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Thank you, Kimberlea, for that warm welcome.
Good evening Your Excellencies, Ministerial colleagues and the many distinguished guests here. We are all distinguished Australians here tonight, who are united in service to our nation. We are united, as Brenden has said so beautifully tonight, by spirit and love combined with service.
It is a great pleasure to join you all on behalf of the Prime Minister and also my ministerial colleague Darren Chester who does such a wonderful job in his portfolio. And I am going to paraphrase the Prime Minister and just say, how good is this here tonight?
I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet here tonight where we are having this wonderful celebration and commemoration of service — the Ngunnawal people. But particularly tonight I also pay my deepest respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, and women, who have served our nation with such great distinction over the many years, in both times of peace and in war.
On that theme I want to share with you a family story I heard this week in Perth, by Colleen Hayward. She is a very proud Noongar woman, and is also the pro-chancellor of Edith Cowan University in Western Australia.
And she shared her family story of service and sacrifice as an Aboriginal woman. It’s a story really of her grandmother, Emma Rodney another proud Noongar woman. She sent four sons to World War One. Lewis, Larry, Augustus and Kenneth Farmer all had a burning desire to serve their nation. So they enlisted in the Army, but because at that time Aboriginals were not allowed to serve, they had to lie and they enlisted saying they were Indian.
Each brother served with great distinction in World War One. Now Lewis and Kenneth returned home to their mother and their families – but two sadly did not. Larry was a Gallipoli veteran and was killed in action in 1916. In 1918, his brother Augustus was also killed, for his bravery, he was the first Aboriginal man awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry. Tonight we remember their service, and their sacrifice and their love for their family and for their country. And tonight in particular we remember Emma, their mother, and we also remember their family members, their multi generations of family members who today, are still impacted by that service.
But I would like to say this tonight to all women who have served in uniform – to their families, and to the thousands and thousands of women – the wives, widows, mothers, daughters, sisters, friends and families. I say to them all, and to you all here tonight, thank you for your service. I believe that — for far too long — your contributions, your service, has gone unrecognised. Or as Brenden who so poignantly, as he always does, said “your love, and your commitment to country, has been taken for granted.”
Over my 30 years in the Army, I have witnessed so much positive change for women who so badly just wanted to serve side by side with their male counterparts. And I was so inspired tonight to meet Shirley, who I had the privilege of escorting into the venue. And we saw her story here tonight. But what she didn’t tell you is that not only was she evicted out of her married quarters, she had no money, because her husband controlled the bank account so she couldn’t get any access to money. But as she said, she dug in and she fought for her family. And what she also didn’t tell you, and what she told me tonight was the most wonderful story, she then fought for her girls, for all of the other women who had served but weren’t eligible for the Defence force medal because they had served for less than six years. Because they had to be out when they got married. So Shirley, thank you again for all of those women you have recognised.
In 1985 all of the women’s auxiliaries were disbanded and female personnel were finally integrated into the Australian Navy, Army and Air Force. This was a positive step, however, women still remained significantly disadvantaged with promotion criteria weighted in favour of those who had served in “combat arms”.
It was not until 1990, that women were permitted to serve alongside their male counterparts. And it was another 23 years until gender restrictions were removed from all Australian Defence Force combat roles. While change has often been slow — and opportunities have gradually increased — what has been achieved is very significant. And I think we must always celebrate these achievements.
In 1985, less than five-thousand women or 7 percent were ADF permanent service personnel. It took over 30 years for this to double. Now, the permanent ADF comprises almost 11,000 women or 19 per cent of the Force. Of the current Reserve Force about 4,500 thousand are women, this represents 17.2 per cent of all active reservists. Well done.
Today, 15 per cent of deployed personnel are women. In fact, since 1999, more than 16,000 women have served with distinction on operation. Today, in the Army, there are 14 female Brigadiers and soon to be seven female Major Generals. And let’s not forget the Warrant Officers – there are 374 female Warrant Officers.
Today, my longstanding friend Major General Kathryn Campbell is Commander 2nd Division - the first female to fill this role. And I would say, the Divisional RSM is also a women, Warrant Officer Class One Kim Felmingham. Congratulations. Major General Cheryl Pearce is currently serving as Force Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, and is Australia’s first female two-star officer to lead a UN operation. And in January 2020, Brigadier Susan Coyle, who is here with us tonight, will deploy on promotion to Major General as Commander Joint Task Force 633, and will be the first female Two-Star officer to be deployed on operations commanding
Australian military forces. And a sign of how times have changed, her husband will also be deploying to a separate operation around the same time she is deployed, and they’re leaving the kids at home to look after themselves.
But on a more serious note, one thing I often observe in this job is that those of us who serve in uniform, we do so voluntarily. But our family members are always conscripts. And this conscription is never easy for families – the distance, the pressures, the emotional demands. The loneliness. The loss.
That sense of loss was captured at the Centenary commemorations at Lone Pine. There was a headstone and it had the following inscription on it and I will never forget it. It said “someday, somehow, I will understand, Mother.” And I think that captures so beautifully that sense of loss, so perfectly that sense of loss. Again, that has gone unrecognised, until now.
It would be terribly remiss of me not to, on behalf of us all here tonight, to thank the organisers of this wonderful event. It’s a formidable team of women and for those of you who know Rhonda, Meg and the other women, they will know how formidable and how persuasive they can be. 18 months ago they came to me, Rhonda sat in my office and she said “I’ve got an idea”. And sure enough, the first one last year was an astonishing celebration, but today the second event, it is an event to look at you say “why have we not done this many years ago?” Its time has well can truly come.
So on behalf of myself, the Prime Minister, Darren Chester and others – to all of the organisers and those who sponsored this event – I just say a very big thank you. Thank you.
I would just like to finish with a couple of thoughts, I often reflect today that we have so many remarkable women serving and supporting those in service, and they are doing the most astonishing things on behalf of our nation. But the fact today that this is unremarkable, is actually a remarkable thing. It is now just business as usual and that is something for us all to celebrate.
Last month when I visited our men and women deployed in the Middle East, and again I met so many exceptional women, just getting on with doing their job, this included a large number of women, service women, who had in the past taken the backseat because they were raising families, and their husbands had deployed overseas. And there was this great story – there were two kids whose parents were being deploymed, and one said to the other “where’s your dad going?” and the other young boy said “no, it’s my mum. It’s mum’s turn.” I think that epitomises the changes that are occurring, with fathers now at home providing the love and care for their families that women have done for a long time.
In conclusion – tonight we have been joined by so many amazing women who have served and supported others, united by service through many generations and many operations. Let’s continue celebrating and recognising their successes and contributions. But also while being clear-minded about the journey ahead.
I thank you all for your spirit, for your love and for your service to our great nation. That we are all united in – our service and love for our nation, and for each other. Thank you.