Standing up for Canberra

Indigenous Servicemen and Servicewomen 2012

Aboriginal servicemen and women have proudly served Australia for more than 100 years. Despite this nation's history of racism and prejudice, Indigenous Australians have enlisted and volunteered to represent Australia and to serve our national interests. Going back to World War I, more than 400 Indigenous Australians enlisted to fight overseas in the Great War. They enlisted to fight for their country even though they were prevented from voting, even though they were not counted in the census, even though they could not drink in a pub with their fellow diggers, even though they were not paid the same wages and even though they were not accorded the same rights as other Australians.

About 3,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders served in the armed forces during World War II. When Australia was under threat during the Pacific campaign, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders enlisted by the hundreds. As the Australian War Memorial here in Canberra attests, many Indigenous Australians were killed in action and some were taken as prisoners of war. There were even special Indigenous units formed, such as the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, which was constituted to protect the Torres Strait. I have been to Thursday Island, and there is a beautiful memorial in the centre of the town that takes great pride of place amongst the community there.

It recognises and honours those who served and sacrificed their lives in various wars. The community is very proud of its contribution to wars in the past and also to the ADF today.

It is with deep shame that we recognise that there were marked differences in pay and benefits awarded to Indigenous servicemen and women. It is to our collective indignity that it wasn't until 40 years after the war that this discrimination was rectified. But Australians have learnt a lot since then and we have grown up as a nation and now respect our Indigenous peoples. And this is reflected in the way Indigenous servicemen and women now operate and serve our country. In particular, I mention the operations of NORFORCE, which well reflect this.

NORFORCE, the North West Mobile Force, was established in the early 1980s. NORFORCE was raised to address our need for surveillance and reconnaissance in Australia's north and north-west. For many reasons NORFORCE is a distinctive part of our defence network. For a start, it is responsible for the largest area of operations in the entire world. Its role in surveillance is critical in maintaining our security but also in responding to issues in these remote parts of the country.

Not surprisingly, NORFORCE is reliant on its Aboriginal soldiers, whose understanding and awareness of the environment is pivotal to its success. NORFORCE has a very high number of Indigenous soldiers—about 500, or 60 per cent of the total contingent—and it is very much supported by local communities. Many of the soldiers are from local Aboriginal communities and being part of NORFORCE is a source of both employment and great pride. Their role as protectors of their land is esteemed and honoured. A few years ago, the Indigenous television program Message Stick showcased the importance of NORFORCE to Aboriginal people and their communities. NORFORCE has its genesis 70 years ago with the 'Nackeroos'. Back then Aborigines and whites worked together to patrol our northern borders against the threat from the Japanese. Much of this soldiering was carried out on horseback with primitive communications and few resources.

Today, many Aboriginal people see NORFORCE as providing opportunities to train, to serve and to help their communities. There are now hundreds of Aboriginal drivers, medics, patrolmen and signallers. This is what one soldier, Danny Rashleigh, told Message Stick about his work with NORFORCE: With my job that I do with alcohol counselling in communities, I thought it could benefit communities, benefit the young boys, myself, and create a few role models especially with [the] problems … they have in the community.

I think what Norforce looks for in communities for soldiers is someone who wants to give it a go, self-development, and role modelling in the area.

I recruited a number of men from there last year who I thought showed those qualities, who I thought could excel in those qualities and I thought could also socially develop the community, within themselves, and pass on down to their family plus other young people. It is now recognised that NORFORCE would not be able to function without its Indigenous soldiers. The knowledge and skills they bring, their passion and commitment, their connections to land and community, are invaluable.

I want to talk now about what Defence is doing for the Indigenous community. Defence was actually at the vanguard of reconciliation action plans. It was the first federal government agency to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan. The department did extensive consultation on the development of the plan across all services and also particularly with the Indigenous community in Defence, the Indigenous serving men and women. It is an incredibly comprehensive document and one of the real benefits of it is that it has a number of KPIs to ensure that Defence is constantly trying to improve the recruitment and retention of Indigenous Australians right throughout the country and throughout every service. One of the real benefits of it is the fact that it encourages an acknowledgement of country on bases if there is an event on a base. It also takes a broad view on compassionate leave for funerals and for other ceremonies.

In the past some of these could take quite a lengthy amount of time, particularly if you were on a ship. It could be a bit of a challenge getting off the ship to attend the ceremony. So Defence has got a new model—and it has been around for a number of years now—to accommodate those family responsibilities that a number of Indigenous members have.

In the course of my 10 years working with Defence, I also had the great privilege of working with a number of young Indigenous serving men and women in the Navy, Army and Air Force. What really struck me was their commitment to the service and protecting our national interest but also to being role models for the younger members in their communities. Not only do they play a very active role in the service but also when they go home they are very active not just catching up with family members but going out and talking to community organisations, mentoring young kids and building up the self-esteem and confidence of the young kids, hopefully encouraging them to move into the services themselves because they see the many, many benefits that serving in the Army, Navy and Air Force can bring. They have experienced it personally and they want to share it with their communities. They are very impressive young men and woman.

In closing, I just want to say that it is a tremendous achievement that NORFORCE is the largest employer of Indigenous people within the Northern Territory and the Kimberley area. I commend the ADF and all those involved, especially our Indigenous service men and women for the outstanding contributions that they have made in the past, that they continue to make and that they will make in the future. I would particularly like to commend and thank the member for Parkes for this motion that celebrates these significant achievements.

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