At altar of secular religion of Anzac, Australian parliamentary year begins

New traditions abound at the Australian War Memorial under the directorship of Dr Brendan Nelson.

Last February, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott participated, at Nelson’s urging, in what was assumed to be a new ritual: the laying of wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier to mark the beginning of the parliamentary year. In conversation on the ABC week-in-review program Insiders , photographers Mike Bowers and Andrew Meares reflected on some of the images captured during this “moment of unity” – in, what has to be said, was an especially hostile political climate. “It was a very powerful visual,” Bowers commented, “because it matched the metaphors of battleground, ceasefire, truce… before hostilities commenced during Question Time.” But symbolism aside, the ceremony was a relatively simple one, taking place before the Memorial opened for the day.

Not so this year.

Today’s marking of the beginning of the parliamentary year at the Memorial, announced on Facebook, was an altogether grander affair.

During the evening Last Post Ceremony, wreaths were laid at the foot of the Pool of Reflection not only by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, but also the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Chairman of the Memorial Council and President of the RSL, Nelson as Director of the Memorial, and the Chief of the Defence Force.

A large number of parliamentarians were also in attendance, several tweeting about it.

Tomorrow these politicians will mark the beginning of the parliamentary year with a church service; today they did so at the altar of Australia’s ‘secular religion of Anzac’.

It is often remarked that the Memorial sits on a ‘commemorative axis’ with both Old Parliament House and the current Parliament House. As it was explained to me as a teenager, the direct line of sight between the two localities is intended to remind politicians of the weight of their decisions about both peace and war. Whether they are fully conscious of this weight or not, I expect we will see a lot more politicians actually at the Memorial, a lot more often, during the First World War or ‘Anzac’ centenary.

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