The Australian War Memorial is sometimes described as Australia’s most sacred site. Whether or not that is true, the 13 people comprising the Memorial Council potentially have an important influence on how we view our past and plot a course for our future. A future without wars and their effects.
Of those 13 people, nine have military experience, including three ex officio appointments. (Honest History has written previously about the tinkling of senior brass that has characterised the Council.) The current Chair of the Council, Brendan Nelson, is also a former Defence Minister (as well as being a former Director of the Memorial).
Members, once appointed, tend to stick around: three of the current members have been on the Council since 2015, two more since 2016 (and those two have just been re-appointed till 2025). Members tend to be well-connected also: a former Prime Minister; a former private secretary to the current Chair when he was Defence Minister; a businessman whose company is a regular contractor to government; an employee of the former Chair of the Council, Kerry Stokes; the National President of the RSL; the spouse of a former National President of the Liberal Party; a former official in the NSW Branch of the Liberal Party and close ally of the Chair when he was Leader of the Opposition.
This is not to say that some or all of these folks lack other credentials for membership; it is to say that the Council has the distinct look of an ‘old mates club’, if not quite of ‘the great and the good’. It desperately needs new blood. And for the governing body of an institution steeped in and espousing history, it is bizarre that the Council contains not one trained historian. The last such, Professor Geoffrey Blainey, retired from the Council in 2004.
The letter below went recently to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, responsible for the War Memorial, with a copy to the Prime Minister. It urges the nomination of historians to the Memorial Council, against a general need to refresh its membership.
Honest History encourages historians and other interested Australians to write similar letters and to work through their professional associations to increase the number of historians and other professionals on the governing bodies of cultural institutions. These institutions deserve better than Amateur Hour and Jobs for the Boys and Girls.
Update 20 September 2022: Official directory.gov.au confirms three-year term for Abbott.
Update 16 September 2022: Tony Abbott reappointed to War Memorial Council. Honest History quoted in The Riot Act. Plus ça change. An opportunity lost to start changing the direction of this venerable institution; despite the arguments above for a better way.
Update 18 July 2022: The Australian War Memorial features in a Grattan Institute report and media stories about the tendency of all governments, but especially the outgoing Morrison Coalition one, to appoint mates to government positions. Grattan found four Memorial Council members with Coalition connections out of ten non ex-officio positions, but added an asterisk to indicate two or more others with ‘soft’ political connections, such as being a known donor. It names no names, but we will, based on publicly available information: Tony Abbott, Brendan Nelson, Josephine Stone, and Rhonda Vanzella as Coalition connections; at least Glenn Keys of current members as a political donor – to both sides – and Kerry Stokes as another political donor – to both sides – though he ceased to be a member of the Council and Chair early in April 2022, coincidentally the month that Grattan was doing its statistics.
The report. Report authors in The Conversation. Plus Australian Financial Review, Crikey, Saturday Paper, Sydney Morning Herald. The chart at page 17 of the Grattan report shows that the Memorial, with four out of ten members Coalition-connected, is the most ‘blue’ (for Coalition connections) of the 19 Australian government institutions listed.
An important point from Grattan’s Chief Executive, Danielle Wood, is worth quoting:
People often think of corruption as bags of money, exchanging hands for favours. But in a way, this sort of grey corruption is more insidious. It undermines institutions over time. It undermines democracy and therefore, I do think it is a corruption of our political process.
Grattan wants the federal government to legislate for a transparent, merit-based selection process for public roles, including creation of a new public appointments commissioner role to oversee an independent panel process for assessing applicants. Ministers would have to select candidates from a recommended shortlist.
There are broader issues here. This week, we have Grattan (above) on ‘grey corruption’ and jobs for mates, plus The Australia Institute reporting overseas research on how well business profits are trending – despite the pandemic and in contrast with real wages. Before the election, we had a report from the Australian Democracy Network on ‘State Capture’, defined as ‘the exercise of power by private actors — through control over resources, threat of violence, or other forms of influence — to shape policies or implementation in service of their narrow interests’.
We changed the government recently but what else stayed the same in terms of who really holds power, who hobnobs with whom, who owes and calls in favours, and who picks up sitting fees for a few days a year on government business? See this from the days when Honest History collected reports about growing inequality in Australia. There is inequality of power as well as inequality of income and wealth and in the twenty-first century – in the land that those Diggers fought for – they are all linked .
