An agenda for Albanese: (2) ‘Brass and Old Mates’ War Memorial Council needs new faces – and a couple of historians

The Australian War Memorial is sometimes described as Australia’s most sacred site. Whether or not that is true, the 13 people comprising the Memorial Council potentially have an important influence on how we view our past and plot a course for our future. A future without wars and their effects.

Of those 13 people, nine have military experience, including three ex officio appointments. (Honest History has written previously about the tinkling of senior brass that has characterised the Council.) The current Chair of the Council, Brendan Nelson, is also a former Defence Minister (as well as being a former Director of the Memorial).

Members, once appointed, tend to stick around: three of the current members have been on the Council since 2015, two more since 2016 (and those two have just been re-appointed till 2025). Members tend to be well-connected also: a former Prime Minister; a former private secretary to the current Chair when he was Defence Minister; a businessman whose company is a regular contractor to government; an employee of the former Chair of the Council, Kerry Stokes; the National President of the RSL; the spouse of a former National President of the Liberal Party.

This is not to say that some or all of these folks lack other credentials for membership; it is to say that the Council has the distinct look of an ‘old mates club’, if not quite of ‘the great and the good’. It desperately needs new blood. And for the governing body of an institution steeped in and espousing history, it is bizarre that the Council contains not one trained historian. The last such, Professor Geoffrey Blainey, retired from the Council in 2004.

The letter below went recently to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, responsible for the War Memorial, with a copy to the Prime Minister. It urges the nomination of historians to the Memorial Council, against a general need to refresh its membership.

Honest History encourages historians and other interested Australians to write similar letters and to work through their professional associations to increase the number of historians and other professionals on the governing bodies of cultural institutions. These institutions deserve better than Amateur Hour and Jobs for the Boys and Girls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hon. Matt Keogh MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Parliament House
CANBERRA ACT 2600

By email

 

Dear Minister

You are responsible for advising the Governor-General on appointments to the Council of the Australian War Memorial. The composition of the Council influences the way Australians commemorate war and thus our attitudes to our past, present and future.

Today, nine of the current 13 members of the Council have a military background, including the three ex-officio appointments (heads of the three services). As well, the Chair, Dr Nelson, is a former Defence Minister. The members of the Council have impressive records in business, law, nursing, politics and voluntary work, but there are no historians – not one – on the Council and there have been no trained historians there since Geoffrey Blainey in 2004.

Section 10 of the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 says the non ex-officio members of the Memorial’s Council ‘shall be appointed by the Governor-General having regard to their knowledge and experience with respect to matters relevant to the functions of the Memorial’. Researching and writing Australian history, particularly the history of our wars and their effects, obviously fits that criterion.

The Memorial is the possession of all Australians and should reflect the aspirations and values of the nation for which 102 000 men and women have died – and many thousands more have suffered injury and illness – to defend. An obvious way of reflecting aspirations and values is appointing to the Council people – historians – who have devoted their careers to exploring and writing about aspirations and values.

Recently, the then government used the caretaker period to re-appoint two current members of the Council, Sharon Bown and Daniel Keighran VC. This was clearly a breach of the spirit of the caretaker arrangements but cannot be undone now. I make no comment on the credentials of the two members but note that their re-appointments deprived the new government of the opportunity to make its own early appointments.

Appointments of current non ex-officio members expire as follows (with year of original appointment shown in parentheses):

Brendan Nelson (Chair), April 2025 (2022)

Tony Abbott, September 2022 (2019)

Sharon Bown, May 2025 (2016)

Daniel Keighran VC, May 2025 (2016)

Glenn Keys, February 2024 (2021)

James McMahon, October 2024 (2015)

Greg Melick, March 2024 (2015)

Susan Neuhaus, April 2024 (2018)

Josephine Stone, February 2024 (2015)

Rhonda Vanzella, February 2024 (2021)

You will see that one term expires later this year and six expire in 2024. Of those six members, four will by 2024 have been members of the Council for between six and nine years. That alone is surely grounds for refreshing the Council’s membership.

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.

I have copied this letter to the Prime Minister, given the importance of the Memorial to Australia as a whole.

Yours faithfully

 

 

 

(Dr) David Stephens
Editor, Honest History website; on behalf of Heritage Guardians

19 June 2022

Contact: admin@honesthistory.net.au; 0413 867 972.

 

David Stephens

23 June 2022

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