Heritage Guardians: a campaign against the proposed $498m extensions to the Australian War Memorial

Campaign latest

Heritage Guardians

The campaign is being wrangled by Heritage Guardians, a small committee. The members of the committee are:

  • Brendon Kelson, former Director, Australian War Memorial
  • Dr Charlotte Palmer, committee member, Medical Association for Prevention of War (ACT Branch)
  • Professor Peter Stanley, UNSW Canberra
  • Dr David Stephens, Editor, Honest History website (and compiler of this campaign diary)
  • Dr Sue Wareham OAM, President, Medical Association for Prevention of War.


11 October 2019: More on the really unsuitable appointment of Tony Abbott to the War Memorial Council

Heritage Guardian Sue Wareham writes for Pearls and Irritations. For more on this appointment, scroll down.

10 October 2019 updated: Spin at Fort Campbell: heard on the grapevine

A little bird, as the saying goes, told us that a recent staff meeting at the Australian War Memorial was instructed that the term ‘redevelopment’ was no longer to be used in reference to the Memorial’s planned … redevelopment. Instead, the words ‘our continuing story’, are to be used.

Spinners will spin. On the positive side, perhaps this, along with other straws in the wind (like Director Nelson’s careful response to Brendon Kelson’s second letter: 27 September below), indicates the Memorial is taking note of at least some of the critique coming in its direction.

Meanwhile, we note that the Memorial’s website still has a section headed ‘Redevelopment’. Perhaps a change is coming there, too. (Update 16 October: now headed ‘Memorial Development Project’ with words about ‘continuing story’.)

If we have got this story wrong, we will, as always, print without amendment any correction received. Over to you, AWM spinners.

9 October 2019: History buff Abbott onto the Memorial Council is like having homeopaths on hospital boards

Paul Daley in Guardian Australia quotes Heritage Guardians, Peter Stanley and David Stephens, and historian Peter Cochrane.

7 October 2019: Fin Review story on Stokes guarantee for the Memorial project

Tom McIlroy writes up this rather unusual piece of public financing.

4 October 2019: War Memorial FOI documents leave questions answered, particularly about whether Chairman Stokes’ personal guarantee helped clinch the $498m deal

Our analysis of Interdepartmental Committee Minutes released under FOI looks particularly at how the funding deal was clinched independently of the development of the Detailed Business Case and, secondly, whether the clinching of the deal might have turned on a ‘personal guarantee’ from Memorial Council Chair, Kerry Stokes.

1 October 2019: Kite successfully flown, Tony Abbott appointed to War Memorial Council

Kite flown (7 August below). Appointment made. Opportunity lost.

1 October 2019: New study estimates there are more than 5000 homeless veterans in Australia – a better target for funding than the War Memorial project?

Four authors write for The Conversation about ‘this national shame’.

27 September 2019: Director Nelson responds on behalf of Minister to letter from Heritage Guardian, Brendon Kelson

This letter makes a better fist of responding to Kelson than did a previous effort from the Minister’s chief of staff.

25 September 2019 updated: Memorial car park plan upsets former Director and local residents

Steve Gower and local residents interviewed about Memorial plans to remove 80 trees for a car park for workers. Director Nelson responded, mostly about the trees and that link has been added.

16 September 2019: ‘Big Things in Store’ at AWM Mitchell 5 October is a day for tyre-kickers and rev-heads; but Mitchell could be so much more

Link to item in The Senior promoting the Memorial’s reinstated annual day of display at its Mitchell annexe – a facility designed for display as well as storage. Management decisions are holding the site back from its full potential.

5 September 2019: Paul Daley in Guardian Australia compares the War Memorial to Disneyland

Daley’s piece quotes from Brendon Kelson’s letter (below 3 September).

The last word should belong to another revered public servant, Charles Bean, official historian of Australia in the first world war and founding father of the Australian War Memorial, who, as Kelson pointed out to the prime minister, wrote: “The national memorial building should not be colossal in scale but rather a gem of its kind.”

That’s the difference between a thoughtfully curated, inspiring museum that inspires quiet reflection and … well, Disneyland.

Related piece by Daley in ArtsHub on who should be Brendan Nelson’s successor at the Memorial (see 7 August for this issue also).

3 September 2019: Quite big enough, thank you! Recent developments in the Heritage Guardians campaign against the $498 million War Memorial extensions – and Nelson waves farewell

Five documents ranging from a letter from former Memorial Director, Brendon Kelson, to the Minister to an advertisement for the Director’s job. Plus five arguments against the project and two documents on heritage aspects.

7 August 2019 updated: Tony Abbott has form on commemoration but is the wrong choice for the War Memorial Council

David Stephens had this in The Riot Act on 7 August.

If Abbott were to join the Council or take Nelson’s job, the latter’s grandiose expansion plans (if they go ahead) could hardly be in better hands. The Memorial would look even more like the commemorative arm of an increasingly militarised state, its broad spaces filled with decommissioned military equipment, its visitors able to watch direct video feeds from the Defence Department, its ceremonial occasions marked by florid speeches, its excesses tolerated, even encouraged.

Nelson has paved the way for Abbott, another failed politician, to oversee an institution which has been able to largely ignore criticism. Abbott would love that.

Update 2 September: Paul Daley in Arts Hub says there is an opportunity, with the departure of Nelson, to make fundamental changes at the Memorial.

The memorial council needs an overhaul. Just like the RSL, it needs the voices of younger veterans. It needs to include progressive Indigenous voices and those of historians whose livelihoods have not been dependent on mythologising Anzac history. A new director needs to reconsider several critical issues consistent with its mandate to help Australians ‘remember, interpret and understand’ the country’s war experiences. This means reconsidering Nelson’s decision to include exhibits about current conflicts. Is it possible for the AWM and its historians to adequately parse the social and other impacts of a war in which Australia is still committed? No. That takes a reflective approach, a historical methodology, that only time can bring.

6 August 2019: Canberra Times story confirms Memorial will build car parking only on its own land and not on the Remembrance Nature Park

It’s hardly the retreat from Moscow, but it seems to be a response partly to public opposition and partly to the ACT government foreshadowing some hard questions about environmental impacts. Canberra Times story; includes material from Richard Thwaites, son of the proponents of the threatened Remembrance Nature Park. See earlier entries 30 and 25 July. It’s difficult to see how we can have a firm costing figure for the expansion ($498m) when the Memorial seems to be making it up as it goes along.

