Address to the RSL Centenary Conference, Melbourne, Victoria


Today I first acknowledge the original inhabitants of the land on which we meet, the people of the Kulin nation. I acknowledge and honour their elders past and present. And those of all first Australians, and particularly today those first Australians who have served and are serving Australia in our Australian Defence Forces.

Rear Admiral Ken Doolan AO RAN National President and Mrs Doolan, RSL National CEO Sam Jackman, RSL Deputy President Robert Dick and Mrs Dick, Presidents of the State and Territory RSL and other ex-service organisations, Leader of the Opposition, the Honourable Bill Shorten, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Honourable Dan Tehan and the Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Honourable David Feeney.

I would also acknowledge His Excellency the Governor General who opened the proceedings earlier this morning.

And also congratulate the winner of the ANZAC Peace Prize, Peter Greste, who has spent 22 years covering conflicts across the world.

Yesterday Admiral Doolan stood alongside Bill Shorten and me inside the Shrine of Remembrance, as together we laid wreaths on the solemn commemoration of this your centenary.

The nation is united in its respect for you and your century of service to veterans and their families.

The Returned and Services League too has always sought to unite Australians and their leaders in respecting and supporting our veterans.

You remind us that our freedoms have been bought at a great price, that our national interests must be effectively guarded and that in the words of your wise motto, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

And Admiral, as your predecessor Eric Millhouse added in 1949, “Let it be the nation’s motto too.”

That is doubly reinforced today as we remember the 3,000 Australians who served in the Normandy landings 72 years ago, that epic turning point in World War Two that delivered a mighty blow for freedom against the forces of fascism and tyranny in Europe.

The RSL’s motto resonates as strongly today as it did back in those dark days, and is well heeded by my Government.

We are embarking on the largest upgrade to our defence capabilities since World War Two, so that we can keep Australia safe and secure in an uncertain and complex world.

We are renewing The Royal Australian Navy’s fleet on a scale not seen in generations.

This includes the construction in Australia of 12 regionally-superior submarines, 9 Future Frigates, 12 Offshore Patrol Vessels, as well as 21 Pacific Patrol Boats for our island neighbours.

The 2016 Defence White Paper sets out our plan to develop a more potent, agile and engaged Australian Defence Force ready to respond whenever our interests are threatened or our help is needed.

At the Shrine yesterday, Admiral Doolan and I reflected on how the wisdom of classical Greece had inspired its design and the way in which we remember and honour those who defend our freedom.

When I reflect on our commitment to a strong and capable Australian Defence Force I am always reminded of another Admiral - Thucydides - who recorded the words of the Athenian ambassadors nearly 2500 years ago as they sought to bully a smaller city into submission.

“You know as well as we do,” they said, that “justice, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer as they must.”

Sobering, chilling and timeless words, and a reminder that a safe Australia, a safe world, needs a strong Australia.

Governments honour your service in many ways. But there is none more important than ensuring that Australia has the means to defend itself, so that freedoms won by you are not lost through neglect or complacency.

A strong defence force is critical to our ongoing national prosperity. That is why we will ensure that our ADF personnel are always well trained, equipped and supported to undertake the most challenging of roles.

We ask our soldiers, sailors and airmen and airwomen to shoulder a heavy burden for this country. We honour your service by ensuring that our servicemen and women are well led, well-armed and well protected, so that they can do their job of protecting us and most importantly, come home safe and sound.

And we honour your service by caring for the wounded, honouring the fallen and caring for their families and never forgetting that the best way to honour the heroes of World War One in this centenary is to support and care for the heroes and veterans of today, you and your members and your families.

It is fitting that we commemorate Australia’s involvement in the First World War at the same time as we celebrate 100 years of the RSL.

Our young nation had seen just two years of war when the RSL held its inaugural Congress in Brisbane, in September 1916.

First formed by returning soldiers, its aims were simple – to preserve the spirit of mateship formed amidst the carnage and horror of battle; to honour the memory of the fallen; and to help each other.

