The new government has a lot to do. Here’s one thing that it could do, quickly and decisively, using existing mechanisms: fill some of the proposed new space at the Australian War Memorial with a Frontier Wars Gallery, commemorating the deaths of perhaps 60 000 First Australians in wars and massacres between 1788 and at least 1928.
Whether the Memorial should depict and commemorate the Frontier Wars has been a vexed question for years. The Memorial has sidled up to this coverage, without ever properly admitting it is doing so. Or it has diverted attention from the Frontier Wars with what the writer Paul Daley has called ‘the fig leaf’ of Indigenous service in the King’s or Queen’s uniform (‘Black Diggers’). (Brendan Nelson, when Director of the Memorial, said Black Diggers ‘denied their aboriginality and kinship’.)’
That Indigenous service could raise the question in some observers, ‘Why should we whitefellers worry about the massacres and atrocities committed in the Frontier Wars when blackfellers since Federation, despite what we did to them in those wars, have still been prepared to fight for us?’ Firm government support for a Frontier Wars gallery – rather than left-handed and ambivalent actions like Black Diggers or buying expensive art works depicting massacres – would be a game changer.
The letter below went on 17 June to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs (Matt Keogh), with copies to the Prime Minister, the Minister for Indigenous Australians (Linda Burney), and the Special Envoy for Reconciliation and the Implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart (Senator Pat Dodson).
Update 29 September 2022: Minister Keogh and Memorial spokespersons drop hints about how the Memorial proposes to give more attention to the Frontier Wars in future. There has been a Memorial Council decision in this direction.
The council has made a decision [said Council Chair Nelson] that we will have a much broader, a much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Indigenous people, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police, and then by Aboriginal militia. We will have more to say about that in due course.
Update 8 September 2022: Minister Burney announces membership of working groups on getting the Voice to Referendum stage. More. Nothing on Frontier Wars at Memorial.
Update 24 August 2022: Professor Megan Davis, Indigenous solicitor Teela Reid, Professor Henry Reynolds, at Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, broadcast on ABC Big Ideas. Covers themes raised in Griffith Review 76: Acts of Reckoning, Teela Reid contributing editor. Some very limited discussion of how to deal with Frontier Wars (mark 20.00ff) including whether War Memorial or a separate institution is the best place, but more on the sequence of what is required: constitutional recognition, treaty, power, then truth-telling. No transcript.
Update 18 August 2022: Further letter to Minister Burney (cc to Assistant Minister McCarthy and Special Envoy Pat Dodson) responding to hers of 28 July (see below 8 August). Key paragraph in our letter:
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is more than resonant prose. Its words about First Nations people taking their rightful place in their country, about how First Nations culture can be a gift to all Australians, and on truth-telling about our past, all provide signposts for action.
Update 18 August 2022: David Stephens in Pearls and Irritations on the specific parts of the Uluru Statement that support Australian Frontier Wars being properly recognised and commemorated at the Australian War Memorial.
Update 17 August 2022: 250 Indigenous soldiers went to Vietnam – but are they just a fig leaf for War Memorial’s failure to own Frontier Wars? ABC News story raises important questions about Defence of Country. If we recognise it when it happened overseas in Vietnam why can’t we recognise when it happened here at home on Arrernte, Gadigal, Noongar, Wiradjuri and other tribal Country?
Update 11 August 2022: Eight years ago, historian of the RAAF and ex-serviceman, Alan Stephens, made a cogent case for the War Memorial to properly recognise and commemorate the Frontier Wars: ‘the refusal of the people who control the AWM – politicians, the governing council, and retired generals – to recognise the most important conflict ever fought by Australians is nothing less than a national scandal’. Why is it so difficult for the War Memorial to address this issue properly?
Update 8 August 2022: Reply dated 28 July received from Indigenous Australians Minister Burney to our original letter of 17 June (below) copied to her. Key paragraph: ‘I suspect we would agree that to understand the challenges of the present, we must understand their roots in past trauma. Supporting processes of truth-telling, including about the Frontier Wars, is a vital part of the Government’s commitment to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.’
Update 7 August 2022: David Stephens in Pearls & Irritations argues that it is time for the War Memorial to own the Australian Frontier Wars. The article sets out three actions that need to be taken to achieve this outcome, plus three options for how to do it. The key:
The Memorial should grasp the common thread between the Frontier Wars and our overseas wars: Defence of Country. Defence of their Country by First Nations warriors. Defence of their country, Australia, by uniformed soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, and nurses, some of them Indigenous. Defence of Country is the common history that belongs to all of us, and that the Memorial should recognise and commemorate.
2 August 2022: Interview for NITV with Worimi man and historian, Professor John Maynard, who says, ‘[A Frontier Wars memorial] should be part of the Australian War Memorial. When you look up that driveway and they’ve got monuments to the Boer War, and they’ve got monuments to Korea and Vietnam, how about a monument to the Frontier Wars as well.’
Update 30 July 2022: Op ed from Professor Peter Stanley in Canberra Times says the Memorial is trapped in an outdated idea of its own role and remit. The Spirit of Uluru dictates the Memorial should properly recognise and commemorate the Frontier Wars. Re-run in Pearls and Irritations (no paywall).
