Senate Estimates skate around the real issues with the Memorial’s big build

The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee spent 30 minutes on the War Memorial last evening and, while we wait for the Hansard, here are some points we picked up.

Update 2 November 2020: Proof Hansard now available (pages 95-100 of the pdf) and we have inserted quotes as needed below. Our take from the broadcast was pretty accurate.

Under the benign chairmanship of Senator Abetz, most questions were asked by Senators Steele-John (Greens, WA) and Kitching (ALP, Victoria), both beamed in. Questions were answered by Memorial Director Matt Anderson, except for one picked up by the Defence Minister, Senator Reynolds, representing the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

Senator Steele-John focused on the ethics of the Memorial continuing to accept donations from arms manufacturers. Director Anderson was largely comfortable with the current arrangements.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: … I just want to know from you—yes or no, really—whether you are actually going to seek to explore this as an ethical question, as a council, or whether it is just something that you are very comfortable with and don’t feel the need to explore further.

Mr Anderson: In terms of who we currently engage with, the sponsors and the supporters that we currently enjoy, I don’t think there’s any need to explore that further. But please understand that every single donation, every single sponsorship and partnership that we enter into, is considered on a case-by-case basis, and that will be the case. We’re very, very comfortable with those companies that we deal with right now, but any new company would be considered on a case-by-case basis. (page 96)

Senator Steele-John mentioned the recent letter to the Prime Minister from over 70 Australians. Was not the Memorial worried by the growing chorus of discontent? Director Anderson doubted the chorus was growing and said the Memorial engaged with its critics, ‘like the Honest Histories, the Heritage Guardians, and the Medical Association for the Prevention of War’. He claimed the ‘overwhelming majority’ of Australians supported the project. For example, 167 submissions came in on the current EPBC consultation, around 50 of them from veterans and they were overwhelmingly in favour. (Attentive readers, even lacking the Hansard, will have noticed the sleight of hand in that answer. Analysis.)

Senator STEELE-JOHN: … I’d like to move on to a letter that was sent to the Prime Minister on 22 October, co-signed by about 70 notable Australians including former Department of Defence secretary Paul Barratt and two of your former directors, Steve Gower and Brendon Kelson—not to be confused, of course, with Dr Nelson—raising a number of concerns in relation to your intended $498 million expansion of the War Memorial, particularly looking at the impacts of the demolition of Anzac Hall and the loss of various architectural features around the place. Given what I can only describe as a growing chorus of discontent in relation to the planned expansion, is there an intent on behalf of the War Memorial to directly engage with these concerned parties and seek a resolution to the issues that they are raising around this project?

Mr Anderson: In terms of some of the individuals, they have not engaged with me, but certainly a number of the signatories to that letter, whether it’s Honest History, Heritage Guardians, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War or former director Major General Gower, are people that I have engaged with. They are also people that we engage with through the EPBC process and the public consultations during the environmental heritage process, and they are people that we engage with through the public works committee process. So they are absolutely people that we have engaged with. They were invited to make submissions and to be involved throughout the planning stages over the last few years. So these are people that we engage with regularly. There are some people whose views we won’t change, and that’s okay; they are absolutely entitled to their views. I just don’t happen to share them.

The point that I would make is: you mentioned there’s a growing chorus, but our experience—and I speak to people at the Australian War Memorial every day—is that the overwhelming majority of people that I speak to about the development at the Australian War Memorial and the overwhelming majority of people that we survey at the Australian War Memorial are in favour of it. Of the 167 submissions that we received through the EPBC process, nearly 50 were from veterans and veterans organisations, and they were all very much in favour of it. So I don’t accept that there’s a growing chorus of discontent. The majority of the people that we speak to are in favour of it.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: I’d have to disagree with you there. I think we’re talking to very different sets of people. (pages 96-97)

Senator Steele-John questioned whether the Memorial could provide a therapeutic milieu for veterans, noting that a previous Question on Notice to the Memorial (Additional Estimates 4 March 2020: Question on Notice No. 359, Portfolio Question 97) had failed to elicit strong evidence for this. Most of Director Anderson’s response comprised anecdotes about Memorial visitors apparently gleaning therapeutic and related benefits.

