Stephens, David: Narrow focus but not sharp: Public Works Committee report on $498m War Memorial project

David Stephens*

‘Narrow focus but not sharp: Public Works Committee report on $498m War Memorial project’, Honest History, 15 March 2021 updated

The parliamentary Public Works Committee was never going to take a broad view of the $498m, seven year, 2.4 new hectares, Australian War Memorial project. That is not the Committee’s role. The terms of reference for the War Memorial inquiry, like all such for the PWC, simply required it

to report as expeditiously as practicable on:
• the stated purpose of the proposed work and its suitability for that purpose
• the need for the work
• the cost-effectiveness of the proposal
• the amount of revenue it will produce if the work is revenue producing the current and prospective value of the work [sic; other PWC inquiry terms of reference break this point into two, after the word ‘producing’].

But, in clinging to this conventional role on this occasion, the PWC lost an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the debate about the highly controversial Memorial project. The PWC report is narrow but it fails to be sharp or perceptive. Too often, the Committee sets out the case on both sides, then says, in effect, ‘not really PWC business’, too often it accepts without examination tendentious claims by the proponent (the War Memorial), too often it downplays the quantity and quality of the opposition to the project.

The report should at least have said that the 77 submissions the inquiry received were by far the largest number it had received on any inquiry since it began work in 1913. (This according to advice from the PWC secretariat itself.) At para 2.5 of the report the Committee simply notes the number of submissions received and refers the reader to a list of submissions at Appendix A.

At para 2.60 the Committee says it ‘received a large volume of evidence’. The Committee should have added that around three-quarters of the submissions it received were against the project.

The War Memorial caravan has moved on – next stop: Works Approval at the National Capital Authority – but it is still worth making some comments on the PWC report, as it was handed down by the Committee, tabled in both Houses, then endorsed by the required vote of the House of Representatives. The following paragraphs paraphrase sections of the report and provide comments. The sub-headings are those in the report. There is an Appendix exploring some issues to do with Freedom of Information. Supporting evidence for the comments can be found in the two years of commentary on the Honest History site here and in the material linked from there or by using the Honest History Search function with appropriate search terms.

Background

Para 2.8 of the report says the Memorial’s functions are set out in the Australian War Memorial Act 1980, but the words in that paragraph are not from the Act, but from the paraphrase of them in the Memorial’s submission, page 6. The following page of that submission contains an exact quote from the Act and should have been used.

Need for the works

Spatial constraints

Para 2.19 of the report suggests that the relative lack of space in the Memorial devoted to recent conflicts might lead those who served in those conflicts to feel that their service was less valued than service in earlier wars. Another view – one held by Heritage Guardians – would be that it shows greater respect for recent service to make hard decisions about the use of existing space, including commensurately reducing space devoted to previous conflicts, rather than continually asking for more space. Every cultural institution in the world has to make these difficult decisions. No cultural institution in the world can show more than a small proportion of its collection at any one time.

Display of large technology objects

Paras 2.24 and 2.25 of the report (drawn from the Memorial’s submission to the inquiry) contain a list of large technology objects (LTOs), used in many previous submissions by the Memorial, along with the statement, quoting the Memorial’s submission to the PWC, that ‘these items are “necessary to enable the stories of Australians who served in conflicts and operations”‘. These paragraphs should be set against recent statements by the Memorial (for example, by Memorial Council Chair, Kerry Stokes, quoted at para 2.94 of the report) that decisions still have to be made about what goes into the 2.4 hectares of new space that the project will give the Memorial. These statements imply that LTOs may be less important in the future Memorial.

