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banner Friday, 3 August, 2001, 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK
Australian PM enters 'Diggers' row
AP Photos - Australian Foreign Affairs Minister puts a wreath down in Gallipoli earlier this year
Australia's war sacrifices remain a sensitive issue
Australian Prime Minister John Howard has urged Athletics Australia (AA) to drop the new 'Diggers' nickname given to its World Championships team in Edmonton.

The sporting body was hoping that the controversial new name, announced on Thursday, would embody "national pride, mateship and heroic endeavour".

But the tag has come under a barrage of criticism from war veterans as well as other members of the public, the federal government and the Returned Services' League (RSL).

They say the term, which has been associated with Australia's armed forces since the First World War, is being used in the wrong context.

Prime Minister Howard has added his voice to the critics of the nickname.

"I would ask the athletics organisation to reconsider it," he said.

"That expression has effectively a sacred status in Australia and I don't think it should be used other than in relation to the people and the deeds of the people who put their lives on the line for our country."


They will find the community reaction will be the same as the RSL (reaction) - this is not appropriate
  Veterans Affairs Minister Bruce Scott
He was echoing earlier comments from New South Wales RSL president Rusty Priest.

"I think it's most inappropriate," he said.

"It's a term that's been used to describe our Australian fighting forces since early in WW1.

"And it's a term that has been kept that way ever since - I think the general community would agree with me that that's where it should be kept."

Veterans Affairs Minister Bruce Scott has asked for AA to scrap the nickname, while Victorian RSL president Bruce Ruxton also voiced his displeasure.

"They should rethink it. I think they will find the community reaction will be the same as the RSL, and perhaps the same as mine, that this is not appropriate," said Scott.

The reaction will be an embarrassing blow for AA, which had hoped to coin a name for the athletics team in the same way the rugby union side is known as the Wallabies and the football team is called the Socceroos.

"Calling on the spirit of national pride, mateship and heroic endeavour, Australia's national athletics team will now be known as the Diggers," AA said when it announced the new name on Thursday.


We were very sensitive about this whole issue and we had lengthy discussions with the RSL
  Simon Allatson
AA chief executive
"The nickname Digger holds a special place in our national psyche," said AA chief executive Simon Allatson, who insisted that the RSL had granted its approval.

But now it seems that AA may have to reconsider and Allatson has made it clear AA would listen to war veterans' views.

"There's always the possibility that if we have completely misjudged the reaction from the Australian public that we would reconsider," said Allatson on Australian Broadcasting Corp Radio on Friday.

"Of course we would have to be sensible about it, but I would be surprised if that initial reaction would be sustained.

"We were very sensitive about this whole issue and we had lengthy discussions with the RSL.

"They advised us that they wanted us to treat it sensitively and with respect, which we will be committed to doing."

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