Encouraging noises from War Memorial about future treatment of Frontier Wars – but need to wait and see, folks

Update 4 November 2022: Later material: here; here.

Update 18 October 2022: Media roundup. James Massola in Nine Newspapers quotes Greg Melick, RSL National President and War Memorial Council member, attempting to minimise the importance of what the Memorial has decided. Needs to be read closely by those who are sceptical that real change has occurred at the Memorial. The post also includes extracts from articles by Paul Daley in Guardian Australia and Ethan Floyd in Honi Soit (USyd). Floyd reviews Perkins’ The Australian Wars.

Update 13 October 2022 later: James Massola in Nine Newspapers quotes at length Indigenous academic, Professor Marcia Langton, slamming Barnaby Joyce MP and RSL’s Greg Melick: ‘[I]t’s high time the War Memorial started telling the truth and disposed with the myth of Australia for the white man …’ The Memorial had been slow to acknowledge Indigenous service in uniform. Aunty Geraldine Atkinson of First People’s Assembly, Victoria, added: ‘The conflicts that followed invasion are a key part of our history and help build understanding about the uphill struggle First Peoples continue to face in this country’.

Also quotes Minister Keogh. More from him.

Update 13 October 2022: Flurry of reports and commentary from Bernard Keane in Crikey, Tom McIlroy in Australian Financial Review, RSL National President (and War Memorial Council member) Greg Melick in a media release. Opposition spokesperson, Barnaby Joyce, reports the Shadow Cabinet’s opposition, picked up by Keane and McIlroy, though McIlroy suggests government put pressure on the Memorial.

Update 12 October 2022: David Stephens in Pearls & Irritations on recent events at the War Memorial.

Update 11-12 October 2022: Canberra Times letters from Sue Wareham, R. McCallum, Kym Macmillan and others. Letters and remarks also around this time in Herald-Sun, The Australian, Sky News.

Update 10 October 2022: Queensland State Archives discussion, The Australian Wars: Evidence from Queensland, introduced by Kerry O’Brien, discussed by Jonathan Richards, Rachel Perkins, artist Judy Watson, archivist Rose Barrowcliffe and audience. Among many points: the cover-up and denial is recent, at the time the violence was widely reported. Run time: 1 hour 22 min.

Update 8 October 2022: ‘Frontier war clash divides historians’, page 5 of today’s Australian behind the paywall, but our hard copy reveals that Geoffrey Blainey is opposed to change at the War Memorial – and Henry Reynolds is for it.

Update 6 October 2022: ABC 7.30 with Laura Tingle with transcript, including remarks from Rachel Perkins, Brendan Nelson (from 29 September press conference). Henry Reynolds in The Conversation: ‘The most significant symbolic act would be placing a tomb for the unknown warrior next to the grave of the unknown soldier. Those who fought for empire would be at rest with those who fought against the empire.’

Update 6 October 2022: Canberra Times letters to the editor from David Stephens:

It will not be enough for the memorial’s curators to gather all of its 63 artworks of frontier conflict, and its collected spears and shields into one space and call it “the Frontier Wars Gallery”.

There needs to be commemoration as well as “depiction and presentation”. The Memorial’s Roll of Honour needs to be amended, for example.

Update 5 October 2022: Question relating to most recent remarks from War Memorial Council Chair Nelson (see below ‘Key words’): how far do Nelson’s remarks represent a change of position from those of Memorial Director Anderson in April 2021 as seen on Episode 3 of SBS/NITV documentary The Australian Wars? Anderson is talking to Rachel Perkins, Director of the show:

Anderson: We are a highly respected national institution, so here we deal with facts, and that’s the guiding principle of my theme here at the Memorial and it’s what I’m determined to do, be guided by fact.

Perkins: So, how do we deal with the fact that the War Memorial doesn’t include military forces that dealt with frontier conflict?

Anderson: Well, my understanding of the history of the Memorial is when it tasked its historians to go back and look at that very question, they could find no evidence of forces, military forces raised in Australia, engaged in frontier violence, in frontier conflicts.

Perkins: Dealing with the facts, that is absolutely factually incorrect. How do we deal with this issue?

Anderson: The way in which we deal with the issue is, we start with an acknowledgement, we start with the fact that we want to do is acknowledge that frontier violence was real, and the Memorial in the past has been criticised for failing to acknowledge the fact of frontier violence, and that’s just not true. We do. But what we seek to do is to tell the story of frontier violence in the way in which it affected the men and the women who joined the Australian Imperial Forces and went away.

Perkins: So, really the Australian War Memorial represents overseas military activity, not military activity in Australia?

