want to mention one special guest, Mr George O’Callaghan.
I have known George and his family for nearly fifty years.His son Michael is one of my closest friends. George is one of that marvellous World War II generation. That exceptional cohort of men and women who, at a moment’s notice, sprang to the defence of our nation when it came under direct attack. My thanks to you George and all your World War II mates.
Please join me in acknowledging George.
You might be wondering how I came to be invited to speak to you today? Well, I am an “Australia Day Ambassador”. I’m not sure how I became one, but I am proud of the appointment and enjoy speaking to nice people like you throughout the year, especially on Australia Day.
My family came to Australia in 1855 – the Italian side settled in Kadina, the Irish side chased the rain to Dawson in the mid North, while the English preferred the comfort of Adelaide. I have always been very aware of my country. I have always had immense pride in it and loyalty to it.
Just before I joined the Army in 1968, I became aware of Australia Day. At that time not many people seemed aware of the day. Indeed, in 1968, Australia Day had not even been gazetted as a public holiday – that did not happen until 1994!
Anyway, aged 17, I took it upon myself to get Australia Day recognised more broadly, at least among my family and friends. I commenced by searching out those little Australian flags fixed to a piece of doweling – the sort you wave about on special occasions - and I bought a few dozen. They were hard to find and expensive! Then, at every opportunity, and usually under the cover of darkness, I used insulating tape to attach a flag to the radio aerial of cars belonging to my family and friends. It did the job perfectly and all those people became acutely aware of Australia Day.
My loyalty to Australia has also evidenced itself in some quite “eccentric” ways. My son’s middle name is Edward – named after the famous Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly. Many say my eccentricity was proven when prior to my sons christening, I collected water samples from the River Murray, the Snowy River and from 11 Mile Creek – that muddy, summer creek that runs adjacent Ned Kelly’s family cottage at Greta West in Northern Victoria. In advance of the christening ceremony I secreted the water into the baptismal font and, unknowingly, the Parish Priest did his thing. My friends joke that my son, and all other children subsequently baptised in that font, were lucky not to end up with some terrible water borne disease!
Likewise with my daughter who was born when I was serving with the British Army in Germany. After her christening my wife and I had a unique ceremony entitled “the placing of feet”. I had taken some good Aussie soil to Germany to ensure the first soil our daughter stood upon was Australian!
Some might say “crazy/eccentric”. I prefer “patriotic!”
I feel I have been able to make a decent contribution to Australia in peace and war. I spent 22 years in the Army and saw service in Vietnam, PNG and with the British Army as part of the NATO force. I served for a year as ADC to Governor General. By random chance I happened to be with Sir John Kerr on 11 November 1975 and witnessed first-hand the Dismissal – our greatest Constitutional Crisis.
My service since discharge has primarily been in voluntary positions. I have been a member of the RSL for nearly 50 years.I was privileged to serve as the Chair of the ANZAC Day Committee running the ANZAC Day March in Adelaide for 20 years. I resigned from that position a year or two ago, but am still involved as the co-compere on the ABC television broadcast of the march. I was the Chair of the State Government ANZAC Day Commemoration Council from 2008 until a year or two go. I was also Chair of the Vietnam War Memorial Committee, and, Fundraising Co-Chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander War Memorial Committee that created a marvellous memorial recognising Aboriginal military service to our nation. I still serve on a number of Committees and Boards and am the Deputy State President of the RSL in SA.
Why am I telling you all this about myself? Am I on some sort of ego driven rant? I hope not. I just want you to know that although I am not a country bloke, I am regarded by all I know as being about as Aussie as you can get.
Why is that important right here and now?
Well I’m about to discuss the contentious issue of date upon which it should be celebrated and I want you to understand that my view is the view of a true Aussie – nothing more, nothing less! Of course my view is no more important than yours but I am pleased that it is the view of one who regards himself as 100% Aussie!
What are the characteristics that make Australian’s special?
What are the characteristics that should inform all delicate decisions we as a people have to make? There are many, but the two characteristics that I am most proud of are – “Respect” and “Compassion”. I focus on these two because during my life I have seen them evidenced so emphatically.
I’m not talking about the type of “respect” I saw during my service in the UK. Not the fore-lock tugging respect demanded by rank, social position or inheritance. Australians are economical when it comes to giving respect. They need to know a little about you before they dispense it. What makes you tick? What is your motivation? Who are you interested in – them or just yourself? If you pass the test, you will be respected and with that respect comes enormous, lifelong benefits. If they don’t respect you then it’s really a case of “on your bike.” They might (if they have to) pay lip service to you, but they will never truly respect you.
I recall an incident that occurred a few years ago. I was in a government car with the Attorney-General travelling down Richmond Road. We came to a set of traffic lights and stopped. An STA bus drew up adjacent. I looked up and saw the bus driver staring at our car. He leaned out of the window looked at the Attorney and said, “G’day Mick”.
The Attorney looked up from his notes and quick as a flash responded, “G’day Mario”.
