Stephens, David: Architects and doctors come down hard on War Memorial heritage arguments

David Stephens*

‘Architects and doctors come down hard on War Memorial heritage arguments’, Honest History, 18 December 2019 updated

Spinners know how to make the best of a bad story. Australian War Memorial spokespersons, in spruiking the case for the Memorial’s $498m expansion, have tried to turn into a positive the poor responses to the Memorial’s hastily arranged, poorly advertised, and sparsely attended public consultations earlier this month. The fact that people are not turning up must mean that they don’t have a problem with the expansion project, runs the argument.

The Memorial’s consultants said the same of its first round of consultations, in August-September last year, when a massive social media and advertising blitz, plus public meetings, produced just 134 individual responses. The low response rate could have been due, the consultants said, to ‘generally low levels of concern around the project … the existing relationships the Memorial maintains or … the general positive sentiment that was seen throughout the consultation’ (para. 46).

We’ll wait to read the Memorial’s report on these latest consultations (presentations and drop-in sessions around the country) to see how it explains poor turnouts and, more importantly, how it deals with the opposing views we know it has encountered. It is understood the report will be publicly released, probably in January, either by the Department of the Environment and Energy (DOEE), responsible for heritage matters under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, or by the Memorial if the department does not publish it.

Meanwhile, recently published are two submissions on the Memorial’s current Referral to DOEE under the EPBC Act. They point to flaws in the Memorial’s case for the project.

Australian Institute of Architects

Update 19 December 2019: Article in Architecture summarises the AIA submission. Also: petition to save Anzac Hall.

Update 5 January 2020: Ian Bushnell in The Riot Act looks at the AIA submission.

The Australian Institute of Architects has expressed concern for more than 12 months now about aspects of the Memorial project, particularly the planned destruction of Anzac Hall. The Institute’s EPBC submission, dated 13 December, draws upon consultancy work by Ashley Built Heritage. A close read is recommended but here are the Institute’s concluding paragraphs (emphasis added):

The Institute has significant concerns about the process followed in relation to heritage considerations for the $498.7 million Redevelopment Project and the extent to which the entire project has progressed without the relevant heritage approvals in place.

The Memorial has legislative obligations for the protection and conservation of the heritage values for all Australians. It is not apparent that the Memorial has liaised effectively or to the extent required for such a significant project or adequately assessed the proposal’s cumulative impact on the site. Over development will lead to significant adverse loss of the qualities that make the AWM nationally significant. The independent review of the EPBC Act 1999 referral undertaken by Ashley Built Heritage confirms that the current redevelopment proposal will do just this.

Ashley Built Heritage has found that given the unmediated and significant heritage impacts that remain as a result of the planned redevelopment project, the refusal of the Referral under the EPBC Act 1999 would be justified.

It is recommended that the Referral be identified as a “Controlled Action” and that the Memorial be required to review and revise the scheme to identity prudent alternatives that would retain Anzac Hall, not proceed with glazed courtyard addition and revise the southern entry such that the current entry and that experience is retained while also providing improved accessible access.

After such changes the Referral should be resubmitted and considered via the EPBC Act 1999 pathway that includes opportunities for substantive public review and comment given the national significance of the site. The Institute calls on the department to take this entirely appropriate course of action.

Medical Association for Prevention of War

Also published is the EPBC submission from Medical Association for Prevention of War. The submission first notes the slipshod and flawed consultation process held by the Memorial. ‘As an exercise in “consultation”, this has been grossly unsatisfactory.’ MAPW members attended these consultations and the submission mentions their experience there.

The submission then makes a number of points about how the Memorial portrays war. ‘War’s enduring impact on Australian society [one of the matters the Memorial claims to address] goes far beyond the impacts on our service-people, notwithstanding the terrible nature of the latter. However the AWM focusses very little attention on these wider impacts …’

‘Our military history also appears to be presented by the AWM with a very narrow focus’, the submission goes on, ‘with “the events leading up to …” and “the aftermath of … wars” [matters the Memorial’s Act requires it to address] being given grossly inadequate attention’. These matters include the causes of wars, the divisions that wars create in society, deficiencies in the decision-making processes by which we enter wars, and why do wars persist and what have we learnt.

To deny the importance of all these questions in an institution tasked with educating on the events leading up to, and the aftermath, of our wars, is to betray the ideals for which Australians have fought. Their relevance for the purposes of this submission is that the proposed redevelopment appears to be designed to continue educating principally about stories from the battlefield – including, troublingly, contemporary as well as historical experiences, which risks a slippery slope to military propaganda.

The submission also mentions the plans to display even more military hardware at the Memorial. This will ‘tend to reinforce a simplistic notion that Australians’ experience of war starts and finishes with battles, using high tech equipment rather than vulnerable humans. The wide spectrum of the role of warfare in Australians’ lives will be reduced to a narrow, militaristic view of our history.’

Finally, the submission covers the Memorial’s claims about its needing to provide a ‘therapeutic milieu’ for recent veterans – ‘it is important that dubious and misleading claims of healing properties be critically examined for evidence rather than anecdote’ – and criticises the Memorial’s failure to adequately recognise Australia’s Frontier Wars, and its inability to give logical reasons for this failure.

Again, a full reading of this important submission is recommended. This issue is too important to be conceded to spin-meisters at the War Memorial.

* David Stephens is the editor of the Honest History website and a member of Heritage Guardians, leading a community campaign against the Memorial expansion. Heritage Guardians’ EPBC Act submission.

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One comment on “Stephens, David: Architects and doctors come down hard on War Memorial heritage arguments
  1. Leighton View says:

    Valid points one and all.

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