Senator Steele-John asked Minister Reynolds about the wisdom of huge spending on a project with possible indirect medical benefits for veterans, rather than spending the money on direct benefits. The Minister used the well-worn response that spending on one purpose in the veterans’ portfolio did not mean taking money from another purpose. She seemed not to have heard of the concept of opportunity cost – spending a dollar on one purpose by definition means you cannot spend it on another purpose; it’s gone, unless you reverse your original spending decision.

Senator STEELE-JOHN: … We’ve got a budget that’s just come out that’s put about $102 million into mental health and wellbeing services for veterans over the forwards. That is about a fifth of what’s being invested in this one project for the War Memorial. I’m wondering how the government possibly justifies such a dramatic disparity between spending on proven programs to support veterans versus spending on the War Memorial in the hope it will have a therapeutic benefit?

Senator Reynolds: Thank you for the question. One does not come from another. In terms of our expenditure under DVA and all of the other programs for health support and transition support and all of the other programs that we can take you through, one does not come at the expense of another. I would encourage you to take up the director’s invitation to go and spend some time there and talk to people when they come in. It is my experience that people come for themselves and also with colleagues and family members. It has been commented on for many years that contemporary veterans just don’t have the same space and same acknowledgement. One does not come at the expense of the other. (pages 97-98)

Senator Kitching weighed in, ostensibly on heritage matters, but did not press hard. Director Anderson gave his previously used response on the need to recognise recent service. He acknowledged the submission of the Australian Heritage Council, but only as one of 167 submissions received, not mentioning that the Council is the government’s principal adviser on heritage matters, whose views deserved particular weight. He mentioned the 50 changes the Memorial had made in response to comments, but Senator Kitching was not able to press him on exactly how significant – or not – these changes were.

Senator KITCHING: … It’s the open letter sent to you from the Australian Heritage Council. I’d invite you to comment on that, or on the concerns that they raised …

Mr Anderson: … The first thing to mention about that letter is to put it in context. That letter was provided during the public consultation process in July this year. When we went out for public consultation as part of the EPBC, the Heritage Council provided that response. We received 167 submissions. That was one of the submissions. We considered them all and then went back to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, responding to that and to other concerns, requests for amendments of designs et cetera. Our response, in a way, was our final submission back to DAWE, through the EPBC process. We’ve made about 50 amendments to various designs—we’ve looked at things like the parade ground, which they were concerned about; we’ve amended issues related to the height of the glazed link; and we’ve amended issues related to Anzac Hall. We’ve taken on board a number of concerns they’ve raised.

As I say, there were 167 submissions and a significant number were also in favour of what we are doing and how we were doing it. We obviously took their views seriously and, where appropriate, we have responded, and we’ve amended our documentation and our designs based on their concerns. That is part of an internal process, and it has only come to light because, transparently, we put in the public domain all of those submissions that we received where the individuals wanted them to be placed in the public domain. So I just wanted to give you that important context—that it’s not sort of new information; it was a statement that was made to us in July and we have responded formally through the EPBC process. (page 99)

The Director also made the point that no decisions had been made about the content of the new galleries:

No decision’s been taken yet on what’s going to go into any of the galleries, other than that we want an Afghanistan gallery, an Iraq gallery, a humanitarian gallery and a peacekeeping gallery. In terms of what goes into those, no decision’s been taken yet. (page 98)

In related news this week, however, the Memorial took delivery of one of two F/A-18A Hornet fighters allocated to it. Said the Minister for Defence Industry, Melissa Price MP:

It is very fitting that it [the first Hornet] will now spend its next life on permanent display at the Australian War Memorial.

This will be a fantastic opportunity for generations of Australians to view and appreciate example [sic] of Australian Air Force capability.

While this is an older model of the Hornet, built by McDonnell Douglas, newer versions are produced by Boeing.  The aircraft has been partially disassembled for transport and will be reassembled at the Memorial’s Treloar Technology Centre by Boeing Defence Australia during November 2020. Boeing Defence Australia is part of the Boeing empire. Former Memorial Director, Brendan Nelson, is president of Boeing Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific.

David Stephens

David Stephens is convener of the Heritage Guardians group and editor of the Honest History website.

27 October 2020 updated

Update 28 October 2020: Sydney Morning Herald.

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