Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (9.30 pm)—On 8 February, the first sitting of parliament for 2011, the Prime Minister made a commitment to honour Australians who by their actions had helped save lives and volunteered during the recent national flood crises.
I have been so touched—
the Prime Minister said—
by the stories of bravery, of courage and of mateship that I felt an obligation to honour these wonderful Australian traits.
I have sought approval from the Queen to introduce honours for Australians who have gone out of their way to extend the hand of mateship during times of crisis.
Next Australia Day I’m confident we will present our first awards to those who have performed heroic and selfless acts and volunteered their services across Australia in times of crisis.
The Prime Minister said that these awards would be backdated to include those who reached out to each other during the 7 February 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, which tragically claimed 173 lives. I believe we could and should go a step further and give such an award in the form of a medal named after two of this country’s finest heroes.
‘Heroes’ is one of the most overused words today. Every sportsman or woman who scores a winning goal or finishes first in a race is lauded as a hero or heroine. But the real heroes of this nation are in fact our volunteers, our doctors and our surgeons, our emergency workers, people who go above and beyond the call of duty to assist the disabled and the underprivileged as well as those who selflessly put their own lives and limbs at risk to save others.
Two such heroes now belong to the annals of history. One was from the Riverina, the region I proudly represent, although long before Federation was reality. He was Yarri, an Aboriginal man, who was the hero of the Gundagai in the devastating flood of 1852 in what was then the worst disaster on record in the colonies. The other miracle worker, I feel, who ought to be nationally recognised in the conferral of an award to honour Australia’s greatest heroes is John ‘Jack’ Simpson Kirkpatrick. Better known for his courage under fire at Gallipoli in 1915, this noble soldier, who enlisted as John Simpson, and his donkey rescued many wounded comrades, until his untimely demise just 3½ weeks after the original landings. Yarri and Simpson are names which belong to the ages. How appropriate it would be if their names adorned a medal to be struck to commemorate our modern-day heroes of the Victorian bushfires and the 2011 floods—the Yarri- Simpson Medal. It has a nice ring to it.
By fittingly bringing together these two heroes of yesteryear, the Commonwealth will also be in a sense ‘closing the gap’ between the people of our first nation and those of Australia’s Anglo-Saxon heritage. This would be a significant cultural and historic step. What a marvellous learning opportunity for Australia’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous schoolchildren to know that two of their forefathers made such an important and heroic contribution to the history of our great nation.
When I was at high school in Wagga Wagga in the 1970s one of my favourite teachers was John Egan, who approached me just the other day to extol the virtues of Yarri. ‘He ought to be nationally recognised,’ Mr Egan—and I still call him that out of respect for his seniority—said. ‘Quite right,’ I replied. My scholarly friend was dismayed that there was little to honour Yarri apart from a marble headstone placed over this great warrior’s grave and a sundial erected in Gundagai by descendants of Fred Horsley, who was one of those saved. Yarri’s tale of heroism is quite remarkable and is one which should be taught in Australian history as part of the national curriculum.
The original town of Gundagai in 1838 was situated on the right-hand bank of the Murrumbidgee River flood plain. The town was hit by several large floods of the Murrumbidgee. The flood on 25 June 1852 washed Gundagai away, killing at least 78 people and more likely 89 of the town’s population of 250 people. But for the efforts of Yarri, Jacky Jacky, Long Jimmy and one other Indigenous man in saving many Gundagai people from those 1852 floodwaters, there would have been a lot more killed. They were brave beyond belief. They went out in their bark canoes, rescuing people —white people—one after another after another and taking them to safety.
Jack Simpson and his donkey gave their lives so that others might live. Day after day and week after week at Gallipoli, Simpson and his donkey would wind their way through the hills and valleys looking for wounded soldiers. Even though it was very dangerous, Simpson would crawl on his belly and drag soldiers back to safety. He would then put the injured soldier on the donkey’s back and lead him down to the beach. Simpson’s sacrifice for his fellow man was mirrored in 13-year-old Jordan Rice, who gave up his life to save that of his 10-year-old brother, Blake, in the Toowoomba flood.
Jack Simpson, the man with the donkey, is commemorated at the Australian War Memorial by a bronze statue—the War Memorial, a place which ought to be fully funded forthwith. His name and that of Yarri, I feel, should now be part of a new national award, the Yarri-Simpson Medal. (Time expired)