Twenty years ago today - an ordinary autumn day.
All was serene as visitors took their ease relaxing in the quiet beauty - a cup of tea in the cafe, chatting to the staff, so proud of this place, soaking up the history from the guides. Some came to work, some came to relax and learn. It was to be another calm day, amid the sandstone ruins whose days of violence and cruelty was all assumed from a far off time, a time out of mind.
And then the horror.
Despite the years, despite the healing, the sense of loss weighs heavily. We will never be the same.
For those of you who lost loved ones and who witnessed the horror of what happened here, we will never truly understand the burden you bear and the pain that you endure. But on this day, especially, you are not alone. Your fellow Australians remember, we remember, and stand alongside you.
As we gather again today to remember the lives of those who were lost, we commemorate and honour your resilience just as we mourn the loss of so many innocents - indeed our loss of innocence.
Thirty five people were killed, many others wounded, many more affected then, and to this day.
They were husbands and wives, mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters - all so beloved. Each is missed and each is always remembered. We reflect on what might have been and on the dreams that were never fulfilled.
There is a true sorrow of missing. It is not just the daily absence in your life and in your milestones; it is the absence of their milestones: their birthdays, their graduations, their anniversaries, their first job, their first kiss, their first child, their first grandchild. The ripple in the pond from the loss of just one life is profound. The effect of so many lives lost sent shock waves throughout this nation.
The evil that was committed here must never be allowed to overshadow our memory of each of those individual lives, of their humanity, of their goodness, of how they were loved and cherished before they were taken from us. Those are the memories that we hold dear.
Standing against that evil were countless acts of love and heroism. Husbands died protecting their wives. Mothers died protecting their children. Those who risked their lives to warn others, who led people to safety, who did what they could to protect strangers.
And then, there was the heroism of the first responders, the men and women of the Tasmanian police and ambulance services—the people who willingly run towards danger when most of us run from it. Every police and ambulance officer, every nurse and every doctor all our first responders were forever affected by what they saw that day. And today, we once again offer them our thanks as we should thank them every day.
John Howard, as our Prime Minister, demonstrated a leadership and resolve that set a benchmark for the whole world. We are honoured that John is in our company today.
Many of the relatives of the dead or wounded, survivors too — some still bearing the injuries from the shooting—felt it their duty to speak at gun control rallies across the country. They became the voice of the community as they recounted their pain and sorrow.
The ‘searing intensity’ of their stories became the most poignant and powerful force for change.
For the generation that held the stewardship of our nation at the time of the Port Arthur massacre their duty was clear.
A time to mourn.
Yes, but above all a time to act.
John Howard acted, decisively and with the support of his deputy Tim Fischer and all their parliamentary colleagues, State and Territory leaders, out of the tragedy here at Port Arthur was written a new chapter in our national story.
It showed our Federation and its leaders at their best, acting in solidarity to make Australia a safer nation.
When the wellbeing, the safety of our society was at stake, we were not Queenslanders or Victorians or Tasmanians, we were, first and foremost, Australians, in complete national solidarity bound by love and loyalty and commitment to each other.
The tragedy united us with a rare intensity and it will be forever a legacy of those here on that day—those who died and those who survived—that gun violence in Australia, is an exception rather than a brutal, regular reality as it is so sadly in so many other parts of the world.
They are the reason that Australia was moved to take the drastic action, the strong action that it did.
That action, the National Firearms Agreement, is now held up around the world as an exemplar of a society refusing to relinquish control of its peace-loving existence.
The National Firearms Agreement remains today as it was 20 years ago; and we will, working together, ensure that the National Firearms Agreement remains a strong defence against gun crime. And were we can do more, we will, including through legislation such as we have proposed to increase prison terms for illegal importation of firearms or firearm parts.
Our National Firearms Agreement has made us safer. The measures we have taken to crack down on those seeking to traffic illegal firearms into our country have made us safer.
We will continue to ensure our law enforcement agencies are equipped to deal with the threat of illegal firearms and that our laws and penalties are strengthened to protect Australians from those who seek to do us harm.
Twenty years on we realise then that from the heartbreak and the grief of this tragedy has risen a legacy of a freer, safer nation.
Because, to this nation’s and its leaders’ great credit, we stood up for the victims of this crime and their families.
Our leaders gave voice to those whose voices were silenced.
To those who survived, we offer our heartfelt admiration for the grace and strength you have shown. Many of you still suffer terribly – the ongoing physical effects of your wounds, the emotional scars of your loss and of bearing witness to such horror.
You, the victims of a cruel hatred, have responded with love. So many of you devoting your time and effort to helping others.
The Alannah & Madeline Foundation is just one example. Established by grieving father Walter, Walter Mikac, who lost his precious family here where we are assembled today. Its vision is a world where every child lives in a safe and supportive environment. It exists to protect children from violence in all its form and it does tremendous good for our most precious children every day.
As Prime Minister I am honoured to be its national patron.
It is another example of the light that came from the darkness of that day - of how we see Australia and Australians at their best in the worst of times.
As Walter says himself, “it is a daily reminder of the good will and love that is generated when a tragedy occurs.”
To all those who suffered loss that day—loss of life, loss of a loved one, loss perhaps of faith in human nature—we embrace you in our arms, today as we did then, and we remember why our nation united in your name.
May you be sustained by the outpouring of love that flows from around our nation to where we stand with you today stand.
And may the weight that you bear be a little lighter today in the knowledge that millions of Australians stand with you forever.
We remember you. We honour you. We are with you.