13 September 2011
Andrew asks the Prime Minister to give greater protection to the remains of World War I diggers.
Mr WILKIE (Denison) (14:39): My question is to the Prime Minister. The remains of World War I diggers are often uncovered during routine earthworks on farms and building sites in France and Belgium. There have been concerning reports that these remains are sometimes ploughed back into the ground or simply ignored when they are uncovered. I understand the government’s position is that this practice does not occur and it would cite Fromelles as an exemplar of what does occur when remains are found. Given the numerous reports documenting this occurrence, will the government look afresh at this issue and work with the French and Belgian governments to give greater protection to the remains of our World War I diggers?
Ms GILLARD (Lalor—Prime Minister) (14:39): I thank the member for Denison for his question. It is a very serious one and I am sure all members of the parliament will have an interest in the answer. We are all committed in this parliament, this government, all Australian governments, to remembering and honouring our war dead. It is one of the things that has bound us together as a nation over a very long period of time. It is part of the contract between our nation and those who have served for us in battle. It is a commitment that I take very seriously.
The treaties that Australia and the Commonwealth have with France relating to our war dead are amongst the strongest treaties of their kind. French and Belgian officials and those who own and farm the land in which remains are sometimes found understand the desire of Australians to ensure that any remains are dealt with sensitively and they share our concern about treating our war dead with respect.
I am advised that there is no evidence that French farmers are guilty of ploughing human remains back into their fields, as has sometimes been asserted in media reporting. In recent years most if not all remains of Australian soldiers have been discovered at a depth greater than that which is uncovered by routine ploughing. They are further underground. In almost every instance those remains were discovered during deeper excavations—for example, when people are digging trenches for gas pipelines, so they are working further underground.
As all Australians know, tens of thousands of Australians fell in battle across the Western Front. There are about 18,000 Australians who lost their lives and for whom there is no known grave. The government will continue to do all it can to find and identify the remains of our war dead. The member for Denison referred to Fromelles, for example. We continue to identify and commemorate the remains of 250 soldiers. Those remains were discovered in 2009. The government has set up a new unit known as the Unrecovered War Casualties section to specifically investigate missing-in-action cases.
Finally, I want to recognise—and I think members of the House would join me in this—the respect and gratitude and constant acts of remembrance that the people of France and Belgium pay to Australia. People who have visited there comment on it, not only in terms of the memorials they see but also in the attitudes of the people they meet. We continue to be grateful for seeing that emotion from the people of France and the people in Belgium towards our soldiers lost at war.