30 July 2019 (updated): Canberra Times story shows ACT government was onside with Memorial’s Remembrance Park car parking option, but the government’s caveats seem to have helped push the Memorial back onto its own land; plus: National Archives shows how Mitchell option works

Doug Dingwall in the Canberra Times reports the outcome of an FOI claim that uncovered correspondence between the War Memorial and the ACT government. The latter was pretty much onside (‘in-principle support’) with building car parking on the Mount Ainslie Remembrance Park as part of the expansion plan. But this depended on there being ‘an acceptable planning outcome’ and the impact of the construction buildings being ‘acceptable’. The government was still waiting for more information from the Memorial.

Meanwhile, at the Memorial’s ‘drop-in session’ last week, an official representing the Memorial claimed the Remembrance Park car park was just one option that had somehow leaked (see below entry for 25 July). Dingwall’s article confirms that the ‘leaked option’ story was deceptive, if not downright dishonest. The FOI material, and the public record of Director Nelson’s remarks at Estimates in February, together show that the Remembrance Park option was live at least until it was brought up short by the ACT government’s muttering about things being ‘acceptable’, along with the public opposition that was evident by the first week of March: here and here.

David Stephens (Honest History) made this comment on the Dingwall piece:

The Memorial is really making this up as it goes along – and being deceptive as well. One official at last week’s ‘drop-in session’, when asked about the Remembrance Park option, said this was one of a number of options – one that had ‘leaked’. The FOI documentation – and what Director Nelson said at Estimates – shows this was clearly not the case: the Memorial was gung-ho for the Remembrance Park option until residents started to protest. It is up to residents and other interested people to continue to hold the Memorial accountable – in a way that Commonwealth government mechanisms have so far failed to do. This has always been a monumentally silly project; it has been characterised by flawed process, too.

If the Memorial does get around to further public consultation (see below 25 July) it is to be hoped that its representatives are better briefed and/or more forthcoming on ‘the story to date’. Meanwhile, the National Archives has made a great story of an announcement that ‘gifts to Australian prime ministers over the decades are about to move to a state-of-the art facility’ at Mitchell. The War Memorial could make much more of its Mitchell campus – as former senior Memorial officer, Richard Llewellyn has said – and both the Archives and the Memorial could both encourage visitors to take the tram out to Mitchell to view what is on offer.

Update 1 August 2019: Ian Bushnell in The Riot Act picks up ACT Assembly action on this, where Greens are critical of Minister Steel. Proof Hansard (pp. 2390-92).

27 July 2019: Two letters, one to and one from

Heritage Guardian Dr Sue Wareham had this in the Canberra Times today, following the ‘drop-in session’ reported below:

Still time to stop for consultation

Wayne Hitches, program lead for the proposed Australian War Memorial demolition and expansion, promises us a public engagement plan late this year (“War memorial plans fan passionate views”, July 25, p3). What sort of public “engagement” happens after a project is already under way? Instead we have a process of telling us what’s happening, and perhaps asking our views on minor details so an announcement can be made that the memorial is listening.

One would have hoped that a Canberra Times poll that had 80 per cent of respondents supporting the former memorial director Brendon Kelson’s call to drop the proposal would send a message to the memorial to pause and reconsider (“Insider readers panel”, June 29, p33). So much for the democracy our war dead believed in.

This is not done and dusted yet, but the memorial is paying scant regard to the fact that the memorial belongs to all of us, not simply to the director and his board. There is still opportunity to go back to square one and engage in proper consultation if that’s what the memorial wants.

Sue Wareham, president, Medical Association for Prevention of War, Cook

Meanwhile, Heritage Guardian Brendon Kelson has received a response to his letter to the Prime Minister (24 June below). The letter was flicked from the PM to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the reply came from the Minister’s Chief of Staff. It seems to have been drafted in the War Memorial, is full of emotive rhetoric and fails to address many of the points in the original letter.

25 July 2019: War Memorial’s ‘drop in session’ reported

The Memorial’s ‘drop in session’ happened last evening and was reported in the Canberra Times with an emphasis on opposition from local residents. Honest History attended the session briefly. Project manager Wayne Hitches foreshadowed ‘a wider outreach as the project progressed and a public engagement plan later this year’.

Meanwhile, full steam ahead, apparently, though the officials present (a lot of them) seemed to lack knowledge of how the project had got to where it was. One official claimed the Remembrance Park car park was just one option that had somehow leaked. This is rather odd, as Director Nelson seemed pretty clear in Senate Estimates in February this year, p. 153.

What we want to do is to start this year. We started negotiations with the ACT government. The land that is immediately behind Treloar Crescent, behind the existing Anzac Hall, just across the road, we need to acquire that land. We don’t anticipate that will be a problem. The ACT government has been very supportive with this project. We want to acquire that land and build the facilities for the construction teams that will be coming in next year to work on the project.

Senator MOORE: So that would be site management in that location?

Dr Nelson: Exactly. The other thing is that in the longer term there will be 118 new car parks that will be built on that land across the road, on Treloar Crescent behind Anzac Hall.

Senator MOORE: Post construction that will still be your property and you will use it as a car park?

Perhaps the Memorial has reacted to public criticism by keeping the car parks on site. Interestingly, though, we were told that even works entirely on the Memorial’s grounds (as now proposed for the car parks) will need approval from Heritage, Public Works Committee and National Capital Authority. Car parks within the grounds are to be completed by May 2020.

24 July 2019: Don’t focus too sharply on that $498m price ticket for the War Memorial vanity project; it’s actually over $500m

Today’s piece in the Canberra Times notes additional spending on scoping the works and fundraising tips. A figure of $506m sounds about right but what’s the bet the total cost will be north of that?

23 July 2019: Cocktail party at War Memorial seems to be based on flimsy premise: is it on the level?

Tonight at 6.00 pm, there will assemble outside the Australian War Memorial invited guests for a function put on by Trippas White Group, which describes itself as ‘a leader in the hospitality industry, operating restaurants, cafés, events and catering facilities across Australia’. A copy of the invitation is below, but readers are too late to RSVP (closed last evening).


