Stephens, David: Never the twain shall meet? Disturbing deep dive into documentation on War Memorial project

David Stephens*

‘Never the twain shall meet? Disturbing deep dive into documentation on War Memorial project’, Honest History, 19 May 2020

Honest History and Heritage Guardians are making submissions to the Public Works Committee inquiry on the War Memorial project (referred to below) and the public comment phase on heritage aspects of the project (run by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment or DAWE). If readers would like to add their names to a collective submission to the PWC inquiry or need some advice on how to make a personal submission to either the PWC or DAWE processes, please email Heritage Guardians at admin@honesthistory.net.au.

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Heritage Guardians campaign diary follows the story from early 2019 of the campaign against the Memorial project

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The $498m extensions project at the Australian War Memorial has to go through a number of approvals processes. There is a role for the National Capital Authority (NCA, responsible for planning the national areas of Canberra), the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE, administering the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, or EPBC Act, insofar as it relates to heritage), the Australian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works (PWC, which looks at public works above a certain monetary value), and the ACT Government.

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Where are we up to then? DAWE is still looking at heritage aspects under the EPBC Act, essentially how the project impacts adversely on the Memorial’s heritage values, values which have justified its previous inclusion on the Commonwealth and National Heritage Lists. DAWE has assessed the project as a ‘controlled action’ because of its likely significant impacts on the Memorial, a National Heritage place, impacts which the Memorial admits.

There is some early (November 2019-March 2020) paperwork on the DAWE website (Reference No. 2019/8574), but we still await the Memorial’s ‘final preliminary documentation’, which will be lodged at the conclusion of an ‘iterative process’ between DAWE and the Memorial (entry for 8 April 2020). Heritage Guardians understands the sticking points in the iterative process are to do with, first, the justification for the Memorial’s plans to demolish the (heritage-significant and award-winning) Anzac Hall as part of the project. The Memorial’s 2011 Heritage Management Plan has Anzac Hall as a key component of the Memorial and does not support its demolition. The Australian Institute of Architects has been loud in its opposition to the destruction of Anzac Hall.

Secondly, behind the hold-up also, there is the so far inadequate amount of detail the Memorial has provided on the heritage impacts of the project as a whole. In this regard, the Memorial’s earlier documentation was stronger on assertion than evidence.

What’s really interesting, though, is this paragraph buried in the Memorial’s submission to the PWC:

4.13.1 Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
… The Memorial has commenced the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) approval process. This has included the submission of the Referral under the EPBC Act including the Heritage Impact Assessment. The Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment have assessed the action as a controlled action [decision dated 18 December 2019], which met the Memorial’s expectations. The Department has issued a request for preliminary documentation which the Memorial is currently preparing to respond by the end of February 2020 [‘variation request’ dated 26 February 2020]. The Memorial expects that a decision on the proposed design will be handed down by the end of May 2020. (Emphasis added)

The Memorial’s submission is dated ‘February 2020’. Presumably, Covid-19 delayed the submission’s progress from the Memorial, via the out-of-parliamentary-session 30 April referral by the Governor-General-in-Council, to the PWC. It is surprising, though, that no-one thought to revise the dates in that key paragraph. The Memorial certainly responded to the DAWE request by the end of February, although it still had more work to do.

On 17 March, DAWE accepted the variation to the Memorial’s proposal, adding three elements of the project – ‘extension and refurbishment of the C.E.W. Bean Building, a new Research centre and Public Realm improvement works’ – that the Memorial had previously intended to make the subject of a separate referral. As noted above, the ‘iterative process’ continued on the matters remaining.

Then, under pressure from Medical Association for Prevention of War, an opponent of the extensions project, the Memorial and DAWE agreed that public comments on this further documentation – confusingly called the ‘final preliminary documentation’ – would be received over 20 business days, rather than 10 business days, the minimum in the Act. There will also be a further 10 day period to publicly display the final preliminary documentation, the public comments received on it, and the Memorial’s summary of those comments, plus a bit more time for the department to do necessary administration, before the Minister for the Environment (Sussan Ley) or the Delegate (a senior officer in DAWE) makes a decision. Let’s say 35 business days all up.

At the time of this post (19 May at 11.10am) the Memorial’s final preliminary documentation had still not been posted on the DAWE site; the 35 business days had not started ticking. Even if the clock starts this week, 20 business days will be up around 17 June and 35 business days not before early July. Yet, the closing date for submissions to the PWC inquiry is 17 June.

These misaligned dates will mean that submitters to the PWC inquiry will not have the benefit of seeing what, if any, notice the Memorial has taken of the public comments it has received on the heritage implications of the project. The ‘official view’ is that the DAWE and PWC processes are separate, the first looking at impacts on heritage values, the second at the purpose of, need for and cost-effectiveness of the project. Yet, the observer could envisage that the arguments of PWC submitters on ‘purpose’ (including suitability for purpose) and ‘need’ will be influenced by submitters’ views on heritage impacts. For example, the design of, say, the revamped entrance to the Memorial may detract from the building’s commemorative purpose. Nor will the PWC itself have by 17 June – the date when submissions to it close – a view of the project or of public attitudes to it gleaned from the heritage process.

Spruikers for the project, from the former Director, to his successor, to the members of the Memorial’s ‘redevelopment team’, rely on the fact that, on 1 November 2018, at a lavish launch mostly paid for by Kerry Stokes, Chair of the Memorial’s Council, Prime Minister Morrison said, ‘the Government is backing these plans’. Actually, all that happened then was that expenditure was included in the Budget Forward Estimates. It stretches a point for the Memorial to say, for example, in its ‘approach to market’ documentation on the AusTender site for parts of the work, that ‘the Australian Government has approved’ the project. This formulation disrespects both the heritage process – a matter for government, applying the EPBC Act – and the PWC process – a parliamentary process required by law.

All in all, this is an exceedingly odd piece of public administration. Heritage Guardians has already drawn attention to the many unsatisfactory aspects of the process, but it rolls on, protected by ‘bipartisan support’ – although Labor under Shorten may have been told rather less about the project than the government was – and by the ‘sacred’ status of the Memorial. (‘It is sacred to us all’, the Prime Minister said at the launch.) The murky genesis of the extensions project will haunt it, even as the new walls and cavernous exhibition spaces (to be stacked with retired machinery of war) emerge from the limestone plains at the foot of Mount Ainslie.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and co-editor of The Honest History Book (2017). He is a member of the Heritage Guardians committee.

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One comment on “Stephens, David: Never the twain shall meet? Disturbing deep dive into documentation on War Memorial project
  1. stewart says:

    So many issues at so many levels with this project. Development of the Memorial site is a given but whatever is done must respect the site and be the best we can possibly do. The AWM proposal is not an example of this; it is big and loud and grossly expensive – and we know there are better and less costly designs that provide the space that is needed and don’t destroy Anzac Hall. The legislated heritage approvals process by DAWE has confirmed obvious heritage issues with the AWM proposal (the destruction of Anzac Hall is only one example) and determined the proposal is a ‘controlled action’. The AWM proposal is flawed. How can the PWC be expected to make a well considered judgement without the full picture? Why the mad rush by the AWM to push this overblown proposal through?

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