If anyone ever imagined that commemoration of our war dead was not an opportunity to make political points look no further than the Daily Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial at the recent opening of Federal Parliament.
We need to honour any Australian who died in war and remember those who came back and the problems they faced when they did.
But we need to do it with both deep sincerity and deep recognition of what deciding to go to war and serving in war actually means to those who see combat and the relatives of those who are killed.
In this context it is worth reflecting on the speeches made by our Prime Minister and Opposition Leader on the day.
Albanese’s was almost lyrical and poetic and so unlike his usual efforts that one wondered whether he had a new speechwriter for the occasion. Peter Dutton’s struck a particular – almost peculiar note – focussing on threats today and in the future and the needs of the armaments industry.
Whether Dutton knew it or not he also fell into using some rhetorical techniques Graham Freudenberg introduced to Australia for Gough Whitlam.
In the address he said: “Our remembrance of our fallen reminds us that we too have a choice. In our times of resurgent autocrats and emboldened terrorists who threaten free nations, free peoples and our civilisation itself, it is indeed a time for choosing.
“May we choose to rise to the challenges of our times, and in the process, find new national resolve, new national confidence, new national industriousness and renewed national unity.
“May we choose to stand with our allies in their hour of need – for who will stand with us in our needful hour if we are content to sit on the sidelines.
“May we choose to inject much needed speed into building and acquiring defence platforms and munitions – respecting history’s lesson of peace through strength,” he said.
He then went on to quote Ronald Reagan rather than any of the Australian Prime Ministers who were in office during war – John Curtin would be the first to come to mind to Australians remembering his role in World War II.
“May we choose to recall those words of warning which Ronald Reagan spoke to his generation about the price of failure – that ‘history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening.’”
He could have quoted Robert Menzies instead who – despite his dubious ideas about Nazi Germany in the 1930s – was resolute in 1939.
Dutton also said: “In our times of resurgent autocrats and emboldened terrorists who threaten free nations, free peoples and our civilisation itself, it is indeed a time for choosing.
Whereas Dutton seemed to be rooting for new wars Albanese’s approach was different.
Albanese said: “We gather in this solemn place, and we gather in peace. Peace is not a given. For many across the world right now, it is tragically elusive. We do not take peace for granted.
“The peace that we gather in here today is the gift to us from generations of Australians who have taken up arms in our name,” he said.
Albanese also recognised the reality combat veterans understand saying “We remember them — not just for their courage, even though there were times their courage was almost beyond our comprehension. But we also remember their fear. The fear of young Australians far from home, confronting the unimaginable as it became reality.
“We acknowledge the extraordinariness of what they did, but they were human beings of flesh and blood. We remember them, every name, every face, every future changed forever, every future lost,” he said.
He cited Private Robert Edward McIntyre, a butcher from Horsham in Victoria who served on Gallipoli and the eulogy from his parents – “How much of love and light and joy is buried with our darling boy.” An entire eulogy in just 14 words.
“The story of war is often painted on a large canvas, in broad brushstrokes of generals and battles, leaders and campaigns, the dead drawn together in a haze of numbers,” he said.
“And so often it is framed in the rhetoric of nobility and sacrifice, lit up with the abiding resilience of the national spirit. But how much of our national spirit is to be found on those modest tombstones like Private McIntyre’s, the scale of what Australia lost spelt out in expressions of grief and tenderness.
“Personal universes of life and love and loss captured in the spare eloquence of a broken heart. It’s captured in diary entries and in letters of reassurance and love to those at home – scraps of paper alive with voices laconic, lyrical, and plain-spoken alike.
“Each year, as we gather in this place of memory, we strive to hear their voices still (from) Places where mud and dust, jungle and ocean received the bodies of young Australians sent in our name”, he said.
“We remember them — not just for their courage, even though there were times their courage was almost beyond our comprehension. But we also remember their fear. The fear of young Australians far from home, confronting the unimaginable as it became reality.”
All in all an interesting contrast – one tone deaf. One lyrical.
But more disturbingly, while we have become accustomed to Dutton’s bovver boy tactics but war- mongering at a sacred memorial for the fallen is beyond the pale.