Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Speech in Parliament - Australian Red Cross - 1 September 2014

Mr TONY SMITH (Casey) (11:06): It is my pleasure to speak on this motion celebrating the centenary of the Red Cross. As the previous speaker pointed out, it was just a little over a week into World War I that the Red Cross established itself. As a local member of parliament, I want to focus on the local story in my electorate, which encompasses the Yarra Valley. On that very day that the Red Cross was established, on 13 August 1914, the local branch of the Red Cross was established in Lilydale in the heart of the Yarra Valley. It had its first meeting at the Athenaeum Hall, which would later become the Athenaeum Theatre that it is today.

Those who formed the first committee included some of the great volunteers of the Lilydale community. The first President, unanimously elected on that day, was Nellie Melba, the renowned opera singer, who lived just up the road in Coldstream. She would go on to lead that branch and raise more money than anyone else in the Red Cross—more than 100,000 pounds. She sung at concerts in the Athenaeum Hall. The Athenaeum Hall was the place, the Red Cross remind us today, where all the work went on. In fact, it spilled over into the shire offices next door, where the mayor essentially vacated the premises for the greater good. This local history that we are seeing with the Centenary of Anzac is very important. The local history with the Red Cross is a very good illustration that a century ago the entire nation mobilised.

Of course, there was an international tradition to this, but there is a particularly Australian part as well that I do want to dwell on a bit this morning. In the Yarra Valley—you can imagine, Mr Deputy Speaker, because your electorate would be much the same—the women volunteering at the Red Cross 100 years ago were not leaving households during the day while their husbands were at work to volunteer at the Red Cross. They were running farms. They were responsible for so much while those nearly 400,000 men were away, first at Gallipoli and then on the Western Front. It was a phenomenal contribution.

Of course the contribution in our Allied countries was just as great. For a young nation just federated, there was something different and special—they felt very much part of the new nation. That was reflected in the fact that from 1902 women had the vote in Australia—ahead of the United Kingdom and ahead of the United States. They were voting before the war and all the way through the war. It is part of that egalitarianism and democratic tradition where we were ahead of some of the older democracies.

In the case of Melba, her contribution went on beyond the war years. As I said, she had concerts in the Athenaeum Theatre, and together with her committee she was a pivotal force behind so much of the fundraising in the Lilydale area. You can just imagine weekends in Lilydale 100 years ago—you would not have been able to go anywhere without seeing the Red Cross and the great work that they did. While Melba was there ringing the bell to signal the start of the Red Cross in Lilydale 100 years ago, she was literally there at the end of the war ringing the bell declaring the armistice, because she knew someone in military service who had phoned through to her at Coombe Cottage to let her know the armistice had been signed. She went down to the Lilydale main street and grabbed the fire bell and rang it, and that was how she let the people of Lilydale know that the war had ended.

I am pleased to be associated with this motion. It is a great opportunity for all of us to reflect on the local history of the Red Cross.

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