Military parades are always special. None more so when we celebrate young Australians who have completed tough leadership training.
On Monday, I attended a graduation parade of Air Force cadets, who spent their school holidays training to be leaders.
It was a classic WA twilight parade at RAAF Pearce: red dirt, a sinking sun with teenage cadets looking sharp in blue as planes flew low overhead.
I spoke to them afterwards and impressed upon them the importance of cadet service for our local community and for our nation.
I was a cadet for five years.
They were good times. I learned a lot, but mostly from the times that I failed.
I think back to 1998, when I failed my Adventure Training Award—one of the toughest courses you can do as Australian cadet.
Our course was at Singleton Range in northern NSW. Lots of navigation and bushcraft. Not much sleep, or food. It was tough. And I failed.
I wasn’t well prepared, I lacked confidence and I was a complete novice to leadership. I didn’t deserve the award, and I was heartbroken at the time.
At fifteen, it was the first time in my life where I had put my heart and soul into a tough activity and failed to complete the mission. It was also the first time where I had a group of peers looking to me for leadership. It was overwhelming.
But I used this failure to grow.
I learned the importance of preparation. Attention to detail matters. I learnt this the hard way—through failure.
This failure gave me a desire to go further and serve in the Army from 2003 to 2015.
The lessons you learn in cadets carry through the rest of your life. They give you a firm foundation upon which to take great challenges.
Cadets took me to the Australian Defence Force Academy, Duntroon, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment and then the Special Air Service Regiment.
My failure in 1998 prepared me for one of the biggest challenges of my life that came with SASR selection in 2010.
There was a moment that has stayed with me since.
It was day 14. I’d just completed about 150 kilometres on my own with 30-40 kilograms of gear, through tough mountainous terrain in the Stirling Ranges.
Mists, rain and isolation. My feet were oozing fluid from my blisters. Big deep blisters.
We were back at Bindoon. We’d just been divided into small teams of about ten people, getting ready for the final phase where your teamwork and leadership is tested with almost no sleep and food.
It was 2 am. A moonless night. My team was seated against a dirt wall in the Bindoon “Afghan village”. Exhausted, self-preservation was our primary instinct.
An instructor came over and asked: ‘Who is the team leader? Who is in command?’
There was a pause. No one had been assigned that task. Generally, when you’re exhausted—you just want to look after yourself.
But at that moment, I had a strong instinct to lead.
I said: ‘me, Candidate 10.’ For that I got a torch light in the face and further instructions from the directing staff.
Off we went for another 5 days of pain.
For me, that was the moment that I realised that vocationally I was a leader—in the military and now in politics.
I felt free in a position of leadership. That didn’t just happen. It was because of training and mentoring opportunities in the cadets and the ADF.
I was a long way from the 15 year old cadet in 1998, unsure of himself and afraid to lead others.
That’s the power of cadets and military service. Our defence institutions train and produce leaders. They can take a nervous teenager and transform them into a leader.
But cadets and military service aren’t just a vehicle for self-realisation, despite what the recruitment ads and marketing may suggest.
It’s a way of serving Australia. Of protecting it, helping our neighbours in the region and ensuring that we remain a free and democratic people. It’s not about you or me. It’s about all of us, our country.
We are living in a dangerous world right now.
China and Russia are flexing their muscles.
Taiwan, a small democracy like us, is under constant pressure from the Chinese military.
Earlier this week, together with the US and UK, Australia ordered the evacuation of families of our Embassy staff in the Ukraine.
We don’t know what Russia intends, but it's a dangerous situation.
We can’t take anything for granted. The world today looks very different to five years ago.
That’s why we are investing in the ADF, in our future leaders.
We want peace and for that we need to be strong.
Our ADF serves a vital role across Australian society, whether during conflict, humanitarian assistance, pandemic, flood, or fire.
But the ADF’s core business will always be the application of lethal force in the defence of our values, our sovereignty, and our interests.
We should never forget that.
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