Speeches at the Bushfire Memorial Service

People often decry the internet as a source of misinformation and ill-formed views, but  I reckon that talkbalk radio is even worse.  I only listen to talkbalk radio when I really can’t find anything else, like at 4.00 a.m. on Monday morning, when the ABC indulges in playing just two or three notes, intoning endlessly hour after hour; or when SBS and ABC news radio decide that they are both going to take exactly the same feed of English soccer.  So it was in desperation that I tuned in to talkback radio on Sunday night/Monday morning, and heard a woman talking about the Bushfire Memorial Service that morning.

She enjoyed the service, she said, but ” then one of those politicians got on, and said “remember this and vote for me at the next election””.

What?????? I didn’t hear that!!  But then, the next morning, I read the summary in The Age of the speeches given at the memorial.  When I looked at Kevin Rudd’s speech, I wondered why I bridled against it on hearing it on Sunday.  Had I, too, heard something that wasn’t said? As I heard it, he was making a claim that Australians have a particular claim on universal human values,  over and above that of other people, and that values like courage and compassion were Australian values.  Yet, The Age report said no such thing.

Then I noticed the “This is an edited extract of the speech” disclaimer at the bottom.  So here is Rudd’s full speech, with the parts that were omitted from The Age summary in bold.

Fellow members of the great Australian family.

When the histories of nations are written, there are times which sorely test each nation’s soul.

Whether through the carnage of human conflict or through the terrifying forces of nature unleashed.

This nation Australia has just been put to such a test.

And you the people of Australia, you the people of Victoria, and most especially you the people of these fire-ravaged communities – you have faced the test – and you have not been found wanting.

As a people, we weep for the lost.

We tend the injured.

We console the suffering.

And yet our work has barely begun.

In meeting this great test, as a people, and as a nation, we have drawn deep on our ancient values and given them fresh voice in our modern age.

Values of courage.

Values of compassion.

Values of steely resilience.

These are Australian values. Values also of our deepest common humanity.

For on Black Saturday, what we saw at work was the worst of nature yet the best of humanity.

What is courage?

We know it by instinct. We see it. We feel it.

Courage is a fire fighter standing before the gates of hell – unflinching, and unyielding and with eyes of steel saying this: “Here I stand, I can do no other”.

Courage is neighbour saving neighbour.

Courage is stranger saving stranger.

Courage is all these things as brave women and men in their lives and in their deeds these last weeks have written a new chapter in our nation’s story.

A new army of heroes where the yellow helmet evokes the same reverence as the slouch hat of old.

Courage. And compassion.

In recent days, we have witnessed unspeakable suffering.

We have lost mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, the tiniest of children, family and friends and neighbours.

All these are precious lives. No words can provide solace for grief so personal.

But simply know this: you who suffer are not alone.

This great Australian family, here assembled and across the nation today, is with you. And led by an almighty army of Australian volunteers stretched across this vast continent.

And beyond our shores, know too that you are also surrounded by an ocean of compassion from every country on God’s earth.

In some countries, tragedy exposes the fault lines in a nation.

The strong abandoning the weak; one region indifferent to the sufferings of another, one culture uncaring as to the needs of another.

But ours is a different nation. Our nation has been as one.

Australia – a nation of compassion. Courage and compassion. And the third of these great values: resilience.

What we have seen in each of these communities is resilience writ large.

Resilience reflected in the absolute and resolute determination to rebuild.

And this is where the nation comes in.

A solemn contract with each of these communities to rebuild: brick by brick, home by home, school by school, church by church, street by street, community by community.

Governments of all persuasions and at all levels have failed communities in the past. Let us resolve not to fail these communities in the future.

To say this is easy. To do this will be hard and the path will be uneven.

But let us resolve, learning from the mistakes of the past, to rebuild together.

To rebuild Marysville, Narbethong and Toolangi.

To rebuild Kinglake, Kinglake West and Flowerdale.

Strathewen, St Andrews and Humevale.

Wandong, Heathcote Junction and Upper Plenty.

Churchill, Callignee and Koornalla.

Steels Creek and Yarra Glen.

These names and others that are now etched deep in the nation’s memory.

For the truth is this: each of these communities is Australia – and we would be a lesser Australia without any of them. So let us to the task.

Last Sunday as I travelled on the road to Kinglake, it was as if I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

Last night I spoke with a young woman from a community nearby who had lost everything but survived. She told me she had spent yesterday with her Dad, starting to clean up the wreckage.

She told me the first thing they did was to plant a charred sapling in the burnt ground as their flag pole – and put up our nation’s flag.

She told me she and her Dad then sat quietly together just looking at the flag – and then to work.

Our nation’s flag now flies across the charred remains of these precious communities – flags by the hundred.

Flags of courage. Flags of compassion. Flags of resilience. Flags of hope.

Great Australian values that will see Australia through this great testing of our nation’s soul.

So let us resolve today that from this time forth, on every 7th of February, this nation’s flag will fly at half mast, this nation will pause for a moment’s silence, to honour those lost and to reaffirm afresh, this great rebuilding for the future.

As we rise together in hope, from the ashes of despair.

I don’t know about you, but all this flag-worship and jingoism still makes me uncomfortable, and I find myself wondering if it was only omitted from the Age report of the speech for space reasons. After all, the photo in the middle of the page could have been cropped by a few centimetres, and the whole speech could have been transcribed.  But it wasn’t.

The following day, there was a letter to the editor asking why  Auntie Joy Murphy’s speech had not been transcribed.  I found myself wondering the same thing.  It was one of the first speeches, before people felt able to applaud, and yet I thought it was the most comforting of them all.  It did not have the ra-ra “let’s get in there and build, build, build!!” tone of many of the other speeches.

This is just from memory because I can’t find a transcript- so it might be just as inaccurate as the talkback caller in the middle of the night.  What I heard was that she spoke as a woman from Healesville, which although not burnt out, was surrounded by the fires on the Saturday.  She spoke also as a Wurundjeri elder.  Her people had burnt the land every seven years, she said, but what happened on Saturday was not that sort of burning- instead of healing the land, it  tortured the land.  (And this is something that I don’t think is being said often enough: that the fire on Saturday was not the bushfire that we smell on the breeze and see as a ring around the sun every year; it was something different.)  But she also said that the bush will grow back, by itself.  (And that’s something that our men-are-from-Mars politicians are trying to rush through too: the urge to get in there and fix it, while the country itself, in its own time, will heal itself).

And there’s something very comforting, very timeless in that.

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2 responses to “Speeches at the Bushfire Memorial Service

  1. Pingback: Reclaiming Anzac « The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  2. Pingback: My Prime Minister and Sexism | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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