It is always a pleasure to catch up socially with Tony Abbott whose steadfast friendship I have enjoyed for over three decades. Before he became Prime Minister we invariably met at least once during each parliamentary session for a curry at the Shalimar Restaurant in Canberra Civic. Initially, I had been introduced to the Shalimar by Labor’s Kim Beazley, back in the 1980s. Sadly, it closed a couple of years ago and so, as Abbott’s schedule is now vastly busier, we select random places for dinner when the opportunity presents.
Last week we met at the Chairman and Yip in Canberra where we were joined by Abbott’s redoubtable former Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin. Both were in sparkling form. Credlin has adapted very well to her roles as a columnist at News Limited and commentator on Sky News, both of which reveal her as the woman of substance and humour that her friends know her to be. For his part, the former Prime Minister is working on another book, which he hopes to complete by year’s end. It will be a sequel to his earlier work Battlelines rather than a chronicle of his life. He is still steeped in the national debate and is especially well versed in national security issues and the global political situation.
Speaking of books, seated at a nearby table at the restaurant were Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese, and writer and journalist Karen Middleton, the author of the recently released biography of ‘Albo’. We exchanged pleasantries but their presence did dampen proceedings at our table somewhat. As avid readers will know I am fond of feeding Abbott from my own spoon at dinner, a practice I pioneered when we both working for John Hewson. Sadly, the presence of a member of the Press Gallery restrained me from this customary mark of affection often exchanged between veterans of the ‘unlosable’ 1993 election campaign. Still, there is always a next time…
Canberra produced a remarkably mild, clear late winter day for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan and Vietnam Veterans’ Day. I was incredibly touched to be invited to join the family of Gunner Phillip Norris and the men of 103 and Headquarter Battery 1 Field Regiment. The story of how Norris was mistakenly listed as killed by mortar fire on the eve of the battle only to be reunited with his family nearly 40 years later, was both astonishing and heart rending. Two of his comrades Graham McGuinness, and Doug Heazlewood, had informed me of the extraordinary story of Gunner Norris and the inspiring efforts of his comrades to find him over the years. It was a testament to the finest values of our Army, particularly those who fought in Vietnam. The social opprobrium they encountered on their return forged extremely close bonds among them.
Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove, himself a decorated Vietnam Veteran, delivered a beautiful oration at the Vietnam Memorial on the anniversary. He spoke of the Vietnam blokes as an ‘odd lot’. This was greeted with much knowing mirth among the old soldiers. For too long they were the orphans of the veteran’s community, neither feeling respected by veterans of the World Wars nor the wider society. Now, as they come of age, as the elder statesmen of the veterans’ community, they have finally received the recognition that their bravery and professionalism warranted.
Conspicuously overlooked even among other veterans have been the men of 1 Field Regiment, whose sustained fire saved D Company 6 RAR from annihilation. The infantry were isolated, desperately outnumbered, and running out of ammunition. But for the devastating barrage from the artillery they would probably have been killed to a man. The gunners, backed by the Kiwis of 161 Battery, fired over 3000 high explosive rounds over three hours without respite in direct support of their mates in the rubber plantation. It was one of the most prodigious feats of arms in our military history. Yet at the 40th anniversary of the battle, gunners were ignored and their contribution not even mentioned in the official speeches. Just before last week’s ceremony began they formed three ranks one last time behind their faded regimental banner and marched to their seats. Years have not condemned. They still look like soldiers. I wept without shame or restraint as they passed by.
After the ceremony, the gunners eagerly sought out Tony Abbott. His decision to bring home the remains of our soldiers interred in Malaysia meant a great deal to the Vietnam Veterans. He was surrounded by the old diggers and their families. Abbott is manifestly at ease amongst soldiers and veterans and they love him for it.
The next day I spent some time with emerging theatre director Priscilla Jackman at the Ensemble theatre in Sydney. She approached me to collaborate in a stage production about my life since gender transition. Sydney Theatre Company staged a Rough Draft on 6 May and it seems likely to proceed. I was touched at the suggestion of the editor of this august journal that we name the play The Caitlyn McJenner Diaries. Vetoed. But as the through story deals with my incredibly generous reception within the global cricket family, I incline to Following On. Goodness knows my first innings was a bit streaky, punctuated by alcoholism, gender dysphoria and drug abuse. Not to mention being left handed. As one Sydney cab driver drily mused to me ‘Geez love you hit every branch on the way down didn’t you.’ Couldn’t make it up.
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