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Stephens, David: Same old, same old – and lots of brass: still no historians on the Australian War Memorial Council

David Stephens*

‘Same old, same old – and lots of brass: still no historians on the Australian War Memorial Council’, Honest History, 5 February 2021

Minister Chester has announced the filling of two vacancies on the Council of the Australian War Memorial. Neither new member is a historian and both look rather like the members they replaced.

New member, Rhondda Vanzella, is National President of Australian War Widows Incorporated. She replaces former member, Gwen Cherne, who was also active in the war widows community. New member, Glenn Keys, is a prominent business person and was a defence force engineer in an earlier life. He is a force in the Invictus Games movement.

Mr Keys fills the vacancy left by business person, Margaret Jackson. His appointment means that the new Council will have one less female members than before (now four out of 13). Nine out of 13 members of the new Council are serving or former members of the Australian Defence Force. This is equal to the highest number of military or ex-military members of the Council since the early 1980s. (Biodata on current members minus the two new ones.)

The thirteen members of the Council still do not include a historian. Member Tony Abbott is said to like military history – some of his statements as prime minister during the Anzac Centenary had echoes of Billy Hughes and David Lloyd George from a century ago – and Council Chair Kerry Stokes has collected many Victoria Crosses and donated them to the Memorial.

Mr Stokes’s term on the Council expires in August. Mr Keys might be being groomed as his replacement as Council Chair.

For previous Honest History commentary on Memorial Council membership, use our Search engine with the term ‘Council’. We said in 2016 (and repeat now):

Indeed, a detached observer looking at the current [Australian War Memorial] Council membership (or, for that matter, its membership over the last 75 years), without knowing who it belonged to, might take it to be the Board of a Naval, Army and Air Force Club rather than of a national war memorial, albeit a club that was doing its best to be welcoming to female members and the younger generation and to keep up its links with military history buffs, particularly philanthropic ones.

Over more than a century, the most obvious characteristic of Australian soldiers, sailors and air force personnel is that they have been volunteers, ordinary Australians without military pedigree or predilection. It seems a pity that, in 2021, the governing body of our premier commemorative institution looks nothing like that.

In 2016, we proposed this reform (and offer it again now):

A reform that an incoming government should consider would be to amend the Australian War Memorial Act to allow for Council vacancies to be filled through public advertisement. Positions in the mass armies, air forces and navies of the past were filled by recruitment drives boosted by patriotic advertising; positions on the body which determines how these men and women are remembered could also be filled by advertising and application.

The Minister might continue to appoint the Chair of the Council, some ex officio military positions might be retained (though they might not necessarily be filled by the service chiefs), but the other positions could be filled by qualified and interested members of the community, chosen by the Minister, taking account of the advice of sitting Council members, senior staff of the Memorial and respected citizens. The members appointed might have a background in, for example, the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of AustraliaLegacythe Medical Association for Prevention of Warthe Red CrossSoldier Onthe United Nations Association, and university history departments. There might even be some elected positions. An institution which claims to tell its nation’s story should surely be open to Council members democratically elected by, from and for the nation.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website.