It was a pleasure to be with Senator Farrell and Senator Peris at the unveiling of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander War Memorial in Adelaide on Sunday morning. In a spirit of bipartisanship, I recognise the contribution that previous Labor governments have made to help establish the memorial. As has been said, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been serving the people for over 100 years. Generally, however, this has gone unrecognised, despite the fact that they have given, and in some cases given on multiple occasions, above and beyond the call of duty. I am glad to report, as did Senator Farrell, that that situation of no recognition has been remedied as of Sunday morning.
From the Boer War right through until current days, Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people have served with distinction in the Defence Force. Numbers are not certain, but it is believed that over 400 Indigenous Australians fought during the First World War. This is all the more incredible when you consider the barriers which were placed in the way of their enlisting. The Defence Act of 1909 specifically prohibited Indigenous Australians from enlisting to serve their country. Despite that, some of them managed, through using different names or even claiming different nationalities, to enlist and to serve the nation. It says something about us as a nation that it was only in October 1917—when volunteers were harder to find and by when the conscription referendum had been lost—that people decided they might start changing their minds about allowing Indigenous people to serve. The fact that so many people served when so many barriers were put in their way is, I think, a testament to their love of country—they actually wanted to serve their people and their nation.
I am sad to say that things did not improve in the period up to the Second World War. Many of those who had served report, and history tells us, that, while they were in uniform, they were actually treated very well—they were treated equally and they received the same pay and conditions. But when they returned they were not welcomed back into our society with the same standing as white Australians who had served in the forces. At the start of World War II, Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders were allowed to enlist, but in 1940 the Defence Committee decided yet again that the enlistment of Indigenous Australians was ‘neither necessary nor desirable’. But history repeats itself. When the threat from Japan loomed, those restrictions were lessened because the need was there and people were prepared to allow Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to enlist. In 1942, Torres Strait Islanders in particular were in the front line of some of the fighting in the defence of Australia.
As someone who has served in the military as an army officer and a pilot, I wish to identify two firsts to illustrate that we are not just talking about people who served as foot soldiers or who perhaps were doing some other duties. I want to talk about the first Indigenous Australian officer and the first Indigenous Australian pilot. Reg Saunders was the first Aboriginal Australian to be commissioned as an officer in the Australian Army. He was the son of a World War I veteran and in 1940 he enlisted in the Defence Force and was sent to the Middle East as reinforcement for the 2nd/7th Battalion. Having survived Africa, he went on to Greece and had to remain hidden in Greece for some 12 months after the German victory. He escaped Crete in 1942 and returned to Australia before rejoining his battalion in New Guinea as a sergeant. He remained in action in Papua New Guinea until 1944, when his commanding officer nominated him for officer training.
After a 16-week course, Saunders was finally commissioned in November 1944 and he returned to Papua New Guinea where he continued for the rest of the war, fighting as a platoon commander. He then returned to Australia, having lost his brother in action during the war. That was not enough. Having given that service, when the Korean War broke out he returned to the Army and he went to Korea serving as a captain in 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, fighting at Kapyong, a famous battle. After the war he came back and for a while assisted with national service training before leaving the Army, eventually in 1967 joining the Office of Aboriginal Affairs as a liaison and public relations officer. He had 10 children, and he was finally recognised with the award of an MBE in 1971.
Leonard Waters, who had grown up admiring people like Charles Kingsford Smith and Amy Johnson, joined the RAAF in 1942. Despite the competition and the lengthy training involved in becoming a pilot, he was eventually selected to be a pilot and was assigned to 78th Squadron, situated in Dutch New Guinea, flying Kittyhawk aircraft. He later flew in Borneo. He named his Kittyhawk ‘Black Magic’, and flew 95 operational sorties. You would imagine that when somebody with those skills—flying 95 operational sorties—came back to Australia they would be recognised for their service and for their skills. Unfortunately, he was not able to find a career in civil flying and he ended up having to go back to shearing for a living.
These examples highlight that, given the opportunity and a fair go, people from any walk of life in Australia—any race or creed—can succeed and contribute to our nation. It is fitting that, now, there is finally an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander War Memorial in South Australia. It has the aspiration of being a national memorial, and I was pleased to see Her Excellency the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, there to open it. Like Senator Farrell, I commend the memorial committee, chaired by Marj Tripp with Frank Lampard as deputy chair, as well as the fundraising group led by Sir Eric Neal and Bill Denny, who raised the funds for the memorial. There was a range of both government and corporate donors, and a number of us as private donors also had the opportunity to contribute. Thanks go not only to the committee but in particular I would also like to thank the Indigenous service men and women, and their families who released them, who have served this nation for well over 100 years, and I thank also those who are still serving the nation in the uniform of our Army, Navy and Air Force.