Tuesday, March 11 2014

Senator the Hon. Michael Ronaldson
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC
Special Minister of State


Topics: National Anzac Centre and Centenary of Anzac plans for Albany

JOHN CECIL: On the 14 November 1914 ships transporting soldiers to - well, originally they thought they were going to Egypt, but they ended up in the Dardanelles, left from Albany - 38 ships. They were joined by other ships from Fremantle, and together the convoy sailed towards Egypt and into history. We're commemorating that on 1 November 2014, particularly in Albany, seeing this was the place that those brave men sailed from. As part of that, the Federal Government has made a fairly large commitment to the events of 2014 in November.

Rick Wilson is the Member for O'Connor - the Federal Member for O'Connor. He's in the studio this morning. Rick Wilson, good morning. Thank you for coming in.

RICK WILSON: Good morning, John.

JOHN CECIL: And with you is the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Senator Michael Ronaldson. Michael Ronaldson, good morning.

MINISTER RONALDSON: John, good to see you again.

JOHN CECIL: Welcome back to the studio

MINISTER: Thank you.

JOHN CECIL: First of all, Rick, from your point of view, are you happy with how things are progressing?

RICK WILSON: Look, absolutely. I'd just like to start, John, by saying this Minister's commitment to this project is very, very reassuring. I mean, this is Michael's seventh visit to Albany now and he smoothed the path since he's been minister in several areas, one being some additional funding for the interpretive part of the project, and the second thing was, I guess, the naming of the centre, which is the National Anzac Commemorative Centre. Now, there was some resistance against that name, the national part of that name, but we've managed to get that through and I think that's very important for the legacy of this project ongoing for Albany.

JOHN CECIL: Why was it important for you, Michael Ronaldson, to have it called the National Anzac Commemorative Centre?

MINISTER: Well John, it is great to be back here. If I could just, on a slightly lighter note, I had to bring my wife with me this time because I had been to Albany so many times that she was beginning to wonder what was over here. So I brought her to show her the magnificent view of the…

JOHN CECIL: Glad you did.

MINISTER: Magnificent city to assure her that my visits were all above board, so…

JOHN CECIL: Absolutely. Important, Minister.

MINISTER: Absolutely. So look, it was terrific - it was really important in my view for it to be seen as the National Anzac Centre. I mean, this was, if you like, at the start of 100 years of service and not just about 1 November this year, it's not just about Gallipoli, it's not just about the Western Front, it's actually a centenary of service. And when I was sworn in I said I didn't want to make this just a Gallipoli-Western Front commemoration. It is commemorating 100 years of service.

And for us to be here where it started with young men from my home town of Ballarat and from small country towns throughout New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, I mean, they came here with an air of expectation…

JOHN CECIL: And excitement.

MINISTER: …excitement, of a great adventure, and, of course, the reality was everything but that. I just think it's a really important part of Australia's story.

JOHN CECIL: The word national is very important locally because what the word national bides us, mercenary kind of sense, is it bides us into the whole story. It moves the story away from the Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra war memorial nexus, moves it to Albany, and if it's going to be national, it will have to be looked after as a national asset, won't it?

MINISTER: It will. And look, can I tell you the bloke on…

JOHN CECIL: I'm sorry if that sounds parochial.

MINISTER: No, no, no. Of course not. I mean, the bloke on my right, Rick Wilson, should take a lot of credit for this and Senator Dean Smith as well, and they - I mean, it's a big decision to call it a national centre and they were very passionate and I'm always taken by the extraordinary passionate in this city and these things only work when you've got that sort of passion. Good local members, a passionate community, and I know you've been a great advocate yourself, John, and I thank you for that.

But it is really important to have it national.  It's not about 1 November this year, this is about a lifetime experience for children who, at the moment, aren't driving themselves to Albany who I want to actually drive themselves to Albany in 10, 15, 20 years' time so they can share this experience. I want this to be the centre for 100 years, not just for four years.

JOHN CECIL: Will the word national guarantee its future, its growth, the fact that it will be cherished into the future?

MINISTER: Well, I think you've said before there was an element of parochialism in your initial comment. I just think it sort of defines the project a bit more than just the Anzac Centre and if you call it the National Anzac Centre, I think people - their ears prick up a bit and they think this is something very special, which, of course, it is.

JOHN CECIL: You've been able to have a look at it today and there was the release of the logo that went with it. I'll get you to describe the logo in a second. What did you see when went there?

MINISTER: Well, I saw a building going up in a period of time that I thought was impossible for a building to go up in. I mean, I…

RICK WILSON: … you weren't the only one.

