Tribute to Godfrey Eugene "Rusty" Priest, Am

About this Item
SpeakersMcManus Mr Ian; Collins The Hon Peter; Collier Mr Barry; Armstrong Mr Ian; Newell Mr Neville
BusinessUrgent Motion, URG MOT


Page: 2439
    Urgent Motion

    Mr McMANUS (Heathcote—Parliamentary Secretary) [3.26 p.m.]: I move:
        That this House:

        (1) notes the important role of the Returned and Services League of Australia in representing ex-service personnel and their families;

        (2) recognises the outstanding contribution of Mr Godfrey Eugene "Rusty" Priest to the RSL movement and his proud record as its leader upon his retirement last month; and

        (3) welcomes the election of Mr Keith Hall, the first Vietnam veteran appointed to the position.
    I first met Rusty Priest soon after his appointment as New South Wales President of the Returned and Services League of Australia in 1993. As a Vietnam veteran, a member of the New South Wales Parliament and a club patron, I often found myself in the company of Rusty at remembrance ceremonies and memorial dedications as well as RSL and State Government functions. As a consequence, I quickly formed a personal relationship with the RSL boss. Always a straight shooter, Rusty worked tirelessly for the movement and for veterans. I consider Rusty to be a former comrade in arms, a good friend and a mentor on veterans issues. His dedication to duty is beyond reproach. His diligence and personal feelings regarding our proud Anzac history are nothing short of inspiring.

    In the tradition of our Anzac legend, age has not wearied Rusty Priest, who at 73 has shown no signs of slowing down. I am happy to report that, even though he is handing over the State presidency, Rusty Priest is still on active service. He remains Chairman of the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway Committee. He will also continue to hold the position of Deputy Chairman of the Anzac Health Research Foundation and will keep a close eye on activities at Concord hospital, which continues to provide first-class health services to veterans. With men like Rusty Priest and Keith Hall at the helm of an organisation that does so much for veterans and active servicemen alike, I am sure that the high level of education and awareness currently enjoyed by the community will continue for many generations to come.

    One has only to look to Anzac Cove in Gallipoli, which is the site of what has become an annual pilgrimage for young Australian travellers every 25 April. So many people are drawn to that location every year because of the feelings of pride and relevance instilled in the community by men and women of the Returned and Services League. I pay tribute today to a man who has served both his country and the State of New South Wales, the retired RSL State President, Godfrey Eugene Priest— known to you and I as Rusty.

    Born in June 1927 in Melbourne, Rusty first put on a slouch hat in 1945 after joining the 2nd Australian Imperial Force at the age of 19. He later served in the 22nd Line Maintenance Section in post-war Japan. Rusty wore his country's uniform for 22 years before shifting his attention to the Returned and Services League, but not before being awarded the meritorious service, long service and good conduct medals. Rusty Priest approached the RSL with the same enthusiasm, professionalism and dedication he displayed during his time with the Australian Army. We should all be familiar with some of Rusty Priest's achievements during his decade-long stint as the New South Wales State President of the RSL.

    Perhaps his greatest achievement has been the heightened sense of community pride, awareness and involvement in Anzac Day. We have all looked on in pride at the thousands of people who now gather in our streets to pay tribute to our Anzac heroes. Hundreds of flag-waving youngsters are drawn to the street marches, not only in Sydney but right around the State. When Rusty took on the presidency in 1993 his major aim was to ensure that the RSL remained relevant and the significance of Anzac Day was not forgotten by the younger members of the community. To Rusty Priest I am happy to say, "Mate, mission accomplished." His hard work did not end there. At the opening of the Anzac Bridge and the erection of a four-metre bronze statue of a digger guarding one of the approaches, in a gesture typical of Rusty's commitment to history and the Anzac legend, he placed a small jar of sand from Anzac Cove in the soldier's left boot. He also fought to ensure that the wannabes—the imposters who march on Anzac Day posing as veterans—receive harsh fines. He was quoted in one newspaper as saying:
        It causes grave concern that there are people wearing campaign medals they are not entitled to, but other veterans have fought for and in many cases died for.

    On 24 May Rusty, at the helm of the RSL, helped to bring the State together for one minute's silence to remember and pay tribute to Alec Campbell, aged 103, our last remaining Anzac who passed away in Hobart. He pushed to have the flags at all State buildings flown at half-mast during the funeral. He also staged a campaign against the merger of Anzac Day and Australia Day. It was a victory for Rusty, who believed our national day of celebration should not be combined with a national day of remembrance and respect. It has not just been heroes of the past that Mr Priest has concentrated on. With the war on terror being beamed into our loungerooms every night the RSL was working behind the scenes to ensure that Australian servicemen on active duty and in harm's way, in trouble spots around the globe, received care packages from home, thanks to the RSL Australian Forces Overseas Fund.