We were particularly interested in this line in the invitation: ‘A new Anzac Hall will be larger and across two-levels …’. Yet the Memorial’s own FAQs document (then scroll down to pdf) says this, amid lots of flannel-words (and a repeated paragraph), ‘The Design Competition does not instruct Designers to demolish Anzac Hall but does require them to provide a Value for Money solution’.

So, as we said in our entry of 5 July below, maybe Anzac Hall is safe after all. But that is a single-level Anzac Hall, not the two-level one about which punters are being pitched tomorrow. (Update 25 July: note that an official at the ‘drop-in session’ on 24 July said that a retained Anzac Hall could still be given two levels.)

Who knows what, if anything, will emerge out of this shemozzle? There is an air of ‘making it up as we go along’, and the project still has to go through Heritage, Public Works Committee and National Capital Authority approval.

22 July 2019 (updated): Former senior War Memorial officer reassesses the ‘Mitchell Option’ for future development of the Memorial – and finds it a better choice all round

Richard Llewellyn has produced a detailed analysis of how the Memorial has argued inconsistently for development options and how development at Mitchell could be done far more cheaply than at Campbell. There is a media release to accompany the paper. The release says, in part:

In 2017 the Memorial promoted Mitchell to the Public Works Committee ‘as an integral component of the Australian War Memorial and home to a significant national collection’ while virtually simultaneously arguing – in the context of the Campbell project – that further developing Mitchell ‘would result in the Memorial at Campbell not being considered as Australia’s “national” War Memorial, thereby lessening the importance of the Campbell site and commemorations told within.

The paper considers comparative costs for the recently completed new space at Mitchell and
the proposed new space at Campbell.

It looks as if space at Campbell will cost around 14 times as much per square metre as space at Mitchell. Yet much of the space at Campbell will be used for the same purposes as the space at Mitchell – to park large pieces of retired military kit, like fighter jets and helicopters.

Update 23 July: the paper reported at length by Ian Bushnell in The Riot Act: ‘War Memorial’s Mitchell facility better value than expansion, says analysis’.

18 July 2019: War Memorial opens up about early works at Campbell, particularly car parking

The Australian War Memorial is to hold a ‘drop-in session’ next Wednesday, 24 July, from 4 pm to explain its plans for ‘early works’ associated with its proposed $498m extensions. It seems that car parking associated with the proposed extensions is now to be entirely on site.

The changes to earlier plans (including pinching some of the Mount Ainslie Remembrance Park) may well be in response to public pressure and to that extent they are welcome. There is, however, the issue of whether the Memorial is jumping the gun, by talking of the detail of its plans prior to Heritage, Public Works Committee, and National Capital Authority consideration of the project.

12 July 2019: Productivity Commission report on veterans’ services also has something to say on Australian War Memorial

This report is mostly about future delivery of services, though it recommends the administration of war graves should go the Memorial. The Commission backed away, perhaps reluctantly, from an earlier thought that the Memorial could also take on commemoration. There are some opaque thoughts on opportunity cost in the context of the proposed $498m extensions of the Memorial.

5 July 2019: War Memorial’s ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ leave answers hanging

We’ve discovered, lurking on the War Memorial’s website (then scroll to the bottom of the page) and without a date, a brief document entitled ‘Memorial Redevelopment Program: Frequently Asked Questions’. The document leaves us wondering on a couple of points.

First, on Anzac Hall. Having said all the things that are said to be wrong with Anzac Hall, the document says this:

The Design Competition does not instruct Designers to demolish Anzac Hall but does require them to provide a Value for Money solution. The solution must remain within the approved project budget, manage heritage related risks and, by connecting the Main Building to the new hall through a glazed atrium, provide an enhanced visitor experience by ensuring connection of the larger gallery space to the commemorative heart of the Memorial – the Hall of Memory and the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier.

So, maybe Anzac Hall is safe after all. Maybe.

Secondly, there is this garbled couple of sentences about the possible grab of a piece of the Mount Ainslie Remembrance Park for a carpark:

Q: Why is the Memorial proposing to build a car park at the base of Mt Ainslie?

A: The Memorial has considered a variety of options for contractor facilities, including parking, to support the Memorial Redevelopment Project. Whilst one of the early proposals considered was for the use of a modest parcel of land at the base of Mt Ainslie in the Remembrance Park site for car parking and contractor facilities. The intension was to leave the car parking for permanent use for visitors to the Memorial, Remembrance Park and for the Mt Ainslie summit walk. The Memorial has also examined, and continues to pursue its preference to locate these facilities on the Memorial’s own grounds.

So, again, maybe the Remembrance Park is safe. Maybe.

The FAQ document has a couple of typoes (‘intension’ above) and one paragraph is repeated. It has all the signs of a quickie, thrown together on the run, then never looked at again. But then the whole process relating to the extensions has been notable for its unusual features.

29 June 2019: Overwhelming support from Canberra Times Insider poll for Brendon Kelson’s view about the Memorial project

The Canberra Times Insider poll asked 329 people this question: ‘Do you support the call by former War Memorial director Brendon Kelson that the proposed $500m expansion should be dropped?’ The hard copy of the paper on 29 June (p. 33) recorded that 80 per cent answered ‘Yes’, 12 per cent ‘No’, with 8 per cent ‘Unsure’.

24 June 2019: Former War Memorial Director Brendon Kelson calls upon the Prime Minister to halt the Memorial project; former Memorial officer Richard Llewellyn demolishes Memorial documentation on the design choice

Brendon Kelson’s letter features in an article by Finbar O’Mallon in the Canberra Times; O’Mallon interviews Kelson. Former Memorial Registrar Richard Llewellyn points to questionable process relating to the extensions project – including evidence that Department of Finance rules have been flouted – and to problems with the proposed design, particularly the ‘new’ two-level Anzac Hall. There is an accompanying media release.

19 June 2019: Peter Stanley argues that healing for veterans is not part of the charter of the Australian War Memorial

Article in Pearls and Irritations from leading social and military historian.

