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Matt Robson - Lest we forget

Hon Matt Robson

25 April 2001 Speech Notes


Lest we forget

Anzac Day Address
Methodist Central Mission
Queen St, Auckland

9.00AM Wednesday, 25 April 2001

The title of this address is "Lest we forget".

We remember the sacrifices of those who died. We remember those who were injured. We remember those who lost loved ones.

We remember those people, mainly women, who had to devote so many years of their lives, after wars were over, to looking after relatives and friends whose wartime experiences left them permanently sick, disabled, or psychologically damaged or disturbed.

The suffering and the cost of war to individual men and women can never be reversed, and it must never be forgotten. But my theme extends further, to a wider theme. It is "Lest we forget the lessons of history".

* * * * *

Anzac Day is the anniversary of the first major action fought by New Zealand and Australian forces during the 1914-1918 war. Soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. They were part of a much larger Anglo-French force.

In all, around half a million soldiers and sailors, mainly British, Indian, French, Senegalese, Australian and New Zealanders, were committed to the attack. They met brave resistance from about the same number of Turkish soldiers – around half a million – who were defending their peninsula.

The allies' campaign dragged on for eight months, and failed. At the end of 1915, they were evacuated.

The casualties were enormous. Around quarter of a million members of the attacking forces were killed, injured or died of sickness or disease, and there were at least as many casualties on the Turkish side.

The first anniversary of Anzac Day, in 1916, was marked by a wide variety of ceremonies and services in New Zealand and Australia.

In London, over 2000 New Zealand and Australian troops marched through the streets, where they were hailed as "the knights of Gallipoli". For the remaining years of the 1914-18 war, and I am quoting from the Australian War Memorial web-site:

Anzac Day was used as an occasion for patriotic rallies and recruiting campaigns…

The Anzac legend was born. It was not on the basis of a great strategic achievement, but because of the way the troops performed.

They faced small chance of success, forbidding terrain, and constant fire from well established defences. They were surrounded by death. They were short of water and food. They lived in the most primitive conditions. They displayed phenomenal endurance, discipline and courage.

With the coming of the Second World War, Anzac Day became a day on which to commemorate the lives of New Zealanders and Australians lost in that war as well. Now, the meaning of the day has been broadened to include New Zealanders and Australians killed in all overseas military operations.

* * * * *

Japan posed the only really credible military threat to New Zealand and Australia during the 20th century. My father and uncles went to serve in World War Two. Despite that being perhaps the century's most justifiable war, the oral traditions they handed down, and the stories they told, were certainly not about glory. They were about gruelling conditions, horrific experiences and incompetent leadership.

1915 was not the first time that New Zealanders and Australians had gone overseas to fight.

The Australian War Memorial reminds us that New Zealand was the first overseas battlefield where Australians fought and died. 2,500 volunteers came. New Zealand recruiters promised them settlement on confiscated Maori land. Most joined the Waikato Militia regiments.

That puts the role of expeditionary forces into another perspective. This was nothing to do with the defence of Australia from a military threat. It was simply the pursuit of British imperialistic ambitions. In 19th century terms, that was quite acceptable amongst European nations. The aim was to grab valuable land.

* * * * *

I learnt, as a boy at school, because I went to primary school in Australia, that the next Australian expeditionary force went to the Sudan. This had nothing to do with the defence of Australia, but it had a lot to do with the colonial mentality, feelings of moral and racial superiority, and perceptions of a great imperial destiny.

The Australian War Memorial tells us that the British Government's acceptance of the New South Wales government's offer to send a contingent, and to meet its expenses,

…was received with enthusiasm by the NSW government and members of the armed forces.
But
…many viewed the proceedings with indifference or even hostility. The nationalist Bulletin ridiculed the contingent both before and after its return. Meetings intended to launch a patriotic fund and endorse the government's action were poorly attended in many working class suburbs, and many of those who turned up voted against the fund. In some country centres, there was a significant anti-war response, while miners in rural districts were said to be in "fierce opposition".

I'm reminding you about this particular bit of history because there are lessons to learn from it. There have always been powerful voices promoting military responses as the way to secure and advance New Zealand's and Australia's interests. But the lesson of history is that not everybody agrees.

* * * * *

At the turn of the century before the last one, from 1899 to 1902, there was the South African War. This was the first occasion that New Zealand and Australian forces found themselves fighting alongside each other in an allied force overseas.

The aim was to put the independent Boer republics of South Africa, where gold and diamonds had been discovered, under British control.

There wasn't a lot in it for us. The perceived benefit was almost entirely psychological: New Zealanders and Australians saw the commitment of soldiers as proof of their enduring links with Britain.

In the early part of the 20th century, most New Zealanders were really quite keen for the country to go to war to advance or protect British imperial interests. Going to war against the Kaiser was a popular issue.

But not everybody wanted to go to war.

Maori opinion was divided, and Maori were not compulsorily enlisted into the armed forces, though many served.

Amongst non-Maori, there were some distinguished opponents of conscription, who later became members of the first Labour Government in 1935. It is one of the ironies of history that these same men did not hesitate to declare war on Nazi Germany in 1939, but the circumstances were different.

