TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION AND TRAINING
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
SPEECH TO THE COLOURED DIGGERS ANZAC DAY EVENT
VIA VIDEOLINK, SYDNEY
SATURDAY, 25 APRIL 2020
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I want to start by acknowledging that we meet today – in spirit at least – on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present.
And I want to pay my respects to every Indigenous Australian currently serving our country in the defence forces.
The history of Indigenous service men and women is as old as our nation’s military.
Of course, it’s much older than that still.
Indigenous Australians have fought in every major national conflict.
They were there on the Western Front – even if they had to lie about their identity to get there.
They patrolled our top end in World War Two.
They fought in the Pacific – and were imprisoned on the Thai Burma railway.
They served in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
When you listen to the stories of these Australians, you hear the same intensities of experience you find with other service men and women.
The same heroism. The same bravery. The same pain and trauma.
But of course, you hear other things too.
Indigenous soldiers faced a double burden – risking their lives for a country that didn’t truly value theirs in the first place.
There’s a painting in the Australian War Memorial collection, called Coloured Diggers. It’s by the artist Tony Albert, about Indigenous soldiers in World War II.
Albert expresses the bind like this: ‘Unable to vote – but eligible to die’.
This was a profoundly one-sided relationship.
These men and women gave so much to Australia – and were given so little in return.
All of the First Nations veterans I’ve spoken to are proud of their time in the military.
Many experienced a short glimpse of equality there – in the brief and indiscriminate mateship of war.
According to the poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who worked in the Australian Women’s Army Service after the fall of Singapore, ‘there was a job to be done … and all of a sudden the colour line disappeared’.
But even when this occurred, it rarely lasted.
Few were given the honour their service had earned.
The disrespect these heroes faced was personal as well as practical.
It was returning home from war and still being turned away from the local pub.
It was the wages stolen, the pensions denied, the settlement assistance withheld.
Deep down, we’ve always known this – but only recently have we begun to acknowledge it as a nation.
That’s why events like the Coloured Diggers march are important.
Because it’s not enough to simply remember.
It’s not enough to ask for historical forgiveness.
We need to be better as a nation: to fight racism wherever it lurks, and to honour the deep history of our First Nations.
Progress isn’t saying sorry for past wrongs. It’s committing ourselves to stopping them in the future.
For those who have served, for those who continue to serve, we can never thank you enough.
All we can do is offer you a promise: to work every day in building a fairer, more unified Australia; an Australia free of racism and discrimination; an Australia that recognises and honours its Indigenous heroes.