Photo: AAP Image/Lukas Coch
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very much Mel. It’s great to have you here at this very moving event and I thank Tina for the welcome to country. Can I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people and the land on which we meet, elders past and present. There are many other distinguished guests here today but the most distinguished of all guests who are here today are our service men and women. They are our veterans and we remember those veterans and those service men and women who are not here with us today, who have left us. Who have left us on the field of battle or have left us since. The families and friends, the mates, with whom they lived their lives and shared their stories, that is who we remember today.
The Australian War Memorial, the soul of the nation. That is what is housed within its stone and brass walls. It is sacred to us all. It transcends politics, it transcends all of us. As you have heard, people are very passionate about the memorial. Its past and, importantly, its future. As in the future we look to ensure that the stories of an entire new generation of service are told and remembered for future generations. Because, sadly, there will be future generations of service as well. That means the War Memorial can never be a static institution. Even before the foundation stone was laid, the Memorial was already evolving because the Australian story of service and sacrifice has always been evolving. On Armistice Day 1941, the Memorial opened here in Canberra 23 years after the Armistice was signed and another unthinkable war raged. The Memorial had been a long time coming - collecting, designing, waiting. On Anzac Day twelve years earlier, an inauguration stone had been unveiled on a bare paddock, an attempt by the Memorial's then first director, John Treloar, to keep it at the front of people's minds.
But on that day in 1941, finally thousands of people gathered before the new stone-faced building. It stood out, as it does today, not for its size but its simplicity, its restraint, its humility. It was not a tribute to war or a nation's power or strength. It was a simple, humble memorial to the fallen and a home for their memory. A touch point for a nation still coming to terms with the scope and scale and horror of the Great War. But at the same time a nation already thrust into what they called ‘the new war’ at that time, whose greatest tests and horrors were still ahead. It honoured sacrifice and courage. It celebrated endurance and mateship. It recorded great dealings. The Memorial stood as intended directly opposite Australia's home of democracy, a constant reminder to us elected representatives of the cost of our freedoms.
The symbolism was not lost on the then Prime Minister John Curtin who had been in the job just 35 days. Speaking to those assembled he said, “The Parliament of a free people deliberating day by day cannot be inspired and strengthened by the ever present opportunity to contemplate the story that has gone before.” Four weeks later John Curtain would draw on that inspiration and strength as the Japanese launched attacks on Pearl Harbour, soon followed by assaults on Malaya, Singapore and the Philippines. And all those gathered there on the 11th of November 1941 would draw further strength and inspiration inside the Memorial's bronze gates. Inside they learnt the story of the Great War. Charles Bean, the official war historian, was a driving force behind the memorial and understood that many Australians struggle to fully grasp the war. They knew its cost, they were reminded daily by missing husbands, sons and brothers. Dads, mums, the more than 60,000 men who had served and died. But unlike many Europeans whose homeland had in ravaged, who had seen the pain and heard the suffering and could mourn at the graves of their beloved, Australians who had served were a world away. Parents would mourn sons, children would mourn lost fathers but where were they to mourn? They needed help to grief and they needed to know the nation would never forget and so that was what Memorial offered. A place to grief, a place of memory and a place of honour.
It became a pilgrimage to many Australian families. In the first year more than 52,000 people visited. In those days it took quite a bit of time, days, to travel to Canberra. They looked at paintings and drawings, about 1,600 in all. They were transported by the artworks like George Lambert’s Anzac, the landing 1915 and Will Longstaff’s Menin Gate at midnight. They were moved by the 12 dioramas depicting famous battles. They were confronted with two German fighter planes in the aeroplane hall. And in the library they went in search - 15,000 books, 100,000 photographs, 60 miles of war films and millions of other documents. The Memorial performed its role well. Its purpose and role would change with time. It could not, as had been planned for decades, be just a monument to the Great War. It would have to change and expand to accommodate our nation's evolving history in war and, as regrettable as that is, how people learn from our history. It began almost immediately after the Second World War. The Memorial’s collection almost doubled. Packing cases full of records and relics blocked the corridors and extension plans were drawn up.
By the 1960s many veterans were asking the Memorial to tell the complete story of Australia's war history. So new displays were created and major building extensions began. Extensions that were obsolete within seven years as visitors numbers grew even further. So more plans were made, more space was needed and so it went on. We’ve now reached another point where change is needed. There are more than 102,000 names on the Memorial's roll of honour. The names of Australians, men and women, who were called into action to defend their nation, who left their homes and jobs and families behind. Australians who were loved and remain loved, Australians we have lost. It almost goes without saying that in the years to come, my prayers and those of a nation are that there will be no additions to that roll. That the Memorial, if we could just freeze it, and it was in the past, but I fear those prayers will one day again turn to prayers for consolation and comfort as we seek to reconcile our service with future sacrifices. History may seem to be against us on this, but we will do our best because the first responsibility of governments is to keep our people safe.
Today, there are many stories that need telling, recent stories, like the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the peacekeeping missions that we've heard the wonderful stories and terrible stories of today. And there's a need to tell them, the sacrifice of a new generation in ways to the almost 1.1 million people who visit the memorial each year, to share the complete story, the complete story, in a way that resonates for today's Australians. And that's why we're here. The Memorial has been exploring, with support from our Government, with options for redevelopment. And Brendan I know is going to talk a lot more about those in a few moments. But what I will say is that these plans are imaginative and they are creative and appropriate for the Memorial's purpose and place in Australia, housing the soul of our nation. That's why our Government is supportive of these plans. We want future generations to be able to honour those who have served across all generations of service. And those service men and women who serve today.
So today I am pleased to announce the Government is backing these plans, providing $498 million over the next nine years to see these plans fulfilled.
Thank you. The funding will allow the Memorial to implement these plans and not be limited in its ambition. There will be paintings and dioramas, there will be planes - more planes, in fact. But what has made the Memorial so compelling and so meaningful over the years will remain. But it will also, as it always has, adjust to new times so it can continue delivering as a place of commemoration and understanding as the soul of the nation.
Before I conclude, and I ask for your indulgence, I want to say plainly though, that more than memorials of stone, the best memorial is how we serve and support our veterans and their families who are with us each and every day. Before we could permit as a Government the significant financial commitment that we are making today, because Kerry and Brendan have been bringing this proposal to us now for several years, and we have supported them through the early stages. Before we could make this commitment today, our Government's priority has been increasing our investment in the support we provide to our veterans community. To honestly turn around and address areas of underperformance for our veterans, and live up to our part of the bargain to support our veterans. You'll be aware of the investment and the indexing of defence pensions, you'll be aware of the counselling support 24/7 for veterans and their families, almost $200 million invested every year. $100 million invested every year in covering mental health and conditions, meaning that any member or former member of the ADF who was served just one day is eligible for mental health treatment uncapped and needs driven. And a massive investment in the 100-year-old DVA, throwing out a paper based system, and punting 18 clunky old computer systems, the result being the average processing time for claims has now fallen from 120 days to just 33. This year, the government is providing, with bipartisan support of course, over $11 billion in benefits, services and support to our 288,000 veterans and their families.
But there will always be more to do. I want to assure all veterans, all veterans, that not one dollar, not one cent, of what we're investing in this important memorial today is coming at the expense of support for our veterans here and now and into the future. That remains our priority task. I commend the War Memorial, Brendan, Kerry, and the whole team, on what they have put forward here. It is part of honouring and maintaining the wonderful culture of respect we have in this country for our servicemen and women. Born over generations, over the century. We must continue that, we must continue to honour the fallen and we must continue to serve the living. Lest we forget.