Indigenous Diggers honoured in Sydney

AAP Sydney Morning Herald May 27, 2011

Many indigenous Australians were free from racism for the first time when they fought in World War I, but it was another 50 years before they got the respect they deserved, NSW Governor Marie Bashir says.

Speaking at a commemorative service in Sydney on Friday for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women, Professor Bashir paid tribute to those who had fought in the two world wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and in Afghanistan.

At least 400 indigenous Australians fought in World War I, and five are known to have died at Gallipoli.

Many had experienced inadequate living conditions, low wages and limited rights back home, Prof Bashir told the hundreds of people gathered for the ceremony at Sydney's Anzac Memorial.

"But as members of the AIF, most were treated as equal and forged strong links of friendship with their army mates," she said.

After European settlement, indigenous people made up barely one per cent of Australia's population, Prof Bashir said.

"They were not subjected to conscription, nor to any form of military service.

"Indeed Australia's indigenous people were not regarded fully as having absolute rights, as other citizens, until the referendum in 1967.

"Nevertheless, hundreds volunteered for the armed services."

Figures compiled by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association indicate that between 3000 and 6000 indigenous Australians served in World War II.

The Association's NSW president, David Williams, said the defence force as a whole had "always been an equal opportunity employer".

"It's not about the wars. It's about an opportunity to get a career," he said.

NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell, Opposition Leader John Robertson, RSL state president Don Rowe, and school children also attended Friday's ceremony.