Crucible of nationhood

24 Apr 2014 Article

Op-Ed originally published in The Financial Review on Page 18 in the daily edition published on 24 April, 2014.

Crucible of nationhood
Christopher Pyne

In 1914, with the outbreak of war with Germany, the Australian government recruited 20,000 Australians from the recently federated states and territories to fight together as a new nation under a new flag.

This army, known originally as the Australian Imperial Force, joined with recruits from New Zealand, and while training between the pyramids of Egypt they became the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or Anzacs.

The combined force of Australian and New Zealand soldiers went on to the Gallipoli peninsula in an ill-fated attempt to surprise the Turkish forces in the Dardanelles and blast Turkey out of the First World War. Every Anzac Day we honour their sacrifice and remember their courage.

We should also remember how through this forge of war our infant nation reached out and grasped a national character that would begin to define us as a people, an Australian spirit.

After Gallipoli we would be known as a nation that confronts hardship and difficult circumstances with determination and a blithe good humour. The legends of Gallipoli were the larrikins who with unblinking courage would leap from a trench under heavy fire to rescue a mate.

The impact on the psyche of the nation and the historical significance of the First World War cannot ever be denied, and it is essential young Australians continue to be taught about Anzac Day and the courage and sacrifice of those who fought and died.

In forming our national identity, this event was more significant than Federation. What might have remained a fragile and untested federation of colonies with vastly different interests became a nation with focus and confidence after World War I. The bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood forged during that time reached beyond a disparate group of colonies and would see us emerge with a collective Australian identity.

From this war our nation was seen as one prepared to shoulder our share of the burden of responsibilities in global conflicts. Far from being another outpost of the British Empire, Australia was recognised as a country prepared to fight not just for the values and liberties of its own citizenry, but for the security and welfare of others on foreign shores. We were no longer a colony to be ruled, but rather a proud nation to be feared on the battlefield.

The political manifestation of this baptism by fire was evident when Australia was represented as a distinct entity separate from Great Britain at the Versailles peace conference.

At that conference Australia was represented not by the prime minister of Great Britain, but by our own prime minister, Billy Hughes. It is a proud tradition that has seen Australia contribute to every significant conflict in support of our allies and friends against tyrannical regimes and those who seek to suppress the freedom of others.

With the development of the national curriculum there has been some debate about whether important national days like Anzac Day and Remembrance Day glorify war and should be given less prominence in the classroom. There is a fringe view within the left that believes and advocates that Australian war memorials should be shut down and Anzac Day commemorations cancelled because they glamorise war. They say students should be taught to feel ashamed of the sacrifice of our forebears.

In fact, early drafts of the national history curriculum seemed to treat significant days like Anzac Day and Australia Day with Far from glamorising war, remembering those who died on Anzac Day highlights the horror of war. embarrassment, or give them equal significance with other days on the national calendar, such as Harmony Day, that while important are not of equal weight or as historically important.

That is one of the reasons the Coalition in government has implemented a review of the national curriculum to examine whether it gives these days of Australian historical significance appropriate weight in the classroom.

Just recently, I was honoured to present to eight young Australians the 2014 Simpson Prize for writing an Anzac-inspired essay, chosen out of 920 entries.

The prize will allow them to travel to Gallipoli to attend this year's Anzac Day commemorations.

I have noticed more and more Australians attending dawn services on Anzac Day and the old soldiers present from other conflicts being honoured by younger Australians and, importantly, sharing their experiences and stories.

Far from glamorising war, remembering those who died on Anzac Day highlights the horror of war.

The terrifying prospect of another great conflict on the scale of the two world wars has seen greater international efforts to strive for peace and avoid conflict.

While the circumstances that led to the First World War are continually being debated, let us not fall into the trap of a “we know best” view of history with the great gift of hindsight.

Rather let us remember the brave men and women who fought, and let it renew in us a deeper commitment for peace in our world today.

Christopher Pyne is Education Minister.