Address to Last Post Ceremony

05 Feb 2023
Australian War Memorial, Canberra
Prime Minister
Check against delivery

The light of this day will soon yield to darkness. Just as sound will yield to silence. Just as life will – ultimately – yield to death.

And as that darkness falls, we will think of them. All of them who now belong to the great silence.

Look about you. All around us in this secular temple are the names of the dead, and the places they fell.

Try to imagine the face that belonged to every name. 

The voice. 

Maybe the laugh, or the light in their eyes, maybe the distinctive footstep along country street or city lane.

Imagine the promise of every one of those lives. Everything they might have been, everything they might have done.

Then imagine every shockwave from that death. Every wave of grief that swept through a family, a community.

To look at those names is, in its way, a sombre astronomy. 

We see these names before us, blazing brightly like stars arrayed in their constellations. But in order to truly see, we have to look harder – with our eyes, with our hearts – and imagine everybody in that star’s orbit.

The loved ones. The spouses. The children. The parents. 

The ones who learned by telegram that the great light in their lives had been extinguished.

The ones who heard that knock on the door.

The ones who were left to write words for a gravestone they knew they would never see.

Expressions of loss and heartache.

Sometimes an entire universe of loss held within just a few words, such as the message from William Henry O’Bree’s parents for his headstone at Gallipoli. 

It reads simply: “We miss him at home.” 

Then think of all the ones who never found out, who never knew with absolute certainty. The ones who were left haunted by an absence, but were never granted that one small consolation of closure.

Just as we think of those who fell and were delivered into that final silence, and those they left behind, we think of those who came home.

Those who came back from war and thrived.

Those who came back from war, but couldn’t.

Those who came back changed, their old selves left forever on some distant shore or upon the turbulent sea.

We must also acknowledge those we sent to war in our name, who did their duty in our name, but whose names we did not hold up so proudly.

Fifty years after the role of Australian troops in the hostilities in Vietnam came to an end, let us again acknowledge them.

Let us say to every one of our Vietnam veterans: We honour you. We thank you. And we are so sorry it took us so long as a nation to do so.

And we say that just as we say it to all who served but did not feel the gratitude of the nation or have their honour proudly recorded in the history books.

We say it to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers who fought for their homeland overseas. 

Just as we honour those who fell, we honour the veterans who stand amongst us.

Just as they stepped up for us, and just as all serving members of the Australian Defence Force step up for us now, we must step up for them.

We offer gratitude and respect to all who serve or have served in our name. 

We honour you with the Last Post in its simplicity and power.

We honour you with The Flowers of the Forest, a lament that – even with the weight of its sorrow – soars towards the dead.

And within those notes – in all their grace, in all their ache and all their yearning – we listen for your voices.

Lest we forget.