Update 29 July 2022: Op ed from Stephen Bargwanna in Canberra Times: ‘What a great story this recognition of the Frontier Wars and its leaders would tell of Australia’s first defenders in the nation’s capital, at our War Memorial.’
Update: 26 July 2022: Disappointingly, more than five weeks on, the only response has come from War Memorial Director Anderson, to whom Minister Keogh gave the task of replying (see below, 7 July). More has happened though.
Update 25 July 2022: The Memorial Director’s puff piece in the Canberra Times has triggered a Canberra Times editorial supporting commemoration of Frontier Wars in the Memorial. Canberra Times Features Editor Sally Pryor gave Director Anderson his head in a double page spread in last Saturday’s paper, including a photo posed against one of the Memorial’s venerable dioramas. The Director talked about himself, why the Memorial needs to be expanded by 2.5 hectares (more space than the MCG), and how it deals (or doesn’t) with the Frontier Wars. We put the piece in context with a rerun of a review of the Director’s collected works, three war books for children.
Balancing the ledger, the Canberra Times delivered on Monday an editorial saying it was about time the Memorial properly commemorated the Frontier Wars. The editorial did not pick up the irony in Director Anderson’s remark (quoted by Pryor) that recent veterans had ‘waited long enough’ for better recognition at the Memorial. The Indigenous warriors of the Frontier Wars have waited much longer.
We have no way of knowing whether the Memorial’s PR efforts through the Canberra Times have been triggered by letters like ours to politicians or by awareness that the Minister is closely watching the spend on the project. Accountability, however achieved, is welcome. The Anzac cloak has protected the Memorial from proper questioning for far too long.
Update 7 July 2022: Reply received from Director, War Memorial on behalf of Minister Keogh. The reply is fairly non-committal, mostly referring to existing program from 2024 to fill new space at the Memorial, including liaison with Indigenous representatives. (Members of the Memorial’s Indigenous Advisory Group.) Update 8 August 2022: Reply received from Indigenous Australians Minister Burney (see above: Update 8 August 2022).
Update 7 July 2022: NAIDOC Week sees inclusion on Roll of Honour of Walter Parker, believed to be first Indigenous soldier killed in the Queen’s uniform (in the Boer War). More fig leaf? Or necessary recognition? Canberra Times.
During the day, Honest History/Heritage Guardians sent this email to War Memorial Indigenous liaison officer, Michael Bell:
Just heard you on the ABC talking about Walter Parker. Hope the Last Post ceremony goes well. You may or may not have seen this post on the Honest History website: https://honesthistory.net.au/wp/an-agenda-for-albanese-1-frontier-wars-commemoration-at-the-australian-war-memorial-would-express-the-spirit-of-uluru/
Look forward to the day when the Memorial can continue the good work of the For Country, For Nation exhibition, purchase of Rover Thomas and other Indigenous work acknowledging massacres, and other recognition of pre-Federation events known as the Frontier Wars and thus properly acknowledge Indigenous warriors, in the King’s/Queen’s uniform and out of it.
Roll on the day when some of your new space has the name Frontier Wars Gallery!
Honest History and Heritage Guardians
The Hon. Matt Keogh MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
CANBERRA ACT 2600
Congratulations on your becoming Minister for Veterans Affairs. The new government has the opportunity to take up a number of issues which have languished.
You will know that Australia’s Frontier Wars took the lives of upwards of 60 000 Indigenous Australians (and much smaller numbers of settlers and police) during the years from 1788 to at least 1928. Proper recognition of the Frontier Wars at the Australian War Memorial would be important Truth-telling in line with the Uluru Statement: for too long many Australians have turned away from these events.
There is an opportunity to create a Frontier Wars Gallery as part of the extensions to the Memorial which are now under way. Such a gallery would build on the previous work of the Memorial, in the For Country, For Nation exhibition, the Memorial’s purchase of artworks depicting massacres of Indigenous Australians, and the increasing attention it has paid to Indigenous service in the King’s and Queen’s uniform after Federation.
The government could use two existing statutory mechanisms to ensure the creation of a Frontier Wars Gallery. First, you, as the Minister responsible for the Memorial, could write to the Council of the Memorial setting out the government’s firm view that the functions of the Memorial under section 5 of the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 (particularly the references to ‘Australian military history’) include the depiction and commemoration of the Frontier Wars.
Secondly, your letter could include the explicit expectation that the Memorial would use its annual reports under section 46 of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 to report its actions on the depiction and commemoration of the Frontier Wars, especially how and to what extent the enlarged space of the Memorial was being put to these purposes.
I urge you to work with the Prime Minister, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, and the Council of the Memorial to bring about a Frontier Wars Gallery at the Memorial. It is long overdue.
Given the importance the Prime Minister has placed on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, I am copying this letter to him and to the Minister for Indigenous Australians.
I am writing to you as editor of the Honest History website (nine years arguing that Australia is more than Anzac and always has been) and on behalf of the Heritage Guardians group, which campaigned against the $498m extensions to the Australian War Memorial.
(Dr) David Stephens
Editor, Honest History website; on behalf of Heritage Guardians
17 June 2022
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 0413 867 972.
21 June 2022 updated