Stephens, David: An historical agenda for the Albanese Government

David Stephens*

‘An historical agenda for the Albanese Government’, Honest History, 7 June 2022 updated

History is not just a matter for historians, museums and school teachers. How we deal with our past shapes the present and future of all of us. And we should not forget parts of our past, even if they seem done and dusted.

Here are seven agenda items, with an indication of which Ministers need to address them. Most of them relate to matters that have exercised Honest History and the Heritage Guardians group in recent years. More on them can be found on the Honest History website, by using our Search engine or by scrolling through the history of the Heritage Guardians (unsuccessful) campaign against the $498m extensions to the Australian War Memorial.

The imponderable in all this is whether the independent Australian National Audit Office will undertake the potential audit that has been on the ANAO radar for more than 12 months. The audit, as described previously, is into ‘Management of the Australian War Memorial’s development project‘. Whether it actually occurs is up to the Auditor-General, and the 2022-23 audit program will not be announced until next month.

1. Reserve an area of the War Memorial extensions for a Frontier Wars gallery (article now posted)

The new government’s stress on the Uluru Statement from the Heart should lead to reserving an area of the extended Memorial for a comprehensive gallery depicting and commemorating the Frontier Wars, during which over 60 000 Indigenous Australians (and far smaller numbers of settlers) were killed from 1788 to at least 1928. The mechanism for this would be:

The Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Australians would write supporting letters to the Council.

Whether the Memorial should depict and commemorate the Frontier Wars has been a vexed question for years. The Memorial has sidled up to this coverage, without ever properly admitting it is doing so. Or it has diverted attention from the Frontier Wars with what the writer Paul Daley has called ‘the fig leaf’ of Indigenous service in the King’s or Queen’s uniform (‘Black Diggers’). (Brendan Nelson, when Director of the Memorial, said Black Diggers ‘denied their aboriginality and kinship’.)

That service could raise the question in some observers, ‘Why should we whitefellers worry about the massacres and atrocities committed in the Frontier Wars when blackfellers since Federation, despite what we did to them in those wars, have still been prepared to fight for us?’ Firm government support for a Frontier Wars gallery – rather than left-handed and ambivalent actions like Black Diggers or buying expensive art works depicting massacres –  would be a game changer.

2. Closely monitor the cost of the War Memorial extensions and explore the potential for savings in that project (article now posted)

Rumours persist that the Memorial extensions project is over budget. It is unclear whether ‘equity injections to fund capital expenditure’ in the 2021 and 2022 Australian Budgets – $138m in 2021 (section 3.1.2) followed by $170m in 2022 (section 3.1.2) – are normal draw-downs or additions to the Memorial’s original $498m. Or some of both.

As the Treasurer and Minister for Finance look for Budget savings they should keep a close eye on the Memorial. While it seems impossible to reverse the hasty demolitions and excavations undertaken to this point, savings need to be explored, particularly those involving greater use of the Memorial’s extensive property at Mitchell in the Canberra suburbs. More on this: Find ‘Mitchell’ and related terms.

The Ministers’ making such decisions will, of course, require their tweaking aside ‘the Anzac cloak’ that gives special status to spending at the Memorial, and their keeping in mind the extent to which the whole $498m project is a legacy of, and a vanity project for, the men who promoted it.

3. Appoint a historian or historians to the War Memorial Council (article now posted)

The current term of one member of the Council ends in September this year (Tony Abbott) and then of six members in 2024. (Two members’ terms were recently renewed during the election caretaker period.) Section 10 of the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 says the non ex-officio members of the Memorial 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’.

Knowing something about history would seem to fit the criterion in section 10. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, with the support of the Prime Minister, should take every opportunity to provide advice to the Governor-General to appoint historians to the Council.