    I have personally worked with the RSL President during a high-profile campaign to protect the graves of some 61 Australian servicemen who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the battlefields of France during the First World War. The graves, located at Fouquescourt, Meharicourt and Bouchoir cemeteries, had been earmarked as a possible location for the third Paris airport. Determined not to let these heroes be buried beneath a layer of reinforced concrete, we initiated a Statewide petition. To date the petition has been extensively supported by the RSL, my parliamentary colleagues and members of the public—so much so the French Government has now indicated it will re-examine plans for a new airport. Both the former State President and I consider this a great victory.

    While remembering Rusty's efforts, we must now also congratulate his successor, Mr Keith Hall. Keith's appointment to the State's top RSL post has come at the end of both a distinguished military career and a long association with the Returned and Services League. Keith Hall is the first Vietnam veteran to hold the President's job. As a veteran of the Vietnam conflict I would like to proudly and officially welcome him to his new post. He is a highly decorated veteran of that campaign and he proudly wears the Returned from Active Service badge. After 17 years in the Australian Army Keith began his active association with the RSL in 1980. Since joining he has held a variety of high- ranking and executive positions and is well equipped to take over the role from Rusty Priest. In the very near future I will be travelling to Cootamundra and I look forward to officially meeting Keith on a personal basis and congratulating him personally on behalf of this House.

    Mr Armstrong: And meeting the local member as well.

    Mr McMANUS: And meeting the local member. I intend to meet with Mr Hall and personally congratulate him on his efforts on becoming the President. I am sure this House will applaud the efforts of a great man, the outgoing State RSL President, Rusty Priest, and wish all the very best to the incoming President, Keith Hall.

    Mr COLLINS (Willoughby) [3.34 p.m.]: The Opposition supports the motion moved by the honourable member for Heathcote this afternoon and warmly congratulates Rusty Priest on his outstanding service to the people of New South Wales and Australia during his term as President of the RSL. Last Saturday week I had the privilege of representing the Opposition at the launch of the latest Anzac frigate, HMAS Ballarat, at Williamstown in Victoria and there I was speaking to Bruce Ruxton, the retiring President of the Victorian RSL, himself a colourful and charismatic figure. Just how colourful and charismatic was brought home to me after the launch of the latest Anzac frigate when Bruce Ruxton and I walked through an honour guard of Air League cadets and they all snapped to attention—certainly not for me as a visiting member of Parliament, but for Bruce Ruxton, who took the greeting of these young Australians very well indeed.

    He also received the applause of ordinary citizens of Victoria who were there attending the launch. It is that position that Rusty Priest enjoys in the community in New South Wales. He is liked by all sides, by everyone. I think he is someone of whom it could be said that he does not have a single enemy. He has done his job with exceptional proficiency after an extraordinary career representing the RSL for the last couple of decades. Rusty Priest's curriculum vitae shows that there is hardly a position in the RSL, or in any of those organisations which represents returned service men and women, that Rusty Priest has not at some stage filled. You name it, he has done it. Not only that, he has done it with great distinction and dignity.

    Both Rusty Priest and his Victorian counterpart have been of extremely high profile and have at times been very deliberately brought into controversy. The honourable member for Heathcote has outlined a number of campaigns that Rusty Priest has been involved in. Certainly we would support the comments made by the mover of this motion about the need to keep Australia Day and Anzac Day quite separate. They are entirely separate national days with completely different historical overtones. They are both part of being Australian, but they commemorate two very different chapters in our history.

    This motion is an opportunity to recognise the work done more broadly by the Returned and Services League of Australia and to talk a little bit about its future—not that there is that much time to dwell on it. As some members in this House would know, I have a strong and long interest in the military, naval and aviation history of this country and I believe that it is something that the RSL is particularly positioned to preserve and enshrine. Part of the role of the RSL is to take the history of ordinary Australians in times of conflict representing this nation as they are today so that Australians of all generations and all backgrounds understand the sacrifice that these men and women made on our behalf. It is a crucial role because if we ever forget the lessons that they learned the hard way, we have only the most dire consequences to consider as a nation.

