Prime Minister Howard put Anzac Cove at the top of the National Heritage List that he launched on 18 December. He portrayed that area of the Gallipoli peninsula as ‘a fitting first nomination given its significance in the shaping the identity of our nation’. That position is arguable. More disputable is his assertion that ‘anyone who goes to Gallipoli feels they have immediately arrived’. The corollary to that assumption is astounding for more than its tactlessness: ‘The soil there is as much part of Australia as the earth on which their home is built’. Mr Howard may find that Ankara is not so free and easy with its patrimony as he is with our off-shore islands.

In truth, the Turks have far more reason than Australians to believe that their nation had been born at Canakkale, their name for the peninsula. Ottoman forces vanquished the Anzacs there in 1915. A Turkish army did the same to the Greeks and their British urgers in 1922-23. The founding president of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Atatturk – ‘the father of the Turks’ - had been a commander on both occasions. Canakkale invokes Ataturk. Ataturk means Kemalism, the secular faith of the Turkish military. Hence, the need for caution in even broaching the status would appear obvious.

‘I have no doubt’, Howard continued, that ‘the Turkish Government will give permission’. Surely, it would have been courteous to have finalised an agreement before publicizing our claim to extraterritoriality? Such prudence is the more desirable given the temper of Turkish politics, highlighted by popular resistance to involvement in Iraq war. Howard’s presumption that Ankara will go along with his wish list repeats the colonisers’ arrogance that led to a waste of Australian lives in 1915.

Our war graves there have always been secure. Immediately across from the Australian War Memorial in Canberra is a Turkish monument inscribed with Ataturk’s 1933 pledge to ‘Those heroes that shed their blood and their lives. You are now living in the soil of a friendly country, therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side, here in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well’.

The magnanimity of this statement remains remarkable. That Ataturk could have delivered it only ten years after British Imperialists had tried to dismember his new nation makes it the more astonishing. No Australian prime minister has matched his grace.

It is not too late for John Howard to add to the heritage significance of Anzac Cove by saying ‘sorry’ to the Turkish people for our having participated in the 1915 invasion. He also needs to say sorry for the affront of spiritually annexing their land, and of announcing his claim to extra-territoriality before concluding negotiations.

Howard’s latest incursion underlines that he is oblivious to the hypocrisy of, on the one hand, drawing pride from events in which no Australian now living took part, while, on the other hand, refusing responsibility even for recent offences. Similarly, the sense of belonging that he experiences at Anzac Cove will puzzle Aborigines. They may well ask: how can he feel that way about a place so far away, and about events which occurred before he was born, and yet be insensitive to how we feel about our ‘country’, to what was done to us, and the damage to the ‘heritage value’ of our lands? 

John Howard’s sense of history is no more partial or partisan than that of any other politician. His reactions to Anzac Cove project his father’s service onto the rest of the population. Research among the backpackers at Gallipoli for Anzac Day dawn services has shown that many bowl along with next to no understanding of its significance. ‘To be perfectly honest’, admitted Luke from Geelong in 2000, ‘I didn’t know very much about Anzac Day whatsoever, other than the fact that Essendon and Collingwood played every Anzac Day’. Some came prepared to chant ‘Oi, Oi, Oi’. Once there, they were silenced to learn of the slaughter.

Mr Howard is calling on Australians to nominate other areas for inclusion on the list. Here are two. First, the Dorset village of Tolpuddle from which six agricultural labourers – the Tolpuddle Martyrs - were transported to Australia for seven years in 1834 for taking an oath to resist a reduction in their wages. A second choice could be the statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. Both those sites would have appealed to the last Anzac, Alec Campbell, union official, peace activist and republican.