Alister Henskens portrait
Alister Henskens portrait

Premier's Anzac Memorial Scholarships

Alister and Nicholas Trobec

Mr ALISTER HENSKENS ( Ku-ring-gai ) ( 16:44 :05 ): I speak about one of two Premier's Anzac Memorial Scholarships awarded to students from Ku-ring-gai. It is a sad truth that during almost a quarter of the Commonwealth of Australia's first 50 years members of the new nation's armed forces were engaged in wars overseas, from which many would not return.

At the same time, however, Australian services personnel quickly established a reputation for bravery and reliability that earned both them and their country widespread respect as champions of justice and defenders of freedom. Their experience also served to reinforce our early settlers' ethic of egalitarianism and fostered the spirit of mateship that has shaped Australia's unique national identity to this day. In short, the successes and failures of military campaigns involving Australian troops have had a strong influence on the way Australians think about themselves.

The annual Premier's Anzac Memorial Scholarships provide a group of New South Wales students with an enviable opportunity to reflect on our place in history. In 2017, 21 of them will gain valuable insights into Australia's involvement in World War I through undertaking a 12-day tour of significant battlefields in Belgium and France, including Villers-Bretonneux, Bullecourt, Fromelles and Ypres.

Nicholas Trobec, a year 10 history student from Knox Grammar School, is one of the 21 recipients of a Premier's Scholarship as a result of Knox's success in a ballot entered last year by more than 130 government, Catholic and Independent Schools from across the State. Nicholas was chosen to represent Knox after his impressive narrative, titled "A day in the life of a tunnel ratter", was judged to be the outstanding entry in a competition to capture the Anzac spirit that was conducted by the school's history department. "Tunnel ratting" was a perhaps little-known—but nonetheless extremely dangerous and terrifying—activity for an Australian soldier in Vietnam. It involved entering and investigating subterranean tunnels that had been dug by the Viet Cong to enable them to engage in surprise and undetected attacks on their chosen targets.

As Nicholas highlighted in his narrative, a particular network of tunnels, in an area in Vietnam known as the Iron Triangle, was over 400 kilometres in length and "concealed a labyrinth of living quarters, armaments, hospitals, factories and even a theatre". These tunnels allowed the Viet Cong to carry out their raids and then quickly vanish from sight. A tunnel ratter's unique role was to crawl, often with a faithful canine companion, through these very dark, narrow, poorly ventilated and booby trapped tunnels and to locate and kill the enemy before sealing or destroying the tunnel itself.

Although the work was considered absolutely essential, it was claustrophobic and extraordinarily stressful, and ratters had a mortality rate of over 30 per cent, one of the highest among Australian troops in Vietnam. The job was, as vividly described in Nicholas's work, a "deadly game of ... hide and seek"—a frequent journey into the perilous unknown which psychologically destroyed many of the ratters and continued to haunt all of them for the rest of their lives.

While the central character in the narrative is fictitious, Nicholas meticulously incorporated into the story key facts and locations from Australia's deployment in Vietnam to create an authenticity that both veterans and young readers can undoubtedly appreciate. It is a compelling and evocative tale of courage, duty and resilience and a fitting tribute to those who have served with distinction.

The Minister for Veterans Affairs, the Hon. David Elliott—who is here in the Chamber now—and I visited Knox on 10 March this year to congratulate Nicholas. It was exciting to hear him speak so passionately about studying history, having been inspired at an early age by his father making models for him. He demonstrated both a pride in his country and a fascination about its past, particularly the sacrifices that have been made by previous generations. He is a first-rate young man. I wish Nicholas well for what will no doubt be an unforgettable and, I strongly suspect, life-changing experience. I thank the Minister for joining me in that visit to Knox and in meeting Nicholas.

Another Premier's Anzac scholarship, also awarded through the ballot, went to a student from Abbotsleigh, and I hope to say more to the House about that student in due course.