Anderson: Well, that is what it was conceived to do.

Update 5 October 2022: Henry Reynolds on Pearls and Irritations

Although the statement was slipped quietly into the public debate attracting little immediate media interest there will be no way for the Memorial to retreat from the foreshadowed commitment. It will now have to devote considerable resources to the project and not just financial but intellectual and curatorial ones as well. But having done so they may well find that new frontier war galleries become the star attraction for a new generation of visitors being far more in tune with Australia’s continuing slow process of decolonisation. How will our many Imperial wars measure up with the commemoration of the wars which continued intermittently for well over a hundred years, were fought in Australia and were about control of land and dominion over a vast continent? If fairly presented we can expect Memorial visitors to empathise with the extraordinary story of First Nations heroic resistance to invasion, to the resourcefulness and courage as they struggled against impossible odds to defend their kin and country and their very survival as a people.

But perhaps the War Memorial’s change of heart is a straw in the wind. We will certainly know that we are entering a new era when a tomb of an unknown warrior is placed next to the grave of the unknown soldier in the Memorial’s inner sanctum.

Update 5 October 2022: Predictable backlash from Quadrant

‘The looming desecration of a sacred site’. The ranters particularly upset at what looks like a change of heart from Brendan Nelson. Similar from Michael de Percy in Spectator.

Update 3 October 2022: Canberra Times letters to editor: McCallum, Cameron, Stanley.

Updates later 29 September 2022: Canberra Times story from Doug Dingwall emphasises that the geothermal project (see below) costing $10 million will be within the $548 million current budget, while Minister Keogh, Chair Nelson, and Director Anderson are fairly clear that there won’t be any further calls on government for more money, despite increasing costs. We’ll see. On the Morrison government increase of $50 million, see this and this, both posted this week.

Earlier material on the Frontier Wars issue. Also Search this website with search terms ‘frontier wars’ and ‘massacre’.

Sky News goes with the heat but nix on the Frontier Wars. Transcript of press conference. ABC with Rachel Perkins: ‘a monumental shift, ‘a watershed moment’. Should lead to depiction of ‘shared history’. It is part of ‘truth-telling’ in the Uluru Statement. She had given the Memorial Executive copies of the show in the lead-up to the broadcast, before anyone else. Later Guardian Australia story from Christopher Knaus. Paul Daley in Guardian Australia. Patricia Karvelas on ABC Insiders (mark 56.40). The RiotAct (Canberra). Patricia Karvelas on ABC RN. She says Minister Burney is onside.

Key words at the press conference from Memorial Chair Nelson:

The council has made the decision that we will have a much broader, much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Aboriginal people, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police and by Aboriginal militia. That will be part of the new galleries. And so we will have more to say about that in due course when the gallery development is more advanced.


Original post 29 September 2022

Here’s one of those government announcements where one’s first reaction has to be: interesting but let’s wait and see what actually changes. Earlier material on the need for the Memorial to properly recognise and commemorate Frontier Wars.

Veterans’ Affairs Minister Keogh, War Memorial Council Chair Nelson, and Director Anderson invited journalists to the Memorial this morning for a big announcement. It turned out to be about a new project to heat the Memorial with geothermal energy.

This was pretty hot stuff and deserves publicity. The Minister’s presser. But more interesting was what the Minister and Chair had to say on the future of the Australian Frontier Wars at the Memorial. Chris Knaus from Guardian Australia was there, asked a question, and blogged shortly thereafter (and scroll down):

Frontier Wars to be better acknowledged at nation’s war memorial

The Australian War Memorial will expand its recognition of the Frontier Wars, which inflicted atrocities and massacres against Indigenous Australians during colonisation.

The memorial has long faced criticism, including by Indigenous leaders, for a failure to fully recognise the Frontier Wars.

[V]eterans’ affairs minister, Matt Keogh, said the current expansion of the memorial would allow for a greater recognition of the Frontier Wars.

He stressed there was already some recognition of the conflicts at the memorial.

“I think it’s important to recognise that the war memorial already has some recognition of frontier conflict, and I’m aware that as part of the expansion program there will be some greater reflection on that. I think that the recognition and reflection on frontier conflict is a responsibility for all of our cultural institutions, not just here at the war memorial.”

Current AWM chair, Brendan Nelson, defended the memorial’s current recognition of the Frontier Wars, saying it was reflected throughout the memorial, including in 63 separate artworks.

But he confirmed the AWM council had recommended an expanded recognition of the Frontier Wars. He said there would be further announcements to make on the topic in future.

“The council has made a decision 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.”

David Stephens

29 September 2022 updated

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