The Anzac spirit was born at Gallipoli in 1915. Since then it has been demonstrated not only by Australians in war but also by those whose contribution has been in other fields.
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"Look around you. These are the things they believed in." These words are engraved on the RSL memorial on Canberra's Parliament Drive. Parliament House is the heart of Australian government, symbolising the principles of peace, freedom and democracy that the Anzacs fought to preserve. It is no accident that at the other end of the land axis is the Australian War Memorial, serving as a permanent reminder of the human cost of these principles and of the spirit necessary to ensure their survival.
Thirteen years prior to the outbreak of World War I, the six colonies of Australia were united under a system of democratic and accountable federal government. The Commonwealth of Australia was born not through revolution or civil war, but by negotiation, conciliation and consensus. It is said, then, that after these peaceful beginnings, the landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula was the day the young nation of Australia received its 'baptism of fire'.
The flame of the Anzac spirit was kindled on this narrow stretch of Turkish beach on April 25th 1915. In the eighty-six years since, it has continued to burn in the hearts of Australians. The Anzac spirit "stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never own defeat". The Anzac spirit also encompasses mutual respect and humanity, demonstrated by the interaction between the Anzacs and their Turkish enemy. On May 24th 1915, five days after an especially bloody battle, an armistice was declared to allow both sides to bury their dead. Diggers and Turks mingled on the battleground as they carried out these sad tasks. Though fierce fighting resumed, each side held their foe in higher regard. Indeed, when the Anzacs withdrew from Gallipoli, many left notes and gifts for the victorious Turks.
The commitment to freedom, democracy and egalitarianism demonstrated so gallantly by the Australians at Gallipoli has become a fundamental part of Australia's national identity. However, conflict has proven that our hold on such ideals is tenuous, that the system of democracy is both precious and fragile.
Just how fragile was proven twenty-one years later when World War II broke out and Australians were again inspired by the Anzac spirit to defend the democratic way of life from invasion and oppression.
John Curtin was the wartime Prime Minister who embodied in politics what the Anzacs had in warfare. His story, and his idealism, could have belonged to any of the Anzacs at Gallipoli. Curtin was born in Creswick, a Victorian mining town, and left school at thirteen. He was a firm believer in mateship, egalitarianism and solidarity, the ideals that underpinned the achievements of his term in office. As the editor of the Westralian Worker, Curtin wrote dozens of articles on the need for justice, equality, peace and prosperity. When elected to Parliament in 1935 and then the national leadership in 1941 he had the opportunity to transform his passionate zeal into concrete action. He blueprinted post-war policy, preparing social welfare and economic legislation to guarantee a fair go for workers. Curtin played a pivotal role in transforming Australia from a nation with an inward perspective to a nation with a more international point of view, ready and able to make its own decisions. He mobilised the Australian people behind the war effort, forcing them to examine the vulnerability of their democracy and commit to its protection.
Curtin was the poor boy from country Victoria who rose to the office of Prime Minister, the radical socialist turned democratic realist, the man of peace who led a country at war. Just as the Turks admired the Anzac spirit, Curtin was admired and respected by his political adversaries. Arthur Fadden, Curtin's successor as Prime Minister, described him as "the best and fairest" of all his political opponents.
Eight thousand, seven hundred Australians died in the eight-month Gallipoli campaign. John Curtin, too, never saw the end of his war. Despite their deaths, both Curtin and those thousands of soldiers immortalised the Anzac spirit. Kim Beazley said in 1997, "John Curtin saved Australia…there can be no doubt that he calculated, mobilised and symbolised all the forces which did save Australia and he died in his efforts."
In contemporary Australia, the Anzac spirit was powerfully demonstrated in Australia’s comprehensive response to the need for peacekeepers in East Timor. In 1975, East Timor was preparing for independence from Portugal when it was invaded and forcibly annexed by Indonesia. The next twenty-five years saw a history of violence and oppression at the hands of the Indonesians. After mounting international pressure, a referendum on autonomy was conducted on August 30th 1999. An overwhelming majority of East Timorese (almost eighty percent) voted in favour of independence. However, following the vote, pro-Indonesian militia groups destroyed much of the capital Dili and drove out tens of thousands of people.
A multinational force, headed up by Australia's Major General Peter Cosgrove, was deployed to restore and keep the peace in East Timor. The dispatch of troops to protect the fledgling democracy was Australia's biggest military deployment since the Vietnam War. Just as in the two World Wars, the response demonstrated the Anzac spirit, but not through battlefield conflict. Instead, it demonstrated that spirit through a commitment to avoiding conflict, a commitment to peace and the protection of the vulnerable.
Recently retired Governor-General Sir William Deane personified the Anzac spirit through his championship of the cause of reconciliation. Sir William, one of the High Court justices who ruled in favour of the Mabo case, is a passionate supporter of the ideals of fairness and equality. He interpreted the role of
Governor-General broadly and became an advocate for the displaced and dispossessed, winning the nation’s admiration for his compassion, empathy and commitment. In his Corroboree 2000 address Sir William noted that, "reconciliation should be seen both as an end in itself and as a process or journey to a more comprehensive end. It is not a panacea that will miraculously solve all the problems of Aboriginal disadvantage…Its effect will be to create an environment of trust and mutual respect and acceptance in which [all] Australians can work effectively together". These values are very much a contemporary reflection of the Anzac spirit. In his capacity as Governor-General Sir William Deane became a 1990's Anzac.
With the Anzac spirit firmly cemented at the core of our national identity we have "gained a legend; a story of bravery and sacrifice and with it a deeper faith in ourselves and our democracy, and deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian." The Anzac spirit has inspired countless Australians to "help the weak against the strong, to guard the right against the wrong, and bear the flag of Truth along". Few would dispute the view that the Anzac spirit should never again be tested in battle. Nevertheless, the spirit so evident at Gallipoli and in subsequent military, political and social campaigns has produced a free, peaceful and democratic Australia. Australians have consistently demonstrated the Anzac spirit through commitment to a fair and just society, a society of equal opportunity for all, a society where freedom is fundamental.
The Anzac spirit is our lasting legacy. "Look around you."
Adam-Smith, Patsy: The Anzacs
(Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1979- first published 1978)
Beazley, Kim: Curtin as Leader of the ALP
(John Curtin Memorial Lecture, 1997)
Beck, Haig (ed): Parliament House Canberra: A Building for the Nation
(Collins, Sydney, 1988)
Broadbent, Harvey: The Boys Who Came Home, Recollections of Gallipoli
(ABC Books, Sydney, 2000- first published 1990)
Brodie, Scott: Statesmen, Leaders and Losers
(Dreamweaver, Sydney, 1986- first published 1984)
Burke, Arthur: The Spirit of Anzac
Deane, Sir William: Address to Corroboree 2000
Keating, Paul John: The Unknown Soldier
(speech at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 11th November 1993)
Smith, Rodney and Watson, Lex: Politics in Australia
(Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1989)
Thompson, Alistair: Anzac memories: Living with the Legend
(Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1996- first published 1994)
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