MINISTER: … I was last here in October, I think, Rick, wasn't it? And we were walking on sand and, quite frankly, the people who put it up I think are walking on water. They've done a fantastic job and it will be done, which, of course, John, it has got to be because we'd all look pretty foolish if it wasn't ready for 1 November.

JOHN CECIL: I take it there are a bunch of - do I read from that that there are a bunch of people who would have no wish to make their minister look foolish?

MINISTER: I think the Minister's got more skin in the game on this than anyone else, quite frankly.

JOHN CECIL: Are you happy with how it's going?

MINISTER: I am very happy and look, Richard Muirhead walked us through the various parts of it and there are some, quite frankly, stunning views, which is what you'd expect. That's the outside part. The inside part is going to be very special as well.

JOHN CECIL: There's two parts to this, in a sense. There's the building and its architectural statement about commemoration, about national, about pride, but there's also the broader event of November 2014 and subsequent years on to make the statement and to launch this centenary, if you like. Are you comfortable with the event planning, the commemoration planning?

MINISTER: I am, and I think this is going to be a very special weekend, but that's the start of the process, not the end of it, and I think the great challenge now is we'll - this will be done well, but the great challenge after that is for the West Australian tourism people and the City of Albany and others to make sure that we get people here. Because, as you well know as a local, it's not just about 1 November 2014. I mean, there are within 500 metres of that site a number of key sites as well, and so we need to make it an experience of which the centre is a pivotal part of it, but to make a wider tourism experience. And I'm sure if done properly that will occur.

We had 42,000 people apply to go into the ballot for Gallipoli next year. This is really starting to ignite a huge amount of interest in the community and I think from Albany's point of view, to have a national telecast before Gallipoli next year, I hope will define this centre for generations.

JOHN CECIL: Senator Michael Ronaldson is our guest. He's the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and he's in Albany and has been on top of Mount Clarence - Mount Adelaide, I should say, having a look at the National Anzac Commemorative Centre.

Senator, when it comes to 2015, which is only a year away, less than, what role will Albany play in the 2015 commemorations? Because that's when the focus will be on Gallipoli.

MINISTER: I think there's a great opportunity for Albany to tie itself into the focus being on Gallipoli next year. Clearly this is about telling the story, this is about telling those who don't know that this is where these young men left from. So I would assume that the city and the tourism people and others will ensure that there is that linkage there. I don't think you can underestimate two hours on national TV to define this centre, to define the event in perpetuity, and I think they dovetail so perfectly, Anzac Day next year and Albany, but I think it'll probably occur even on its own and it won't need much to kick along.

JOHN CECIL: What evidence have you got? What have you seen that is leading you to the view that those working on Albany are ahead of the game, if you like, for 2015?

MINISTER: Look, I think in honesty, John, I haven't focused so much on 2015. What I do know is that in 2015, we will have the centre here. We will have had national press coverage of the centre been here. People will see this magnificent city. They'll see this magnificent city. They'll see the centre, and I think that will create a level of interest that will only quite frankly need to be re-tweaked, I think, as opposed to re-discovered.

JOHN CECIL: Part of the debate had been about the ships that would come to Albany in 2014 as part of the commemoration, and there's been a range of expectations down through the last couple of years of recreating the entire flotilla that would have been sailed out majestically past the heads, to more realistic versions, to virtual versions, and things. Where, from the DVA point of view, where you have a fair old clout in, you know, what the ships do and Navy and all that sort of stuff - what's going to happen? What are you seeing?

MINISTER: I think - take you back a step, John. I mean, Rick and I in our numerous drives around here, and on some fairly lengthy trips as well, have lamented constantly the fact that there was too much potentially over-promising, and it could only ever have led to under-delivery, and I think that set this project back for a period of time until reality set in.

It should have been dealt with a lot earlier. I think it has been dealt with now, and there's some very well meaning people who were clearly hurt by the change of arrangements, and those expectations should have been nipped in the bud far earlier. The fact that we'll get to 1 November I think with the whole of the community together as one on this project is very, very important.

The Navy is finalising those arrangements; they tell me that they're hopeful that there may be one or two foreign ships there as well, but it was never, ever, ever going to be feasible for 30 or 40 ships to be here, and when those semi-commitments were made, I don't think justice was being done to well meaning people who are absolutely passionate about this. And I want to see everyone there on 1 November, because everyone has played a really important part in making this work.

JOHN CECIL: So we should adjust our expectations regarding the ships?

MINISTER: Well, I think those expectations have been adjusted. I think those - they are adjusted now.


