Simon Crean: Address To National Congress Of The RSL

Opposition Leader Simon Crean has addressed the National Congress of the Returned and Services League.

The National Congress met at the Adelaide Town Hall.

Text of Simon Crean’s Address to the National Congress of the RSL.

CreanHer Excellency, the Governor, Marjorie Jackson-Nelson.

The Minister for Defence, Senator Hill.

The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Dana Vale.

The Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Senator Mark Bishop.

South Australian RSL President, John Bailey.

RSL National President–Elect, Major-General Bill Crews.

Veterans, servicemen and delegates.

Thank you once again to the RSL for giving me the honour of addressing you today.

It’s always a privilege to address our nation’s ex servicemen and women.

I honour the service you have all given to our great country – defending it but also enriching it through your work in the community meeting the continuing needs of people who have served our country and the families of those who paid the ultimate price for keeping our nation free.

I want to congratulate outgoing National President, Peter Philips, for his service to the RSL and the nation for more than half a century. A great Australian.

And I wish Bill Crews, every success in his new challenge.

I have a very close association with the RSL branches in and around my electorate.

I know the great work they do, the camaraderie they share and the continuing remembrance they observe.

They’re typical of RSL branches all around the country – raising funds, providing services to veterans and their widows and influencing government policy.

Governments must continue to support that commitment financially and by listening to RSL leaders and members.

Battle for Australia Day

On 18 August the Parliament formally acknowledged the 37th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan as a commemoration of Vietnam Veterans’ Day.

Long Tan was not the only significant clash of the Vietnam War but it has come to symbolise all the battles of that bloody conflict.

Long Tan was an outstanding feat of arms, and it exemplified the finest traditions of heroism and mateship the Australian armed forces.

For too long, our nation failed to properly recognise the heroism and sacrifices of Australian soldiers in that war.

Just as Long Tan epitomises our engagement in the Vietnam War, names like Kokoda, Milne Bay and Darwin have come to symbolise our defence of Australia during the Second World War.

Last year at this Congress I proposed that we should debate the establishment of an annual ‘Battle for Australia Day’ to recognise the momentous events of 1942.

I want our young people to know more about the brave men and women who fought and gave their lives to save us from potential invasion. They are great heroes.

The Battle for Australia Day is not intended as an alternative to ANZAC Day or Remembrance Day – which will always remain sacred to Australians. It is a day for us to pause and remember all those who died in all the battles of the Second World War.

I am glad to be able to report back to you that the proposal sparked an enormous amount of interest. I received letters of support from the RSL, individual Australians and organisations in every state and territory.

I therefore wrote to the Prime Minister outlining a number of ways in which we could advance the achievement of that national day.

Recently the Prime Minister responded. And while he specifically rejected the idea of a formal national day of remembrance for the Battle of Australia, he did acknowledge the need to continue support for nationwide ceremonies for the occasion through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Along with Minister Dana Vale, I will be attending the national Battle for Australia Day commemoration in Canberra tomorrow.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement of the importance of the issue as a good first step. I remain convinced, however, that as a nation we must recognise the Battle for Australia through a special national day.

And with the support of the veterans of that conflict and the Australian people, I will continue to argue for more official national recognition of the events of 1942 – the year when Australians fought for our very existence as a nation.

Supporting our troops in Iraq…

We once again meet with a significant number of Australian service men and women serving in various parts of the world.

Almost 1000 are still serving in Iraq and the Gulf.

They are doing a magnificent job, and let’s hope that we can get them home soon without casualties.

I want to thank the RSL for their public acknowledgement of Labor’s strong support for the Australian troops deployed to Iraq.

The ALP and the RSL both wanted Australia’s involvement sanctioned by the United Nations.

But once the troops were sent, there was never any question that they would get our total support.

I want to acknowledge the kind words that Major General Philips wrote to me saying how delighted he was that I had “publicly weighed in on the side of the troops”.

I have always supported our troops, and always will.

This is a position that must be above politics.

Some of my mates went to Vietnam and suffered greatly, and I believe that our nation took too long to recognise their service.

I am determined that Australia must do the right thing by the current generation.

Our troops have no say over whether or not they are sent to war, but they always obey the orders of the elected Government of the day, as they must in a democracy.

We all honour their service.

Recognising the work of our peacekeeping troops

Peacekeeping operations are becoming an integral part of the role of our armed forces in the Twenty-First Century.

Australia is currently participating in nine UN-badged peacekeeping operations, including around 1000 troops in East Timor.

In addition, there are more than 1200 in the Solomon Islands as part of a regional peacekeeping initiative.

No one nation can solve security problems alone.

Maintaining international peace and security requires the collective action and moral authority that bodies like the UN can provide.

That’s why Australians will always proudly wear the blue beret of the United Nations.

For over half a century, Australians have been involved in numerous peacekeeping operations from Korea to the Middle East and Mozambique.

Australians were the first troops in the field in the very first UN-sponsored peacekeeping operation – in Indonesia in 1947.

Australians have commanded no less than six multinational peacekeeping operations.

And over the decades 8 Australian servicemen and one servicewoman have died on peacekeeping missions.

We must all recognise the importance of their missions, the dangers they face, and the often harrowing nature of their tasks.

They face new stresses, different from those of previous generations and need new types of support from us.

As in Rwanda, peacekeepers can be forced to witness shocking scenes of human depravity – without having the chance to intervene.

Peacekeepers are the new generation of Australian heroes and we mustn’t wait twenty or thirty years to recognise their sacrifices.

The Australian War Memorial in Canberra acknowledges the work of our peacekeepers in their displays, and I think it’s time we considered something more permanent.

Therefore I propose that we seek the views of Australians on the suitability of creating a permanent commemoration of Australian peacekeepers on ANZAC Parade in Canberra.

ANZAC Parade is sacred ground to Australians. On any day you can see families laying wreaths and other Australians paying their respects to the fallen.

A memorial on ANZAC Parade is a significant statement by the nation, and must never be granted lightly. I think it’s time we considered its merits.

I would like to hear from the RSL and from individual veterans, including those who have served on peacekeeping forces, about the suitability of such a memorial.

Supporting veterans…

I want to say something additional about Labor’s bi-partisan approach to our defence forces and looking after our veterans, their widows and their dependants.

Our nation’s security always comes first.

We must always provide our service men and women with the very best equipment we can, and reassure them that if they come to any harm, they and their families will receive the very best support.

That’s why we will always adopt a bipartisan approach to veterans’ affairs.

We have pledged to keep the debate on the re-writing of the military compensation scheme and other matters relating to veterans’ entitlements above party politics.

We regard the new single military compensation scheme an overdue but welcome development.

We support it in-principle, and hope to support the details, when they are released in-full.

The commitment I make is to openly work with the Government and veterans organisations, to respond to these issues in a positive way, and, where possible, offer bipartisan support for changes that will improve the conditions of veterans.

Importantly, with the future of Medicare and bulk billing now major issues of community concern, Labor will provide additional funds to ensure that veterans with Gold and White Repatriation Health Cards continue to have the access to the bulk billing.

Access to affordable medical treatment for Gold and White Card holders is something on which we will never compromise.

Conclusion

Thank you once again for inviting me to address you today.

In times such as these, when Australians are concerned about their security, it is a source of comfort to us that we are defended by armed services that are second to none.

The way the RSL looks after its veterans exemplifies that great Australian value of mateship. It’s a great example to the rest of the nation in troubled times.

The Australian people overwhelmingly want us to support our armed forces and our veterans.

They want such matters kept above politics. That is what my party and I will always do.

I wish you well in your deliberations in this important Congress.

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