Villers-Bretonneux boondoggle survives blunt Budget axe

The annual Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) has been released, along with the list of Budget tweaks. The Treasurer claimed $10.6 billion in savings, offset by $10.2 billion in new spending since the May Budget, which amounts to net savings of $400 million, a mere jot (or perhaps a tittle)* in an overall spend of around $450 billion. (That looks like about 0.1 per cent.) Hardly swingeing**, one could say.

H15650Monash 1931 (AWM H15650/Spencer Shier)

Now for some specifics. Honest History has written frequently about the proposed Sir John Monash Interpretive Centre planned for Villers-Bretonneux at a cost of a smidgen under $100 million and that mostly from the Defence budget. We have described it as a boastful Aussie boondoggle.*** We understand the project is still at the contract assessment stage and that some wise heads in Canberra have wondered whether it should proceed.

The Monash project was a favourite of the previous prime minister but the current prime minister may be less enamoured of khaki-tinted commemoration than his predecessor was. He is said to be looking for points of differentiation, the decision on knighthoods being an early example, accompanied by the reversal of the Lomborg project in Perth and now the scrapping of the Book Council of Australia. The Monash project is conspicuously a ‘captain’s pick’ by the erstwhile captain.

There have also been comments outside of Canberra about the Villers-Bretonneux project. In September, James Brown of the University of Sydney said this:

We’re spending millions on monuments which catalogue every death in World War I yet until last year no one was tracking the number of returning modern veterans taking their own lives … There are direct opportunity costs: $88m from the defence budget spent on a museum in France is $88m not going towards weapons training or personnel costs.

James Brown is the current prime minister’s son-in-law.

We looked in vain in MYEFO for evidence that wisdom had won out. No luck. An opportunity has been lost and the Villers-Bretonneux boondoggle survives – for the moment. Axing it would have increased the Treasurer’s net savings figure by 25 per cent.

Then there is the efficiency dividend. ‘Cultural and collecting entities’ in the Communications and the Arts portfolio are to be subject to a three per cent ‘efficiency dividend’ which will save $36.8 million over four years. This covers the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Gallery, the National Library, the National Museum and the National Portrait Gallery but not the Australia Council. (In the Attorney-General’s portfolio, the National Archives are apparently also to be subject to the three per cent efficiency dividend, although this is difficult to divine from the MYEFO document.)

What about the War Memorial, which is in the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio? It is kind of a cultural institution – its website says it ‘combines a shrine, a world-class museum, and an extensive archive’, it is a member of the Council of Australasian Museum Directors, it is ‘a National Heritage listed place’, its current director has said it contains ‘the soul of Australia‘ and its one-line marketing slogan is ‘Every nation has its story. This is ours.’ That sounds pretty cultural.

The Memorial has mostly been in the efficiency dividend cart over the years, though it was let off in 2012-13, and has complained about (see page 2) the dividend’s impact on its work. Under the regime applying after the 2015-16 Budget it was subject, like most other agencies, to an efficiency dividend of 2.5 per cent.

This time, the Memorial, part of the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio, has been spared the efficiency dividend increase applying to the Communications and the Arts portfolio. If the War Memorial is ‘a cultural or collecting entity’ it seems to be one that is capable of extracting special deals from ministers and the central agencies.

Arnold_Boonen_Kaufmann_im_KontorKaufmann im Kontor (Businessman in office) oil by Arnold Boonen (Dutch) before 1729 (Wikimedia Commons/Auktionshaus Stahl)

Meanwhile, in other news, Anzac centenary minister Robert:

Just think of the boost to Australian innovation if a chunk of the money going to the whizzo Monash museum in France went instead to further Monash scholarships or to funding the commercialisation of Australian inventions – as the ‘Monash Innovation Fund’ perhaps, given the man’s record as engineer and nation-builder.

Thinking laterally again, much more could be done for PTSD sufferers (including those taking their own lives – see the quote from James Brown above) if another chunk of the Villers-Bretonneux boondoggle money went to mental health services for veterans. It could be called the ‘Monash PTSD Fund’.

One gets the feeling that Monash was rather better at lateral thinking – and set higher standards – than those seeking to ‘honour’ his name today. ‘Make it your creed to equip yourself for life’, Monash said to students, ‘not solely for your own benefit but for the benefit of the whole community’. The Villers-Bretonneux boondoggle perpetuates tired century-old commemorative traditions under a high-tech gloss; it also fails any community benefit test.

* Matthew 5:18.

** ‘Swingeing‘: ‘severe or extreme in size, amount, or effect; severe, extreme, serious, substantial, drastic, harsh, punishing, excessive, oppressive, draconian, heavy’.

*** ‘Boondoggle‘: ‘a project that is considered a useless waste of both time and money, yet is often continued due to extraneous policy or political motivations’.

David Stephens

16 December 2015 (updated)

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