The Memorial’s Act makes no reference to veterans. Australians have been conned into thinking that the Memorial belongs to veterans. Like Anzac Day, the Memorial belongs to all Australians. If Dr Nelson wants to fundamentally change the Memorial’s purpose [to provide a ‘therapeutic milieu’ for veterans], he should ask Parliament to change its Act. That might open a welcome debate

17 June 2019: Daily Telegraph campaign on veteran suicide is relevant to War Memorial extensions extravagance; more on the F-111 at the Memorial

Clarissa Bye’s detailed article on veteran suicide continues the Telegraph‘s campaign. Honest History has had a go at an op ed on the subject and it’s included in the post. And Heritage Guardians’ Brendon Kelson makes some trenchant points in the Canberra Times about the asbestos-ridden F-111 taken on by the War Memorial. Kelson said:

AWM should not be a ‘theme park’

That the newly acquired F1-11 will hold “pride of place” in an expanded Australian War Memorial says a lot. An aircraft that never saw combat with the RAAF – reconnaissance missions only – plagued with issues (eight lost in crashes, 10 airmen dead), and loaded with asbestos, should be a centre piece in the national memorial to Australian sacrifice and service in war defies belief.

The memorial is not a museum for devotees and enthusiasts of military hardware and technology, but a place to commemorate and reflect on the human costs of war to Australia.

By all means settle it in the memorial’s big objects facility in Mitchell, but keep it there and don’t further defile the memorial and turn it into another military “theme park”.

Brendon Kelson, Isabella Plains

13 June: F-111 asbestos issues set out in Audit Office report – but Memorial says all is well

Andrew Brown writes in the Canberra Times about the asbestos in the War Memorial’s recently acquired F-111. The presence of asbestos in the aircraft seems not to have been mentioned at the ceremony where the F-111 was welcomed (31 May below) but it was thoroughly examined in an Australian National Audit Office report in 2015.

The [ANAO] report said asbestos was used in adhesive throughout the fighter jets in bonded panels as well as flight control surfaces. “It is not practical to remove all asbestos from an F-111 and certify the aircraft as asbestos free,” the auditor-general report said. “This is due to potential presence of asbestos-containing adhesive within all bonded panels and primary structure of the aircraft. “An F-111 aircraft can only practicably be preserved on the basis that it still contains in situ asbestos.”

The F-111 will be displayed initially in the Memorial’s Mitchell Annex and eventually in the proposed extensions.

In a statement, a memorial spokeswoman said while the F-111 fighter jet going on display contained asbestos, there wasn’t a need for concern. “We have comprehensive documentation of the remaining encapsulated asbestos in the F-111 and manage it in accordance with workplace health and safety regulations,” the spokeswoman said. “We do not intend to allow access to the interior of the aircraft.”

An observer might ask: if no-one is allowed inside the aircraft might it be better presented digitally, with prospects of virtual operation?

9 June: MAPW calls out the War Memorial’s links with gunrunners, as seen in its eagerness to house a retired F-111

Sue Wareham OAM, President of Medical Association for Prevention of War and a member of Heritage Guardians, had this in today’s Canberra Times:

Memorial’s role in glorifying war

As the Australian War Memorial continues to honour machines such as the F1-11 [see 31 May below] along with our war dead (“‘Best in the world’: Jet added to war memorial collection”, May 31, p11), the memorial’s focus shifts more and more to a glorification of warfare itself rather than a commemoration of those who have fought and died.

Military museums – as distinct from memorials – serve a legitimate purpose in displaying old military hardware. The F1-11 is to be displayed in the short-term in the AWM’s annex at Mitchell. However, we are told it will eventually have “pride of place” in the proposed $498 million demolition/expansion of the AWM. If it can be displayed at Mitchell in the short term, why not in the long term?

Why must it be placed alongside the memory of our veterans who have died, as if the machinery of warfare has a claim on the nation’s gratitude and respect equal to that of people who have died?

How convenient all this is for the war profiteers, including Thales, the weapons company which AWM Director Brendan Nelson serves as a member of their advisory board.

Unless there is reversal of the current proposal to knock down part of the current AWM and rebuild a hugely expanded version, the war profiteers will receive a further gift in the form of taxpayer-funded display and promotion in one of our most hallowed institutions.

Dr Sue Wareham, President, Medical Association for Prevention of War

31 May: An academic analysis of the early stages of the extensions saga; an F-111 arrives at the War Memorial for future display

Nicholas Brown from the ANU History Department writes in Australian Historical Studies about the War Memorial project, though the piece seems to have been written late last year, so misses more recent developments. Brown seizes on the remark by Director Nelson, quoting with approval an unidentified veteran: ‘We’ve paid in blood, and whatever the government spends on the Australian War Memorial … will never be enough’. That would be a great accountability standard.

Brown examines the case for the Memorial project, looks at previous controversies over Canberra’s cultural institutions, and analyses the ‘therapeutic milieu’ argument. He also muses about the plan for ‘live crosses’ from the Memorial to defence exercises.

Another Brown, Andrew of the Canberra Times, reports the Memorial’s taking delivery of a superannuated F-111 to display initially at its Mitchell premises, and later at Campbell, assuming the large space offered by the extensions is delivered. There is a brief clip on the ABC’s Canberra TV News (30 May, from mark 21.0). WIN News. The Riot Act.

24 May: Christopher Knaus at Guardian Australia probes further into the Thales-Nelson unity ticket

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information show that the then Minister, Senator Ronaldson, warned War Memorial Director Nelson of potential conflicts between his roles as a member of the Thales Australia Advisory Board and as Director. The article details a number of cases where the Director was involved with or praised Thales.

Earlier story 25 April below.

23 May: Retired GP with experience in psychological medicine questions the idea of a ‘therapeutical milieu’ at the War Memorial

To justify the expansion of the Memorial on therapeutic grounds is a further betrayal of veterans not receiving adequate clinical therapy, and of family survivors of veteran suicide. A portrayal of warfare which devalues the price that veterans and others pay will ultimately increase the risks of future Defence Force personnel suffering the same fate.

12 May: Here’s how you can help the campaign for equity between cultural institutions and against the $498m. War Memorial vanity project

Our petition is closed but, as the election campaign continues, we have been asked how people can make a point about the two issues above. While the Memorial project is said to have bipartisan support, there is still, we believe, a chance to lever Labor away from its current position. Please write to your federal MP or candidate – from any party. There are talking points in the original open letter signed by 83 distinguished Australians and in the petition signed by 1236 people (post of 14 April below).