    The role of the RSL in educating Australians is quite crucial and something that needs the support of government from time to time. That support was there when the Glebe Island Bridge was dedicated as the Anzac Bridge and the statue of a digger was erected, after the intervention and support of Rusty Priest. That is the kind of ongoing role that the RSL can so constructively play in educating Australians. I hope the Australian community understands that this is not a role that dies out when the last digger who saw active service dies. In recent weeks there has been a lot of concentration on the death of the last Australian to serve at Gallipoli. This in no way should be deemed to be closure on that part of our history. It is a part of our history that must be relived in the minds of all generations of Australians. The RSL has a crucial, ongoing educational and cultural role to play in achieving precisely that.

    I turn to Keith Hall, the successor of Rusty Priest. On behalf of the Opposition—I know I will be supported in this by my colleague the honourable member for Lachlan—we wish Keith Hall the very best in the job ahead of him. It is his job now to pick up where Rusty Priest has left off. We are sure that he will do a great job, that he will want to do at least as well as Rusty Priest. The torch has been passed to a new generation in the RSL, which could not be symbolised better than by the fact that Keith Hall is a Vietnam veteran. The mover of the motion is also a Vietnam veteran. Part of the healing process for Vietnam veterans, who suffered greatly in the years immediately following the war, will be in the hands of the new RSL President, who will be able to do so much to explain the role of those who served this country with just as much dedication in the Vietnam war as their predecessors did in Malaysia, Malaya, Korea, the Second World War, the First World War and all other conflicts.

    Speaking to this motion provides a suitable time to remember that even now Australian service men and women are committed abroad in the defence interests of this country. Now the war is a war against terror, a vastly different war from the war in which Rusty Priest served as a member of the occupation forces in Japan at the end of the Second World War—as indeed my own father did in the Royal Australian Air Force contingent which flew to Iwakuni in Japan at the cessation of hostilities in 1945. The world may have changed, the nature of warfare may have changed, but the role of the RSL goes on. The legacy left by Rusty Priest is a proud one that will be built on by Keith Hall and by those who follow. It is a crucial role which every member of this Parliament, especially those engaged in this debate, obviously support to the hilt. We believe that the RSL is a crucial cultural determinant in Australia and we are confident that it always will be. With those words I commend the motion to the House.

    Mr COLLIER (Miranda) [3.44 p.m.]: It is only fitting that this House acknowledge the leadership, achievements and outstanding contribution of Godfrey Eugene "Rusty" Priest to the RSL movement. Mr Priest was the New South Wales State President of the Returned and Services League from 1993 until his retirement last month. Perhaps no-one is more closely identified with the RSL than Mr Priest: a man of integrity who is deeply committed to the ideals of the RSL movement and is held in the highest esteem by community leaders and RSL members.

    In February this year at the Miranda RSL I was present when Mr Priest addressed the gathering to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the tragic events of Banka Island. His address left me in no doubt that Mr Priest was a grass-roots RSL President, well attuned to the needs and aspirations of his members. Rusty Priest's achievements as RSL President are many, but two readily come to mind. One is the naming of the Anzac Bridge, with its memorial statue on the city approach. The second is the establishment of the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway near Concord Repatriation Hospital. Like many, including my own father, Mr Priest enlisted in the services as soon as he was of age. And, like my dad, he served in the British Commonwealth occupation forces in Japan. This was the beginning of a proud and distinguished 22-year military career for Mr Priest.

    Mr Priest, we congratulate you on your distinguished service as State President. We thank you for your commitment to RSL members and to our community and we wish you all the very best in your retirement. I join with the honourable member for Heathcote in congratulating Mr Keith Hall on his election as New South Wales President of the RSL. Mr Hall is the first Vietnam veteran to be appointed to this esteemed position, and I know that all members of the House will join me in wishing him well as the State leader of this wonderful movement. Rusty Priest said at his last official function as State President, "I'm leaving with the great satisfaction of knowing that the RSL today is looked upon in New South Wales as an organisation that is strong and has remained relevant." I could not agree more.

    I see that strength and relevance in the growing numbers at the Anzac dawn service conducted by the Miranda RSL sub-branch. This year at Miranda more than 3,000 people, including a large number of schoolchildren, gathered at the memorial in Central Avenue to commemorate and remember the fallen and all who served in all wars and conflicts. After the service—one of the largest in the State—the RSL club provided breakfast for 1,050 people. To paraphrase Rusty Priest's words, RSL clubs such as Miranda sub-branch are increasingly seen by our community as having a key role as "the virtual guardians of commemoration and remembrance".

