Submission to the Senate’s inquiry into opportunities for strengthening Australia’s relations with the Republic of France, 2 April 2020
As a result of having a historical narrative that is curated by DVA and not WWI experts, the John Monash Centre [at Villers-Bretonneux] displays an incomplete, one-sided historical narrative of Australia’s engagement on the Western Front, attracting half the visitors DVA expected due to its one dimensional nature.
Dr Fathi’s submission addresses one of the inquiry’s terms of reference: ‘opportunities to build on shared historical and cultural values and promote tourism, with specific reference to Commonwealth War Graves, cultural exchanges and people-to-people ties’.
Dr Fathi believes projects commemorating Australia’s shared military history with France are failing to effectively build people-to-people ties between our two nations. The Australian military history being presented to the French fails to capture the interest of its audience. The submission calls for a new French-Australian history, developed by applying best practice historical techniques, including a process of shared history (Histoire partagée). It calls for the promotion of other aspects of Australian cultural and historical life to foster deeper interpersonal links.
The submission notes increased Australian commemorative activity in France over the last dozen years, culminating with the Sir John Monash Centre. A small number of French villages have taken advantage of this and benefited financially. But the submission argues Australian money has not been well spent, because the developed sites have aimed primarily at visiting Australians, and even there attendances have been below projections.
Australian activities, led by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, have excluded French expertise and have not appealed to French visitors. ‘Generally, DVA’s historical narrative for such sites is limited – some would say jingoistic – and cannot be understood or contextualized by visitors beyond the Australian public.’
The submission looks at other shortcomings of current Australian practice and concludes thus:
If France and Australia want to develop a long lasting and large-scale positive relationship, that brings everyday French and Australian people together, there is a need to move beyond this economically founded, and at times cynical, war commemoration diplomacy.
The submission makes a number of suggestions: to work with academic historians and community members in constructing historical narratives; to accept the independence of historians (rather than try to control their output, as DVA has done); to accept local input; to move beyond the War Graves and military history; Australia to invest heavily in French language courses in schools.
The terms of reference of the inquiry cover all aspects of Australia-France relations. Another submission to the inquiry comes from Naval Group, which is building Australia’s submarines. It seems incongruous to read a promotion for submarines in the midst of a threat to our security from biological causes.
Romain Fathi is a Senior Lecturer in History at Flinders University in Adelaide. He is the author of Our Corner of the Somme: Australia at Villers-Bretonneux, of this piece on Honest History about the Sir John Monash Centre, and of other articles (use our Search engine). For earlier Honest History commentary on the subject matter of this article, use our Search engine with terms like ‘Monash’, ‘Villers-Bretonneux’, and ‘boondoggle’.
22 April 2020