Roberts-Smith, Corporal Benjamin, VC, MG

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (12.20 pm)—When our service men and women leave this country to serve overseas, we know in our hearts and minds that it comes with an element of risk. In the past few weeks, Australians have seen the turmoil that serving our country can bring but also the celebration bestowed on a soldier for his courage and bravery illuminated in a time of battle.

In the light of tragedy, it seems an appropriate time to celebrate a moment of gallant behaviour shown by Corporal Benjamin Roberts-Smith, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia in recognition of extreme devotion and heroism. The Victoria Cross is the highest and most respected military award which can be given by our country. Benjamin Roberts-Smith is one of three recipients of the honour who are still living, and he is the first from Western Australia since World War II. Every VC winner has put his life on the line for his mates. Benjamin Roberts-Smith risked his life to relieve his comrades who were under withering machine-gun fire at the time of the incident. Corporal Roberts-Smith did what he could to bring his mates home.

The greatest responsibility, and the one which is at the core of the Anzac story, is to bring your mates home. Corporal Roberts-Smith did just that. I take special pride in the work of the men and women of the Australian Defence Force, as my home town of Wagga Wagga in the electorate of Riverina is known as the home of the soldier. Every Army recruit who signs up to train and learn the roles of Anzacs comes through the gates of Kapooka—Australia’s renowned Army recruit training centre.

As well as Corporal Roberts-Smith and another recent Victoria Cross recipient, Mark Donaldson, the Riverina has had four recipients of the VC medal since the award was first handed out during the Boer War. William Jackson from Gunbar, who served in World War I, was only 19 when he received the honour. John Ryan from Tumut also served in the Great War, as did Walter Brown, who later settled in Leeton. Reg Rattey from Barmedman, who served in World War II, is the fourth recipient.

It is an honour to soldiers past that the tradition lives on in a new generation—a generation that is showing itself to be as brave and as selfless as the generations before. To Corporal Roberts-Smith I, with the rest of the Riverina, say thank you for your courage, your quick thinking, your valour and your service to our nation. On Wednesday, 2 February at 9.30 am Afghanistan time, an improvised explosive device exploded, fatally wounding Corporal Richard Edward Atkinson. The recent awarding of the VC brings home the harsh realities of the death of Corporal Richard Atkinson, and it brings to mind the very incongruous nature of both death and valour, with the VC being the highest honour in wartime. At 22 years of age, Corporal Atkinson had only just begun his life as a soldier, but he was about to begin his life as a man. How courageous is it that a man so young chooses to leave behind his loved ones to fight for the freedom that the people of Afghanistan deserve and to preserve the rights of the Australian people. The freedoms that the people of Afghanistan deserve are the ones that we take for granted. The men and women who serve so bravely for us in Afghanistan are people of whom we can all be immensely proud. They are working to bring peace and stability to this country. Australia is there to help them, because we are not immune from the terrorist acts that have been planned from Afghanistan for so long.

Australian soldiers have been killed as a result of terrorist activity while directly protecting our freedom to live unencumbered by the threat of terrorist activity. Their work is of great importance and, while we will mourn the death of Corporal Atkinson forevermore, we should also be eternally proud of the work that our soldiers do.

Australia lost a brave young man who paid with his life, a very high price indeed. He will be mourned by his family, friends and mates in the Army, the wider Defence Force family and all Australians who value and respect the commitment of Defence Force personnel who work in this country’s best interests. We wish the soldier who was injured at the time all the best for a speedy recovery. Our thoughts are with him and his family. Today we stand alongside the family, friends and colleagues of Corporal Atkinson as we mourn his loss. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Corporal Benjamin Roberts-Smith VC and Corporal Richard Atkinson are owed an eternal debt of gratitude by all Australians.

Lest we forget.

Cristy Houghton