9 May: Getting the focus back to where it should be: the welfare of veterans; one of them writes for Independent Australia

Veteran Bert Hoebee writes an open letter on the need for a better go for veterans. IA contrasts with the proposed extensions to the War Memorial.

9 May: War Memorial Director for 16 years, Steve Gower, weighs in on Memorial’s reaction to the opposition to the project

Former War Memorial Director Steve Gower has written in Canberra City News about his new book on the history of the Memorial. In a long article he says this:

I’m not going to comment on the present director’s plans to demolish Anzac Hall except to observe that his recent delayed attempt to justify it asserts, amongst other things, that it is “no longer fit for purpose”.

That is nonsense (in the context of the many possible other options) as is the claim that it’s the content that is special, not the building.

On that basis even the heritage main building might be demolished! Community outrage cannot be dismissed so airily; the ongoing controversy is both disturbing and damaging. Perhaps it is time for an independent review.

4 May updated: An excellent letter to the Saturday Paper (4-10 May edition) pulls some themes together

Jack Robertson of Birchgrove, NSW, said this:

A timely Anzac Day reset

If as I suspect the small fraternity of professional sentimentalists, conspiracists and careerists who’ve cornered the market in Anzac bullshitology are too self-absorbed to get through Mark Dapin’s implacably calm Vietnam corrective, Australia’s Vietnam, they should at least read Hamish McDonald’s pitch-perfect review of it (Books, April 27-May 3). A robust antidote to the narcissistic boomer lens through which we’ve come to view that conflict is decades overdue. Even more damaging has been that woefully misread period’s distorting influence on how we now mythologise Anzac in its entirety: an increasingly jarring potpourri of self-important chest-beating, over indulgent “hyper-brokenness” and sentimental tripe, embarrassing military ignorance, and – above all – a toxic usurping by “the Digger” of all other elements of our national history and identity. As a former soldier whose family has put (and often lost) uniformed skin in every Australian conflict since Federation, including the current one, I find my reluctantly growing private sentiment each year on April 25 to be: Let’s we forget. Or at least give it a bloody rest for a bit.

Honest History will post a review of Dapin’s book soon (here). He contributed a chapter to The Honest History Book.

2 May: Here’s a bit more evidence on those naming rights that the Memorial says it does not grant to its donors

We have been on this bandwagon for nearly a month, since Director Nelson, discussing naming rights, told Steve Evans of the Canberra Times, ‘There’s nothing like that at the Australian War Memorial’. See also below entries for 23 April and 11 April.

Here’s a bit more evidence that belies that assertion. The speaker is Anne Bennie of the Memorial, at Senate Estimates in February last year (page 114 of the Proof Hansard). We have added the emphasis:

Ms Bennie: The memorial certainly needed to seek non-government funding. We have had a number of supporters from a philanthropic perspective over a number of years that have supported individual projects particularly. Education is a lot of what philanthropic sponsors seek. There are certainly a number of education projects in the space of individual research around providing case studies and programs, and, indeed, videoconferencing, for which we have had some support to date. As the director, Dr Nelson, said, there is often a direct approach, and we look to speak to companies about their support. They are often defence contractors, but the likes of Qantas and Virgin, for example, also support the Australian War Memorial in individual ways to support the message. They provide the memorial with benefits. Often it can be in the form of naming rights. We have a Qantas aircraft collection at the moment; when we refer to our collection, it is the Qantas aircraft collection, particularly around, obviously, aircraft. There are other ways we do that. We don’t necessarily name galleries, but we will recognise sponsors on interpretive panels or specific aspects that they have supported within our galleries. We have a range of defence contractors, and, indeed, they look to support the memorial because of the role it has within the nation. Corporate and philanthropic sponsors are really looking to support the memorial similarly around that message.

The other way in which we recognise sponsors is through looking at various mentions, whether it be on our website or in our annual report. We have some recognition within our orientation gallery upon entering into the memorial for significant sponsors, both in a board-type format and again in a digital display. It’d be fair to say that a lot of supporters of the memorial aren’t seeking things in lights. Certainly, that is not what we would do. There are certainly areas where we will not put sponsors’ names. It is about them supporting the ethos of the memorial and not necessarily looking for brand recognition, if I can put it that way.

All in all, that is quite a comprehensive statement of the relationship between the Memorial and corporate benefactors. It does not, of course, cover Director Nelson’s work with Thales, for which see entries for 27, 26 and 25 April below.

2 May: Writing in The Strategist, David Stephens refutes Dr Nelson’s arguments for the extensions

‘The director of the Australian War Memorial, Brendan Nelson, wants to extend the memorial at a cost of $498 million. The case he outlined in a recent ‘Strategist Six’ is as full of holes as a second-hand camouflage net.’

28 April: Here’s how you can help the campaign for equity between cultural institutions and against the $498m. War Memorial vanity project

As the election campaign continues we have been asked how people can make a point about the two issues above. While the Memorial project is said to have bipartisan support, there is still, we believe, a chance to lever Labor away from its current position. Please write to your federal MP or candidate – from any party. There are talking points below from the original open letter signed by 83 distinguished Australians and from the petition signed by 1236 people (post of 14 April below). There’s further material in the posts below.

The open letter

The Australian War Memorial’s $498 million extensions should not proceed. They cannot be justified, they show the Memorial is being given preference over other national institutions, and the money could be better spent.

The Memorial Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, touts the Memorial as telling ‘our story’. The Memorial should be revered, but Australia has many stories and Dr Nelson’s excessive veneration of the Anzac story denies the richness of our history.

Dr Nelson wants added space to display more of the big artefacts representing recent, but purportedly ‘forgotten’ conflicts, and to ‘heal’ veterans. Recent conflicts should instead be presented in proportion to their significance; responsibility for veterans’ welfare belongs with Defence and Veterans’ Affairs.

The extensions offer Dr Nelson a permanent legacy like that of none of his predecessors. His and his Council’s ambitions will destroy the Memorial’s character and entail the demolition of Anzac Hall, opened in 2001 and winner of the 2005 Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Architecture.

The Memorial has been treated most generously by successive governments, and has suffered less from the ‘efficiency dividend’ that has damaged other institutions.

