Speech to the Coloured Diggers march

Thank you for having me here today, on the home of the Gadigal people, to honour the memory and service of our Indigenous war heroes.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

And I extend my respect to every Indigenous Australian serving in our armed forces today.

You walk in a long tradition of Indigenous service men and women.

It’s a tradition as old as our military itself.

Of course, it’s much older than that still.

The history of the Australian Defence Force can only be written with a long chapter of Indigenous bravery and heroism – even if the history books themselves haven’t always reflected that truth.

First Nations soldiers stormed the beaches at Gallipoli.

They rode through Palestine with the legendary light horsemen.

They held their nerve during the siege at Long Tan.

They kept the peace in every troubled corner of the globe – from the jungles of Cambodia to the streets of Rwanda.

And when the fighting was most critical, they held the line at Kokoda – protecting our mainland in its greatest hour of need.

Wherever Australian soldiers have been deployed – wherever they’ve fought and died – First Nations diggers have served among them.

And when you listen to their stories, when you listen to the veterans here today, you hear the same experiences that define the ANZAC story.

The same moments of courage.

The same bursts of terror.

The same bonds of intense camaraderie and mateship.

The same periods of boredom, broken by the same wicked humour.

You find the same complex feelings of pain and trauma and loss.

And across these experiences – you find the same overwhelming pride in service.

But of course, the experience of First Nations diggers wasn’t the same as other soldiers.

Not really.

Other soldiers weren’t turned away from the local pub when they got home.

Other soldiers weren’t denied settlement assistance because of their skin colour.

Other soldiers weren’t robbed of their proper pensions, or left out of the national census.

This was a uniquely cruel experience – aimed at our first people.

Today’s march borrows its name from a poem written by Bert Beros.

‘Coloured Diggers’ was a tribute to his Indigenous comrades, who he served with in the jungles of Papua New Guinea during World War II.

Black or white, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, these soldiers became brothers in arms, with bonds forged in the furnace of war.

But Beros knew the difficult truth.

They were brothers; but it wasn’t an equal brotherhood.

As he wrote of his comrade:

‘He’d heard us talk democracy, they preach it to his face.
Yet knows that in our federal house there’s no one of his race.
He feels we push his kinsmen out, where cities do not reach,
And parliament is yet to hear the Aborigine’s maiden speech’.

To our great shame, that was undeniably the case after World War Two.

When Indigenous soldiers were asked to sacrifice so much, while receiving so little in return.

But generations of Indigenous activists have changed the face of our parliament.

Generations of people who refused to accept their lot as second class Australians.

Last year, we heard five Indigenous maiden speeches in federal parliament – each telling their own story of struggle and resilience, each filled with hope. 

In my own party, we’re lucky to have two inspirational leaders: Linda Burney and Pat Dodson.

I’m honoured to support them in their life’s mission, to recognise our Indigenous history and listen to Indigenous voices.

It’s a mission to build better, fairer, more united Australia.

An Australia that frees itself from the terrible weight of racism.

And today of all days – an Australia that properly celebrates its Indigenous heroes.

To those who have served, to those who continue to serve, we can never thank you enough.

It’s a privilege to represent this proud community in federal parliament.

Thank you.