Para 2.96 of the report says, however, that after the redevelopment the number of LTOs will increase from 52 to an estimated 62. If LTOs are so important only because they help to tell stories (and thus they cannot be displayed separately at the Mitchell premises of the Memorial) as the submission says, why keep listing the LTOs-in-waiting, as the Memorial did at para 2.6.3 of its submission to the PWC? This looks like a pitch to the aficionados of military ‘big boys toys’ (duly picked up by the PWC at paras 2.24 and 2.25 of its report, as noted above) and leaves the Memorial open to criticisms that it plans a ‘military theme park’ or ‘Disneyland’. (Note that the list at para 2.24 includes ten items, which would take the tally from 52 to 62 if they were all displayed. The ten includes two each of F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft, Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicles, Australian Light Armoured Vehicles. Surely, not even the Memorial would want to double up in this way?)

Options considered

Paras 2.32-2.39 of the report summarise the process by which Option 1, including the destruction of Anzac Hall, came out on top. As with previous Memorial documentation considered by Honest History and Heritage Guardians, including material made available under Freedom of Information, this summary does not clearly state why Anzac Hall had to be demolished. The questions remain: was Anzac Hall given the thumbs down because of strongly-held views by Memorial Council members or management, regardless of architectural, design and engineering considerations? Or was Anzac Hall to be demolished simply because it was easier to bulldoze it and start with bare ground rather than modify it? (There is more on this below, under the sub-heading ‘Glazed courtyard and Anzac Hall’.)

Scope of the works

Para 2.51 of the report, quoting the Memorial’s submission, foreshadows potential cost increases associated with floor levelling in the later stages of the project. Any hint of a blowout beyond the $498.7 million allocated by government throws the spotlight back onto the personal guarantee by Council Chair Kerry Stokes to government that the cost of the project to government would not exceed $500 million. (Mr Stokes’s current term on the Council ends in August this year.) Para 2.53 has a further suggestion of future cost increases, but the Committee says in para 2.58 that it was ‘satisfied that the costs [of the project] have been adequately assessed’.

Purpose of the work and the Need

Spatial constraints – space for modern conflicts

Paras 2.62-2.73 of the report canvass whether there are spatial constraints on the Memorial’s capacity to present modern conflicts. Critics of the Memorial’s plans question whether all wars are deserving of equal coverage and note that cultural institutions must make hard decisions about what to display, rather than expect infinite expansion. The Memorial’s response referred to a complaint by a recent veteran of lack of coverage and noted that the Memorial had explored reconfiguration and repurposing options.

At paras 2.74-2.78 of the report the Committee agrees that more space is required for modern conflicts but recognises that views on the quantum can differ. It says the amount of space devoted to specific conflicts is a matter for curators, not for the Committee. It says nothing, however, about the threshold issue of whether institutions should be expected to make hard decisions about display priorities.

Display of large technology objects

Paras 2.79-2.99 of the report cover objections that the display of LTOs is not central to the Memorial’s mission, that the emphasis on LTOs is driven by a liking for big toys or a desire to promote the products of arms manufacturers, that some of the LTOs lack provenance, that a focus on technology diverts attention from more important issues such as the causes and effects of wars, and that there are other possible sites for displaying LTOs. Responding, the Memorial said decisions had still not been made about the contents of new displays, that LTOs will be displayed respectfully, and that they needed to be co-located with the stories they told, rather than displayed on other sites.

The Committee at paras 2.100-2.105 accepts that more space is required to house LTOs, that the issue of provenance is one for curators, and that locating LTOs at the Memorial’s site at Mitchell risks severing the links with the stories being told at Campbell. The Committee notes that the Mitchell site only opens to the public for one day in a year (but fails to address the argument that opening hours were a matter for Memorial management and could be extended).

Heritage considerations

The Committee at para 2.112 of the report says it was not seeking to replicate the EPBC process but wanted to do justice to evidence it had received.

Glazed courtyard and Anzac Hall

At paras 2.113-2.134 of the report the Committee summarises views it had received critical of the plans in these areas, and describing alternatives, particularly using the Mitchell campus. The Memorial’s response, quoted by the Committee at para 2.133, claims retaining Anzac Hall was a live option till July 2019, which does not square with the clear direction of the Memorial Council in July 2018 (material available under FOI) which agreed that Option One (including the demolition of Anzac Hall), in the paper put to the Council, was the best option. See Appendix to this paper for more on this point.