We were a young nation and only five million in number.

Admiral Doolan and I also reflected on this on the steps of the Shrine yesterday - such a small nation, such extraordinary service - 417,000 out of five million served; more than 60,000 died and another 156,000 wounded, gassed or taken prisoner.

Very few families did not have members who served. Nobody, no family was untouched.

Lucy’s grandfather Geoffrey Hughes was a fighter ace in the Royal Flying Corps with eleven victories and a Military Cross.

In December 1916, he learned that his brother Roger, a doctor, recently arrived on the Western Front, had been wounded. He rushed to his side and was with him when he died.

My grandfather Fred Turnbull was an infantryman on the Western Front - a private. We talked about many things Fred and I - fishing and carpentry, politics and poetry - but he never talked to me about the trenches, and his silence spoke volumes.

Fred was gassed but survived, as Geoffrey did, to serve again in the Second World War - the one that started 21 years after the end of the war to end all wars.

What a generation they were!

The names of the diggers of The Great War are on monuments, in every town and suburb, a faded inscription on weathered stone.

But each and every one of their unique stories and those of their families are the threads that form the tapestry of our war-time experience.

From afar, this tapestry tells our national story. Up close, each thread tells its own tale of courage, grief and sorrow.

Australia in 1916 was a vastly different place. There were few welfare services and the elderly, the sick and the unemployed were largely left to fend for themselves.

Veterans struggled to get help for their injuries and to return to civilian life.

And the hidden wounds – the psychological damage that remained unseen and therefore untreated – affected both them and their families, sometimes for generations. Even today, we are still learning how best to help those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

So these were the conditions our first veterans faced after serving their country.

Into the breach came the RSL and the spirit of comradeship, forged on the battlefield, spread out across the nation into thousands of suburbs, streets and homes touched by war.

The League committed itself to provide for the sick, wounded and needy among those who have served and their dependants, including pensions, medical attention, homes and employment.

It was instrumental in the creation of the medical repatriation system and the introduction of service, disability and war widows’ pensions.

In more recent years, the RSL has also helped us to better focus on commemorative activities, including the Anzac Centenary.

Many have remarked on the growing popularity of Anzac Day parades growing attendances. But the memorials we build and the symbols we use to remember our role in war says much about our country.

We do not boast of our victories, because we know that they came at great cost.

When we remember war and honour those who serve we do so as a nation that loves peace and is strong to ensure this peace is maintained.

Last week’s repatriation ceremony struck a sombre and poignant note in the midst of your centenary celebrations.

Australia welcomed home the remains of 33 service personnel and dependents, including 22 Vietnam War veterans from Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia, and the Kranji Cemetery in Singapore.

His Excellency, the Governor General, General Sir Peter Cosgrove, a Vietnam veteran and recipient of the Military Cross himself, spoke for Australia when he said at the repatriation ceremony:

They were serving Australia, whether in uniform or as part of families engaged in such service…

In all these years they have been cared for so lovingly and respectfully, but out of sight, far from home.

Although they have never been out of our minds, never far from our thoughts.

They have stayed too in the minds of their determined, energetic and persuasive comrades in arms and loved ones, who have been tireless in urging their repatriation.

And now they are with us and at one with all other veterans in modern times who have in death, made the sad journey back to their homeland—Australia.”

I pay tribute to the tireless efforts of the veterans and family members to bring our soldiers home. What you have achieved through your perseverance helps heal lingering wounds and for that, your nation is grateful.

I also thank the former Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Michael Ronaldson and my predecessor as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, for acknowledging that repatriation of these soldiers was the right thing to do and for making it happen.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, Australia’s costliest day in the Vietnam War. We will commemorate it in Canberra on 17 and 18 August and a service will also be held at Enoggora Barracks in Queensland.

When we look back at Australia’s treatment of veterans, the sad fact is that our actions have not always matched the best of intentions.

That is why the RSL is so important in the history of Australia’s defence forces and their veterans and why your counsel is sought, including by our Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Dan Tehan.

