Stephens, David: For Remembrance Day: The Anzac thoughts of Tony Abbott, new member of the War Memorial Council

David Stephens*

‘For Remembrance Day: The Anzac thoughts of Tony Abbott, new member of the War Memorial Council – and “war historian”‘, Honest History, 11 November 2019

As Tony Abbott, former prime minister, defeated member for Warringah, has been appointed to the Council of the Australian War Memorial, we thought it might be useful to link to some of his previously expressed thoughts on matters to do with war and commemoration. He is, after all, according to Minister Chester, ‘a keen war historian’. We dredged up these samples from the Honest History vault.

In August 2013, Abbott, as Leader of the Opposition, used his speech at the opening of the War Memorial’s Afghanistan exhibition to quote (after mark 24.0) Samuel Johnson’s remark that every man despises himself who has not been a soldier and that he (Mr Abbott) yearned to know more of the life of soldiers. This seemed to be support shading into sycophancy. On this occasion, he also said:

Conflict, it seems, is part of the human condition, and we must always be ready for it … This exhibition … shows the continuity of our martial tradition and of our national character.

As Prime Minister in March 2014, Abbott welcomed troops home from Afghanistan.

Like your forebears [he said], who fought militarism, who fought Nazism and Fascism and who fought Communism, you have fought for the universal decencies of mankind – the rights of the weak against the strong, the rights of the poor against the rich and the rights of all to strive for the very best they can. That’s what Australians do; we always have and we always will. Australians don’t fight to conquer; we fight to help, to build and to serve.

Abbott’s prime ministerial remarks on terrorism showed remarkable similarities to those of United States President George W. Bush. His remarks on the nature of Australian civilisation – the one we were protecting against terrorism – came at about the same time and were widely quoted.

The arrival of the first fleet was the defining moment in the history of this continent. Let me repeat that: it was the defining moment in the history of this continent. It was the moment this continent became part of the modern world. It determined our language, our law and our fundamental values. Yes, it did dispossess and for a long time marginalise Indigenous people. As Noel Pearson frequently reminds us, modern Australia has an important Indigenous and multicultural character. Still it’s British settlement that has most profoundly shaped the country that we are.

In 2015, the Prime Minister spoke at Villers-Bretonneux, France, to be the site of a pet project, the Sir John Monash Centre.

Over the next three years, we will remember the achievement of the Australian light horse in Sinai, at Beersheba and in the capture of Jerusalem and Damascus. But increasingly our attention will turn here, to the Western Front, the main focus of the war, where almost 300,000 Australians fought and 46,000 died.

Gallipoli has dominated our imagination but the Western Front was where Australia’s main war was fought. This is where our thoughts must dwell if we are truly to remember our forebears, pay homage to their sacrifice and honour their achievements.

Gallipoli was a splendid failure; the Western Front was a terrible success and we should recall our victories as much as our defeats … Australians should congregate here, every April 25th, no less than at Anzac Cove.

The Monash Centre had featured in a 2013 speech also, along with some other novel ideas.

I guess the question is, can and should we do more? There are a couple of projects which I think are worth considering. First, a national war cemetery in Canberra – Australians’ Arlington, if you like – in which significant ex-soldiers could be interred.

Second, a major interpretative centre on the Western Front – something that does for Australia and for the Australians who visit the Western Front in such large numbers these days what the Canadians have done to commemorate their extraordinary work in World War I.

These are questions that I hope we might ponder and decide in the next few months so that we can ensure that we go through the four years, if you like, of the Centenary of ANZAC with something to remember and with a lasting legacy, so that this generation has appropriately honoured the sacrifice, the service, the achievements of our mighty forbears.

Abbott’s speech for Anzac Day 2014 had also contained some favourite themes.

As someone who has never served in the armed forces, never faced a shot fired in anger, and never lost close family members in war, I am in awe of the ANZAC generation who were tested almost beyond endurance …

We should be a nation of memory, not just of memorials, for these are our foundation stories. They should be as important to us as the ride of Paul Revere, or the last stand of King Harold at Hastings, or the incarceration of Nelson Mandela might be to others. We commemorate Anzac Day every year and will commemorate the centenary of Anzac over the next four years because the worst of times can bring out the best in us.

So there it is. Familiar themes repeated. Readers may like to compare them with the remarks of current Director of the Memorial, Brendan Nelson, speaking about Remembrance Day 2019. Other Honest History posts referring to Remembrance Day can be found by using our Search engine.

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