Defending Country Memorial Project Inc.: Time to be honest about the Australian Frontier Wars: No. 1 in a series

Defending Country Memorial Project Inc.[1]

‘Time to be honest about the Australian Frontier Wars: No. 1 in a series’, Honest History, 9 August 2023

The Australian War Memorial must properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars as an essential part of Truth-telling and as a first step to reframing Australian national commemoration.

This Honest History series argues for a reframing of Australian commemoration. Reframing is appropriate in the year of the Voice referendum when other fundamental matters are also being examined.

Earlier material, under the heading ‘Frontier Wars retreat at the War Memorial’.

Defending Country

‘Defending Country’ applies to all who have fought for Australia or parts of it. It applies just as much to First Australians (Arrernte, Noongar, Wiradjuri, and others), defending their Country on Country (and dying on Country), as it does to uniformed Australians fighting our overseas wars.

Recognising and implementing the Defending Country theme is the key to the Australian War Memorial’s future as an honest Australian cultural institution, one that owns and acknowledges all our history of war and its effects.

Defending Country is the theme that binds together:

  • First Nations warriors who resisted settler-invader, police and military power;
  • First Nations women, children and old folk who died with their men or suffered massacre, rape and poison;
  • men and women in the country’s uniform (including Indigenous service people) sent overseas to fight for King and Empire, for Australia, or ‘to defend our values’.

All these people believed their Country was threatened and needed defending.

As the War Memorial is Australia’s premier commemorative institution, grounding it in the Defending Country theme should set the tone for institutions and communities across our country. It should also have implications for national days of commemoration, like Anzac Day and Remembrance Day.

As a veteran I can’t see how my service was somehow more deserving of being commemorated than that of First Australians warriors who fought bravely against superior forces. (Noel Turnbull, 104 Field Battery, Vietnam, 1968-69)

Frequently Asked Questions

The Defending Country theme encourages us to re-examine the role of the Australian War Memorial and how we Australians commemorate our war dead. The following FAQs and answers expand on the theme.

1. Why should the Australian Frontier Wars be properly recognised and commemorated at the Australian War Memorial?

Because the Frontier Wars were a crucial foundation of today’s Australia. First Australians resisted British and other non-Indigenous settler-invaders, including military and police contingents, but lost their land to them and were exploited, raped and massacred.

Because proper recognition and commemoration will help close the gaps in our history and dispel the Great Australian Silence.

Because confronting the history of the Frontier Wars is part of truth-telling under the Uluru Statement. Truth-telling is inseparable from the Voice.

Because there is a continuous connection between First Australians defending their Country on their Country and, on the other hand, military forces wearing the King’s or Queen’s uniform and sent overseas to defend Australia. They were all Defending Country.

Not honestly recognising all of Australia’s war dead diminishes us as a nation. Recognising and commemorating Australians fighting overseas to defend Australia while not recognising and commemorating Australians fighting at home to defend Australia is illogical and insulting.

2. What is meant by properly recognising and commemorating the Frontier Wars at the Memorial?

The War Memorial is a memorial, a museum, and an archive.

Proper recognition must include designating a separate Australian Frontier Wars Gallery to display artefacts and artworks. This gallery must not be shared with ‘pre-1914’ conflicts and must be considerably larger than the negligible space allocated to the Frontier Wars in the pre-redevelopment Memorial – space which, if current plans persist, is unlikely to grow significantly in future.

Beyond an Australian Frontier Wars Gallery, commemoration options could include in due course adding the words ‘Australian Frontier Wars’ to the names of war theatres on the walls above the Pool of Reflection, adding panels to the Roll of Honour to commemorate First Nations warriors and their families, and perhaps having a Tomb of the Unknown First Nations Warrior.

The Memorial’s research facilities should be augmented to ensure appropriate on-site access to resources on the Frontier Wars.

3. What mechanisms would ensure the Frontier Wars are properly recognised and commemorated at the Memorial?

To avoid doubt and to give clear guidance to the Memorial Council, management and staff, the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 must be amended to require the Memorial to recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars just as it does Australian military service overseas.

The Memorial’s internally appointed Indigenous Advisory Group must be augmented by Expert Groups of historians and First Nations people, appointed by the Memorial Council but backed by a charter letter from the Minister to the Council, setting out the Minister’s expectations.

While the Memorial will not put its Frontier Wars curatorial team together until 2024 or 2025, it is important to put these mechanisms in place soon to set parameters for the curatorial work.

These are important changes in the Memorial’s direction, too important to be left to its curators, its hand-picked Indigenous advisers, or even its Council. The Memorial belongs to all Australians, and its future should be a matter of concern to all of us.

4. Will having a Frontier Wars Gallery at the Memorial be sufficient to properly recognise and commemorate the Frontier Wars?

No. There needs also to be commemoration, as described above. There is a risk that the Memorial will gather a selection of its artefacts and artworks depicting and presenting frontier conflict, deposit this material in a space designated ‘Frontier Wars Gallery’, or even in a corner of a ‘Pre-1914 Gallery’, and do nothing more.

Properly recognising and commemorating the Frontier Wars grounds Australian sovereignty in the land we live in and in an honest understanding of our more than 60 000 years of history. It overcomes the Great Australian Silence; filling that silence is a gift to future generations.

5. Will the redeveloped Memorial have enough space to properly recognise and commemorate the Frontier Wars?

The Memorial’s development project will add considerably to its display space, more than adequate for a substantial Frontier Wars Gallery, provided decisions are made soon to ensure sufficient space is available for that specific purpose.

Having a Frontier Wars Gallery would reduce the space devoted to the weapons and machinery of war, which have figured large in the Memorial’s case for expansion.

6. Why should we move now to ensure that the Frontier Wars are properly recognised and commemorated at the Memorial?

Because, while the former Chair of the Memorial Council in 2022 said the Council had committed to a ‘much broader’, ‘much deeper’ treatment of the Frontier Wars and while the current Chair of the Council has supported ‘substantial’ recognition, there is evidence of resistance within the Memorial Council, from the RSL and conservative forces.

It is also unclear exactly what is meant by words like ‘substantial’.

The Memorial’s current plans are a long way short of what is required in space and emphasis.

The Memorial redevelopment as currently proceeding places the allocation of space ahead of decisions about content. That needs to change.

Because properly recognising and commemorating the Frontier Wars at the Memorial is intricately connected with the Voice to Parliament and is a key part of Truth-telling under the Uluru Statement from the Heart – and the campaign to constitutionally enshrine the Voice is under way now.

No. 2 of this series: more FAQs and answers. No. 3 of this series, No. 4 of this series: Why the Australian Frontier Wars are important; No. 5 of this series: What has the Australian War Memorial got to do with the Australian Frontier Wars?

[1] Defending Country Memorial Project Inc. is a limited liability association incorporated in Victoria. Its members are Noel Turnbull (Secretary), Professor Peter Stanley, Dr David Stephens, Dr Carolyn Holbrook and Pamela Burton.

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