Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, his wife Therese Rein and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott lay wreaths during the last post ceremony. Photo: Melissa Adams
Nothing should come between Australians at a service to fallen soldiers. And nothing did. Kevin Rudd, his wife Therese Rein and Tony Abbott walked together shoulder to shoulder, carrying two wreaths between them, to place them on the ground at the Australian War Memorial.
For a couple of hours, the gladiatorship of the election campaign was put aside to remember the real gladiators, the 40 Australian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. Their names were read out, one by one, by the Chief of the Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, and the Sergeant-Major of the Army, Warrant Officer David Ashley.
The break in the furious campaigning came as both leaders returned to Canberra for the ceremony to mark the opening of the Australian War Memorial's new permanent exhibition, Afghanistan: The Australian Story.
Mr Rudd made what will stand as one of the few understatements of the campaign when he said the exhibition “takes us out of the day-to-day nonsense of our lives sometimes, puts you right up close and personal with people for whom decisions are very black and very white and whose lives really are on the line”.
Mr Abbott, citing English writer Samuel Johnson, said all men who had never been soldiers quietly despised themselves for it.
“As one who has never been a soldier, I yearn to know more of the lives of soldiers. Thanks to this exhibition we now have some glimpses into them,” Mr Abbott said.
The exhibit is unusual for the fact that it has begun while the conflict is still going on. But the memorial's director, Brendan Nelson, said it was important to start telling the story now, saying there was a “deep and therapeutic need among returning veterans to know that their stories are being told”.
The focus is a large multimedia presentation with interviews with veterans and their families, set against images of the war. This part will evolve as more veterans return to tell their stories. The interviews were done by ABC television journalist Chris Masters, a frequent visitor to Afghanistan.
The raw material side of the exhibit includes an engine cowling pulled from the wreckage of a Black Hawk helicopter that crashed in 2010, killing three Australian commandos.
Dr Nelson said of the visiting political leaders: “It says a great deal about our country and values for which we stand … that in the middle of an election campaign you would bother to be here without hesitation”.
Army Lieutenant-Colonel Sean Benporath said it would help the healing process for many Diggers – amid fears of a wave of post-traumatic stress disorder – to have the exhibit telling their stories.
“This says as much about the people – the deceased soldiers' wives or families. You can bring families here and say, 'this is what I did, look how beautiful the country was.' It is a part of healing.”