New Southern Entrance

The report at paras 2.135-2.138 summarises arguments pro and con.

Committee comment

At paras 2.139-2.150 of the report the Committee gives its view on heritage matters, which it agrees ’emerged as perhaps the major controversy in the evidence to this inquiry’. It comes down in favour of the need to recognise changing priorities and thus to do away with Anzac Hall as it stands at present. It says the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment had been the appropriate body to adjudicate heritage claims. It acknowledges the changes made by the Memorial during the process. There is also the National Capital Authority approval still to come.

Consultation

At paras 2.151-2.174 of the report the Committee summarises comments received on the consultation process and the Memorial’s evidence about the extent of consultation. The Committee accepts that it will not be possible to please everyone at every stage but encourages the Memorial to go on consulting.

Effective use of public money

This is one of the key aspects the PWC is supposed to look at and is does so at length at paras 2.175-2.201. Here it moves on from alternative ‘bricks and mortar’ options (retain Anzac Hall, develop Mitchell) to consider the argument ‘that the money proposed to be expended on this proposal would be better spent on direct benefits to veterans, or on Canberra’s other major cultural institutions’. The report summarises submissions supporting alternative funding objectives before falling back on the government’s (debatable on the grounds of opportunity cost) argument, put by the Memorial, that spending on the Memorial project does not mean less direct spending on veterans.

The report (paras 2.202-2.206) also looks at arguments that the money should have gone to other cultural institutions, to recognition of the Frontier Wars, to satellite cultural institutions around the country, or to Covid-19 recovery. The Committee avoids taking positions on these issues, but notes the potential economic benefits to Canberra of the project.

Present and Prospective public value of the work

Support for the proposal

The Committee at paras 2.207-2.219 of the report provides a lengthy summary of submitters’ views.

Memorial function

Paras 2.220-2.227 of the report summarise fears from submitters that the project will change the nature of the Memorial from primarily Memorial more to a military museum with a narrow view of history, even to a theme park.

Benefits for veterans and healing

Paras 2.228-2.249 summarises submitters’ views on both sides.

Committee comment

At paras 2.250-2.254 the Committee makes no determination on the therapeutic value issue, but notes that the Memorial does not rely on this argument, although former Director Nelson did. In conclusion, the Committee has a bit both ways: it ‘does not find the lack of confirmation that institutions like the AWM having [sic] a therapeutic role in veterans’ mental health a compelling argument against the proposed works’.

Final Committee comment

Paras 2.255-2.265 attempt a balanced conclusion. The high level of public interest in the inquiry shows how important the Memorial is to Australians and says much about what it means to be Australian. People read different meanings into the Memorial, however. The Committee accepts that the Memorial needs more space to allow the Memorial to reflect these meanings to Australians. There is a range of views on Anzac Hall, but heritage aspects were considered in the EPBC process. ‘The Committee finds that the proposed works are appropriate to meet the identified need, and that these works should proceed.’

Recommendation 1

2.266  The Committee recommends that the House of Representatives resolve, pursuant to Section 18(7) of the Public Works Committee Act 1969, that it is expedient to carry out the following proposed works: Australian War Memorial Development Project.

2.267  Proponent entities must notify the Committee of any changes to the project scope, time, cost, function or design. The Committee also requires that a post-implementation report be provided within three months of project completion. A report template can be found on the Committee’s website.

Dissenting Report

The Committee report was signed by Rick Wilson MP, Chair, on behalf of the Committee. There was a Dissenting Report from Labor members, Tony Zappia MP, Deputy Chair, and David Smith MP. It forms pages 70 to 74 of the Committee report. It is sufficient to quote sections of Tom McIlroy’s report in the Australian Financial Review to give the flavour of the dissent:

Stressing they supported the intent of the redevelopment project, the Labor MPs said the government should look at ways to retain the existing building and conduct further consultation.