Back to the War Memorial, as the rest of our post below makes clear, apart from political and old mates appointments, the War Memorial Council suffers also from a surfeit of military brass, too many long-term appointments, a lack of historians, and a couple of recent questionable re-appointments. It’s way more complex than mates.
One of the commentators on the Grattan work wondered why the Memorial was so packed with Coalition appointees. The implication of the comment seemed to be, ‘The Memorial is a sacred site, why politicise it to this extent?’ The answer is simply because the Memorial is more than politics: if, through the sort of people you appoint to the Memorial Council, you can influence how the nation commemorates, how it interprets some of its past to its present and future, you are influencing the whole direction of the country. Everything connects to everything else. Lest We Forget.
The Hon. Matt Keogh MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
CANBERRA ACT 2600
You are responsible for advising the Governor-General on appointments to the Council of the Australian War Memorial. The composition of the Council influences the way Australians commemorate war and thus our attitudes to our past, present and future.
Today, nine of the current 13 members of the Council have a military background, including the three ex-officio appointments (heads of the three services). As well, the Chair, Dr Nelson, is a former Defence Minister. The members of the Council have impressive records in business, law, nursing, politics and voluntary work, but there are no historians – not one – on the Council and there have been no trained historians there since Geoffrey Blainey in 2004.
Section 10 of the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 says the non ex-officio members of the Memorial’s Council ‘shall be appointed by the Governor-General having regard to their knowledge and experience with respect to matters relevant to the functions of the Memorial’. Researching and writing Australian history, particularly the history of our wars and their effects, obviously fits that criterion.
The Memorial is the possession of all Australians and should reflect the aspirations and values of the nation for which 102 000 men and women have died – and many thousands more have suffered injury and illness – to defend. An obvious way of reflecting aspirations and values is appointing to the Council people – historians – who have devoted their careers to exploring and writing about aspirations and values.
Recently, the then government used the caretaker period to re-appoint two current members of the Council, Sharon Bown and Daniel Keighran VC. This was clearly a breach of the spirit of the caretaker arrangements but cannot be undone now. I make no comment on the credentials of the two members but note that their re-appointments deprived the new government of the opportunity to make its own early appointments.
Appointments of current non ex-officio members expire as follows (with year of original appointment shown in parentheses):
Brendan Nelson (Chair), April 2025 (2022)
Tony Abbott, September 2022 (2019)
Sharon Bown, May 2025 (2016)
Daniel Keighran VC, May 2025 (2016)
Glenn Keys, February 2024 (2021)
James McMahon, October 2024 (2015)
Greg Melick, March 2024 (2015)
Susan Neuhaus, April 2024 (2018)
Josephine Stone, February 2024 (2015)
Rhonda Vanzella, February 2024 (2021)
You will see that one term expires later this year and six expire in 2024. Of those six members, four will by 2024 have been members of the Council for between six and nine years. That alone is surely grounds for refreshing the Council’s membership.
I am writing to you as editor of the Honest History website (nine years arguing that Australia is more than Anzac and always has been) and on behalf of the Heritage Guardians group, which campaigned against the $498m extensions to the Australian War Memorial.
I have copied this letter to the Prime Minister, given the importance of the Memorial to Australia as a whole.
(Dr) David Stephens
Editor, Honest History website; on behalf of Heritage Guardians
19 June 2022
Contact: email@example.com; 0413 867 972.
23 June 2022 updated
Update and clarification 8 July 2022 regarding the reappointments: The Governor-General’s instrument (document provided by the War Memorial under FOI) reappointing the two members was dated 31 March, before their then current terms (from June 2019) had expired and 11 days before the caretaker period began on 11 April. Their new terms did not begin till 5 May, during the caretaker period.
Update 23 August 2022: It should be noted, in view of the current furore over secret ministerial appointments, that there is no requirement to gazette appointments to part-time positions. Honest History received this email (dated 10 June) from the Executive Council Secretariat in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet:
‘The Governor-General’s Office has forwarded your email to the Executive Council Secretariat in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet for consideration as we support the Executive Council.
The appointments of Ms Bown and Corporal Keighran were not in the Gazette as they are part-time appointments. Part-time appointments are not subject to the Australian Public Service Commissioner’s Merit and Transparency: merit-based selection of APS agency heads and APS statutory office holders policy. Only appointments subject to that policy, such as full-time appointments, are required to be advertised in the Gazette.’