5 April 2023
Credibility gap at the War Memorial: Frontier Wars initiative lagging
There is a credibility chasm between the willingness of Australian War Memorial Chair, Kim Beazley, to properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars and, on the other side, officials and their supporters who are resisting change.
In a detailed analysis, historians Dr David Stephens and Professor Peter Stanley and Vietnam veteran Noel Turnbull have proposed an Action Plan to achieve a comprehensive, historically accurate commemoration of the Frontier Wars – First Nations people defending Country against settlers, native police, and colonial-raised military forces.
The Action Plan is detailed in two articles published on the Honest History website: first article; second article.
Mr Beazley has told journalists that the Memorial, once its expansion project is finished, will have ‘substantial’ treatment of the Frontier Wars, ‘done better than ever’. The Memorial was ‘not complete’ if it failed to give Australians an understanding of the Frontier Wars.
Statements like that suggest that the Memorial is about to make big changes. The Memorial’s management has said, however, that the Frontier Wars are to be dealt with in a ‘Pre-1914’ gallery, along with the forces that went to fight for Queen Victoria between 1860 and 1902 in New Zealand, the Sudan, South Africa, and China.
‘That is just how the Memorial dealt with these conflicts prior to its big redevelopment project’, Dr Stephens said.
‘Those small wars are interesting for military history buffs but insignificant by comparison with the Frontier Wars’, said Professor Stanley. ‘It is demeaning to deal with the Frontier Wars in the same gallery as them. If all the Memorial does is collect a few spears and shields as a token Frontier Wars display in a common gallery it might as well not bother. That would be an insult.’
The Memorial has confirmed that the space allocated for the Pre-1914 gallery after the current redevelopment is just six per cent larger than the equivalent space before the project began – 408 square metres compared with 385 square metres.
Noel Turnbull said it was disappointing that some people associated with the Memorial were practising the sort of evasions and distractions which characterised the Morrison Government. Voters rejected that approach, and the Memorial should recognise that we now have a new government and significant changes in community attitudes.
‘As a veteran I can’t see how my service was somehow more deserving of being commemorated than that of First Nations warriors who fought bravely against superior forces.’
The two Honest History articles propose five Actions: amend the Memorial’s Act to explicitly require the Memorial to deal with the Frontier Wars; delay allocating space for the Frontier Wars until decisions have been made about gallery content; provide a designated Frontier Wars gallery rather than co-locating the Frontier Wars with colonial expeditionary forces; consult a wide range of historians and Indigenous people; develop the theme of ‘Defending Country’, which is applicable both to First Nations people defending Country on their Country and uniformed Australian service people being sent overseas to fight.
‘Of course, the priority now has to be getting the Voice referendum passed’, said Dr Stephens, ‘but being honest about the Frontier Wars is an essential part of the Truth-telling that goes with the Voice. Like the Voice itself, this is an issue for all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The sooner our proposed Actions get under way at the Memorial, the better.’
‘The Memorial has a Commemoration Gap and that Gap needs to be closed. Up to 100,000 First Nations people – no-one knows how many – died in the Frontier Wars. We need to recognise and commemorate them in our premier commemorative place. As the Attorney-General said when introducing the Voice legislation, we need to “acknowledge our history”.’
The Frontier Wars occurred between 1788 and at least 1928 and saw First Australians massacred but also mounting resistance against settlers, native police, and military detachments. The Frontier Wars saw First Australians being dispossessed of their land. The Frontier Wars also contributed to inter-generational trauma.
Dr David Stephens is Editor of the Honest History website, Convener of Heritage Guardians, and co-editor with Alison Broinowski of The Honest History Book (2017).
Professor Peter Stanley is an Honorary Professor at UNSW Canberra and author of more than 30 books on military and social history. He was Principal Historian at the Australian War Memorial and then inaugural head of the Research Centre at the National Museum of Australia.
Noel Turnbull is a Vietnam veteran with a 50-year career in public relations, politics, journalism, and academia. He has been a member or Chair of many public bodies and developed the Truth and Integrity Project.
Contact: David Stephens
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