We have just seen over $350 million spent by the Commonwealth on the Anzac Centenary and the Sir John Monash Centre in France. Should further money be spent on these extensions rather than on other needy cultural institutions or direct benefits to veterans and their families?

The petition

Oppose the Australian War Memorial’s plan for $498m extensions

  • The money would be better spent on direct benefits to veterans and their families, other cultural institutions, overseas aid to war-torn countries, or other areas of pressing need.
  • The extensions favour the Memorial over other national institutions, even though it presents only a small part of our rich national history.
  • The extensions will destroy the Memorial’s character and entail the demolition of the award-winning Anzac Hall.
  • Much of the extended space will be taken up with a grandiose foyer and space for decommissioned planes and helicopters which do little to promote an understanding of Australia’s wars.
  • The planned direct feed on current Defence Department activities is totally inappropriate in a war memorial.
  • The plan has been pushed through with a minimum of public consultation.

27 April: David Stephens on 4ZZZ community radio Brisbane; Sue Wareham and Phil Creaser in Canberra Times letters

Heritage Guardian David Stephens was interviewed by Ian Curr yesterday on 4ZZZ Brisbane. The tape is here (from mark 20.00 for about 20 minutes). Covers the AWM extensions, the Thales-Nelson buddy system and related issues.

Heritage Guardian Sue Wareham had this in the Canberra Times:

AWM funding conflict concerns

On Anzac Day media reports revealed the Australian War Memorial’s director, Dr Brendan Nelson, receives payments from a large weapons making company, Thales, for his work as a Thales board member.

In his defence, the AWM states Dr Nelson donates his payment to the memorial. This does not absolve the director or the memorial of any conflict of interests however.

In December 2015 Dr Nelson extolled the virtues of the Bushmaster protected vehicle, specifically mentioning its maker Thales, when the vehicle was installed on the AWM grounds.

The fact Dr Nelson claims to have the relevant approvals for his role with Thales from the AWM Council, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Minister for Veterans Affairs and the Australian Public Service Commissioner compounds this problem.

Did not a single one of those people consider that payments to our pre-eminent place of war commemoration from a company that profits hugely from warfare represents a conflict of interest?

Dr Sue Wareham, Medical Association for Prevention of War president

Phil Creaser, a Heritage Guardians ‘fellow traveller’ (term courtesy of Brendan Nelson) had this in the Canberra Times:

AWM expansion plan absurd

Dr Nelson has made his case (“The stories that heal”, April 20, p28) for the half-a-billion dollar expansion of the Australian War Memorial. Superficially it appears to be sound but when it is considered in detail, it is far from convincing.

While nobody could deny the need to tell stories that heal and the need to help and assist veterans, there is no hard evidence to argue why a vast sum of money is required to tell these stories.

Dr Nelson seems to believe that more and more space is vital to display large objects. There is not one major cultural institution anywhere in the world that can display anything more than a very tiny percentage of objects in their collection.

No institution can keep expanding. Hard decisions have to be made and priorities determined to tell the most significant stories and the objects that support them. You can’t do everything.

It is true that the Memorial is like no other cultural institution. The same could be said for every national cultural institution in Australia, some of whom really need urgent financial assistance to undertake core functions such as the National Archives. One could consider such basic services more important than a glorified wish list for half a billion dollars.

Phil Creaser, Civic

Also a letter from David Purnell on whatever happened to the idea that there should be a Peace Institute or similar in Canberra. We understand the reason was that a Canberra bureaucrat thought the term ‘Peace’ was communist and scratched the plan.

26 April: First Dog on the Moon in Guardian Australia absolutely nails the issues

Check out the brilliant vicious circle, the reference to former War Memorial Director, Brendon Kelson, one of the Heritage Guardians and not to be confused with Brendan Nelson, plus the excoriation of the Thales-Brendan Nelson buddy arrangement.

On the latter, in case there is any doubt about why Director Nelson does his unpaid thing for Thales – and what this thing is – this is what he said to Patricia Karvelas last evening on ABC RN Drive:

Dr Nelson: ‘I was invited in 2015 to join the advisory board of Thales Australia, a major employer in this country … I do it because I bring to the task, I think, some guidance which can help Thales in this case in its decision-making in relation to the employment of Australians, and also reading the broader political, economic and social milieu in which decisions are having to be made’.

As First Dog mentions in a footnote, Thales has an interesting track record in terms of cosying up to people:

The French multi-national, which is one of the world’s leading weapons manufacturers, has been involved in several notable scandals. In 2006 the World Bank’s Integrity Unit blacklisted Thales for its large scale use of bribery across the globe. The move meant Thales was barred from involvement in all World Bank projects and programmes.

The company’s biggest scandal came in 2011 when it, along with the French state, was sentenced to pay a total of €630 million to the Taiwanese government for bribing officials in order to secure contracts to build six frigates. The fine was the biggest handed down in a French corruption case to date.

BAE Systems, like Thales a donor to the War Memorial, also racked up a notable fine in an American corruption case. In BAE’s case the fine was $US400m. No wonder these companies need help ‘reading the broader political, economic and social milieu in which decisions are having to be made’.

25 April: Sydney Morning Herald editorial suggests Anzac Day needs to evolve

‘D]ebate about how to celebrate Anzac Day must continue to make sure it is meaningful for future generations.’ Mentions the open letter opposing the War Memorial extensions.

25 April: Christopher Knaus in Guardian Australia (plus a comment) on the not unrelated issue of Director Nelson’s advisory role with Thales Australia

Raises issues of potential conflict of interest.

25 April: David Stephens writes (Canberra Times letters) that Director Nelson’s emotive rhetoric misses key points about the proposed expansion of the War Memorial

AWM funding needs scrutiny

War Memorial Director Dr Brendan Nelson is a master of emotive rhetoric (“A home for the stories that heal,” April 20, p.28 [see below]) but he still fails to address three crucial questions. Why should the AWM continue to expand when most cultural institutions around the world only have the space to display a small proportion of their total collection? How is what he calls a “therapeutic milieu” at the AWM better for veterans than direct expenditure on them and their families? Why does the memorial fare better in the funding game than other institutions?