The bus driver said “How are you going Mick?”
The Attorney responded “Good thanks Mario, what about you and Maria?”
Mario responded. “We’re fine. By the way, I need to see you. I have something important that I want you to fix!?”
The Attorney responded “No worries, pop in on Saturday at 9 and we can talk.”
It was that truly egalitarian exchange between the third most senior politician in the state and a bus driver that impressed me. Each was not obliged to respect the other, but it was clear that each did. “Rank” and “Position” had nothing to do with it.
Australians (at least the one’s I served with) are renowned for their sense of compassion. Compassion was especially evident in the Army. On my service overseas, especially in Vietnam and PNG, I saw that in spades. Men and women of our military services truly do try to get to know the people they look to protect – really get to know them, understand them and empathise with them.
I guess it helps. If, at your government’s direction you travel to another country and are prepared to lay down your life for the people of that land, it helps to know what makes them tick.I know that Australians did that in Vietnam. Other larger allies (in my experience) did not. Indeed now, 47 years after my service in Vietnam, many of my mates still support and visit the same orphanage that we cared for in 1971. We continue to look after that orphanage and those Vietnamese people.
Another less reported aspect of “Compassion” in the military can be seen among our Victoria Cross Recipients. It has always impressed me that many of the gallantry awards made to soldiers for service in Vietnam were made for acts of compassion – “saving lives” rather than taking them. I suggest you read the citations for the awards to the four men who were awarded the Victoria Cross for their gallantry in Vietnam - Kevin “Dasher” Wheatley, Peter Badcoe, Keith Payne and Ray Simpson, and you will see what I mean.
I now turn to the sensitive, and related question of the day upon which Australia Day should be commemorated. It might surprise you to know that neither I nor the Australia Day Council are wedded to 26 January! The Australia Day Council is quite clear – they understand the controversy around the date. For them any change is a government decision and they will happily accept it.
I have a more personal stake in it. My view is that I would like to see the celebration moved to a less contentious date. As I see it, we do two things on Australia Day? Firstly, we acknowledge the day it all started - the day that Britain put in place the very first “building blocks” of this nation – the first “brick” of what has become a marvellous “home” for so many. Secondly, and to me far more importantly, we are acknowledging what we have done since, what we have become and better still what we hope to achieve.
We are celebrating all the things we love about Australia: the land, our sense of a fair go (respect), our lifestyle, our wonderful stable democracy, the freedoms we enjoy and most of all our people who have come from so many lands. None of these aspects are specifically date related. Personally, I fully understand why our Aboriginal peoples find it hard to “grieve” and “celebrate” on the same day. I understand the grief associated with their dispossession, the atrocities inflicted upon them and the destruction of culture that British settlement wrought. We cannot and should not be blamed for it, but it happened and we have all benefited subsequently. A change of date will not mean we cannot continue to celebrate all those good things I mentioned. Personally, I think accepting a change of date is a small concession. My view is that if we truly are a country that places a value on “respect” and “compassion” then it is not too much to ask.
Last Saturday my son used his Smartphone to show me something on Facebook. His screen was divided into four tragic and graphic images. Top left was what appeared to be POW’s of the Japanese photographed as they were released in 1945. They had been brutalized and were skin and bone. The picture shocked me.Under the picture were the words “Never forget”. The second image was a World War I scene – soldiers sitting among the carnage and horror of that appalling conflict. Underneath the same words “Never forget”. The third image had an international flavour. It was of the twin towers burning as the second aircraft hit. A tragedy with worldwide ramifications. Once again underneath were the words “Never forget”. The fourth and final image on the bottom right was of a group of semi naked native men. All were chained together. They were in rows, each with a metal neck collar. Each collar was joined to that of their neighbour by a heavy chain. Like the others, this was a brutal image. However, below this image were different words. The words were simple enough, but very pointed. They were “Get over it.” It is this capacity for selective recognition and interpretation of our past worries me. Surely we are better than that?
In conclusion I repeat that the words you heard today were mostly my own, but in many respects they are little different to those of the Australia Day Council. The Australia Day Council supports recognition of Australia Day but they are happy for the “date debate” to run its full course. They see it as a day for all Australians, to celebrate contemporary Australia and acknowledge our complex past.
The Australia Day Council acknowledges that Australia Day is the day we recognise the contributions of all Australians from our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been here for more than 65, 000 years, to people like my family who have been here for a mere 162 years, through to those among us who have arrived more recently.
Today will be a busy day for me. When I leave you I will head back to Adelaide. Early this afternoon I will join the Aboriginal Community at their very large, peaceful community event at Semaphore. It will be a quiet, respectful ceremony underpinned by understandable grief. Early this evening I will gather my wife children and grandchildren and we will head to the city for the Australia Day Parade where we will cheer our lungs out and acknowledge the many wonderful and varied nations that have contributed so much to the country of which I am so proud.
Thank you for inviting me to join you today.
For more information about the Australia Day Ambassador program click here