I want to reassure you that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs will continue to look after veterans because you deserve your own department dedicated to the special needs that come with being a returned serviceman or woman.

Dan and I know well that understanding and treating mental illness is of critical importance to you as indeed it is to us. The debilitating effect of mental illness poses a great burden on us all.

So we are streamlining eligibility to accessing mental health treatment early. We know that early intervention is the key to more positive outcomes.

That includes $37.9 million in the Federal Budget to extend eligibility for treatment of certain mental health conditions to all current and former permanent members of the ADF, irrespective of how long or when they served, or the type of service.

From 1 July—subject to the passage of legislation—anyone who has ever served in the ADF permanent forces will be eligible for treatment for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and alcohol and substance use disorders.

The Department will provide these individuals with a Department of Veterans’ Affairs White Health Card, which provides additional benefits, including access to counselling from the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service.

There is also $1 million for suicide awareness and prevention and $2.1 million for a pilot program, Kookaburra Kids, to help children with a serving ADF parent affected by mental illness.

Given the significance of this issue, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and I will have more to say shortly on early intervention strategies to treat mental illness, including greater support for Australia’s growing female veteran community.

We also acknowledge the very serious issue of homelessness among veterans, which is illustrated in the Queensland RSL’s recent report ‘A Place to Call Home’.

The causes of homelessness are complex, but recognised risk factors include mental illness such as PTSD.

I’ve asked Dan to gather state and territory ministers to ensure that addressing homelessness among veterans is a priority in the next term of Government.

The Commonwealth will also require its agencies to identify whether clients are veterans, to help us understand the extent of the problem and enable the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the RSL to work together to help them.

We are also making changes to ease transition to civilian life. You have told us about delays, complicated procedures and forms that make things harder.

Funding in the budget will start updating DVA’s IT system to enable people to connect online. This will help streamline services and reduce delays in processing. But we will continue to cater for those who prefer to talk to someone on the phone or behind a counter.

Perhaps one of the most important things we can do for veterans injured during their service is to support them back into the civilian workforce.

We recognise the positive impact a job can have, how the sense of achievement that having a job can assist in recovery from injury as well as in preventing the development of mental illness.

So I am pleased to announce today the Prime Minister’s Veterans’ Employment Initiative, developing from discussions I have had with Soldier On CEO John Bale and other veterans at North Bondi RSL and subsequently with John and Dan Tehan in Canberra.

Later this year John and I will host captains of industry in Sydney to identify more effective ways to hire more veterans and their spouses in their organisations. It will encourage employers to recognise the leadership and skills veterans hold, regardless of their corps or rank and honour their service to the nation.

We believe Australians employers should be more aware of the important leadership skills veterans have and the value that they offer to their organisations. Improving promoting the employment of veterans is a key agenda for us in our next term of government.

We look forward to the closest collaboration with the RSL and other ex-service organisations in coordinating our efforts to ensure more and better jobs for more veterans.

I am pleased at the work that has been done by DVA to support ill and injured veterans back into the workforce and I note the success of a recent trial that was undertaken with rehabilitation providers in Queensland.

Lucy and I have been very impressed by, have supported and encouraged others to support the work being done in the wider veteran community, through organisations such as Soldier On and Mates4Mates, to help veterans from our recent military deployments.

Our son in law, James Brown, is an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and I want to thank James and his contemporaries, including John Bale, for giving us a very close insight into the issues affecting the younger veterans of today and their families.

A centenary is an excellent time to look back on your history and your many achievements, but also to look forward and plot a course ahead. I believe that the RSL will best determine how its role will evolve into the future while maintaining a firm and proud understanding of its proud history.

As the RSL continues to evolve, what was admired of you as servicemen and women will ensure that you will persevere, you will adapt, you will succeed.

Your members served in different units, in different wars and at different times. But each and every one of you, and your families, served to keep us free.

Your advocacy and commitment will always be respected and heeded as in the past, today and in the future.

Thank you.