Recognising Indigenous military service
By Ben Roberts-Smith VC, MG
Chairman, National Australia Day Council (NADC).
After 17 years of service with the Australian Regular Army, Mr Roberts-Smith transferred to the Army Reserve in 2013. He is a recipient of the Victoria Cross, Australia’s highest military honour. In 2014 he was appointed as Chair of the National Australia Day Council.
There is nothing that brings two people closer together than standing shoulder to shoulder, in the heat of battle, proudly wearing the Australian Army uniform and facing a common enemy.
For nearly 20 years I was honoured to serve this great nation and I served with a group of individuals from all walks of life who mostly came together as total strangers. But over time many of those strangers became lifelong friends as a result of our shared experiences; at the coalface, fighting to preserve the freedoms and rights too many of us take for granted.
It matters little on the front line where your mate came from, their family’s social status or the colour of his or her skin.
I am proud to have served with Indigenous Australians who shared my unstinting commitment and passion for Australia. And in this centenary of ANZAC year it is important to recognise the significant contribution made to the war effort between 1914 and 1918 by First Australians.
Historian Peter Londey from the Australian War Memorial reports that over 1000 Indigenous Australians fought in the First World War and they came from a section of society with few rights, low wages and poor living conditions. Most Indigenous Australians could not vote and none were counted in the census. But once they joined the Army they were treated as equals. They were paid the same as other soldiers and generally they were accepted without prejudice.
It’s a sad but true fact that 100 years ago many Indigenous Australians were treated with greater respect on foreign shores than they were at home. Thankfully, those days are a distant memory.
My years in uniform are now behind me but it is my great privilege to have been invited by the Prime Minister to chair the National Australia Day Council (NADC), an organisation which, over many years, has nurtured a culture of understanding, inclusiveness and reconciliation.
In 2007, the NADC was amongst the first organisations in Australia to launch a Reconciliation Action Plan and our approach to reconciliation remains one of leadership and optimism.
We are committed to playing a part in the journey of reconciliation by helping all Australians to move forward with a better understanding of our shared past and each day we strive to inspire national pride and spirit to enrich the lives of each and every Australian.
In the year of the Centenary of ANZAC, recognising Indigenous military service is a key part of building understanding of our shared past and promoting reconciliation. At NADC we encourage all Australians to get involved in the reconciliation process and what better time than National Reconciliation Week (27 May to 3 June).