Your Excellencies, My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,
This evening we have come together to celebrate this great building’s one hundredth birthday, and in so doing, to celebrate everything that it stands for: the dynamic and indispensable partnership between the United Kingdom and Australia; the values that we share; and the service and character of all who have worked, in this building and elsewhere, to strengthen the bonds between us.
Australia House was opened by my great grandfather, King George the Fifth in what were the grimmest of times. It was August 1918, and the tragic conflict that came to be known as the Great War was, by then, in its final months. As we marked the centenary of the Great War earlier this month, so must we never forget that over a million British, Australian and Commonwealth servicemen fought together with common purpose and tragically lost their lives so that we could be here today.
When my great grandfather arrived at Australia House, to be met by Australian Prime Minister ‘Billy’ Hughes, he was greeted by rousing and affectionate cheers of “cooee” from Australian diggers in their slouch hats gathered outside. Many of these men had fought at Gallipoli, at Passchendaele, or at Villers-Bretonneux, where their extraordinary courage and tenacity helped turn the tide of the war.
Since those early days, Australia House has grown to be much more than just a High Commission. It soon became, in every way, “Australia’s house”, a home away from home for those born in Australia and visiting London, as well as the departure point for countless “Poms” seeking opportunity for their families on the great island continent “down under”.
Over the decades Australia House has become a symbol of the unique relationship between Australia and Britain, through good times and bad, and as vital members of our Commonwealth Family of Nations. In 1940 those Australians who worked in this building bore witness to the Blitz and the devastation wrought around them. Once again, Britain, at the time of her greatest peril, knew that she did not stand alone. No one in this country should forget the wartime message sent by Prime Minister Menzies and inscribed on the Australian War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner: “whatever burden you are to carry, we also will shoulder that burden”.
There could hardly be a more profound testament to friendship, or one that has endured so well, through peace and war, prosperity and hardship – in fact, in all circumstances save, perhaps, an Ashes Test.
Australia House has witnessed it all and, if walls could talk, I suspect it could tell some very good stories. This building has been a showcase of Australian talent, from book launches, concerts and recitals, to screenings of great Australian films, tastings of great Australian wines and exhibitions of great Australian art. A veritable Who’s Who of Australian life has passed through these doors, from Don Bradman to Yvonne Goolagong, to Shane Warne; from Dame Nelly to Dame Joan, to Dame Edna.
Incidentally, Ladies and Gentlemen, my son, Harry, tells me that during their recent Tour of Australia, he and his wife were offered countless thoughtful suggestions for the naming of their forthcoming baby. Just between us, I suspect that “Kylie” and “Shane” may possibly make the shortlist, but ladies and gentlemen I would not hold your breath for “Edna” or “Les”…
Now having very recently celebrated my seventieth birthday as I have not been allowed to forget, I find it hard to believe that I first visited Australia more than fifty-four years ago, when I went off to attend Geelong Grammar School. And I must say have had a deep and abiding affection for Australia from that time on, and have taken such pride in seeing her go from strength to strength – at home, in the region and on the world stage. Today, Australia is more multicultural, more confident and more outward-looking. At the same time, she has remained true to her quintessential Australian spirit and character, and her larrikin, self-deprecating sense of humour. Australians today, just as they were on the battlefields of the First War, are a people to whom “mateship” is more than a slogan, and to whom a “fair go”, and standing by friends, and even strangers, in times of trouble, is an article of faith.
Over the decades, on all of my many visits to almost every part of Australia, I have found Australians to be frank, generous, courageous, resilient and, above all, great fun. This spirit was tangible at the profoundly moving dawn services I attended, in 2015 for the centenary of the Landing at ANZAC Cove, and this year for the centenary of Villers-Bretonneux.
It is a spirit that has been present when I have met those Australians who have had to rebuild their lives after devastating bushfires and floods, as well as those who came to their rescue. It is the spirit I feel whenever I meet indigenous Australians, who can teach the rest of us so much about the urgent need for us to be in harmony with Nature once again before we destroy our inheritance, and who see their land, and indeed our planet, through eyes that have beheld it for countless generations. And it is a spirit which makes Australia an indispensable member of the Commonwealth, with an essential role to play in tackling some of the greatest challenges of our time.
For my own part ladies and gentlemen, I have tried, in whatever small way I can, to support and promote that Australian spirit, through the many remarkable Australian organizations of which I am proud to be Patron, and through my own Prince’s Trust Australia, which works to transform the lives of young people, and of former Defence personnel, and to build sustainable communities. For as long as I live, I will proudly champion everything that makes Australia a force for good in our world, and the bonds of friendship she enjoys with the United Kingdom.