Dr Nelson says “the memorial is like no other cultural institution”. This is true but not in the way Dr Nelson means. It has been granted an inside track to extravagant expenditure. The AWM should be incorporated into the arts portfolio where it would have to compete with other cultural institutions for funding.

David Stephens,

Heritage Guardians, Bruce

24 April: Margaret Beavis, GP and former President of Medical Association for Prevention of War has a different take to the Memorial on how best to help veterans – and it isn’t building lots of extra space

[T]he healing claim [Director Nelson talks about a ‘therapeutic milieu’] is an astonishing trivialisation of the complexity and long-term treatment needed to successfully treat mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

The $498 million spent on the war memorial is $498 million not spent on veterans’ health care.

23 April: Ben Brooker in Overland has a wide-ranging piece on the Memorial folly and related issues

Contrary to the claims by the prime minister and by AWM Director Brendan Nelson, the $498 million is not an investment in the telling of history so much as the bolstering of mythology. After all, what does the ostentatious display of planes and helicopters or the proposed live feed of current Australian Defence Force operations have to teach us about the past? Rather, their function is to project the Memorial into the sphere of public relations …

More fundamentally, the Memorial redevelopment completes the transformation of the Anzac myth from one earlier generations would have recognised –a muted, reflective phenomenon, for all its ahistoricism – into the triumphalist spectacle it has become today. Beginning around the time of the 1988 bicentenary, and supercharged by John Howard and every successive prime minister since, the resurgence of Anzac as Australia’s totalising creation myth was not inevitable but the result of a thorough, bipartisan campaign to place it at the centre of our national identity.

23 April: More on the War Memorial’s carelessness on naming rights

The Memorial’s Corporate Plan for 2014-17 includes three examples of naming rights although the Memorial’s Director says there is nothing like that in his institution. See earlier item, 11 April below.

23 April: Two more letters in the Canberra Times against the project

Murray Upton of Belconnen says, ‘To comment that “Anzac Hall is no longer fit for purpose” is nonsense. It may not be fit for what Dr Nelson now feels its purpose should be.’

Charlotte Palmer of Downer, one of the Heritage Guardians organising the community campaign says this:

Brendan Nelson appears to be a man with great compassion for veterans and their families. But, the enacting legislation for the Australian War Memorial says nothing about it being a therapy centre. If he truly cared he would relinquish the obscenely large $498 million proposed for the AWM to provide resources for post-traumatic stress.

22 April updated: Paul Daley in Guardian Australia

The fear of being seen to disrespect Anzac has meant political support for the unnecessary expansion … Australia has not witnessed a more profligate cultural expense proceed with such a shamefully reckless absence of political scrutiny as the proposed half billion dollar expansion of the Australian War Memorial.

More than 500 comments within 24 hours of posting this piece – and many hundreds of likes. About 90 per cent of comments agreed with Daley’s arguments against the project.

22 April: What about finding some space at the Memorial for the Frontier Wars?

Canberra poet Geoff Page had this published in today’s Canberra Times:


It’s more than heartening to see Dr Brendan Nelson energetically defending the Australian War Memorial’s need to expand (“A home for stories that heal”, April 20, p28).

Maybe now he will be able to find at least a little alcove or portico to commemorate the Frontier Wars which are no less a part of our history than the more recent wars for which he plans to provide many additional cubic metres.

Geoff Page, Narrabundah

20 April (updated): War Memorial Director makes the case; Heritage Guardians response

The Canberra Times contains a piece from War Memorial Director Dr Brendan Nelson making the case for the proposed $498m extensions. (The paper had previously been critical of him for not engaging with critics: see below 14 April.) The Strategist re-runs Dr Nelson’s remarks (and David Stephens refutes them: above 2 May).

‘The Memorial tells stories of men and women that hurt, and stories that heal’, Dr Nelson says. ‘Stories of our heroes must be told as a means of seeking to inspire us.’

Peter Stanley of Heritage Guardians had this in today’s Canberra Times (21 April 2019):

Need to make tough choices

Dr Brendan Nelson claims the AWM is “like no other” cultural institution (“A home for the stories that heal”, April 20, p28). Indeed: it is given everything it wants (not “needs”) – much more than other institutions.

Dr Nelson seems not to understand that if he wants to display more stuff he should do what other cultural institutions do – decide what can and cannot be displayed within the budgets provided. This may demand hard choices, but I doubt that removing the “Emden gun” from display will upset very many RAN veterans of the Great War.

Dr Nelson needs to learn that leaders of museums have to make choices within reasonable budgets – that is, to manage, and not indulge in emotional special pleading.

Peter Stanley, Dickson

16 April: A small victory for people power: War Memorial quietly posts some material relevant to its decision-making on the $498m extensions project

One of the criticisms of the way the War Memorial has gone about promoting its plans to spend $498m of your money on extending its premises is that it has done so behind closed doors. The big launch on 1 November followed provisions in a couple of Budgets for scoping studies and some broad hints from Director Nelson in Senate Estimates. Consultation with the public was minimal and gathered ‘feedback’ from just 134 individuals. Director Nelson has been criticised in the Canberra Times (see below 14 April) for his failure to engage with critics.

This has changed. Following the recent open letter and petition against the plans, the Memorial has seen fit to post on its website a 2017 consultant’s report (GHD) on options plus an Agenda Paper for a July 2018 Council meeting which discussed options. (The former document was released in response to an FOI claim.) We’ll be reading this material closely, as will other people who are interested in the project.

15 April: This is why the $498m AWM extensions should not go ahead: The Riot Act article today

The Memorial has traded on its ‘sacred’ status to achieve better financial outcomes than other national cultural institutions. It has suffered less from the efficiency dividend than have other institutions and it gets an easy run through accountability mechanisms like Senate Estimates and annual reporting. It needs to be held to account more rigorously than it has been.

Updated 23 April: An edited version appeared on Pearls and Irritations.

14 April: Canberra Times editorial critical of War Memorial’s failure to engage

When people in powerful positions choose to not provide their side of the story, our readers are poorer for it, as are the people who refuse to provide it …

Dr Nelson has been approached for comment for each and every story we’ve published. But as it stands, Dr Nelson has opted against responding to many of the specific complaints. He was offered the opportunity to explain via an opinion piece why the half-a-billion-dollar redevelopment was needed, however he declined …

Of course you’ll rarely have full agreement on any project, minor or major. But more engagement with those who have expressed their concerns or opposition would strengthen the memorial’s case that it enjoys broad public support.

