Whoever thought Anzac Day would be defeated by a bat-soup virus from a wet-food market in China or that the spirit of Kokoda would be routed by a DFAT virus in Papua New Guinea?
Both scenarios were unthinkable a short while ago but are now a tragic reality as we approach the anniversary of our national day of commemoration on April 25.
Most Australians will take time out to commemorate our traditional Dawn Service in their own way. They understand Anzac Day is not about flag-waving and marching bands as wonderful as these displays of patriotism are – it’s about mateship and the quiet contemplation of remembrance.
It’s about taking a few moments to reflect on past sacrifice and ponder the words of John McRae’s immortal poem, In Flanders Fields:
We are the dead. Short time ago we lived. Felt dawn – saw sunsets glow – loved and were loved.
And now we lie in Flanders Fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe. To you from flailing hands we throw: The torch – be yours to hold it high. And if you break faith with us who die. We shall not sleep – though poppies grow, in Flanders Fields.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott understood these words when he commissioned the $100 million Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux as a signature project for the Centenary of Anzac. Abbott is a scholar who understood it would require a visionary project to interpret our Anzac heritage for the next 100 years. It was somewhat ironic that his political nemesis, Malcolm Turnbull, was Prime Minister when it was officially opened.
Abbott would not have been phased by the irony however because the legacy of an idea is far more important to him than political mortality.
Historically, Kokoda has lived in the shadow of Gallipoli with sight but no vision.
During my army career, I was able to visit overseas war cemeteries and most Civil War battlefields in the United States. I was struck by both the reserved dignity of the Brits and the patriotic fervour of Americans in their commitment to commemoration.
I expected to encounter a similar version when I first trekked Kokoda with a local guide 29 years ago.
But it was not to be. The jungle had reclaimed most of the battle sites while others had been bypassed altogether. There were no maps, signs or memorials to identify or honour any of them.
Paul Keating caused the nation to refocus on the place when he became the first prime minister to visit Kokoda since the war on the 50th anniversary of the campaign. A decade later John Howard committed $1.5 million to develop a solemn memorial at Isurava on the 60th anniversary of the battle.
A proposal to mine the southern section of the trail soon after resulted in a hasty decision to send officials from the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts to ‘assist’ PNG with a World Heritage Listing for the Owen Stanley Ranges.
They quickly established beachheads in comfortable Port Moresby offices and set about securing their future.
The name ‘Kokoda’ was hijacked to give relevance to their agenda which had little to do with the wartime connotation of the place.
The Kokoda Trail was then redefined as the ‘Kokoda Track Corridor’ and extended to include distant locations on the north and south coast which were not associated with the Kokoda campaign. This created a smorgasbord of opportunity for the next wave of taxpayer-funded bureaucrats, advisors, consultants, anthropologists and rent-seeking NGOs in search of a cause.
Military historians, the Australian War Memorial and Veterans Affairs were excluded from their inner circles. Papua New Guineans were patronised with aid-funded projects but politely ignored.
When they discovered military heritage was not a consideration for World Heritage it was relegated in favour of a progressive social and environmental agenda involving climate change, capacity building, mentoring, gender equity and social mapping. Since then battle sites have been desecrated and not a cent has been invested in a heritage memorial at any significant site along the trail.
Environmental officials assumed control of the PNG Kokoda Track Authority to show them how to manage the trail and the emerging trekking industry. The record now shows the extent of their failure as trekker numbers declined by 42 per cent under their watch despite multi-million-dollar budgets. The decline has cost Kokoda villagers thousands of part-time jobs and millions of dollars in lost income opportunities.
The DEWHA management system within the Kokoda Track Authority has failed to produce an audited financial report or implement a single management protocol over the past decade and is now on life-support. It has degenerated into a perpetual cycle of meetings, committees, forums and workshops without any outcomes for trekkers or villagers.
In an embarrassing slap to their ‘white masta’ attitude former PNG prime minister, Peter O’Neill ordered a review when he learned there was no campsite booking system, no trek itinerary management system, no trail maintenance system, no campsite development system, no legislation and no welfare protection for guides and carriers.
Our hopes for change after the election of the Coalition government in 2013 were dashed under Julie Bishop’s watch when ‘mateship’ was replaced by ‘friendship’ in our formal agreement with PNG and a progressive American anthropologist, without any military history credentials, was engaged as her DFAT National Military Heritage Advisor. He hasn’t disappointed — one of his signature objectives is to ‘employ gender awareness in pursuing commemorative design’ for memorials.
Meanwhile, we now have a ludicrous situation where Veterans Affairs is responsible for Gallipoli and our World War I heritage while Environment and DFAT is responsible for Kokoda and our World War II heritage.
Kokoda deserves better. The 75th anniversary of the end of the War in the Pacific on VP Day, 15 August 2020, offers an ideal opportunity to surrender the torch to those entrusted with honouring the legacy of commemoration on the Kokoda Trail.
Lest We Forget.
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