Assert our National Identity

by Terry Fewtrell

We should draw on the bravery of our Diggers on Anzac Day and have an Australian head of state, TERRY FEWTRELL writes

The dawn service at Gallipoli can be chilling. But it is not just the chill of the air that cuts to the bone.


Each year thousands of Australians and New Zealanders flock to this isolated part of the Dardanelles’ shoreline in the early northern spring. They are drawn to a place where legend has it our national identity was forged.

Just as in 1915, the landscape defines much of the character of the occasion. The geography demands this – a narrow strip of land between a towering hillside running down to a shallow stony beach and the watery depths. In reality the modern-day gatherings on Gallipoli shores on April 25 each year are as much about logistics and crowd control, as they are about paying homage to sacrifice.

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Logistics demand that those attending arrive in the dark, throughout the night.

Many of the young lie wrapped in sleeping bags and flags, creating an eerie and surreal atmosphere as the bulk of the 9000 file in, struggling to make sense of the shrouded, haunting surroundings.

Throughout the night there is a dignified program of entertainment on large video screens and live performances, winding down closer to dawn.

As the early light dawns so too does the futility of the endeavour that is being honoured. It doesn’t take a military strategist to realise that what we are remembering was a disastrous and disgraceful military campaign. Gloriously disastrous for the Anzacs, culpably disgraceful for the British commanders who planned and prosecuted it.

The scene revealed in that first fragile light leads to the compelling conclusion that Australia and its dutiful young men were simply taken for fools. Fodder for a folly, along with Kiwis and the often overlooked but British contingents.

When committing forces to the defence of the empire, then prime minister Andrew Fisher entrusted the Australian troops to the British Army.

The commitment was made instinctively, seemingly with little consideration or concern that the troops could be deployed in a foolhardy campaign.

That it was Andrew Fisher who acted in this way simply serves to underline the extent to which the then Australian mentality was imbued with a sense of empire and deference to Britain.

It was Fisher, honourable Scotsman that he was, who for the previous few years had embarked on a vigorous and effective campaign to ”Australianise” our government system and national symbols.

It is now 100 years since he redrew the Commonwealth’s coat of arms to include wattle and be more representative of our land. This followed the growing popularity of national Wattle Day celebrations. Fisher was a model Australian patriot, but Fisher’s faith was to be sadly unrequited on the shores of Gallipoli and later in Fromelles and other French battle grounds.

Does this diminish the sacrifice of those brave men who obeyed orders to storm ashore in the face of the well positioned Turkish gunners?

Of course not. It is hard to believe that, from an early point in the campaign, they did not themselves consider their cause doomed.

Bravery for a cause, in the face of apparent futility, is sacrifice of significant measure.

It does however demand that as a nation, now far more mature than a century ago, we reflect on the full story surrounding the Anzac legend. History since Gallipoli has taught us that what may be in the national interest of allies does not necessary concur with Australia’s national interest. Another learning is the paramount need to ensure that at all times, Australia and Australians are in absolute control, both technically and operationally, of policy and deployment decisions that affect us.

While these may now be well entrenched in our military operating procedures it is not the case with our constitutional arrangements. The reality that our head of state is not Australian stands as a worrying counterpoint to the sacrifice of the Gallipoli diggers. Despite all the emphasis on how Gallipoli was the event that fused the nation, an alternative view might be that as a people we have not truly responded to the imperative that the circumstances of Gallipoli place upon us.

Had we done so we would have ensured that our constitutional system of government was Australian in every respect. Could it be that, rather than honouring their sacrifice we mock it, by continuing to defer to the notion that no Australian is good enough to be our nation’s head of state?

War historian Charles Bean was the pre-eminent story teller of the valour at Gallipoli. It was he who saw the action first hand and then devoted the rest of his life to its recording and promotion. Yet Bean is reported to have twice declined an imperial knighthood. Perhaps he sensed better than any that in commemorating the sacrifice and bravery of the diggers we should extol an authentic Australianness.

One suspects that, were they given the chance, Bean and many of his Diggers would lament our failure to create an unambiguously Australian nation in the near 100 years that has followed.

As the light grows stronger across the peninsula one is confronted by the ubiquity of the British Union Jack. Not from its appropriate flagstaff display as the striking British ensign, but by default, as the most prominent part of the Australian and New Zealand flags.

For this Australian the scene was confronting and confounding. I thought we had national colours drawn from the very land that makes us Australian. Officially it is the gold from the blossom and the green from the leaf of the national floral emblem, Acacia pycnantha. Instead, at a time and place considered the most sacred of Australian sites, we smother ourselves in imperial red, white and blue.

The truth is our symbols are confused and conflicted – perhaps accurately reflecting reality. If that be so it is indeed unfinished business that most likely Bean and his Gallipoli diggers would want us to address.

It is business we owe it to the Diggers and to ourselves to resolve.

We can and should be polite, assertive, dignified and unambiguously Australian. Surely we can muster just a touch of the bravery that Gallipoli evokes and have an Australian as head of state and a flag that is unambiguously a symbol of our land. Anything less does a disservice to the memory of Anzac.

Terry Fewtrell attended the Anzac dawn ceremony at Gallipoli in 2010. He is president of the Wattle Day Association and a former ACT convenor of the Australian Republican Movement.

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