12 February 2019



I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
In particular, I acknowledge the hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who bravely served our nation in wartime, even though they were denied their rights as citizens in peacetime.
Prime Minister, parliamentary colleagues, distinguished guests, veterans and visitors to the Australian War Memorial, I acknowledge you all.
Here at the War Memorial in the early evening, the bugler’s call summons us to hear the story of a young life, unfinished.
Today, it plays for Lieutenant Sister Alma May Beard from the wheat belt of Western Australia.
She was one of 5,000 Australian nurses to serve in the Second World War. Tending the wounded, caring for the sick, soothing the pain and the fear and the tears and confusion of so many wounded young men.
Living the definition of courage: grace under pressure.
And Alma Beard was one of 65 Australian nurses aboard the steamship Vyner Brook when it was sunk, fleeing the invasion of Singapore, 77 years ago this Thursday.
Twelve nurses drowned.
Another 21, Alma included, were massacred on Banka Island in the Netherlands East Indies two days after the sinking.
They were exhausted, they were forced to limp across the pristine white sand of Radji beach. They were marched into the clear blue water, the machine guns of a Japanese execution squad at their back.
It is reported that Sister Jean Stewart cried out at the moment: 
“Girls, take it. Don’t squeal.”
Matron Irene Drummond shouted, over the sound of the first shots:
“Chin up, girls. I’m proud of you all. And I love you all.”
We know those words of remarkable defiance and bravery, they come to us from the sole survivor, Sister Vivian Bulwinkel. She was shot in the hip, she lay perfectly still in the shallow water pretending to be dead, she could hear the dying prayers of her sisters.
She survived another three years in a prisoner-of-war camp and when she returned to Australia, she wrote to the families of all 21 of her fallen friends, sharing the story of their last brave moments.
That’s the bravery and love and loyalty and sisterhood that bound - and binds - Australian nurses. Dedication to each other and to their duty.
Indeed, none of those aboard the Vyner Brook, had wanted to evacuate Singapore. They actually believed their place was with the wounded, to the last, come what may.
It had been the same in Greece, in 1941. As the fighting intensified and danger increased, the Matrons in charge of General Hospital 5th and 6th,  they were ordered to prepare for evacuation.
With places on the transport limited in the retreat, rather than publicly call for volunteers, each nurse was asked to write either “stay” or “go” on a piece of paper. Either “stay” or “go”.
In the privacy of a secret ballot, every single Australian nurse wrote “stay”.
The Last Post plays for generations of brave women and men.
It plays for their loyalty to each other, it plays for their love of family and nation.  
It plays for the wry smile in Alma’s official paybook photograph, at the other end of the pool, a wry smile stolen forever.
It plays for the broken-hearted parents and partners, the children orphaned by grief.
This solemn ceremony which we are privileged to attend, and this magnificent secular cathedral which hosts it, does not turn away from this sadness.  
Tonight, and every night, the Last Post combines the best traditions of ANZAC and Australia: egalitarian and democratic, humble and human. 
Truly, this is a ceremony for “one of them and all of us”
For the people we have lost.
For our veterans and their families, to whom we owe so much. 
And as parliament resumes for the year, it reminds us of the free and peaceful nation their service and sacrifice has preserved.
So, as we depart here tonight to commence the parliamentary year and the inevitable debates and disagreements, the clashes and conflict of our adversarial democracy, let the notes of the Last Post hold all of us to Australia's oldest promise. 
We will remember them. Lest we forget.