    But I also see the strength and relevance of which Mr Priest spoke in the commitment of the Miranda RSL sub-branch and its members to the welfare of local ex-service men and women and their families and its commitment to the people of Miranda and the Sutherland shire. Miranda RSL sub-branch was formed in 1935 by a group of World War I Diggers, and veterans of the shire have met and socialised at the club for more than 66 years. The club has been headquarters for their commitment to veterans and the community. I can give the House many examples of that commitment. The club has a welfare bus, for example, that is used to transport the aged and infirm on outings from local nursing homes, day-care centres, Miranda Neighbour Aid, seniors and youth club members.

    The Captain Cook Club, founded by sub-branch members, caters for veterans, their families and members of the public. Its volunteers take more than 70 aged and infirm residents on outings, letting them experience days out and activities suitable to their years. The sub-branch contributes substantially to the Miranda RSL Youth Club, providing healthy activities for more than 300 local children. The sub-branch contributes substantial donations to Sutherland Hospital, Legacy and the President's Shield, which supports veterans in need. Other local organisations and charities too numerous to mention are supported by the Miranda RSL sub-branch. In particularly, the sub-branch supports 17 local schools in its charter area with an Australian poetry competition, a history symposium and the presentation of books donated and placed on the war memorial at the Anzac dawn service.

    In Miranda RSL we have a sub-branch and a club that respond quickly to the needs of the community. For example, in the early hours of Monday 11 September 2000 a fire broke out under a block of units in Karimbla Road, Miranda. The club opened its doors at extremely short notice, providing shelter, warmth and comfort for more than 100 evacuees, many of whom were still in night attire. The club also worked with emergency services personnel. The Miranda RSL sub-branch and club are an integral part of my community and the Sutherland shire—committed to working unselfishly and in the best interests of veterans, their families and the community. I commend the RSL sub-branch members, the executive and its volunteers, past and present. I thank sub-branch president Mr Mike Paris, vice-president Mr Cliff Raatz, secretary Jim Lowe, women's auxiliary president Mrs Marge Wood, and women's auxiliary vice-president Mrs Dawn Newman, as well as the club president Mr Mario Debjak, for their leadership of this wonderful organisation that contributes so much to my community.

    Mr ARMSTRONG (Lachlan) [3.49 p.m.]: One of the difficulties in speaking to a motion such as this is that it can be difficult not to speak as though it is an obituary. But one thing that is an absolute certainty is that nobody is more alive than Rusty Priest. If we were asked to draw or describe a quintessentially Australian male we would probably end up with someone looking and sounding like Rusty Priest. Rusty Priest epitomises the average Australian and that is one of the reasons why he was so successful as the President of the New South Wales RSL. He is the sort of person that every woman wanted to marry, that every son would like to be able to call Dad, and that ever club or church would like to have as a guest at their annual dinner. Rusty Priest has a universal appeal, and that is one of the reasons why Australian Diggers have gained universal respect throughout the various campaigns that Australia has participated in, even from most of their enemies over generations.

    Rusty Priest managed to weld the community together and did a marvellous public relations exercise in promoting the RSL and ensuring it remained an integral and pivotal part of Anzac Day marches in the smallest of country towns and the cities. He ensured that the RSL movement was reflective of the spirit of new arrivals and of the evolution of our communities. He managed to also integrate the generational change. In the past few weeks the last of our Anzacs have died. In recent years, more and more young people have participated in Anzac Day marches, wearing their father's or uncle's medals on their right breast.

    Rusty Priest encouraged and fostered the evolutionary process of the RSL and the Anzac movement. I say to Rusty, good luck for his future because I am darned sure he will be about for some time with his hand on the tiller of the RSL and ensuring that the good work he has done is carried on by his successor. I have the honour of being the parliamentary representative of Rusty's successor, Mr Keith Hall from Cootamundra. I know him quite well and was one of the guests of honour at this year's Anzac Day march and luncheon in Cootamundra. That is a most hospitable RSL branch, and I am pleased that I left before dinner, because it may have been too hospitable.

    There is no doubt that Keith Hall has many attributes. As members said earlier, he is the first Vietnam veteran to have achieved this distinction. It appeals to me that he is a countryman from that great electorate of Lachlan, and he has a managerial record—he has just about all the right requirements for the job. I have no doubt that the future of the RSL is in good hands. As evidenced today he has the support of both sides of this House to carry on the good work and traditions of the RSL. It is not easy in today's changing community to maintain popularity. The community is not wedded to anything much at all: not to churches, unions or political parties. It is a mobile, free-thinking, free-living community; but it is wedded to Anzac Day.

