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Flag, anthem, war and pandemic all focus of reflection on Remembrance Day

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While Remembrance Day is all about reflecting on the fallen and their contribution to Australia, today was remarkable for the amount of public debate on issues as diverse as where to fly Indigenous flags to the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In a powerful speech at the Australian War Memorial, where pandemic restrictions kept Remembrance Day attendance down, Victoria Cross recipient Daniel Keighran said Australians should reflect on the pandemic’s impact on their way of life much like the First World War did more than 100 years ago.

“The events of 2020 have challenged us all,” he said in a commemorative address.

“Like war, they have shaped or sharpened our focus onto what is important — family, friends and loved ones.

“Australia truly is a lucky country and even in the most challenging of times there is nowhere else I want to be.”

He drew parallels between what people find important to them personally during wartime and how simple gestures of kindness can help people cope with the emotional impact of COVID-19.

“During conflict in remote countries, as during this pandemic, there is comfort in the simplest of things — a laugh, a drink with a mate, a phone call home or even a hot shower,” he said.

“It is the Australian way to protect and honour those things that we hold dear. That means remembering all that we have lost, including more than 102,000 Australians who never made it home from war. We must never forget their sacrifice.”

Meanwhile, Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt has defended his opposition to hanging the Aboriginal flag in the Senate, but revealed he supported changing a word in the national anthem to acknowledge Australia’s Indigenous history.

Three Indigenous senators moved a motion on Tuesday to coincide with NAIDOC Week to have the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags hoisted alongside the Australian flag in the upper house.

But coalition senators opposed the move, narrowly defeating the motion 29 to 28 votes. Wyatt said he would rather see the flags flying outside Parliament House.

“In the chamber, people don’t notice the flags,” he told NITV on Wednesday.

He also argued the Senate was a place for people to represent their states.

“That’s why the federation flags are hanging in there representing the federation of Australia.”

The minister said there were more important issues to focus on, including suicide among indigenous youths and access to safe drinking water.

“The lefties can have as much to say about my stance on many issues, but get real and look at the quality of life that our people need to live, not the symbolism element that some people tend to push,” Wyatt said.

“This issue of the flag should not detract from what we’re trying to achieve for the voice, for ultimately constitutional recognition and truth-telling, which is what we’ve been committed to.”

Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy said Remembrance Day was an important reminder of the power of symbolism.

“We need to fly these flags,” she told parliament.

“People say it’s symbolism but guess what? So was today. So is this beautiful poppy that I have above my heart.”

“We can chew and walk at the same time. We can have symbols but we can have practical changes in institutions that can systemically change for the better.”

McCarthy used Question Time to pursue the government over its refusal to fly Indigenous flags.

Government Senate leader Simon Birmingham was asked if he would reconsider, given Liberal state governments fly the flags in parliamentary chambers.

“The government believes it’s appropriate for the Australian national flag in this chamber,” he told senators.

NAIDOC committee co-chairs John Paul Janke and Pat Thompson wrote to government senators and MPs after the vote urging them to reconsider.

Wyatt confirmed he supported NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s push to change the lyrics of the national anthem from “young and free” to “one and free” to better acknowledge to country’s Indigenous history.

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