McIlroy, Tom: ‘Adverse impact’: government warned on War Memorial redevelopment

Tom McIlroy

‘”Adverse impact”: government warned on War Memorial redevelopment‘, Australian Financial Review, 19 February 2021 (pdf from our subscription access)

A story based on material made available by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) on what led to Minister Ley’s heritage approval of 10 December last for the War Memorial building project. (An edited version of the story is on page 2 of the 20 February hard copy of the AFR, under the heading ‘Review warned about War Memorial plan’.) Heritage Guardians’ campaign against the $498m project.

‘The $500 million expansion was approved in December’, McIlroy summarises, ‘despite officials warning the size of new areas for exhibitions, visitor services and functions would reduce the significance of the iconic 1940s stone building and pull the memorial’s focus away from commemoration’.

Commentary from Heritage Guardians

Key documents the McIlroy story is based on are the 72-page Attachment A, part of the advice from the Environmental Assessments (NSW, ACT) Branch (EAB) of DAWE to the Minister, and a 29-page set of documents which was an attachment to Attachment A. (The War Memorial extensions project has seen a paper war and there have been lots of documents. sometimes amounting to hundreds of pages at a time. Bureaucrats know you can exhaust opposition – and perhaps bamboozle Ministers – with floods of paper, inadequate indexing, burying or glossing over important material, and slippery phraseology. Examples.)

The key documents show that the in-house heritage experts in DAWE, the Historic Heritage Section (HHS), persisted with their warnings about heritage impacts long after the Australian Heritage Council (AHC), the government’s principal heritage adviser (not part of the Department formally but drawing secretariat support from HHS) had put its own concerns to the War Memorial in a submission dated 31 July 2020.

McIlroy’s article looks (necessarily briefly) at what the documents say about adverse heritage impacts of the Memorial’s plans. Two of the most devastating criticisms are in HHS advice dated 21 September 2020.

Under the heading ‘Impact of the demolition of Anzac Hall’, HHS said,  ‘The demolition of Anzac Hall will have a direct, permanent impact on the National Heritage values of the AWM … The proposed demolition of Anzac Hall will have a permanent, high intensity impact which destroys the ability of Anzac Hall to demonstrate these heritage values as it will no longer be present on the site.’ This advice was unchanged since HHS originally gave it on 9 December 2019.

Then, under the heading ‘Impact of the development as a whole’, HHS said this as updated advice in September 2020 (paragraphing added for clarity):

The proposed redevelopment will add an additional 24,277 m2 of internal space to the AWM. This added internal space will be for exhibition; event; circulation and amenity uses.

The importance of the balanced relationship between the building, the collection and the commemorative spaces is recognised as a heritage value under both [Commonwealth Heritage List] (b) and [National Heritage List] (b).

These heritage values will be impacted by the addition of several large new spaces which will be focused primarily on exhibition of collections, visitor services and functions and events.

In this arrangement, the original building’s significance is reduced, as is the significance of the commemorative spaces. This significance is reduced both by the increased scale of exhibition spaces relative to the size of the site as a whole, which outweighs and pulls focus from the commemorative spaces, as well as by the physical impacts to the building and commemorative spaces occurring to facilitate the creation of exhibition spaces.

Despite the changes made during construction, the development as a whole will still have a large scale, high intensity, permanent impact on the heritage values of the AWM by reducing the relative scale of the ceremonial spaces within the landscape.

Put simply, the 24 277 square metres of new space will irrevocably disrupt the balance of the building away from commemoration and towards displays of military technology set amid architectural grandiosity. There will be relatively less Roll of Honour, relatively more Military Disneyland.

Finally, some points about process. The material from HHS came to EAB on dates in October 2020, when the ‘approvals clock’ for the Minister had already begun ticking, as we see from an internal EAB email, made available under FOI. The Minister had to be given an extension of time on 10 November (Filter by 2019/8574), because material was still being put together.

EAB finally sent its advice to the Minister on 12 November (Filter by 2019/8574) in a form (Attachment A plus attachments) which played up the 29 relatively trivial compromises and minor design modifications made by the Memorial in consultation with DAWE or in response to public input, but glossed over the AHC and HHS criticisms and those made by other opponents of the project. EAB admitted ‘the fundamental design of the original proposal has not changed’ (para 37 of the 72 pager).

The objectors, including the AHC, got less than five pages of Attachment A’s 72 pages, with details of their objections buried in attachments to Attachment A. The great bulk of Attachment A is granular detail and bureaucratic box-ticking about relatively trivial aspects of the project.

Tom McIlroy has followed the War Memorial project closely for a couple of years. Use our Search engine under ‘McIlroy’ to find some previous references.

The Public Works Committee report on the project is expected soon. McIlroy understands there will be a dissenting report besides the majority view. (Update 24 February 2021: more on the PWC report.)

David Stephens for Heritage Guardians 

21 February 2021 updated

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