They called for the government to “consider a range of lower-cost options that would still meet the stated purpose of the proposed works, while achieving better cost-effectiveness and value for money for the taxpayer” …

There was also this commentary from Katina Curtis in Nine Newspapers:

Labor MPs have criticised the Australian War Memorial’s planned $500 million redevelopment, calling on the national institution to do the job more cheaply and without demolishing an award-winning addition to the building …

[T]he committee’s deputy chair, Labor MP Tony Zappia, and his colleague David Smith issued a rare dissenting report recommending other options be explored that did not involve demolishing the Anzac Hall, which is less than 20 years old.

“Labor members believe that the government should consult further on this issue and consider alternative approaches that do not involve the complete demolition of the existing Anzac Hall,” they wrote.

They also said the government should consider “lower-cost options”, including a potential overhaul of the War Memorial’s warehouse space in the industrial suburb of Mitchell.

See also other media comment linked from here.

Appendix: Skullduggery or sheer incompetence? The Memorial and FOI

This reference to FOI raises questions about evidence. Note that in mid-2019, when Heritage Guardian Richard Llewellyn prepared his detailed paper analysing the Memorial’s design choice process, the Memorial had made available on its website (in March 2019, following an FOI claim from the Australian Institute of Architects), a copy of the Design Options paper (runs from page 3 of this pdf, following the Agenda for the July 2018 meeting), plus a 2017 Options Assessment consultancy report.

These were the two papers Llewellyn analysed. The page on the Memorial’s website where the two papers were located in 2019 now, however, contains a live link to the Options Assessment report but a dead link to the Council meeting Agenda and Design Options paper. Llewellyn downloaded this second document in 2019 and that is the form in which we have it now.

What has changed? Now, on its website (Reference number 2019-14), the Memorial has a copy of the (redacted) Minutes of the July 2018 Council meeting, plus the Options Assessment report, but not the meeting Agenda nor, more importantly, the Design Options paper, which was the paper before that Council meeting. While in the current format on the website it looks as if there is a connection between the Minutes and the Options Assessment report (they are actually packaged as one document, totalling 44 pages), in reality the latter report is entirely irrelevant to the meeting Minutes, which, in turn, make no sense without the Design Options paper attached.

So, in the form now on the website, the document made available to the (there anonymous) FOI applicants in claim number 2019-14 certainly does not meet the scope of the  applicants’ FOI request: ‘AWM council minutes from the meeting that endorsed the current redevelopment concept and documents providing detail of the concepts that were considered for the redevelopment‘ (emphasis added). The Design Options paper provided such details – the paper began, ‘Purpose: To provide Council with four five per cent design options for the Redevelopment Project for Council discussion and agreement on a preferred option for further development’ – and was the one considered by the Council.

The Options Assessment report provided no such details and was not before the Council and yet is the one now included in the FOI disclosures on the War Memorial website. This is either carelessness on the Memorial’s part or deliberate obfuscation, intended to conceal how the Council came to favour the only one of the four options that included the destruction of Anzac Hall.

Indeed, given that the current FOI disclosure log on the Memorial’s website gives 25 March 2019 as the date of release for the documents and this was the approximate date for the release of the documents called for by the Architects and analysed by Llewellyn, it looks very much as if the ‘released documents’ – released to the Architects way back then – have been amended since to delete the Design Options paper from the original package and substitute the irrelevant Options Assessment report, which was originally released as a separate paper. Why?

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and convener of the Heritage Guardians campaign against the War Memorial project. Heritage Guardians submissions to the PWC and remarks at the public hearing are quoted extensively in the PWC report.

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One comment on “Stephens, David: Narrow focus but not sharp: Public Works Committee report on $498m War Memorial project
  1. Leighton View says:

    Amazingly detailed work. The whole saga is an extreme example of how bull-headed some people can be when they hold tightly and blindly onto the public coffers for some personal pet projects. The very same type of person who would rant and rave against such spending when devoted to social programs they disagree with. HH’s continual tracking and exposure of this misguided reimagining of the AWM is very much appreciated.

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