MINISTER: It will be four ships. There might be a couple of foreign ships there as well. There will been great opportunity on the Sunday for people to have a look through these ships. The ships are a part of it, but they are not the whole, so all the small parts will make a whole, and obviously the standard's been an important part of that.

JOHN CECIL: My guest is Michael Ronaldson. He's the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. And Rick Wilson, the Member for O'Connor, our local member, in the studio. Can I get you to describe for us the logo? The new logo.

MINISTER: The logo is actually very clever, and it's got nine points on it, effectively, which is the state's, territories and New Zealand, and it is in the form of a braid, an intertwined braid. And that's to represent the relationship between Australia and New Zealand not just back 100 years ago, but all the way through.

JOHN CECIL: So it has an element of the future?

MINISTER: Absolutely. Yeah. John, I said at the National Anzac Centre today that my aide-de-camp, Captain Burkitt, her family were from New Zealand. They married New Zealanders and they came to Australia 20, 30 years ago, and Captain Burkitt, I won't say where she was, but she just returned from Afghanistan.

So I think those stories are continuing, and I think they're really important. It is such an important relationship; we are working very, very closely with the Kiwis. There will be the opportunity for people to go to a commemorative service outside the official Anzac Day commemorative service next year.

JOHN CECIL: We have a text service that runs, and a text came in to ask you the question: The Anzac Centre is a national memorial place. Why is there a new logo? What's wrong with the national Anzac logo, and why not just use that?

MINISTER: Ah, look, this was a decision made by those who were putting all this together, and they thought it was important that there be a special logo, but the Centenary logo is very much about the next four years. The war memorial is using a different logo, so the centenary logo will be on official memorabilia. I have no issue with this being different because I think it tells a slightly different story, and it also talks about…

JOHN CECIL: And defines the venue.

MINISTER: Well, it does. And it also talks about the future as much as the past.

JOHN CECIL: Michael Ronaldson, can I take you to another area?


JOHN CECIL: And this is, as they say, a question without notice. But we are seeing the return of soldiers - you mentioned your aide-de-camp - from places like Afghanistan, and those terrible, terrible theatres of war. When the Vietnam vets came back, frankly we got it wrong. Horribly wrong. How are we getting it right this time?

MINISTER: Well, we didn't just get it wrong, John. We got it absolutely, disastrously, disastrously wrong. And every day…

JOHN CECIL: So, how are you getting it right?

MINISTER: Every day, virtually, I see the ramifications of the way this country let down a group of men who were doing no more, no less than representing their nation at the nation's request.

Now I am absolutely determined we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. There are a whole range of things that I have started working on now. I'll be making some further announcements on Thursday in Adelaide about some of the things we're doing, but we are actually bringing together a group of people to concentrate on some key issues. One is getting contemporary veterans into work. Getting some of their issues sorted out early, rather than letting them languish. Because as you know…

JOHN CECIL: Fester for 25 years.

MINISTER: Absolutely. Festered for 25 years, and early intervention is the absolute key to this. Now, I inherited a situation where the average processing time for these men and women was about 160 days. That is completely untenable.

JOHN CECIL: Damage is done by then.

MINISTER: Damage is done by then, and the Secretary is working very, very hard. We put a dedicated unit into Melbourne to try and clear up some of the backlog. We haven't got it right yet, but we are certainly getting headed in the right direction.

The mental health issue is key, and everyone who returns from Afghanistan does not have a mental illness, but what we've got to make absolutely sure is those who are suffering are dealt with - treated early, and the families are treated early, and the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome.

JOHN CECIL: The time is short, but what are you doing to make sure that the rest of us - those who didn't understand that this mental illness, this issue, is a perfectly normal part of life. That if you go to these places, you see these terrible things, this is what happens. We're, you know, it's up to us to look after them, isn't it?

MINISTER: Oh, absolutely. Look, as I've said, you know, I became a grandfather for the first time about four months ago, and my grandchildren will soon have the responsibility for looking after these men and women and their families when my grandchildren are in their 50s and 60s and 70s. The key message we've got to get through is our responsibility doesn't finish now; it will be for generations.

JOHN CECIL: Rick Wilson, the Member for O'Connor, thank you for joining us this morning.

RICK WILSON: Thank you, John.

JOHN CECIL: And Senator Michael Ronaldson, Minister for Veterans' Affairs, thank you for coming in this morning.

MINISTER: John, as always, a great pleasure.

Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) and Veterans Line can be reached 24 hours a day across Australia for crisis support and free and confidential counselling. Phone 1800 011 046

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