13 April: Canberra Times poll says two-thirds are not comfortable with the Australian War Memorial receiving funding from ‘gun-runners’

Today’s Canberra Times – hard copy p. 35, hard to find online – says 64 per cent of those polled answered ‘No’ to the question ‘Are you comfortable with the Australian War Memorial receiving funding from companies which make weapons’. ‘Yes’ tallied 28 per cent and ‘Unsure’ 8 per cent. There were 403 respondents to this Canberra Times Insider poll, members of a panel of readers who give feedback each week.

Two respondents’ comments:

It sickens me that the War Memorial’s major theatre should honour BAE Systems, a merchant of war that has been creating so much death and misery in Yemen and elsewhere.

It is quite wrong for the memorial to seek and accept funding from the so-called gun-runners. I suggest its administration has lost its moral compass.

Explanation: (1) Honest History sees the issue of arms company funding of the Memorial as closely related to the campaign against the Memorial’s extensions. In both instances, the Memorial shows a disregard for public opinion. (2) ‘Gun-runners’ is a term used by senior Australian Defence Force officers to describe arms manufacturers.

David Stephens

12 April: This sort of hyperbole calls for a sartorial response

During his ABC Radio Canberra interview this week, War Memorial Director Brendan Nelson claimed that, of the 83 signatories to the open letter against the extensions, he had only ever seen three of us at the Memorial. This is hyperbole of the highest Nelsonian calibre. For example, I have visited the Memorial more than two dozen times in the six and a bit years since Dr Nelson took the job and, from a quick skim through the list of 83, I can see many others whose professional work, let alone private interests, would have taken them there also. Clearly, the signatories need to identify themselves, perhaps with a tee-shirt looking something like this.


David Stephens

12 April: The architects dig in against the extensions, while the War Memorial shifts ground, and the ABC offers a strange perspective. An extract:

The War Memorial belongs to all Australians, not just ‘veterans and current service men and women’, yet its future seems to have been hijacked after minimal public consultation – just 134 individuals provided feedback to the Memorial’s consultation process last year – and on the basis of confused and inconsistent arguments. As Mr [Philip] Leeson [ACT Chapter President, AIA] said in the AIA statement, ‘If the Australian War Memorial’s management thought our and the community’s opposition to their destructive plans would simply fade away, they have grossly miscalculated’.

11 April: A comment on War Memorial Director Nelson’s interview with ABC Radio Canberra, plus what didn’t happen at Senate Estimates, and some close analysis of what constitutes a naming right. Here’s an extract:

Some donors in other museums and public sites get “naming rights” – the peace bell in Canberra, for example, is officially the Canberra Rotary Peace Bell. But, Dr Nelson said, the arms companies which donate do not insist or get those rights. “There’s nothing like that at the Australian War Memorial,” he said. (Emphasis added.)

Nothing like that? Exhibit 1. The War Memorial’s theatre is the BAE Systems Theatre. ‘During the year a successful sponsorship agreement was reached with BAE Systems for the Memorial’s theatre’, says the Memorial’s Annual Report for 2008-09 at page 48. The agreement was renewed in 2013 and here is a picture of a wreath laying ceremony in the theatre in 2016. There is another picture of the theatre on the Memorial’s ‘Venue Hire’ page, in which the BAE Systems logo appears in a place of honour above the War Memorial logo. BAE Systems’ name also appears in large letters above the door of the theatre, so those who enter have no doubt whose largesse they are enjoying.

Update 14 April: Sue Wareham in the Canberra Times on naming rights: ‘Australian War Memorial Director Dr Brendan Nelson is getting very careless with his facts when he states that arms companies that donate to the Memorial don’t have naming rights’. More to come soon on naming rights. Anyone heard of the Kingold Education and Media Centre?

For more evidence, see 23 April above.

The petition

Our petition on change.org against the proposed $498m extensions to the Australian War Memorial closed on 7 April 2019. It received 1236 signatures and we will now take steps to bring it to the attention of Bill Shorten and other relevant people. Of those who signed, 224 (18 per cent) made comments. We launched the petition following the extraordinary support received on Twitter after the front page story on 23 March in the Canberra Times and online in Nine (Fairfax) papers.

9 April 2019

What the petition said

Oppose the Australian War Memorial’s plan for $498m extensions

  • The money would be better spent on direct benefits to veterans and their families, other cultural institutions, overseas aid to war-torn countries, or other areas of pressing need.

  • The extensions favour the Memorial over other national institutions, even though it presents only a small part of our rich national history.

  • The extensions will destroy the Memorial’s character and entail the demolition of the award-winning Anzac Hall.

  • Much of the extended space will be taken up with a grandiose foyer and space for decommissioned planes and helicopters which do little to promote an understanding of Australia’s wars.

  • The planned direct feed on current Defence Department activities is totally inappropriate in a war memorial.

  • The plan has been pushed through with a minimum of public consultation.

The petition analysed

David Stephens reports on the petition and what it showed.

For people of my generation – I was born in 1949 and had relatives killed in both world wars – commemoration is not speeches by politicians, or parades and wreaths and children waving flags, or even emotive tours [of the War Memorial] with Dr Nelson; instead, it is something families live every day and every week, forever and down through the generations. People – of my generation or any generation – who grasp that fact do not need coaching in commemoration from Dr Nelson. And they do not need a bigger War Memorial.

Earlier posts

Heritage Guardians

The campaign is being wrangled by Heritage Guardians, a small committee. The members of the committee are:

  • Brendon Kelson, former Director, Australian War Memorial
  • Dr Charlotte Palmer, committee member, Medical Association for Prevention of War (ACT Branch)
  • Professor Peter Stanley, UNSW Canberra
  • Dr David Stephens, Editor, Honest History website
  • Dr Sue Wareham OAM, President, Medical Association for Prevention of War.

24 March 2019 updated


Heritage Guardians: coordinating community action on the War Memorial extensions

‘[It should] … not be colossal in scale but rather a gem of its kind’ (Charles Bean and the Australian War Museum Committee, 11 October 1923, on the proposed building and collection)

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