    I agree with honourable members who said earlier that Anzac Day is not our national day, but it is a national day in spirit. It must always be a stand-alone day, because one of its great strengths is that it recognises our history while incorporating our future. That is something we have managed to mould over the years, and something we must never lose. Very few societies have been able to recognise their past while guaranteeing their future with an organisation that is bipartisan and respected by all, from its earliest founders to its latest arrivals. I join with other honourable members in saying, "Thanks, Rusty. Welcome Keith, you can look forward to our support." And I say to Rusty, "We might have a quiet one when I see you next."

    Mr NEWELL (Tweed) [3.53 p.m.]: I join my colleagues on both sides of the House in endorsing the motion moved by the honourable member for Heathcote. I pay tribute to the retiring president, Mr Rusty Priest, and the incoming president, Mr Keith Hall. As the honourable member for Lachlan said, a sea change is certainly occurring within the RSL movement in the passing of the baton to another generation of Australians to endorse and carry on the good work of the RSL. Mr Rusty Priest took up the challenge of being its leader and he took the RSL to the community in a way that had not been done for quite some time.

    Rusty Priest captured the imagination and support of the community in his endeavours to make the RSL more appealing to modern youth. For that we pay tribute to him. I acknowledge the role of the RSL in handing over the baton to Mr Keith Hall as the first Vietnam veteran, and his acceptance of that challenge. I look forward to seeing how the RSL and the community support that new generation of leadership. As many members have pointed out, Rusty Priest had a distinguished army record and a distinguished record of service to the ex-services community. I do not need to repeat some of the kind words by members from both sides of the House about his record. I am sure he will endeavour to keep Anzac Day a special day for Australia.

    I pay tribute also to some of the organisations and people who work on a similar but local level within my electorate of Tweed. It is certainly at the grassroots level that organisations such as the RSL get their support. That support has ensured that the RSL and other organisations have national significance. As the honourable member for Miranda said, RSL clubs are responsible for a number of things and that includes the Anzac Day celebrations. I should like to pay tribute to a number of organisations within my electorate. The Murwillumbah RSL sub-branch organises wonderful Anzac Day and 11 November Remembrance Day celebrations and a number of other functions throughout the year to recognise the achievements and endeavours of ex-service personnel. I thank especially the president, Mr Derek Simms, who has held that office for quite some time. I also thank the secretary, Mr Kevin Cheetham, for his work.

    My electorate has a number of RSL sub-branches. Kingscliff RSL sub-branch does great work and for that I pay tribute to its president, Joe Peoples. Recently I had the pleasure of sending Joe a fiftieth wedding anniversary congratulatory letter. I wish him well. The work he has put in at Kingscliff is recognised by all and sundry. Probably one of the largest RSL sub-branches in New South Wales is the Tweed-Coolangatta sub-branch, located in the north of my electorate. Its president, Peter Blake, has just taken over the reins. He does a fantastic job and is ably assisted by the secretary, Ellen Turner, an energetic young lady who has done a great job.

    Three other organisations I pay tribute to are the War Widows Guild at Murwillumbah and its president, Margaret Harris, and its treasurer, Betty Bracey; the War Widows Guild at Tweed Heads and its secretary, Shirley Pigram, and its president, Avice Wells; and the Tweed War Widows Association and its secretary, Dee Patchett, and president, Noela Nunan. They all do a tremendous job. It is amazing to go to the annual general meetings of those organisations, which are attended by no less than 100 members— [Time expired.]

    Mr McMANUS (Heathcote—Parliamentary Secretary) [3.58 p.m.], in reply: I thank my parliamentary colleagues the honourable member for Willoughby, the honourable member for Miranda, the honourable member for Lachlan and the honourable member for Tweed for their contribution to the debate on this important motion. Today history has been made again: the presidency of the RSL has passed from Rusty Priest to his colleague Keith Hall from Cootamundra. I would love to be as popular as Rusty when I retire, as most of us would. Today acknowledged Rusty's actions not only on behalf of the New South Wales Parliament but also on behalf of all of the RSL sub-branches throughout New South Wales.

    A great number of Vietnam veterans in this State appreciate the fact that a Vietnam veteran, Keith Hall, now stands at the head of the New South Wales RSL. I look forward to meeting Keith. I am from the Navy and he is from the Army, but I am sure he will not hold that against me when decisions are being made on behalf of veterans in this State and, indeed, the whole of Australia. I again thank Rusty Priest on behalf of the New South Wales Parliament. I have no doubt that in the future he will not be silent. He will be arguing as much as he can wherever and whenever he can. I thank him for everything he has done for this State.

    Motion agreed to.

    Pursuant to resolution business interrupted.