23 September 2009

Politicians’ promises: “We’ll never forget you”

When politicians say “We’ll never forget you”, it is time to start counting the silver. Politicians have intoned words to this effect about those who have served in all the wars since the 1885 campaign in the Sudan.

The Australian War Memorial in Canberra is intended to be the national public expression of that remembrance, not only of those killed in war but of all of those who have served the nation in time of peril. But as the current controversy about the need to find commercial sponsorship of the playing of the Last Post indicates, the eternal gratitude of our political leaders does not extend to actually paying for the remembrance of our soldiers, sailors and airmen and women.

It is not just the Last Post; that is just the latest example. Many of the exhibitions in the Museum also have commercial sponsors, and this has been going on for a long time.

One would have thought that the kind of remembrance that the national war memorial represents would be considered a small but important part of the core business of the national government of any self-respecting nation. Regrettably our political leaders have far more important things to spend our money on, like bribing voters in marginal electorates and spending money in ways they think will make them popular. The Howard Government was able to find $8 million for the Western Bulldogs AFL club and the Rudd Government was able to find $4.5 million for the redevelopment of the Carlton Football Club’s facilities (see Commonwealth Grant for Carlton Football Club).

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to give that sort of money to the national war memorial and leave it to the football clubs to find the commercial sponsorships. Let’s get the corporate logos out of the War Memorial.

This scrounging for commercial sponsorship is a sad contrast to the faithfulness of the evening ceremony which takes place at the Menin Gate in Ypres, the gateway to the Ypres Salient battlefields, at 8.00 pm every day. Every evening the Gate, a busy thoroughfare, is closed to traffic while buglers of the local volunteer fire brigade play the Last Post in a moving ceremony which is an expression of the Belgian nation’s gratitude to the British and Commonwealth troops who fought for their freedom and independence in World War I.

This ceremony began with the inauguration of the Menin Gate Memorial in 1928 and continued for about four months. From 11 November 1929 it has taken place every day, in all weathers, with the exception of the period of the German Occupation, from 20 May 1940 to 6 September 1944. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town.

Somehow after ninety years the good citizens of Ypres still manage to remember our brave lads without the need for commercial sponsorship.

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