Speech to the Whittaker Memorial function Princes Pier 86th anniversary of the shooting of Allan Whittaker
Professor Bruce Scates is very distinguished historian who would have liked to be here today.
But he did send us a message which says: “It would have been an honour to speak at the wharf. Unfortunately, I will be in Albany for the opening of the Anzac Interpretative Centre. I’m pleased to add that the first 50 of the 100 stories will be showcased there – Alan Whittaker amongst them. We will also be placing the story at the centre of a MOOC (a free online university course open to all) which we hope will have a global audience. We live quite close to ‘Princes Pier’ – the sooner the name is changed, the better!!”
Chatting to Chris McConville last year about a conference on commemorations he was about to attend we both recalled the line in the Alan Bennett play, The History Boys, “the best way to forget something is to commemorate it.”
Today we’re not commemorating or forgetting but rather remembering in the hope that other people can learn and others don’t forget. I worry a bit, however, about the wider commemoration of World War 1 which Allan Whittaker survived only to be mortally wounded here in 1928 and it possible role in national forgetting rather than national remembering.
The Australian Government is spending more money on the World War 1 commemorations than the UK government is. The questions we need to ask are how well it will be spent; what we might remember about it all afterwards; and what some of those who did go might want us to remember and fight for.
In particular I think of Alec Campbell who was, before he died, the last surviving Australian Gallipoli veteran. Alex was a strong trade unionist, a socialist and a republican. He was President of the Australian Rail Union, Launceston TLC President and was part of the union which amalgamated to form the CFMEU. He stood for the Launceston City Council on a platform supporting low rental public housing, anti-pollution and anti-monopoly measures.He was a strong peace campaigner and said “war is stupid.” The Howard Government tried to deify Alec Campbell but studiously avoided mentioning his political record and beliefs.He was held up as a model for Australians – not because of what he believed in – but because he was a Gallipoli veteran. As he said near the end of his life: “I wonder if Howard would give me a State funeral if he knew what I really stood for.”
I also think of Simpson and his donkey. In 2005 the then Education Minister, Brendan Nelson (and now the Australian War Memorial Director) announced a program to teach Australian values to students. The program featured a poster depicting Simpson and his donkey and Nelson said that any teacher not prepared to teach the values should “clear off.” But who was Simpson? For start he wasn’t called Simpson at all but was actually John Simpson Kirkpatrick, a Geordie, who jumped ship and became what the Abbott Government would call an ‘illegal immigrant.’ He enlisted mainly because he wanted to get back to England to help ferment a revolution which, he hoped, would “clear out the millionaires and dukes.”
…and finally Allan Whittaker. We all now know his story and how – wounded in Gallipoli, malnourished, locked out from work he came here to protest the right to work and to defend his union and his fellow members.
We also have here today a link with that tradition of Gallipoli veterans who wanted a better and fairer Australia. Perce White’s father, Alfred, served with the 22nd Infantry Battalion 1st AIF at Lone Pine and then in France. A miner before the war, gassed during the war, a timber worker after, someone who voted NO in the conscription referendum while he was serving in uniform and a strong Labor man.
What Alec Campbell, John Simpson Kirkpatrick, Alan Whittaker and Perce’s father stood for was a vision of Australia which is radically different from the vision of the Howards and the Abbotts. Howard and Abbott want us to forget, not remember, what these veterans believed.
So when we remember the events of November 1928, and when we take part in commemorative activities in the next four years, we should always remember what so many brave Australian soldiers believed in and what they wanted from Australia when they came back.