The last historian on the Council was Les Carlyon, who died in office in 2019. The membership of the current Council is heavily military – nine members out of 13, including the three Service heads ex officio – reflecting the particular interest that serving military and veterans are said to have in the Memorial (though many observers have argued that the Memorial is for all Australians, not just veterans) – but also includes: a former personal assistant to the current Chair when he was a Minister; an employee of the former Chair, Kerry Stokes; the wife of a former National President of the Liberal Party. (All of these members have credentials as individuals.)

4. Release all progress reports on the implementation of the Brereton report so that the War Memorial can take account of them in future interpretation of Australia’s Afghanistan involvement (article now posted)

Guardian Australia said last month that the former Defence Minister had withheld six progress reports of the oversight panel regarding the Brereton report and reforms. This affects not only the public’s right to know about these matters, and the reputation of those who might be charged with war crimes, but also how the War Memorial deals with Afghanistan.

Director Anderson at the Memorial had his knuckles rapped when he said that the Memorial needed to be ‘a place of truth’ about Afghanistan. Others have made the point that exhibits about a war where the jury is still out should not be rushed into the Memorial’s galleries.

The Memorial – and all of us – need to be kept informed about Brereton follow-up. The new Defence Minister should publish the languishing reports – pronto.

5. Commission an independent inquiry into the operation of the Heritage Management Plan provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, with particular reference to the interactions between the War Memorial and the then Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and the Australian Heritage Council relating to the War Memorial extensions

The Heritage Guardians campaign diary details the long-running engagement (3 1/2 years and 13 revisions) between the Memorial and the portfolio with responsibility for heritage. This saga finally ended in May this year, (sub-heading ‘Freedom of Information; Senate Estimates’), having been delayed for some time so the Memorial’s Heritage Management Plan, which gave status to Anzac Hall as an important part of the Memorial, could be fudged to take account of the fact that Anzac Hall had been demolished.

The role of the Australian Heritage Council, the government’s premier advisory body on heritage, was consistently devalued during this process. As well, the heritage documentation on the Memorial’s website includes badly out-of-date supporting material. Finally, each stage of the process was conspicuous for masses of badly indexed, confusing documentation.

To sum up, the whole process was a public policy shemozzle. It needs forensic examination as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the heritage provisions of the EPBC Act.

6. Make a firm statement on the history elements of the Australian Curriculum, to mark a clean break from the stewardship of the previous Australian Minister and Acting Minister for Education

Update 4 June 2022: New education Minister Jason Clare says the war is over and strongly backs teachers. This strong statement, despite huffing and puffing from Opposition Leader, should put this issue to bed – until the next time.

Then Ministers Tudge and Robert bound themselves to a version of history that devalued the contest between interpretations that is the central element of the discipline. The new Minister for Education should take an early public opportunity to make clear that the Australian government supports contestability in history, even as it relates to Anzac (a particular obsession of Minister Tudge), and has confidence in the ability of dedicated and knowledgeable teachers to use the curriculum as the basis for an imaginative, wide-ranging approach to history in schools. Minister Clare should call a halt to any further Commonwealth involvement in the attempted ‘Tudging’ of the curriculum.

7. Reform the National Capital Authority (NCA), including by legislative change, to give it a real role in pursuing a vision for and protecting the national capital, rather than being a ‘tick and flick’ body for the government of the day

The Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories, responsible for the NCA, needs to act urgently to reform the sadly broken Authority. Or kill it off altogether.

The Heritage Guardians campaign diary has frequent critical references to the unsatisfactory role played by the NCA in the approvals process for the War Memorial extensions. The Authority was too close to the project from its early stages, it lacked the resources and commitment to deal adequately with this huge undertaking, it connived at ‘early works’ approval processes which were nothing more than rorts and which made the final approvals redundant.

The Authority also consistently downplayed the degree of public opposition to the project and patronised and misled people and organisations that tried to make a meaningful contribution. It failed itself, Canberra and the nation.

To be fair, the Authority under its current running rules and legislation has limited power to go against the wishes of the government of the day. If the Authority is to continue, it needs greater independence – and a shakeout of personnel.

*David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and has been convener of the Heritage Guardians group

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