The 1930s had seen conflict in many parts of the world, including the Japanese take-over of Manchuria and attacks further south in China, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the Spanish civil war. Anti-colonialism was gaining strength in India and the Dutch East Indies.

As Britain came to regard war against Hitler's Germany as inevitable, so too did New Zealand. Once again, millions of men and women in countries all around the world were called by their governments to put their lives at risk. In this war, it turned out that it was not in the army, but in the air force, that it was most dangerous to serve. For the second time in less than thirty years, the number of New Zealanders killed was appalling.

* * * * *

Securing peace was still the challenge at the end of World War Two, and because the strategy of relying on our alliance with Britain had failed, enduring links with the United States became the new strategy.

Washington saw ANZUS as part of a ring of alliances intended to prevent any further spread of communism from its two main centres of power and influence, the Soviet Union and China. This was to have consequences unforeseen in Wellington and Canberra when the ANZUS Treaty had been signed in 1951.

New Zealand's and Australia's defence strategy, with ANZUS as its cornerstone, was sorely tested at the time of the Vietnam War.

That traditional strategy still has the support of some people today. The traditional approach underlies a good deal of the re-armament rhetoric that we continue to hear. But reliance on military means – punching above our weight – to secure New Zealand's place in the world is an out-dated strategy.

We have made progress in the way we approach international security. We're still making progress. These days, our approach is to address the causes of conflict and instability, rather than to take a military approach.

This approach is more complex, but it reduces the likelihood that future generations will mourn the victims of another war on Anzac Days of the future.

It aims to put behind us the days when New Zealand was so involved in military approaches to security that New Zealanders died in other people's wars.

* * * * *

The sacrifices of past generations have contributed towards making us the nation we are today. We cannot be without defences, and neither should we step back from engagement with the rest of the global community. We have to engage, regionally and globally, and use every means at the disposal of the government to ensure the comprehensive security of New Zealand.

The terror that was unleashed on the men, women and children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 is witness to the vulnerability of us all.

Technological developments cannot be reversed, but they do not have to be used destructively. They can be controlled, and that, at the political level, is what the Disarmament and Arms Control portfolio is all about.

The issue today is no longer whether to retain a strict defence alignment with Britain or the United States. We are not abandoning old friends, but we are winning new friends.

The New Agenda group plugging away on practical disarmament steps has achieved significant respect in international forums. Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, South Africa and Sweden join New Zealand under the New Agenda umbrella. That represents 391 million people. We certainly are not isolated.

* * * * *

I see New Zealand's security as being based essentially on the health of our society and our economy, but tied up with the part we play as a good neighbour in the Pacific, and with our actions as a good global citizen.

Our armed forces' combat capability is just one way of contributing towards securing the international environment in which New Zealand can flourish.

Other ways include continuing to assist in diplomatic initiatives where conciliation is needed. Addressing global environmental concerns. Cooperating with other countries in combating international crime and drug trafficking. Disarmament and arms control measures. The promotion of human rights and good governance.

Recent challenges to democratic governments in the Pacific have added urgency to the need to focus attention on the way aid policies might address problems and their causes.

Gross inequalities create deep feelings of injustice. Well directed development assistance overseas leads to prosperity. It helps to address global issues that make all nations insecure. It helps to combat widespread poverty, armed conflict, epidemics, plant and animal diseases, and international crime.

The mutual dependence of nations is becoming all the more apparent. In the next 25 years, around 2 billion people will be added to the world's population. 97% of them will be in developing countries.

The challenge for all countries is to shift resources away from wasteful military expenditure, and to address continuing poverty.

Of the 4.4 billion people in developing countries, nearly three fifths lack access to safe sewers, a third have no access to clean water, a quarter do not have adequate housing, and a fifth have no access to modern health services of any kind.

We have to face the risks posed by the globalisation of environmental threats, unprecedented pressure on the world's resources, and the continued control of these resources by the prosperous minority of the world's population.

The United Nations Secretary-General reminds us that the richest fifth of the world's population consumes 86 percent of all goods and services, while the poorest fifth consumes just 1.3 percent.

To address these risks, New Zealand is now using a wide range of diplomatic, economic and other international cooperation instruments to tackle the causes of regional and global insecurity.

Peacekeeping is important, too, and East Timor is a prime example of this, but it is not the only example.

During the 1990s, the New Zealand Defence Force acquired a well-earned reputation internationally for providing small, but versatile and culturally aware forces. They have served in many different countries, dealing with a wide range of delicate tasks and assisting with humanitarian relief.

New Zealand soldiers have a well-earned reputation for impartiality and integrity. This is a part of the new strategy.

We are crystal clear about the choices that can be made and must be made. History is looking over our shoulder. The strategy of investing in expensive military hardware to address the symptoms of regional and global insecurity is no longer the best fit for New Zealand.

The judgements we make now are crucial for young New Zealanders, who will have to bear the consequences, if we do not do everything we can to address the causes of insecurity, before conflict erupts. That is a lesson we have learnt from history.


…Ends

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